First a disclaimer: I am not always a parent who parents peacefully.
In fact, sometimes I suck at it and absolutely lose it.
But I am trying. I am trying because I realize that there are a couple of things going on in my sons’ lives and minds at their age (3 and 5). And I don’t want to romanticize this one bit, but rather just reflect on it.
My boys are trying to figure out their world.
-They’re pushing limits because they need to figure out their physical and emotional space.
-They’re trying understand themselves (like, for instance, why they sometimes feel like crying or shouting or are happy or sick).
-They’re trying to understand themselves in relation to other selves. What does it mean to have and make friends at the playground, even though we’re there for only an hour? How do we play well with people we don’t know?
All of the above is part of their development and developing worldview, and so when they don’t act in a way that fits with the way I see the world, I have to do a reality check on myself: they’re trying to figure it out.
Stop expecting them to have it all figured out.
And they’re trying to figure us (we parents) out, too. One day they’ll realize we have no idea what we’re doing…hopefully by then they’ll be too old to care and will have some empathy.
But until then, I have to remember that a lot of my anger is about me, not them.
In other words, so much of my anger and frustration with them has to do with the fact that they are not me.
And until I realize that my reactions to them mirror my own reactions to myself when I behave the way they behave (because we all behave like children sometimes…trust me, I work with people 24/7, I see it daily in adults), I won’t ever evolve as a parent. When they fuss and cry, part of that is on them, and part of that is on me…because in some ways I teach and reinforce that behavior with the way I react to them.
So what does it mean to parent peacefully?
To me it means two things.
First, you identify limits well.
Peaceful parenting is not permissive parenting. Certainly you allow them to feel the way they feel, but you can’t allow them to do whatever they want. Remember: they’re trying to find limits. Give them what they’re seeking!
I’m a dad who is pretty good at letting my kids try things they want to try. They can fall, scrape themselves up, and make new friends on their own without my help.
Which means: I don’t follow them around on the playground equipment. And if you’re a parent who does this, and your child doesn’t specifically need your help (and there are absolutely some children who need assistance playing…I get that), but if they don’t need you to be up there, get off.
The reason my kid isn’t playing with your kid is probably because you’re there. Get the hell outta there. Seriously.
Peaceful parenting means setting limits, like allowing the kid to have the ability to explore on their own. In this case you’re the one who follows the limits as much as they do.
But, they can’t wander off. I talk about physical boundaries all the time with the boys, and they largely respect them. Finn will always come back home to tell me if he’s going into a neighbor’s home (which is why I can’t see him on the street).
These limits: knowing what is their space, and knowing what is beyond their space, gives them so much freedom and peace. Give it to them. Give them what they want, in this case.
And limits around their time are important, too. There is a time for TV, a time for independent play, a time for together play, a time to bathe, and a time to be awake and be asleep. I’m not suggesting that you parse out their day in such a structured way, but allowing kids the peace of knowing “what time it is” has become an important thing in our house.
Sometimes it is time where we can watch TV, and sometimes it is time where the TV is off, but the record player can be on. Sometimes it is time where we can be messy, and sometimes it is time to keep clean because we’re going somewhere.
Set good limits, and freedom within those limits. They have choices within whatever time it is: what to play with, where to play, what to watch, etc.
For instance, before bedtime, we’ll sometimes give them a choice after bath (which is never a choice on bath nights): “Do you want to watch a part of a show, or would you rather read two books?” And when we’ve had enough TV for the day and that’s not one of the options, choosing the books is an option.
And choice brings me to the second hallmark of parenting peacefully.
But first, a quick note about screens: we (my wife and I) are making the decision to limit the kinds of screens the kids have access to. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, it’s just what we’re going with. No iPads (heck, we don’t have the money for that mess), no computer access…they’re young still, and computers are certainly their future, but I want their brains to develop in a way that allows for critical thinking and a sense of chronos, not immediate gratification.
Also, and this is something parents need to start taking seriously, screens are increasingly the way that kids get exposed to adults that you don’t know; much more likely than letting them play outside by themselves or even ride their bikes alone around the neighborhood. Wise-up, parents.
For long car rides, we bring books and toys and stories on the radio. I’m not judging you if you don’t, I’m just saying that we think there are other options that might be better.
Ok, on to that second thing…
Secondly, don’t yell, ask.
Lordy, this is tough. But it usually works.
When the kids aren’t doing what I want, or if they’re crying and throwing a fit, my wife and I will try to first engage using a tactic from one of our favorite books (In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek). In fact, we use this so often, that we make it a point to read this book pretty regularly so that the kids have some shared vocabulary.
When they’re pitching a fit, we’ll often ask, “Tell me how your heart feels.”
This does two things, I’m finding:
-First, it provides for a shared vocabulary with the kids. It “touches base” with them, creating a construct for conversation that they can identify with. It’s like a touchstone, something that provides something that they can grasp in a moment when they feel particularly out of control. They know that in their response we’ll both understand what they’re saying. So much of fit-throwing is two humans talking over each other.
-Secondly, it makes me lead with my heart instead of my anger. Even if they’re just upset because they can’t have what they want, I need to remember that they are trying to figure out this world, and they are trying to figure out themselves in relation to their desires and wishes (no matter how trivial they are).
After we discuss their heart, I like to give them choices that acknowledges exactly where they are. This will sound pedantic to adults, but trust me, it works (and, be honest, when you are pitching your own little fit, having someone acknowledge your feelings is the first step to regaining your own chill, right?).
So, I say, “Dude, I hear you don’t want to go to bed. When you grow up, you’ll probably stay up all night, right? But right now, it’s bedtime. Do you want me to carry you up, or do you want to walk up on your own?” Or I’ll say, “I get that you don’t want to take a bath, but you stink to high heaven, buddy. So do you want bath paints or a bath pod tonight (which turns the water a color)?”
If they have no choice, give a choice within the choice.
And sometimes it works. Most times even.
But, let’s say that I’m really ticked off because, let’s face it: kids are jerks sometimes. They don’t mean to be (usually), and don’t want to be (usually), but they are.
Kind of like you and me.
So instead of yelling and saying, “This is the fifth time I’ve asked you to do this! Why can’t you listen?! Why can’t you do what you’re told?!” Or the more adult version, “What the hell, guys?! Get it together!”
By the way, let’s analyze that first statement. Because I’ve said it, but I don’t in the moment always get what they’re hearing. In that statement, what I really mean is: “I’ve got an agenda, and I need you to get on my agenda, and why the hell can’t you just do that?! You’re not good at that!”
Is that what I mean to say? No. In asking them to get ready, I’m intending for the benefit to be felt by everyone, them and me. But my frustrated remarks only identify me as the good party, and them as the bad party.
So, instead of saying that, what I try to say now is: “I’m upset that you’re not ready. I need you to be ready because you have to get to school and that’s important. Let’s see who can get dressed first. Go!”
And if that doesn’t even work, I’ll go farther: “Look guys, I’m really upset. I’m stomping my feet kind of upset, because you both are good at following directions, you’re choosing not to right now. I need you to choose to follow directions so that we can be on time.”
Now parents, let me be frank: yelling and saying what I said above usually take about the same amount of time. It is difficult to motivate the unmotivated. So why bother? Unleashing my anger is easier, right?
Easier. But not better. For them or me. I usually just feel frustrated that I’m not a better parent, and sad for them because they had to spend the morning being yelled at by an adult that they coaxed into acting like a baby because they’re still babies.
And if time isn’t a factor, then I want to go with the better option if I can keep it together.
Because here’s the thing: I need to raise peace-loving kids. In a culture that is growing increasingly dualistic (bad/good and right/wrong and black/white thinking), we need to raise kids with better and more expansive grounding, who understand themselves not because they’ve been verbally hit and helicopter parented, but because they’ve had good limits and the space to explore their inner-selves.
And anger is not the opposite of peace, but violence is. I can be angry and not be violent.
They need to know that so that they, too, can be angry and not be violent. In all ways. And I think this is where some of that learning starts.
It’s a work in progress, though. And I suck at it much of the time. But we’re trying.
We all should try.