Dialogue: 3 New Family Agreements
I’m a firm believer that good discipline rests on good dialogue. If a family’s discipline system is not based on mutual respect and the ability of parents and children to openly and honestly express themselves, and be heard by each other, then there will be problems–and possibly serious problems. The “Old School” style of parenting relied on children’s obedience and conformity to parental wishes–period. But that often doesn’t work well any more.
So, it’s important that children know that mom and dad are creating a space in the family for dialogue. That is, “Our family is a place where we can talk to each other, and be heard.” Naturally, parents have every right to tell their kids what they think, what’s expected, what needs to be done, etc. The “Old School” style of parenting held that “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Kids usually weren’t allowed to have much say in the house, and certainly not about what the rules were.
The “new twist” here, in the “New School” style of “how to parent,” is that mom and dad openly tell the children that the kids have the same right to speak up and be heard that the parents have–even when it comes to what the rules are. I suggest that when parents talk to their kids about house rules and expectations, they explain to the children that everybody’s ideas are important, and that everybody deserves to be listened to. This doesn’t mean that the parents give up any of their authority or power at all. It just means that they are willing to let the children have their say, and have their ideas be taken into account by mom and dad. Here are the agreements which create the space for dialogue. I recommend that the parents explain them to their kids and ask them if they agree that they’re a good idea.
1. Everybody gets to talk. Under this agreement no one is excluded from being able to pipe up with their own ideas, or from getting something off their chest, or putting something on the table to be considered by others. While it’s usually a foregone conclusion that mom and dad have this right, I have not known many families that explicitly extend the same privilege to the kids.And really, who ever said it is wrong to consider a child’s ideas (even a two-year-old’s) when arriving at agreements or making decisions?
2. Everybody gets to be heard. The flip side of the first agreement is that whoever has something to talk about has a commitment from the other(s) that he or she will be listened to. Again, this agreement is, for all practical purposes, primarily intended to let the children know that mom and dad are binding themselves to the same standard of respect implicit in the act of listening that they expect from their children. Again, where is it written that a child’s ideas should not be heard by the parent when decisions are made or agreements are being hammered out? (The Old School adage, “Children should be seen and not heard” has been throoughly discredited, and is hereby “kicked to the curb.”)
3. Everything is discussable. Wow! Does this means that anything that anyone wants to talk about is fair game? Yes, it does–just about. In other words, there are no rules like “we don’t talk about that stuff in our family.” This agreement might create a little more anxiety for the parents than the other two. Obviously, some subjects are going to be off limits for the children, such as the parents’ sex life, the details of the family’s finances, and perhaps others. However, this agreement leaves room for the kids to be able to bring up whatever they want for discussion.
Exactly how mom and dad choose to talk about the subject, and how much they choose to divulge, is entirely up to them. I wouldn’t expect them to open their sex life up for family discussion! But what about sexual behavior and standards in general? Or as these apply to the children? There are always limits to self-disclosure, to be sure, and there are many ways to discuss a delicate topic in a meaningful way with children without saying all there is to be said about it.
A Note of Ccaution
Couples parenting together might find that these agreements create a little tension between them, especially if they are not in full agreement that children’s ideas should be heard and taken seriously. They might have some differences of opinion about what may or may not be brought up for discussion, especially by the children. If this is the case with you and your partner, be sure to get this straightened out, and reach agreement between the two of you, before bringing up your “new family agreements” with the children. As parents, you have the final say about rules and consequences. But the two of you must be in agreement
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.