The First ‘No’
Emma was 20 months or so -my sunny, sweet first child- and we were sitting on the sofa together, having tea with our neighbour, who was planning her first pregnancy. Emma had never really used the word before, and I had wishfully thought that we would avoid it altogether. I don’t even remember the question that I asked her, but her response shook me to my roots; it was the biggest “NO” I had ever heard. I was visibly shaken and, even worse, unsure how to respond. My neighbour retreated- although she may have been a bit put off, she did eventually have a baby – leaving me desperately trying to figure out what was wrong, and how I could avert the next NO.
As you can guess, Emma’s “NO” continued, stronger than ever, and I became concerned, angry and finally desperate. I consulted my women’s circle and my wise teacher Rachana, who had supported many families through the early years. She reassured me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Indeed, Emma was just doing what I had allowed her to do thus far, which was to express herself loudly and clearly, except that this time, it was her own will that she was expressing.
Somewhat reassured- although still perturbed when it actually happened- I sought the book that Rachana recommended- Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon, and read it cover to cover. Yes! This book excited and inspired me, and 12 years later, I still know many passages off by heart. This was about discipline in the true sense of the word- being a parent that my children would want to follow- and parenting with integrity, compassion and inconsistency.
PET remains my all-time favourite parenting book, and its principles are still guiding me as Emma enters her teenage years. Some of these principles are elaborated in this series of articles on gentle discipline, as well as other aspects of parenting and discipline that I have been blessed to learn from my four children, and from other wise parents, over the years. I also recommend the resources as below.
What is discipline?
The word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning instruction or teaching. This definition tells us that discipline is much wider than the problems that we might have with certain behaviours, and includes all that we, as parents, are teaching our children.
One way to look at discipline, from this wider perspective, is as the stage setting for family life, in its many facets. Family life can involve exuberant joy; tears and tragedies; outrageous humour; and/or fiery anger- and that’s even before breakfast! But if we have a stable and loving setting, the ups and downs of family life can pass over us more gracefully, and we can weather the unavoidable storms without long-term damage. When we become skilful at handling conflict, we may also find that, after the dust has settled, we can actually emerge with more love and more understanding in our relationships and in our family.
The teaching that we gain through ‘discipline’ is not all one-way. We may see ourselves as the authorities in the family (whether because of our physical bulk, our vast life experience, or merely because we are the parents!!) but we will often be brought down to size by our children, who will certainly do their share of instructing us. Perhaps the most useful attitude we can take is openness and curiosity, remembering that every situation is new for both of us, and that even the youngest child will have feelings (and perhaps helpful suggestions) that we need to consider. We can remember too that our children are disciplining us -training us up, if you like- so that we can be the parents that they need us to be for their own beautiful unfolding.
This first article sets out some of the foundations of gentle discipline- the qualities that I believe set the stage for a healthy family life. Some of these are explored further in the books, noted at the end, and some are my own ideas. As always, please filter this information through own experiences, and your own loving wisdom. You are the expert in your own child/ren!
Loving relationships are, for me, the cornerstone of discipline. When we have a loving relationship, both parent and child will want to give their best to each other. A loving relationship also helps to build resilience when tensions do arise, because both child and parent will know that, underneath the storm, they do love and care about each other, and that, when things have blown over, they will be reconnected in a loving way again.
Our relationships involve all that has happened between us, as well as the feelings and actions that are happening right now. My belief is that our relationships with our children begin at conception, and that we can begin to nurture a loving relationship from this time. Allowing ourselves to be well cared for during pregnancy and giving our babies a gentle birth will set us most gracefully on the road to parenting, and will also help us to respond from our heart during our child’s early years.
We can also build loving relationships with our babies through attachment parenting- carrying our babies, breastfeeding, co-sleeping- because these are the expectations that our babies have developed through evolution. These behaviours also, I believe, promote security, trust and emotional well being for both mother and baby. As William and Martha Sears (who coined the phrase ‘attachment parenting’) note, “The deeper the parent-child connection, the easier discipline will be.”
If your relationship has been difficult in the past, and/or there is trauma for either of you in your relationship, please acknowledge this and trust that healing is possible. There may be a need for some gentle intervention such as homeopathy, osteopathy or cranio-sacral therapy to help your child heal from trauma (physical and/or emotional) at birth or in early childhood. Alternatively, you can use the ideas in Aletha Solter’s books (especially The Aware baby) and give your child the support to clear the trauma him or herself. I believe that we are all essentially self-healing, and that, if we listen with our hearts and instincts, our children will tell us how best to help them through their difficulties.
Relationship is also very useful in the present time. When we are having a ‘discipline problem’ we may withdraw from our child, either physically or emotionally, because we don’t like what he/she is doing. However, if we use our loving relationship positively, and deliberately draw closer when there are problems, our child will be reassured as well as reconnected, and the situation will be easier to deal with. I learned this from my fiery 4th child, Maia, and we developed a habit of going ‘onto the mat’ together when she was overcome with anger. I would hold her while she raged and cried, and I could see her working through her emotions, and finally coming back to me and to herself. Now that she is 4, we don’t use the mat very often, but I have learned that moving in closer to an upset or angry child (of any age) and reassuring them with my presence, is much more compassionate, as well as more effective, than moving away. You can read more about this approach in Tears and Tantrums, as below.
Loving relationships with our children require an ongoing commitment. We may say that we love our children, but, being very practical creatures, our children actually need us to show them our love. This may be easy, or it may be very challenging, especially when we did not receive demonstrations of love in our own families. With very young children, the most effective way to show love, I believe, is to be available physically, and give lots of hugs and holding. Breastfeeding our babies is also important, as it not only shows love, but actually makes love; both mother and baby get a dose of oxytocin, the hormone of love with each breastfeed.
For older children, another useful approach is described in the Five Love Languages books by Gary Chapman. Chapman has concluded that we do not all feel loved through the same actions. Instead, some people feel loved when they receive compliments; others through physical contact such as hugs; others through receiving gifts; others through having things done for them and others through spending time with their loved ones. Any of these actions will help to fill up our children’s ‘love tanks’ (and our own), but we will be most effective when we use each other’s individual love language. On a personal note, I find that I need to make an extra effort when my children’s love languages are different from my own. See resources for the five love language books and websites.
Lastly, a reminder that relationships, even with the smallest of children, involve a two-way reciprocity. We can build up our relationships through supporting and teaching our children to show their love and appreciation of us, and accepting their gifts- whether verbal, physical, material etc- with grace. For example, when I need help, I often ask my children, “Will you do something nice for me?” They may respond negatively (which I usually can accept) but more often they are keen to help me, and I then tell them what I need. This interaction keeps the love flowing between us, and ensures that I don’t get to feel resentful about the things I do for them. (Perhaps you can tell that my primary love language is having people do things for me!)
Setting an (Imperfect) Example
No matter what we say, or the values we talk about, our children will always be most influenced by what we actually do. To be an effective parent, we really need to ‘walk our talk’. This is perhaps the scariest part of being a parent, as we are reminded every time we see our worst habits mirrored back to us, sometimes by children who can’t even talk!
Setting an example means being the best that we can be at the time, and using our role as parents to consciously teach our children some of our values. It also means working to become aware of the more negative values that we may demonstrate unconsciously. Again, we can be blessed by our observant children, who will usually remind us when our stated values and our actions are inconsistent. If we can be accepting and open to their feedback, we gain the sort of honest and real discipline (teaching) that comes from a spiritual master, which is what I believe our children essentially are for us.
Setting an example also means recognising when we ‘stuff up’ and admitting it to ourselves and to our children. Admitting our mistakes and apologizing are very important because when we admit that we are not perfect we give our children permission to be not perfect. We are also teaching our children an important aspect of self-esteem; that we actually don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love, from others or from ourselves. Lastly, when we admit our mistakes, we willingly give away some of our power, and we show that we are human, after all. We may lose ‘authority’, in the strict sense, but we gain authenticity, as well as our children’s love and true respect. It is also very sweet to be forgiven by our children, who are often so much kinder to us than we are to ourselves.
The wisdom of inconsistency
As parents, we are told that it is important to be consistent. For example, if we allow our children to open up all the puzzle boxes and spread them out on the floor one day, we ‘should’ allow them to do the same thing the next day. However, if we think about ourselves, we have to admit that some days we will be more tolerant to disorder, and it may even be that some days we need a tidy house because of visitors. If we allow our children to do things because of our notions of consistency, we could end up feeling resentful and/or overwhelmed by what we have allowed our children to do.
We might also believe that we need to treat our children consistently- that is, all the same- but again, this can be unhelpful. For example, if my children all asked to take something of mine to school, chances are that I would say ‘yes’ to those who have looked after things that I have loaned them in the past, and ‘no’ to others, who I know haven’t taken care of my things. If I try to be consistent, and say yes to everyone, I am risking damage, as well as missing an opportunity to teach my children about responsibility. If I say no to everyone, I am also not teaching responsibility, nor allowing the ‘rewards’ of trustworthiness.
Consistency between parents (ands/or other carers) is also artificial and unnecessary. Our children know that we will respond differently, because we are different people. While I think that it is important to not let our children manipulate our differences, I also believe that we can, as parents have different attitudes, thresholds and responses, yet still parent together with ease.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to be inconsistent is that we are more real and honest when we are inconsistent. Personally, I have even broken prior arrangements with my children, because I value honesty, and because I know that I need to care for myself first. In my experience, when I do something for my children that just doesn’t feel right, on some level, it almost always doesn’t work out. However, if I check in with myself, and know what is really right for me, it will always be the right thing for all of us.
When I am inconsistent, I always explain my situation, and I ask my children to be understanding and forgiving. Sometimes we will be able to negotiate a compromise or other solution, and sometimes there will be disappointment and tears. At other times, they will say, “Yes, you are right Mum, it’s not the right thing to do.” In following my own instincts and being honest with myself, I am also teaching my children to follow theirs, rather than get caught up in external situations and pressure.
Active Listening- the language of acceptance
Listening skillfully and lovingly is a powerful tool for healing. We have all, hopefully, had the experience of sharing our problems with another person, and felt relief just through being heard. With our children, too, listening may be all that is required in many situations. The most powerful and effective listening that we can do is what has been called ‘active listening’, because this involves actively communicating love and acceptance to the speaker, as well as trusting that the person can handle his/her own feelings. Thomas Gordon calls active listening ‘the language of acceptance’, and says that, when used by a parent, it fosters catharsis (emotional release), helps our children to accept their own feelings and promotes a warm relationship.
The first thing we can do, as active listeners, is to draw close. For young children, we may need to ‘get down to their level’ physically, while older children may be more comfortable with a little space around them. Active listening works well with teenagers when traveling in the car. We also need some time and a relaxed attitude so that we can be truly present with our child- it’s hard to give our full attention when we are hurried. I find that I can be more available to my children when my own needs are met- see below for more about this aspect of discipline.
We also need an attitude of acceptance towards our child. This may be difficult at times, but it may help to remember how much you love your child, and/or to recall some particular times when you have felt especially loving towards them. Openness and warmth are important, so that we can accept whatever our child communicates, and accept the feelings behind the communication. Sometimes we may need to remind ourselves that, as adults, we can take a wider perspective, including the knowledge that the emotions that our child is expressing are transient, and, no matter how powerful, they will pass eventually. We also need to remember that our child is a separate person to us, with his/her own experiences and feelings, but with the ability to know what is best for him/herself.
At its most simple, active listening may be just hearing what the child is saying and reflecting it back, with acceptance and compassion. For example, when our children hurt them selves, often all they need is an acknowledgment of the injury (“Oh, that looks really sore”) and a hug. We can’t make it better for them but we can trust them to cope with their own feelings and to ask us for the comfort that they need.
When our children’s needs are more complex, we can use the same basic skills- reflecting and acceptance- to draw out the issue that is bothering them- and which they may not be aware of. For me, it’s a bit like a treasure hunt- we are both seeking the central issue, or feeling that will bring resolution and at the same time gaining understanding. To find this treasure, we need to suspend our own judgments, preconceptions and habitual reactions (usually this means working hard to keep our mouths shut and our hearts open) and listening with a minimum of responses. And sometimes the treasure, or solution, may be elusive, yet somehow the process of active listening seems to defuse the issue, and it may even fade away. My interpretation of this is that active listening may start a process for the child, so that they can reach their own resolution at a later time, or some other way.
On a practical level, active listening involves a lot of listening and some reflecting back (Eg, “So you don’t like it when Jacob pulls a face at you?”) as well as encouraging words and noises such as “Uh-huh…. Really?…. mmmm….”. I find that the more neutral my language is, the better- my favourite word here is ‘tricky’, which can mean difficult or bad, but doesn’t have an emotional overtone. Active listening also involves using feedback, where we check with the speaker whether we have understood their communications.
For example, here is a conversation that I recently had with Jacob, aged 8
J- I don’t want to go to school any more
Me- You’re not enjoying school at the moment
J –No. X is sick and Z won’t play with me, he always plays with the little kids.
Me- That sounds tricky
J- Yes. And I was in the sandpit all by myself for about two hours and no-one came along
Me- You were feeling lonely
J-Yes. But then M and M came and we talked a bit,
J- And then we played a bit
Me- So it got better?
J Yes. I guess it was OK. I hope X gets better soon
You can imagine that if I over reacted when Jacob said “I don’t want to go to school any more”, we could have had a major argument, I wouldn’t have heard what his real problem was, and as a consequence, he might not have shared his next problem with me.
I have also found that the better I get at active listening, the more richly I am rewarded for my efforts. Active listening allows me glimpses of my children’s world- how they see and experience their own lives, and the world around them- and I feel very privileged when they trust me enough to share this with me. You can get some excellent ‘coaching’ in active listening by reading PET.
Caring for the carer
One of the biggest lessons that I have learned as a mother is that I need to care for myself well if I want to care for my children well. It’s obvious, really- when we are stressed, we can’t give our best and, in a family setting, things can slide from bad to worse very quickly.
Like our love languages, we all have different things that refill our nurturing tanks. As a triple Taurean, I can’t survive for long without a massage, and I use my regular massage to consciously thank every part of my body for all that it has done for me and my family. Time out is also important to me, and I love a long bath, a good book or magazine and time to keep in touch with myself through my journal.
But caring for myself doesn’t always mean taking time out. There are also nourishing rituals that I can weave into my family life, such as burning (or dabbing) essential oils (lavender always relaxes me), listening to soothing music (or sometimes dancing to exciting music), walking with my family in nature or simply sitting down for a few minutes with a cuppa. Cooking and eating my favourite foods also nourishes me, as well as my family.
When I have been in especially intense situations, such as when my partner goes away for a long time, I have found it useful to write a list of things that will nourish me, so that I remember to keep my ‘mothering tanks’ full. Similarly with food- a list of nice and healthy pick-me-ups is great, especially for a busy breastfeeding mother, who may not remember what she likes or needs to eat! I also have on-hand a list of friends who I can call for support, when I need it.
Being a self-centred parent
When Emma was a baby, I worked hard to be the ‘perfect mother’. My version of the perfect mother involved fulfilling all her needs (and often ignoring my own), and never saying ‘no’. The attachment parenting that I did with Emma was wonderful, and involved a lot of devotion, but I was in real danger of being an unselfish and emotionally unreal mother with a selfish, spoilt child. Well, Emma’s fiery NO certainly challenged me to be more real, and as each child has come along, I have also learned to be more self-centred in my parenting. After 4 children, I have reached a better balance between meeting my own needs and those of my family, and that balance involves approaching situations from a more self-centred perspective.
Being a self-centred parent is not a popular image. Our culture still expects us to be martyrs for the sake of our children, yet this is not healthy for us, nor for our children, who can only learn that it’s OK to get their needs met at the expense of others- an attitude that seems to be growing in our society. Being a self-centred parent teaches my children to be respectful of the needs of others, and gives us both good practice with ‘no’. Being self-centred has made me a much stricter mother, in many ways, compared to 12 years ago, but my children are not selfish and spoilt, and are more flexible and accommodating than I could have imagined.
Being a self-centred parent also helps me to keep my boundaries as clear as possible. In the language of PET, it helps me to know when the problem belongs to me (and I need to take action) and when it belongs to my child (who needs to take action, with my support if necessary). For example, if my children leave their rooms untidy, my self-centred response is “How does this affect me?” If it has no real impact, then it is their problem, and they can live with the consequences, if any. If, however, I feel that I don’t want to go in to put their washing away because I might trip over, or because I just don’t like the mess, I could tell them “I don’t like going into your bedroom, so I am not going to put your washing away. You will have to collect it yourself from the laundry.” In this way, I have owned my part of the problem, and trusted my child with the decisions and actions (or inactions!) that affect them.
Self-centredness also saves us from the resentment that can come when we over-stretch ourselves in fulfilling our children’s needs. This is not uncommon for attachment parents, especially for those of us who did not get their needs met as children, and who therefore can overcompensate with our own children. If you have difficulty with saying no to your children, as I did, this may be an issue that you need to look at.
Sometimes I lose my self-centeredness, or I am unsure what is the right decision- do I go out of my way to do what my children are wanting, or do I say no and live with their disappointment and/or anger (which is usually short-lived, in my experience). At these times, I make my decisions based on how I imagine I will feel afterwards. If I think that eg tidying up my children’s room, reading yet another book, breastfeeding my toddler etc will leave me feeling tired and/or resentful, this gives me the extra resolve to say no. Feeling resentful and blaming our children for what we have agreed to do for them is not healthy for either of us!
I leave the final words to Rachana, my wise teacher who has taught me so much about motherhood. As well as introducing me to PET, Rachana gave me a mothering mantra- a phrase that helps me to centre and come back to myself when things are difficult. The mantra is “Because I love myself…”
This mantra reminds me that the core of my mothering is my self, and that the more I love myself, the more I am available to love and care for my children. Because I love myself…I can be loving and truly in love with my children, my family, my friends and the world that we all share.
Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon
The Discipline Book by William and Martha Sears
Tears and Tantrums and The Aware baby by Aletha Solter (See also her website http://www.awareparenting.com/)
The Five Love Languages for Children by Gary Chapman See also http://www.fivelovelanguages.com/ and http://selectsmart.com/FREE/select.php?client=5lovelanguages for a free quiz (with ads)