Just as I was starting kindergarten, women of Iran lost their right to wear what they wanted. In a matter of weeks, freedom of thought and lifestyle choices also became exhaustively scrutinized and was even subjected to persecution. When children innocently recounted their dinner conversation at school, their parents were arrested for having opinions at odds with the regime's ideology. I quickly learned to keep my opinions to myself and obey the authority as if my lives depended on it—which it sometimes did.
When I moved to the US, the contrast of being without all the restrictions was quite a revelation. No one was controlling the minutiae of my life. I couldn't imagine going back.
Because of my childhood experience, my parenting style follows a more democratic approach. For example, except for safety, all family rules and guidelines can be challenged. The door to a family debate is always open and if my child presents a compelling argument to adjust a rule or comes up with a new one, we implement those changes.
As our son got older, his father and I realized structure is paramount to living in a functional democracy. Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D., a psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Boulder, Colorado, argues that if democratic parenting doesn't also include effective limits with consequences, that perhaps the children help set, the kids can become spoiled and entitled. "When this is the case, they can often struggle to maintain relationships in adulthood," Dr. Fisher concludes.
To help us come up with a proper framework, my husband and I used examples from our background in business and facilitation. As soon as our son turned five and could read and write, we came up with three ways to make our democracy work.
Regular Family Meetings
Once a week, we have a family meeting to discuss how we're doing as a society. To make them more impactful, we have certain rituals. We light a candle and sound a bell to begin the meeting. To give each person a chance to express their thoughts without interruption, we use a talking stick. These rituals help us become more engaged in the meeting.
For families with multiple kids, Michele Moore, a licensed professional counselor from Albuquerque, New Mexico, suggests giving parents the veto power. Moore also encourages parents to come up with ways to make sure siblings are equally heard. "Children are unique and some are much more willing to vocalize their opinions than others," Moore says. "You may have one very outspoken child and one who is naturally more reserved. Find creative ways of channeling the first and engaging the second."
At our weekly meetings, each person takes a turn sharing their view of how we excel as a family and how we can improve. We also discuss our individual contributions, shortcomings (how to overcome them), and goals. At the end, we make a support request to the rest of the family.
Everyone Makes Their Own Checklists
I once worked with a disaster-relief pilot who had dangerous missions in war-torn regions. He told me before taking off, he had to check off manually a line-by-line register of specific tasks. This was to make sure each potentially life-saving task-item had been completed, and none forgotten or skipped.
Taking a page from my friend's book, we began keeping a morning checklist to make sure everything was in order before leaving for school and work. This was an improvement to our previous routine of running around like headless chickens, but there were glitches: My husband and I spent a chunk of the morning, asking our child to complete his checklist while he zoned out and stalled. We still had stressful and inefficient mornings where we sometimes ran late.
At the next family meeting, we decided it was best that we all become responsible for our own checklists. We scheduled a daily alarm clock for when the tasks must be completed and wrote a contract stating consequences for not finishing in time. We have similar checklists for different times of the day, trips, etc...
Accountability Through Contracts
Whether it was forgetfulness or not taking promises seriously, we found that our child sometimes didn't do what he said he would do. At one of our meetings, we came up with the idea of writing and signing contracts which stated his responsibilities. Our son wrote the contract terms and in case he failed to meet them, he added consequences. Surprisingly he came up with consequences that seemed fair to him, yet the stakes were high enough that he wasn't tempted to default on the contract.
Although our strategies have proven to be both uplifting and fruitful, there are challenges. There have been communication breakdowns and we've had to call for emergency meetings to address the situation. Heidi McBain, LMFT, a professional counselor from Flower Mound, Texas, also warns about the pitfall of the "do it because I'm your parent and I said so" mode which can happen when people are tired, hungry, stressed, or rushed. "Whatever parenting style someone has, it's never going to be a perfect system," McBain adds.
Living in a democratic family takes time and energy. It requires honing communication skills and developing flexibility to compromise. Even with all the challenges, it's a rewarding parenting style. Children grow up, developing key communication skills and a sense of responsibility. At our last family meeting, we all walked away with a sense of agency, accountability, and a feeling of being supported.