How does equality and freedom work in a family when a child’s ability to make decisions without harming themselves or others is inherently unequal? How can a family apply sociocratic principles if children cannot consent to the decisions that affect them? Can a family be a hierarchy and still be nurturing or does it have to be a hierarchy in order to be nurturing?
Most people agree that children are not born with the ability to make the decisions necessary for them to live safely and well. For children to be successful as adults, they need parental guidance, or the guidance of other adults in their lives. Is this a hierarchical relationship? If so, how does the child grow out of it? When do the children become free and equal? And how?
Systems Definition of Hierarchy
A definition of hierarchy that I find very useful is from Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. It is a small book, very accessible, and an excellent introduction to systems thinking.
- Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers is to serve the purposes of the lower.
- Systems are often self organizing, meaning they have the ability to structure themselves and to create new structures. To learn, diversify, and complexify.
- Systems need to be managed for resilience, not just for productivity or stability.
- There are always limits to resilience.
By analogy, applying Donella Meadows’ characteristics of a hierarchy to the family, the responsibility of the parents would be:
- Serving the purposes of the children, which is to become independent, self-supporting adults, leading satisfying lives.
- Teaching them to self-organize meaning to learn, diversify, and become more complex.
- Teaching them to be resilient, not just productive and stable, and
- Teaching them to understand that they are human, there are limits to resilience.
As a guide for parenting I think that works very well. It also establishes the purpose of a hierarchy in a family system. It points the hierarchy toward the development of self-organizing systems, toward enabling children to create new family structures, new hierarchies. The understanding of sociocratic principles would be helpful in managing the process of parenting self-organizing children. (Who clean their rooms, sometimes.)