22Mar

Parenting: The Big, The Bad, and The Gentle

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.

Grace 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.

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8 comments

  1. thanks for sharing this post. I’ve been reading the last couple of weeks, and when you shared your thoughts on spanking and abuse, of course the question was, “how does she respond?” We’ve found spanking largely ineffective, and use time outs until they calm down to teach boundaries.

    Loved your thoughts on paying enough attention to get a head of the bad behavior. We have one kid who needs to know the schedule of the day, or he gets grumpy when we change activities or locations. He’s really a sweet boy, and just giving him notice of a change in a few minutes really has helped him understand what we want him to do.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  2. GREAT stuff Bethany; so much to digest from this and the previous post.

    FWIW, my parents did use spanking, but not on all of us kids. They found it ineffective on one of my brothers, because he took it personally and didn’t understand it as punishment; he saw it simply as violence, so they used alternate methods. With me, they did use spankings along with other more “punishment fits the crime” type techniques (like what you’ve described), and I never doubted their love through it. They would always refrain from spanking when angry (taking time to cool off if needed), and would always have a long conversation (and a long hug) with me pre and post spanking.

    The neat thing was, they adjusted this as they learned more about their children. My younger siblings were spanked little to none, and as I grew up they apologized for spanking me so often as I saw the changes they made.

    We’re working through this same type of process with our children, and PRAISE GOD that He gives us grace as parents, amiright?? It’s tough to learn how to parent firmly but with grace, and we’re hammering it out through lots of reading, praying, and (frankly) trial-and-error (mostly error, it seems like some days!)

    We definitely do spank some, but it seems like we’re transitioning out of it to a large degree, and I thank you for putting it in this light. We’ll definitely need to pray seriously about doing away with it; we have many other “punishment fits the crime” type punishments that seem to be effective as well, and quite frankly, I hate spanking my kids.

    My dad used to always say it hurt him more than it hurt me, and I understand now what he meant. It breaks my heart every time, and maybe there’s a reason for that.

    Maybe it’s because it isn’t meant to be; on the other hand, maybe it’s a small picture of God the Father’s relationship with His Son. It broke the Father’s heart to put His son on the cross, but there was no other way to cleanse our sins. Maybe, in the interest of the big picture, sometimes the painful thing to do is the right thing to do.

    (I almost deleted that last paragraph because I haven’t thought or prayed it through really, but for the sake of honesty, it’s still there.)

    Any way around it, thanks for sharing Bethany. You’ve definitely given me reason to pray and think long and hard before I consider spanking again, and anytime you inspire that type of change in a parent who is already raising his children in a prayerful and intentional way, you’ve accomplished something great.

    Thanks again for your honesty and for allowing the Lord to speak through you; I’m sure it was painful and you feel vulnerable, but it was (in my opinion) the most important post(s) I’ve seen from you, and your posts are generally excellent. Have a great day. 🙂

  3. Wow, Beths, just finished reading both of your posts on this subject. I desire to give my kids the best parenting possible. You are so right that it is all about relationship. I loved the practical tips you gave for each scenario…praying for balance in my own parenting journey. You’ve given me much to think upon…

  4. I used to think that being gracious to my kids was equivalent to spoiling them. I have had such a hard time changing that way of thought. But now that I am putting it into practice more and more, I LOVE it! I love treating my kids like royalty, I love being gracious to them even when they are misbehaving. It’s so much easier than getting angry and makes so much more sense as I attempt to direct them towards God. Thanks for being so honest, Bethany. It’s such a blessing to read your blog.

  5. Big hugs and kisses to a brave and loving woman! God is good, and I am blessed to hear your story of growth beyond the abuse. I hope you’re enjoying a particularly enchanting day, as am I….. 🙂

  6. Another powerful post. What a gift you have given the world, Bethany. LOVE WINS.

  7. Awww . . . Bethany, I am so honored by the “nod”. I’ve been on a similar path towards gentle parenting, even writing “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” in sharpie all over my skin as a constant reminder in how to respond to my sons. I read this and can literally feel the Spirit’s longing for a new wave of parenting to wash over our faith traditions man-made methods of “discipline”. BRAVA, again.

  8. Jason – Thanks for your comment! I didn’t necessarily have a Part 2 in mind when I wrote the previous entry, but it begged to be written, and I’m glad to hear some of the same things work for you.

    Jonathan – Wow, you deserve an award for taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply! You know, I’ve noticed that about a lot of large families too, that by the time the younger kids around, the parents have settled on gentler discipline strategies. That says a lot to me about the wisdom that must come through parenting over time, and I personally know that your parents are stand-up people. I also appreciate your honesty in leaving your unedited thoughts. I know that a lot of people do apply the God-Jesus-crucifixion dynamics to parenting, but I’ve personally found that line of reasoning to lead in some pretty harmful ways. I’ve seen many parents within the patriarchy movement try to play the God-role within their homes, using God’s actions throughout the Bible as a template for how to treat their children, but it tends to result in some really distorted theology and can unintentionally block the children from a relationship with the real God. Definitely worth pondering and praying through. Thanks so much for your encouragement and for taking the time to share!

    Cals – I seem to remember you posting in the past about relationship-based, Spirit-led parenting as well. I love hearing from you, kindred friend.

    Sophia – Thank you so much for your kind words! It really does feel like a gift in the end to treat our kids through the grace-filter; so much more happiness all around.

    Hannah – Enjoying every one of those big hugs and kisses. 🙂 Thank you, friend.

    Megsie – You know, sometimes I think I should just staple a poster saying “LOVE WINS” to my blog and leave it at that. Everything I believe boils down to that in the end. xo

    TLA – Do you really ink that on your skin? I LOVE that you do that, and I love that it’s a concept you practice as well as preach with your boys. So grateful to be part of this new wave of parenting with you.

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