I read two books in the past several months that have totally changed the way I parent. I won’t say parenting is necessarily easier or more enjoyable now, but for the first time I feel like I’m making the best choices for me and my family.
The first book was Dr. Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and the second was Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s The Conscious Parent. I’m not going to try to encapsulate the teachings of these books as I know I wouldn’t do either justice (and would probably end up doing them injustice), but I will say that together they have transformed not only the way that I parent, but also the way that I view parenthood. I wish I had read both years ago.
Changing the way I approach parenting has been difficult. And exhausting. New approaches aren’t yet habits and sometimes I’m not sure how to proceed. While I feel better equipped to handle many challenges with my daughter, others remain huge frustrations.
Hitting continues to be an issue in our home. My daughter is 4.5 years old and she still hits me out of anger and frustration. She doesn’t have a hitting problem at school and she rarely hits her younger brother, but she goes through phrases where she hits me (what feels like) constantly. I have been increasingly frustrated with this behavior and I recently purchased an hour long talk by Dr. Laura Markham on Setting Effective Limits to renew my confidence in my ability to deal with this issue.
About an half way into the talk I began to fear I had wasted my money. There didn’t seem to be anything here that I hadn’t read from her before: she suggested the best way to set limits was to create a strong connection with your child through quality time and play, to make a game of undesirable tasks and redirect when necessary, to set firm and consistent limits with empathy and understanding and to maintain a strong connection when doing so. She advised against “time-outs,” insisting that “bad behavior” was a call for more connection and suggesting “time-ins” to reestablish connection when a child acts up. I learned early on that time-outs were not affective with my daughter, so I was on board avoiding those, but I was waiting anxiously for Dr. Markham give tips on how to incorporate consequences meaningfully.
Finally consequences were mentioned, but I was surprised by the context. Dr. Markham believes that consequences aren’t necessary and that really they are just another form of arbitrary punishment. This surprised me, as I have always been a big proponent of consequences and have believed they are a necessary component of discipline. I turned off the talk, unconvinced. Were my consequences really just punishments, masquerading as something more meaningful? How was I supposed to set effective limits without employing consequences?
This is when I fell back on what I learned in The Conscious Parent. Instead of becoming defensive and shutting down to protect my ego, I approached the following days with an open mind and heart, investigating the times I used consequences with curiosity.
It turns out that sometimes, when I use what I consider consequences, I am actually enforcing a limit. When my daughter refuses to eat dinner and I tell her there will be no other food served, but she can come back and finish her dinner until bedtime, that is setting a limit. When I refuse to give her goldfish later, but remind her that she can finish her dinner (and offer to sit with her while she does) I am holding firm on my limit. When later, after she has brushed her teeth, I refuse her request to finish her dinner, I am again holding firm on my limit. These are not consequences, as I originally viewed them.
When my daughter calls me into her room at night, screaming that she wants me to cuddle in her bed, despite the agreement we’ve made that I will give her hugs and kisses and even sing a song but not lay next to her (I’ve been falling asleep in there and it’s really messing with my already limited sleep), saying that I will leave if she keeps screaming and doesn’t listen is not only an unnecessary consequence, but a threat. In fact, I’m threatening to do the one thing that would be most upsetting to her, all because, in that moment, I am overwhelmed by her show of emotion and want to control not only how she acts, but by extension, her actual feelings. It’s understandable that I’d throw down the gauntlet in this situation–I’m exhausted and I just want to go back to sleep. The last thing I want to do is reach down into myself and access a pool of legitimate empathy so I can be there for her in a meaningful way.
This happened last night. I made the threat that I was going to leave and then immediately recognized my error and retracted the statement. I stayed with my daughter while she railed against my limit of not getting into the bed for a full twenty minutes. The entire time I showed her nothing but empathy and eventually she told me I could leave and that she would snuggle her blankie instead.
It felt like a win, even through the haze of absolute exhaustion.
I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m getting better at keeping my cool and accessing my empathy–it helps that my daughter and I are scarily similar, and most of the time I can easily understand why she’s so upset–and I can see that our relationship is changing for the better. We’re still dealing with some of our same issues, like hitting when she is angry or frustrated, but I’m content standing firm in my limit of not hurting others without needing to add unnecessary punitive action. I hope that over time, especially as she matures, our connection will be strong enough to see us through whatever challenges arise and I’m excited to see how this kind of parenting nurtures my relationship with my son.