Family Life in Times of Crisis

It is the worst of times, it is the best of times

A few days ago, my eyes caught an article titled: “Two weeks in confinement: between work-at-home and the kids, I don’t know if I can hold it any longer.” Something in me cracked. The underlying message is that family life is a torture-chamber that can only be escaped by ‘going to work’ somewhere else. Has family proximity morphed into a source of suffering, anxiety and frustration?

It could be that you believe the way things are is the only way things can be. No teenage daughter actually wants to wash dishes, cook for the family, or eat what everyone else eats when everyone else eats it. No teenage daughter wants to look after their younger siblings or take more responsibility. You probably have plenty of evidence that it is part of being a teenage boy to destroy things, make messes, and despise authorities, especially their mother. Obviously ‘young men’ must go through a ‘phase of rebellion’. You probably can’t even imagine him contributing to family life. Hopefully ‘it will go away when he realizes his good fortune’. Meanwhile, your fears such as: ‘But they are locked up in their rooms all week! They have to get some fresh air!’ is not enough to enter the war-zone of proposing to go out for a Sunday walk together. You have given up, and hold the painful conclusion that ‘these kids are so spoiled they can’t appreciate the safety and love I provide’. You didn’t have any of this (especially the money and junk food) when you were their age, but ‘they have no respect for any of it’.

I stopped everything else in my life to wrestle with this terrible paradox. Yes, there is disease and crime on the streets. Why must there be so much tension at home? I used the Buddhist idea that if I encounter a paradox, the paradox is within me. What is blocked that could fall into flow if I moved certain things around in me like a Rubric’s Cube?

Ahh… Assumptions! Thoughtware! The ways we are taught to think! For example, there is research showing that children do not have the structural capacity to take responsibility for the level of responsibility that they take until they are eighteen years old.

If a parent or caretaker assumes that a young person should take full responsibility, then the home environment can have no children in it. The gap between what the parent structures and what the child needs forces the child into a desperate survival struggle against the parents. A child’s reactivity is the best they can to survive in the circumstances you have built for them. You are forcing them to fight you. What if all the material stuff you provide has no influence whatsoever on the way your child interacts with you and the world— which, in time of crisis, has shrunk down to their house and their family? What if the value of this crisis is that you are being given a clear mirror reflecting back to you the assumptions and thoughtware you apply in your style of parenting?

Patriarchal thoughtware tells us that children have no mind — therefore no relevant ideas — of their own. The conclusion is that children must obey the parent on the justification that the parent is the true and worthy human being and has already decided. The slaves must obey.

It is probable that you have been keeping your children under lock-down in your constructed family prison in which they get no chance to be themselves until they escape the prison. This means you don’t know who your children actually are. What is worse, they don’t know who they themselves are either. All they can discover is what their survival reactions are in your oppressive environment.

What if the rules and format of your family space is the mold determining a child’s capacity (either vast or narrow) to explore who they are? If your family construct is built out of ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, assumptions, expectations, and conclusions about who the child is are and how they should behave, then a child has no option but to try to ‘kill’ every move you make that they perceive as trying to ‘kill’ them.

Survival instinct kicks in unconsciously. Without noticing it you’ve installed war into your home. The battles are set up over meal menus, washing dishes, vacuuming the living room, cleaning up their rooms, doing their homework, walking the dog, getting a job, making their own money, knowing what they want to do when they grow up, etc. You’ve narrowed the playing field of your interactions to you being the Police. Perhaps you assume that forcing them to do dishes the way you want them to do dishes is them taking responsibility? On the contrary, you demand that they give their authority away to you who knows how and when dishes should be cleaned. Obeying your orders is no environment in which a child can become a person. The child is already a prisoner at school. Why would you want them to be a prisoner in your home as well?

If reading those few paragraphs triggers any anger, sadness, or fear in you, then you might be ready to find ways to live lock-down other than low-level warfare. What if there are many other options? For example, instead of holding the family prison walls up with unspoken rules and expectations, what if you took down the prison altogether and instead learnt to negotiate intimacy with your family? What if your family interactions emerged from ongoingly negotiating intimacy with your sons and daughters, your partner, your neighbors, maybe imagine, even with your parents?

As a parent, you are in charge of setting the ‘context’ of your household. The context of your household is the relationship that your family has to awareness and responsibility. You have three basic options to choose from for your family context:

  1. You can contextualize your household in an ‘ordinary’ relationship to responsibility, where you implement Standard Human Intelligence Thoughtware, playing out strategies of proving you are being victimized, blaming others, and getting revenge.
  2. You can frame-up your household in adult-level relationship to responsibility, which is about trying to make enough rules and contracts so that everything is ‘fair’ and everyone ‘does their share’. This in itself is extraordinary in comparison to a typical modern family context. Yet there is an even more interesting and dynamic context for your family household…
  3. You can establish and hold the space in your household so that bright principles prevail, so that you respect respectfulness, so that you let assumptions and expectations slide by into the void as the love-destroying traps that they are, and enter the ongoing archetypal dance-form of taking radical responsibility for the responsibility being taken. Yes, this may involve learning and practicing some new skills. Perhaps you have time for that now?

Think about it… the ‘prison’ family context limits each member of your household into an ordinary connection to each other and to the overall household liveliness. Connection as well as responsibility is then extracted through control, bargaining, and ultimatums. ‘If you don’t clean your room then…’, ‘This is my house, so these are my rules’, ‘We will be having dinner together and that is final.’ You probably blame your children for their unwillingness to be good prisoners, bowing down before your ruling finger. Blaming others for your suffering simply strengthens the irresponsible part of yourself. Sacrificing your children to your underworld addictions continues until your awareness of the unconscionable consequences becomes too intensely painful for your heart and spirit to continue to bear.

Fear might arise in you while trying to imagine relating to your children (and partner) without your arsenal of pain points. How can you leverage their obedience without threats and punishments? You might picture yourself going crazy in the chaos and mayhem. This is because you’ve probably never been introduced to the art of negotiating intimacy. Negotiating intimacy is only possible in an extraordinary or archetypal relationship to responsibility.

Each person in the ‘ordinary’ family context avoids responsibility at all cost. If your family life is ‘not working’, it must be someone else’s fault. Probably you assume it is your children’s fault for fighting you all the time. Or it’s your partner’s fault because they argue with you or never side with you when conflicts emerge. Surely it is your own parents fault for not having loved you enough, so how could you be expected to be respectful and generous with others. It might also be the dog’s fault for taking too much energy and attention, or the boss’ fault for asking you to work on the weekends…

The shift from a ‘prison’ family context to a ‘negotiated’ family context is up to you — the adult / parent / spaceholder. Is this fair? No. Not until you take radical responsibility for having created exactly how your family is right now. Then suddenly fairness does not matter. Suddenly you have an amazing opportunity to experiment, to try something unheard of. Here is a simple-but-not-easy procedure for doing the experiment of taking responsibility for the level of responsibility of your family:

As the spaceholder for this meeting, gather every member of your family in a room for a half-hour long conversation. Every person living under the same roof needs to be there, from your three-year-old son to your sixty-three-year-old grandmother. Be sure to have an object such as a small wooden carving or even a wooden spoon that you can pass around later as a ‘speaking piece’, meaning, the one who is holding the object is the only one who is allowed to speak. Everyone else must listen. As people arrive, invite each person to sit in a circle with nothing in the center of the circle. Announce the purpose of the meeting by saying:

“I realize that I’ve kept our family in this house in a prison. The bars of the prison have been the rules that I have been trying to enforce and expectations I have been holding.

I have been thinking about this and feeling about this, and I am truly sorry for running our family as if it is a prison.

I’m sorry because the prison approach has stopped me and you from being who we really are with each other. So I have changed my mind. I do not want to live in a prison with you all. I want to live in a space of growth and love and discovery with you all.

I realized that if you followed my rules exactly, you would be a very good prisoner, but you would not be you.

I realized that I want to know you. I want to live in an uncontrolled environment where we actually get to know each other, what your needs are, what your dreams are for this family. And I also want to share what I really want, even if I may not know what that is right now. I want to have a do-over about our family. I do not know how it should go next.”

Pause for a while and don’t say anything. Give everyone a chance to integrate you changing your mind. You might have had time to think about these things already because you are reading this article now, but the whole idea may be new and strange to everyone else. They probably won’t trust you at first. You cannot blame them for not trusting you. Stay present. Stay connected with these amazing wonderful Beings all sitting in a circle together. After a while, keep going:

“For a start, I would like to pass around this wooden spoon as a Speaking Piece. Whoever is holding the Speaking Piece is allowed to speak. Everyone else listens. You can share your feelings of being angry, sad, afraid, or glad. You can speak for as long as you want about what you like or don’t like. We are only going to listen to you. When you have the Speaking Piece please talk about how it has been for you, and what experiments you might like to try next so that our family can get out of prison and back to life.”

I’ll tell you a secret: they don’t know how to do this. It is probably the first time in their lives that someone has asked them what they really want without trying to fit it into established expectations from an external authority.

Probably you don’t know how to do this either, because until now you’ve never stepped out of your own childhood family’s prison. You are entering new territory, together, as a family. Great! You have found a way to exit the prison. You are inciting your family to have a prison break! The Great Escape! Aliveness has a chance to start flowing back into your family life.

What you or they want to create in your family could be big things, or tiny things. When you implement the first experiments, start with small things, and start immediately. Negotiation goes like this: The one making a proposal says what they want. (For example, “I want one day a week when I don’t cook.”). Someone then may add on, “Yes, and…” (For example, “Yes, and… you should also not do the shopping every week.” (Note: Negotiating with “Yes, and…” is one of the magical hints for negotiating intimacy suggested online at http://negotiateintimacy.mystrikingly.com/). (Yes and… there are a lot more magical hints there.)

The next person might say, “Yes and… what I want is…” (For example, “Yes, and… I want to have a dessert-only dinner once a week.”). The one who made the original proposal might say another, “Yes and…”(For example, “Yes, and on the day that I don’t cook, you organize the dinner to be only desserts for the whole family. And one of the desserts I want is a Tin Roof Sunday.”) Then someone else puts in their wish. (For example, “Yes, and… after dinner I want us all to go into the same bathroom together all at the same time and we brush our teeth as a family together. Only this time, we brush each other’s teeth, like you used to brush our teeth when we were babies.”) Go back-and-forth and-on-and, each one saying what they want (and not criticizing or judging or saying what they don’t want…) until you’ve reached an agreement.

How do you know you have reached an agreement? Everyone knows what to do next! When you’ve reached a satisfactory agreement on all sides, then shake on it.

Start imagining the number of spaces and needs and wants that can be negotiated within one family household! So much suppressed co-creativity has been wasted for all these years! This is sad… From building makeshift forts in bedrooms, to going on adventures along abandoned train tracks, to inventing a whole new meal with the limited ingredients in the fridge, to writing fantasy stories and movie scripts, playing them out on an improvised state in the living room, sharing it with the grandparents by video conference. From having a cuddle party on the couch, to holding a dance party with everyone’s favorite music, to having a women-only conversation, to having a men-only hiking trip, to making wild holiday plans where each member of the family gets to design an entire day, to having an entire day-long Harry Potter movie extravaganza with home-made popcorn…

Isn’t this exciting? Before I wrap it up though, there is one more question to include: What to do when negotiated agreements are broken? It turns out that successful negotiations include consequences if the agreement is not kept. No one signs a contract in which there’s no penalty for not keeping the terms of the contract. The principle in family negotiations is that negotiating the consequences of not keeping the agreement is part of negotiating the agreement.

If you — as a parent — already have the assumption (maybe even the expectation) that your children won’t keep their agreements, then it is up to you to take responsibility for that. Children do what you do, not what you say.

In the next couple of days, invite everyone again to sit in a circle again and say, “Please tell me all the times I did not keep my promises with you. I will only listen.”

Be sure to repeat back to them exactly what you heard them say so they feel heard. Do not justify, explain, give reasons, or blame circumstances or anyone else. This is you they are talking to. It is you who needs to listen. Listen all the way in to your core.

After hearing the bad news about your lack of integrity, you have enough clarity to start over. You can try for a Do-Over. You can publicly change your mind and commit to keep all future agreements that you make with them under the risk of facing whatever consequences they include in the agreement if you don’t. Ask them if they will take the same commitment. The consequences for broken agreements are also negotiated. When you make an agreement with one of your family members, before you shake hands, ask them: “What will be the consequences if you don’t fulfill our contract?” They will make a proposal. You can accept or make a counter-proposal with a, “Yes, and…”. Go back and forth until you’ve reached an agreement about the consequences of breaking the first agreement.

Can you feel the wonderful difference? Do you sense how empowering it is for your family and for you to shift to a ‘negotiated’ family context? When the children are part of the negotiation, they know what their agreement entails. They choose it instead of having it imposed on them. You are training them to build in themselves the muscles of radical responsibility.

As you realize that you have the power to establish a new context in your family, why not go for the big experimental? Why not go for an extraordinary or archetypal family instead of the traditional family ‘prison’ set up for continuous warfare?

Times of crisis can be times of greatest aliveness. When the routine is gone, improvisation is allowed. Improvisation comes out of aliveness. This time of crisis could be the best time of your life, your children’s lives, and your family life. Without a fundamental context shift, you might be making it the worst of times.

Life is short. Do what matters most. Only you can make the most of it.

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