Probably the most frequently asked question I get asked by readers in comments of shares of my parenting posts is “what do you do then?” When they hear that we don’t spank, yell, force manners, use time out, take possessions, manipulate or bribe they imagine us left with figurative empty hands.
What do you do then? How do you parent without these tools?
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What about learning consequences?
What about when they are going to do something unsafe?
What about tantrums?
What about when my child hits/bites/talks back?
What about siblings fighting?
I think it’s hard to imagine without having seen it or lived it. But parenting without punishment is possible and incredible. Children are people and deserving of so much more than the current parenting paradigm. We are part of a global society that is used to these methods being used to parent and discipline. Without which kids would apparently be out of control and we would be terribly stressed out. But it really isn’t like that. I imagine that passive means of parenting; without boundaries and a strong foundation, could certainly be awful. But respectful parenting isn’t passive.
Respectful parenting isn’t easy. Particularly if you’ve been raised differently. Not only is there you and your child in the equation but often a partner and family who have influence over the whole dynamic.
It all begins with a lot of unlearning. Unlearning what we are taught to believe about children through our culture (parenting, school, media, etc). Then you build a relationship and connection with your children from that foundation.
“Many believe that parenting is about controlling children’s behavior and training them to act like adults. I believe that parenting is about controlling my own behavior and acting like an adult, myself. Children learn what they live.” – L R Knost.
Truthfully there is no step by step guide to respectfully parenting. Ultimately it’s about consensual living, together and working as a team. This guides all decisions and discussions. It’s not about children or parents being free from responsibility.
So what DO we do then? We:
Teach natural consequences
Learning that every decision has a consequence is a huge thing for children. It’s our job as parents and guardians to help them recognise and understand that their actions and words have an impact on others and themselves.
To be clear, helping children understand natural consequences is about the genuine results of decisions – not about making a consequence (i.e. when people take away ‘privileges’ or possessions after warnings – this isn’t an authentic consequence)
That hurt your brothers feelings.
I don’t want you walk to the park without shoes, you could hurt your feet. When you’re ready to put your shoes on we can go.
Label and validate emotions
It’s so important to teach children that it’s OK to feel and express the full spectrum of emotions. Not just the emotions that we are comfortable with. It’s really common in our society to belittle children’s emotions or try to mute them.
It can be hard and I have wrote previously about coping with kids strong emotions. Of course you can help to model and discuss appropriate reactions to different situations and feelings. However, it is most helpful to embrace emotions and label them.
You look like you’re feeling really frustrated. Can I help?
That made you really sad. I’m sorry that happened to you.
I understand that made you angry.
Manage our expectations
Along a similar vein, it’s often key to understand that their response is age appropriate. Society has really set high expectations for children. Sometimes kids are just tired or hungry or feeling pressured. It’s important to assess and manage your expectations and align them with your true ideals surrounding children and not just what you have been taught to think or expect. Remember also that sometimes things may not matter to you; but it matters to them.
She’s three. This matters to her.
He’s tired. This is hard for him right now.
I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is to view the situation from their perspective. This goes hand in hand with managing expectations but it’s important enough to repeat. Empathy is so important.
Sometimes I literally take a breath and imagine the situation from their perspective. I’ll suddenly realise there is a whole lot of noise or new people or new situation – or all three! I’ll realise that I haven’t prepared them adequately, for example. Sometimes it takes realising that the newness of what we know and understand and are comfortable with in this world isn’t the same for these awesome little people.
He needs some time. I’ll be here if you need me.
She is overwhelmed. I’m happy to hold her until she feels safe and comfortable.
Remember the aim isn’t obedience
I firmly believe that the aim with parenting shouldn’t be blind obedience. Intrinsic motivation for all values (morals, safety, positive decision-making, self worth, respect, etc) is far more significant and beneficial.
Practice and teach autonomy (yours and theirs!)
In our family, everyone’s rights are respected – so long as they don’t encroach on the rights of others. Body autonomy is so important but just as important is personal autonomy and consistently demonstrating and reiterating what this means out loud.
I won’t let you hurt me.
I can’t let you yell at your brother like that.
Keep them safe
What about when they run in front of a car?
Whose kids are these that run out in front of cars? This is the most ridiculous debate that is brought up any time people bring up not spanking or punishing kids. When it comes to safety, you simply remove them from the threat and discuss why after the immediate issue is dealt with. Kids don’t need to be punished to understand that you are serious.
Children are also more likely to take you seriously if you’re not always unnecessarily micro-managing them and telling them no.
Having children play an active, genuine role in the decision making process – where possible and appropriate – is vital, too. I know, it doesn’t come naturally and often the initial fear is permissiveness or that you’ll be taken advantage of. But the more responsibility and freedom you give your children to compromise with you – the more they learn how to navigate these decisions effectively.
Children learn by doing. Without compromise and working with children and having them be part of the process, they don’t get that opportunity to grow and learn!
Continuously work on connection
It all comes down to your ongoing relationship and connection. Children act drastically different when they feel heard, valued, and respected. Just like all humans do, they need to feel these things consistently and fully.
I truly believe this is the hardest thing about authoritarian parenting – the parenting itself warrants the behaviours that leads to the punitive means they believe is needed. It’s a vicious cycle. Remember, it’s not you vs your children.
Develop emotional intelligence
Developing their understanding of right and wrong obviously helps us as parents. The issue here is that people expect it rather than realising that they’re ongoing concepts to learn and explore. As parents we have to help them navigate these choices and understand that people make mistakes. It’s important to talk with them about their choices and the impact they have.
This is a hard one. Trust. Trust that by modelling and discussing and living respectfully with your kids that they will become respectful adults. Trust that children aren’t out to manipulate and ruin you. This is hard when you have a three year old testing boundaries or you have had days of sickness and tiredness and slip up and yell.
You have to trust that your hard work and connection is enough. Because it is. It is enough.
Thank you for reading!