I’m no hippie. I drive a gas-guzzler, let our children watch television, and definitely hit up the drive-through for nuggets when it’s been one of those days and a from-scratch organic dinner is just not happening. But since becoming a mom almost four years ago, I’ve realized that there is one camp of motherhood I’m leaning toward over the others, and it’s got a kind of annoying name: Gentle Parenting.
Don’t get it twisted: this is not the uber-popular “attachment parenting” wherein you do literally every single thing in a day with your small humans somehow attached to your body. I love my children but I also love my sleep — and my privacy in the bathroom. I believe in letting toddlers wander and explore, and while cuddles are phenomenal, I categorically will not strap a one-year-old into a carrier and drip sweat all over her in favor of watching her toddle around on those chubby little legs and reach up for my hand when she wants to.
But when it comes to how I approach daily interactions, and discipline, with my kids, I’ll go ahead and accept the “gentle” label. In our home, we communicate, we don’t spank or let them cry it out, and we work toward swift resolutions together. Don’t cast me out yet; give it a try:
Instead of a time-out, take a time-in.
I picked up this hokey-sounding idea in a mom’s advice network and I couldn’t be more grateful for the tool. After trying unsuccessfully for months to get my then-two-year-old daughter to sit in a time-out after an episode of bad behavior, I was at my limit. The kid just would not sit in a corner and cool off. And frankly, I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do!
Also, something about the whole shame motivation behind time-outs never really sat well with me. I get the positives: kid gets a minute to calm down and parents do, too. Reflection is good when we’ve been out of line. Brief isolation can breed thoughtful reactions.
Okay, but also, we are talking about toddlers here! If any of you honestly has a toddler who sits down quietly in time out and contemplates his actions, then returns with a renewed attitude, I would like to know your secrets. But most of the ones I know, or at least the two I’ve birthed, just don’t handle isolation that way. In this house, being remanded to a corner, a chair, or even a separate room breeds an even more explosive tantrum.
What I do now instead is take the bad behavior as a time to lean in to my child instead of turn away from her. I ask questions, use my brain to figure out what’s beneath the meltdown. At this point in life, we’re looking at pretty simple triggers for the most part: exhaustion, hunger, and jealousy being the top contenders. But now that she is nearing four and can express her young emotions with some clarity, taking time in to talk through the problem calms us both down faster.
Don’t hit; hug.
I wasn’t spanked as a child, and I’m really glad I wasn’t. We had consequences like lost privileges or time spent contemplating our mistakes, but my parents didn’t raise their hands to us and I refuse to either. Here’s the thing: no matter how petulant your child is being, spanking is not only useless but can have serious consequences down the line.
I’ve really never understand what parents are trying to achieve by hitting their kids. If it’s to instill fear, that makes no sense to me. Why not strive for respect rather than fear? (Also, if you’re going for fear, a thunderous yell should do the trick — I was pretty scared of pissing off my father as a kid, but he never once hit me. That bellowing yell was enough to stop us in our tracks).
Honestly, my guess is that spanking is usually a reflex used out of frustration and anger. You’re tired of the terrible behavior, you feel at your wit’s end, and the simplest way to shock the child and make the behavior stop (for the moment) is to strike them. But this type of reactive parenting is not only giving kids mixed messages (you don’t want them to hit people, but you’re showing them that that’s how you handle your frustration?); it’s also not going to fix the behavioral problem.
Believe me, I understand the temptation to smack some sense into them. My kids are terrors when they’re over-tired, hangry, or simply don’t like the shoes I picked out for them. When my three-and-a-half-year-old is acting like a total sassafras I get down on her level and give her a hug. It kind of shocks us both into calming down more quickly and reminds her that even though I hate her behavior in that moment, more importantly, I love her.
Hear them out.
This goes back to timing “in” versus “out,” but I make it a point not only in the bad-behavior moment but always, to check in and listen. While my littlest doesn’t speak yet, I pay close attention to her visual cues and plan my own choices accordingly. Eg: if she’s rubbing her eyes or cranking out over nothing, it’s not a great time for me to take her to a music class or let her play independently while I shower.
And as for my eldest, we discuss what we’re going to do before we do it. I give choices so she can feel some version of control. I explain what will happen if we don’t follow the plan (because I will not reward bad behavior with ice cream, play dates, and so on), and most importantly I ask her what she thinks.
I think some people get the wrong idea about these conversations. I can’t tell you how many times another mom has clicked her teeth or rolled her eyes when I tell them that I ask my daughter about her feelings. But they’re people, too, and we don’t always have to agree. I don’t suggest, either, that you build your days entirely around the whims of young children. However, open conversations, even ones that make it clear the child will not be getting her first choice, are important.
Relax and be mindful together.
I practice yoga with my children and break down the philosophies into terms their little minds can understand. We talk deep breaths, do mini-meditations, and incorporate simple poses into our daily lives. (The older one knows that lying on the floor with her legs up the wall helps her calm down, and she does this often, and unprompted).
I also focus on the positives. I know it can be hard to do in the moment, but when I’m feeling especially challenged by the daily troubles of raising little kids, I take a moment to remember how fortunate I am to be their mom.
The most important part of all this, probably, is self-care. It’s trendy to talk about, but are you doing it? Time away from your children to relax, refresh, and remember who you were before you had them will definitely help you get through the hard moments. I don’t see how I could be a “gentle” parent if I wasn’t also being gentle on myself.