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How I’ve Learned (and Unlearned) Parenting

How I’ve Learned (and Unlearned) Parenting February 29, 2016

I was raised in a strict evangelical home, and was taught that children must learn to respect their elders and obey their parents. As a result, I learned to view parenting from an obedience-focused punitive mindset. I left my evangelical upbringing behind just before I gave birth to my first child, my daughter Sally, and that meant I had to reinvent parenting. Over the years I’ve found the website Aha Parenting helpful, and I’ve learned a lot from the authors there, but I’ve also spent a lot of my time flying by the seat of my pants. Even though my children are only six and three today, I want to take a moment to share a few of the insights I’ve gained thus far.

I am not a parenting expert, and no two children are the same. I only have experience raising my children, and I cannot tell you what will or will not work with your children. Yet while I oppose parenting methods the try to fit all children into the same box, I do think there are some underlying principles that have the potential to serve all parents—and children—well. These include listening to your child, valuing their needs and ideas, and teaching skills like communicating and problem solving. They also include teaching your child to understand their emotions, approaching your children as part of your team, and teaching your children to consider others’ needs alongside their own. These ideas form the basis of my parenting thus far.

1. Instead of administering discipline, have conversations.  

If one of my children is acting out, rather than seeing that as a personal failing I try to understand where their frustration or anger is coming from. Why are they upset? What is going on in their lives? Other families might pull that child out for a talking to, but I pull them aside for a conversation. “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re getting frustrated a lot lately. Do you want to talk about it?” If the answer is “no” I will usually reinforce our family’s boundaries—that it’s okay to be angry or sad or upset, but not okay to take those feelings out on others—and remind them that I’m always available to talk.

But if the answer is yes—and it usually is—what follows tends to be a very productive conversation about feelings, frustrations, and actions. I like to think of my role as a parent as that of a guide. I have more life experience and have picked up skills along the way—all of these are things I can share with my children. When parents focus on talking at their children, or on using a system of carrots or sticks to get the preferred behavior out of them, they often miss the opportunity to have the deep, meaningful conversations where learning takes place.

It is very, very rare for me to encounter misbehavior in one of my children that can’t be resolved with a conversation. At this point, the only form of punishment or discipline we use is “time in”—not to be confused with a “time out”—and even this is only necessary for Bobby, the younger of my two children. I’m sometimes amazed by how little role punishment plays in our parenting. It’s essentially nonexistent.

2. Value your children’s input and model problem solving. 

Yesterday afternoon, we were out as a family and had just finished an activity and floated the idea of going to the park before heading home. Bobby was insistent that he was ready to go home, but Sally pushed hard for a park visit. This went back and forth for a while, and then I suggested that we go straight home and that Sally play outside for a while, and that we go to the park the next day as a family. “That sounds reasonable,” Sally responded, nodding. We have taught Sally that being in a family means finding a compromise that accommodates everyone’s needs, and she knows that her voice—along with her needs—is valued in the creation of these compromises.

When children know that their wants matter and that their voices count in the decision-making process, they are much more likely to accept not getting their first wish than they might be otherwise. They also learn an important skill—problem solving. When my children are fighting or when one of them takes issue with something I’ve said or done, I validate their frustrations and then turn the focus to finding a solution to the problem. “How can we resolve this?” I’ll ask, and they jump in quickly with ideas.

One thing I love about how I parent is approaching things together, as a family, without a heavy emphasis on an authority structure. My children aren’t afraid to stand up to me or to assert themselves. The other day it was time to go to our Unitarian Universalist church, but while Bobby was all set to go, Sally wanted to stay home. I pressed her to go, talking about the importance of community, etc., but she stood firm. “What about my choices?!” she asked, upset by my pushing. My children are learning to be part of a team, considering others’ needs, but they’re also learning to stand up for themselves, and that’s critically important—and will become only more so as they reach their teenage years and face pressure from their peers.

3. Give your children tools for responding to your “no.”

There was a time some years ago when I was at my wit’s end because every time I told Sally “no” to something she would yell or scream or burst into tears. I’d always been taught that a parent’s “no” must be absolute and that a parent should never give in to a child’s “whining,” but that didn’t set well with me. At the same time, I could tell that the way things were going wasn’t okay either.

One day I sat Sally down and explained to her that if I tell her “no” and she wants to change my mind, she has to give me new information or make an alternative proposal for me to consider. I gave her specific phrases to use, and she quickly adopted them. This has made a world of difference. Recently, when I told her she was going to have to miss an after-school event because it didn’t fit with our schedule, she responded by saying: “Mom, I really really want to go. School events are very important to me.” Realizing how much it mattered to her, I found a way to make it work.

Of course, we also have to teach children that they sometimes have to accept a “no” they don’t like. There, too, there are conversations to be had—conversations about how adults can’t have everything they want either, about how one individual’s wants have to be weighed against the wants of other individuals in the family unit, and so on. I want my children to understand why they can’t always have what they want—with that understanding comes knowledge, and also power. I don’t believe in responding with “because I said so.”

4. Talk to your children about your needs, too

My children have come to see my energy as a sort of currency—something they can spend wisely, or waste in turn—but something that is finite nonetheless. This is because I tell them why I’m not up to going to the park with them this afternoon, or why I’m not willing to make cookies. The answer may be that I am out of energy after tracking them down when they didn’t stay within sight at the library. Or it might be that it took twice as long to walk them home from school as it should have and I’m tired. Or it might be that they left their train tracks and matchbox cars out and I spent all my energy picking them up.

My children understand that I am human, and that I have limits too. They understand that their fighting trains my energy, and that I’m more stressed out when I have a big grading assignment due. Of course, none of this is in isolation. We talk about their energy levels too, and sometimes Sally declares herself “stressed out” from her brother’s constant interrupting of what she’s doing or “tired out” after an especially packed day at school. And that—that right there—is so important. My children are learning to understand and listen to their emotional state.

Naturally, we talk about self-care. They know that sometimes I need some time to recharge while they play on their own in the next room, or quietly on the other side of the same room. Sally practices her own methods of self-care—usually asking for time and space to read a book or watch youtube videos without her brother’s interference—and sometimes puts herself to bed earlier than usual when she’s had a long day. Sally has learned to read the signs of stress in me, as well, and to understand that that stress is usually unrelated to something she has done. And most critically, she has the language she needs to understand and talk about emotional needs.

5. Teach your children to self-soothe and de-stress. 

This point is very related to the one above, but I do want to add a few practical notes. When Sally was three or four and still had regular meltdowns, I taught her to recognize the signs of these meltdowns coming, and I helped her think about ways to calm down. She soon concluded that “sleeping helps me calm down,” and would stave off a meltdown by laying down on the couch and closing her eyes—sometimes sleeping, sometimes not—and then coming back to calmly press the issue she had become worked up over. I learned to watch her signs too, and would kindly (and non-punitively) ask her if she needed to take a break to calm down before we continued.

Some time ago we created a calm down corner. While Sally hasn’t had a meltdown in ages—she’s six now—she does sometimes get frustrated with her younger brother to the point of snapping and yelling. At one point I talked with her about this and we brainstormed solutions and latched onto creating a “calm down corner” where she could go to calm down if she was getting overly frustrated or upset. The calm down corner has a soft cushion, a toy you work with your hands, and a “Find It” toy that involves looking for various objects in a tube of colored plastic pellets. Sally loved this idea because it gave her books for recognizing and working through her own emotions.

I like to say that parenting isn’t about getting obedient kids, it’s about preparing kids for adulthood—and how better to prepare kids for adulthood than to give them practical tools for understanding and handling their emotions and internal state? Emotions are tricky enough for adults—imagine how difficult they are for children! Rather than treating their emotions as problems, we have the hugely significant opportunity to affirm those emotions and teach our children how to handle them healthily. Back when Sally did have meltdowns, she would sometimes kick anyone and anything within reach. At the time, I taught her that it was okay to be angry, but that it was not okay to use that anger to hurt others. It took a little while, and there were times when I had to calmly remind her of this mid-meltdown while removing myself from her reach, but this eventually got through to her, and I’d like to think this is an idea that will stay with her for a very long time.

6. Take a deep breath and a step back rather than yelling. 

One of the most unexpected things about parenting is the way that it reveals my flaws and puts me face-t0-face with my own weaknesses. When I get stressed, my instinct is to snap at the kids. But you know what? Research is clear that yelling is bad for kids, and I’ve found that it can be downright counterproductive. Sure, your kids may sit up straight if you yell, but (a) that’s probably because they’re scared of your new mood, and seriously, who wants that, and (b) obtaining obedience through snapping at your kids doesn’t actually deal with whatever situation was at hand and may leave you in a downward spiral where the only way you can actually get their attention is to snap. Plus also? If you want to teach your children healthy ways to handle their emotions, you have to model that.

I’ve learned to recognize when I’m becoming overly stressed or overwhelmed and to take a deep breathe and a step back. Really, it’s amazing what just those two things can accomplish. Take a deep breath, step back, and reassess the situation. Sometimes I can see that we need to start a conversation or activity over, to go back to where things took a wrong turn, or sometimes I need to readjust my priorities and remember that it’s okay if there’s a little chaos sometimes and an activity doesn’t go exactly as planned. Sometimes I simply need to tell my kids that I’m stressed out or tired, and ask them to tone it down, and sometimes I need to ask them to play on their own while I go to another room to recharge. And you know what? All of this is positive modeling!

There is another important way we model for our children too, and that is in how we communicate and interact with a spouse or relationship partner. The research suggests that while you and your spouse shouldn’t fight in front of your kids, disagreeing in front of your kids can actually be important. Recently, I was trying to explain to my husband, Sean, why we couldn’t change X plan because I’d made a promise to Y person to be there, and I just couldn’t seem to get through to him, and I was frustrated because we were running late and I felt like it was his fault, and I snapped. I apologized to Sean afterwards and we talked about strategies for improving how we communicate, but I also had a conversation with Sally about it. She pointed out that her daddy did make us late, but I told her that I still shouldn’t have snapped at him, because that usually makes them feel bad and doesn’t actually make anything better. I explained that it’s important to treat a relationship partner with kindness and respect. “But Mommy,” she interjected, “It’s important to treat everyone with kindness and respect.” And she’s right.

7. Be ready to apologize or admit you were wrong

Related to the end of the above point, it’s important to be always ready to apologize and admit you were wrong when you mess up. Your children should see you working things out with your partner—preferably without yelling, of course—and they should also see you working things out with them—and that includes apologizing when you are wrong. There was a time when I worried that apologizing to children could be a sign of weakness, as though parents need to pretend to their children that they’re infallible and can never make mistakes. And it’s true, if you’re trying to command their unthinking obedience, admitting that you can be wrong could pause a problem. But that is not what parenting should look like.

I make sure my children know that I am still a work in progress myself—that I have faults, flaws, and areas where I’m still working to improve. Partly I want my children to know this because I don’t want them getting the idea that once they’re adults, they’ll be done growing and improving. They won’t. But more than that, I want my children to understand that I am human like they are, and that I, too, can make mistakes. It gives them context for their own mistakes, and a sense of balance—no one is perfect, but we can all work together to get better at self-care, listening to each other, explaining our needs, and considering others’ needs. What’s important is not that my children think I’m perfect but rather that they understand that I am trying to do what’s right, and willing to apologize and make things right when I fall short of that.

When my children see that I am ready to apologize when I do wrong, they are also more ready to apologize when they do wrong. They learn to see their mistakes not as internal flaws but rather as something that is human. They are not bad people. They are people. And like any other people, they are in the process of learning how to treat others kindly, manage their own emotions, and balance their needs with others’ needs. There have been times when Sally apologies for something with overwhelming and self-deprecating remorse, and in those moments I remind her that I, too, make mistakes sometimes—that everyone makes mistakes sometimes—and that what matters is whether we make up for those mistakes and work to develop skills or patterns that will help us do better in the future.

8. Never, never, never turn something into a battle

Looking back, one of the biggest problems I have with the punitive parenting of my youth is that it turned everything—and I do mean everything—into a battle between the parents and the child that the parent must win in order to maintain control. This is such a sad way of looking at family relationships. I prefer to see my family—my partner and my children—as a group of individuals going through life together as a team, without pitting member against member. Think about it this way—when you and your partner have a disagreement, it would be incredibly unhealthy for you to focus on who “wins” the disagreement rather than on finding a solution that works for everyone. Why would focusing on “winning battles” with your children be any more healthy?

There have been plenty of times when a disagreement or issue arrises with one of my children that starts to feel like a battle that one of us must “win” and the other lose. I have learned over time to recognize when I’m letting myself get into a situation like that and to work quickly to diffuse the situation. That doesn’t mean conceding a point that is actually important—rather, it means finding a way to refocus the disagreement on collaborative problem solving. “How can we resolve this?” I’ll ask, or “Are there any solutions that would work for both of us?” Once I turn my children in a problem-solving direction, they’re often eager to look for possible solutions and make suggestions—and, critically, we’ve moved out of the battle mentality and into a cooperative mentality.

One thing I love about moving away from the battle mentality is how much more positive and fun it has made parenting. I don’t have to fight or “win” battles with my children. All I have to do is teach them the importance of communicating, considering the needs of everyone involved, and using problem solving skills to find a solution. I teach my children to see their interaction with me as cooperative rather than combatitive. Compromise, by the way, doesn’t have to mean that both people give something up. Sometimes there are solutions that meet both people’s needs, we just have to be willing to look for them rather than sticking dogmatically with whatever plan we first suggested.

Looking forward

I’ve had people tell me that I’m setting myself up for disaster in the future—that once my children are teens they’ll be out of control. Well guess what? Parents can’t control their teens. Oh sure, they can impose all sorts of external controls, but what about what’s going on inside them? I can’t know how my children will turn out when they’re teens, it’s true, but I’d like to think that by giving them communication skills and teaching them how to consider everyone’s needs and use problem solving to find solutions when there are disagreements, I am laying the groundwork for the future. A lot of parents assume they’ll need to set a curfew for their teen, establish rules and boundaries, etc. I’d like to hope that my children and I can discuss all of the issues at plan and agree on guidelines together.

I am teaching my children how to communicate, helping them understand their feelings, affirming that their needs matter, and showing them how to weigh and consider others’ needs. I don’t think any of that will serve them badly, whether as teens or as adults. And you know what? Because my parenting doesn’t rely on a brittle obedience-focused mindset, I am more than willing to adjust my parenting over time as the need arises. Still, there are some underlying ideas—treating children with respect, teaching them that they matter, establishing open lines of communication, and focusing on skill acquisitions rather than results—that that will inform my parenting even as it may shift over time to accommodate changing needs.

I’m not pretending to be an expert, or to have everything down pat. My kids are only six and three and I’m not perfect myself, remember? But I did want to take a moment to share some of the things I have learned, implemented, and experienced over the course of my children’s lives thus far, because many of these insights were new to me, after an upbringing that focused on obedience and made ample use of corporal punishment. My parenting often feels radical to me, because I am parenting against that backdrop. I hope at least some of it is helpful.

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