This post was originally published under the title "Being Raised in Open Space" in 1999 and appears in the book The Genuine Contact Way: Nourishing a Culture of Leadership.
As Genuine Contact has evolved, many people have begun to wonder if this would be a good way to raise children. Having been raised in a world of Genuine Contact I think that I am pretty qualified to say that the answer is an emphatic yes.
Anyone who works with Genuine Contact knows that it very quickly becomes more than just the tools, processes and approach that it was originally intended to be. It quickly becomes a way of life. For many people, I think that the logical question becomes, ‘how do I implement this in my family life?”
Even though the term Genuine Contact hadn’t been defined as Genuine Contact when I was born, I think that all of my life has been in Genuine Contact. For me, the definition of living in Genuine Contact is living in an environment that has been created to allow me to access my creative self, an environment which has been safe enough for me to learn to be my authentic self. It is living in a space that has appropriate structure to grow and define my individuality.
Spirit is All That Is
I don’t want to give the impression that Genuine Contact is some kind of new religion or cult, but it has also allowed me to access Spirit in ways that I never understood were possible. Organized religions have never been for me. That is not to say that they are wrong or that everyone should walk away from them. They just weren’t right for me. When space is opened, it seems to me that it allows a space for Spirit to enter. It allows for a great and spiritual journey to begin. Genuine Contact and Spirit are combined for me, as will be reflected in the story that follows. The underpinning belief that Spirit is All That Is absolutely resonates for me.
Being Raised in Genuine Contact Isn't Easy
I think it would be very hard to commit yourself to raising your children in Genuine Contact. Being raised in Genuine Contact isn't easy either. There are already so many worries as a parent, but to add Genuine Contact to the mixture would be very scary.
For those who have facilitated Open Space Technology meetings, you will understand the fear. You work so hard to create an event that lasts for only a few days. In those days you have to somehow hold the Space for the people. There are many occasions where you want to interfere. To give the answers that the people are looking for instead of waiting for them to empower themselves and find their own answer.
Imagine trying to hold that Space for your children. To hold it for a lifetime. As a parent you have to interfere sometimes; if there is danger to your children, or to others and perhaps only if there is danger. Imagine wanting to interfere and knowing that it is your job to hold the space and let your children grow in the controlled chaos that you have created for them. For those who have the courage, I applaud you and wish you well.
To be the child living in Genuine Contact is also scary. But I don’t think it is as bad.
As a participant in an Open Space Technology meeting, there is fear. For many of the participants, it is the first time in their lives that anyone has given them control. To have control over what you do and what you say. Control over your own future. To be able to make choices to make things better, instead of just grumbling with your colleagues over how you wish things could be. There is fear of having to choose what it is what you will do and what you will say. A fear of having control over your own future. There is fear of making choices, because your choices might not make things better. Your choices might not be the right ones. What will you do if your choices aren’t the right ones?
To be the child living in Genuine Contact isn’t as scary as being a participant in an Open Space Technology meeting, in the beginning. In the innocence of childhood, you don’t realize that this isn’t the norm. I lived in happy bliss. Able to make my own decisions, with the guidance of my parent of course. I was encouraged to follow my heart. I wanted to take ballet lessons, so I took ballet lessons. To switch to tap dancing, so I switched to tap dancing. I wanted to learn to play the piano, so we bought a piano and I took lessons. I hit 13 and didn’t want to be a part of that anymore, so I stopped. There was no pressure. It wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore so it was finished. And that was OK.
I was never afraid to make my own decisions. I’m sure that being that young there was a lot of guidance from my parents, but, in the end, I was still the decision-maker. I learned a lot about making decisions and the consequences of those decisions when I was very young. We joke now about how my parents used to bribe us when we were kids, but I think it was a very effective learning tool.
As a child I had a piggy bank. It wasn’t like an ordinary piggy bank; in fact I’m pretty sure it was a Mason jar. When I was good, or did things that were helpful, I got to put a poker chip in the jar. If I was bad, or did things that were destructive, mom got to take a poker chip out of the jar. When there were 100 chips in the jar, I got to go to the toy store and pick out a new toy. It was a really great learning for me. I think that those chips have had a life-long impact on me. I certainly weigh out my decisions before making them. And to this day, I reward myself with a new toy when I’ve been especially good.
Being Your Authentic Self
Being in the safe environment that Genuine Contact creates also taught me to be my authentic self. I have never been afraid to give voice to what I believe in. Never been afraid to take responsibility for what has heart and meaning for me. I think I was about 8 or 9 the first time I realized that there could be upsetting consequences for me if I were to choose to live my life that way. It never occurred to me that there was any other way and I was very shocked to learn that everyone didn’t live like this. But even then, I knew that it was the way it should be.
When I was very young, we lived in a tiny community of about 1000 people. Everyone knew everyone. There was some sort of common bond that united everyone, and often it was the children. There were about 20 or 25 kids my age in the community. We all went to the same pre-school and all entered kindergarten together. At that age, you still don’t comprehend the cliques that develop in society, so everyone is a friend regardless of their differences. But, eventually, something happens that shatters the belief that everyone is equal and you go your separate ways.
For me, it was the new girl that moved into the neighborhood. She had a lot of money and a cool house. She was pretty and thin, and absolutely perfect. Everyone wanted to be her friend, including me. And we all were, except for a few. She may have seemed absolutely perfect, but she wasn’t really. She was a born leader, which isn’t such a bad thing, except that it made her very bossy as a child. It was her way or no way. I couldn’t understand or accept the concept of someone else telling me what to do. I didn’t want to accept it and very promptly rejected it. In hindsight, I don’t think anyone had ever done that to her, and if they had, I’m sure the exact same thing happened to them as did to me.
I rejected her control, and she rejected me. In her rejection of me, everyone else rejected me. Suddenly, I was part of the few and didn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand that everyone would band together like that and just arbitrarily decide not to be my friend anymore. The solution was simple, right? Let her have the control and I could have all of my friends back. But it wasn’t that simple. I couldn’t go back on my beliefs. Even at that young age, I was clear that I wasn’t going to give up control over my own life, even if it meant forsaking all of those friends.
The events that unfolded in my teenage years were also greatly affected by Genuine Contact. In my childhood, I had the appropriate structure that was needed. It helped me to feel safe, to learn to make decisions and understand that there were consequences to my decisions. Through Genuine Contact and the wisdom of my parents, I was encouraged to follow what had passion for me. The structure grew as I grew. Because I was small, there was very little room in the structure for chaos, but it was still there.
Then, quite suddenly, I was a teenager. And for those of you who are waiting with baited breath, no, being raised in this way does not stop “teenage rebellion” from happening. We all reach a point in our lives when we have to claim our independence. For those of you who remember those years, you’ll remember that I did the teenage rebellion thing quite well.
At that age, there seemed to be two types of parents. There were those parents who were very involved with their children’s lives, and in most cases, very controlling of their children’s every move. Their children worked very hard, either to try to live up to their parent’s every expectation or to make sure they lived up to none of it. There were also the parents who didn’t seem to care about their children. Those children too worked very hard, in this case, to get their parents to notice them. They either did everything to perfection or did everything “bad” that they could to draw attention to themselves.
My mom didn’t fall into either category. She was very involved in our lives. But she worked very hard not to try to control us, and didn’t set up unrealistic expectations of us. She also didn’t try to control our friends, and didn’t expect too much of them either. As a result, my mom was, and still is, known as the “cool” mom
She allowed us the Space and at the same time the security to experiment with new things. Some of these experiments were good, and she gave her approval. Some of these experiments weren’t so good, and she expressed her displeasure. But she was never disapproving, and that gave us the courage to continue to explore new things. Structure grew as we grew. She held the Space and made the decisions that she felt best. She counseled us in our grief and shared in our joy. By all means, it wasn’t perfect, but it was better than most situations.
While I was growing, my friends too were growing, or trying to at least. They, too, were doing their best to become adults. They, too, were trying new things, and trying to decide what it was that they wanted to do with their lives. However, it was a vastly different situation for them. Most of my friends had the kind of parents that didn’t really care. Most of my friends were making the kinds of decisions that lead to bad behavior in order to get attention. And it worked. More often than not, the interaction they had with their parents was a lot of yelling. And even when they made good decisions, their parents never gave them any credit.
It was the first time in my life that I was in a place of being able to observe how other people interacted with their parents. I was shocked to realize that everyone didn’t have the same kind of relationship with their parents that I did. It was really very upsetting to realize that not everyone was encouraged to follow their hearts and to make the right decisions. I was very grateful that I had the opportunities and support that I did.
Eventually, we all got through those years. Many of the people that I was friends with are still struggling to find their independence and their identity now that they are into their twenties and living on their own. I realize that we all struggle to know who we really are for our entire lives, but for the lucky few, like me, as young adults we have a good basis of where to start. It was a great shock to me to realize that not everyone has that base.
Following What Has Heart and Meaning
In my last year of high school, my mom faced what I think was one of her greatest challenges in holding the Space for me. I had already decided that I was going to go to college and not university. I had already decided that I wanted to get into the media, but I wasn’t sure where. Radio? Newspaper? Magazine? The Internet? An ad agency? Or Television?
My parents had committed to paying for my college education, but there wasn’t enough money for room and board. So, I thought that my choices were limited to those schools that were within driving distance of home (Hamilton, Ontario). And then, my dad decided to move to Calgary, Alberta. It never occurred to me that I could move that far away to go to school until my mom suggested it. What a courageous and unselfish thing for her to do. And it was the decision I made. She was able to hold the Space for me to decide to move to the other side of the country, leaving everything I had ever known behind, to follow my heart.
I moved in July 1997, at the age of 18. I was living with my dad, but I had to learn a whole new way of being. To an extent my mom continued, and continues, to hold the Space for me. But, without really understanding it, I had to learn to hold the space for myself. To be truly independent. My journey has been incredible, like a roller coaster ride, up and down, with many many loop-de-loops, first going slowly, then suddenly quite quickly and then slowing down again. Through the encouragement and safety I received, I am following my heart. Every day I go to work in an incredible community, knowing that I am still learning and doing exactly what it is I should be doing.
The principles of Genuine Contact have taught me so much. If a situation arises that I want to be a part of, I don’t walk away from it. I find a way to make it work. I don’t waste my time wondering about the “could haves” or the “what if I had’s”. If something isn’t serving me, I’m not afraid to walk away from it, confident that there is something else that I should be doing.
And at the same time, Genuine Contact has brought Spirit and an incredible serenity to my life. I know that whatever happens is the only thing that could have. But I also know that I was the one who allowed those things to happen. I created those situations. Therefore, I am responsible for whatever happened. I am making the choices that allow me to learn the lessons that I need to learn, and to do the work that I am meant to do.
I’m not sure how much of my upbringing was as a result of good parenting and how much of it was a result of living in Genuine Contact. I’m not even sure that the two are different things. I think that they compliment each other quite well. I think that they are really entwined together in a way that is inseparable. Being the facilitator in a group is much like being a parent. You have to find your way somehow. You want to help, but not control. Genuine Contact gives you the tools to do it.
The journey has been hard. Making the decisions that are true to you aren’t always the easy ones. In fact, it has been my experience that they are often the harder choices. But they are the rewarding choices in the end. I know that I am doing what is right for me, and that is the most important thing. This is not to say that all of my choices in life have been perfect, in fact I’ve made some pretty stupid choices. But I’ve also had the courage to recognize that those choices were wrong and to do something about it.
For as long as I can remember, I have been encouraged to follow my heart and dream. I have spent the last few years following that path, uncertain of where it may lead. The encouragement to do only what I have passion for has lead me on a very scary journey, moving away from my family and all that I knew to live on the other side of the country. Spending time in other countries and unfamiliar places in order to learn and grow. Taking the plunge into a business that still has the attitude of being “men’s work” in order to make a difference. None of this could have happened if I hadn’t had the support and encouragement that my family, and in turn Genuine Contact provides.
This support is beyond the love and support that a mother can provide. It has been in seeing what wonderful things can happen when you trust in the principle of whatever happens is the only thing that could that has given me the courage to follow my heart. Being given the space to make my own decisions about what has heart and meaning for me, and being given the support of knowing that someone thinks that I and my wisdom are precious has allowed me to access creative parts of myself, and to find what it is that I love to do.
Genuine Contact allows the participants the chance to have a vision of their future, the future as it could be if we follow the path that we are on, and the future that could be if we follow the path we want to take. Being given this chance of seeing how the future could be is a great blessing and a hardship at the same time. The choices that are made to follow the right path are not always easy, and telling yourself that there is joy at the end of the journey does not always help.
Even though I don’t live with my mother anymore, and haven’t for some time now, Genuine Contact still affects my life on a daily basis. It is not just a technique for meetings, it is a way of life, and I am living it.
I know that it isn’t the easiest way to live. Facing your truth and living it is hard. I’ve lost friends because of it, I’ve moved halfway across the country to follow my dream, leaving everything I knew behind because of it. It has probably been the source of a lot of my pain. But no matter how bad things seem sometimes, I’ve learned to trust that it is all happening because it is what needs to happen. I’ve learned that with the pain there is also much joy. I’ve learned that being your authentic self is the only way to live, even if it can be the hard way. It is the best way. Not only can you look yourself in the mirror every morning, you can enjoy what you see. Being raised in Genuine Contact is well worth it!
Thank you Mom.