If I had to give my sons advice about parenting, it would be: “Parent as I do, not as I did.”
I was nineteen years old when I had my first child. I had no idea what I was doing and I parented in a traditional way, even using spanking as a “discipline” method. I recall raising my voice often to try to get him and his brother to listen. Our home was either very peaceful or very chaotic. Truly, there was no in between. I know that this type of environment had a lasting effect on my sons and there will always be a part of me that regrets that, but like Maya Angelou said, “We do our best until we know better and then we do better.”
With my daughter, I see that the tactics I used back then were used by default, because I didn’t know of any other way to parent. Everyone I knew parented the same way. When I had my daughter, I was almost twenty years older than when I had my first child. I guess you could say I was older and wiser. I’d seen examples of how other parents raise their children and not all of them were shouting to get a point across (or shouting and still not getting a point across).
I noticed with my oldest that being almost constantly grounded was utterly ineffective because we’d be going around in a negative circle for months. Literally months! At one point I realized I wan’t parenting at all, I was simply holding him hostage. He was doing things that required consequences, let me assure you of that, but what his behavior didn’t require was a cut off from me, which is what I feel his groundings did. Besides, grounding him didn’t work at all. Most of his bad behavior was at school anyway, so what good did it do to ground him at home? I couldn’t ground him from going to school.
What I noticed in my younger son was avoidance. He was rarely in trouble, but he was also very timid around me. Apparently my traditional fear-based method “worked” on him and made him fear me rather than respect me and made him afraid to take any risks as a child. I find this just as unhealthy as my oldest and his overly risky behavior.
Thankfully I had enough awareness to notice these things and I slowly began to change how I parented my sons. It took a long time for my younger son to open up to me and now that he’s a father (a very good and gentle father), we are much closer. My oldest and I have had open communication over the years and are also close, though not as close as we once were with the changes happening in his life. Good change that happens as we all grow into adulthood.
What I’ve learned over the years is that parenting is not about matching a punishment to a behavior. It’s about communication and love. It’s about helping children see that their behaviors have natural consequences. It’s about supporting our children as they experience those natural consequences. Now, if your child is doing something illegal, you may not want your child (or yourself) to face the natural consequences. In a case like that, perhaps you could call a professional. If you’ve not had open communication with your child over the years, maybe there is something the child is going through that he doesn’t feel comfortable discussing with you and could benefit from an objective ear.
Communication is vital – from day one.
Honestly, I wonder how our relationships would be if I had been more gentle and more open with my sons at an early age. It’s hard to say. It’s not worth questioning, really, because we all take our unique paths in this life. Everything happens for a reason. We live learn, grown, change, and continue. That’s life. Perfection is not an option and even the best gentle parents screw up, question if what they’re doing is right, and cry themselves to sleep some nights. We’re human.
How can we parent more gently? Here are a few ideas:
- Don’t say no right off the bat. Talk with your child about how something might be able to happen. Include them! If they want something, they can help out to make it happen and then it’ll mean so much more to them.
- Sit next to your child when you speak with him.
- Listen to your child’s concerns without getting defensive. Parenting is a very personal thing and no child comes with a guide book. This can leave us feeling very vulnerable, but we can’t take it personally if our child points out a valid negative against our methods.
- Give your child positive, specific support each day. Did she share nicely today? Tell her that. Did he help the neighbors without being asked? Tell him how cool that is. I’m not saying we have to shower our kids with constant praise, but giving specific positive feedback is a great way to show support.
- Tell them you love them every single day, even when you’ve worked long hours, even when they’ve been behaving difficultly, even when you’re sick and tired. Assure your child on a daily basis that you love them dearly.
- When your child talks to you, put down your phone turn from your computer and give her eye contact. It’s the respectful thing to do and you’re modeling appropriate behavior.
Parenting is not easy. When is it ever easy to share twenty-four hours a day with another human being over a long period of time. We’re each unique, with unique interests and ideas. It’s no wonder we can sometimes struggle as parents, or revert to traditional, ineffective methods. We’re human. It’s okay to screw up sometimes, as long as we show some grace and apologize to those we’ve hurt – in this case, our children. If we want them to grow up to be respectful, kind, generous people, we have to model that behavior and show that same behavior to THEM. If we don’t teach them that they deserve this type of love and respect, then that’s when we’ll likely find them struggling with difficult relationships and risky behavior as adults. Even worse, we may lose them entirely. I know many people who are estranged from their parents, or who have very tumultuous relationships with their parents.
I don’t know about you, but I’m working hard to try to ensure that that doesn’t happen with my children.