Writing yesterday’s post felt like channeling thunder. What I wanted to say was so big and so emotionally charged that it was all I could do to keep up with the words. (Just ask Dan how many times I jumped up from lunch to add one more sentence.) Creating like that, as a conduit rather than a miner, is every writer’s dream scenario, yet once the publish button was clicked and the adrenaline dissipated, I began to feel small and dangerously breakable. I lay awake a long time last night fighting the self-protective urge to turn on my computer and start deleting. Putting out something so personal yet so controversial for the whole Internet to critique felt like one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.
But then this morning dawned, as mornings tend to do, and the world feels like a gentler place. In fact, gentleness is exactly what’s on my mind today. You see, when I first found out I was pregnant with Natalie, my greatest fear was that I would fall into the same parenting patterns I had grown up with. I knew that abused children often grow up to become abusers themselves, their brokenness an indelible part of their identities, and the thought terrified me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I perpetuated the same kind of violence and mind control on my own children, but I didn’t know the first thing about parenting without using those tactics. I literally had no idea what I was doing.
The next part is very hard to admit considering what I shared yesterday, but I did try spanking as a disciplinary measure for a while when Natalie was young. I believed that if I didn’t, my sweet girl would become one of those children enacting demonic death scenes in the candy aisle at Target. I wanted her to have firm boundaries, and I knew of no way to enforce them other than a swat or two when she misbehaved. It was a far cry from the drawn-out beatings of my childhood, and I wanted to be proud of myself for punishing without abuse, but my primary emotion was still guilt.
I felt terrible for causing my daughter pain, however slight, and on the rare occasion when my frustration level made me eager to cause her that pain, I felt like a monster. Using spanking as a way to control my child went against every mothering instinct I had and required me to silence my heart. I wasn’t abusing my daughter, at least not in the way I thought of abuse at the time, but I was using the same line of reasoning as abusers from my past—assert your dominance, control your child, condition her to be unquestioningly obedient. The realization that I had been toeing the fundamentalist line all along churned like a live bat in my stomach.
I abandoned the practice almost overnight. I worried that I was giving up the one effective tool in a parent’s arsenal, but I was done deactivating my mama-heart in order to conform to advice I knew to be harmful. Furthermore, I was done viewing my children as military recruits who I needed to squelch and intimidate and drill into my image. I wanted to start seeing their independence as an unfolding gift rather than a threat and their curious, opinionated little minds as equally important as my own. My parenting style needed a makeover.
I wanted to write about this today because I know some of you come from backgrounds similar to my own and may be wrestling with your own fears and general feelings of lostness about how to parent without abuse. If that describes you, I just want to wrap you up in a virtual bear hug and assure you that there is hope. There is so much hope, friend. You can be a firm and effective parent without ever having to resort to violence or emotional manipulation. None of us is ever going to achieve a perfect parenting record free of regret, but I can promise you this—you will never regret choosing gentleness.
Eight years into mothering now, I have adopted some gentle parenting strategies that continue to work well for our family:
1) Natural consequences. Dan and I want our girls to grow up with a clear understanding of how their choices matter, so we try to facilitate natural consequences whenever reasonable. This doesn’t always mean something negative; for example, Natalie knows that if she gets ready for school quickly, she’ll have time for her favorite breakfast. On the other hand, if she dawdles or procrastinates, she’ll be scarfing down a banana en route. If Sophie refuses to put on a jacket when we go out, she’ll be chilly, and if she doesn’t eat the food on her plate, she’ll be hungry until the next meal. If the girls can’t resolve a sibling dispute, they will have to take a break from each other. If one of them hurts the other, she will have to find a way to make it right and mend the relationship. I could list a million other examples, but you get the idea; rarely do we come across a behavior problem without some kind of logical consequence that makes traditional punishment unnecessary.
2) Give and take. Once as a teenager, I arrived early to a babysitting gig and was shocked to hear the little boy ask his mother for a second yogurt and the mother answer “Sure!” The supremacy of “No” was so fundamental to the parenting philosophies of my childhood that it blew me away to hear a mom breezily honoring her child’s request. That moment has stuck with me, and it often comes to mind when the girls ask for something or when they assert their opinions in contrast to mine. It reminds me to pause and consider the validity of their desires, and I’ve grown increasingly less afraid of the word “Sure!” Fundamentalism would call that giving in, but my relationship with my children is only a tug of war if I make it so. Practically speaking, give-and-take means considering the girls’ counterpoints about why they don’t need a nap, saying yes to that nibble of chocolate at breakfast, and working together to solve family issues. Not everything needs to be non-negotiable.
3) Preemptive measures. When my girls get particularly cantankerous, I know they haven’t been getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, naptime has a tendency to turn into a battle when the girls are already overtired, so the smoothest way I’ve found to remedy cantankerousness is to make sure they get enough sleep in the first place. (When they get at least 10 hours of sleep a night, they are generally cheerful and easygoing all day. Less than that, and they turn into land piranhas by mid-afternoon.) Likewise, I know the girls tend to act out if they aren’t getting enough attention from their dad and I, so a little preventative play time can stave off a lot of interpersonal struggle. Anywhere that I notice a pattern of unwelcome behavior on the girls’ part—defiance when it’s time to leave the playground, whiny malaise after swim class—I look for a way to preempt the problem in the future (give them a 5-minute heads-up before we leave the park, pack snacks in the gym bag). Knowing what is likely to trigger unpleasantness in my girls lets me remedy many situations before they ever start.
4) Grace. Kids can be volatile creatures, caught up without a moment’s notice into a tempest of rage or an exhausted meltdown. I was taught that these episodes are unacceptably sinful behavior warranting extra punishment, but the reality is that young children go into meltdown mode because their emotional maturity is still developing and they don’t yet know how to handle surges of anger or helplessness or disappointment. For me, parenting with grace often means looking past “unacceptable behavior” and comforting the deeper issues at play. (I’ve shared stories about this here and here, and Erika’s account of unorthodox grace is a must-read.) Parenting with grace also means extending forgiveness to myself when I mess up, as I do frequently, and accepting my girls’ no-strings-attached forgiveness as well. Our relationship works the best when grace is flowing both ways.
These are just a few big-picture strategies, and I would love to hear your gentle parenting tips in the comments. We can all benefit from each other’s trial-and-error learning, non? If you’re interested in more on this subject, I’d highly recommend my friend Melissa’s series on Gentle Parenting Tools, and there are plenty of online resources for learning positive discipline techniques on sites like The Center for Effective Discipline and Gentle Christian Mothers. And please hear me—if you’re afraid of perpetuating the cycle of child abuse, hold that terrified, love-thirsty part of your heart close because awareness is the first step toward change, and you’re already there. You are not trapped in a style of parenting that goes against your instincts and betrays your own aversion to pain. There are other options, there is grace enough to lessen the sting of regret, and there is always, always hope.