The Dynamics of Power and Children’s Right to Self-Determination

This has been a very challenging week for our family. It began when I finally admitted to myself  that, despite our best intentions, despite using consensus for big decisions, ours was still not an equal family in terms of  power and control:  we, the adults, had all the power and the children had none.  I explained to my husband that the children were very aware of this power imbalance (as all oppressed people are) and that this explained their continued resistance to certain things (namely, said oppression!)  I explained that we needed to honour our children and return to them their right to self-determination, their right to make their own decisions, good or bad.  No more rules.  No more imposing our will overtly or subtly.

I started the ball rolling with a simple question for Jasmine. I asked her if she knew the meaning of the word “power”.  Sure enough, she had a very clear understanding of its meaning: “You mean like when you tell me it’s bedtime and I have to go to bed?  And like when you expect me to do chores and I can’t say ‘no’ even if I don’t feel like doing them?”  We discussed things a little further, then I asked Jasmine how she would feel if we were to ‘level’ the balance of power.  To clarify, Jasmine asked me, “So I get to decide what I want to do about everything?”  I tried then to get in a few words about the responsibility that goes along with autonomy, and the need to think about the impact of one’s decisions on other people. This, of course, fell on deaf ears. I had already lost her to ecstatic contemplation of a delightful future of saying “NO” to her evil oppressors, Mom & Dad.

Needless to say, the week was an interesting one.  Jasmine stayed up to 10:00 p.m. reading in bed the first three nights and absolutely NO chores were done as she enjoyed exercising her right to self-determination.  We rarely went outside and when we did, Jasmine went out in summer dresses underneath her snowsuit.  Jasmine also reprimanded me a couple of times when I fell back into old habits and tried to offer her ‘limited choice’. In her words: “Mom, you just offered me choices!” (She knew there hadn’t been an option to ‘opt out’).

Don’t think this was an easy time for the adults; it wasn’t. Even though Jasmine reacted as I had expected, I still found her behaviour very difficult to handle graciously.  I had to be careful not to use my anger at her self-absorption to manipulate her into doing things she didn’t want to do.  I tried to carefully and neutrally let her know the impact of her decisions on the people around her and the importance of balancing her needs and desires with the needs and desires of the people in her life.  Some days I was more successful than others.

But we made it through the week and things are beginning to normalize.  Jasmine certainly knows she can say “no” to anything but she is also discovering the joy of saying “yes”.  Prior to thinking about power dynamics, I didn’t realize that, in unbendingly expecting things of my children, I was also robbing them of the joy that comes with making a “good” decision on their own, and the self-worth that goes hand-in-hand with this.  I know we have rough days ahead as I stumble and struggle through learning how to parent in a manner that is counter to both how I was raised and to parenting norms in our society.  In my gut, however, I know that I am on the right path, that our societal norms are skewed, and that we must honour our children’s right to self-determination.  It is the pathway to wisdom, at least for myself and my partner, and hopefully also for my children.

Acknowledging My Own Racism

Acknowledging one’s own racism is not something a middle-class, ‘liberal-minded’ person does.  Unless we’re applying the term to someone else, the word makes us feel uncomfortable, so much so that, in an effort to protect the ego, the mind is quick to bury any tentative foray into the consideration of our own racism.

A funny thing happens, though, if one allows oneself to consider how and in what manner one might be racist: once in the spotlight, once acknowledged and under scrutiny, the racism evaporates.   To acknowledge and examine one’s assumptions about a particular ‘race’ or group of people, leads to openness, to exploration, to understanding and new information.  Previously unacknowledged stereotypical thinking vanishes.

Prior to Monday night, I would never have considered applying the word racist to myself; however, this past Monday night, I watched the documentary “Unrepentant” by Kevin Annett and Louie Lawless.  This documentary chronicles Kevin Annett’s on-going attempts to bring to light Canada’s historical and continuing genocidal practices against aboriginal peoples.  In brief: over 50,000 aboriginal children died at the hands of the church and the state in Canada’s residential schools.  More than 50% of the students who attended residential schools died.  These are the official statistics, imagine what the real numbers are.  Stop for a moment and imagine sending your child to a school where they would have a greater than 50% chance of being killed, not to mention enduring physical, sexual and psychological abuse beyond our imagining.  This is not ancient history, the last residential school closed in 1996.  I would have been 26 years old at the time.

After having watched this documentary, after having had my very core shattered by the brutality and horror that aboriginal peoples have endured and continue to endure, I was forced to confront my own racism.  Yes, I had known that native children had been abused at residential schools, but how could I not have known the extent of this holocaust?  How could I have accepted government and church apology for this genocide simply as politics of the day and not delved deeper?  The truth is, I didn’t want to know; I didn’t need to know; it had nothing to do with me.  I now acknowledge this disinterest, this unquestioning acceptance of the official ‘storyline’ as a form of racism.

On Competition

I started home-learning with my oldest daughter, Jasmine, this January and it’s difficult to express in words the sheer joy, delight and wonder, the growth and the revelations that take place every day in my home.  I can’t imagine things any other way.  It feels good; it feels natural; it feels right.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize that homeschooling or, rather, ‘facilitating my children’s learning’, is a lot like dog training:  it’s not the dog that needs to be trained but the handler that needs to be retrained!  Today I learned exactly where I stand on the subject of competitive events and competition in society in general.

Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with competition and certainly I never enjoyed participating in any kind of competitive endeavour when I was child but, before today, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought.   On some level, my parents may have recognized the ugliness of competition.  Our house was the only one I knew possessed of a copy of the board game  “Community” wherein all players work together and share in the triumph of winning and wherein no one person alone suffers the humiliation of defeat.  (NB: this was small solace to me given the remainder of our games had clear winners and losers and I cannot, to this day, recall ever winning any game played against my brilliant {you’re welcome, David} but completely infuriating older brother.  Seriously, he always won and he still does.) But I digress…

Allow me to return to this morning and Jasmine and I playing “Crazy Eights” together:  Jasmine loses two hands in a row and thus commences a 45 minute session of tearful accusations and recriminations, including the not unfamiliar, “It’s not fair, Mommy, you ALWAYS win!”, followed by fresh tears, stomping of feet and slamming of doors.  Now please don’t think me callous in my recounting of this morning’s events, believe me, I understood how she felt (see note above about infuriating older brother).  It did, however, give me ample time to ponder the negativity of competition, how competition ensures there is always someone at the top and someone on the bottom.  I thought about how competitition is woven throughout the very fabric of our society, how it informs our world view and our everyday decisions and interactions.  I could not think of one game (aside from “Community”) that was not about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  I could think of few events structured around something other than competition.  I thought about how our society offers so much towards the development of strategic thinking for the conquest and defeat of others but very little in the way of strategic thinking towards the raising up of everyone together.  I thought about how we educate and challenge our children to give them a ‘competitive edge’, how we work hard to ensure they will be the ‘winners’ of  the oh-so-grand competition to ‘make it to the top’ of our society.

Is it absence of imagination that we cannot see the absolute necessity to move beyond the harmful, competitive paradigm by which we live?  A hierarchical society based on competition will, by definition, promote the most ruthless and unempathetic among us to the top.  And here we stand.

So what did today’s ‘homeschooling’ teach me?  That I need to create a home free from competition, a home where cooperation and collaboration are valued, a home where individuality is balanced by a desire for mutuality and mutually satisfying outcomes. This is a grand experiment for us and one we’re stumbling through, learning as we go.  By living a different paradigm, perhaps my children will develop the intellectual skills, the humanity and the emotional capacity necessary for them to envision and grow a better, kinder and more equitable society.  I hope so and I’m growing along with them.