On Disciplining Children

November 7, 2012

I’ve learned so much from reading about other families’ experiences with raising children, so I try to take time to share when I can to share with those who might benefit. I am on a great local facebook group of parents (mostly moms) where there is a pretty civil tone and at the same time a really diverse array of parenting approaches. Someone asked tonight, “How do you discipline your kids? It is a little early, (my daughter is only one) but I was just thinking about different opinions regarding spanking, time outs and the like. What works for you?” There were a lot of traditional responses about time-outs, spanking, and natural consequences. This is (mostly with a few edits) how I responded and I thought I would share:

We don’t discipline at all and it has worked very well for our family. For us, this means no time-outs, no punishments, no raised voices, minimal coercion, no hitting or spanking, and limited positive reinforcement. I certainly think that there are many loving, caring ways to raise healthy and well-adjusted children, but we take the view that we treat him how we would like him to treat others. We don’t want him to learn that the way you get other people to do what you want is to punish them, coerce them, or hurt them. We want him to learn that you talk to them, kindly, and explain. You are patient. You reason with them and show by example. You compromise. And, ultimately, you have to honor the decisions that other people make – you shouldn’t force them or manipulate them. Our three-year old seems pretty well-adjusted and we often get compliments on how well he gets along with other children. Not to brag, but just to point out that there haven’t been any dramatic “wild child” consequences (as had been predicted by some family members when word of our approach got out).

I did not post this on facebook, but I would add that I think this approach is harder in the short-term. We certainly could do with more cooperation, less negotiation, and, generally, things just going more the way we want them to more often and more quickly. But, I really believe that our children learn how to be in the world by the way that they see their parents treat them and others. As our son cognitively develops, I think he understands why we do and don’t do certain things. Why we help each other, why we are kind to each other and that these are his own insights rather than just doing things because he knows that he should or that there are consequences. Giving him that space and time to come to conclusions on his own – and different from the ones we wish for – has been both hard, but extremely rewarding because when he does come to things on his own rather than as a result of pressure or threats, it is really a pretty amazing thing to witness.  For us, it is both about the process and the result. I get that children can “turn out well” if you parent in a different way. But, our child is a full person now. So, for me, it is not just about treating him this way because we want him to turn out well (although that is of course part of it) but because we really do believe that we should treat people how they want to be treated, even when they are a child.

I have learned a lot from years of reading Mothering Magazine (so sad that it isn’t published in hard copy any more), from reading blogs of parents who unschool and use non-violent communication, from mothering.com message boards, from listserves, from facebook groups, from books, and from kind families that are willing to openly share their struggles, successes and changes. We are always learning and changing. I’ve had to learn how to be more gentle with myself and with others. Thus, I put this out there not as a way to judge, but to say what has worked well and made our family life rich, rewarding, and in many ways quite peaceful. It is so nice that there are few battles and that I have given up being responsible for making my son be how he “should,” instead trusting him to learn and grow at a pace that make sense for him. Thus far, understanding and change comes. Not always right when I want it, but in his own time as he grows into who he is as a small person. It isn’t easy, but it really has been just about the highlight of my life, I think. I feel so peaceful and at ease about our parenting approach. And there is hardly anything in my life that I feel peaceful and at ease about, so it has been a huge gift.

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On How We Treat Our Children

October 7, 2011

We don’t discipline our son. We don’t spank him. No time outs. No punishments of any kind. We’ve never raised our voice to him. We have never mocked him. We speak to him lovingly, sometimes firmly, sometimes laughing. We try to treat him how we would like to be treated. We try to respect the fact that he is a full person with his own desires and thoughts that are not somehow less because he is a young person. We are very attentive to the process of how we are, together, as a family and not just the “outcome.”

For the two years and six months that he has been with us, I don’t really tell this to many people. I’ve casually and gently said that we recognize that there are many ways to raise children and we’re not judging other people; that this is just what works best for our family. And in many ways, this is true. On the one hand, this world asks so much of us. It is so hard. It is hard to be a parent in a world that does not support families or parents or value children. It is hard to be in a world where there is violence all around us and there are 101 guides and experts telling us what to do, all different things each week and month. Where we are struggling financially, spiritually. Where we are tired. I have had, in so many ways, a lucky and privileged life and who in the hell am I to tell someone else that they are not raising their children the “right” way?

Yet. Yet. Yet yet.

I’ve been discussing with my mom our parenting choices. She is supportive of our approach and does her best to be with our son as we would be with him: gentle, loving, supportive, teaching, guiding, listening. But at the same time, she defends with rigor parents who spank their children or, for instance, who take their young children to hunt, arguing that those parents love their children and they are “turning out well” and so to each his or her own. We do it our way. They do it their way.

Shortly after an intense conversation about this, I listened to a gut-wrenching report on NPR about a study about parents yelling at their children and spanking them. Small children. Who would not do what their parents said or wanted. Like, I heard parents hitting their kids and screaming at them on the radio. This wasn’t abuse in any traditional sense (“other bad people”). It was just regular families like the one down the street, randomly sampled, and it showed how routine and typical it is for parents to hit small children and scream at them over both large and small issues.

And something changed within me. I will no longer hide how we parent. I will not pretend that I think our approach is one among many approaches – hit them or not, yell or not, be kind or not, kill animals for fun or not, watch violent television or not… all personal decisions about what is best for your family.

Because how we raise our children is not just about our families. It is about the world we live in. And hearing on NPR children being hit and screamed at… I mean, I am shocked that people are surprised we have a “bullying” problem in this country. It is not a “bullying” problem, it is a kindness problem. If we treat our children unkindly, do not show them the respect we wish them to show others, and use violence with them, how are we to ever expect that they will grow up and reject violence? And unkindness?

I have been so profoundly lucky to have access to and read about people’s ideas on parenting. I think the most influential to me have been Mothering Magazine and a blog by Kelly Hogaboom. I have also been so lucky to have a partner who is not only with me on this, but teaches me about this – that trusted and continues to trust that when we explain things gently and repeatedly to our son, he will understand this in his own time and it will be real understanding rather than something he does because he is threatened.

This does not mean we are perfect (oh. my god. are we not. perfect.) or that we don’t mess up all the time or that we are not missing big important things that he will need therapy for someday. Or that it is not harder to do it this way. That it is not sooooo hard. This does not mean that I will go around glaring at parents who act differently than I think they should. Or will I be some sort of consensual family living evangelist. But it does mean that I am no longer going to pretend “I do it my way and you do it your way and, hey, it is all just fine.” It isn’t just fine. I have been lucky that people have been willing to gently and with deep compassion challenge me to be a different kind of person and different kind of parent. They risked that I would feel judged, that I would be nasty, that I would reject them. And I am thankful that they risked that. I think I will be willing to risk that in my life now.