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Thursday, July 11, 2024

Good Ideas Don’t Require Force: Lessons from a Non-Coercive Upbringing

My parents did a great job raising me, and I think I know why.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Being nine months pregnant tends to make most women wax nostalgic about their childhood, reflect on the way their parents parented, and consider who they want their child to be someday. So as I sit here in the final weeks of my pregnancy with my first child, I’m being bombarded by a loud inner voice yelling all the things that a brain can come up with to make a new mom as insecure as possible.

“What if you mess him up?”

“Are you actually capable of homeschooling?”

“How firm are your beliefs?”

“Were your parents right?”

I’ve been given a very unique opportunity in this life. Unlike most people in their early twenties I actually believe that my parents did an incredible job raising me. Teenage me would be pissed that I would ever willingly put that in writing, but as it turns out…they were right about pretty much everything. In adulthood I’ve chosen to participate in the same religion I was raised in, I agree with and proudly support a similar political philosophy, and I plan on educating my children in a nearly identical way. In short, I hope that someday my son will be writing somewhere and pen the words: “I’m so lucky my grandparents raised my mom the way they did.” When I say things like this to my peers they’re dumbfounded. Their response always echoes the same line of thinking: “Well I modeled my life in the complete opposite of my upbringing.”

So that begs the question, are my parents just insanely incredible and completely unique? Or did they key in on something early in their parenting journey that most people never learn:

Good ideas don’t require force. 

Being ‘Different’ Isn’t Always Terrible

As a teen I was always so bothered by how “different” I was from my peers. I came from a big family (7 kids), I was a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) and I was homeschooled. You’d think that in those cultural circles being a member of a big family wouldn’t feel all that weird. Except it was! Because even by homeschooled “Mormon” standards we were weird. For one, our family dynamic was odd. Both my parents had been divorced and had children in their previous marriages, so we were a “mixed” family being raised as one. My mom and step-dad both had full custody of their children, and got married when I (the second oldest) was only 8. On top of being a “weird” mixed family heavily active in a community where most people get married by 20, have a trillion kids, and never divorce, we were also odd because there were 6 of us girls and one boy at the very end. My step-dad had two daughters when he met my mom. My mom had four little girls of her own. So their union meant creating an instant family of a bunch of girls, followed a year later by the—as we fondly call him—“Glue” that stuck us all together. One little boy to even out the insane levels of estrogen in our household. 

Even as a young child I knew my parents were different too. The way they spoke to my siblings and I differed so much from the way my peers engaged with their parents. I was always very aware of my own personhood and autonomy. For the majority of my upbringing it was my mother who pushed the hardest for mine and my siblings’ individual rights. That’s not to say it wasn’t important to my dad, but he grew up in the rural south and children being treated like autonomous little adults didn’t come as naturally to him as it did to my free-spirited, pacific northwestern mom. In the end it was a combination of two very differing parenting philosophies that made me who I am today. 

That’s not to say there weren’t rules. My parents exercised their authority, which I believe was key—but they certainly let us make mistakes, and find our own way. Almost every one of my siblings and I diverted at some point, but so far, we have all come back to realize the same thing: our parents were right (even though we really didn’t want them to be). 

Young Entrepreneurship

My upbringing was crafted to prepare me for the real world. We were taught how to develop a solid work ethic and prove our value to the world. We were given a lot of autonomy as we grew up while our parents maintained a safety net there for when we inevitably failed. As a child that meant pursuing young entrepreneurial ventures like dog walking and babysitting. For one of my younger sisters this meant opening an actual bakery at 13 that made a couple grand in profit in its first 2 months, but that’s a story for a different day. For me, it meant graduating from high school at 16, going to community college, and teaching English at a Taiwanese boarding school all before I became a legal adult. I taught there for two semesters until my family moved and I had to part ways with arguably the coolest job a 16-year-old could have. Later in life, the owners of the boarding school would open a location in Taiwan and invite me to live there and teach. This was a testament to how the independence and values instilled in me from my upbringing would provide abundant opportunities throughout my lifetime. 

I never questioned those things. They all made complete and total sense to me.

Trial and Error

However, just like every other teenager on the face of the Earth, I rebelled. 

I dated a communist which didn’t last very long because he didn’t have a job, he lived with his parents, and I got tired of paying for everything. I got a bunch of tattoos and decided everything my parents believed in was the complete opposite of everything I stood for. 

It wasn’t until I experienced true independence and faced real-world hardships that I realized the best way to navigate our world and adulthood was almost exactly the way my parents taught me to. However, my journey of self-discovery didn’t end there. 

I wanted to figure out my own beliefs, as I wasn’t 100% satisfied with my family’s cultural teachings and religious values. I can only imagine the disappointment my parents felt as I showed little interest in their faith and lifestyle, yet they never let it show. They continued to support my individuality and remained honest when my decisions backfired. 

My choices often contradicted their teachings, and when they led to trouble, my parents were there to offer a reality check without sugarcoating the truth or removing my responsibility. Through years of trial and error, I began to see the wisdom in their approach. The contentment and happiness in my family’s lives were too palpable to ignore. I realized that they possessed the sense of fulfillment I was searching for. This revelation led me to revisit and eventually embrace the ways I was raised.

Again, Good Ideas Don’t Require Force

Good ideas don’t require force. It seems like such a simple statement, a sentiment that should be echoed by our world as a whole. But as we all know, it’s not. 

My parents were stout in their beliefs, but prioritized our individuality. Rather than shield us from opposing views, they encouraged us to explore them. As a member of the LDS church, individual agency is a core tenant of our faith, and therefore it was a tenant in our home. So we were given the right to choose, from a very young age. 

This foundational belief in agency and choice taught us not just to follow a path because it was laid out for us, but to understand why we were walking it in the first place. It instilled in us the ability to make decisions with an informed mind and a conscious heart, knowing fully the consequences of our choices. This approach didn’t just apply to religious beliefs or political views; it permeated every aspect of our lives, from our education to our interpersonal relationships.

The principle of non-coercion and respect for individual agency might seem at odds with the concept of discipline, but in my family’s case, they went hand in hand. Discipline was not about enforcing obedience but understanding the value of structure, respect, and consequences in life. It was about learning to harmonize personal freedom with responsibility to oneself and others.

This approach to parenting—balancing guidance with freedom, and discipline with choice—helped shape us into adults who not only respect others’ viewpoints but are also unafraid to stand firm in our own convictions. It taught us that being truly principled comes from understanding, not from blind adherence.

My Own Parenting Style

As I stand on the threshold of motherhood, reflecting on these lessons, I realize that the greatest gift my parents gave me wasn’t a rigid set of beliefs or a prescribed way of life. It was the ability to think, choose, and love with intentionality. It was the understanding that good ideas don’t require force, because they have the power to convince through their own merit.

In raising my own child, I aspire to pass on these same values. I want to create an environment where questions are encouraged, where choices are made with both freedom and understanding, and where love is the guiding principle. I hope to instill in my child the same sense of agency and responsibility that was so integral to my own upbringing, allowing them to navigate the complexities of life with confidence. 

Other Ways

Alternative parenting approaches, like the rigid “my way or the highway” method or the laissez-faire “do whatever you please” strategy, wouldn’t have resonated with me or my siblings. Such methods could have potentially trapped us in a perpetual state of rebellion or dependency.

Children need the space to stumble, learn, and assert themselves to truly cultivate their identities and values. Without the opportunity to navigate life’s trials and errors independently, there’s a risk they might conform to a collective mentality, shaped by either excessive control or insufficient guidance. This conformity can hinder their personal growth and dilute their sense of responsibility.

In stark contrast, my parents’ method of fostering individual agency within a supportive and structured environment empowered us to engage with our choices actively and learn from our experiences. This balanced approach allowed us to develop a deep sense of ownership and accountability for our decisions.

In an era brimming with information and diverse viewpoints, it’s imperative for young individuals to harness the skills to critically evaluate, make informed choices, and steadfastly embrace their principles and values. This doesn’t entail insulating them from dissenting opinions but rather exposing them to a spectrum of thoughts and guiding them in thoughtful deliberation and decision-making.

Good ideas don’t require force, and I am sure glad my parents believed that.

  • Tess Brunecz is a young mother living with her husband in the heart of rural Kansas.