It was with quite some anticipation and fear that today approached. Almost a month ago ABC Nightline came and filmed at Twin Oaks and several members were unhappy about the high impact of their visit. For me, even more worrying was the prospect of them doing a slash piece on us, as the NY Times did some years back (after the NY Times photographer had spent a bunch of time telling us how wonderful and important we were – but it is editors, not photographers who determine what is news).
In the end, I was mostly relieved by the piece. I don’t need them to depict Twin Oaks as paradise. I certainly don’t see it that way and almost always tell people about the down sides of the commune (including minimal access to resources including money and thus general inability to travel personally, labyrinth decision making process and reduced privacy). And it is still a better place than almost any other i have visited.
And it seems this time, the mainstream media mostly agreed with me.
[This is an article originally blogged by Keenan. I have not simply re-blogged it for two reasons. First is that i have added links to it, to places where Keenan’s philosophy and mine run parallel. And the second is that i have added some pictures to it, a tragic omission (which also reduces readership) in Keenan’s original post. I would still encourage you to check out his blog, especially if parenting and Twin Oaks community politics and culture are of interest to you. It is an excellent source.]
Twin Oaks is a great place to raise children. At Twin Oaks almost every parent likes their kid(s) and likes being a parent. Almost every parent is raising their children deliberately and consciously. Although not all of us parents agree with each other, we all concur that there are many bad mainstream child-rearing theories and practices that we want to avoid/overcome.
Kristen and I just celebrated the milestone of our youngest having his 18th birthday. We have been reflecting recently on our journey as parents, and we are very pleased with how the kids have turned out—pleased and relieved. Why relieved? Our parenting practices were at odds with almost every mainstream child-rearing theory we read. We weren’t so confident that we could know for sure that the kids would turn out great. According to those other theories, our bizarre parenting practices should have resulted in kids who are emotionally crippled sociopaths. But they aren’t—in fact, the kids are, by all accounts, altogether fine human beings. I don’t want to gloat or embarrass the kids by describing how great they are—but take my word for it.
Kristen and I both had lots of experience with kids prior to having our own, so we were already quite skilled, or, at least, opinionated by the time we were holding a newborn. As the kids grew, we talked fairly constantly about how the kids were doing. We wanted to do things right; we would immediately work on any behavior problem that started to crop up, or, even better, recognize an interest early so we could kindle it. Through our experience as parents, our belief in the fundamental wrongness of how children are treated in the mainstream culture solidified. If you want to try to give your child a utopian childhood the hardest part is letting go of lots of misguided mainstream beliefs about children. Honestly, doing things right is a lot of work, but if you want to know what we did and why, without further ado, here is the “Dakota theory” of how to give children a utopian childhood:
[Kristen and I have the last name “Dakota.” This has nothing to do with any Native American people]
Current belief: Children are lesser beings who should not expect or receive the same polite and considerate treatment that adults give each other.
Dakota theory: Children have the same intrinsic value that all humans have and should be listened to and treated with respect. Specifically, parents should like their children.
Conclusion: Children behave well when they are treated as though they are deserving of respect.
Current belief: Children should obey authority figures.
Dakota theory: Children should be taught that they are responsible human beings and they should learn to negotiate for what they want.
Conclusion: Children who are taught to obey, learn to distrust their own judgment. They also demonstrate less personal motivation. Children who are taught to negotiate show more task persistence and have a strong sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, raising a child who negotiates requires more time and effort from parents.
Current belief: Children need peers to develop normal social skills.
Dakota theory: Children develop better social skills without same-age peers.
Conclusion: Children learn social skills from the people they are around. Children in groups and in institutional settings are sometimes inconsiderate or cruel to each other. Children who are around other children for much of the time, often develop dysfunctional behaviors from being with other, partially socialized, children. Children who are around adults for most of their formative years develop better social skills than children who are in group child care for most of their formative years.
Current belief: Children need to go to school to 1) develop social skills and 2) to absorb a body of knowledge.
Dakota theory: School exposes children to bad social behaviors. The body of knowledge in school is often outdated, inadequate, and inaccurate. Additionally, it doesn’t take much time to learn that body of knowledge at home.
Conclusion: Many children are exposed to unhealthy social behaviors from the bad behavior that inevitably results from large-scale institutionalization. The body of knowledge that schools pass along is easily gained at home. Typically, parents have other interests and values that schools don’t teach.
Current belief: Children need to be punished, they need to be disciplined and they need consequences for their bad behavior.
Dakota theory: Never punish or discipline children. Normal life provides enough consequences, no additional consequences are needed.
Conclusion: Punishment has been proven to be ineffective at teaching children a new behavior. Children feel punished merely from a parent’s disapproval—nothing more is necessary. An effective “punishment” is making a child stop playing in order to explain why it’s not OK to hit, or take another kid’s toy. Frequently, merely calmly pointing out what the problem is to the child can make a child feel bad enough to stop the bad behavior and/or make restitution. Encouraging a distraught child to take a time-out is good advice for anyone having emotional trouble and isn’t really a punishment.
Current belief: Misbehavior is due to a poorly disciplined child.
Dakota theory: Misbehavior is due to a poorly designed environment.
Conclusion: A toddler, set down in front of a coffee table with a lot of breakable glassware on the table will, inevitably, drop and break something. This is not bad behavior. Don’t punish the child; move the glassware. It is more likely that children will hang up their clothes on pegs than on hangers. A yard with two swings and three kids creates ongoing strife. Often a child’s “bad” behavior is due to normal child-like behavior in an environment that is designed for normal adult behavior. The easiest way to have a well-behaved child, is to change the environment to suit the child’s behavior. For instance, if there is only healthy food in the house, then “food wars” become much less likely.
Current belief: Children demand an adult’s attention—and that’s bad
Dakota theory: Children demand an adult’s attention—and that’s OK.
Conclusion: “He’s just doing that to get attention!” is a statement some adults make to indict a child’s motives and to grant the adult permission to punish the child for bothering the adult. But, attention from an adult is essential sustenance for a child’s emotional well-being. Once a child receives an adequate amount of attention, they are full, and will go off and play, only to return later for another helping of attention. If we say with scorn of a child who’s crying, “he’s just crying because he’s hungry, I’m going to spank him” it sounds cruel . “He’s just doing it to get attention,” should sound equally heartless.
Current belief: A child’s chronic behavior problems can best be dealt with through psychoactive medication.
Dakota theory: A child’s chronic behavior problems can best be dealt with through counseling and behaviorist reinforcement/extinguishing techniques.
Conclusion: Psychoactive drugs have immediate side-effects and long-term physiological consequences. Changing a child’s chronic behavior problem without drugs is vastly more time consuming, but results in a more emotionally healthy child.
Current belief: A child might become emotionally crippled from spending too much time with a parent (or parents).
Dakota theory: strong family connections help create an emotionally healthy child.
Conclusion: Studies of poverty, mental illness and crime consistently show that parents who physically or emotionally abandon their children create the pathology that leads to dysfunctional adults. On the other hand, outstanding and high-performing athletes typically have at least one engaged and supportive parent. There is not a bell curve here; it’s linear; the stronger the family connections, the more emotionally stable the children are as adults.
Current belief: Children should be kept protected and secluded from real-world experiences. They should live in a separate world called “childhood” until they are completed with their schooling and are able to enter the adult world.
Dakota theory: Children are part of the world. It is healthier for children and the world for children to be included in almost all aspects of the adult world.
Conclusion: Children in their early teens want to distinguish themselves from younger children; they want to act like grown-ups. Mainstream culture allows few opportunities to show their maturity, so these young teens turn to bed behavior, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, swearing and having sex as ways to show their “maturity.” However, teens who have the ability to take on real responsibility, like, for instance having a part-time paying job demonstrate their adult-ness through taking on these healthier parts of being a grown up. Throughout their teen years, teenagers should have the opportunity to do part-time, intern, and volunteer work to explore their interests. This serves several useful functions; it keeps teens busy, it allows teens to develop maturity and responsibility, and it gives teens a wide range of real-life experiences which should help prevent the all-too-frequent situation where a young adult goes into debt to pursue a degree only to discover after graduation that they hate the work that they have spent years training for.
Give your child a utopian childhood in just 10 easy steps:
1) Enjoy the company of your children. (That’s really the main one, since so many parents don’t really enjoy the company of their children, and the children know that, so they misbehave. No child-rearing theory can overcome parents who don’t like their kids.)
2) Accept every request as legitimate. (default to yes, rather than default to no).
3) Don’t punish. Don’t discipline. But, rather, explain.
4) No sarcasm. Don’t laugh at kids.
5) Learn what your kids like.
6) Laugh at kids’ jokes, listen to their stories.
7) Try to understand their emotions. Have empathy.
9) Talk to the kids about the adult world. Encourage discussion. Explain values through story telling using real examples. Let them know fairly often what you think is right and wrong.
10) Share whatever you are passionate about with your children. Expect them to be interested in your life.
Posted 28th April 2014 by keenan
In 2004, Twin Oaks was briefly harassed by an unmarked black helicopter.
A much nimbler Coyote rushed to his room to get a camera. Remembering that without photographic proof there would be no story or media coverage of this event. His picture is above.
One of Charlottesvilles local free newspapers at the time (the Hook) picked up the story and ran with it, ultimately discovering who was in the unmarked chopper.
Over the course of finding the culprit, the author of the article talked with lots of different military and law enforcement personal. They asked them all about Twin Oaks and if they had any trouble with us.
From the article:
So are Twin Oakers big troublemakers? “I haven’t had any trouble with them,” says [Louisa County Sheriff] Fortune. “We wouldn’t need any law enforcement if everybody lived like they do at Twin Oaks.”
Just about the best advertising a community could ask for.
As i was going through the endless array of stupid comments in the recent Yahoo Parenting article on Twin Oaks, i found myself wanting a good summary of why Twin Oaks (and other secular and especially egalitarian communities) are not cults. Fortunately, these communities have designed themselves to make this easy.
Let’s hop in our time machine for a moment. It is 1967 and the original 8 founders of Twin Oaks are looking at the principals and cultural norms around which they will form the community where they want to live. Reverend Moon had just visited the US and set up holy grounds in the 48 contiguous states. The FDA had just raided Scientology offices and seized illegal medical equipment, and the religion was being banned in Australia and other places. And the Church of Satan was performing it’s first recorded baptism.
The intentional communities movement wanted to distance itself from these kinds of organizations, so it looked at the behaviors which typified cults and set out to make themselves different in as many ways as possible. The 4 things which typify a cult are:
- It has a living charismatic leader
- You give them all your money
- You are kept away from your old friends and family
- You can’t leave when you might like
Cults are also exclusive, often highly secret and universally authoritarian. Let’s take a quick look at these components.
Living Charismatic Leader: Twin Oaks has a complex internal decision making system. Specifically, we have 3 or more planners who serve 18 month terms but can not serve consecutive terms. Over the last 18 years i have been at Twin Oaks, the problem is not having people want to do consecutive plannerships, the problem is getting people to complete their terms – recently several planners have quit this generally thankless job. Holding onto leaders in an egalitarian community is hard, because they get extra headaches without the extra perks. Plus at Twin Oaks we have a distrust of people in leadership roles and they often get extra flack for this reason. We would appear to fail the charismatic leader cult test.
Give up your assets: This one is understandably complex, because the difference between income sharing and asset sharing is often confused. When you join Twin Oaks, we ask you not to touch your pre-existing assets, if you have any, for the duration of your membership. This does not mean we ask you to give them to the community. If you want you can lend them to the community, and when you leave you get them back. Without interest. The interest is income. Because the community pays for everything when you live there, food, clothing, medical, housing, entertainment, taxes, dentist, etc we ask that any income your assets earn (including Social Security and pension income – excluding 401K interest, which you can’t get at) be given to the community. This feels fair to us. We also don’t take your debts if you arrive with debts. Most cults require you give everything over. Some (like Scientology – which fails the living leader test) require you to pay for expensive classes and encourages significant donations to the community. Members are not encouraged to make donations to Twin Oaks of pre-existing assets nor do we charge our members for anything.
Isolation: Bring your friends and family to the commune, by all means. They can stay for free and the host determines what work, if any, is appropriate for them to do (if you are going to stay for a while we would like you to work quota). It is true there are people who live at Twin Oaks who rarely leave the farm. But we design our selection process so that it pushes you back into the arms of those who care about you, before you come to join. At the end of your visitor period at both Twin Oaks and Acorn you must leave, even if everyone thinks you are great and you should stay forever. After you have been home for 10 days you find out if we have accepted you and then (at TO at least) you have to wait another 3 weeks before you can come. My joke is if your friends and family can’t convince you not to join this hippie commune in 3 weeks, then you are free to come.
No Exit: I dislike grumpy communards. I really dislike communards who are grumpy about the community that they are living in. I want these people (after making a good faith effort to fix their situation) to leave. Every one of them represents a misallocated space, because there is someone on the waiting list who wants to take that person’s place and really wants to live with us. Again we have had waiting list for years.
Exclusive: One of Twin Oaks and Acorns missions is to be a model. To be a model you have to be open to outside guests – friends, media, academics, curious travelers and more. Cults won’t let you inside, and while it is wrong to say our doors are always open to anyone, if you ask in advance and come to any of the Saturday Tours or 3 Week visitor periods you can see pretty clearly what we look like.
Secretive: Similarly, models can’t be secrets.
Authoritarian: This seemed to be where many readers of the Yahoo article got hung up. The assumption seemed to be that, if there were a self selecting group which was not following the roles of the mainstream, then there had to be an authoritarian oppressive structure.
Look, these communities are filled with anarchists. We are not going to work if the structure is authoritarian. We want to do better than majority voting. All the egalitarian communities require democratic decision making systems, at least voting, ideally consensus. This does not absolutely insure authoritarian structures will not emerge, but consensus is one of the best ways to maximize the power individuals have over oppression by a group.
Thus by any of the standard criteria for determine cult status, we fail. But you dont need to believe me, come visit and see for yourself. Call 540-894-5126 and arrange a Saturday tour.
The way i see it is, when it comes to the written word, there are basically two kinds of people in the world. The most common kind of person is an editor. You give them a page with a bunch of words on it and they read the words, tweak the words, tighten the meaning and the page gets better.
I am the other kind. I am a blank page kind of a guy. I depend on editors, not just because of my horrific spelling and grammar, but because i am sloppy and often other people need to make sure i am not making errors of fact or telling stories too far removed from reality. And while i also do a fair amount of editing, the place i excel is when someone is starting with nothing and needs a document to get somewhere.
Thus i do a lot of ghost writing for other people, especially in the context of the community. Twin Oaks requires written communication from visitors, long term guests and people who have run afoul of our occasionally labyrinth policies. Many people i talk with don’t even know how to start these letters. This is where i come in.
Typically, i can get someone to explain their situation to me at a meal, ask a handful of questions and craft a draft response to the community which they are very relieved to have as a starting point. Perhaps 25% of the time they can use my letter with only trivial modifications (like the above mentioned problematic grammar and spelling). Universally, people are appreciative for the help.
Someone might be upset by this, feeling it is somehow cheating and people should write their own letters. Nonsense i say. The power of community is that we help each other by sharing our diverse skill sets. I can’t cook worth a damn and will go nuts if i have to garden. But i need these things to survive. And while survival is not on the line with my ghost writing, i see it as part of our great skill share.
I’ll take care of you, you take care of me.
Hawina and i were at an engaging after dinner conversation at Ganas about what good communication culture looks like within community. There were lots of examples of different community cultures. I pitched the Acorn Clearness process, which is part of the Point A kit of tools for improving trust and transparency in your community. We talked about whether it was important to greet everyone you see each day. We discussed and disagreed on the fundamental nature of people who are in conflict and the availability of mutually agreeable bridges.
At one point a Ganasian confessed that there was confusion around what the appropriate protocol was for sitting at a table with someone who was already sitting there. Do you ask if it is okay? Do you just plop yourself down next to someone? It may seem like a tiny point, but in the occasionally hyper sensitive world of commune culture, you want to get the social cues right.
The way we have resolved this type of problem at Twin Oaks is thru zoning We use spacial and temporal zoning to help with a collection of issues: kid noise, nudity, smoking, sex noises, bike sharing, gardening and much more. In the case of who sits where at meals and what to expect in those places we have evolved three different types of tables.
Tables: Most of the tables at and around the dining hall at Twin Oaks are simply tables. If they are free you can simply sit at them. When the next person comes to the table the etiquette is to simply check in “Can i sit with you?” Or if there is already a group of people you might ask “Is this a meeting?” which you might be invited to sit in on, or it might scare you away from the social lunch you were hoping for with these people. Simple enough, no?
Fun Tables: For reasons i can imagine but don’t know for sure, the community wanted a place you could go reliably and socialize. A place where you never needed to ask if you could sit down and where you were sure there would not be a closed meeting or work discussions happening. And thus the fun table was born. The informal rules are that we will always make room for you at the fun table. And if you start talking about work at a fun table my son and others will call you out about talking about work. There are two fun tables at Twin Oaks, one inside and the other outside. They are popular and oft lively.
Super Fun Table: Turns out there was a greater need for fun tables than just these two. And it turns out that members don’t want there conversations controlled. So there is now a very long set of three picnic tables end to end which are super fun tables. You can talk about anything, you don’t need to ask to sit down and while it seats perhaps 30 people we will always make more space if it is needed.
Crow screwed up. They recently acted out in a way that had made people feel uncomfortable and some even unsafe. It could have been any of a number of kinds of things: An intoxicated incident, a minor consent violation, a petty crime, even an especially poor choice of guest. The specifics don’t matter. Crow knew that they had created a problem for themselves with Acorn and they were coming to me for advice. What could they do to make things better? How could they mend their frayed relationships with other members? At Acorn this answer is easy, you do what we regularly do, you have a clearness.
And it turns out that this is a very good thing. Many communities have self care mechanisms that feel punitive. As i have written, the Feedback system at Twin Oaks very often feels punishing, even though it often need not.
But because Acorn does regular individual clearnesses, adding another one to normal rotation almost always feels accessible. The clearness format is the same as a routine clearness (meetings with each individual member, checking in about their experiences of each other, and then a group clearness which summarizes all the individual clearnesses).
The lesson is clear here. When you are designing self corrective systems within a community, you need to consider how they feel to the users. It is not enough to insure the community is taken care of, these systems need to feel non coercive to the members who are going through them. The best way to have that effect is to have a familiar and non-threatening group communication facilitating tool. I think the clearness process is one of the better ones.
A week later i talked with Crow. They had done a bunch of clearnesses and felt much better about their connection to the community. They felt better understood.
The most common complaint about community clearnesses is that they take a lot of time. “Do i really have to talk to everyone else in the community one-on-one?” Only if you want there to be cohesion in your community. Only if you want to be able to fix significant mistakes people make and successfully rebound from it. You only need to do this if you want a healthy community.
For many people this is too much work and i think this is central to why so many communities fail.