DO PEACEFUL PARENTS LET THEIR KIDS DO AS THEY PLEASE?

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.

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Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe and guide an internal sense of respect for their environment and community, as well as themselves and other people.

I am increasingly convinced that the less control and the more freedom we can give our children the better.  But as much as children need a calm, kind leader who respects their rights to independence of thought, feeling and action, they also need to know that they are safe and cared for.

If we do not help them manage their emotions and set some basic behavioural limits, they will end up feeling insecure and uncomfortable.   Limits around respect and safety are also vital in order for our own needs as parents to be met.

 

THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND BEFORE SETTING A LIMIT:

 

1. Make thoughtful decisions about which limits you will enforce. 

 

Try and ‘pick your battles’.  If you can, consider freeing them from as many arbitrary rules and restrictions as possibleOverly controlling and managing our children tends to be counter-productive and a better aim is to focus on helping them learn to be independent and trust themselves.

Will it teach or help them with something rather than being a random rule that you want them to follow because ‘you say so’?

Do you feel they ‘need’ this boundary for safety reasons?  For health reasons?  To show respect for the boundaries of others?  To help them feel your calm leadership and release emotional tension or big feelings?

Here’s two examples:

1.

For safety reasons (potential glass and sharp objects) I do not let my kids go out of the house without shoes where we currently live.  But I’m much more relaxed about coats; I trust that they will know if they are cold and will put it on when they are. 

2.

If my three-year-old demands a different cup to the one I’ve given, some days I’ll comply and other days I won’t.  If I’m not in a rush and neither of us are overly tired or hungry and I sense there is something he is holding onto and needs to release, I will maintain a gentle limit; ‘You’d really like your red cup, but I’m giving you the Thomas cup today’. 

Doing so will allow him to cry and let go of whatever emotional tension he’s holding onto and needs to get out (see below).  His request for a different cup is not about manipulation or stubbornness; it is the only way he knows at that moment to tell me he has big feelings about something (from earlier in the day or built up over time) that he needs to express in order to heal.  But if I sense it’s not a good time or I don’t have the energy to listen and support the emotional fall-out, it doesn’t matter.  Kids know how to heal themselves, and you can guarantee that he will find another opportunity to do so very soon (see here).

 

 

2. Do not worry about being religiously consistent

 

In-the-moment confidence and rational explanations are much more important than always feeling you need to enforce the same rules and limits (as in the cup scenario above).  Things change, moods change, everyone is different – and this is okay and a good thing, in fact, for our kids to learn.

Here’s an example:

Some days you might be up for supervising high energy bouncing games across the sofas and feel confident you can join in and keep everyone safe.  On another day, not so much, so just say it how it is; ‘sorry guys, no kangaroo games today, I’m feeling too tired to join in and keep you all safe.  How about you play on the trampoline or we play a board game instead?’

You may also choose not to set and enforce limits if you have guests or you are out in public, to avoid (as much as possible) making your child feel embarrassed or disrespected.  I’m not saying you should let them run wild, but if there is another way or another time, why not take that option.

I would advocate behaving this way even with very young children as they are absorbing much more from your daily interaction than is sometimes obvious.  Behave just as you would with a partner or friend; for example, out of respect, most of us would wait until we got home to point out or discuss something we didn’t like or felt was inappropriate rather than publicly shame them.

 

 

3. Is it a behaviour that could be re-directed rather than quashed?

 

Consider if you could avoid saying ‘no’ or setting a limit by re-directing the impulse.  A child who is throwing things around may simply need space to practise their lob.  This is particularly the case with younger children as their impulse control is so very immature and underdeveloped.

Rather than yelling and point blank shutting the behaviour down, could you try something like, “No I can’t let you throw that ball in here as there are breakable things.  Shall we go outside and throw balls in the hoop instead?” 

 

 

4. Can you use playfulness to turn things around?

 

If you have asked your child to do something you consider you ‘need’ them to do (e.g. put on their shoes) and they are ignoring you, could you try being playful or humorous before getting firm with a limit?

Be as creative as you can; use silly voices, pretend you don’t know how to put them on and keep doing it wrong, make it into a race, be a shoe monster who eats any shoes that are not on feet – you get the idea.   It’s surprising how much more fun the whole process becomes for you too, and your kids will feed off your relaxed playfulness and respond accordingly.

I try to only do this with things we ‘have’ to do, that are perhaps a bit tedious or dull – daily routine stuff like brushing teeth or tidying something away, for example.   It is usually not appropriate if your child is already cross or frustrated.  Trying to chivvy them out of a feeling is akin to trampling on that feeling and the opposite of being heard.  It would be similar to telling your friend how sad you are that your dog has died, and for them to respond with a ‘knock, knock’ joke to ‘cheer you up’!

 

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT WHILST YOU ARE SETTING A LIMIT:

 

 

1. State your limit warmly but decisively

 

You want to aim for a ‘calm and kind, but firm’ stance – think unruffled or picture someone you know who represents this state.  It can take a bit of practice to hard-wire, particularly if you’ve previously only set limits when you are already annoyed or triggered or exhausted from the repetitiveness of a testing behaviour.

Imagining it is somebody else’s child can also help (because they don’t tend to emotionally trigger you in the same way).  Or try viewing your child as if they are in physical pain (from a deep cut or something) as this helps distance yourself from irritation or thoughts that they are purposely being annoying or difficult.

 

 

2. Try not to shout, ‘act’ cross, get worked up or irritated  

 

You can still set and hold a limit just as effectively without doing these things.   In fact, if you are feeling frustrated and have lost access to your own rational brain, then addressing this first (if safe to do so) is a priority.  You will not be thinking clearly and will be unlikely to hold a limit with any degree of warmth.

We now know that shouting and yelling at a young brain doesn’t ‘work’ anyway; it activates their primitive fight-or-flight response  causing them to become further enraged and disconnected from their thinking brain (see here),

Bear in mind that even if you are not yelling or puffing smoke, a strangled huffy tone or a despairing, fed-up one will also send clear signals that you are not calm and centred.  As will towering over them, glaring, with hands on your hips!  Sorry, I know it does seem like it requires an impossibly unrealistic level of zen.   But this is only what you are aspiring to, it won’t happen all the time and neither does it matter.  It will gradually get easier and more automatic the more you practise.

 

 

3. Show that you understand their perspective

 

Not always possible I know, but if there is time and you can, showing empathy helps remind your child that you are not the enemy and you are on their side.  It is a natural response of all humans to resist being controlled, but knowing that we are understood helps a great deal to soften the blow.

Here are some examples:

I know you are having a lovely time, and now we have to leave 

I can see that you are cross, and I can’t let you hit your brother

I know you would really love an ice-cream, and we are not having ice-creams today.

 

 

4. If necessary, physically hold them

 

If you’ve clearly stated a limit as above and they continue to do something you deem unsafe or that you cannot allow (e.g. hurt someone, run away), you may have to physically step in.

As Harvey Merriam says, “Controlling our children should not be the first choice for intervening in their lives, but, if we do have to control them against their will, direct physical control is the way to go.” 

If they are trying to hit you (or others), block and hold their hands to gently restrain them.  Face them away from you on your lap if possible.  Let go as soon as they are no longer hitting, even if they are still angry.  You are only there to ensure safety, not to teach them a lesson or punish.  They are not hooligans or being ‘naughty’, they are in pain and not in control of themselves.

Speak minimally, if at all.  Gently murmuring that they are safe is the most you need to say (they won’t be able to absorb anything anyway) as your calmness and body language will do the rest of the talking.

 

5. Expect and welcome tears

Be prepared for your limit to unleash big feelings (or more big feelings).  This is not only okay but a normal part of the emotional healing process (see here for more on this).  Kids are allowed to have and express feelings in the same way as adults; they will undoubtedly be upset if we say they can’t have an ice cream, and that’s fair enough!  If their feelings are not allowed they gradually learn that there is a ‘bad’ part of them that is not acceptable which they learn to suppress.  These buried, unacknowledged feelings can be carried for many years and are often at the root of any number of later mental health issues.

So your job is just to listen with kindness and empathy to all these feelings.  Without, if possible, interrupting the flow by distracting, fixing, diverting, leaving, ignoring, soothing or shushing.  Sounds pretty easy?  It’s not!  At first, anyway – it’s amazing how habitual trying to eradicate or avoid tears becomes.   Again, just keep being aware and practising and it will gradually become your new normal.

 

 

 

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