You’ve just given birth. You feel like your body has been turned inside-out, but the joy you feel when those tiny eyes open and squint up at you is palpable. It’s like falling in love, multiplied by a thousand. In this moment, it seems a given that your love is unconditional.
Then, that baby turns two and you need to brush his teeth and he doesn’t want you to…and the power struggle begins. One human being’s will against another.
So many of us wish to reject the old authoritarian paradigm, to move away from control and manipulation, to move towards kindness and respect with our children. But what does that actually look like?
Because teeth still need to be brushed.
Sometimes we parents move away from carrot-and-stick parenting, but towards…nothing. We say “do this please”, Child says “No”, We say “Now what??” We wish so deeply to respect our children as autonomous individuals, to support them in self-determining, that it’s easy to forget that we’re still the parent. That our children still need a leader. Still need guidance. Still need correction.
Without these things the balance is thrown off. A child is like a leaderless puppy. When a human being’s will never comes up against the natural limits of what is right, what is respectful, what is polite, what is thoughtful, what is desired or needed by others, then empathy fails to develop.
Likewise, if the will is always controlled by punishments and manipulated by rewards, the human being naturally rebels. Or withdraws. We are not asking them to consider how their behavior affects others, we are only teaching them to consider the affect on themselves: will I be punished for this? Rewarded for this? And again, empathy fails to develop.
So what is empathy, and why does it matter so much?
We are social animals. Empathy is the ability to take in another’s experience. To maintain awareness of how our actions and words affect other people. To maintain awareness of their needs and feelings, separate from ours. Without empathy, our relationships will never be mutually satisfying, and a human who cannot maintain healthy connections with other humans and the world around them will fail to thrive. Other people are the mirrors through which we see ourselves. We act, and then see how those actions affect those around us, and learn to adjust.
Beyond the basic needs like food and shelter, social animals need connection and interaction. Our job as parents is to connect and interact with our children in ways that support the development of empathy. To model social skills. To interact with them in the way we want them to interact with the world.
But what does this interaction look like? When so many of us were parented in less-than-healthy ways, in a generation where hitting a child was still the prevalent form of discipline, how do we turn off the auto-pilot and form new neural pathways so that we don’t pass on the same unhealthy patterns to our children? The voices of society are loud, and most accepted ways of interacting with children are still based in the old paradigm. The messages we are surrounded with are strong. It’s a difficult thing to tune them out. What helps is to turn up the voice of our hearts so loud that it becomes all we hear.
In this way, we can become new pattern-makers.
Several years ago, when I was feeling lost in my parenting as to how to interact with my children in healthy ways, I made a list for myself to guide my own behavior when managing my children. Are you a list-maker? I’m a list-maker. It helps to organize my brain. This is a list I have come back to again and again and again over the years as my children grow, rewiring myself by repetition until what once felt forced became habitual.
My own list starts with the culturally-accepted behaviors which I find to be harmful, and do not wish to perpetuate in my own parenting. I used to refer to this part often, because boy do old habits die hard!
You DO NOT have the right to:
Attempt to manipulate another’s behavior… with threats of punishment, or promises of reward. When we do this, it destroys intrinsic motivation and instead makes external fear/reward the motivating factor for behavior.
Use violence when they refuse to comply… because I do not want to teach my children to use violence when someone hinders their will. This includes yelling, shaming, witholding help or affection, and other forms of emotional harm.
Take away their belongings when they refuse to comply… Oi! This is a big one. It’s commonly accepted to remove “privileges” or take away access to technology, or otherwise use deprivation to control behavior. But would it work with you? I think if my husband tried to take away my car keys because I didn’t do the laundry, I’d probably just get pissed off. I think for kids it has the same affect. It’s just more control and manipulation.
I also don’t want to teach my kids to take other people’s belongings if they offend them, or in an effort to make them upset as payment for wrong-doing.
Now, to clarify: if my two year old whacks my five year old repeatedly with a plastic sword after being asked not to, of course the sword is gone. Obviously he’s showing he’s not able to control himself with that object right then. This is different than “you didn’t be quiet when I asked you to at the chiropractors, so now I’m going to not let you play the iPad this evening.”
Make unpleasant things happen to them when they refuse to comply… this is what we parents often turn to instead of spanking or other more punitive measures. Child doesn’t clean up when asked, or fails to conduct themselves in public like a human instead of a wild monkey, or otherwise frustrates us, and so we assign a task, or ground them, or, again, take away their belongings or privileges. And again, these are just more ways of attempting to manipulate another’s behavior by external means.
Shame them or be disrespectful when you are displeased… because we do not want to teach them to shame or disrespect others when they are displeased. Living with other humans, small or large ones, and bumping up against one another’s desires/wills/needs/wishes, is going to cause displeasure at times. If we give ourselves license to disrespect each other when that occurs, it not only destroys closeness and connection, but creates a general atmosphere of anxiety. No one can relax if they know they will be berated every time they display an emotion or perform an action which others find irritating or unacceptable.
Most importantly, if we wish our children to respect us, and to treat others with respect, than we must first treat them with respect.
So, goodness, I know what I’m NOT supposed to do, but what tools does that leave me? Shall I just let the children walk all over me then? Do nothing when they behave innapropriately? Definitely not. Children need a calm, firm, generous leader. The second part of my list I read when I need to remind myself how to be that leader.
As a parent I DO have the right to:
Lead by example...
If there is one thing I have learned it is that my children learn by what I do, not what I say. It’s my own behavior they follow, not the list of “house rules” dutifully pinned on the bulletin board. If I speak in a tone of constant irritation, soon enough I start hearing this tone echoed all over my house.
As parents, it is easy to think it is our duty to control our children’s behavior. When really, all we can control is our own. We must model for them the tone and behavior we hope they will emulate. When I start to hear and see unkindness or impatience or quick-temperedness in my children, I have learned to turn my eyes inward and examine myself. They are my mirrors.
When we start to see things this way, parenting can provide the opportunity for endless personal growth.
I’ve found it to be helpful, when faced with a defiant or melting-down child, to change my thinking. Instead of asking “how do I change this behavior?” I think “thankyou for this opportunity to practice patience.” This instantly swaps out the lenses through which I’m viewing the situation.
Keep my child and others safe...
Violence. It’s one of the most difficult things to know how to react to when one is trying to parent non-punitively. But let’s face it: the old paradigm of hitting a child for hitting is about as non-sensical as it gets. As is any kind of violent reaction on our part.
So what do we do instead?
When my children fight (and they do…but only every hour on the hour!), first I remind them simply “we don’t hit/pull hair/pinch/stick one’s fingers up your sisters nose”. But usually, if a child has gone as far as to lose their temper, then words are like using a spray bottle on a bonfire. One has to intervene. So I calmly remove the offending child to someplace where they can’t cause harm. I might tell them “sorry, I won’t let you hurt your sister. Take a minute to calm down.”
This is my line in the sand. Violence is not allowed. It’s good to try and communicate this firmly, with as few words as possible, but then let it go. Shaming, berating, and preaching at the offender only causes them to internalize their embarrassement. Instead, focus on comforting the child who was hurt.
When the offender returns, assume they are there to be sweet and make amends. Allow them to do so.
Get my own needs met…
We cannot pour from an empty cup. We hear it all the time, but so often we still try and attempt it! If we are running on empty, it is important to find ways to meet our own needs. This is our responsibility to ourselves, and to our children. Part of modeling is showing them how to prioritize self-care. What self-care means to you will probably look entirely different than for me or someone else. It is doing whatever makes you tick, whatever brings you joy, whatever makes you feel grounded and creative.
When I care for myself, I naturally have more patience for my children. When I don’t, I feel irritated with everyone. Prioritizing our own needs as well as theirs can do wonders for our parenting.
Let’s face it parents, sometimes, because we are so used to meeting the needs of others, we unwittingly start to martyr ourselves. In an effort to be giving, we end up sacrificing our own authenticity. One cannot live harmoniously in relationship with any other human being if one does not feel able to say no. “No” is how we draw boundaries. Modeling healthy boundaries for our kids is very important.
When one is trying to parent gently, it’s easy to become uncomfortable with saying no. Why? Well, because often “no” is not a welcomed word. We try to so hard to make our children happy, that sometimes we forget that it is ok for them to experience unpleasant emotions. We naturally do, as humans, if our will is thwarted. Them having unpleasant emotions, even if they only have the capacity to express them in a flailing puddle on the floor, should not rouse our frustration. If anything, it should rouse our empathy.
But we still have to say no, even if we know it will cause a puddle. We are still the leader.
Let me toss in here the caveat that there are also a million moments in every day in which we can probably say “yes” instead. You want to wear your cinderella dress to the grocery store? Why not. You want to take off your clothes outside and smear you and your brothers from head to toe with mud? Sounds fun (and yes, my children do this. Don’t laugh, it’s called “mud monsters”, and we have a hose!). You want to eat three bananas in a row even though I’ve planned a gourmet dinner in a hour? Maybe you need the potassium.
But for all of those moments when we, for whatever reason, have to correct our children, or turn down a request, or insist they perform a task, or tell them to stop something they are doing, we should do so confidently and kindly, providing empathy for whatever emotions fly back at us.
Discipline (‘to teach’)…
And this leads us to the idea of discipline. Often we confuse the word discipline with punishment, when really they are very different concepts. Punishing someone means to make something unpleasant happen to them in payment for a wrongdoing. While discipline literally means ‘to teach and instruct’.
This pretty much sums up our job as parents. We are here to be their gentle guide, their teachers, instructing them (mostly by example!) in what is good, and right, and fair, and kind.