“Fine!” my 3-year-old daughter huffs. She storms across the room to me as I hold her younger sister, arm up ready to hit either me or the baby. I’ve just told her to put her wellie boots on instead of her sparkly shoes for the park. It rained earlier, and I know how much she loves jumping in the puddles. Her repeated frustration at this and her need to take out her discontent by hitting one of us is annoying — no, triggering — me, because I’m so done having this altercation every day this week, I don’t actually want to go out to the park today, and I’m tired of all the age-appropriate but still irritating whining over all the tiny details and whims of my daughter’s day (read: blue cup instead of the pink one or insert any other favorite household object combination here).
She whacks a hard one on the tiny leg dangling down my side, and it hurts us all: the baby’s crying, my heart rips a little, and my daughter’s uncontrolled anger frightens her — even if she doesn’t yet appear to be affected. I instinctually lean toward gentle parent, having learned about the practice along the way, but this is one of those moments I find myself questioning how best to parent my children. Asking myself does gentle parenting actually work?
Next thing: I either lose the plot and shout back at her in a tone that drips with aggravation and scramble to win back my “ultimate authority” threatening her with no park outing, or I take a deep breath and guide us both back to peace and kindness toward each other.
When I yell, I’m never actually in control — not of myself or my daughter, and I’ll never feel good about the future outcome even if it does settle the issue for the moment. But even a mindful approach is tricky.
“I’m going to step away now, because I can’t allow you to hurt anyone, but how can I help you feel better? Can we count and breathe together?”
“No!” she snaps back.
“Okay, come join us when you’re feeling better,” I nearly whisper, breathing my own way back to calmness as I ready our things in the hallway.
“I do feel better,” she says only 30 seconds later not fully able to self-regulate of course. She follows me into the hallway in need of connection.
Arms free now with the baby in the pushchair, I kneel down to her. She nestles in. It’s here my instructions and explanations of why her boots are the better option are heard today. Maybe tomorrow it’ll click, and she won’t protest. Maybe not.
I’m not a fan of living in the tension of such grueling repetition, but disciplining as a gentle parent is a long-term process with a vision of my child’s potential and the state of our future relationship once grown, not a short term fix to an embarrassing public tantrum or even those dramatic, no-one-is-watching-so-I-can-loose-my-sh*t-in-private ones. That’s why discipline isn’t actually a word I’m using or a practice I’m trying to master. It’s all navigating emotions and helping to shape impulses into choices.
Sometimes, I’m exhausted by working so hard.
Being of the opinion that traditional behavior modification techniques (spanking, use of fear or manipulation, and even labelling behavior as good or bad) are harmful, and choosing not to use them in my parenting approach, is next-level self-improvement and refining. I’ve never worked on myself more than now! There’s really nothing like having small humans around you all the time for improving your ability to be patient and kind.
It's easy to roar out my demands and generally upstage my daughter with control and clever negotiation tactics; it’s a natural tendency — that’s why my child is already doing it — she doesn’t need that to be modeled to her. It’s much more work to journey this part of her childhood and the rest of her life together, offering her the respect and kindness I would any other adult (who else here is still learning how to do that?) Almost no one sees that very personal work, and I’m not generally getting accolades for it.
But it’s more than just the invisible strength of knowing how and when to open or close my mouth. Sometimes, I’m exhausted by working so hard, especially when shouting or even smacking out of anger and frustration happens. And then after apologizing without getting anything (much) back in return, I feel like I have nothing left to give. But still finding a way to pick up the pieces and move through our day accordingly takes the very unseen strength of gentleness towards myself. Gentle parenting, I’m learning, means treating everyone in my household, myself included, with grace.
Not all gentle parents are mild-mannered and mellow by nature and not all gentle-parented children are either.
I’m convinced that my children observing me first-hand admitting all my ups and downs in parenting is going to do them so much more good than me perpetuating the idea that parents are never wrong. Even when I’m not calm, the very act of me apologizing for that breach of the compassionate family atmosphere I’m trying to set for them is gentle parenting.
There's definitely a vibe online that makes gentle parenting seem so dreamy and perhaps unattainable or that only some personality types can achieve it. Some demystification here: not all gentle parents are mild-mannered and mellow by nature and not all gentle-parented children are either. My family is proof: the definition of mild-mannered is about the most opposite description of who I am nearly four years into motherhood with two children, and my 3-year-old can easily be described as a walking whirlwind at times. We’re all fiercely stubborn in my family. I exhibit all of the emotions, and I’m never trying to actually hide my own responses. I’m trying to let them flow from a place of peace first. Collecting them like fireflies in a jar before I put them in front of my daughter to examine. I aim to model self-control, not repression or passivity. Modeling an ability to not let anyone’s outbursts become my own. Validating emotions without approving disrespect. And it is no easy feat.
But if I can accept the fact that I can change no one’s attitude or behaviors but my own when it comes to navigating my adult relationships, then I have chosen to extend that same mindset to my relationships with my children. “Don’t let her behave that way” is like saying “disregard her childhood,” “MAKE HER PERFECT NOW!”
She actually needs to be allowed to grow and learn, to be given space to make mistakes. Instead, I am trying to cultivate and nurture her emotional intelligence. We are all a work in progress no matter our age. If I trust that my child will get “there,” coming to a place where choosing to be kind and considerate becomes her second nature, that belief empowers her to do so. The real invisible strength of not trying to change my children is giving them the power to shape themselves.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve created a maze for myself that I can never get out of in giving space to the complexities of childhood and parenthood to run their course instead of using the seemingly black and white techniques of traditional parenting that tend to quell all multiplicity. But the potential ramifications of the latter — stifled children prone to resentment — spur me forward in the hopes that my children will understand and know themselves and their world much better in order to thrive.
“You can do hard things,” I tell my daughter instead of “It’s not that hard,” when she’s experiencing doubt that manifests in griping or self-pity. I can do hard things, too — like parent her with mindfulness that tests all my limits.
Perhaps others can’t see that strength right now, but I’m confident I’ll see the fruit of it in time. Waiting is a super power.