Gentle Discipline and “The Real World”

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

How do parents who believe in natural/attachment parenting recommend that I deal with other people’s children who behave in “aggressive” ways toward my own children? I’m talking about hitting, screaming, grabbing toys, mostly among toddler/preschool age children.

And in a related question, how do you respond when another parent criticizes or offers discipline suggestions for your own children in similar situations? We socialise widely with people who have lots of different approaches to child rearing (not just NP). One mum said to me last week that maybe I should discipline my son when he showed strong emotion. It almost made me feel pressured to rethink our own gentle parenting path.

I’m worried about sharing (both teaching my child to share and sticking up for him when others are trying to take toys away), I’m worried about how he will relate to other children down the line in school, I’m worried about how my children will react to adults and teachers who don’t do gentle discipline. Will I ever need to be concerned that gentle parenting will not prepare my children for the “real” world?

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Seonaid: To answer this one, I’m going to have to talk about my philosophy of being human, which is what leads to my parenting approaches. We are all struggling with agency and conformity, and finding the right place to walk between those two positions. We’re still doing it as adults, but I suspect that most of us in this community have moved towards the Agency end of the spectrum, or we wouldn’t be questioning so many of the assumptions about what it means to be a “good parent”. (Or even say parent instead of mother in that sentence.) As a result, we think about what we are doing differently.

I am not raising my children to be convenient for the school to deal with, I am raising them to be autonomous agents who understand that there are social limits, not because people say so, but because we have responsibilities to other people. After this many years, I have become that mother – the one who says to a random 11-year-old on the playground, “Please don’t throw those rocks. The little kids will start doing it, and someone will get hurt.” And when she stared at me (because people don’t do that around here) I repeated, “Please put down the rocks.” And she did. I don’t know where her mother was. I don’t really care. I took a position of responsibility for the community of children, and took a gentle approach with a child I have never seen before or since. And in the moment, it worked. But to be clear, my success in staying calm and communicating in this situation was built on a decade of practice.

In general, it is not expedient to take a gentle parenting approach. It takes time, and it takes practice, and it works slowly. It is at odds with the demands of our culture for immediate pay off. We are expected to “make” our children behave – all the time. And if they don’t, we are accused of being deficient, inadequate, “bad” parents, or we are afraid that we might be. What we need to remember for ourselves in the face of this criticism is that we don’t own our children, and we can’t control their feelings. We can only help them work with them, name them, express them, and tame them.

I’ll give my oldest son the stage here for a moment, because he was always taught that it was OK to get upset, and OK to express it. He also happens to be “touchy” and prone to “over-reacting”, that is, crying when he is frustrated or when things don’t turn out the way he expected. We started doing deep breathing with him when he was a baby, so by the time he was about 18 months old, he could use it as a calming down strategy (that has worked with all three of my kids, BTW). But he still has these surges of emotion that bubble to the surface, resulting in tears. I have them too, but I’m a woman . . . and feelings are considered feminine in this culture.

He is now in Grade 6, where the boys are starting to look like little adults, and gearing up for Junior High, the universal hazing ritual of our culture. So we talk. We talk about feelings, and the social construction of masculinity, and what it means to be a kid who cries when he gets upset. He had a bad day last year, and the teacher called me to let me know. It happened to be just after they had been covering emotional intelligence in health class. When he got home from school, I said, “I hear you had a difficult day. Your teacher said you were crying and she had to send you out of the room.” (The teacher was concerned that he would be teased. Which he is, was, and has been. He’s short, brilliant, physically awkward, sensitive, and just . . . different.) And he said to me, “It’s OK to cry, Mom. It’s OK to have feelings and express them.” And I couldn’t contradict that, because it is exactly what I’ve been aiming for all along.

As he has gotten older, I have had to become more sophisticated in my reasoning. I have had to be honest about the fact that most people don’t agree with that position, or with a lot of other things I/we hold to be true. My position on it now, arrived at in conversation with my brilliant and sensitive son is this, “You get to choose how you want to be in the world, but it comes with consequences. You have to decide how much you are willing to compromise what you believe to conform, and how much flak you are willing to accept when you choose not to.” Just because nobody has a right to abuse you doesn’t mean that they won’t. You don’t have to accept it, but sometimes you can’t prevent it before the fact.

Which brings me to disengagement. It is my position that opting out of an unreasonable situation is a perfectly reasonable response to the “real world”. I offer you a quote from Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” If we are going to undermine the assumption that power-over is the only way to live, and that self-repression for the comfort of others is the correct choice, we need to make different choices. If we really believe in our children and their right to autonomy, we need to support them and provide them with the resilience to stand up in the face of domination. Which means that we need to help them think in extremely sophisticated manners, far before the age that they would normally be expected to. But I have discovered that it is possible.

Which I know is not a very practical response, but I see this question as really about negotiating boundaries, between your children and other children, you as a mother and other mothers, and you and your child. So I would consider these situations to be teaching moments for both yourself and your children. (And an opportunity for practice. Yay.) I found Alyson Schafer’s book, “Breaking the Good Mom Myth” to be useful for me to work towards not judging myself through the eyes of other mothers. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it, but that’s almost always true. Also, if you haven’t read Marshall Rosenburg’s “Non-Violent Communication”, it has both a philosophical position AND practical skills practice for implementing these strategies. It also has a two-page list of feelings words that can be very useful in beginning the “more sophisticated” conversation. Good luck with your practice.

Mandy: I can sympathize with your situation. I’ve been (and still am) the parent of gentle children who sometimes find themselves at the end of another child’s more aggressive behavior. Depending on the situation, we’ve used many strategies to handle it.

There have been times when I have physically put myself in between them and stated that my child dosen’t like [insert whatever]. My husband and I have discussed with our children that they can tell anyone at anytime that they don’t like something. They are also free to always come to us. There have been many times when I could diffuse a situation by using active listening. In a few extreme cases, our family (children included), has opted to stay away from families with overly aggressive children and parents who stood by watching without intervening.

Our children will encounter many people with many varying personalities and experiences in their lifetimes. I refuse to believe that this is a reason to change how we treat our children. The negative experiences and people they may meet are even more reason, in my opinion, for them to have a respectful home with understanding, connected parents to come home to. Home should be a safe haven from the world as children learn to navigate it. As parents, we are here to be effective consultants and guides to our children. How we treat them will reflect in how they treat others, us included.

The next time someone criticizes your parenting and you feel you are right, simply say, “This works for us.” They may be interested in learning more about your perspective. If not, you can remain firm in your beliefs and kindly let the other person know that it isn’t up for discussion.

You might be interested in reading Dr. Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child and Gordon Neufold’s Hold On to Your Kids.

Chris: The most important point in gentle discipline is to remember that children are just miniature adults. A child should not be treated differently JUST BECAUSE they do not have the life experience of an older person. What a child needs, then, is not discipline in the traditional sense. Rather a child needs a mentor, someone who DOES have life experience and can guide a child in the right direction. This is the clearest reason to use gentle discipline methods, I think, as it shows the utmost respect for your children’s personhood.

With that in mind, it’s best to treat your child, and his peers, as you would want to be treated and in the way you’d treat your own peers.If someone took something from you, is it not within your right to claim it back? The same goes for your children, though they might need a little help in doing so. When helping, you should try your best to see things through the eyes and limited understanding of these little people. Now if there’s physical harm involved, I step in immediately and get the rascals separated. But often the best thing you can do is stay out of the way – children have amazing abilities to solve some of their own problems! Listen to your gut feelings.

As for answering the questions of others … sometimes the best answer is simply to give basically no answer. “This is how I prefer to do things” is a more than sufficient answer for someone who only wants to criticize and is not open to what you do. For others, an explanation of your child as a human being deserving of the same respect you ask of yourself might be a good conversation starter.

As for things in the “real world,” gentle discipline goes a lot further to teach that than most other methods. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but in the real world, adults must interact with mutual respect and dignity for one another – and these qualities are the very ones your child is seeing modeled day in and out via gentle discipline. But teach your child that he/she will encounter people, even people in an authoritative position, who do not show this kind of respect to everyone. But also teach them that they should never be in an uncomfortable position and that it’s okay for them to say, “no.”

Photo credit: zumbari

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