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.

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.

Kindness vs Niceness

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.