Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Connecting With, Loving, and Accepting My Children (or Book Review: Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids)

A few months ago, my blogging friend Amy posted a funny list of twenty parenting books she has read in the past few years, and the takeaways she remembers from each book (spoiler: very little, and sometimes nothing at all). This is generally pretty true for me too. When I'm in the middle of a parenting book, I'm like, "This is great stuff! I'm going to implement all of this and become the best parent ever!" And then fast forward a few months, and pretty much nothing has changed, and I barely even remember the title of that book, let alone any of its advice.

So take it with a grain of salt when I say that Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham is the best parenting book I've ever read. It is entirely possible that six months from now, I will have completely forgotten everything about this book and absolutely nothing will have changed in my day-to-day life. Right now, I just happen to be dwelling in the happy afterglow of reading this book and drinking the cool-aid, it may not actually be all that wonderful.

Also, I will freely admit that this book is not perfect and will not fit every parent's personality. Dr. Markham is very well researched and supported, but she also clearly has her biases, and is a little over-the-top sometimes. She had a tendency to be a little too psychoanalytical-Freudian for me. No, not every single one of my parenting flaws stems from childhood trauma, sometimes I am just tired or stressed or would like to finish reading a single sentence in my book without being interrupted, thankyouverymuch, and I don't think I need to psychoanalyze my childhood to figure out why I just snapped at my kids.

That being said, I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that that parenting manual? The one they joke about not sending you home with from the hospital? The one that isn't supposed to exist even though we all really want a parenting manual to help us figure out just what we are supposed to do when our kid is screaming and flailing on the floor of the grocery store aisle? This just might be the closest thing I've found to that parenting manual.

Dr. Markham's portrayal of calm parenting, parenting that doesn't involve yelling or punishment or confrontation, is exactly the kind of parenting vision that jives with my very non-confrontational, peace-loving personality. It does not necessarily jive with my reality. I mean, I'm not much of a yeller, and when I do yell I generally think it's pretty justified (when my kid ran head-long into a parking lot forcing a car to screech to halt just inches from his body, you better believe I was screaming my head off). But confrontations? Power struggles? Punishments? Frustrations? Snapping? Tantrums? Time-outs? End-of-my-rope-want-to-lock-myself-in-the-bathroom-and-never-see-my-kids-again moments? Those are pretty much daily.

Much of the advice and parenting strategies that Dr. Markham talks about in this book was not new to me. A lot of it, honestly, is pretty basic, intuitive stuff, or stuff I've read in other parenting books and know I should be doing. For me, it was seeing the way she developed and connected all of these strategies that seemed revolutionary for me. There were a few completely radical things she threw in there that were NOT intuitive, and I'm still sort of working through to see how I feel about them (like the whole no-punishment thing, but I'll get to that).

Dr. Markham lays out her parenting approach in three broad overarching categories. Her first section focuses on you the parent (your own issues, stresses, and responsibilities). Her second section focuses on the idea of connection and emotional intelligence with children. And her third section focused on coaching vs. controlling children. I really appreciated each one of these sections and how I found them to be interrelated.

In her first section, Dr. Markham highlights how the responsibility for the tone of all parenting interactions begins and ends with the parent. If there is yelling, it is the parent's fault, not the child's. If there is generally emotional disruption, it is the parent's responsibility to repair, not the child's. I really, really liked this section because I've never seen a parenting book really talk about this before. Most books focus on the child's behavior and how a parent should respond, but this section focuses on the parent first. Dr. Markham repeatedly points out that when children throw tantrums or misbehave or otherwise screw up, they are generally acting age appropriate for their emotional level of development. But when a parent loses his or her temper, the parent is the one not acting age appropriate. It's hard, but we are old enough to control ourselves. This is both incredibly basic and intuitive (of course the parent is the adult and should be in control!), but in the heat of the moment, it is incredibly difficult. After all, parents are human beings. We get tired and hungry or have all sorts of life stresses weighing us down (like in my current case, being incredibly morning sick all the time), and it can be hard to set these stresses aside when our child starts throwing food all over the dining room. But like Dr. Markham points out, it is entirely age appropriate for young children to be interested in finding out what happens when you throw your food. It is entirely inappropriate for an adult to lose his temper and yell and scream just because work was stressful, the house is a mess, we didn't get enough sleep, and now we're going to have to spend the next hour scrubbing marinara sauce off the walls (or because, as Dr. Markham suggests, something from our childhood triggers us to yell in such a situation). So her advice in this section was all about learning to manage ourselves as adults, as parents, learning to figure out our own emotions, stresses, and triggers, and learning to control them. She offers all sorts of research based strategies, but nothing was more effective for me than simply pointing out that yes, I am in control. I like being in control, and just knowing that I should be able to control my emotional reaction to my children has given me more power. It's hard, in the heat of the moment, but also empowering for me to think that I am the adult, I am in control of my own emotions, and I can choose to respond in a calm manner (obviously, this is just my personality, other people will respond differently).

Her second section is all about establishing healthy emotional connections with children. This section was both old news and new news for me. There were tons of strategies and suggestions in this section  that I've heard before and know I should be doing (like spending 15 minutes in focused play with each child per day, enacting rough physical play especially with boys, hugging 12 times a day, etc.). But hearing how Dr. Markham directly connected this sort of base level emotional connection with how children will respond during confrontations was sort of the light-bulb moment for me. I think this all sort of falls under Attachment Parenting theories (a parenting theory that Dr. Markham references but doesn't necessarily claim), which in general I have very little opinion on (I'm frankly more attracted to words like autonomy and independence when it comes to raising children), but Dr. Markham's suggestion that children need to feel secure and connected enough to trust they can express strong emotion with their parents and not be rejected for that emotion was something that sort of clicked with me. This is obviously something I want in my parenting. I want my children to feel connected to me. I want them to feel safe, that they can tell me anything, and that I will always love and support them. But I also realized that I just sort of expect that to happen naturally, without any work on my part. This book made me rethink that, and made me realize that some of my parenting strategies may actually backfire and be teaching my child that they are not allowed to express strong emotion, or that I am not always safe and secure (because sometimes I am grumpy and stressed and just want them to go away). There was lots to think about in this section.

Her final section, about coaching vs. controlling, covered a lot of material, more than I have space to summarize here, but this is the section that I would frame as that golden parenting manual, where Dr. Markham offers concrete scripts of things to say in those difficult moments (like just how to respond when that toddler is having that epic meltdown). She offers advice for various age groups and various scenarios, and it's golden stuff, I tell you. However, this is also the section where she throws in this kind of radical idea of no punishments. Dr. Markham does not believe in punishment of any kind, not physical punishment (makes sense), not "consequences," not even time-out. This one, I really had to mull over because, you know, it feels pretty radical. How do you teach kids who screw up without some form of punishment? My husband especially was pretty skeptical about this idea (obviously I spent hours talking over this book with my husband every night). But the more and more I think about it, the more I can kind of understand where she's coming from on this one. Dr. Markham makes the argument that all forms of punishment, whether they produce desired outcomes (altered child behavior) or not, are connection-damaging in some way. And even if children alter their behavior because of punishment, they don't necessarily learn the lesson we want them to learn from it (internal motivation and desire to change). They become extrinsically motivated by avoiding punishment, they emotionally distance themselves from their parents (most children think any punishment is unfair, therefore trust is eroded), and they become more likely to misbehave in other ways (this is all research and evidence-based, by the way). So what do you do instead of punish? Well, that's tricky. You "coach," you work on strengthening your emotional connection, you scaffold support for future behavior change, I don't know. This is an area where I feel like it would really be going out on a limb to test, because with no punishment, don't you run the risk of raising a spoiled, manipulative child?

But I've been putting a lot of Dr. Markham's strategies to work in my own parenting this week, and right, it's only been a week, so it's hard to say if we're well on our way to raising super successful emotionally intelligent children in a completely calm and peaceful environment free of punishment, but here are some of my observations, in kind of random order.

First, I want to say that if you had asked me two months ago (before I got pregnant-sick), I would have told you that our boys are so lucky to be growing up in such a loving home with a father and mother that dote on them. I would have been absolutely secure that we were emotionally connected to our children and they knew we loved them. Sure, we had moments of tension, but they were just that, moments. This book started opening up cracks in that vision. Suddenly I was noticing how critical we tended to be of our oldest son. How often we told him no. How often we got annoyed with his behavior, or corrected him, or ignored him. How often he seemed to shut down, or appear nervous around us, like he was trying very hard to deal with his emotions without getting in trouble. I often use time out with him in difficult emotional situations, not necessarily as punishment, but because I used to think my son was an introvert who benefited from the time alone to work through things and cool down. But lately, I've noticed that time out hasn't been working as well, that he isn't calming down, and that it only tends to escalate the situation and make him absolutely hysterical. So I took Dr. Markham's advice this week, and instead of putting him in time out, I would try to sit with him through his emotional outbursts, be calm and compassionate, and use some of the scripts she suggested (describing his emotions, accepting his emotions). I would also try to initiate more physical affection during these outbursts, which at first seemed to backfire. He would bite and kick and scream at me not to touch him (which before, was serious time out worthy behavior), so I would tell him that we didn't have to touch but I was going to stay close.

Now I'm not going to say that Dr. Markham's advice was miraculous and now my son magically never has tantrums. That's not what she promises anyway. In fact, sometimes these techniques just seemed to make things worse. The tantrums would drag out, be more intense, last longer. But what I saw was honestly something like the release of floodgates, like my son had been trying very hard to keep some of these big emotions in check because he knew it meant he would get sent to time out, but now I was allowing him to release, and it was coming, and coming, and coming. And by the end of these "sessions," he was in my arms, hugging me tightly, refusing to let go, and trying to touch me and maintain physical contact for hours afterward.

It broke my heart. He was scared to express emotion around me, because I would send him to time out for it. Yeah, parenting fail.

I also tried initiating more play this week, and resurrected my 15 minutes of Awesome Mom time. One of the play strategies Dr. Markham suggests is letting children take turns being completely in control and enact situations where usually they don't get to be in control. My son and I have power struggles all the time. He can be extremely bossy, and because I have such a non-confrontational personality, I feel like I have to work extra hard not to let him control and boss me around. He doesn't treat my husband this way, and so I feel like I constantly have to assert my authority to make sure he knows that Mama is in charge, not him. But it leads to power struggles, situations where I feel like I have to hold my ground on even the smallest things, or he'll walk all over me. Well, for play time, I decided to let him be in charge of me (something I'm loathe to do even in play), and as soon as he realized I was letting him have control and call the shots, he grabbed my arm, dragged me to his room, and locked the door. He put me in time out! He told me I was in trouble for taking his monkey blanket away (part of the "play" we'd had going on). I was shocked. I was appalled. When given the chance and without any suggestion on my part, my child was modeling the very parenting behavior that made him feel powerless as the child. He was asserting his control by doing the very thing he doesn't want me to do him.

It broke my heart again. But I've learned pretty emphatically that time out probably isn't right for my son. And also, I probably have some repair work to do on our emotional connection.

It's still hard, because in the heat of the moment, at the height of these stressful interactions, it doesn't feel like these strategies are working. It feels like coddling, or weakness, or rewarding my child for bad behavior. For instance, take Saturday morning. Every Saturday, per tradition, my husband makes pancakes. He likes to have the boys in the kitchen with him, make it fun and involved. So he told Josh (our oldest), to bring the stool over to the counter to help pour the batter on the griddle. But then Henry (the younger one), climbed up on the stool too, and Josh pushed Henry off, causing tears. So my husband took the stool away. Consequently, Josh broke down in tears. He wanted to stand on the stool. He wanted to help pour the batter. He was devastated the stool got taken away. I came in at this point with my new Dr. Markham strategies and sat with my sobbing four-year-old on the kitchen floor trying to work through the situation. He was beyond upset. He was inconsolable. He tried to kick and bite me. He could not calm down. I kept repeating my phrases from the book ("I see that you are very upset. You are crying. You're having a hard time right now. It's okay, I'm just going to stay right here."), but still he would not calm down. In the meantime, my husband finished up the pancakes, sat down to eat with Henry, finished his breakfast, and moved on with his morning. I remained on the kitchen floor with an inconsolable four year old.

And I'll admit, I got angry. In my head I was thinking things like, You are ruining our happy family breakfast! We should just put you in time out to work through this on your own so that at least I can sit and eat with the family too! You are the one who pushed Henry off the stool in the first place, you deserve to be punished! You need to learn that this is not appropriate behavior! This is not okay!

But I was calm and controlled outside, and a good forty-five minutes later, my son calmed down, hugged me, and happily ate six (stone-cold) pancakes. He was even able to thank his dad for making the pancakes, and apologize to Henry for pushing him.

So was that the right strategy? Did he learn the right lesson? Was this good parenting? Or did I spoil and indulge him and let him get away with ruining breakfast?

In retrospect, I was able to see things that I didn't see in the moment. I could see that my son was definitely over-tired. He'd been up late the night before with a special trip to the zoo. He was still recovering from a cold he'd gotten earlier in the week, and not 100% healthy. And he was hungry. He hadn't eaten much for dinner the night before, and (obviously) hadn't eaten breakfast yet. Physically, he wasn't in a place to handle his emotions. And emotionally, he wasn't in a place to learn anything.

That's a big takeaway I've figured out from this past week of experimenting on these methods. If I ever find myself thinking, "He has to learn such and such lesson!" that's a red flag. He's probably not in any place to learn any sort of lesson when his emotions are out of control. The time for teaching is later.

I've also learned a lot about empathy for my children. I used to think I was pretty good about empathizing, but in analyzing my own emotions I've found that, like most people, I'm pretty self-focused in these situations. I'm thinking about how tired I am, how sick I am, how stressed I am, how annoyed I am, and how my son needs to understand that Mama has feelings too! How rarely do I stop and think about what my son is actually feeling, but I did this week, and it was pretty enlightening. I found a lot of the time my son is thinking, "I feel tired, or hungry, or bored. I feel overwhelmed by this emotion. I feel out of control and I don't know how to fix it. I feel scared. I feel like I'm being treated unfairly. I feel ignored. I feel like I just want to say something, but nobody is listening. I feel like I tried really hard, but I'm still getting in trouble. I feel like I'm getting in trouble for things I can't control. I feel like I have no power."

And wow, empathy is a pretty powerful thing. Just trying to stop and see things from my son's point of view has had a pretty huge impact on my attitude toward him. Instead of being annoyed, or upset, or snappish, or feeling like I need to control and correct his every behavior, I've been more prone to just let him be, to just accept him, and to just love him.

And this is something that I've been thinking about this week. As much as I'd love these parenting strategies to magically transform my son into the perfect little child who never throws tantrums or has issues, that's not actually the goal, or the promise. Because no matter how much effort I put into controlling myself and building our emotional connection, my son is still his own little person who still has big emotions. He still likes to express affections through rough physical play (which is a part of him I struggle with, because we're talking wrestling and poking and slapping and punching, stuff I feel like is inappropriate, but to him means love). He still wants to be bossy. The best parenting in the world will not fundamentally change him. No, the best parenting in the world is actually about accepting him as who he is. A four-year-old who has big emotions. A boy who likes to be a bit rough. An oldest child who likes control.

Sometimes I feel like the whole goal and pressure of parenting is controlling and shaping and forcing your children to change into socially acceptable human beings. But this week, I've felt like the whole goal should really just be loving them for who they are, flaws and all. I have no idea if this will lead to him eventually turning into a socially acceptable human being who no longer bites people (well, just me, I'm the only one he bites), but right now, deep inside me, this feels right. It's not about controlling, it's about accepting and loving.

So when I say this is the best parenting book I've read, what I mean by that is that I've spent this past week really diving into my parenting, reflecting on my relationship with my children, and learning some powerful lessons about empathy and love and acceptance. Will everyone have this experience with this book? No. Has this book changed me permanently? I hope so, but that remains to be seen. It might just be one more small step in this whole messy process that is figuring out how to live life, how to be a good parent, how to love more fully. But yeah, I will say it's been a pretty powerful week around here.

And yes, I recommend this book.


  1. This sounds like a really good one. I have similar struggles with our oldest (also a boy). I like what you said about really learning to empathize with your kids. I need to do better on that, as well.

    By the way, I finally got to listen to the Book Blab. I loved seeing both of you together! Also, it was fun to hear my blog come up! :) I definitely bring my Kindle on trips all the time now. For space reasons, for lighting (I can read in the hotel room while my kiddos sleep), and yeah--mostly those two, I guess. Anyway, it was great!

    1. Thanks for watching! And Amy and I are both fans/readers of yours

  2. We definitely need to chat about this!! Isaac's behavior also got worse before better. But I seem to lack the self control you have. I still snap big time. So it's an ongoing process for us.... And I started a new book as part of our therapy that couples with this one really, really well. It's called Parenting the Strong-Willed Child and it's founded on a research-based clinical program.

    1. Definitely! I have so many questions, so many new issues coming up, that I'd love to chat with someone about. Like, I know Dr. Markham encourages setting limits, but what do you do when your child deliberately crosses those limits if it's not some sort of punishment? I'm still working through so much of this.

  3. Absolutely excited, and surprised, our library actually has this book and I've just reserved :-) Some of this parenting I'm familiar with and have/do practice, thanks to my husband encouraging me in earlier parenting years to do so (we come from very different parenting backgrounds). and some I've been feeling on my heart I need to do more of for some time, the 15 minute connection, not sure how that would work individually with the amount of children I have but still hoping the book will be inspirational
    Your enthusiasm is contagious

    1. Oh I know, fifteen minutes a day with all your kids would take the whole day! Maybe fifteen minutes a week? Anyway, this is definitely a good one, I'm glad you'll be able to get your hands on it.