Lately, I’ve been exhausted with motherhood. For whatever reason, there have been power more and more power struggles taking place in my home than I'd like to admit, and I, in turn, have been struggling to keep my cool. My kids and I don’t understand one another, and it shows in their behavior. Sometimes it's because they're tired and cranky, but other times it seems like they are acting naughty for the simple fact that they just want to be bad. Timeouts only exasperate the situation, and I am left hopelessly frustrated.
Gentle parenting is a parenting style which encourages partnership with your children rather than the traditional authoritarian power dynamic between parent and child. According to TheConversation.com, gentle parenting encourages a conversation between parent and kid. They encourage choices, not demands, and take a playful approach to raising kids. Bad behaviors are described as just that — behavior — and proponents of gentle parenting make sure the emphasis on "naughty or bad" behaviors are placed on the action, not the kid who performed it. Gentle parents also believe in letting emotions run their course, and they don't force affection on their children when they don't explicitly state that they want it. Maybe my kids were acting out because whatever I'm doing isn't working for them. What if a gentler approach was what they needed?
I knew there had to be another way, and I had to find it fast. When I first heard about gentle parenting I was skeptical, but the more I learned, the more intrigued I was. Since the authoritarian power dynamic obviously wasn’t working for us, maybe the opposite would.
I was a little wary that this method would simply turn me into a doormat to be trampled beneath the tantrums, but at this point, I was willing to give anything a try. I decided to dive fully into gentle parenting for a week to see if I could learn some new parenting tricks and to see if my kids' behaviors were any different as a result.
My first day of gentle parenting was totally uncharted territory for me. I had to set a reminder on my alarm so I would start the day off actively thinking about my parenting choices. So much of parenting, for me, boils down to habits that I've formed over time, born out of ease and necessity, like barking out morning orders and giving ultimatums about putting on your shoes right this second. I needed to break myself of my routine responses and start working with my kids to see how our family dynamic might change.
Instead of telling my son to get dressed for school at a certain time, I brought it up immediately after he woke up, asking him if he was going to open his curtains and get dressed for the new day. Framing it as a question rather than a command seemed to help him feel like he had more control over his morning, and by allowing plenty of time we avoided the last-minute panic that usually comes on the heels of telling him to get dressed over and over again.
I felt a small sense of victory over the morning chaos, which set us up to enjoy the rest of the day without the stress which often lingers after a morning power struggle.
Although the first day of my experiment had been successful, I wasn’t totally sold on gentle parenting yet. Some days are simply good days, and maybe the stars had all aligned to make the previous day peaceful and stress-free. I wasn’t sure my kids were capable of being good “partners” in the running of our daily family life, but I was going to find out.
I asked my kids’ opinions of how we should lay out our day so we would have time to enjoy being together as a family, and get our work around the house done. My kids, of course, wanted to play as the first thing on their list. They brought out dominoes and Candyland and a plethora of books, which was all fine and dandy until their grandmother came by and wanted to take them out, and I was staring down a humongous mess on the living room floor. When presented with the opportunity to help clean up their mess so mom wouldn’t have to do it all, or leave immediately for lollipops and playground time, guess which one they chose? Ding. ding, ding: candy and the park.
Later, after they returned home and the house was clean, they wanted to play again. I told them I didn’t want to play, because it made me sad that I had to clean up all the mess alone earlier. My son thought about this for a moment then offered to play LEGOs so we could all clean up together when we were done. I agreed, skeptically, to his plan — but as soon as we finished playing he and his sister sang the clean-up song and helped willingly until every piece was put away. Maybe something about this approach was working after all. Even though I felt like I was playing up my emotions too much by saying I “didn’t want to play,” it created space for empathy where normally there would just be consequences (having the toy taken away if it wasn’t cleaned up or not getting to play something new until they cleaned up).
Up until day three, we were riding a relatively smooth gentle parenting train. All that changed when my kids got into a massive fight over a bowl of white rice while I was breastfeeding the baby in another room. My son came barging into my room, and despite me mouthing for him to "GET OUT NOW" (not really in line with the gentle parenting, but for god’s sake, the baby was this close to napping), he refused to leave without airing his grievances over his sister taking all of the rice that was meant for them to share for tacos.
Mom, she’s not even eating it! She’s putting it all over the table and she’s not letting me have any!
At this point, the baby was not going to sleep, and normally, this would be prime time for “everyone gets a timeout” while I figure out what to do with this sh*tshow. However, I gave myself a reminder to work with my kids rather than jumping straight to punishment, and went out to see the desecrated taco fiasco. I took a deep breath, took it all in, and despite the rage coursing through my veins for numerous reasons, I attempted to talk them through what was happening emotionally. I knew my daughter was tired, and so I asked if she would like to go lay down and she agreed (while rubbing her eyes) that this was indeed what she needed. After cleaning up and getting my son more food, we sat together and talked about why it was important not to interrupt me while I was feeding the baby, and why he shouldn’t scream in his sister’s face while she is doing something she shouldn’t.
The whole ordeal left me completely spent. To be honest, whisking everyone away to timeout would have been a much easier solution requiring far less patience and critical thinking. However, when all was said and done, I was glad I'd taken the time to walk them through their emotions rather than banishing them to their rooms because I couldn’t handle them. I felt like I had set a good example of patience in my parenting — I had been exactly the sort of mom I wanted to be remembered as.
Even though things had been going fairly well in my opinion, my older son woke up on the wrong side of the bed on day four, and every little thing seemed like a struggle. Even when I asked questions to help him feel included in the decision-making process, he would snap at me and give me a nasty attitude. When I told him it hurt my feelings when he used that tone of voice, and that we should speak kindly to our family, he got angry and told me to stop and said, "I know."
I was getting so frustrated with his disrespectful behavior I could hardly stand it. Again, I had to take a step back from my immediate anger with him and try to figure out where his emotions were coming from. I asked why he was feeling angry and he didn’t know. There was clearly some emotional need that wasn’t being met so after his sister went down for nap, I offered to sit with him and talk about his day. That’s when it came out that someone at school had called him mean, and he didn’t like being called mean, and it made him feel sad.
Now the lashing out made sense. We were able to talk about how he could approach kids who were saying he was mean — how his body language and voice might be perceived if he was acting the same way he was acting at home. I was able to hug him and let some of that anger dissolve in my arms. It was heavy stuff to cover. There was so much to talk about beneath the surface behavior I took for granted as “naughty.” I felt like there were so many signals I may have been missing out on by taking the easy route of punishing, rather than understanding, my kids’ actions. I was shocked by how hard these conversations were, but more so I was blown away by how necessary they were. It felt like taking a gentler approach was helping us get to the root of the problem faster, and I was grateful for it.
On the fifth day of my gentle parenting experiment, I took my daughter to the local children’s museum with her friends while her brother was at school. Normally we go through hell trying to leave any kind of play situation, which usually ends with her slung over my shoulder kicking and screaming until I put her in the car. I was interested to see if taking a gentle parenting approach would change this situation at all when it was time to go home.
After talking to her about how much time we had spent playing and the fact that we needed to make lunch and pick her brother up from school soon, I asked her if we could leave together walking nicely to the car. I told her if she was a big helper and came with me to make her brother lunch, I would feel more inclined to visit the museum again next time. I braced myself for the fit of illogical fit of rage and the attempted run-away situation we always have — and yes, I mean ALWAYS. So when she took my hand and walked all the way out to the car without so much as a word of protest, I was dumbstruck. If this was the sort of results that came with gentle parenting, I was sold. I didn’t care how much extra time we had to take explaining and hashing out emotions, this was a breakthrough, and I felt ecstatic.
The next day after school drop off, my daughter was playing with her friends on the playground as she usually does, but she was in a really ornery mood. She wouldn't share with her friends and flat-out disobeyed me when I asked her not to do things she knew were against the rules. As much as I wanted to whisk her away as punishment, I decided to try to talk to her, which didn't go over well at all. Not only did I end up looking like a total pushover in front of the other parents, I also ended up failing on the gentle parenting front when we eventually had to leave with her kicking and screaming. I felt embarrassed and frustrated, and wished I had just punished her from the moment she started misbehaving. What was the point in gentle parenting if she was still going to act out like this?
However, once we got home and I had a chance to give myself a timeout to calm down, I was able to talk to her again about how her behavior made her friends feel. She said she was sorry and instead of continuing her whining and unpleasant attitude, she decided to snuggle with the cat and read a book. Then she told me she was tired, and we laid down for a rest. I'd learned so far that no matter how terribly my kids were behaving it was because there was something else going on just under the surface and I was just usually too frustrated to see it clearly. It made me realize that this extra time and effort was necessary if I wanted to get to the heart of their behavior problems, even if that meant feeling uncomfortable in front of other parents every once in a while. Besides, my parenting choices are mine to make, and if parents are going to judge me for doing what feels right then I shouldn't worry about their opinions anyway. My kids, not my pride, need to come first.
The last day of my experiment came after a very restless night with the baby. I was the one who was not in the mood to work with my kids and gentle parent on day seven, not the other way around. Even though I tried to remind myself to talk with my kids as partners, I was not patient enough to partner up with a 2 year old and 5 year old that early in the morning. After my son interrupted my breastfeeding twice in a row, I snapped at him and told him to go to his room until I was finished. When I went in to him, he looked totally defeated. Part of gentle parenting is admitting when you are wrong, which meant not blaming my son's actions for my behavior.
When I apologized to him for the way I acted, it put us back in balance. He even apologized for interrupting me without being told to say sorry. I thought empathy was too weighty a concept for a 5 year old, but it turns out I was wrong.
Was Gentle Parenting Worth The Extra Effort?
Even though this was one of the most trying weeks of parenting I've ever had, it was also one of the most rewarding. Being able to relate to my kids on their level really did make their overall behavior improve. I'm not sure I'd be able to keep this up all day every day, simply because it's so emotionally exhausting, but trying to talk through my kids' problems is definitely something I'm going to try to do more often. It illuminated so much about why they act the way they do, and not once were they just "being naughty" for the hell of it. Taking the time to slow down and really understand my kids was definitely worth the extra effort, and even though I was skeptical going into this experiment, I was definitely happy with the results.