"Isn't there a time and a place for a parent to
just plain 'be in charge'? So often, and especially now, with this new
approach, she pretty much does whatever she wants...I don't want my
child to be an uncontrollable brat." - Amber
It might seem like just letting your kid do whatever she wants would make you more peaceful. No struggle, right? But that lasts for about three minutes.
What makes a peaceful parent is regulating your own emotions so you can stay lovingly connected, to help your child process hers. That's what helps kids learn to manage their emotions, so they can manage their behavior -- and so they want to!
So peaceful parents are always "in charge." Young children are new on
the planet, and it's our job to be their guides. Otherwise, kids keep
pushing to make sure someone is "in charge" and will keep them safe.
That's part of providing a peaceful, nurturing, joyful, safe home so our
children can thrive.
Of course, there will still be times when your child does get to "do whatever she wants." Often, that's because you approve of what she's doing, like building a sandcastle on the beach. Sometimes it might be because she really wants something, and you decide you can live with the results, like having a sand table in the house. Sometimes it might even be against your better judgment, but you decide to give it a try and supervise her, like building a sand castle in a plastic bin in your kitchen. And yes, sometimes you'll just let things go because you're holding the baby and you can't intervene, or you just don't have the energy for a fight or a meltdown. So you decide it really isn't a big deal if she brings some sand from her sandbox and dumps it on the floor to play. That's known as choosing your battles. But in all of these cases, you're not abdicating. You're making a decision.
Peaceful Parenting means you regulate your own emotions first. Then, you try to see things from the child's point of view, so you often look for a win/win solution that lets the child get some or all of what she wants. But you don't let your child "do whatever she wants" if you really think the answer should be No. You may not think what your child wants to do is safe. Or maybe you just can't handle cleaning up another mess, because it will send you on a slide into resentment and yelling. After all, you're trying to meet your child's needs, but your needs matter, too, if you're aiming to stay peaceful!
So Peaceful Parents DO say No. And it's not bad for your child. In fact, that experience of "switching gears" between what he wants, and what you're asking, is what develops the part of the brain that gives your child self-discipline. But there IS a catch. When kids feel forced and pushed around on a regular basis, it causes resistance. That's why external discipline doesn't actually develop self-discipline. The trick is to stay connected and empathic, so your child knows you're on his side, and therefore WANTS to cooperate with your request on some level, however reluctantly.
Does that mean your child will just happily cooperate at those times? Unfortunately, no. Often, she'll still object. How can you stay peaceful and positive?
1. Stay calm. When you go into "fight or flight" your child will certainly spiral out of control. If you can stay calm, your child is more likely to cooperate. Research shows that just noticing your breathing will keep you calmer. It also helps to notice your thoughts and intervene as necessary. For instance, "Why is she doing this to me? I can't take it!" might become "She's acting like a child because she is a child...I'm the grown-up here...Whatever happens, I can handle it."
2. Empathize. If your child feels understood, she's much more likely to accept your limit. "You really wish you could...You're so disappointed...That makes you sad..."
3. Remember that children only accept our leadership because of the relationship we have with them. If they resist or defy us, it's a sign that we need to focus on connecting with them. If your child often refuses to cooperate, be sure you're spending daily Special Time. Every family I know that has made Special Time a priority has reported a more peaceful household. But the catch is you can't just read books or make cookies, you have to give your child a chance to process emotion. Otherwise, your child's full emotional backpack may drive him to "act out" those feelings. What's So Special About Special Time?
4. Renounce punishment. If you've been swatting your child's hand or dragging her to timeout, you can count on her being less cooperative. That's because she doesn't believe you're truly on her side. And she isn't developing the part of her brain that allows her to switch gears -- because why should she? She's being forced from outside, so she isn't developing self-discipline. So when you make a request, she doesn't have the brain control or motivation to comply, unless you threaten. (See What's Wrong With Strict Parenting?)
5. Look for a win/win solution. Okay, so she can't climb up on
the pantry shelves. But can you get the stepladder with her and spot her
to climb up? Most of the time, if you clarify your concerns, you can
find a way to meet both your needs. This doesn't mean you go to heroic
lengths to meet her desires all day long. It means that your child knows
you're on her side, and that you'll try to balance her desires with the
rest of the family's needs.
6. Welcome the meltdown. There are times when you just can't find a win/win solution. Your child's every desire does not have to be satisfied. In fact, often young humans (like adults) provoke a fight when they just need to vent. Especially if you're transitioning from punishment to peaceful parenting, your child may act up to signal that he needs your help to empty that emotional backpack.
So set a kind, clear limit and summon up all your compassion. That creates the safety for your child to show you his tears and fears. When he acts like it's the end of the world, remember that young children have big feelings, and their brains haven't yet developed enough to process emotions by talking. Accept his disappointment with as much empathy as you can, even if his anger is directed at you. Your compassion communicates that you know he thinks it's the end of the world, and you're sorry it's so upsetting for him -- but you also know that these are just feelings, which will evaporate once they're expressed, and the sun will come out again. That's how kids develop resilience.
7. Remember that being in charge means you act like a leader, not a dictator. Good leaders lead by example. They listen, try to balance everyone's needs, and protect. Being in charge means you take responsibility to provide a wholesome, nurturing environment. It doesn't mean you need to be controlling or punitive.
8. Take the time to process your own emotions about how you've experienced parents being "in charge." For instance, a mom whose own parents were authoritarian may feel strongly that she doesn't want to repeat that experience for her children. But she may get confused and not set limits at all. That doesn't help her kids. (See What's Wrong with Permissive Parenting?) And most likely, she will end up yelling when things finally get out of hand. Kids without limits always push us to our limits.
If, instead, we can let ourselves feel all those childhood emotions of how alone we felt, how hurt, how sad .... they no longer control us. We won't go into fight or flight when our kids are upset. We're free to set limits and guide our child with empathy. When we lose it, we can ditch the guilt, step up our self-care, and reconnect with our child
Letting kids just do what they want wouldn't be good for them, or for us. But the wonderful thing about empathic limits is that they help kids WANT to cooperate.
So you get to be more peaceful.