I knew from pretty early on as a parent that I would definitely not be doing things like ‘controlled crying’ or smacking with my children. As they grew bigger and I learned more, that evolved to rejecting more of the ‘mainstream’ ideas and moving to parenting without punishment. We’re big on freedom here and we let our kids make their own choices and learn from their own mistakes. It was hard at first though because when you take away all of those parenting techniques you’re not left with much! That makes it easy to fall back into old habits, or what you experienced growing up. It’s easy to know what you don’t want to do but in the moment it’s hard to know what exactly to do instead! I can tell from the comments on some of my parenting posts that there are a lot of people out there feeling similar. So, I thought I would try to put into words exactly how things work in our family (or at least what we are aiming for because we’re not perfect and we make mistakes!). If you don’t use punishment, what DO you do?
In general, this is how I approach day-to-day parenting situations…
1. Keep people safe
In any situation, the first step is to keep everyone safe. If siblings are fighting over a toy for example, pushing and pulling at it, step in and place your hand on the toy to hold it steady. Say something like ‘it looks like you’re trying to work this out. I need to keep everyone safe. I’ll help you hold this and make sure no one gets hurt while you work it out’.
If children are hurting each other, simply step in and block their hit/kick/scratch etc saying ‘I won’t let you hit your sister’. It’s hard not to get frustrated at these times. You think ‘how many times have I told them they can’t hurt each other!!’ But try to remain calm and simply stop it from happening while setting a firm limit (‘I won’t let you kick your brother’). Don’t try and talk about it right now or ask them why they are doing it. If a child is having such big emotions that they’re hitting and kicking then they’re not going to be up for rational conversation right now. First, just keep everyone safe.
2. Describe what you see
The next thing I do in most situations is just describe what I see. It’s easy to do, you don’t have to remember anything in particular to say, and it gives you time to think about what you need to do next. Just describe what you see.
‘I heard lots of loud voices, I came to see if you need help’
‘You were playing with the doll, and now your sister has the doll’
‘You’re trying to go down the slide and your sister is sitting on it, it sounds like you might like her to move?’
‘I’m holding your sister and you would really like me to pick you up too’
Things to remember when describing…
Use a calm voice: After you’ve kept everyone safe you might need to take a second to calm yourself. Lots of situations are frustrating. That’s ok! But we’re going to be able to better deal with them (and help our kids deal with them!) if we can remain calm. So take a few breaths, and bring out your normal calm non-judgemental voice. Your calm makes them feel that you can handle the situation, that they are safe, and that they are able to deal with any problem.
No judgement: When you’re describing what you see, refrain from any judgement! No taking sides, no blaming. Stick to the facts about exactly what you see. Instead of ‘Your sister is annoying you’, you could say ‘It sounds like the noise is bothering you and you’d like some quiet time or space’.
Expect the best: Try not to assume what’s going on before you’ve even assessed the situation. Don’t fall into the trap of automatically blaming one child in your head because ‘he always does this’. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Treat each new situation with a clean slate. You might be surprised!
I don’t think I can stress this enough but this is the most important step! Empathy is like magic! It is your most powerful parenting tool so use it ALWAYS. Sometimes that’s all you need to do. Just empathise, hear your child’s feelings, understand them, be there while they process them and work out what to do. ALL behaviour has a reason and if we only address the behaviour without acknowledging the underlying feelings then we will have little long term success. Children need to feel heard, and valued, and understood. If you feel like reverting to punitive discipline, empathise instead! It changes your focus from controlling behaviour, to understanding behaviour. All you need to do is listen to your child and reflect back their feelings with understanding.
‘You would really like the red pen but your sister has it. It’s so hard to wait’
‘You sound really sad/upset/angry/frustrated’
‘You’re upset because you really wanted to climb on the table. It seems like a lot of fun’
‘It’s ok to feel sad’
‘It feels so frustrating when we can’t do what we want’
‘I hear you’
The next thing I do is just wait. Comfort them, continue to empathise and see what happens. Maybe they want to talk more, maybe they just needed to release some feelings and they’re done. Maybe they want to cuddle for a while. Maybe they’re ready to problem solve.
5. Problem solve
This might happen straight away or at a later time. If it’s a sibling dispute then we obviously need to work it out then and there (if they haven’t already been able to work it out themselves while I’ve kept them safe, empathised, and reflected feelings and needs). But we always have to go through the other steps first to make sure everyone has calmed down and is feeling more able to think clearly. Sometimes we don’t need to problem solve at all because all that was needed was empathy and understanding. Or sometimes I am the one who wants to follow something up at a later date. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome and thought it needed a bit more discussion. I might just calmly approach them with ‘I was wondering if we could talk about what happened yesterday, it still doesn’t feel resolved for me, would you be willing to listen to my thoughts?’
I will then talk about what happened, empathise again (are you getting how important this is? Just keep empathising!), acknowledge what their wants and needs are, and what my needs are, and then ask them for their ideas of what we will do moving forward.
‘I need to keep everyone safe, I’d like it if we could try not to hurt each other. When you feel angry you can…’
‘It feels overwhelming trying to clean up on your own and you don’t like it. I like to have the lounge room clear of toys before I go to bed and I’m needing some help. Could we work together?’
‘It sounds like you would both like to feel heard. I’m here to listen. Tell me about it.’
‘How can we work this out?’
‘Do you have any ideas?’
And that’s it! That’s generally how I try to approach everything that happens on a day to day basis. There’s no tricks, no strategies, just using situations as opportunities to connect and help children learn how to manage their emotions. Because ALL behaviour is caused by underlying emotions. Challenging times are not things just to ‘get through’ but opportunities to grow and help children learn how to regulate their emotions, and communicate their needs.
Some more general ways that we approach parenting include…
Letting go of control
Mainstream parenting seems to work on the assumption that adults are the boss and must always remain in control. I don’t know about you but I couldn’t think of anything more tiring than having to be constantly policing behaviour, granting permission, enforcing rules, and inflicting punishments. It also doesn’t seem to be conductive to a harmonious environment. I want my children to feel valued and empowered so I have given up the traditional family hierarchy. Everyone is equally important here. Everyone has equal say. We make decisions as a family.
Freedom and trust are SO important to me. I want my children to feel totally in control of themselves. I think the best way to equip them for the world is to let them start making and learning from their own decisions from the beginning. So unless it is a case of safety or health, we try to let them make their own choices as much as possible. They decide when they go to bed, when they wake up, when and how much they eat, what they wear, and what they learn. It seems unbelievable that kids are capable of some of these decisions if you’ve never seen it but they truly are.
Making requests, not demands
I read an article the other day that said parents are asking their children to do things instead of demanding and that this is what’s wrong with ‘kids these days’. I think it’s the opposite. Most kids these days experience a lot of control so it’s understandable they would fight for their freedom and ‘misbehave’. I think we can extend some common courtesy to our youngest humans. I don’t go around demanding things of anyone else. I find that if I speak nicely to my children they are more often than not very happy to help me.
Not taking it personally
Kids are just learning how the world works and how to deal with their emotions. Sometimes they say and do things that hit a nerve. Maybe you spent an hour cooking dinner and they tell you it’s gross. Try not to take it personally and respond with frustration. Instead model good manners and maybe talk to them about how they can better express themselves.
Allowing natural consequences
We don’t use parent imposed consequences or punishments but we do allow the kids to make their own mistakes and learn from them. I try not to warn them with ‘be careful’ when they’re exploring and instead trust them to know their own capabilities. I will give them my opinion if it’s asked for or if I think it’s genuinely needed because they don’t have all the information. But they are free to make their own decisions even if they’re different than mine. When something goes wrong I’m there to comfort and empathise without unnecessarily enforcing a lesson and making them feel ashamed. For example I can empathise that they’re upset that their toy was ruined because it was left out in the rain and we didn’t notice, without going on to say ‘but if you’d just done what I said and looked after your toys for once this wouldn’t have happened’. That’s unnecessary. They get it. Let the lesson sink in without being overpowered by shame.
What is good parenting? Is it having obedient children, or is it building strong relationships and supporting your children to grow up into the people they are meant to be? For me, obedience is not the goal at all. So I have adjusted my expectations. These little people are just learning, there will be mistakes and frustrating times and that is OK. Don’t expect perfection. It’s constant work but it is worthwhile and fulfilling.
Working on connection
What I want most of all is a deep connection with my children. When they are grown I want them to always know that they can come to me and I will be a safe place. I think the only real lasting influence we can have on our children comes from connection. If you rely on punitive discipline, what will happen when you’re no longer there to enforce your rules? If you parent with connection your children will always value you and trust you and come to you with their problems. And isn’t that what we all want?
There is a lot more I could say about the benefits of respectful parenting but they will have to wait for another post! I hope that was a little bit helpful. You can find more parenting posts here.
Do you parent similarly, or differently? What do you struggle with?