Human relationships can be characterized along many dimensions. One of these dimensions concerns the distribution of power between participants. Absolute authoritarian relationships anchor one end of this continuum. In this kind of relationship power is asymmetrically distributed with one or more participants having complete power over others and coercion (“do what I say, or else”) is used to enforce control. At the other end of this continuum are egalitarian relationships where power is shared equally between participants and participation is voluntary.
In authoritarian relationships, boundaries and consent are a one-way street. A private in the army must request permission to speak to an officer but would be shocked and confused if an officer made the same request of them. In more egalitarian relationships, participants mutually respect each other’s boundaries. This includes getting consent not only before engaging in any kind of physical interaction with others but also when interacting with others in any way.
A focus on consensual/egalitarian relationships with our children sounds like an obvious move to those of us interested in building an egalitarian world. But when we realize that sustaining such relationships means that coercion can no longer be our tool of choice (no more, “do it because I said so”) we come to see that this way of being with children may fit with our convictions but it is certainly not always easy. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a 13 year-old in my math class when I was at The Farm School. This young person was being raised in a non-coercive household and was enrolled in a non-coercive school so his participation is this class was totally voluntary. At the start of a math class, he asked me if he had to do math. I told him “no” and asked him if he wanted to do math. He told me he didn’t feel like doing math at the moment but that he wanted to continue to improve his math skills. I asked him how he was going to resolve those conflicting feelings and he replied that he didn’t know. I asked him what he wanted to do in that moment and he said, work on some math I guess. The whole conversation took about three minutes and gives a flavor to how no-coercive relationships work (when they’re working).
Ironically, those of us most committed to helping children learn how to participate in non-coercive egalitarian interactions often struggle mightily setting personal boundaries with them. We want the children we interact with to have as much freedom to do what they want to do as possible. Rather than focusing on getting them to do what we want them to do, we focus on helping them do what they want to do. This focus can interfere with us setting boundaries if we confuse protecting our own boundaries with exerting power over others in an asymmetric way.
The problem with this confusion is that it often leads to us letting children do things to us that we don’t want done like pulling on us, giving us orders, and screaming in our faces. This lack of personal boundary setting on our parts has at least two negative consequences: (1) it teaches children how to be victims by modeling how victimhood is done and (2) it gives children opportunities to practice disrespecting other peoples boundaries and coercing others into doing what they want.
The good news is that it is possible (if not easy) to simultaneously support children (and adults) having personal power while maintaining our own boundaries. For example, I don’t like being told what to do. When a child (or adult) tells me to do something, I let them know that I don’t respond well to commands and ask that they rephrase their order as a request. Another example of non-coercive boundary setting should help demonstrate what it looks like when an adult simultaneously protects their own boundaries in a non-coercive way and respects young people’s self-determination.
A while ago, I taught a high school science class to a small group of wonderful teenagers (that included one of my own children). While wonderful, these teens were also particularly angsty and wrapped up in the many complicated relationships within their group. While they all seemed interested in the project we were working on and made steady progress, I felt like being in class with them was sucking the life force from me. I told them that while I believed I had no right to tell them how to be in class. I also didn’t have to teach a class that was no fun for me and that something had to change. I suggested several possibilities including: (1) them finding a different facilitator for the class, (2) all of us dropping the class, and (3) them suggesting things that they and I could do differently. I then gave them the rest of the class time to come up with a plan and left the room. Their plan included us continuing to do the class and all of us making some changes as to how we approached the class.
I don’t mean to imply that the distinction between imposing our will on children (or other adults) and maintaining our own boundaries is always clear or simple to make. I do believe that reflecting on this distinction and talking with others about it is very worthwhile. We have no right to impose our will on others and we have every right to protect ourselves. Maintaining our personal boundaries with children has the added benefit of modeling self-protection, a skill I am sure that all of you want our children to have! As I already mentioned, negotiating the complexities of protecting our own boundaries while giving those around us the freedom to be whoever and however they are is not easy. But to me, it sure beats the heck out of the alternatives!