The tools developed from the idea of living consensually have been a blessing
for my family and me. Coming from different backgrounds, from different
regions of the United States, my husband and I decided it was important,
for our marriage and future family, to discuss problem solving and parenting
beginning before we married in 1993.
We now have two sons and live life joyfully and peacefully in the foothills
of North Carolina. It has been, and continues to be, a wonderful journey,
loving, laughing, exploring, thinking, dreaming and living through the different
phases of our lives.
Speaking and writing for the public does not come easy to me. But I feel
the need to share these wonderful tools with you, in hopes that it will
enrich your life and, like waves on the ocean, expand endlessly, to touch
the lives around you.
I am writing this sitting on the beach watching my sons and husband splash
in the warm, salt spray of the ocean. Laughing and enjoying each other at
this late hour. I see other families with children, some playing, some walking
and talking, and some splashing in the waves. I wonder to myself, what is
it like for these families behind closed doors? Do these children have any
right to self-determination? I know that the prevalent parenting philosophies,
of our time, include some form of punishment or reward. “Experts” encourage
rules and boundaries set by the parents. Most families employ some sort
of rule, even if only a bedtime or meals plan. Have these parents thought
about their parenting philosophy? Or, are they parenting by habit, the way
they were parented?
Consensual Living, to me, means living with family members in relationships
where each individual is treated equally and has the right to self-determination,
living in an environment where each family member’s wants and/or needs
are valued and met. When conflicts arise, mutually agreeable solutions are
There are underlying principles of consensual living that are key to successfully,
peacefully, joyfully, living together. Listening skills and communication
tools are essential to the process. Problem solving techniques for conflict
resolution are continually used until becoming part of the family dynamic.
I hope to share a few tips with you that have helped our family find its
way to consensual living. With practice, the entire process becomes second
nature, resulting in the ability to focus on living a joy filled life, and
less time spent in conflict.
Principles of Consensual Living
Understanding and internalizing the underlying principles behind consensual
living are imperative before moving through the rest of the process. These
core concepts may already be part of your life experience, if not, I ask
you to read and thoughtfully consider them now.
The thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and/or solutions, of each individual
involved, are equally valued, and equally considered. Everyone has thoughts,
feelings, opinions, wants, needs, and/or solutions. We all must see those
and the individual as equal regardless of our differences. It is more than
just treating everyone as equal, each member of the family must be equal.
If all family members do not truly feel equal, the process will be less
We must trust that all members of the family are being truthful, when
sharing their wants or needs, sharing information or finding solutions.
We must trust that each individual is doing the best that he can at this
point in time, with the tools available to him. We must trust that we can
move through life and the world peacefully and joyfully. We must trust that,
in times of conflict, mutually agreeable solutions can and will be found.
By trusting the members of our family they, in turn, come to trust us,
trust our honesty, and trust the process.
With accurate information, only the individual is capable of making decisions
regarding what is right for him. No one is better at making those decisions
than the individual. We are masters of our own fate. If we take the right
to self-determination away from any individual, we are changing the course
of their life, and may never come to know the person they were meant to
Take the time to really think about what these principles really mean…for
you…and for other members of your family. They are the building blocks
for consensual living. These concepts truly have the ability to change your
life and how you interact with your family and the world.
Communication is the next important element for consensual living. It is
so helpful in the family environment, if everyone has the ability to articulate
his or her feelings, wants and needs, in a way that is understood by every
other person involved. Having the ability to ask for what you want, and
actively listen and understand the wants and needs of others is key to this
It is so important to listen carefully and actively, trusting that the
person is telling you the truth as he sees it. Then reflect back what you
have heard, without using judgmental words or inserting your own explanations.
The reflection process is crucial so that you and the other person know
that you have heard him correctly and understand exactly what he is working
to convey. Clarification happens here before it leads to miscommunication.
Here is an example of communication between a mother and son, a good example
donated by a friend.
Son - "Mama, Jake said he'd watch the new episodes of Red vs.
Blue I downloaded. But when I try to watch, he says he's bored and keeps
interrupting me, then he turns on the TV, which distracts me. I can't
hear the episodes!"
Mom - "Mm. You're frustrated 'cause you can't do what you had
S - "Yes, and he said he'd watch! They're the last three episodes,
and I really wanted to see them."
M - "You made plans to watch them now because he said he wanted
to, but he doesn't really want to."
S - "Right! It makes me so mad! I wish he wasn't here. I just
want to watch the episodes."
M - "You've always seen the new episodes on Sunday, when they come
out. I think if Jake heard how important it was to you to watch them, he'd
be more willing to find something quiet to do while you watched."
M - “Stating your wants is usually a good place to start It
can be frustrating when a friend says they'll do one thing, and then they
don't want to do that. This is important to you."
S - "Yes! (crying now) And I really just wanted some time to
play my new video game, too, without distractions and interruptions. I
wish I hadn't asked him to spend the night!"
M - (holding son) "It's so frustrating when things don't work
out like you'd planned."
S - "Yeah." (after a few minutes of crying) "I'm gonna
go ask Jake if he can find something quiet to do while I watch Red vs.
Blue. I can let him know I'll play with him after that. Then maybe he
won't take it personally."
M - "OK, sweetie. Good night"
S - "Goodnight."
But communication is not just verbal. Those of us with children know that
babies find a way to communicate their feelings, wants and needs. Much of
what we, as parents, do at this age is based on the limited sounds the infant
creates and the non-verbal body language. One example is when a baby opens
her mouth and turns her head from side to side, indicating she is hungry.
As our children age and become toddlers, they have more non-verbal gestures,
are increasingly mobile, and are also learning the ins and outs of language.
At this age I remember interacting with my boys using reflective listening
with a “twist”. Having only early language skills, I would interpret
their body language into words for them, “you seem upset” or “you
seem frustrated”. Then I would pause and let them tell me as much
as they could. I would listen and watch more non-verbal cues, followed with
my best guess at the cause of their frustration or irritation. “Is
it the blocks, are you upset because they won’t stay where you stack
them?” I verbalized the process out loud. In that way, the boys learn
what different emotions felt like, and how they are articulated using language.
This is how they learned to verbalize feelings.
It seems like no time before they can verbalize their feelings and tell
you all about the situation. Time passes so quickly.
When conflicts arise, good communication skills can diffuse a situation
quickly. By observing body language we can see when someone is becoming
uneasy. They start to fidget, become restless, may start wringing their
hands. To see these signs and say “you seem anxious” or “you
seem upset”, will often give the individual the opportunity to explain
their feelings and the problem as they see it. Perhaps, preventing the situation
from escalating and allowing reflective listening and further problem solving
When you have a relationship founded in equality, trust and a right to
self-determination, and you add good, productive communication, you are
fostering an environment for the flow of information. Family members are
surrounded by this loving environment and find it easy to share facts, ideas,
thoughts and opinions. The individual knows that all information comes from
a place of love and respect. They are free to use it as needed. No coercion
takes place in this family, so no one feels the pressure to “take” someone
else’s advice. A loving, nurturing, family has developed and will
continue to grow.
Conflict resolution is the hidden blessing in this whole process. Remember
that now you are working within a family unit where all members truly know
they are equal, where thoughts, ideas, wants and needs are not judged but
accepted as equal, valid, and important. Each family member trusts that
the others are speaking the truth, as they know it to be, and doing their
best at this point in time. Each member trusts the strength of the family
unit and his ability to live within that unit, and to work out mutually
agreeable solutions where everyone’s needs are met.
Each member knows he has a right to self-determination. To identify his
own wants, needs and desires. A wonderful foundation for a joyous life together
has been created. The strength in this family will spread like those waves
in the ocean.
It would certainly be ideal to end here. But, the reality is, when you
have individuals with the freedom to live a life truly mapped out by him
or herself, conflicting wants and needs will arise. How we handle these
conflicts will determine how our family will grow within the foundation
I believe the key to conflict resolution is first to truly understand the
wants or needs of each person involved. Once all of these are out on the
table, everyone can begin tossing out solutions that may or may not work.
Be creative; try each solution on for size before discarding it as unworkable.
Remember that every solution from each person is valid and worth consideration.
Each person is capable of contributing no matter his differences or limitations.
Continue with this process until you reach a mutually agreeable solution,
always trusting that the solution is there, we just need to work, at times,
to find it.
One huge benefit of this whole process with younger children is that they
grow up in this win-win environment. It becomes second nature because they
know no other way. As children mature, they carry these problem-solving
tools into other relationships, more waves on the ocean. Problem solving
becomes easier with continued use, and enjoying a peaceful, loving home
becomes your life.
I know this all sounds too easy, too good to be true. It can be your reality.
I have compiled some of my thoughts that have made this process easier for
us. Maybe they will help you along this journey as well.
- It’s OK to change your mind. When you live within a supportive
relationship, you don’t hang on, so tightly, to what your
original want or need was. You trust that your needs will be
met so it becomes easy, during the process of information gathering
and problem solving, to see other ideas that may be equally or
more attractive. Since the environment is loving and nurturing,
with no judgements placed on an individual, you can easily say “what
about this instead” or “that sounds OK too”.
We become less invested in only one outcome.
- Problem solving is easier when we can focus on the conflict
at hand. Being tired or hungry or otherwise distracted decreases
our ability to reach mutually agreeable solutions. When the boys
and I are going to out of the house for a few hours, I plan to
begin early in the day rather than late in the afternoon, when
we are more likely to be tired. I bring along snacks and drinks.
By being at our peak, we are best able to concentrate, to listen
to each other and reach win-win solutions.
- Remember they won’t be babies forever. So many moms feel
like they are so focused on the babies needs that their own needs
fall by the way-side. True, a baby will not be able to problem
solve with you, to see that your needs are met. At this stage
the parent needs to look to others, partner, friends, family
to help problem solve so that the primary care giver’s
needs are met as well. There are no martyrs in a family living
- Anticipate needs if possible. Think about your day and try
to anticipate your needs and the needs of others. Modeling this
concern for the well being of family members is contagious. You
will see other family members anticipating your needs as well.
- Our body runs on what we feed it. If you find yourself or a
family member consistently lacking energy, irritable, or otherwise
just “out of sorts”, it might be worthwhile to look
into foods. Each person is different and different foods affect
each body differently. Maybe starting a food diary, where you
log all the food taken in, your feelings before and after you
eat that food would be helpful. And, perhaps, help you to connect
dots you may not have considered before.
- Clearly identify your wants and needs, in simple terms. Get
to the root of your want or need, which may not be what first
comes to mind. An example could be: “I need to go to the
grocery store today, and my son doesn’t want to go.” OK
so now explore the situation more, from both sides. Do you need
to go to the store TODAY. Do YOU need to be the one to go. Do
you need to go to the STORE. Does your son not want to go at
all or is there some part of the store he dislikes. Do you need
to go to the same store you always go to. Is it, perhaps, the
amount of time spent at the store he doesn’t like. Understanding
the real underlying needs and concerns easily leads to mutual
problem solving. I can see several possibilities in this scenario.
Maybe you could go to the store when your partner gets home for
the day. Perhaps, borrow the essentials from a neighbor. Maybe
your partner could pick up the essentials on the way home from
work. Maybe you could go to a store that your son would agree
to. Maybe you could make just a quick stop on the way home from
the park. Maybe he could help you shop. Maybe it is the cold
of the freezer section that he dislikes and you could agree to
avoid that. Maybe eat out tonight or order take out or delivery.
I am sure you can see many more solutions and your son could
probably come up with some great ones also.
- The best tip I can give is to stay connected. If you are in
touch, connected, you can sense when things are not quite right.
You can also sense when things are great as well. Take the time
to say “hi” when your daughter or husband enters
the room. Tell your family how much you love and care about them.
Take a few minutes to share your day with them. Invite them into
your world, your passions, and your interests. Ask them about
their interests and passions. A connected family is one of the
greatest gifts you can give your children.
One issue I hear frequently from parents involves toddlers and preschool
age children and hitting. Believing that we are all doing the best we can
with the tools we have, I see this as a tool. Young children are trying
to explore their world with limited language skills. Hitting is a tool that
they have, a tool for communicating, a tool for problem solving. We need
to give children more and better tools. I, personally, don’t believe
in telling a child not to hit or that hitting is bad. I can, as I am sure
you can too, think of several situations where I would say hitting is not
only OK but also encouraged. This is a tool I would want my child to have
and use if a situation arose that required it. Also, telling a child “it’s
not nice to hit” does not reach the root of what the child wants,
nor does it help to solve the problem.
I think we should first try to be involved with and around our children
to anticipate the build up of frustration or anger. We can observe their
interactions with each other and step in to help with the communication
and problem solving process. By doing this on a continuing basis, we all
have the opportunity to practice.
If you do not see the build up of frustration and just observe the hitting,
get in between the children involved. Give them a minute to just breathe.
Offer some soothing words, “we can work this out, just take a minute
to relax”. It gives reassurance that their needs will be examined,
and that a solution will be reached. You are not going to just ignore the
problem. While at the same time, it gives the situation a chance to de-escalate.
Then move forward to assisting each child to articulate their wants and
needs, helping them if needed. And proceed from this point into problem
Screen time is another common question relating to Consensual Living. Many
parents question the whole principle of self-determination when they see
their child sitting at the game system for hours on end. I believe an important
component in this scenario falls under connection. Ask your child what they
like about the game or TV show. Get involved, play with him or watch with
him. Truly believe that he has a right to self-determination and it is OK.
Maybe offer other activities that you think might be interesting, going
to a TV station, to see how things work. You can certainly voice your concerns.
He knows you love him and it is OK for him to say no. Consider that maybe
this is a phase or maybe it is a life passion. It is, after all, his life.
Consensual Living Beyond the Family
Consensual living is an investment. These are people we love and care for.
We want to see that not only is our need met but theirs is as well. We want
to spend years living, loving, laughing, and exploring as a family, well
into the future. But can this process expand beyond the immediate family?
YES! It can extend to co-workers, friends, extended family, the mail carrier
or dry cleaner. The same process that works with close relationships can
work with people you are less familiar with, that you care less about.
I see my children applying these problem-solving techniques with their
friends. Some of their friends are not accustomed to asking for what they
want, yet, my boys are proficient at asking the right questions. They experience
it at home and have practiced it over and over again. Then they move to
throwing out solutions. Even when the other child may be ready to give up,
I see my child say, “no we can work this out”. If frustration
starts to build, they will come to me for help. I am glad to help. With
each new experience we learn more about communication and problem solving.
When dealing with someone you only interact with sporadically, who has
no investment in your family, like the dry cleaner, I don’t feel that
intense connection is necessary. You are spending very little time with
this person. The basics still apply. Everyone in the situation is equal,
you must trust that the person is being truthful, trust that they are doing
the best they can with the tools they have, and trust in the process. You
have to identify wants and needs in any conflict. And can work out mutually
agreeable solutions. A non-judgmental attitude and non- judgmental communication
is key. It will help defuse many situations. It will keep it on a business
level, instead of taking it to a familial level, while at the same time
you are displaying a true concern for the other individual’s needs.
That will assure him you do care about him and the outcome.
I hope that this booklet will give you a little glimpse into our lives,
living consensually. We would have it no other way. For us it has led to
such peace and joy within our home and gives me a feeling of being so connected
with all members of our family. It is a joy to be able to share all of this
with you. I hope you are able to incorporate, if not all, maybe some of
the ideas presented. You will see a big difference in the way you view the
world. A couple of friends, who are totally committed to consensual living,
and I have created a yahoo list for discussion of just this topic. The web
site address is: www.yahoogroups.com/group/consensualliving
If you have any questions or concerns, or would just like to explore Consensual
Living in a deeper way, please feel free to join us there at the yahoo group.
We enjoy sharing our journeys, discussing different situations and struggles.
With a group of individuals as large as the list is becoming, you are sure
to find other families with similar issues as yours. We talk about communication
with all ages, we talk about problem solving, we talk about living, loving,
laughing, exploring, as a consensual family.
I do want to leave you with a book list. This list is not an inclusive
list but just a list of books that the yahoo list owners have found to be
helpful in our journey. While, I have not yet found a book that totally
believes in self-determination for a child, these books have been very helpful
in exploring key concepts. And for me have been helpful. They are in no
I hope to be able to expand on this booklet as time allows and see where
this journey takes me. Thank you for your time and helping me create more
waves on the ocean.