Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Whether you’re having in-person conversations or online, someone somewhere has probably told you that peaceful parenting can’t work for every child. “Every child is different” they say, with the full force of unfortunate implications behind each word.

Every child is different. Some need to be punished.

Every child is different. Some need to be shamed.

Every child is different. Some need to be spanked.

Every child is different. Some need to be arrested.

It’s simply not true. None of it. While peaceful parenting can seem to be an unachievable ideal from the outside, it is an evidence-based approach that takes into account the advances in neuroscience we’ve made over the past century. It is a scientific marvel. And, once you dig into it, you see that it is appropriate for every. single. child.

Well, what about that kid screaming “NO!” in his mother’s face while she sits there unsure of what to do?

An authoritarian parents might lay down the law. “You will NOT treat your mother that way!” Punishment is the answer here!

A permissive parent might allow the behavior to happen and make excuses. “Oh, he just tired. It’s ok.”

A neglectful parent might completely ignore the child.

An authoritative, peaceful parent would address the issue head on. We’ve got a fantastic solution for overwrought children who have lost their ability to regulate: The 3Rs and a limit. As a reminder, the 3Rs are regulate, relate, and reason. This formula was developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma-informed care, and it can be effective for all children.

Regulate

This one is why you should never, ever, ever ignore a child’s undesirable behavior. Children, especially young ones, aren’t very good at self-regulation. The human capacity to self-regulate is a matter of development more than it is a matter of skill. But, we can help our children learn techniques that promote self-regulation. We can be most useful in this educational process by co-regulating with our children. Co-regulation refers to the way a child in a well-attuned relationship with a caregiver can sync physiologically with the adult. The process is different depending on your child’s neurology and personality. Some children need to be hugged. Some just need to be present with the adult. Some children need verbal assurances, such as “I’m right here with you. I’ll be here as long as you need to feel better.” However it works for a particular child, the goal is for the adult to share calmness with the child through physiological accord (think deep breathing), emotional stabilization, and social proximity.

Relate

Relating involves the very human act of empathizing. Once your child’s body and mind have relaxed, the next step is to let your child know he isn’t alone in how he feels. Children’s emotions are human emotions. No matter how trivial their concerns may seem to us, we can understand them. My favorite way to relate is to affirm how my child is feeling. For instance, “You’re angry because I said we’re going to turn off the tv in 5 minutes. You want to watch more tv! I know watching tv is fun.” You could let your child know of an instance from your own childhood when you had a similarly upsetting experience. The goal here is to let your child know you see them. You feel their distress and you understand it.

Reason

Once your child’s body and mind are working in concert with your own, you can explain what’s happened. Using the tv example, I might say, “We need to turn off the tv, because it’s time to take a bath and read our book before bed. Once the tv goes off, we get to play in the bathwater!” The age of your child determines how you will reason. All children, including infants, deserve an explanation for the things that upset them. They understand more than we may give them credit for and, at the very least, they will grow up learning how reason and logic work. If your child begins to get upset again, start back from the first R. Make sure not to skip any of the Rs. They work in sequence. And, a critical note, if your child is dysregulated because of a physical need like sleepiness or hunger, please be sure to address that need in your reasoning.

Limit

Setting a gentle limit may be what upset your child in the first place. You do not need to ignore the limit during the 3Rs. I was recently asked by a friend what she should do in a bookstore where her daughter became dysregulated in an aisle upon being told it was time to go. She told me that her daughter didn’t want a hug and, while she attempted to co-regulate by sitting near the child without touching, her daughter continued to play around in the store. I told my friend, in this case, I would gently take the child’s hands and physically stop her. She said that would set off another meltdown. I told her that’s ok! That’s what the 3Rs are for. Often, we do need to cycle back through until our kids are feeling better.

Our goal can’t be for our child to be happy with our limits, because that’s just not reasonable. I remember being told, as a child, that it was my responsibility to be joyful in the face of admonition. No. Children are just learning how to deal with disappointment. We don’t need to place impossible expectations on them in the process. As an adult I have had to learn how to take criticism without exploding or shutting down, because I didn’t learn how to do it as a child.

Forget all that. Our goal is to ensure that our child feels loved and supported in the midst of their unhappiness and even when they’re expressing that unhappiness in ways we don’t like. So, if you have to scoop up your child and head out the door while she fusses at you because you’ve run out of time, sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. The work you’re doing by engaging in the 3Rs, giving your child time to process their feelings, and being kind even as you are firm is to establish a pattern of empathy and support that your child can rely on. One that will continue to impact her positively.

One of the criticisms leveled against peaceful parenting is that it just takes so long. It’s true. This approach is a long game and individual interactions can take a while (so build in extra time to make sure your kids get the full benefit of your attention). We are working on fostering the development of genuine human beings who embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, observe the world to see where they can help the most, and find healthy ways to overcome hardships. It’s so much quicker and easier to punish and you could very well do that. But, why? Why would you put off the work of growing up by controlling your kids? Punishment teaches nothing but not to misbehave around people who punish you. It does not teach accountability.

So you have a few choices. One, fall back on punishment and force your kids into compliance; two, let your kids spiral into dysregulation and make excuses for their behavior; three, neglect your kids altogether; or, four, support your child’s psychological and moral development by putting the work in from birth; no punishment required.

Inherited Frustration: How One Family Found Peace After Crisis

Following my post yesterday, I received an extraordinary message from a mom who had a story to tell about her family’s journey from authoritarianism to foster parenting to Peaceful Parenting. With her permission, I am so grateful to be able to share her story here.

I have enjoyed reading these posts on positive parenting and today’s post really resonates with me and within my family dynamics. My husband and I are both in our later 40s, and when we met, I was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter. By this time, I was co-parenting quite nicely with my ex-husband. (There was certainly an adjustment period to that though). 😬 And I had also been doing Foster Care with “High Risk” teens for 6 years at the time. (I hate that term. Always have. But the reasoning for that is because most…not all…had come into foster care due to some kind of neglect/abuse parental death or other forms of trauma). In order for my husband to move in and join our Family (anyone living in the household had to do the same) a background check, several interviews with workers along with parenting classes needed to be taken through our state.

He was in the military, had never been married or lived with anyone and had no Children of his own. He knew from the beginning (once we were serious) that my ex-husband was a very active father. The two of them had many conversations about our daughter. Although he was about to become a very important part in her life, they wanted to work together in helping raise her and they both made a conscience effort to do so. (The same happened with our daughter’s new step momma. So, she ended up with 4 parents that love her).

In Foster Parenting classes they give many conflict resolution techniques, teach about the importance of respecting and fostering the needs of each individual child, working alongside their parents (if they were trying to reintegrate…most teens were in independent living, so reintegration wasn’t common) in partnership parenting in order to help that process, and help the family and children succeed when they went back to their family or eventually moved out on their own. We were taught what normal age appropriate behavior looked like, and were encouraged to have honest and open dialogue with the children about their thoughts, feelings, emotions and needs. There was absolutely NO corporal punishment of any kind allowed or involved by state law. (As it should be). Since I was a foster parent before we had a child of our own, that’s also how we raised our child. “Peaceful Parenting” probably before the term was even coined. Lol

Anyway, our families live in different states, and I knew the first time I met his family that my daughter and I were valued and loved. This started even before we met them actually! They included us and my foster children in every aspect they could! He and I had both been raised in the Christian Faith, and many other aspects of our childhood were the same. Going to church every Sunday (or anytime there was a function) and our families socialized with other families in our Churches. It was just part of our daily lives growing up. The one difference there was that his parents were fundamentalist (meaning “old school” or law oriented) and mine were not and were/are very grace (new testament) oriented. That’s rather important in this long story. Lol.

In the 70s it was a very common “idea” that children were to be seen and not heard. Spanking (or BEYOND spanking) was never questioned. It was usually the “go-to” form of discipline. Spank first…ask questions or talk about it later (if at all). And for those of us who were involved in church (remember…that’s who all the families socialized with so it’s really all we knew) “spare the rod, spoil the child” was preached. Without any further advice or explanation that the term was actually about the shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd’s staff (rod) was used to GUIDE the sheep in the right direction in order to keep them safe…not to physically punish the sheep for “misbehaving”.

In my family, I recall being spanked as a child a few times. My mom was the “disciplinarian” of the family, but neither of them were “yellers” and she usually just talked to us if there were issues. The few times I did get spanked, she still talked and validated our feelings…but AFTER the spanking. Lol. I never have felt any anger or resentment towards her, and in truth I probably would have been the same way with my children if it hadn’t been for the parenting classes I took. It’s just how I thought it was “done”.

In my husband’s family, (he also went to private schools his entire life) getting spanked with a paddle both at home and even through high school IN the school with family members present sometimes to watch…is just how it was “done”. Not only was it acceptable…it was encouraged. The last paddling my husband remembers was at 17. (It’s called a paddling because it’s a literal paddle board). In both cases our parents absolutely believed they were doing the right thing both socially, and in the eyes of “God”. Who was and continues to be a major part in all of our lives. (My husband and I are now both Grace oriented). 😮

And in both of our cases, our parents absolutely love their children with everything in them. And that love is returned.

My husband was medically discharged shortly after we got together, and we soon found out that he has PTSD. He’s always been one to “react” to stress or certain situations in a negative way. It’s usually by yelling, “demanding” that one “complies without question” (that was partially because of the military) and generally the “just do as I say” without questioning why that certain behavior or situation was even happening. “I’m the boss…you will listen” type thing.

I’ve always been really good at setting boundaries and bringing issues up as they were happening, and I stick to those boundaries while trying to figure out the reasoning behind “it” whatever it is. I was the one that helped our older children with any major issues. If there was a high stress situation happening, I took care of it, while he would exit the room and entered again when things calmed down. I was the “defense” person trying to stop escalation before it happened. In those times of stress, many times things would escalate very quickly and extremely irrationally. Sometimes on the verge of emotional/verbal abuse towards me. For those of you who are familiar with PTSD, this is a fairly common thing. That said, PTSD is a reason…not an excuse (There’s a difference). Nobody is responsible for trauma that’s been inflicted onto them or mental illness. NOBODY. (I suffer with depression and anxiety). But it is our “responsibility” to recognize, take responsibility for and to learn to change patterns of behavior that are harmful to others.

After our second child came unexpectedly in our 40s, (we had been out of FC for several years at this point. Our last children went to college, and had started families of their own) and things went really well until our son started becoming an independent little human. When he started getting into things, walking, talking and all that comes with growing up (Our son is high needs. He has ADHD, sensory issues and is in the evaluation process for autism. Life with a high needs child can be challenging on top of typical everyday growing up that all children go through) so those “high stress” incidents started happening more and more out of frustration.

One day in a high stress situation, he snapped. There was screaming and no rational thinking process in sight. And this happened in front of our son. It was one thing for me…an adult who can speak for myself and has extensive knowledge in how to de-escalate/manage certain behaviors…but it’s entirely different when a child is subjected to that kind of behavior…if its intentional or not. So, I made the decision that day and told him that if this behavior continued, I would divorce him and would do WHATEVER it took to protect our son. Protect him from thinking this was “normal”. Protect him from thinking that this is how we treat those that we love etc. Abuse is abuse…if its intentional or not.

My husband knew that wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t just some kind of manipulation to get him to stop. He knew I was absolutely serious because of my boundary setting and following through. Thankfully he took me seriously and chose to do whatever it took to LEARN different behavior.

So, for the past several years I’ve witnessed him researching developmental stages and age appropriate behavior in children. I’ve seen him take charge of his mental health and seek out different strategies on how to unpack issues in his own life, and learn how to cope in productive ways. I had bought an extensive online course on Positive Parenting, and he took the time to go through all of it. (Sometimes more than once). I’ve witnessed our family becoming a cohesive unit that tackles challenges together. There’s no more “running defense” on my end. I’ve witnessed the relationship between son and father go from frustration and overwhelming…to a relationship of understanding and peace. Naturally there are still challenges and high stress situations…there always will be. That’s life. But life looks and IS so much better for all of us now.

So, I completely understood what was written here in this post. Going against what we knew as “normal” and learning a different way to handle issues within the family unit…and hopefully our children won’t have to “reprogram” themselves later in life like we’ve done. Has it been easy? Absolutely 100% no. Was it worth it? Absolutely 100% yes!! ♡ So thank you for sharing this with us so we don’t feel so alone in our parenting journey.

Peaceful Parenting is Not the Easy Way

We all started out somewhere and we all have a story to tell. In my case, my own upbringing was rather “because I said so” authoritarian. There was some freedom around intellectual pursuits, but children were to obey immediately and without question. I recall “FRONT AND CENTER!” being a common command and “That’s a mistake” serving as an almost reflexive reaction to anything I did that went against the grain. The hard truth is that, when I was little, my parents generally followed an authoritarian Christian evangelical philosophy with a fundamentalist flavor and all the perspectives on child rearing that came with that. I love my parents and I had so many blessings during my childhood. I still disagree with that mindset about kids.

It’s probably no surprise that I bought into it myself for many years, including years I was employed in child care. Up until about six years ago, I believed that children were born sinful and wicked, and that they needed Christian molding in order to become holy. I’ve since been Chrismated into the Orthodox Church, which takes a much gentler and a more holistic approach to the way in which we regard children and ourselves too. For me, Orthodoxy showed me that the end goal was so much more important than whatever crisis was happening in the here and now. Wisdom and patience had to be my tools.

Now, I’m going to share something potentially shocking here. I want y’all to understand clearly where I was six years ago. I present to you pre-Peaceful Mom:

Yikes on bikes, y’all. Yikes on bikes and trikes with giant yellow wheels that people ride on the ocean. Just YIKES.

When I look at the date on that facebook timestamp, I realize that it really hasn’t been very long since I was lobbying for the government to dole out passes for people to hit their kids! I remember what it felt like to say that too, so I’ve dedicated this post to share with you a framework build-out that I hope will support the efforts of those of you who are coming to Peaceful Parenting with old baggage like I did.

But How Do You Make Them Behave??

I heard about Peaceful Parenting and thought it sounded too good to be true. So, I joined several groups and I’m telling y’all, my mind was screaming “BUT HOW DO YOU MAKE THEM BEHAVE??” every time I read a gushy story about parents connecting with their kids and finding new solutions and blah blah blah. (Those blahs are all the amazing things that come along with Peaceful Parenting. I just want y’all to understand my frame of mind back then.) I utterly could not wrap my mind around the idea that children could be allowed autonomy and still be respectful and responsible. It just did not compute. I was stuck in the authoritarian frame of mind which was telling me that children have to be placed under an adult’s control or they can’t function in society. Peaceful Parenting requires a massive paradigm shift for some of us. I even found myself going through the stages of grief. That’s how overthrown I felt.

I find that irritation/anger is a pretty common response when I talk with people about Peaceful Parenting. They try to point out all the ways that Peaceful Parenting can’t work even when I provide evidence to the contrary. I get it. I was there just a few short years ago. For me, it was infuriating to hear people talking so earnestly about something I missed out on as a kid, and it simply didn’t make sense that these people would give their kids so much lenience. I was certain they were being overly permissive or even neglectful. No way could Peaceful Parenting result in anything other than bratty behavior. (Sidebar: I no longer believe brats even exist, but that’s a topic for an upcoming post.)

Gracious! Why was I so invested in Peaceful Parents being wrong? I imagine a therapist would point to the child inside of me screaming, “It’s not fair!” I really could have used a lot more understanding when I was a little. So, I would ask you, knowing what you know about Peaceful Parenting, and putting aside any conviction that it couldn’t possibly work, would you have appreciated this approach informing your own upbringing?

I Can’t Do This

If you’ve decided that Peaceful Parenting is worth the effort, but you fear you can’t manage it, you’re not alone. There are facebook groups with tens of thousands of people struggling with all of this too. I find myself constantly edging toward the authoritarian side of the fence, and I have to bring myself back to center all the time. I have to ask myself, “Why are you saying no right now?” and “What is behind this child’s behavior?” instead of delivering the old standard “Because I said so” or leaping to punishment as soon as my child does something mildly inconvenient. When I first started, I jumped in feet first. I went full on attachment with all the nursing and babywearing and bedsharing I could get. It was amazing! Infanthood is just magical.

Then, babies turn into toddlers who are very certain about what it is they want to do. Toddlers that keep you running for your books to read up on how you should address their many new behaviors. But, there’s a secret in all this. You grow into Peaceful Parenting just like your kids do. It’s great to start out when they’re infants. It’s also great to start out when they’re teens. It doesn’t matter when you start. You and your kids will find a rhythm. You can do this! You’re going to mess up and feel like you’re failing, but you’re not. The fact that you worry about failing means you care. Every interaction you have with your kids is another opportunity to be gentler and kinder.

So What Do You Actually DO then?

I’ve been right here more times than I can count. Once I had decided that children were worthy of respect from me as an adult, I couldn’t fathom what to do with that. I turned to books and read everything I could. I need structure. I need formulas. I need something I could retrieve from the catalog in my brain that would tell me “do this, then this, then that” to help me through difficult times. That’s how my mind works. I tend to be very analytical and I struggle with anything that feels chaotic. Over the years, my approach has become a lot more natural, because I’ve practiced it… well… every single day! So, here’s what I do.

  1. Create My Own Peacefulness: I take a deep breath and remember that the Peaceful part of Peaceful Parenting is me. I love memes and I follow as many people on social media as I can who post memes about Peaceful Parenting. Often times, one of those memes comes to mind at just the right time and reminds me of my purpose.
  2. Assess My Child’s Needs: I assess if my child’s needs have been met. Discomfort, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, under- or over-stimulation, etc. Is there something basic that’s irking my child? If so, I try to address that in the process of working through the challenging behavior. Remember, children do well when they can.
  3. Foster My Child’s Emotional Equilibrium: If my child is feeling too upset to hear anything I have to say, my first duty in the interest of respect is to help them by connecting. You’ll often hear me say, “I’m here. You’re safe. It’s ok to be upset.” or something to that effect as I offer comfort. I have cuddly kids, so they usually want a hug, but even when they don’t, I stay nearby and let them know they aren’t alone.
  4. Empathize with My Child: Everything in Peaceful Parenting really hinges on this one. If we can acknowledge that our children’s emotions are always valid and worthwhile, we can remember to address them gently every time. My simplest go to phrase is “You’re (emotion) because (reason.)” It isn’t so easy for kids to voice their emotions or put together what’s causing their distress, so speaking it out from your perspective can give them the words they need. For instance, “You’re angry because sister took your toy without asking.” That validation is crucial for their self-confidence but also to develop their sense of morality. No, it’s not ok for people to take your things without asking, no matter how old you are.
  5. Set Gentle, Reasonable Limits: If you need to set a limit, now’s the time. My standard limit language is “I can’t let you (behavior) because (reason that logically follows).” For example, “I can’t let you hit your sister because you will hurt her.” Using “I” statements helps you, as the parent, express your own perspective, and prevents you from moralizing your child. With this prompt, you never again have to run the risk of telling a child they’re bad.

How Will My Child Learn Right from Wrong?

Here’s another question I had. It didn’t make sense to me that children could learn morals without strictness and punishment. It took me a long time to figure out how that part works. Maybe I can help you too. 

I want you to think about a big outdoor trampoline with a safety net around it. Like this:

This is how I think of limits. They’re that safety net. I simply show my kids where the boundary is and help protect them from crossing it. Now, the limits I provide are much more effective than a safety net because, while I stand in the way of trouble, I also explain and guide my children’s understanding of the way this world works. I offer love, connection, and understanding that a safety net can’t. But, I like the analogy of a trampoline safety net, because it’s just there as a limit. It’s non-judgmental and it doesn’t intentionally harm the kids having fun within its mesh walls. It can be removed as the kids become more able to navigate trampoline play without hurting themselves, much like a limit in Peaceful Parenting. I’m sure there are some holes in my analogy and that’s ok, but I want y’all to visualize how limits can protect and teach without harm.

Given everything I’ve said thus far, I’m sure you can see that Peaceful Parenting can be rather dialogue-heavy and time consuming. It’s become such a priority for me that I’ve adjusted my entire life around it. I leave more time to get places, so that I don’t feel compelled to yell at my kids to get out to the car. (Full Disclosure: I am a yeller and it’s constant work not to do it.) I create ways in which to say yes instead of no, because I want my kids to see opportunities more often than they see barriers. I encourage my kids to bare their hearts to me no matter where we are. As a result, I have all but stopped caring about what anyone thinks when we’re out in public. It doesn’t matter where we are or what’s happening, I will kneel down and help my child through a difficult moment. I will be the shield and safety net.

As a Peaceful Parent, I’ve found my efforts to be immense and the rewards to be incalculable. My children are affectionate, kind, and respectful while unabashedly being exactly who they are through and through. I’m here to support you in having similarly wonderful experiences in your Peaceful Parenting journey. If you have reactions or questions about the transition to Peaceful Parenting, please post them in the comments below. Let’s talk.