Something I hear a lot from y’all is that you don’t really feel qualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Why? Because sometimes you snap and yell or threaten or punish. You think that faltering in your efforts means you aren’t worthy of the moniker, and you think you’re ruining your children. Have I got that right?
If that’s what you think, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. By those parameters, I’m not a peaceful parent either. I mean, have y’all met my temper?! I can go from whispering affirmations to hollering in ten seconds flat. It’s a stress-relief pathway I’m working to deconstruct because it is helping no one. Here’s what you’ve got to understand. There’s peaceful parenting, the concept… the state we are all seeking to achieve. Then there are peaceful PARENTS… human beings who are striving to break cycles and heal wounds. And, well, human beings are a muddle of past traumas, subconscious reactions, and patchy worldviews. We are also thinking, compassionate, connected creatures. We can be all of these things at the same time and still be worthy and wonderful. The trick is to exist in a constant state of examination. Why did I react that way? How could I have done things better? What must happen to restore this relationship?
Of course, it’s not ok to hurt people. I’m not excusing the harm we inflict on the people closest to us, but I do want y’all to consider a different perspective. To see yourself in a different light. If there’s one guarantee in parenting, it’s that we’re going to mess up. Our kids are going to have plenty of stories to tell about what we did wrong. And, if we continue on this peaceful parenting walk, our kids will also be self-assured, secure, and brave. They will see the way we respond to our own flawed behavior and it will inform their future choices.
Parenthood ebbs and flows. One moment, our hearts expand until we feel we can’t bear it. We shower our children with affection and easily navigate the challenges. Then something changes. We feel more distant. They start to annoy us. And, we feel we might explode from the frustration. And, somewhere in between, there are moments when we coast along with our kids in a neutral coexistence. That’s normal for intimate relationships.
Dana Kerford, Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG, seeks to enhance the social-emotional wellbeing of children through friendship skills, but what she’s landed on is a concept that is applicable to all human relationships that involve any sort of intimacy. Her Friend-O-Cycle illustrates the way we draw close and drift apart over the course of a friendship. We can be going along just fine and suddenly a metaphorical fire erupts. Maybe it’s a comment we received negatively. Maybe it’s a perceived snub we didn’t understand. Whatever has happened, the fire itself shouldn’t really even be our focus. Rather, we should be preparing to put the fire out in a healthy way. Kerford recommends confronting the issue directly, talking it out, and then moving on.
Of course, when it comes to parent-child relationships, the process is more complicated than it would be between two young friends. And, so, we keep trying. We search past our egos and find anchor points upon which to reconnect with our children. We bond and we love, all the while recognizing that we’re going to do the same thing over and over and over, because this is what it means to be human. At no point along this journey are you unqualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Keep going.
I am the only white member of my household as my husband and children are all Black. As a result, I live a life that is different from families that are entirely white. My whiteness grants me access and privilege that does not extend to the rest of my family, so I’m outside looking in at their experience while simultaneously living with worries about their lives and welfare. My husband has a long commute for work and I am often afraid of what could happen if he got pulled over or if his car broke down in a predominantly white area. It’s a complicated place to be and one that I didn’t fully understand when I got married.
To help those of you who might not realize just how complex it is for white people and people of color to be in relationship with each other or for white people to parent children of color, I’ve condensed some of the lessons I’ve learned as a mom since my little family got its start all those years ago. If any of this is upsetting, I get it. When we choose to partner with people of color, we’re choosing a road that can lead to a lot of painful self-realization and recognition of challenges we cannot resolve. Our job is to keep investigating our perspectives and motivations, never letting up, for the benefit of our partners and children.
Principle 1. We Must Know Our Place and Understand Our Impact
Start by figuring out where you fall among the 8 White Identities and then do the work yourself to progress along your path. A lot of white parents get stuck in white guilt and heap exhausting performative monologues upon people of color. Don’t do this. We are absolutely steeped in White Supremacy Culture and it gets reinforced for us daily. Read about it. Learn about it. Actively reject it.
As Yolanda Williams of Parenting Decolonized explains, “To divest from white supremacy means you’ll have to give something up, something that you benefit from as a white or non-Black POC. Think hard about it. The fact that it’s a struggle for many to figure out how to divest is a testament to how privileged you are and how intertwined white supremacy is to that privilege.”
It is imperative that we seek out decolonizing and anti-racist resources while understanding that we are colonizers who benefit from the impacts of colonization. We will not be able to decolonize our minds entirely, but we can certainly minimize the harm we do.
Principle 2. We Must Decenter Ourselves and Listen to People of Color
It can be difficult to maintain perspective when we’re close to a situation. When we begin to identify with our partners and children, who are experiencing the trauma of oppression, that feeling is empathy and it’s a good thing. However, we can lose ourselves in it and slip into taking the position of an oppressed person. When we do that, we are centering, which means we are no longer bearing with our loved ones. Rather, we are prioritizing our own feelings and, in doing so, we can lose sight of what we should be doing.
Are you familiar with Ring Theory? It’s an approach to compassionately support grieving people while getting our own needs met. The goal is to avoid unloading our emotions onto the people closest to the grief or trauma. Instead, we should turn to people who are even further from the situation than we are. A typical ring might look like this:
The person in the center is the focus of our empathy and we must find ourselves somewhere in the concentric circles. Once we know where we are in relation to our loved ones, we need to be careful not to vent inward. I think about Ring Theory often as a white wife to a Black man, because it’s far too easy for me to forget that he is the person experiencing first-hand oppression. Not me. So, what Ring Theory does for me is that it conditions me to be cognizant about how I talk to my Black friends and family about the struggles I’m facing as a white person. And, I try to avoid centering my feelings and fears in conversations about race whether in person or online.
And, when I do need extra support, I have cultivated a circle of friends that includes white people who understand all of this and are willing to validate my feelings or tell me the truth, whichever the situation calls for.
Principle 3. We Know What It’s Like to Be White and Only White
White parents cannot raise children into their non-white cultures. I cannot raise my children to be Black. I am not Black. Therefore, I have to make every possible effort to steep them in their own culture.
For my part, I defer to my children’s Black relatives on matters of race. For instance, my children have a Black father and a white mother and I say they are Black. Why? Because I defer to their father and I understand that the terminology we use every day is crucial as he raises them into their Black identity. I also recognize that my children will not be viewed as white by white people and I am unwilling to send them out into this world unaware of what that means for them. However, I do not argue with Black people who tell me my children are biracial or Black biracial. The parameters of Blackness are not my white business. Group dynamics like these are matters that are internal to non-white cultural groups and they need no white perspectives.
On that note, we have to stop butting in everywhere and getting too comfortable in spaces where people of color are trying to coexist. Remember that neither our presence nor our opinion is needed where people of color are fellowshipping. While our contributions may possibly be of some value, our absence is always of value. That means observing hard and fast rules like no using the n-word (er/a) period, no memes of Black people (aka digital blackface), no speaking up in conversations where people of color are talking about their own business that has nothing to do with you, no walking into discussions that have explicitly been opened to people of color, and no using euphemisms for the word white (e.g. YT, whyte, etc.). If that last one threw you off, here’s an explanation. These words are used online, especially on social media platforms, by people of color because their posts about white people tend to get flagged as hate speech. Their accounts get suspended, which silences them. Predictably, white people don’t experience the same silencing for our blatantly racist posts. And, while we’re on the topic, we should also consider not using words like “Becky” and “Karen” that place distance between us and problematic white people because we are also problematic white people!
And, another thing. If one person of color tells you something you’re doing is ok and 99 others tell you it’s not, take care who you listen to. No group of people is a monolith. Our responsibility is to understand our impact as white people.
The more you learn, the more you will recognize when your choices are separating your child from their culture, which happens often when WE are uncomfortable. We cannot truly identify with our children’s lived experiences, so our children need people around who can. Do not allow your child’s heritage be defined or described in terms of their relationship to whiteness. They have their own needs and it is incumbent upon us as their parents to learn about what they need. From psychosocial necessities to basic hygiene, do not assume their needs are the same as yours. Take it upon yourself to seek out spaces that are managed by people who look like your child and are willing to open up education to white parents. Find folks who will unabashedly challenge your whiteness for the benefit of your kids. Try Unlearning Racism on Facebook as a general starting point. If you are a white parent of Black kids like me, Culturally Fluent Families might be for you.
Principle 4. We Cannot Raise Our Children Into Their Full Cultural Heritage and Birthright
Teach your child about their heritage to the best of your limited ability and give them proximity to it. For some parents, that may even mean moving out of predominantly white areas. Every single choice you make regarding your child is an opportunity to give them exposure to their culture. For instance, if your Primary Care Physician is white, you could find a PCP that shares the same cultural heritage as your child. When you’re deciding on extracurriculars, seek out ways to incorporate aspects of your child’s non-white culture. Embed your children in their cultural institutions such as churches, schools, and organizations that were founded by and for members of your child’s cultural heritage. At the very least, seek access to spaces where your children see their own faces reflected back at them.
And, make sure your children know who their ancestors were BEFORE they were colonized. White supremacy likes to do things like starting Black history off with enslavement as though that is the beginning of the story. We have to counteract that evil. So, think long and hard about everything you willingly expose your child to. Little things as simple as reading Dr. Seuss books can come with lifelong consequences. Every choice matters.
Principle 5. Our Whiteness Is Harmful to Our Children and Their Communities of Heritage
If your kids are your biological children, understand that not every person of color is going to celebrate the infusion of your whiteness in your non-white child. If your kids are not your biological children, especially if they are adopted and do not have a white biological parent, understand that there is a lot of discomfort around white people raising children of color and that you might hear difficult things like claims that you stole a child from a different culture or that you are not qualified to raise your child. Instead of defending yourself, understand that these concerns exist for good reason. Take the initiative to learn why your whiteness is not necessarily appreciated, particularly considering the history of whiteness in the United States.
As you do, pay very close attention to how you use your words to talk about your child’s non-white culture. What we say to our children makes an enormous impact and we may be doing harm unintentionally as our perspective is filtered through our whiteness. No matter who you choose to listen to and what you choose to believe, be very careful how you talk about things like movements by and for people of color such as Water Protectors and Black Lives Matter. Consider that, if you take a negative stance around these movements, it is because you either do not understand their purpose (which is correctable ignorance) or because you understand their purpose and you don’t care (which is racist). You don’t have to throw your full support behind complex things that make you uneasy, but you do need to investigate that uneasiness and, at the very least, avoid disparaging the work that people of color are doing for their own well-being.
Bottom line, people of color do not owe us their labor, their explanations, or their friendship. Realize that we are distrusted and disliked by virtue of our oppressive culture and the ease with which we slip into our privilege to their detriment. We should be doing anti-racist, decolonizing work, no matter how people of color regard us. Let go of the ego.
As I learn more about the impact of my whiteness, I have moments when I wonder if it would have been better for me not to have ever encroached on Blackness to begin with. I’m sure there are Black people reading this who would absolutely agree with me and I understand why. I mention this to communicate the weight of what it really means for a white person to choose to parent interculturally. It is not something that can be resolved. Certainly not by using our whiteness as a blanket to snuff out criticism from people of color. It is a choice we will live with as long as we draw breath and it deserves our utmost consideration and respect.
We are responsible for the harm we cause and, frankly, the best thing we can do is shut up and learn every single day. If you are willing to be wrong and to be embarrassed, you’ll make progress. And, if you accept that you will never be everything for your children, you might just be able to give them what they need. Let yourself be left out and let your whiteness be pushed to the side. If you are willing to sacrifice for your children, sacrifice your whiteness first.
For very important anti-childist, anti-authoritarian reasons, many peaceful parents promote friendship between parents and children. Yet, I struggle with the concept of being in a friend relationship with my children for similar reasons why I don’t believe people who support marginalized communities can declare themselves allies. I can’t dictate to my children how they will regard me. I can demonstrate to them the qualities of friendship and how positive relationships work, but I will simultaneously be working out my anti-childist journey. While they remain children, there will be tension in the balance of power and fragile progress in my unlearning of childism. It’s not as simple as declaring myself their friend and then palling it up with them.
It’s up to my children to decide how they will characterize our relationship. I can provide many of the wonderful qualities of friendship like honesty, acceptance, and respect, but I am also responsible for teaching, guiding, and protecting. It’s… complicated. If they don’t view me as a friend, I’ll be ok.
Truth be told, I completely understand and agree with the reasoning behind why parents want to be friends with their kids. I don’t think it’s strange at all that adults and children enjoy friendship. Obviously, the content of such friendships is different from adult-adult friendships. For instance, we should never burden children with our adult worries. But, we already know that different friendships manifest in different ways. We have coworker friends that we go to lunch with but may never see outside the office. We have childhood friends who remain in our lives but at a distance. We have mom friends online who know our deepest, darkest secrets but whom we may never meet in person. Friendship is not a one size fits all scenario. Adult-child friendships are cool as long as there’s a high degree of propriety and a complete absence of abusive behavior. I hope someday to achieve the status of “friend” to my children and here’s why.
Friends are their own complete people first and foremost. It’s one thing to want to be close to another person and another to be codependent. Friends have their own separate identities, needs, and wants, and they have mutual respect of all these things.
Friends care and are invested in each other. Friendship involves a selflessness in that friends pay attention to each other and elevate each other’s needs.
Friends have integrity. They are trustworthy and dependable. They tell the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. And, they do these things with the intent to uplift and never to tear down.
Friends improve morale. Friends offer a self-esteem boost. It feels good when people want you around and even better when they go out of their way to seek you out. As social creatures, humans need friendships for our mental health and this aspect of friendship in no small way explains why.
Friends believe in each other. It is so important to have people in our lives who know us well and understand us. One of the most critical aspects of friendship is being trusted.
Friends forgive. All relationships experience decline and growth. When we mess up, we have to know that our friends love us enough to mend the bond and move forward even stronger than before.
Friends listen and support. Good friends know when they need to be quiet and listen intently. They empathize and seek to support their friends in the most helpful ways whether that means validating feelings or giving advice or even riding out to take care of business when the situation calls for it.
Friends give and take. Allowing for free flowing reciprocity is so important. Friends don’t need to keep score. They just need to provide whatever support is required and ask for what they themselves need. That’s how friends show up for each other in the good times and bad.
There isn’t a single thing in that list that doesn’t also apply to my hopes for parenthood. This is the type of parent I want to be, which means there must be room for friendship in my relationship with my children. How that will end up looking is anyone’s guess. It’s going to develop organically, fostered with love and intentionality. I will demonstrate friendship to my children whether or not they consider me their friend and, maybe in time, I’ll hear those sweet words “You’re my best friend, mommy.” What an awesome day that would be!
So, you’re on-board with Peaceful Parenting. You try to co-regulate with your kids, empathize, and collaborate with them toward solutions that are mutually beneficial. You’ve been cognizant of your attitude and you’ve been working toward remaining calm most of the time. But, then something happens and you snap. You yell or you spank or you threaten or otherwise forcibly control your child, even though this isn’t who you want to be.
I hope you’re not looking at me thinking that I’ve got it together. That I must never yell or spank or act out in a non-peaceful way. Nope. I’m working toward being a Peaceful Parent just like you are and stumbling all over myself along the way. Let me tell you a story.
This past week, circumstances got the better of me. I thought myself such an accomplished parent one day when I whipped out drawing pads and Crayons for the kids and got to work cleaning up. I even left the kids alone at the kitchen table for a while to draw while I cleaned other areas of the house. Soon enough, I heard Crayons hitting the floor. I returned to the dining room to see my son snapping Crayons in half and shoving them into his mouth to chew and spit on the floor. The anger welled in my chest. I kept it together and asked him to go ahead and sit down so he could keep drawing while I cleaned up the chewed pieces of waxy mess. Instead, he went tearing around the house, a bouquet of Crayons in his hand poised to be cleaved in twain. It was too much and… I started hollering. “SIT DOWN.” “DON’T BREAK ANYMORE CRAYONS!” “LET ME WORK.” “STAHHHHHP!” My reaction only served to fuel the flames and the situation quickly escalated.
I angrily swept and tossed the Crayons (which could have been used again even in their broken state), I ignored my son as he continued to dysregulate, and then, in a moment of fury, I started toward him to snatch away a toy he had in his hand so I could throw it away in front of him in a cruel and punitive move. But, before I got to him, I stopped. I stopped dead in my tracks as my own words echoed back at me. Would you devastate your child for a $1.50 box of crayons? Would you provoke tears for pocket change? And, there it is. Right there. The first step toward ending our reign of punishment. It’s a decision in the heat of the moment. A choice we’ve already committed to.
Punishment Rejection Action Steps
1. Start With a Choice. You have to decide before you ever get angry what your limits are. Yelling is my vice. It’s deeply ingrained from my childhood and it is the language of my hot temper. But, yelling is a punitive act. We use our adult voices to suppress and control our children, leaving them with unseen scars. It may not be as clearly punitive as time out or spanking, but it is undesirable as a tool in our Peaceful Parenting kit. What’s your go to? What punishment do you turn to when you feel you can’t bear anymore? Make a commitment right now to stop. Draw the line in your mind and say, “I will not fall back on this action.” Even if you do it again, reinforce your belief that your actions are unacceptable and then try again the next time.
2. Engage in Prevention. As you may know if you’ve been following my posts, I am a big advocate of the Three Rs: Regulate, Relate, Reason. When my children begin to dysregulate, I intervene then. I try not to wait for the situation to escalate. Most of the time, prevention also helps me avoid dysregulating myself. It gives me a chance to get a grip on my emotions and fully invest in the moment when my kids need me most.
3. Have a Game Plan. Decide, in advance, what it is you’re going to do when you’ve gotten to a point where you’re about to blow your top. The Learning Parent SG put together a fantastic series on what she does as she nears her breaking point. She calls her approach, “Reactive Distancing.”
During a calm moment, take some time to put your game plan together. Decide what it is you can commit to doing when your thinking mind begins to struggle.
4. Think Like a Child. Ever notice how small children go from huge emotions to giggling in no time flat? They aren’t weighed down by the self-judgment and mental turmoil that adults experience. A dear friend of mine told me she takes a cue from Daniel Tiger. When she starts to feel dysregulated, she says, “If you feel so mad that you have to roar take a deep breath and count to 4.” As she counts, her jaw and fists start to relax, and she finds she’s more able to breathe. Then, she makes an effort to speak to her children in a neutral way in an effort to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes neutral is the best she can do and sometimes she’s able to nurture. Either way, she and her children both benefit from her efforts. She shared that she’s learned how valuable things like hugs, cuddles, and tickles can be as she works toward co-regulating with her kids. Play is always called for when tensions are high.
6. Never Stop Trying. Every time you choose to be gentle with your children, you are reinforcing to your own psyche that what you’re doing is good and it’s achievable. Even when you mess up, and oh will you mess up, brush yourself off and make a better choice at the next opportunity. Parenting is about relationship. When we push our kids away with our attitudes, we have to focus on reconciling and confirming to them that the issue is us not them. In the backs of our minds, we have to give ourselves grace enough to say, “I will do better next time” and really mean it.
After the blowup with my son, I sat down with him and apologized. I told him that I was having a hard day and I had no right to yell at him. I told him that I loved him and gave him all the cuddles he was craving. As I was holding him, his little body released its tension and he drifted off to sleep. Turns out, that energy burst he’d had was his last ditch effort at alerting me that he was exhausted. I misread it and got angry when the answer was staring me right in the face. I will not absolve myself of the harm I caused him that day, but I will say that I make good choices more often than not and I am actively working on my temper. I yell less than I did a year ago and still less than I did a year before that. Things are improving over time and, before too long, I will consistently react neutrally when members of my family touch a raw nerve. That’s my commitment to them and to myself. What are you willing to commit to today?
A friend asked me to talk about the difference between kindness and niceness, as both concepts are used in an effort to point children in the direction of appropriate social skills. This topic had been sitting in my bank of ideas when the perfect moment arrived. Ellen Degeneres drew heat this past week when it came to light that she enjoys a close friendship with former President George W. Bush, a man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people both domestically and internationally and one who chipped away at the rights of swaths of U.S. citizens. Given her claim that she is kind to all, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to take a deeper look at kindness versus niceness. Kindness has many benefits and it’s certainly a noble trait to pursue. So, what’s the difference between kindness and niceness? Is Ellen’s situation truly an example of kindness?
Dictionaries don’t offer much of a distinction, but clearly we do differentiate in common parlance. Niceness is demonstrably synonymous with politeness, whereas kindness exists in a deeper, more committed space. I propose my own definitions for the sake of clarity.
Niceness is the quality of being polite in pursuit of respectability and maintaining the status quo. Niceness avoids conflicts and behaves in socially acceptable ways in order to reveal our best intentions. Niceness derives from humanity’s basic drive to be accepted within a social group. Clothes can be nice. Days can be nice. Dogs can be nice. People can be nice. Niceness is the overarching compliment paid to those who make us feel good. However, it can be misleading at best and fraudulent at worst. Niceness uses adherence to social standards as a means to improve a person’s social standing and, therefore, it cannot be relied upon to advance all people equally. Not when our culture suffers from disparities in equity across all aspects of identity.
Niceness brings us school flyers like this one where children are told they are responsible for the bullying that happens to them, that only they can stop it by appearing strong, and that they can hope the bully moves on to hurt another child.
Kindness, on the other hand, is active compassion and connection built out of intentional service to others. It accounts for its impacts. Kindness can be maintaining close ties to problematic people out of genuine love, and resting on the strength of that relationship to discuss difficult topics. Kindness can also be setting boundaries that limit our exposure to people who mean us harm, and using our energies instead to provide radical advocacy for oppressed people. Kindness exists in many places across the spectrum of justice. Kindness looks like states taking steps to assess children for childhood trauma (and presumably moving to include identity-based injuries, such as race-based traumatic stress, in the ACEs assessment). It looks like entire school systems addressing the problem of bullying by teaching children about boundaries, consent, and cooperation. It looks like zero tolerance policies that elevate – and at the very least believe – children who speak out against bullying while at the same time placing bullies into programs that help them work through their inner turmoil and learn better coping skills.
In Ellen’s case, kindness could have been saying that she had found common ground with Mr. Bush, acknowledging his problematic positions, and using her proximity to him to advocate for the rights of disenfranchised people. It could have been using her white and economic privilege as a unsettling force. It could have been openly recognizing that Mr. Bush holds views that fundamentally conflict with her own. Views that inflict intentional harm on people she loves. Or, she could have joined the ranks of those who rightfully decry the massive injustices faced by enormous segments of our population.
I understand the conflict as I admittedly feel compelled to stay connected to people in order to be what may be the only contentious voice in their lives. I believe I’m responsible for using my privilege and my access to challenge my peers to abandon destruction in favor of restoration. I hope to use my voice to give them pause in the voting booth as I contextualize the effects of their choices, correct the misinformation they receive, and quell their anger that rages against the unknown.
I believe there’s kindness in connecting with the humanity in people who do harm and urging them to stop. And, I believe there is kindness in stepping back into the ranks of the harmed and standing up for people whose needs are not being met. Both are valid forms of activism. But, I do not see Ellen doing either as she digs in her heels regarding her relationship with Mr. Bush. I hope that she does carry the activism she wields in other areas of her life into this friendship. I hope that it’s already happening and she just hasn’t found a way to express it. And, I hope we, as Peaceful Parents, strive to understand the difference between niceness and kindness, and to acknowledge that Peaceful Parenting is going to be divisive in a culture that actively advances the status quo. Niceness is permissive. Kindness is brave.