Friday, March 15, 2019

Kids Don't Come With Instructions (But Here Are Some Books I've Found Useful)

Some things I've done that parenting books have told me to do that have changed everything:

1. Validate my children's emotions and experiences as real and important. This one is tricky sometimes. Because they are little and unreasonable and know so much less than I do, it can be incredibly easy to dismiss their feelings. You don't want to eat your vegetables? You don't want to get buckled in your car seat? You don't want to get dressed/bathe/be a reasonably not-disgusting human being? Tough luck, baby, just deal with it! After all, I know exactly what they need to do to turn out to be decent, healthy, productive, contributing, and happy members of society, right? What do they know?

Well, turns out that's not the point. Turns out it doesn't matter if I know more than they do. Turns out that the better I get at  not dismissing their emotions, the easier it is to actually get them to do what I want. It takes some theory-of-mind work and empathy on my part to get there, and I'm not always the best at it in the heat of the moment, but I've had some pretty convincing experiences where as soon as I validated what they were feeling, everything changed. Sometimes it looks like me realizing that what they are asking for really isn't all that difficult to give in to. Most times, when giving in to their demands or feelings isn't an option, it looks like me just recognizing that they are unhappy, and that is a completely valid response. It's okay to be unhappy when I interrupt their play to go to the store, that wouldn't be fun for me either if I were in their shoes. It's okay they are unhappy that I'm forcing bedtime on them when it would be far more interesting to stay up late. Don't I still struggle with that one too? It's okay they are throwing a tantrum or refusing to oblige, I'm asking them to do hard things and they are young. It's not easy. Just a little dose of sympathy and understanding has gone a long way to change everything about my perspective on how I interact with my children. Instead of getting frustrated, I feel the pain with them as we move through these hard parts of the day. Just because they are little doesn't mean their feelings and experiences aren't valid.

2. I no longer believe in punishment. This one felt so counter-intuitive to me the first time I read about it (in this book here), but punishment didn't seem to be working much either, so I decided to give it a try for a bit and see how things went. This was several years ago, when my oldest was probably three. I used to have power struggles with him constantly, and I felt that any resistance and struggle on his part was punishable with time-out. Basically, he was in time-out a lot, several times a day. But all time-out led to was bigger tantrums and more tears and worse power struggles. It was a vicious cycle. So I just stopped using time-out. I stopped punishing him pretty much cold turkey, for anything.

And I'm not sure anything changed about his behavior, but my perspective changed drastically. I realized that most of the things I'd been punishing him for were age appropriate behaviors. He was simply being a three-year old, and I was telling him it was not okay for him to be a three-year old. I was telling him he needed to be older and more mature than he was capable of being. Punishment wasn't teaching him anything but fear and frustration, and as soon as I stopped punishing him, our relationship improved drastically. I began seeing for the first time just how scared of me he had been, and it broke my heart. He was scared of my disapproval, but he also wasn't doing anything "wrong," except trying to learn and grow and test his boundaries in ways that were entirely appropriate for him.

I have not done a formal time-out with my children since then. I can't say I've inflicted any sort of formal punishment for anything. In fact, it's been a long time since I've viewed any of my children's behaviors as deserving punishment at all. This is not to say that they are perfectly behaved angels. Far from it. It's just that I've learned to distinguish between age-appropriate behavior, and actual transgression. Age-appropriate behavior sometimes needs correction (my youngest is a hitter, she's a violent little thing), but punishment doesn't teach correction, it teaches fear. Instead, I try to find ways to talk and teach during calm moments, and when bad behaviors happen (like the hitting), I simply try to redirect and stay calm. But I don't punish. She's only two. Most two-year-olds hit. It's not inappropriate for her age or maturity level. She will grow up some day and she will become more self-aware and develop greater capacity to control her impulses. What I can control is whether or not she also grows up fearing and resenting me, or trusting me to be her safe place.

This rejection of punishment, or even "consequences," I believe has had a profound impact in our home. For the most part, my children are not scared of me. They behave in age-appropriate ways, and I stay calm (mostly, it's a work in progress) and talk to them calmly when those age-appropriate behaviors cross lines of safety and propriety. This whole rejection of punishment has given me all sorts of insight into how Heavenly Father punishes as well, but that's a post for another day (don't have time for a deep theological tangent here, but I have lots of thoughts here that I'm bursting to share, so hopefully soon!).

3. Parenting is less about my children, and far more about me. I can't "change" my children, I can only change me. 90% of our struggles are about my expectations, and most of the time, my expectations aren't fair. The reason church is so frustrating? Because I expect my two-year old to sit quietly for a solid hour. Is that a fair expectation? Maybe for some kids, but not for my girl. That doesn't mean that I'm not supposed to have any expectations for her behavior, but it does mean that when I'm feeling super frustrated with her, the frustration is stemming from my expectations not being met, not from her behavior actually being inappropriate for her age and maturity level. I can change my expectations, I can't necessarily change her.

4. Less stuff is best. Experiences are better than toys. Children need to get outside, explore, be messy. Routine is key. Routine is crucial. Routine is life. It's okay for kids to be bored. They need unstructured time just to play. They need to be allowed to fail, to make mistakes. Humor always helps. Silliness can go a long way. Connection is key. Food does not need to be a battle. Sleep should be protected at all costs. Sleep is life. Touching is important. Give hugs and kisses, tickles and caresses. Be gentle. Be kind. Be calm. Be calm. Be calm. (This last one is kind of just a grab bag of some parenting philosophies I believe in and have worked for us.)

Now, does this mean I'm a perfect parent and we have no struggles and my children are all wonderful? No! (I already talked about my violent two-year-old, no perfect children here!) My kids watch far more TV than they should and do far fewer chores than they should. We still have lots of things we need to work on around here, there are still lots of ways I could be a better mother. The point is, I'm a better mother than I used to be because of parenting books. Below is a list of some of my favorite ones.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

Kind of the big one that has changed me the most. I don't know if it will offer everyone the same enlightenment it offered me, but I 100% credit this book for setting me on the path to be the parent I am today.

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

Not quite as life-changing for me, but still brim full of all the things I believe work with kids: validating feelings, getting rid of punishment, using empathy, etc. Haven't read the original one, but plan to some day.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

The book itself was a complete bore, not riveting at all. But the message completely resonated with me. It presented a view of childhood that I really want for my kids, about helping them connect with nature.

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

Again, maybe not the most well written, but a message that deeply resonated with me about the kind of simple childhood I want to create for my children.

Bonus! Including an Instagram account here: Ralphie from @SimplyOnPurpose . She is the single best reason to be on Instagram, in my personal opinion. I won't say that I agree with 100% of the things she says, but I probably agree with 99.9% of her parenting philosophy. She preaches positive parenting, and it is beautiful. If you aren't already following her, you probably should be. Peruse her archived stories, she has such gems of wisdom and advice about all sorts of things. Water the flowers, not the weeds! Stay safe! Ignore the junk!

What are your favorite parenting books/resources? I'm always looking for new ones!

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