We are raising Cat according to a fairly unique set of parenting philosophies. We give her what many feel is an insane amount of freedom. She does not attend school, and never will unless she chooses to. Her education consists of ‘unschooling’, meaning that academic work is not required at any time. Any and all structured or scheduled learning or development activities are always completely voluntary. Basically, if she wants to spend the day in her pajamas watching TV, and doing so does not interfere with our needs or plans (we don’t need to get groceries, etc.) that’s exactly what she does.
We have rules and a discipline system, but our discipline system does not involve punishment. No spanking, time outs, lectures, shaming, or punitive privilege removal. We never, under any circumstances, do anything with the intention of inflicting pain or discomfort for the purpose of teaching Cat something or modifying her behavior.
When we’re out and about, Cat explores and investigates her world with a great deal of freedom. She climbs into the freezers at the grocery store. She climbs on tables, jumps off of ledges and rolls in the mud. She goes up the slide and stands on the swings. She explores the nooks and crannies of her world. Unless there’s a sufficiently compelling reason for me to tell her ‘no’, I allow her to do pretty much whatever. She frequently gets dessert first. I am, very often, “that” parent.
Observers occasionally feel the need to comment about our parenting practices, generally with one very specific concern:
“She’s going to learn that she can do whatever she wants!”
I’ve examined this concern at great length, from many different angles. And my conclusion is just as simple. I’m not concerned about her learning that she can do whatever she wants, because within the boundaries of her world, she can do whatever she wants. I can impose many limits or few, but regardless of how much I try to control her, she always has a choice.
To me, the critical thing for Cat to learn that she can do whatever she wants and that her choices have consequences. I used to believe that it was important for me to actively teach her that by imposing consequences (AKA punishment) but I don’t feel that way any more. I do not need to teach her that her actions have consequences any more than I need to teach her that gravity generally pulls things to the ground. Like most life lessons, she has everything she needs to figure that out on her own. By allowing her freedom, I allow her the space to figure it out for herself, which is always the most powerful learning.
None of this means that I have simply decided to ignore my parental responsibilities. I do not impose punishment or consequences, but I do impose boundaries. The boundaries in her world are like a brick wall the surrounds the expansive yard in which she can freely play. Cat may not have many rules in her life, but there are rules. Cat is not allowed to take actions that violate other people’s sense of safety and security. This rule encompasses the physical safety of other people, and more abstract things like property rights (she can’t take things that belong to others). I also impose some boundaries regarding her safety, though she is allowed to take a great many risks. In addition, while she is given a great deal of freedom at home, we always teach her that when she is in someone else’s space, she always follows the rules of that space.
When Cat’s actions violate our rules, we do intervene to the degree required to bring the behavior to an end. A simple look or polite request might do the trick, but if we need to use protective force to promote safety, we don’t hesitate to do so. Even when Cat’s behavior requires us to use protective force, she still has complete freedom in choosing how to react. She is free to scream and cry or fight, or calmly accept our boundary and go choose something else. The boundary is firm regardless of how she reacts to it. She has learned to accept these boundaries much as she learned to accept the fact that, try as she might, she will never be able to fly in the air like a bird.
I admit, I had some doubts when I started parenting in this apparently highly permissive sort of a way, but now that I’ve done so consistently for Cat’s 4 years of life, I would never ever go back. Our life is peaceful, calm and happy the vast majority of the time. Cat isn’t a perfect kid, and we certainly aren’t perfect parents, but we all work together as a team and accept each other’s foibles. And the results that I’m seeing are amazing. Cat can watch TV all day, and sometimes chooses to do so, but she also frequently self-selects highly productive and educational activities. She is meeting or vastly exceeding all developmental milestones for her age. She is almost always polite and considerate towards us and others, and usually responds immediately when we ask her politely to do something. I get plenty of side-eye and comments from observers at my failure to respond to Cat’s behavior ‘normally’, but I get far more comments along the lines of “She’s so well-behaved!”
Such comments are nice, but ‘good behavior’ is not ever really our goal. Our goal is for Cat to make choices from a place of peace and safety, with the knowledge that we will celebrate with her when her choices lead to good things and support and help her without judgment when her choices lead to difficult consequences. The ‘brick wall’ boundaries we hold serve to increase her sense of security and freedom to truly test and experiment with consequences within those boundaries. As she learns and grows, I cannot describe how awesome it is to know that while Cat has the freedom to do ‘whatever she wants’, she almost always chooses joy, peace, kindness and love.