Gentle Parenting around the Relatives

I have to say, the #1 hardest time to gentle parent is when I’m around Pearl-following relatives. It’s actually one of the things I dread about visiting my parents house, because I know they will be watching my daughter for any error and chalking it up to the failure of my gentle parenting methods.

The problem is that the things they interpret as failure I interpret as success. They believe that immediate obedience and complete submission should be expected from children of all ages, and that training for this begins before the child can walk and should be basically complete in a child Sally’s age. The thing is, if Sally practiced immediate obedience and always submitted completely to my will, I would wonder what was wrong with her, where her fast developing mind and her desire to understand or find a compromise rather than to simply obey had disappeared to. And this difference means that no matter how successful I feel gentle parenting is being, my parents will always – always - see my parenting as a failure. 

I’ve had people express skepticism that my parents could really be that upset that I’ve decided not to spank. In my experience, most adults I know who have been or are parents think spanking is okay but should be used sparingly – only on a particularly intransigent child or perhaps to teach a child to stay away from roads, etc. Most people see spanking as just one tool available to parents, and one that should be used infrequently. If my parents were like most people, they might not understand my belief that spanking is wrong but they wouldn’t have a problem with my decision not to spank. Not so my parents.

Michael Pearl has many followers, and by far his most central issue involves the discipline of children. Under his child training views, children must be spanked for any act of disobedience, and spanked until they show submission. They must be expected to obey immediately and without question, and must be forced to submit their wills to their parents. Pearl explicitly teaches that children’s wills must be broken, and that if they are not, those children will grow up to be rebellious, unruly, miserable, and hateful. The key to successfully raising children is to break their wills in early childhood, and spanking, even beginning before a child can walk, is key to this process.

Because my parents are Pearl followers, I can say “I’m not going to spank Sally, I’m going to use gentle parenting” and what they hear is “I’m going to ruin Sally, causing her to grow up into a miserable, destructive, hateful person.” Is it any wonder, then, that they are so upset and concerned that I am not spanking?

The things Pearl tells his followers are lies, but I think they reason they can take root so firmly in people like my parents is that there are some parents who eschew training and teaching their children altogether and simple let them become selfish and self-centered. Think of the Dursleys in the first Harry Potter book. Dudley is given everything he wants, and pampered and petted by his over-indulgent parents, but he is still ungrateful, angry towards his parents, and completely unhappy. This sort of family has become a stereotype, a cultural meme, and for my parents this sort of permissiveness embodies all that is wrong with society.  The Pearls, then, convince parents that anyone not using Pearl methods – spanking and breaking their children’s will – will end up with children who are ungrateful, screaming, unhappy brats.

I sometimes think that parenting is a continuum between two poles. Obviously this is simplistic, but on the one side you have the parents’ needs and the parents’ desires held as most important and the child’s needs and child’s desires deemed irrelevant while on the other side you have the parents’ needs and the parents’ desires held as irrelevant while the child’s needs and the child’s desires are most important. Thus Pearl parents run roughshod over their children, requiring immediate obedience to parental commands and not allowing questions or objections, and the overly-permissive parents on the other side of the spectrum let their children run roughshod over the parents’ needs and desires, making life only and always about what the children want. Gentle parenting inhabits a middle ground on this spectrum, where the parents’ needs and desires and the children’s needs and desires are balanced. Gentle parenting is built on mutual respect and compromise. It means both parties need to give, both need to come to the middle and seek to understand what the other is saying.

At home, the sort of compromise and mutual respect I aim to achieve works fairly well. Sally doesn’t always get what she wants, but we don’t always get what we want either, and both sides listen to each other and try to understand. For example, a few weeks ago Sally wanted to take her hot chocolate upstairs. I told her no, because I was afraid she would spill it on the way upstairs. Her response? “How about mommy carry hot chocolate upstairs.” And I was proud of her. Sally is still very young, but already she knows to take my concerns into account and understands how to compromise. When we are at my parents’ house, though, this sort of compromise appears to be me accepting defeat. I said no, that should have meant no. What Sally did when she suggested a compromise my parents see as outright manipulation.

When I communicate with my daughter, trying to understand her concerns and find an acceptable compromise, my parents see me letting her rule me instead of insisting on her immediate obedience to my commands. While I see an occasional temper tantrum as natural for her age (and experts agree), my parents see any amount of fuss on my daughter’s part as a result of my failure to break her will. While I see Sally making suggestions and attempting to find a middle ground as a good thing, as her exercising her mind and thinking, taking my concerns into account and looking for a mutually acceptable compromise, my parents see it as my daughter manipulating me. I simply can’t win.

In the end, I know that what they think of my parenting doesn’t matter, and I find so much joy in gentle parenting – the joy of turning parenting into a journey of mutual understanding rather than a battle of my will against my daughter’s – that my parents disapproval quickly fades into the background. It’s just unfortunate to feel like the people who should be my biggest cheerleaders as I embark on the adventure of raising a child simply, well, aren’t.

I think that a large part of why my parents’ parenting views differ from mine stems from what they value. For fundamentalist Christians who believe in the importance of absolute obedience to God and upholding the patriarchal order, blind obedience and submission are actually upheld as values. In contrast, I value mutual understanding, an ability find compromise, and independent and critical thinking. It’s no wonder we look for different things in our children.

I still remember the moment, a few years ago, when I suddenly realized that blind obedience was actually a bad thing, not a good thing. My parents taught me growing up that obedience was a virtue. It’s not. Obedience for obedience’ sake means nothing. Why do I obey the law? Because I understand why the law exists and I know the consequences I would face if I did not. Why do I obey my husband? Oh wait. I don’t. Instead, we communicate, cooperate, and compromise. Why does an employee obey her boss? Because it’s in her job description, its necessary to run the company, and if she didn’t she’d get fired – oh, and sometimes she shouldn’t obey her boss, such as when her boss asks for her to do something unethical. There is nothing – nothing – valuable about obedience for its own sake. When I realized this, it was mind blowing.  And so, when I go to my parents house, I have to be aware of what I’m walking into, and prepared for it. I have to brace myself for the looks and the unspoken disapproval. Rather than simply enjoying their granddaughter, I have to be aware that my parents will be scrutinizing her every move, looking for something to disapprove of, something to prove that their parenting methods are right and mine are a failure, and since they value such different things than I do, they will find what they are looking for. I’d like to bring them this darling little girl of mine and simply see pride in their eyes, but I need to realize that that will not, cannot, happen, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Mommy McD

    I wrote a post somewhat similar a month or so ago, about why I don't stress obedience with my kids. I want and expect them to listen, not to simply obey. For me, it is also important because I don't want my daughters to think that adults are always right and that they only have the right to obey. I teach my kids to be equally respectful of people, children or adults and listen to their concerns or requests. If it feels wrong, talk to me about it. If someone hurts them, they can come to me and know I have their side even against another adult.I never felt that way as a child. I felt totally at the mercy of adults around me, some of whom were abusive. Many moms I know in real life are more patriarchal leaning (not quiverfull extent, but there are many Mormons for example) and their kids at this age do seem to be better behaved. But also somewhat robotic. Its my bias I am sure, but despite the trials of a loud wild and opinionated 4 year old, I am glad she has those qualities and I think it would be a terrible shame if I was beating those qualities out of her.

  • Nome

    I love this post…I shared it on FB too

  • dulce de leche

    Brilliant! I love your dd's response with the hot chocolate. She was showing consideration for you and a desire to please you, as well as an impressive ability to find solutions that met both of your needs. It is so sad that so many people see that as a bad thing. BTW, a big applause for you again for coming out of that mindset and giving your daughter a healthier childhood. <3

  • Amanda

    I'm sorry you go through this with your parents. I think to some extent there's always some judgment (my Dobson-loving father springs to mind here, bless him), but your experience is so extreme, and just so very unfair to your daughter and to you.Well said, re: compromise and communication.

  • Goosey

    What a beautiful post. Your love and concern for your daughter is obvious, and I applaud your decision to stand by your own beliefs, especially against your parents (which is always hard, no matter what the situation), and I'm sorry they aren't willing to open their minds to what you are attempting. The only thing that I would add is that while unquestioning obedience all the time can certainly be damaging to both parties, like you said, I believe it's important for children to learn that sometimes it's best to obey now and discuss it later, because the parent probably knows something the child doesn't, but there isn't time to explain it all at that moment. However, that concept, just like everything else, doesn't need to be beaten into a child, and your daughter seems smart and savvy, and I'm sure she's learning to trust you that way just fine. :) Bravo, and carry on.

  • Anonymous

    This is terribly sad… I feel it's a tragedy that your parents can't understand your goals and values, especially when it comes to your child. Maybe one day, if they live long enough, they can see her become a healthy, well-adjusted adult (although they may not recognize what that means to her or to you). It makes me realize once again what a great relationship I have with my parents. Sometimes they drive me crazy, but they generally respect my choices in life.

  • Elin

    I was very much the child who refused to obey without knowing why. My mother understood this and explained even when I was perhaps too young to understand why but when I saw that there was a reason I generally obeyed. Your approach sounds very healthy and respectful of your daughter from what I can see.I am glad spanking is illegal here (Sweden), no parent needs to ever explain why they do not spank. However, it must be added that there are still plenty of ways of being a destructive parent, even if you do not use physical punishments.

  • Anonymous

    How do the Pearls' or their followers react to the fact that a great many children are raised in a gentle, non-punitive manner and don't turn out horribly? There's also a massive amount of psychological data on the cognitive and social development of infants and young children that would not support their methods, but do they just decide to discount any evidence that doesn't support their ideas? I notice that James Dobson, when he writes about children's behavior, simply states what the children's motives and thoughts are without any real evidence at all – he just frames ordinary behavior as rebellion. The problem with the focus on obedience and submission is that it creates rebellion where there isn't any. If you interpret life that way, each action of a child is either obedience or rebellion. Whereas a sensible parent hears a baby cry and thinks "why is the baby crying?" it seems like the Pearls are saying "that's disobedience." It demands a black and white interpretation of how the child should behave at all times in all situations, and obviously not child is capable of fitting this.And you are spot on – the problem with obedience is that you're only going to be as good as who you are obeying. I'd also be worried that emphasizing "obedience" would be a one-way ticket to a child getting abused or molested by an adult just since they'd never be taught to question what they are told to do. I'd argue teaching obedience is irresponsible.

  • Melissa

    I hear you! It is so hard to parent in front of them, knowing that they believe so different. It sounds like you did an awesome job, and let me tell you it does get easier. I used to feel so panicky if one of my kids was moody or tired (surprise! That's the way kids are when they are 1000 miles away from home) but as time has gone, and I no longer ask for parenting advice, they've somewhat accepted how I parent, and have even acknowledged that my kids seem really happy. It's still weird sometimes though, like when my dad teased my 9 month old daughter with a toy (holding it out of her reach) and when she kept reaching for it he claimed it illustrated her "sin nature". I didn't even know how to respond to that one.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree and also can echo what anonymous at 3:11 said about child molestation. It is dangerous for a child to think they must obey an authority no matter what.My journey away from my parents mindset began when I began to question the "virtue" of obedience for the sake of obedience and authority. It blew my mind, because not only did it change my parenting, it also pulled into question the religious teachings, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, which makes no sense at all unless one values obedience above critical thinking.~Arachne

  • Anonymous

    Awesome, awesome post. I often say "obedience is not a virtue" and if feels great to hear someone else express that so eloquently. Sally is super lucky to have a mama like you. This is the kind of parent I want to be some day.-Kat

  • Samantha

    "Whereas a sensible parent hears a baby cry and thinks "why is the baby crying?" it seems like the Pearls are saying "that's disobedience."" – AnonymousThis quote reminded me of how as a child, I thought that baby Jesus must have never cried because he never sinned. It's insane that as a 6 year old, I thought a baby's cries were sin. So very glad I escaped that worldview before becoming a parent myself.

  • Rosa

    Great post. The hardest thing for me is that, deep inside, I kind of do feel like if things go wrong it will be because we weren't strict enough. So the disapproval niggles at me – and it makes my partner a horrible ball of tension and misery around his parents. Which of course causes more bad behavior, because kids pick up that tension.

  • Janey

    Whereas a sensible parent hears a baby cry and thinks "why is the baby crying?" it seems like the Pearls are saying "that's disobedience." It strikes me that this parenting style is, in fact, expecting children to echo them in more ways than they imagine. They parent without empathy, there is no attempt made to understand the child, their reasons or feelings and they expect children to obey without empathy, too. Children are never expected to understand why what they are doing is wrong, they are simply expected not to do it. I actually run into this conflict quite often as a teacher. Many older teachers I have worked with expect the unquestioning obedience. Yet, they seem to keep punishing the same kids for the same things. I have been criticised by these teachers for 'engaging with' students by having a discussion about what happened and why it is wrong. The thing is, my naughty kids end up loving me and getting good results rather than continually acting up. Even though people like to think that teenagers are just pushing boundaries (which, sometimes they are), very often they don't actually understand what they have done wrong let alone WHY it is wrong. If they don't know what they've done wrong, how on earth can they ever hope to fix it?By "engaging" with kids, I help them to learn. Strict obedience never teaches kids how to think for themselves nor how to empathise with others. It runs the risk of ending up with adults who struggle to make ethical choices when faced with new situations because they never learnt how to think for themselves when working out if something is right or wrong.

  • Final Anonymous

    Libby, after our last issues I said I wouldn't comment any more, but I hope you'll indulge me for this one final post.As a parent, grandparent, former homeschooler, and former teacher, I have to say I find your philosophies and actions as a parent to be SPOT ON.At such an early age, you are teaching her SO MUCH — for instance, with the hot chocolate incident, I was struck at the social skills of your 2 year old. When she hits a preschool class full of 20 kids all wanting to do different things, guess who the kids are going to gravitate to? The little girl who considers her own as well as their needs, and calmly finds a compromise.Leadership! Critical thinking! Self-control! Social awareness! Self-confidence! The list goes on and on; you are truly "disciplining" — TEACHING your daughter, very well, with everything you do.And at the same time, my goodness, how loved and valued that little girl must feel! She won't be a target for abuse, because she was taught to question authority (that IS a good thing; anyone can claim to be an authority, think Hitler. How do we know if it can be trusted? By questioning and testing it!) AND she was shown from birth what unconditional love and acceptance feel like. What incredible gifts you've given her!I really wanted to comment because I know how it feels to feel like you've disappointed your parents, especially when it comes to your children, and I'm sorry you have to endure that. Know that it is 100% their issue, and it may even fade with time. But you are doing nothing wrong.I know it's no substitute for your own parents, but if you were my daughter (yes, sadly, I'm pretty sure I'm old enough to be your mother, lol), I would be ecstatically proud of the life and love you are providing for my granddaughter, and I'm sure many of your "older" readers feel the same.You are a MARVELOUS mom!

  • Meggie

    I am puzzled. Your parents thought they were raising you the right way but you have not grown into the adult they wanted. Now they want you to raise Sally the same way, even though that method failed with you?

  • Deird

    I like your style of parenting way better than your parents' style.In my experience, most adults I know who have been or are parents think spanking is okay but should be used sparingly – only on a particularly intransigent child or perhaps to teach a child to stay away from roads, etc. Most people see spanking as just one tool available to parents, and one that should be used infrequently. If my parents were like most people, they might not understand my belief that spanking is wrong but they wouldn't have a problem with my decision not to spank.*nods* That'd be me. I have no problem with my nephews being smacked – and I've smacked one of them… once.It's supposed to be a RARE thing.

  • Anonymous

    I used to play an obedience game with my kids, from the time they were very young. I would occasionally throw in a nonsense comment or request, and it was their job to do a double take and catch me at it. I want my kids to listen carefully and critically to authority figures.

  • Anonymous

    My dad often tells a story about this conversation he had with a friend a few years ago. His friend had a small child, and was discussing how he never put up with anything less than immediate obedience from this child. My dad tried to gently explain how, when I was little, he would listen to my viewpoint before just laying down random orders. He gave the example of when I was a little girl and would try to negotiate bedtime with him.His friend was completely flabbergasted, and said something to the effect of, "But what could possibly be the point of listening to your daughter? She's just a kid."To which my dad got really frustrated and replied, "Well what if she was trying to tell me that she couldn't go to bed because there were snakes under her covers?!"It's a silly example, but my dad had tapped into a very important (and seldom admitted) assumption that most authoritarian parents make; that it is impossible for a human to have valid thoughts until they have reached the age of adulthood. Whereas my dad realized that kids do, in fact, have brains and sometimes make very valid assessments of a situation.I know for a fact that if my parents had demanded the kind of degrading slave-obedience the Pearls had used, I would have distrusted AND disliked my parents. Today, I am a responsible and healthy adult who has a great relationship with Mom and Dad. Even though I was (horrors!) allowed to discuss my own bedtime with them.

  • Peter and Nancy

    That kind of emphasis on obedience is the perfect training ground to groom children for abuse. They will obey an abuser who is an authority figure (or any adult), and know that their parents will likely believe the adult and not them . . . and they will be punished for speaking up.Have you ever read the book "How Children Raise Their Parents" by Dan Allender? He is a psychologist who says children are asking two basic questions: 1. Am I loved? and 2. Can I get what I want? Our job is to teach our kids absolutely YES to the first, and how to navigate the second. I like this book because it addresses overly permissive parenting too, and how that style is not ultimately good or loving for our kids.Nancy

  • OneSmallStep

    **In contrast, I value mutual understanding, an ability find compromise, and independent and critical thinking. It's no wonder we look for different things in our children. **I would also say that in contrast, you also see your daughter as an actual person. True, a person who has much to learn, is still in the process of developing on an intellectual and emotional level, but a person nonetheless. One who has an outlook and an opinion, and rights that deserve to be respected.

  • Jaimie

    Great post and so true. One of the ways I brought up my children differently is that they could get angry without punishment. We were not allowed to express any form of anger, disappointment, or even sadness when young. It was smiles all the time! Through the tears!I wanted my children to experience genuine emotions and after leaving the movement, did not feel threatened by their emerging personalities. Funny thing is that my children rarely got angry. Certainly not as much as I would have if allowed. But then I realized that my children were also treated fairly, They were not exploited, abused, or manipulated. We allowed them to grow up in an environment where they were protected and cherished and not obedience robots. Now they are mature and have minds of their own. My parents think they are all going to Hell but I love it!

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