I usually encourage parents to listen to their instincts when it comes to their children. When working with pregnant women, I suggest that the most important thing they can do is to listen to their bodies and trust their gut feelings (these are rarely wrong – hence why most midwives will tell women that they should come in if they feel something is not right, even if there are no physical signs). Once our children are born, we often know without having to put it into words what it is they need from us. Being able to tune out societal pressures and expectations of what we “should” be doing whilst tuning into these intuitive feelings of what our children truly need is a powerful skill.
But as much as I feel intuition is a wonderful tool at our disposal, when it comes to discipline and saying no to our children, I strongly believe that sometimes we need to ignore our intuition or initial reaction and react with our brains – not with our guts.
Of course there are times when we have to act fast and say no, physically or verbally. In situations where our children could come to serious harm, or where they could harm another person or thing, we need to act swiftly, decisively, and with love (more on this later). But often we find ourselves instinctively stopping our children from doing something, stepping in to interfere in a situation, or taking something away from them, when actually if we took a step back and asked ourselves what the problem is? There wouldn’t be one.
Many of us were parented in a different style to the one in which we hope to raise our children. This is not a sweeping criticism of our parent’s generation – often they did their best with the information at their disposal, and many of them were parented harshly themselves. But it’s not uncommon to find that our instinctive position when it comes to discipline is to fall back on the way in which we were parented ourselves. And it’s not just the way we were parented. Society as a whole is not very gentle to children – and that is putting it mildly! – so those of us who try to parent our children peacefully, aiming to break away from a relationship based on control towards one centred around respect, are often doing so amidst a culture which does not support this radical way of thinking.
Sometimes our children’s behaviour can be triggering for us and we respond negatively without thinking. The next time you find yourself instinctively saying no to something your child is doing, I would encourage you to ask yourself these questions:
- Is this really something they can’t do or touch? Say your young child picks up a sharp knife. What do you do? Many of us would panic and quickly snatch it back. But what if you took the time to show your child how to use it safely, either demonstrating it or helping them to learn? Suddenly a potential conflict becomes an opportunity for connection and learning.
- How truly dangerous is this? Does it matter if they hurt themselves? Obviously it matters to some extent – and all parents (and children!) will have different limits when it comes to risk. But allowing our children to learn to manage their own risk and showing them that we trust them to learn for themselves and make good choices is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Arguably the harm of a broken arm is less than the harm of a childhood where you’re always being told “no, it’s not safe”. Playing near train tracks or busy roads? No, never OK. Climbing a high ladder in a playground without me hovering, despite wanting to shout “careful”? My problem, not hers.
- Why am I saying no? I try and keep to a simple rule when it comes to saying no – harm no one and no thing – which makes it easier for me to quickly decide whether something is OK or not. If this behaviour isn’t harming anyone, or causing damage to anything, why is it not OK? Examples might include jumping on sofas or climbing on furniture, wearing pyjamas as outdoor clothes or not wanting to wear a coat, or choosing “inappropriate” foods to eat (I will talk about food in the next post in this series). Where can we let go of a need for control and hand over autonomy to our children?
- What is this triggering in me? Certain behaviours can make us feel deeply uncomfortable due to the way we were raised and societal pressures. Perhaps your child is making a mess, or is “wasting” ingredients or art materials by using them in a way different to that which is intended. Maybe they are making you feel SO frustrated because they want to play or dawdle when you need to get home. Our children’s behaviour can make us feel negative feelings at times, and that’s fine. What matters is taking time to be aware of our feelings and exploring them.
- Whose judgement am I afraid of? When we are with our children outside of the home, we can often feel pressure from others (real or perceived!) regarding how we are raising our children and the need for them to be polite and well-behaved. When we’re around others it’s always good to check in with why we’re saying no – is it because we are afraid of what others might think if they see our child wearing wellies on a boiling summer’s day? This article on snatching and sharing is worth a read when it comes to navigating social tensions that arise when parenting around other families.
Avoiding saying “no” is much easier in the home if you have already created an environment which is suitable for your child, often called “yes spaces”, where you feel confident that your child’s safety has been considered. When Frida does something which feels frustrating, I try and remind myself that my job as a parent is not to control her behaviour, or even to control my emotional response to her behaviour, but rather it is to control how I choose to act.
If you have considered the above questions and you still have to say “no” to your child (for example, you accidentally left a razor at child height, or your child is drawing on the walls, or they are about to hit another child) then I suggest that you:
- Offer alternatives rather than distractions. If your young child is about to draw on the wall (or the damage is already done!) then taking the pen away doesn’t show them where they can draw; it doesn’t teach them anything. Telling your child “We only draw on paper” and then getting some paper for them to draw on teaches them where they can draw, and respects their need to do so. If your child has an urge to hit or bite, you could consider offering them a pillow or cushion so that they can express their physical emotions, or suggest “drawing it out” where they can draw their emotions instead.
- Explain why. I believe this is quite simply respectful. If I wanted to do something and was told know, I would want to know why. It doesn’t have to be a long explanation – in the case of a stray razor, something like “Oops, I shouldn’t have left that there, I’m so sorry. I can see you wanted to touch it but it’s very sharp and it could hurt you. We can look at it together in my hands and then I am going to put it back where it belongs.”
- Be consistent… If one parent says it’s OK to do something and the other says it’s not, this can be confusing. Try and reach a joint decision with your partner about anything you disagree on, and consider speaking to your childcare provider or child’s school if there is something you disagree with.
- …but know that it’s OK to change your mind or admit you made a mistake. Sometimes we act instinctively and say no, and then when we reflect on it we realise that it wasn’t the right decision. It’s OK to admit we were wrong! In fact, I think it’s not only OK, but it’s a positive thing to model admitting we were wrong about something and that we have the courage to change our minds. It’s absolutely fine to say to your children “You know, I was wrong when I said that you couldn’t jump on the sofa. It’s still not OK to do it at granny’s house, but when we’re at home you can jump on it all you like.”
- Accept conflict as normal rather than a failing. Sometimes you will have to say no, and your child will be upset. That is OK. We can’t avoid all conflict, nor would we want to – children need to learn how to handle disappointment and conflict in a safe space where they feel supported and unconditionally loved. We can’t take all the conflict away, but we can respond with love, kindness, and patience when our children are upset by our decisions.
This article is part of a mini-series called “The Peaceful Home” where I will be sharing tips each week to help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent, and reduce the conflict in your home. The last post was about creating “Yes Spaces” in your home, and next time I’ll be talking about reducing stress and increasing enjoyment around food and meals with children, so check back soon.
If you want support from other like-minded parents, why not join A Beautiful Childhood? It’s a free Facebook community – a space for us to discuss raising our children and forging for them a childhood that is gentle, slow, and beautiful. Come and join us!