Teen's Perspective: What Peaceful Parenting Taught Me
I often get questions from parents unconvinced of the effectiveness of my parenting techniques. Fueled by a steady diet of conventional parenting rules concerning time-outs, control, punishment, and praise, as well as personal reflections on their own childhoods, they ask questions like:
“Does this stuff really work?”
“How do kids learn about consequences if they aren't punished?”
“Have you ever had to deal with a child having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store?”
I have a whole page on my website of letters from parents who have written heartfelt testimonials about the successful implementation of peaceful parenting. But these are just half the story -- the parent's perspective. Unfortunately, the recipients of all of our parenting efforts, our children, do not always have the verbal faculties to express their relief when their parents understand their upset instead of responding with anger, or their delight in special time, or why being held during a tantrum soothes their upset.
And then there are the million dollar questions. When a child is raised with peaceful parenting, will he or she learn to be a good person? Don't kids need punishment to learn the lessons we want to teach? What kind of person will they grow up to be?
So I have a treat for you--a first-person account by a teen of her infractions growing up, how her parents responded, and the effect on her moral and emotional development. The article was written by my former assistant Tess, a young woman who is a living testament to the positive effects of peaceful parenting. As a disclaimer, Tess is also my niece and I can attest to the truth of the parenting she describes, as I observed it during her childhood. She was not paid to write this.
My name is Tess, and I’m a happy kid. Well I guess I was a happy kid? I’m 22 now, so I guess that makes me a happy…young adult?
Last year I started thinking about the way my parents raised me for two reasons. First, my father died at age 61 from a stroke. In the aftermath of our family’s loss, I started to wonder why I held such a positive view of my parents. I asked my mother many questions about how they viewed parenting and searched for specific examples from my childhood that supported my positive view of them.
Second, I began to work for my Aunt Laura, also known as Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting, which introduced me to the joys and challenges of parenting, despite having no kids myself. I am truly inspired by my glimpse into the hard work parents do daily to support and raise their children to thrive in this difficult world.
As a side note, I know that skeptics of Dr. Laura often ask questions like “Does this crazy woman who thinks you can raise good kids without punishment even have kids?” I am here to assure you that yes, Dr. Laura has kids. Unless she hired actors to play the cousins I grew up with.
My parents were not parenting experts. My older brother was born the year How to Talk So Kids Will Listen (which my Aunt Laura credits as one of the first great parenting books) was published. They didn't go through any training or get PhDs in child psychology—and yet they seemed to get a lot right. Of course, they were certainly not the first parents to use these techniques. I think this proves that everyone already has in them the tools needed to be a peaceful parent; you just need to know how to access them.
While their background—a strong partnership, no major health or financial setbacks—certainly made parenting easier, my parents could have easily decided to parent a different way. Of course, children of all moral stripes come from all backgrounds. I have friends who were raised by single parents who turned out fine, and I also have friends from wealthy backgrounds who are deeply unhappy. It doesn’t matter what material possessions you have, it matters who you are to your children.
I suppose you could also argue that my naturally optimistic and agreeable disposition made me an easy child to raise—but that would be an unfair representation of my parents’ roles in my development. I didn’t raise myself, and I am who I am because of their parenting.
So what does a peaceful parent look like? Unfortunately, I do not have the faculties to recall examples of positive parenting from my infant, toddler, or even early school years. What I can recall, however, are a number of examples of positive parenting episodes from my tween years onward, which I can only assume are continuations of practices my parents instituted when I was younger. What I want to show here is that a parent’s actions and reactions, no matter how small, have long-term psychological effects. I’m sure many adult children could give examples of how a parental reaction triggered a long-term emotional characteristic—good and bad. How you relate to your children, through good times and especially bad, will have lasting effects on your future relationship and their worldview.
Examples of peaceful parenting:
Background: At age 7 or so, I experimented with stealing. My grand “heist” consisted of a few beads and a small wooden pop gun from the local toy store. Upon arriving home, the gun fell out of my pant leg where I had hidden it.
Parental Response: Mother: “Tess, what is that?”
“Did you steal that from the store?”
(I knew there was no point in lying at this point, she already knew the answer and was giving me the opportunity to practice taking responsibility for my actions)
She picked up the gun and spoke in a quiet voice, “It is not okay to steal. We are going back to the store right now.” We drove back to the store and I had to give the item back to the store manager. Afterwards she said “Thank you. That was the right thing to do.” There was no discussion after that.
What I Learned: Even if I make a mistake, there are ways to apologize and make amends. I did not feel like a screw up, just that I hadn’t made the right choice.
Later Result: I never stole anything again.
Background: My brother and I hated taking showers when we were younger.
Parental Response: Father: “You both have to take a shower tonight, it doesn't matter who goes first. I will flip this coin and you each pick a side; whoever wins picks who takes the first shower."
What I Learned: Chores aren't so bad if I have some control in the decision-making process.
Later Result: I still don’t like taking showers but I follow their lead and give myself a decision when I know I have to shower (“Tess, do you want to take a shower tomorrow morning or tonight? It’s up to you, but you have to do it no matter what.”)
Background: I did gymnastics for 10 years, starting at age 7. I “burned out” around age 15 and started to dread going to practice, despite having loved it for many years.
Parental Response: Mother, after the umpteenth time I broke down in tears after a grueling workout in high school: “Do you still want to do this? It’s not making you happy. It’s okay to quit if you want.”
After one meet at which I had won first place, I cried because there were still four weeks of practice left in the season. “Is this something you still want to do? You can quit any time you want.”
What I Learned: Just because you’ve always done something, that doesn’t mean you are less of a person if you stop it. It’s important to listen to yourself, especially if you’re doing something that’s making you sad. Her words after my victory were especially influential: it doesn’t matter what tangible successes you achieve, something is only worth doing if you like it.
Later Result: I stuck with the sport until I was 17 due to team spirit and wanting to support my high school. When faced with a similar extracurricular situation in college I remembered her words and felt comfortable leaving. I didn’t see it as “giving up” because I was listening to myself.
Background: After a lifetime of getting all A's on my report card, I failed the first AP calculus exam in 11th and got a D on the first report card.
Parental Response: Both parents, repeatedly: “Calculus is notoriously difficult. What are you finding hard in the material? Talk to the teacher about getting extra help.”
What I Learned: I will face difficulties in school and life, and there are people around me to help me. There is no weakness in asking for help when you need it.
Later Result: I eventually came around and I asked if I could see a tutor.
Background: I pulled the final calculus grade up to a B.
Parental Response: “What concepts were the hardest? How do you feel about calculus now that you understand it more?”
What I Learned: They didn't care about the improved grade, just that I had overcome challenges and learned new material. I found that I liked calculus, even though I didn’t get it at the beginning.
Later Result: The purpose of school and education is to learn and master challenging material—not to get good grades. This had lasting effects on my educational performance and happiness in college.
Background: I had a breakdown one night in the midst of applying to colleges and applying for scholarships. “I just don't want to write any more essays!” I sobbed.
Parental Response: Mother: “You’ve been working so hard on these; I know it’s really stressful. Go take a break. Breathe a little. When you’re ready to continue, do you want some help?”
What I Learned: Stress is a natural part of a hard work, but it doesn’t have to cripple you. Take a break, breathe, and slowly work through it.
Later Result: I finished the essays. I manage stress well.
Background: I was rejected from 6 out of 7 of the colleges I applied to, including all of my top choices.
Parental Response: Both: “This really sucks, but let's be grateful you still have one more option. Let's think of ways that the one remaining college is a good fit for you.”
What I Learned: After acknowledging an initial disappointment, choose to be optimistic and grateful for what you have. You don't always get your first choice, but that doesn't mean you can't learn to love your 7th.
Later Result: I had a fabulous college experience. I have not let subsequent rejections (scholarships, jobs) stop me from trying.
Background: In response to a bad car week (my brother and I both got in small car accidents; I got a parking ticket), my father sat us down. Having never employed grounding as a punishment, my father fumbled for words.
Parental Response: Father: “I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I think you guys should take some time off from driving to think about your skills. I will take you for practice if that would help.”
Brother: “Okay, that makes sense. Sorry again about the accident.”
Me: “Sure, sounds fair. How long are we talking here?”
Him: “…A week? Does that sound good?”
Us: “Sure, that sounds good.” End of discussion, no ill will.
What I Learned: Mistakes and bad behavior can have consequences, especially in the “real world.” When a person in authority responds to bad behavior with a fair explanation of the consequences and reasonable and appropriate restriction of rights, all parties are more willing to comply and learn from the mistakes. This method is better than threatening or punishing.
Later Result: We have not committed any driving infractions since.
Background: After discovering the booze-y world of college, I was caught drinking in a dorm room with some friends during my first year. While a number of my friends swore not to tell their parents and avoid telling the truth to the judicial board so as to avoid punishment, I called my parents the next morning to tell them what had happened because I didn’t want to keep a secret from them.
Parental Response: Father, calmly: “Are you okay?”
“What did you tell them?”
“What are the consequences?”
“A fine, community service, and a class.”
“Okay. I trust that you'll do what they ask. Does this make you think twice about your decision-making in the future?”
“Yes. I will avoid those situations in the future and make smarter decisions.”
“That sounds about right. Thanks for telling us.”
What I Learned: If I make a mistake or make a stupid decision, I can tell my parents and they won't get angry. Instead, admitting when I was wrong builds our mutual trust in the context of a larger discussion about peer pressure, decisions, and alcohol.
Later Result: I reevaluated why I was drinking so much and reconsidered the effect peer pressure was having on my social activities. I did not stop drinking, but I was much safer about it.
So thank you Mom. And thank you Pop, wherever you are. Have I told you recently that I love you? I look forward to the day when I have kids, so I can parent the way you taught me how: with love.
Peace and happy parenting,