Raising children is a huge task, whether our own or others. This sounds cliché and yet the reality is, it is a profound and daunting journey!
There are all kinds of books, parenting classes and support groups. How we wish for THE parenting manual that lays out clear guidelines for each and every situation that could possibly arise. Yet we will ultimately create our own path full of zigzags and curves. There will be interactions we feel good about and interactions that leave us with the gut feeling, “I wish this had gone differently.”
The Dominant Paradigm
Most often our focus is on our children’s behavior, specifically whether they obey or disobey. If they are disobeying, we become intent on figuring out what we can do to make them “listen to me” and “follow my rules.” If they obey, we think we should reward them with some toy or game they want so they will keep obeying.
This is the dominant paradigm of parenting in our culture.
Some of the beliefs that underpin this paradigm are:
Children should be seen and not heard.
Children are born manipulative – give them an inch and they will take a mile!
Children need to be disciplined and obey their parents without question.
This paradigm uses punishments and rewards, giving and taking away. Parents are the judge and the jury evaluating their children’s behavior through the lens of judgment and “power-over” to control them. I am sure this sounds familiar to you as it is what we see and hear all around us. But, this takes so much emotional energy and does not lead us to an unconditional connection with our children. And, it ultimately hurts our own hearts.
Work Backwards: What Kind of Adult Do You Want Them to Be?
It is a big philosophical question to think about how you are going to handle your day-to-day parenting. A good place to start is thinking about what you want to accomplish. Ask yourself, when your child is the same age you are now, who would you like them to be? What are the values and qualities you would like them to have as an adult?
We must realize that children acquire the characteristics they experience most often. In fact, our higher brain has mirror neurons that cause us to imitate what we witness.
Who our children become begins with us, their parents. If we value kindness and generosity, we need to be kind and generous. If we value compassion and confidence, we need to be compassionate and confident. If we value connection and gentleness, we have to model those values. It is in our modeling, both to our children and those around them, that our children will adopt these qualities and values.
Parenting is the Process of Being in Relationship
Parenting non-violently is the road to developing adults that are kind and generous, compassionate and confident. It is a different paradigm where we commit to do no harm to the bodies, minds and hearts of our children. It is more than the absence of violence; we are aiming to create an unconditional connection with our children.
Parenting is not something that is done to a child, but the process of being in relationship together.
An unconditional connection means we love our children without judging their behavior. It is “power-with”, where parents act as allies to their children and work with them to grow. They are unconditionally loved and accepted for simply existing and being the human beings they are.
Some of the core concepts of this nonviolent approach are:
Every minute of the day, children do the best the can and what they do is from their best intention.
Children have an inherent right to be heard and respected and deserve to be treated without any form of cruelty.
There is a deep respect for the human being; it is not earned or taken away. It exists at all times.
Understanding Behavior vs. Needs
In nonviolent parenting, we do not begin by evaluating behavior. We go underneath the behavior to understand what is alive for our children. We ask, what needs are they trying to meet? What feelings are they having? We understand that their behavior is simply the strategy they are using to try to meet their needs.
When we understand this, it opens our heart to empathy. We put ourselves in their shoes to understand what they are needing and wanting. If the strategies they are using are not working for them or for us, we redirect them to find other strategies that will work.
Empathy: The Path to True Connection
Practicing empathy for both our children and ourselves is at the core of building our children’s emotional intelligence. We put ourselves in the shoes of our children and imagine, wonder, or guess what they may be feeling and thinking. When we are truly empathetic, children feel safe and heard. This builds true connection, trust and understanding.
Empathy is not about giving advice or trying to fix the problem. We may think we are being empathic by listening but in reality we have taken over the story and made it about ourselves. For example, saying “I hear you are feeling sad BUT if you had only listened, you could have gone with your friends” is not empathy. The empathy offered in the first half of the sentence is thrown away starting with the word “BUT ….”
To give true empathy hear and validate what your child is feeling and saying. Stop. Pause. Breathe. Say it again. Pause and then bring up what you wanted to say.
Ruptures in the Relationship
Are you reflecting on what happened this morning, or yesterday with your children? Are you thinking:
“I wish I had done that differently.”
“I was triggered. In fact, I felt like a little girl or boy again myself.”
“I remember when my parents did that to me.”
“Here am I sounding exactly like them again!”
It is so easy to be harsh on ourselves when things don’t go well. Many of us have the voice of shame and judgment inside. Maybe because we were judged and shamed over and over when we were young.
Ruptures between ourselves and our children are bound to happen. Remember, they can always be repaired. When the time is right, you can reach out and say:
“I am sorry I spoke to you that way. I can imagine that hurt your feelings. That was about me and my brain being flooded and I acted in a hurtful way to you. You don’t deserve to be hurt by me. Mama/Papa is working on managing my big feelings. That is my responsibility.”
A child will feel good knowing they are not the problem.
Self-Empathy to Heal Our Own Childhoods
Take a breath! Take another breath. I can imagine how reading all of this and thinking about your parenting may make you feel overwhelmed.
Every day we do the best we can with what we know and the resources we have. Know this and stop to give yourself empathy and loving kindness. Connected parenting begins with being there for ourselves.
To be able to love our children the way we want, we need to make sense of our own childhood. We call it creating a coherent story and Dan Siegel (author of “Parenting from the Inside Out”) talks about it being the most important thing a parent can do to be able to parent their child with connection and clarity. When we are able to make sense of our childhood, we are able to separate our triggers from what is happening with our child in the moment: “I heard myself sounding just like my mother!/my father! And yet, I want to raise my child differently than I was raised.” Breathe, feel the feelings, comfort the little girl/boy inside and tell them you are taking care of them now. Then come back to your adult self in this moment with your child.
If you are co-parenting or have parenting friends to talk with, telling the stories of your childhood will help reduce being triggered by your child. Our ability to tell our stories helps us be the narrative coach for our children. Remember, every day they are creating the story of their lives with you as their guide and coach.
Honor the Parent You Are
Parenting is a big journey. Take time to remember the profound contribution you are making to your children’s lives. Make the time to take care of yourself or be taken care of. There is no other job that requires so much and yes, we need to find moments to breathe and take care of ourselves as often as we can. Honor the parent you are!
Echo Parenting & Education
To learn more about the nonviolent parenting philosophy (sometimes referred to as Echo Parenting), please visit Echo Parenting & Education. If you are in the Los Angeles area, Echo offers parenting classes in English and Spanish year-round.
Ruth has bi-monthly support groups in Los Angeles and other offerings. To find out about these, you can email her to subscribe to her mailing list: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Tedx talk “Daring to Question the Way We Raise Children” is a must-watch.