When a friend recently talked about ‘Gentle Parenting‘, or parenting without punishments or rewards, I will admit to first having to look up the term, and second thinking that can’t possibly work.
After reading the list on this blog, I realised that I’d been practicing a version of this parenting philosophy, without knowing there was a name for it. There is no blueprint for successful parenting, and I wouldn’t say that I am an expert, but these are the tactics that have worked for me, and my family.
We respect each other. This is central to our family life. When my son was about 9 years old, he went through a phase of being slightly selfish, and wanting things done HIS way; we struggled to get him to understand that his behaviour affects the rest of the family. He’s a numbers guy, and loves maths, so I explained that our family was a square, with a person at each corner of the square. When one person is more important, or dominates the family, it pulls the square off balance. This really worked to help him understand the dynamics of the family.
Choice not Ultimatums
One of the best parenting books I’ve read is How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. I can highly recommend this, even for those with younger kids. The thing that stuck with me most is to turn the ultimatum around – a very simple but effective trick.
“If you don’t put your shoes on, we won’t go to the park”
“Put your shoes, and then we can go to the park”
Turning the ultimatum into a To Do List takes the pressure away, and stops you boxing yourself into a corner. How many times have you threatened something, and then felt you had to see it through? Even if it meant spoiling the day for yourself, or the other children? Try never to give an ultimatum, as it is very difficult to walk it back.
Another tip from How to Talk. How annoying must it be for kids when they tell us they are too warm/hungry/not tired and we respond, ‘Oh, but you can’t be! You need a jumper/have just eaten/need a sleep’! Accept what they are telling you, and respond with empathy instead of brushing them off. This one is really important because it is vital that kids learn to trust their feelings and instincts.
Never Say Never/Always
This one was from a very early Parenting course when my oldest was in Kindergarten in Germany. The leader of the course asked us to imagine this scenario.
You are at work, and you forget to refill the paper in the printer. Your boss comes into the office and starts ranting. “Oh, for goodness sake. Look at the state of this! Why do you always forget to refill the paper. Can’t I leave you alone for a moment, without you doing something wrong? You always forget. And another thing, last week you left the light on when you went home, and you always forget to log off the computer properly”.
Imagine how awful you’d feel, but then think of this scenario.
You go into the kids’ room, and discover LEGO all over the floor. “Oh, for goodness sake. Look at the sake of this room! Can’t you ever play without making such a mess? I was only away for ten minutes! It is always the same.”
Sound familiar? I’ve done it, and I still catch myself doing it, but I try not to. The words ‘you always’ and ‘you never’ are banned in our house. Deal with the situation at the moment, and wipe the slate clean every day.
Diffuse tension and difficult situations with humour. I’ve heard from friends who surprised their tantruming toddler with star jumps, and I’m finding as my kids get older, retaining a sense of humour is becoming ever more important. My daughter is 12 years old, and increasingly stroppy – typical tween behaviour, and nothing troubling. I have to bite my tongue sometimes and try not to react to her grumpy comments, otherwise we end up in a vicious circle of sniping.
It can be incredibly hard to come up with a funny response after a long day, but it is worth it. You do have to watch that you still take the emotions and worries of the child into consideration – see the point of allowing feelings. Don’t use sarcasm. Kids don’t understand it; it confuses them and is hurtful.
Accept Children’s Personalities
Adapt your approach to each child. My daughter is more sensitive and a bit of a worrier, so I have to ensure that I take time to listen to her problems and respond. My son is more secure and self-assured, but still needs attention and care – just in a slightly different way, as I mentioned above with the square analogy. What works for one child, might need adjusting for the second or third child.
No Forced Apologies or Hugs
A forced apology is no apology. We’ve never made kids say sorry for this reason. People sometimes say this is learned behaviour, and I agree – empathy is learned behaviour. Making a child say sorry when they aren’t really doesn’t teach them anything except how to get out of trouble by lying about being sorry!
I am very against forcing kids to give grandparents or family members a hug or kiss when they don’t want to. It is vital to respect the boundaries of children, and allow them autonomy over their body.
Rewards and Punishments
This is often misunderstood. When I say that I try to parent without punishments or rewards, people think that I let my kids do what they want. I don’t. There are consequences to their behaviour, but they are not intended to PUNISH the child. This is interesting on the topic of rewards and punishments, and how they lead to an unequal relationship between children and parents.
Like many parents, we tried all the suggestions that were given at the time when our kids were toddlers. Time Out, Naughty Step, Star Chart, Pasta Jar… Nothing worked because they are all sticking plasters, covering the actual problems of behaviour.
There are consequences of bad behaviour, but they are in direct response, and connected. I do find this tricky sometimes and admit to getting it wrong – most recently when son had issues at school and we banned the Xbox for a week. I knew immediately afterwards that it was wrong, and struggled to articulate why. That was when my friend talked about Gentle or Unconditional Parenting.
The response to bad behaviour shouldn’t be to punish, it should be to teach the child the natural consequences of their actions. This could be – for younger children – removal of the child from the situation, or for older children, removal of internet privileges (e.g. if they’ve broken internet rules).
Let Kids Win
Sometimes you have to let them ‘win’. This was something that my husband said when our kids were little. You have to let them win their argument, and show them that they can persuade with words and not with tantrums or violence. Don’t be afraid to back down or change your mind, if presented with a compelling argument. It teaches kids that no one is infallible, even parents make mistakes, and that it is ok to admit it.
Does It Work?
Well, my kids are still growing, but so far I would say yes. We have a good relationship, and the kids are respectful, polite and generally well behaved. Yes, they test the boundaries at times, but that is normal, and is to be expected. I try not to be too strict, and have always allowed them quite a bit of independence. The interesting time is coming up, as they move into puberty and their teenage years. I will let you know in 8 years!