Note: this is a super long post, and much of it is personal story and observation stuff. If you want to just skip to the bottom for the take-away lessons on combining Permaculture with parenting, please feel free.
For a while there my son and I were really butting heads. I’ve been at the end of my rope more than once in an insane battle of wills with a three-and-a-half year old, and I’ll admit that it’s gotten ugly and I’ve done and said a few things I’m not proud of.
“I hate you!”
“Hate me all you want – you still have to put your goddamned pants on!”
“Uh-oh. Time-out step for hitting. Three minutes. I’m starting the timer.”
…three minutes of screaming and general defiance pass…
“Hey, I’d be perfectly happy to lock you in your room all day. Now sit.”
And it’s not an excuse, but for about two months, Homebrew Husband was leaving for work at about 8 am and not getting home until 11 pm on Tuesday and Thursday. My long day is Wednesday, so between the two schedules, we didn’t really see each other between Monday evening and Friday evening. It was a long stretch of trying to balance an already pretty full life, and I don’t think anyone was thriving.
These heat of the moment parenting fails feel terrible, of course. I don’t want to yell at my kid, or lose my cool. I know, intellectually, how stupid it is to argue with a three year old. I love my son beyond words, but I was finding it a little hard to like him for a stretch there when every damned conversation was an argument about him wearing pants.
I had been attempting (and frequently failing) to follow a Love and Logic-esque parenting method with the little dude because those techniques worked beautifully with our daughter 7 years ago, when she was three.
But those methods never really got much traction with our son. When presented with a Love and Logic style choice, he was more likely to aggressively refuse either choice than to compliantly pick from the pre-approved options. Time-outs were not the gentle “regroup and come back when you are sweet” downtimes that they were with my daughter: they were full-blown war.
Every technique, phrase, and method I knew and had successfully used to raise up my daughter was totally, completely useless with my son. As stress and defiance and tension mounted, my attempt to get a handle on his behavior – to control his behavior, really – got tighter and tighter.
“Kids need routine. I need to schedule more. He’s acting like this because I’ve been too laid back with him. I need to start being way more disciplined about routine, and just keep things moving along all the time.”
“Routine” didn’t work very well. Oliver hated being told it was time to “move on” to the next scheduled activity, and I’m more a project-person than a routine person anyway. It wasn’t worth the fight – and it was a fight – to impose that kind of external control on both of us.
The Parent Teacher Conference
And so the resentment built, and my feelings of sucking as a mom became more and more constant. And from this emotional environment, I went to the parent teacher conference at my kid’s preschool.
His teachers said he was wonderful.
“We love him – he is the perfectly suited for this class,” they said. I was told my son was a great listener, charming, responsive, full of focus, good playing on his own or with other kids, age appropriate, etc. etc. It was the kind of report any parent of a young child would be thrilled to get from that child’s teacher.
“But, what about aggression and defiance?” I asked. “How do you handle that?”
The teachers looked at each other like I had just asked them how they respond when Oliver turns polka-dotted and starts glowing green.
“Uh, it’s not really an issue for us. We just give him the space and he does what he needs to do. He’s very good.”
The Least Common Denominator Principle Of Life
I have this “self-reality check” concept I call The Least Common Denominator Principle of Life. Here’s what it says: look around and if there is some pattern of things consistently going wrong in your life and you are the only common element between those things, the issue is probably you.
This idea first occurred to me years ago, when I was simultaneously in some kind of pointless spat with my mom and several of my closest friends. Looking at the situation logically, I realized that while it was possible that three or four of the closest people in my life were all independently being unfair to me and persecuting me at the same time, but it was far, far more likely that I was being a jackass.
I was the Least Common Denominator in the situation. Ah-hah!
LCD is a wonderful revelation, because there are so many things in the world we have no control over, but if the problem is in our personal behavior, well, that’s something we can change.
We’ve all known people who make the same terrible decision over and over with slight variations and wonder why they keep getting the same terrible results. The Least Common Denominator Principle is like the bucket of cold water to the face that says: “Hold on, the issue here might be me. What is my role in this pattern in my life?”
The LCD suggests that if every person you meet is “a complete asshole” to you, maybe the problem is that you are an insufferable, antagonizing twat and you should stop that. If every boss you’ve ever had fires you for “totally unfair” reasons, maybe the issue is you need to become a better worker, or stop stealing from companies, or look at self-employment. Whatever.
I’m not suggesting that unfair, terrible, persecuting things don’t happen to people. They do. People go to jail for crimes they didn’t commit. Innocent hearts get broken. Injustice runs rampant, often following freeways of skintone or gender. Everyday, victims of terrible crimes try to put their lives back together after simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, life is just totally, completely unfair. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about patterns that don’t work in our life, and being honest about any role we have in helping to create those pattern. So as my son’s teachers raved about what a great kid he was, I felt that proverbial bucket of cold water dripping down my eyelashes and over my chin. “Does his behavior maybe come down to something I’m doing?”
He was great at preschool, great with the babysitter, great with grandma….Maybe the problem with my kid…was me. Or, at least, us, and our interactions.
Now I don’t want to overplay this. I’m not some terrible mom. I think by most standards I’m actually a very competent mom. And, come on, he’s three. Some of this is just normal developmental stuff filtered through his particularly high-energy, determined personality. But the LCD Principle clearly showed me that this issue wasn’t with my little boy. He’s doesn’t have Oppositional Defiance Disorder or something that makes him just generally difficult.
No, there was a problem in the system of my home and family life. Now, on the one hand, it sucks to think that maybe your kid has been a little asshole for a few months because you’ve got the system set up all wrong. But after a good day-long guilt-mope I realized that if I was helping to create a dysfunctional pattern, I could help solve that. I could come up with a better design and create a system more conducive to positive behavior. That was very hopeful.
At around this same time, I was listening to Geoff Laughton, a pretty famous Permaculture teacher, talk about Permaculture design principles. At it’s heart, Permaculture is really all about creating systems that work and create bounty in an upward spiral of positive interactions. You typically see this design philosophy applied to productive landscape design – gardening, farming, animal-keeping, etc.
But there is absolutely no reason why you can’t look at any system from a Permaculture standpoint. Businesses, hobbies, architecture, education curricula and more can all be designed with an eye towards Permaculture design principles. Even systems within the home.
Inside the system of our home, negative patterns had become established. Negative patterns of discipline and interaction fed negative results, which led to more negative discipline. And this fed into more negative results, like fracturing of trust and an undermined perception of kind authority. And so on.
One definition of Permaculture is, “thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources.”
As a mom, that was exactly what I wanted: to creatively re-design my home environment and behavior so that it required less emotional energy and resources. I wanted an emotional bounty of joy and laughter, not an exhaustive series of disciplinary inputs that never set the system to right. I wanted to Permaculture my parenting.
Montessori vs. Permaculture
I looked to the system in which my kid seemed to be already thriving, his Montessori preschool. His teachers and I joked that Oliver is like a Border Collie – smart as a whip, very high energy, and very determined and focused if he has a job to do. This is absolutely, 100% true: when Oliver was a few minutes old and the nurses were giving him the APGAR test on the miniature exam bassinet, he did a full, board-straight plank push-up.
He’s been a kid who wants to do it all himself since before he could babble or toddle. And like a border collie, if he doesn’t have a job, if he doesn’t get the stimulation he needs, he languishes and can become quite difficult and destructive.
As I started to research Montessori, I was struck over and over again by similarities between that method and Permaculture. Maria Montessori, the lady who founded Montessori, developed her ideas about early childhood education by long, quiet observation of children. Bill Mollison, typically credited as the founder of Permaculture, emphasizes at length the importance of observing the system of nature. Both philosophies speak to larger social and/or ecological healing through good design.
Montessori believed that setting up the proper environment for a child would allow him or her to fulfill an inborn drive to learn constructively and eventually grow into a functional, normalized adult. Permaculture teaches that proper design of the productive environment is the key to sustainable, healthy, long-term production.
|“All our efforts will come to nothing until we remedy the great injustice done the child, and remedy it by cooperating with him. If we are among the men of good will who yearn for peace, we must lay the foundation for peace ourselves, by working for the social world of the child.”
|“Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.”
|“To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely…The prize and punishments are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort, and, therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.”
|“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them & of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”
|“Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission.”
|“Permaculture is the art and science of consciously designing human systems to increase quality of life and enhance and regenerate ecosystems – by following the patterns of nature, we can all experience abundance.”
– Dr. David Suzuki
|“It is in the encounter of the maternal guiding instincts with the sensitive periods of the newly born that conscious love develops between parent and child.”
|“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We only love what we understand. We only understand what we are taught.”
|“The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer: the activity must lie in the phenomenon.”
|“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration.”
– David Holmgren
|“We ourselves have lost this deep and vital sensitiveness, and in the presence of children in whom we see it reviving, we feel as if we were watching a mystery being unfolded. It shows itself in the delicate act of free choice, which a teacher untrained in observation can trample on before she even discerns it, much as an elephant tramples the budding flower about to blossom in its path.”
|“It is a challenge to artists to study and portray knowledge in a compact, memorable, and transmissible form, to research and recreate for common use those surviving art forms which still retain their meaning, and to re-integrate such art with science and with society and its functions and needs. It is a challenge to educators to revive the meaningful geometries, songs, and dances that gave us, and our work, meaning.”
– Bill Mollison
|“The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”
|“For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole. Appropriate patterning in the design process can assist the achievement of a sustainable yield.”
– Bill Mollison
The more I studied Montessori the more it felt like the right playbook for redesigning the interactions in my own home that weren’t working optimally.
Implementing Permaculture Parenting Changes
Permaculture says that you study the interactions between elements because that’s where the magic happens. Well, my interactions with my son were typically rushed. Oliver didn’t have generous, self-directed transition time.
I was nagged by this feeling that I had a lot to do and it was never quite done. (Least Common Denominator principle: I give this feeling to myself because I try to cram too many things into my life.) I would attempt to work while parenting him. Result: he got a distracted mom and I piddled away ineffectually at my writing, frequently interrupted and ever more burdened by this stress that I was falling behind.
To fix this, I had to redesign my mornings and start getting up about 2-and-a-half hours earlier than I was before. I am a night owl, but my brain works better in the first half of the day. By pushing my wake-up time from 7:30 to 5:00, I am able to whip through a bunch of home and business management tasks in the wee hours, in peace with a cup of coffee, and still get in a 60-90 minute focused burst of writing.
Now, for me, this kinda sucks. I am not, by laws of nature, God or man, designed to wake up at 5:00 in the morning. I could happily sleep ten hours a night, from midnight until ten, or two AM to noon. But the whole home system works better when I suck it up and start my day early, and the results are so much better that I’m willing to keep it going.
My morning time, in combination with the couple hours while Oliver is at preschool gives me enough time to feel like I can “put work away” when he’s home and really be with him. We spend a lot more of what they call “quality time” together. Increasingly nice weather has helped a ton, too – the more we can be outside, the better for both of us.
I’m leaning on my community, too. My mom watches my son occasionally on Fridays, which gives me a nice chunk of time for work projects or gardening, and gives Oliver the advantage of seeing his grandma. We hired our awesome neighbor to babysit both kids one evening a week, so that my husband and I can have some adult time. Having a few hours each week we can count on to reconnect is incredibly valuable.
In keeping with the Border Collie revelation, we gave Oliver more chores. We call them jobs, and he does his jobs at the same time other family members are doing their jobs. The kid is plenty capable. He feeds the cats in the morning, sets the table in the late afternoon and participates in Toy Tidy in the evening before bed.
He loves his jobs, and putting Oliver in change of setting the dinner table has also helped re-establish the routine of sitting at the table for dinner as a family. That’s something I’d let slide a lot over the past few years. Sometimes we have game dinner and play cards as a family. It’s very fun! That’s synergy – patterns of home that add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Montessori teaches that it’s good for kids to be deeply focused on an activity, so now when Oliver is engaged in some self-directed project, I let him run with it as long as possible. I’ll often put out Montessory type “activity trays” for him to discover around the house.
By changing some of these basics, I feel like it’s so much easier to engage with my son constructively, and to have fun as a parent. He’s still a handful, and he’s still three, but the systems in the home are working to support positive interactions instead of detrimental ones.
It’s really not as hard as it seems, tweaking the systems for how you parent. If you see immediate results: a fun, cooperative little guy instead of a thrashing, kicking, mini-tyrant, that’s a lot of motivation to keep it going. Even getting up at the ass-crack of dawn has become normal-ish.
Permaculture Parenting Take-Aways
These are some lessons I’ve applied as I’ve attempted to Permaculture my parenting. They are directly based on the Twelve Principles of Permaculture. I’ve just tried to interpret those principles from a family systems standpoint.
Observe and Interact – What is really driving your kid’s behavior, positive or negative? What does the situation look like to them? How do your interactions with your child help or hinder calm and positive behavior? What is driving your behavior?
Catch and Store Energy – Work with the natural energy levels of your child. Assign real, functional, age-appropriate work. Children can direct their efforts towards home-system-positive behaviors. Allow time for deep focus – catch the wonder of youth and store it for lifelong learning.
Obtain a Yield – Chores, exploration, time, awe – the yield of a well-tended childhood is the dividend of a functional adult. The family system has to work for everyone – ensure time and resources are allocated so that all family members feel useful reward for their role in the family. Breaks are important, fair distribution of labor is important.
Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – Check yourself with the least Common Denominator Principle – what is your role in creating a less-than-functional system? Be honest and be willing to change your own behavior as necessary. Discourage anti-social behavior in the family, but do not use anti-social behavior to do so. Encourage self-regulation in your kids. A “strong-will” first controls itself.
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – The most valuable resources in a family grow as they are used. Love, respect, discipline, care, fun, joy, gratitude – these things increase through frequent use. Emphasizing these values instead of consumables – toys, video games, etc. – leads to a more functional family system.
Produce No Waste – Yelling and screaming is waste. Disrespect is waste. Aggression in the family is waste. When the system is fractured, we waste opportunities for positive interaction and learning. We waste productive time and we waste opportunities to catch and store a yield of trust, care and kindness. What opportunities are available to our family that we are squandering? How can we work together to avoid this kind of waste?
Design From Patterns to Details – What are the big picture patterns in your family? What routines of behavior lead to struggle and chaos; what routines lead to family calm? Get the essential patterns worked out and minor complaints may sort themselves out naturally.
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – Communicate that everyone in the family has jobs. We are all important and we value each other’s important roles. Let children see parents working. Set children up for success by arranging home systems so that they can really use them. Make sure children’s size and skills are accommodated with scaled down tools, step-stools, etc. Take the time to teach valuable skills.
Use Small and Slow Solutions – Implement small changes as you nudge your routines toward more functional homelife. If something doesn’t work, observe and try again. Iterate, iterate, iterate.
Use and Value Diversity – Every person in the family is unique. There is a thin line between our best personality traits and our worst, and the difference is often how they are channeled. The frustratingly stubborn child might be the most determined when her interest is sparked. The hopeless day-dreamer might one day bring his amazing inner-fantasy world to the page. Allow your kids to be who they are, within a framework of respect. The most frustrating thing about a child may be the thing that defines their success as an adult.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – When family members interact it is an opportunity for growth, yield and synergy. Try not to squander these opportunities. I.e., “quality time” is good, but critical moments of quality time can be discovered during those marginal moments in the day, not just structured as stand alone events. “Door open, mouth shut” is a good mantra – be available and non-judging in your interactions.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change – Families change. Children change. Sometimes this change makes things easier, sometimes it adds challenges. During times of upheaval, return to a stage of more acute observation. Check in. Do not assume children need rescuing from every little trouble but be willing to step in to rebalance or nudge the system as necessary.2