I often come across parents who are frustrated and lost “he just keeps hitting me, over and over” “I know its normal for her age but she just wont listen” “I’m being calm and its not working!” and I wonder have they got the wrong end of the gentle parenting stick? I know I did to begin with.
When we first discovered gentle parenting I almost couldn’t believe it, how could it possibly work. How could people get their kids to follow instructions and behave without the use of time outs, smacking, bribes, threats, shame or punishments? At first we embraced the gentleness we started speaking kindly and listening more, we started accepting age appropriate behavior and it all seemed good. Except I was getting more and more frustrated as time went on and I started yelling more, “why isn’t this working I’m talking but she isn’t listening”. This is when I learnt my first lesson, talking alone doesn’t work, it really needs to be paired with connection (a hug, getting down or below their level, a gentle hand on the shoulder). This meant that gentle parenting was more hands on then I had first thought. I couldn’t just say “stop throwing” and magically expect her to stop, I needed to physically connect with her and put myself between her and the object/person, a gentle hand on hers as she prepares to throw a toy and some calm words “I won’t let you throw the truck, it isn’t safe” was most effective.
I learnt that when kids get wrapped up in their feelings their upstairs brain ( thinking, body control and empathy) shuts down, reasoning and logic go out the window. All those well meaning requests from me to “stop kicking” weren’t being heard. A child in tantrum is being ruled by their downstairs brain (fight or flight). I discovered that mirror neurons in a child’s brain are hard wired to take note of the emotional state of the people around them, what they notice influences how they react. So when your child is upset, yelling and kicking and you meet them with gentleness and connection they pick up on your emotional state and their brain chemistry begins to return to a calmer state. Not all kids will be ready for a hug when they’re upset, but by being present and remaining calm and confident you are still helping them to reconnect.
Now I thought I had it all figured out. I needed to use less words and I needed to connect a lot more but what was I supposed to do when she disagreed with my limit? It didn’t feel gentle just letting her cry, it felt disrespectful to tell her to stop crying and it felt permissive to just never set a limit. I knew that I struggled to deal with her big emotions, I felt like I needed to stop her tears or prevent them but I also knew I wanted to raise my children to have better emotional intelligence than I did. So I went digging and then I stumbled across Janet Lansbury’s article “don’t fight the feelings” www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/dont-fight-the-feelings/ I knew I had the final piece to our puzzle.
It was immensely liberating to discover that I didn’t need to silence my kids, and I think it was liberating to them to know that their big feelings were heard. To be able to say no to buying that doll and still cuddle them because they were upset made everyone feel better. Accepting a child’s feelings is accepting who they are, all of it, the good the bad and the ugly. It helps build connection, trust and secure kids. In our house it looks like getting down to my children’s eye level (I might kneel down or lift them up) and saying “you really wanted that doll didn’t you? Its really hard when you can’t have what you want. I’m here if you need a cuddle?” they feel understood, they feel heard. If anything it makes it easier to hold a limit because there is no need to silence the child, I don’t need to give in to the limit, there is no need to bribe threaten or shame them into silence, all that’s needed is acceptance.
I’ve had people tell me gentle parenting is permissive, that we will create wild children with no regard for anyone else. I refuse to believe that, how can something that involves connecting and accepting our weakest and most vulnerable members of society produce anything other then respect and admiration? Gentle parenting is a lot of hard work to begin with, but it pays off hugely in the long run. Don’t feel defeated when you hit a road block or something just isn’t working choose connection, choose empathy and choose acceptance. The world could do with a little bit more of each.