Although the mother’s tone was pleasant enough, every word that she spoke to her child was a directive, a correction, or a reprobation. “What color is the slide? I know you know it. No, it’s blue. I expect more from you than that!”…”I’m not going to push you on the swing unless you pump your legs. Bend them. Now straight! Bend! Straight! No, you are doing it backwards. You have to try. You are not trying enough.”…”You need to wait to climb up there until the other children are off. Get down and wait. You know better than that.” I see it all the time. I see it in parks, in stores, when I take my children to the children’s museum, and pretty much any place that families gather. I notice the commanding tone parents use and the stern look in their eyes when they speak to their kids. I observe the frequency with which they correct their children and the infractions they deem worth public correction. Often I see this happen not when the child is being truly unruly, but when they are just being curious, when they are simply unaware of social custom, or even when they are doing nothing wrong at all.
Even though I believe whole-heartedly in peaceful parenting and treating children with the same respect and consideration that one would show an adult — or perhaps even more since a child does not have the same abilities as adults — I don’t judge such parents. I used to be one.
I sometimes shudder at the things I hear parents say to their children, but I remember saying and doing similar things, and in my worse moments, sometimes I hear those things coming out of my own mouth still. Luckily though, even though I am by no means perfect, I’ve come a long way from where I once was. I once believed it was my primary duty to make sure my children acted perfectly polite and genteel at every moment of the day. Also high up on my list of parenting priorities was teaching my children obedience. The result of this way of thinking was that I monitored my children’s behavior like a hawk, swooping in at every hint of self-will. It was exhausting. Observing, correcting, barking orders, punishing every infraction all day every day. Toddlers, not being generally known for their polite, conciliatory natures, made this stage of parenting particularly burdensome on me. Although I loved my children fiercely, motherhood was absolutely exhausting, especially when I became a stay-at-home mom when my oldest was three and her younger sister, six months. As a new mother, it was a lot of pressure.
I also wonder about the children. What kind of pressure are they under when every action is monitored and corrected? What does it do to their psyches when it appears to them that those they love most in the world, their parents, are completely annoyed by their presence, and sometimes say as much to others within their earshot? I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that a child in these circumstances has two choices, to become angry and rebellious at the way they are treated and act out because they are not connected and grounded to anyone, or else to become a compulsive people-pleaser, unable to truly relax into herself but always feeling that she must try harder and do more to earn the love of others.
At this time of year, I also witness the memes about the parents crying tears of joy at the thought of their kids returning to school. I wonder if this mentality, this pressure, and the utter sheer exhaustion of this parenting paradigm is what fuels some of that, and the near-constant comments I hear about my lifestyle. “You homeschool? I could never be with my kids all day.” “You have four kids? I don’t know how you do it. Two was all I could handle.” I think behind their eyes I see some pity as they imagine me tearing my hair out all day from the frustration of having to deal with four of these little humans day in and day out, without break. I have my moments of course; frustrating and exhausting moments a part of parenthood. However — and this is a very important distinction — they should be moments, smaller pieces of time within the context of a much larger, joy-filled whole.
I think our culture has forgotten this. Parenting is supposed to be a joy. We are supposed to delight in our children and our children should see and know that we delight in their presence. Do parents need alone time? Absolutely. Do we need time and space to recharge and pursue our interests outside of childrearing? Of course we do. But if parenting feels like a burden the majority of the time and the hours with our children are characterized by stern words, and feelings of frustration and burnout, then something is wrong and it needs our attention. Don’t tell yourself that this is just the way parenting is. It might be the way parenting is in this culture, but it is not how it should be.
Luckily for me, I stumbled onto the notion of peaceful parenting early in my parenting journey – shortly after I became a stay-at-home mom and struggled with the exhaustion of it all. I remember one day, feeling defeated and overwhelmed, praying to Mary, the Mother of God, to help me to be the mother my children needed me to be. The very next day, my answer came, and I discovered a different parenting paradigm. This new paradigm said that a parent’s primary duty wasn’t to ensure correct behavior at all times, but to model respect. It was not to force obedience, but to nurture connection. This new paradigm held that children have as much dignity as adults and so we should not say or do anything to a child that we would not say or do to an adult whom we respected.
This was radical, but so appealing. I mean, it’s radical as far as treatment of children goes. It’s more commonly acknowledged that this is how our adult relationships should be managed. I don’t publicly correct my husband when it comes to his faults. Either I patiently bear with them, or I try to talk to him about it in private and with sensitivity to his feelings. Similarly, if I am crabby and being rude, my husband doesn’t ground me or yell at me and threaten me with punishments unless I get an attitude adjustment; he asks, “Is something bothering you?” because he knows there is something behind that behavior.
When it comes to children, it is stopping to consider their needs and feelings, and considering how to approach a situation while respecting their dignity. Maybe it means removing them from the situation if they are in danger, maybe it means taking them aside to address the issue in private or at a later time, and maybe it means not addressing it at all because who among us would want to be around someone who pointed out our every fault? It takes a long time to learn how to control one’s emotions and how to act in every situation. This is something I am still learning as an adult! So simply acknowledging that they are children and these things take time I think is often times sufficient.
Before I found peaceful parenting, my oldest had a habit of biting her nails constantly; once I started parenting differently, I noticed that she had stopped. Later on, I wrote this:
I realize now that a lot of the things that I said was for the good of my child, was really for my own convenience. I didn’t feel like playing at the park any longer; I didn’t feel like helping my daughter find a different outfit to put on that she would like better; I didn’t feel like fulfilling her requests that were inconvenient to me, so I said no. Of course, when I am with my friends I like to take as much time as I need; if I wish to change my outfit, I can do so. But small children are not able to do many tasks by themselves and they rely on our help and on our patience in taking the time they need to explore and play (which is their work). How ironic that we expect children to learn to be patient and thoughtful, but we can so often be impatient and dismissive of their wants! I must be thoughtful of my child’s wants before I can expect her to be thoughtful of my own or anyone else’s. I must be willing to change my schedule to accommodate her, before I can expect that she will stop doing what she is absorbed in to accommodate my needs. If children have equal dignity, then we should take their feelings seriously.
Although dealing with less misbehavior was not the goal of this way of parenting, it was a beautiful side benefit. Just like me, when I feel connected and accepted by someone, I am eager to help them however I am able and I am also free to work on my faults from my own self-motivation. I’ve learned children are the same. I’m positive many misbehaviors are prevented by nurturing a strong connection with my children, and when they occur, trying to connect with them instead of punish them has reaped many benefits.
When I came across peaceful parenting, on one hand it took a lot of effort, because it meant I had to learn new ways of handling situations and I had some bad habits to break. On the other hand, however, it was very freeing. I remember being able to simply enjoy my children, to be able to see them and to try to understand them as persons, instead of always evaluating and judging each thing they did. Maybe for the first time, I could enjoy them and try to get to know them instead of always coming at them with an agenda of what I had to teach them.
In this exhilarating, difficult, amazing journey called parenthood, if we are not enjoying it, it may be that, like I was, we are so busy focusing on ‘what’ our children need to learn (and all the things it is our responsibility to teach them) rather than taking the time to enjoy ‘who’ our children are and the moments we have with them. Of course, mental health issues, like depression, could be a factor as well. Or maybe we are trying to do too much and we don’t have the parenting help and the breaks that we need. Maybe our children need help, professional or otherwise, in learning how to deal with life. Whatever it is, I’m positive that lack of joy in the journey should be our wake up call. Being exhausted, stretched, and angered or miserable all the time is not “just the way parenting is”. We’re meant to take joy in our children, to enjoy their presence, and I’m sure it is a vital need of everyone — adults and children alike — to really see and experience that the people we love delight in being with us.