Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It Takes a Child to Raise Some Issues in the Village

Last week I had a conversation with a friend about a relatively new community that's struggling with the issue of appropriate limits for the behavior of neighboring children when visiting the community. The precipitating event involved an older child who lives in the surrounding area and is a frequent visitor. This kid has something of a reputation as a bully, and at least some parents are concerned for the safety of their children in this outside kid's presence. During one recent visit (I don't know the full story) one mother was worried enough about what was happening in the moment that she called the police. Understandably, this triggered a firestorm.

As if that weren't complicated enough, five minutes into the conversation it was explained to me that the group had not discussed the question of appropriate limits for their own children. As soon as I heard that, I knew they were in for multiple meetings.

• • •
Dynamics with children is one of the most common themes that pops up in my work as a group process consultant (the only topics that occur more frequently are tensions around work expectations and confusion about consensus). Most times, the lightning rod issue can be distilled into the challenge of how to craft a lasting marriage between two deeply held values that are almost universally shared: a) wanting to create a safe and nurturing environment in which to raise children; and b) wanting to support parents' individual styles in child rearing (so long as they fall within certain widely spaced parameters, such as nonviolent disciplining—spanking can be controversial, for example—and not placing the life of a child in danger).

The key issue that communities with children have to navigate is what is expected and what is permitted (two very different animals) with regard to adults stepping in and setting limits for the behavior of children who are not their own. This topic will necessarily drag the group into another swamp: where is the boundary between public and private? When is a child's behavior strictly a family matter, and when—and to what extent—is the group a stakeholder in that conversation?

When you further add to the mix the near certainty that a parent's child rearing choices will be held as a core expression of their identity (read sacred), it doesn't take much imagination to appreciate the volatility that surfaces whenever these issues erupt, which they inevitably will.

• • •
So let's return to the story, and unpack the hair ball. Here's an overview of some of the issues that are illuminated by this dynamic:

o To what extent does the community want to welcome outside children as part of a commitment to neighborly relations, and how is this value balanced with the commitment to be a safe place for community children?
o In the context of child rearing, how does the community define "safe"?
o What are the boundaries of appropriate behavior of children in public spaces at the community?
o Does this vary if the children live in the community or live outside the community, and if so, how?
o If a child is seen doing something inappropriate, what is the authority of an adult observer to step in and redirect the behavior? What rights do child observer's have in this same dynamic?
o To what extent does this authority change if the observer perceives the behavior to pose an imminent threat to life or a serious threat to property? (You could make the case, for example, that you have different expectations around adult responses if kids are: a) observed leaving cushions strewn around the floor in the Common House living room; or b) setting fire to the trash in the kitchen.)
o What are the expectations around how an adult intercedes when attempting to redirect a child's behavior?
o If the observer is not the child's parent, how does that affect their authority? Further, what are the obligations, if any, to inform the parents of what happened?
o How important (and how possible) is it that all adults in the community make an attempt to interact with each community child in ways that that child's parents prefer?
o To what extent are parents expected to provide other adult members an avenue for critical feedback about their parenting choices if members believe those choices have violated a community agreement or negatively affected the quality of community life?
o What is the preferred protocol for working with issues involving children in the community? Under what conditions is it acceptable to call the police (or other authorities, such as Child Services) if an adult believes there's a problem involving children? (Note: I am not suggesting that community expectations abrogate an individual's civil rights; I'm only trying to illuminate that there is a definite social cost and a non-trivial erosion of trust if a member is perceived to have called in the civil authorities before having exhausted all reasonable internal channels for addressing the issue.)

Whew! This is quite a tangle. When you further take into account that this is only the list I can create in one stream on consciousness after a single phone call, it may feel overwhelming. The good news is that this can be handled. As I delineated in my Sept 23, 2008 blog Untangling Hair Balls, you just need to tackle the topics one at a time, and keep plugging away.

The work sequence should probably go something like this:
1. Unpack the serious tensions relating to the precipitating event. (If you don't, the residual distress will result in distortion that will undermine clarity and render brittle the potential solutions.)
2. Flush out all the issues.
3. Sort the issues into like items that can reasonably be handled as a single focus.
4. Decide what order to take up the issues after they've been massaged in Step 3.
5. After completing an item, go onto the next.
6. After addressing all of the issues, review the whole for consistency.

• • •
When I grew up there was a shampoo on the market called No More Tangles. I just looked (isn't Google amazing?), and Johnson & Johnson still makes it. While, unfortunately, there is no equivalent potion available for groups styled No More Conflict—that would ease you through the hard spots with topical application—I'm at least offering the prospect, with liberal doses of diligence and patience, of being able to comb out a complete rat's nest.

Raising children in community is generally awesome, and I am fully supportive of the attempt. At the same time, it will occasionally get you into some awful dynamics, and, as the group whom I've written about today already knows, I'm not kidding.

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