Consensual Living

I’m not a big fan of labels, but sometimes they can help to clarify yourself to other people. However, often they just confuse an issue even more. I’ve noticed that one such label is “consensual living”. I say this is how we try to live our life, but what exactly does this mean? I have heard various definitions, from people who think it means the children have the run of the house and are not given any direction, to people who believe it means imposing natural and/or logical consequences to control a child’s behaviour (I’ll discuss this latter view another day if I remember).

I think I should explain what it means to me when I use the term. I like this definition from

Consensual living is a process, a philosophy, a mindset by which we seek to live in harmony with our families and community. It involves finding mutually agreed upon solutions, where the needs of both parties are not only considered but addressed. Everyone’s wants and needs are equally valid, regardless of age. Conflicting wants or needs are discussed and mutually agreeable solutions are created or negotiated which meet the underlying needs of all parties.

Consensual Living is broad and far reaching. It influences the way we interact with everyone, from our immediate families to our community and the world at large. It is about assigning positive intent and looking for solutions. This can apply in so many arenas. It can change interactions, even if they are historically adversarial.

I especially like the line about assigning positive intent. Instead of going into a situation with an adversarial attitude, which can set you up for power struggles and arguments, you go in with the assumption that all parties want to find a solution that makes everyone happy.

Consensual living means honouring each person as an individual with their own needs and wants, and not implying that any one person is more important because they are older, bigger, or make more money. It means being creative and looking at a situation from another point of view. Conversely, it means the parent’s needs are taken into account too. It is not a child-centered way of living, it is family centered.

This is very important and I think part of the reason consensual living often gets mixed up with passive parenting or child-led living is because it is sometimes easy to forget that my needs are just as important as hers! If I’m always giving in to my needs for her, than it is not consensual and is a good way to start feeling like a martyr mom and create resentment. And of course, I do have more life experience than her and it’s unrealistic to expect that she can or should make all her own decisions at the tender age of two.

From Counselling Resource:

It is a big leap of faith, or rather trust, that a mutually agreeable solution is always possible. In theory we might even agree, but when developmental stages come into play and we have a toddler being extremely forthright about their needs at the expense of everyone else’s, it is a lot harder. We need to take a deep breath, jump, and be creative. Trust that other people have input which is just as useful as yours, experience that is just as relevant to the situation, which is after all being created by everyone together. Letting go of the attitude of having to be in control, and of having to be right (while not losing the responsibility for the physical safety of the younger ones) frees a tremendous amount of energy for joy, connection and finding solutions.

It also means recognizing age-appropriate behaviour and behaviours that occur because a child is hungry, tired, frustrated, etc.

Age-appropriate behaviour is behaviour that is caused because a child is not old enough to control his or her impulses or doesn’t know another way to react to a situation. One example that comes up a lot is children in restaurants. I know people who are fond of bragging about how they used to make all their children sit still through all meals at home (even if it meant tying them into high chairs against their will) so when they went out to restaurants the children would sit still there and the parents would get lots of praise about how good their children are. Kris and I don’t always eat at the dinner table, and if I’m bored or was in the middle of something before dinner, I will often get up before he’s done to go finish up. More often, we will get to talking and we will sit chatting long after dinner is done. Is it realistic to expect children to happily sit at the table every single meal even if they’re not part of the conversation? How often do these parents who force their children to sit at the table while eating with guests or friends attempt to include the children in the conversation?

Now don’t get me wrong. I used to work as a server. I know how annoying it can be for children to be running around screaming, and how dangerous it is since it’s very hard to see someone three feet tall under your feet when you’re carrying a pot of hot coffee or a tray full of hot plates. And it was surprising how many parents seemed to expect that I should be baby-sitting their children while they sat and enjoyed coffee with their friends. Plus, to me, consensual living is about respecting and living consensually with everyone around you, strangers or no.  But is there a happy medium between forcing children to sit still long before they find it easy or letting them run around disturbing other customers?

There are a lot of different options in this situation. I’ll list a few, but ten different people might come up with ten different scenarios that would work. One of the best things about consensual living, in my opinion, is that you can come up with all sorts of creative solutions that fit you and your family. It is not a one-size-fits-all method of parenting; what might work great for one family may not be an option for another family.

In the example above, one of the most obvious solutions is to not bring your kids to nice restaurants. There are cafes and restaurants that are geared towards kids and where it is expected that children may be running around. The servers are aware of this, and people don’t go to eat at these places unless they’re okay with the kids.

If you really want to go to a nice restaurant, understand that your child may not enjoy it and even though you may try and pass it off as a special treat that they should be earning, often they would be happier at home being allowed to run around. Depending on their age and your comfort level, you could hire a baby-sitter.  You could order your meals ahead of time so there is food for the children as soon as you get there. Feed the kids ahead of time so they’re not hungry. Bring toys and colouring sheets or find a restaurant that provides these. Recognize when the child has had enough and it is time to go. Realize that leaving a restaurant sooner than expected because a child is tired of sitting still is not a punishment, but a reality. Don’t try and make it out to be a punishment or that the child has let the whole family down. Trust that just because your child can’t sit still for an hour in a restaurant at age two, doesn’t mean she won’t be able to sit still at age four or ten or eighteen unless you make her now.

Sometimes we will ask for a table in a quiet area where there’s no one else around and if Meredith wants down, we will let her walk around a bit. But she isn’t the type of kid to race around screaming. She stays right near our table and we stay very aware of servers coming with food. This solution only really works if you’re in a corner where people aren’t trying to walk by very often. If she really wanted to run around, we might switch off taking her outside to let out some steam.

If you know your child is normally capable in a particular situation, but today they are whiny, mean, hyper, bored, etc., it’s very likely there is a reason for it.  Consensual living means attempting to discover the reason and solve the problem together, rather than bribing the child to be good or threatening a time out.  Maybe you had an early lunch and she is hungry, or she missed her nap.  Even if you have no immediate way of solving the problem, you can recognize that the child is not just trying to “act out” or get attention.  Children don’t often have much choice in the situations they find themselves in.

Helping a child learn problem solving skills and empathy will serve them well later in life too when peer pressure starts up. I don’t know of many parents who would want their children always doing what peers say no matter what, and yet many children are taught from a young age that it is expected that you follow direction without questioning it. Only in later life, the “power” transfers from the parent, to peers.

I love that when I look at Meredith, I see a child wtih good intentions who is not afraid to be herself.  I don’t want her to grow up in a dictatorship.  I want her to learn problem-solving skills that take everyone’s needs into account.  I want her to be able to question ideas she doesn’t agree with, to learn that her opinions do matter, and to know that all people are deserving of respect, no matter their size.

6 comments to Consensual Living

  • We used to go out for Sunday brunch every 2 weeks with a bunch of friends. The 2 kids were welcome and it was a family restaurant. They definitely had a hard time sitting still while waiting for food, but would settle down as soon as they got their food. But the funny thing is that more than once the server would come out with all the adults food and say I forgot about the kids’ food so they are getting it ready now. It amazes me that they would do that when it is pretty obvious that most kids are happier when they have their food. We eventually had to ask for them to bring the kids’ food right away.

  • I’m amazed that something like that would happen more than once lol! When I used to be a server, I would often ask the parents if they wanted their kids’ food out first. Many parents took me up on that.

  • I’d be in the boat of not going out for meals until it would be easier for my kids to be in the restaurant without getting in the way of the employees and disturbing other patrons. Leif likes to wander and explore at the moment but without the ability to really be aware of what’s going on around him- like getting out of the way of a server.

    I always appreciate reading about consensual living when it’s truly consensual! The family as a whole has to work and to do that everyone’s needs need to be taken into account. It’s definitely easier for parents than for children to put their needs aside temporarily and not expecting children to meet their needs is important but putting sole focus on what the child wants and needs only can’t work.

  • Thanks for writing this out so clearly and providing concrete examples (I am sure that every parent can relate to being in a restaurant with kids!).

    I often struggle to explain, too, where we’re coming from and what we’re going for as a family. When I became a mom (almost six years ago), my eyes were opened to how deeply ingrained conflict and violence are in our everyday lives and interactions. I found that most people thought I was overreacting when I talked about wanted to let those types of interactions go.

    I use the phrase peaceful parenting, but there are many other phrases out there that are trying to capture the same thing. I am glad that there seem to be so many people who are listening to and following their hearts in this way!

    I remember seeing the Consensual Living site some time ago — I am going to visit it again.

    Thank you,

  • What a wonderful, thought-provoking post. Definitely will be looking more into Consensual Living, as I really support a lifestyle that sort of encourages going with the flow, accepting things as they are (like in the case of a child’s behavior at a restaurant) and realizing the incredibly small impact this has on the grand scheme of things.

  • [...] This article has been edited from a previous version published at Living in Harmony [...]

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“If you try to teach your children all the fact and answers you think they need to know, they will end up knowing nothing.
If instead you help them look deep within themselves, you will have led them to the source, from where all answers flow.”
~ William Martin, The Parent's Tao Te Ching