I have found that as soon as you acknowledge the way you parent in terms such as ‘peaceful’, ‘positive’, ‘freedom’ or ‘respectful’, you are opening a rather large can of worms for a rather large number of misconceptions.
And one of the biggest tends to be that advocates of this type of parenting do not set any limits or boundaries; they are too ‘nice’ to their kids even when they’re ‘naughty’, and their kids rule the roost and do as they please.
So, is this indeed the case?
Well, yes and no, but mainly NO!
Why? Because setting limits and boundaries is absolutely considered important. It’s just that the aim is to do so in as peaceful and gentle manner as can be mustered.
But I get it, it’s confusing. In fact, it was properly getting to grips with this that helped me make the biggest leap in terms of my own parenting confidence. So let me explain.
As much as you may not want to label yourself as a certain type of parent (me definitely included!), the nature of your day-to-day actions and behaviour with your kids inevitably means that your parenting does fall under some category or other. Psychologists have spent many, many thousands of hours researching and categorising and describing parenting types (again, me included) and over the years a brain-numbing array of variations have been proposed.
And one of the most long-standing and commonly known ways of examining differences is to assess the degree of control and degree of warmth parents demonstrate toward their offspring.
So, if we imagine a line representing a continuum of these traits, right at one end there is the ‘authoritarian’ style of parenting:
As it sounds, authoritarian parents enforce strict rules, punishments and consequences, and the kids behave because they wouldn’t dare not to and are pretty scared of their parents. Authoritarian parenting by no means just refers to physical punishment – it also includes using threats of any kind and generally any method that subdues and scares the child into conforming and ‘behaving’. This is still common practice and pretty much how the majority of us were raised.
But it’s at the other end of the scale where the confusion comes; the opposite of this type of parenting, is not peaceful or positive parenting, but passive parenting.
This is extremely different; passive parents are identified as high in warmth but low in control. They don’t believe in punishment and they don’t want their children to be sad or distressed and so they find it hard to set limits. They want to be friends with them and will do anything to keep the peace.
At the beginning of my parenting journey, I would probably have said I was trying to be somewhere in the middle; in ‘control’ and enforcing boundaries but also warm and responsive. In reality, what tended to happen was that I’d lurch from one end to the other depending on my mood, energy and what the kids were doing.
Despite my background and research experience in this very area, I look back now and realise I was extremely confused about what all this meant practically, and exactly how to apply it to real-life, fuzzy-headed, sleep-deprived day-to-day parenting.
All I knew was that I felt uncomfortable and out of alignment with any kind of ‘authoritarian’ way of parenting. I kept noticing how much I disliked myself when I yelled or lost it, none of the countless strategies I tried made me feel good, and they didn’t even seem to be working or teaching anything.
And then it slowly started to dawn on me that parenting does not have to be about any degree of control at all; there are other ways to parent that don’t fit in with or belong anywhere on this continuum, approaches that focus on teaching, leadership and mutual respect.
And the ultimate light-bulb moment for me was the realisation that I actually had entirely faulty thinking about limit setting. Somewhere along the line I had absorbed the belief that raising your voice and being cross and authoritative was the only way to set boundaries and to exert ‘control’.
Truly getting that this is not the case, totally turned my parenting around.
And then to dig deeper and to find that all the latest research coming from extensive brain studies is totally in line with this way of parenting – and in fact can guide us in exactly how to help bring up our children – was, and still is, immensely exciting. How lucky are we to live in a time where we know how to best help our children’s developing brains rather than just muddling along and winging it? (See here.)
But to go back to the original point, a minor downside of an approach that strives to maintain respect, nurturing and emotional attunement throughout all interactions is that it can all to easily be misinterpreted as passive.
But as I said, a peaceful style of parenting is very different and cannot logically be placed anywhere on this spectrum at all:
Peaceful parenting differs from all approaches on this continuum because the underlying belief is that every child is born good and wanting to please, and therefore parenting is not about control but about developing an authentic, loving connection. Children are viewed as doing the best they can and deserve to be respected as unique individuals with the same rights as adults. As Dr. Seuss said, “A person is a person, no matter how small”.
And peaceful parenting differs specifically from passive parenting because proactive efforts to set limits and boundaries are definitely considered important. In particular ones that allow you to teach your child safety and respect for other people. For example, ‘No, it’s not okay to hit your brother. It’s okay to feel cross with him and feel like you hate him, but it’s not okay to hurt.’
But unlike authoritarian parenting, the aim is always to set limits warmly and calmly. Respecting a child as a whole person means avoiding coercing them into obedience, but instead gently leading them towards cultivating empathy, genuine values and an internal moral compass.
It is also important to mention that intrinsic to a peaceful parenting approach is a well-developed understanding and acceptance of emotions, both positive and negative. A passive parent will do anything possible to avoid tantrums or tears, and go out of their way to appease their child to avoid these big emotions.
Peaceful approaches to parenting, on the other hand, welcome these emotions as healthy and healing, and often go as far as setting limits for the child to push against in order to help release tension and tears in a healthy and supported way (see here).
If you are interested in exploring this further, check out my short e-Book on tantrums here and I also highly recommend Kate Orson’s book, “Tears Heal” and “Born to Thrive” by Harvey Merriam.