Anyone who has been in an emotionally abusive relationship knows that it starts out with a lack of boundaries in both people. Sometimes one person has a lack of respect for the other. One person is more vulnerable and winds up being controlled and walking on eggshells, completely unhappy and scared. What if this relationship is of parent and child? It is tricky to navigate the waters of parenting a vulnerable, new person without trying to completely control him in every way. We have to balance our respect for our child with our fears about him. What if he gets hurt? What if people look down upon him or don’t accept him? What if by fulfilling his desires I am not getting my own met? How can I control these things?
But we are not here to control our children; we are here to teach them. To discipline actually means to teach, and to be a disciple is to be a student. Eventually we want our children to have self-discipline, where they take the base of empathy and the values we imparted to process their future experiences; life becomes their teacher. Until then, we are our young child’s first teachers and the very first thing our babies learn from us is all about feelings, empathy, and connection. Right, wrong, and consequences (logical and respectful ones) come later, much after the foundations of empathy are laid. “Positive discipline,” which is based on consequences and begins at the age of reason (4+), is really what comes after the “feels” of what we call gentle discipline. Gentle discipline starts as soon as you begin having a real back and forth connection with your baby.
Usually I write about the exact how to of gentle discipline but knowing why we utilize gentle discipline will give us a sense of confidence in our parenting, which goes leaps above any helpful phrase I can teach.
Can you empathize with your child? I mean really get in her shoes? A tantrum is a reaction to feeling out of control. Our tiny child really has no control and therefore what we get is just flailing and screaming. But what was the last thing you had a tantrum in your adult way about? How did it look when you were out of control? Drinking a little too much, spending too much, eating too much or denying yourself? We have all learned some ways to cope with feeling out of control, some effective calming methods like meditation and some ineffective ones like yelling at our partner or withdrawing your love. When our child is in a tantrum, rather than trying to control the behavior, studies show that it will end sooner if we can just witness it, and allow our child to have the process.
That is the powerful thing I have learned about children and all humans: we test the love of those closest to us. We have to know if love is unconditional. Will you still love me at my worst? If I throw my food, will I be safe or will I be abused? Will you simply try to enact more control over me when I am clearly in need of learning how to regulate my own emotions instead?
If positive discipline is about helping a child manage impulses and behavior, we must first model this with ourown behavior, show and talk about our own extreme feelings, and also fully allow our tiny person to experience all of her developing feelings without rushing to squash them with “discipline.” When I studied a feminist critique of Buddhist social justice action in college, we realized that women must first come to own an ego before we can practice egolessness or letting go of the self, since we are so early taught to always put others above ourselves. I always suggest that toddlers must know what it is to own something before they can be willing to share it. In the same vein, our babies must learn what it is to feel out of control before they can learn to control themselves.
Tantrums are necessary, beautiful learning experiences. Make sure your child isn’t in immediate danger, don’t get on top of your child or restrain your child, but be nearby and breathe. We are not learning well when we are screaming and out of control, and pushing your point can escalate a tantrum, so it helps to just stop talking.
Co-dependency is when you use your behavior to try to control someone else’s behavior. Our behaviors show our feelings. It is written into our society that parenting is about enacting our will on our child’s behavior to protect them, but often what we are really doing is trying to manipulate or end our child’s feelings. Interdependence is when we are respectfully connected without the impetus to control. When we learn to set our own boundaries, we stop needing to control everyone else. Then when we get really good at holding to our boundaries, those around us (our kids!) learn exactly how they are expected to respect us, and we experience more peace.
We have to as a society also take the phrase “inappropriate behavior” out of our vernacular for small children. All behavior is appropriate at that age; it is all an experiment. Stomping, hitting, kicking, pinching: appropriate. That doesn’t mean that we sit back and say nothing or allow our child to harm others. Our children need to learn from us, hear from us which behaviors are disrespectful, dangerous, and frowned upon in our culture and in our family. Before around 4 years old, before the “age of reason,” our job is to combine modeling empathy, talking about and showing our own feelings so our children have a model, and to talk about what is expected. Since our child cannot make good decisions all of the time yet, we must sometimes restrain when they are harming another; we may sometimes move further away if our child is harming us. All of these boundaries we must set for our child are much easier to set when we think about the challenging behavior itself as perfectly appropriate.
“Yes. You did something I hated. And that’s ok. I will help you learn to not do that. You are still perfect and loved. I will show you with my face how I felt about that so that you can understand beyond my words.”
Most of what we think we know about human behavior actually comes from animal behavior studies; behaviorism assumes that we act according to receiving reward and punishment. This may be true for some animals, but humans are much, much more complicated. Love, acceptance, safety, belonging, freedom, and agency are desires that motivate behavior in much more intricate ways.
The most important one with toddlers and preschoolers is agency.
Agency is the ability to control what we do. If we think about it, children have very little control over their lives. We determine what they eat, what they wear, when they go to bed, when they leave the house. Slowly giving our babies agency of small things incrementally lets them trust themselves and also know that we trust them. Knowing that you are trusted is a very important part of a close relationship; trust and love are bosom buddies.
Research shows that agency is a factor in measuring happiness. Our children are happier when they feel trusted, when the feel a sense of belonging in the family rhythm, a sense of purpose.When our children are happier, there is less challenging behavior to contend with. Toddlers thrive on attempting chores, attempting to clean up after themselves imperfectly, and they thrive on being given early warnings, and time and space to accomplish tasks you may think of as fast and easy.
“Yes, you can put on your pants yourself,” sometimes, even if it takes 15 minutes and is always backwards.
In the beginning of this article I mentioned emotionally abusive relationships and the lack of boundaries. Emotionally healthy, respectful parenting, conversely, begins with you setting your boundaries. Say No when you mean it, when it is important, and be clear and consistent about your No’s. Say Yes as frequently as you can and give your child more agency. Your boundaries form a container for your child’s learning but there should be plenty of play and space inside that container.
When you say “No,” your child might cry. When you stop your child from harming you or someone else, they might cry. Crying is good. Crying means we are feeling our feelings, and many times crying means you have heard someone else’s upset and are meeting it with empathy. Sometimes hearing and feeling anger looks like crying in sadness or sometimes crying is mirrored and we cry together.
Any good loving relationship ideally looks like this:
I set the boundaries. I show you my feelings. I talk about my feelings. I tell you what I need and what I expect. You get to have your feelings. You get to show and tell your feelings to me respectfully. I witness your feelings. I tell you I have heard you. I ask you more about your feelings to try to understand you better and help you understand yourself.
This kind of communication and teaching can work beautifully as early at 6 months! We are all parenting imperfectly and very lucky to catch glimpses of this kind of connection when we can.
A great gauge for gentle discipline decisions is actually adult interactions because we remove the inherent ownership and agism associated with parenting. We can simply ask the question:
How do I treat the adult people I love most when I am challenged by them?
Then we will know exactly how to discipline our small children respectfully.