Before You Advocate For Gentle Parenting…

A couple weeks ago, I posted a response after seeing the fallout from a post made by Kristen Coggins of @krissycouch where she stated, “You are not a bad parent. You are triggered.”

Gentle parents jumped all over her. This is what I said,

If you felt your parent was a bad parent and this post feels dismissive, I get it. There may not be room for any grace when your wounds are raw from harsh treatment and abuse. You don’t have to be the person who intervenes when you’re so close to trauma, but someone needs to. I wish I had folks in my corner speaking gently to my parents and helping them change their ways even today.

Every parent harms their kids. There’s no way around that. This post is speaking to the parents who are consumed with guilt and want to do better. It excuses no one for their abusive behavior. We are still responsible for the pain we inflict no matter our intentions.

So, how do we hold parents accountable and also leave room for the grace required for growth?

Y’all know I can’t stand the phrase “shit parent” and it’s for this exact reason. I’m trying to give parents an alternative, wake them up to their own need for intervention, reorient them to their children’s humanity. And that is what this post is about.

We call ourselves cycle breakers, but let’s not be so limited as to believe those around us who haven’t embraced conscious, gentle parenting aren’t also breaking cycles of their own.

When we box people into impossible standards, we lose them. The most consistent request I receive from readers of this blog is for real-life advice on how to gently parent given their particular life circumstances. [Sidebar: If you aren’t following my Facebook page, please head over and hit that Follow button! Because I don’t talk about my kids on this blog, I don’t have much of a means to provide real-life scenarios, so I use my Facebook page to search for great examples of peaceful parenting and share them there.] I have dear friends who read what I write here, and I have been convicted by some for the way I word things sometimes. I can get so impassioned that I sometimes come across as a harsh critic of anyone who doesn’t parent the way I do. That’s never my intention though. My goal is always to amplify the voices of children who are impacted by the ways we choose to interact with them.

I think it’s helpful for all of us to examine our approach through an anti-childism lens. I’ve written about the rights of children and the freedoms of children in relation to childism and I understand it’s difficult to strike a balance. Not only are we working against the current of modern “wisdom” about children as their parents’ property, but we are dealing with real human individuals who have varying capacities and intelligences. The freedoms we can negotiate for one child may not be the same ones we can negotiate with another. I’ve gotten criticism from more traditional parents that my approach is too lenient and also criticism from free-range parents that my approach is too strict. Again, I’ll note the importance of balance and giving our children what they need to thrive. I want to urge nuance in these conversations because, in excluding parents from what we view as the only right way, we leave them standing in that awful current of modern “wisdom” with no support.

The very idea that there is only one right way derives from the legacy of white supremacy. It’s true that there is right and there is wrong. Domestic violence against children is wrong, for instance. Calls to end spanking are right. However, the way we carry out our efforts to curtail spanking impact different people groups in different ways. If we support laws to arrest parents who spank, we will perpetuate the racist oppression of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Melanated People (BBIMP). If we demand better education and support for parents who spank, we risk harming poor parents who can’t take time off work to receive educational services. Perhaps a better use of the law would be to bring education and support to the workplace through some sort of mandatory federal funding stream that ensures no one will lose out on their income as they learn to make healthier choices. I don’t have the answers and I would much rather hear from the people who would be impacted by such measures.

Now, I’ve noticed some peaceful parenting voices wishing to separate our approach from the quadrant system advanced by Maccoby and Martin, based on the work of Baumrind. From their perspective, gentle parenting functions outside of any traditional understanding of parenting approaches. I recognize the desire to break free from traditional ideas around children, but I disagree. I appreciate the structure of the quadrant system in helping us understand where we are with our children in terms of connection and expectation. We lose a valuable educational tool when we toss it out.

High ConnectionLow Connection
High ExpectationAuthoritative/BalancedAuthoritarian/Domineering
Low ExpectationPermissive/IndulgentUninvolved/Absent

Actually, a true quadrant graphic makes it even more apparent how flexible this system really is. In the following graphic, the blocks are in the same places as the chart above, but the arrows demonstrate how we move throughout the system. You’ll see there is plenty of space to stretch out in the authoritative block. Some gentle parents lean more toward the permissive side and some lean more toward the authoritarian side, but all reside firmly within the high connection/high expectation block.

Source: Kaleido

A fair goal, in my opinion, is to give people the tools they need to plant themselves inside the authoritative block without all the extra criticism. There are some authoritative parents who punish their kids through logical consequences. Y’all know good and well that I am opposed to the use of punishment, but you better believe I’m still going to keep the lines of communication open with these parents. Some of my readers spank their kids and they admit it to me. In emotionally charged moments, they strike out. They know how I feel about it, but they still tell me about their experiences. Many of these same parents credit the things they’ve learned through my, often fraught, experience for the ways in which they’ve changed their perspectives on the relationship between parents and their children. This is a process. I have never met a parent who, with one salvific decision, suddenly became an ideal gentle parent who never, ever harms their kids. I’m a gentle parent and I know I’m doing things that my children will grow up and remember with sadness. I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m trying to be genuine, humble, kind, and open to change.

Let’s keep talking about a different way to parent even in the face of criticism from people who don’t get it and those who don’t want to get it. Let’s give parents a new path even if they aren’t in a place where they can manage it themselves. But, please, stop gatekeeping peaceful parenting and stop telling parents they aren’t doing it right. Who is served by the weaponization of rigid and lofty morality?

We cannot sacrifice parents for their children or children for their parents. Choosing one over the other is not liberation from childism. We fall short when we do not honor both.

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.