An issue that I often come across on peaceful parenting forums and threads goes something like this:
“I am a gentle parent. I don’t punish or bribe, I try my best to keep calm, and I have a strong connection with my child. When they act in a way that is unacceptable, I am loving but firm – we have healthy boundaries and my child is unconditionally loved. But despite all this, they still hit / push / throw food / bite / draw on the walls / tantrum / don’t listen. Help! Gentle parenting isn’t working for my child. My friends and family all tell me I’ve made a rod for my own back, and I need to start punishing / using a reward chart as it’s the only way they will learn how to behave.”
Does this sound familiar? If you feel like this, I can really empathise – I have had those feelings in the past too, and they may well find me again one day. It is hard feeling like you’re somehow failing your child, that you’ve missed something, that you’re doing something wrong, or that your child is the only one who doesn’t respond to gentle parenting. It is hard when our children behave in a way that is difficult, embarrassing, or triggering for us as parents – and even harder to think it might be our fault.
But can I tell you something? As a parent, your child’s behaviour is not something you can or should control. In fact most of the time your child’s “problematic” behaviour isn’t an issue at all. Hear me out.
People often talk about children’s behaviour as if it exists in isolation. This is so prevalent in mainstream parenting these days that it is rarely thought about or questioned. Behaviour and habits are seen as things that you can train children out of or into, through punishments or praise.
Once again, as I do often do, I turn to Alfie Kohn:
“When we constantly talk about a child’s behaviour, we’re acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It’s not a question of who kids are, what they think, or feel, or need. Forget motives or values: the idea is just to change what they do.”
“A ‘good’ child is one who isn’t too much trouble to grown-ups. Over the last couple of generations, the strategies for trying to produce that result may have changed. Where kids were once routinely subjected to harsh corporal punishments, they may now be sentenced to time-outs or offered rewards when they obey us. But don’t mistake new means for new ends. The goal continues to be control, even if we achieve it with more modern methods. This isn’t because we don’t care about our kids. It has more to do with being overwhelmed by the countless prosaic pressures of family life, where the need to get children into and out of the bed, bathtub or car makes it hard to step back and evaluate what we’re doing.”
And to Alison Gopnik:
“Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.”
When we understand that children’s behaviour is a form of communication, then suddenly we stop trying to fix it and start trying to understand our children’s needs.
When we understand that children are inherently good, we stop trying to control them and start looking for ways to connect instead.
When we understand that much “problematic” behaviour is actually developmentally appropriate, we stop worrying and feel compassion rather than annoyance, anger, embarrassment, or fear.
It is normal for young children to push against boundaries, to feel frustrated and to express that frustration in hitting or shoving, for their overwhelm to present as tantrums, for their lack of self-control to manifest as impatience or grabbing or running off when we’ve asked them to stay close. What they need from us is not for us to punish or bribe them to try and change their behaviour. They need us to hold their space (and hold to our boundaries), to advocate for them in front of the wider world who might not understand that their behaviour is developmentally normal, and to provide a constant backdrop of unconditional love and acceptance as we help them figure things out.
So if gentle parenting “isn’t working”, what can you do?
- Make an effort to understand what expectations are reasonable for your child’s age and stage of development – read books, search blog posts, seek out research, work with a parenting coach, and post in peaceful parenting groups for support and advice. Understanding what is going on developmentally for your child can lift a huge weight from your mind and help you to relax in the knowledge that they are not “misbehaving”, they are just doing what children their age do.
- Following this, take a fresh look at your child’s behaviour and what it could be communicating; for example, regular tantrums could be a sign of overwhelm. Are there any unmet needs you can identify? Does your connection need topping up? Is your environment a yes space which supports your child’s independence?
- Check in with your boundaries – are they appropriate still? When children are young, some boundaries need frequent reevaluation to ensure they are still suitable. Are you holding these boundaries confidently, firmly, and lovingly – or does your child feel the need to test them, or test your loving response?
- Model the behaviour you would like to see in your children. If you want a tidy child, tidy joyfully in front of them. If you’d like a polite child, be polite to them. If you want a child who doesn’t shout or boss other children, don’t shout or boss your child about. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I would like to encourage you, above all, to remember that parenting is not a short-term game, which needs to resort to short-term fixes. I have no doubt that in the short-term it is entirely possible to bribe a child into acting a certain way, or to threaten them through punishments into dropping a behaviour you find annoying. But what does this do in the long term?
Peaceful parenting is not just what our children need in the present, but it is a gift which will last for their whole lives. By reinforcing from a young age that we are on their side and that we love them unconditionally no matter what they do, and that we will help them work though their problems, we open the door for open communication and support for years to come.
Peaceful parents still have children who hit sometimes. Who kick, snatch, scream, bite, throw, spill, run away, and push. This doesn’t make them bad parents; it makes the children… well, children! What sets peaceful parents apart is not their children. It’s them.
The Peaceful Home membership group
Being a peaceful parent is not just about reading the right books and getting advice to deal with specific issues (although these things certainly help!); it’s about fundamentally changing our mindset as parents, challenging the way we were raised and the traditional models of parentings which surround us and working on ourselves to be able to show up in the way our children deserve.
This is important work but it can be hard at times, and it is even harder without support. That is why I have created The Peaceful Home, a membership group where you will be supported by me and other like-minded parents every step of the way of your peaceful parenting journey.
If you are struggling with peaceful parenting and would like to get some non-judgemental, personalised support I offer one to one mentoring calls (currently on sale until Friday 17 August!). During our call I offer insight into developmentally-appropriate behaviour and expectations, and provide focused suggestions to help you calmly navigate any issues you are experiencing. I will leave you with practical ideas and actions to implement so that you can find more ease in your parenting, in a way that suits you and your values. If you’re unsure whether this would be right for you, feel free to get in touch for a no-pressure chat.
This article is part of a mini-series called “The Peaceful Home” where I will be sharing tips help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent, and reduce the conflict in your home. We’ve already had posts about stepping away from using “no” so much, creating “Yes Spaces” in your home, reducing stress around food and mealtimes , coping with tantrums, why we don’t use punishments, the power of play and keeping calm. Next time I’ll be sharing peaceful parenting advice to address three common situations, 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!