Peaceful parenting is the parenting approach that I practice and teach. I’m convinced it’s why being a mom to 3 teenagers has been such a breeze!
What is peaceful parenting exactly?
Peaceful parenting has three big ideas: a commitment to parental self regulation, an emphasis on connection and our relationship with our child, and a reliance on kind, firm limits with lots of empathy and no punishment to help guide our child’s behaviour.
Why peaceful parenting?
The peaceful parenting approach is attractive to many parents because it feels great to be on the same team with your child and have less conflict in your home. But peaceful parenting is also a long game. The research shows that using limits instead of punishment helps our children develop intrinsic motivation, resilience, empathy and a strong internal sense of right and wrong.
A note before we get started: Peaceful parenting is NOT an easy approach. It requires patience, self-awareness, and a lot of effort on our part as parents. It’s hard work. Talk to any seasoned peaceful parent though and they’ll tell you it is worth it.
Okay, so why are those three big ideas so important? And what does peaceful parenting look like in action? Let’s dive in!
Big idea #1: Parental Self-Regulation
What it is:
Parental self-regulation is a fancy way of saying that we try not to yell at our kids, or worse, when we are upset.
It does NOT mean that we never get upset with our kids. Of course we will get upset sometimes. That’s just part of being human. However, when we do get upset, we try to calm ourselves so that we can respond to the situation and the child in front of us instead of reacting out of anger.
Why it’s important:
Yelling scares our kids. Even if a child seems outwardly calm, research shows they have elevated heart rates and cortisol (stress) levels.
Yelling makes us feel bad about ourselves. This creates a vicious cycle: when we feel bad about ourselves we are more likely to get hijacked by our own big feelings and yell again the next time. Plus, it’s just not a nice feeling to feel bad about yourself as a parent!
Yelling hurts our relationship without kids. Think about if you had a boss that was always yelling at you when you messed up. How would you feel about that person? I know I would not show up as my best self for them and I’d probably avoid spending time around them. In addition, if we’re frequently hurting our child’s feelings and scaring them, they will build a little wall around their hearts.
Yelling makes our kids develop low self-worth. If the person they love most in the world is always yelling at them, they are likely to conclude that they are a bad person.
Poor self-regulation makes it hard to use any parenting strategies effectively. If we’re upset with our child, chances are there is something we need to do in that moment to help our child either start doing ABC or stop doing XYZ. If we are hijacked by our big feelings we are operating from our brain’s fight-flight-or-freeze mode instead of from our thinking brain mode. If we can’t use our thinking brain’s executive function, planning and logical thought functions, we can’t effectively use any of the tools we could employ to get our child to listen and cooperate.
Poor self-regulation makes us act in ways we later regret. When our thoughts and actions are hijacked by our big feelings, the person in front of us looks like the enemy and we do or say things we wish we hadn’t.
What self-regulation looks like:
Scenario: Your 3 year old keeps getting in the baby’s face in a rough way, no matter how many times you ask them to stop. Your inner mama bear wants to ROAR!
Instead, you remember to Stop Drop and Breathe.
After you take a few breaths, you remind yourself that they’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time with this transition to big sibling. You calm yourself in your thoughts and in your body so that you can respond to your child instead of blowing up in anger.
You can now gently move your three year old away from the baby and get them involved in something else. (And give yourself a pat on the back for staying calm!)
Big Idea #2: Focus on connection and the relationship.
Why it’s important:
Connection makes parenting sweeter and more fun. We didn’t have children just so we could have someone to nag and move through the daily schedule! We had kids to increase the joy in our lives. Of course we love our children, but when we feel connected to them we feel more joy and sweetness in life.
Connection makes parenting easier. Our relationship with our child is the most effective way we can influence them. We as humans are hard-wired for connection. From an evolutionary perspective, this keeps us safe. Not only does connection make caregivers want to look out for us, we are more likely to follow those with whom we feel close as they are most likely to have our best interests in mind.
What this means for parenting is increased cooperation when kids feel connected! This is especially true for strong-willed kids. They may not want to do what you are asking, but they might do it for YOU.
I really see this with my teenagers. A few years ago, my then 16 year old son told me that many of his friends ignored their parents’ phone calls and texts, and went home late, if at all.
He said, “You’re lucky I care what you and Dad think.”
He is right. Having ‘kids who care what you think’ is 90% of the equation in parenting, especially as they get older.
OR, if you want to go deeper, dive into my e-book: https://peacefulparents.kartra.com/page/connection-e-book)
Big Idea #3: Kind, firm limits with lots of empathy and support instead of punishment.
What it is:
We use empathic limits and support rather than punitive measures to get our children to do ABC or stop doing XYZ.
We all have expectations for our child about their behaviour. For example, we expect them to come to the table for dinner when it’s time. We expect them not to pull the dog’s tail or draw on the walls with marker.
Sometimes though, your child keeps playing when you call them for dinner. Or they just can’t resist pulling on the fluffy tail right in front of them or drawing on the giant white canvas in the living room.
When these things happen, there is a gap between our expectations and reality. This gap is where we feel powerless and frustrated as parents.
Conventional parenting uses threats, consequences, yelling or bribes to close the gap.
“If you don’t stop pulling on the dog’s tail you’re going to get a time out!”
“You’re going to get a consequence if you don’t…”
“Because you drew on the walls, I’m putting away your markers for a week.”
“If you don’t come right now you won’t get any iPad time later!”
In peaceful parenting, we try not to use threats, consequences or punishments to get our kids to close that gap between our expectations and reality.
You can say ‘consequences’ or punishment, but they have come to mean the same things.
Punishment, or parent-imposed consequences, is anything that makes a child feel bad on purpose to shape their behaviour.
In peaceful parenting, we believe that a child can learn without being made to feel bad. And in fact, feeling bad often gets in the way of learning! Punishment also hurts our relationship with our children, doesn’t teach the lessons we think we’re teaching, and doesn’t work in the long run. (Because of this and oh so much more, we don’t use punishment in peaceful parenting. More on that in this post if you are interested.)
So what do we do to close that gap between our expectations of our child and reality if threats and punishments are not our go-to?
We use kind, firm empathic limits.
A limit can be explained as the expectation itself: no drawing on the walls. It also encompasses the support we need to give our child to meet the expectations. Support often looks like ‘doing something’ to help our child meet our expectations.
If the expectation is that our child comes to dinner when it’s time, what do we need to do to help our child come to the table? How can we support our child?
First, make sure we are getting our child’s attention in an effective manner.
If our child hears you and doesn’t want to stop playing, use one of our peaceful parenting tools to support your child and your limit. This is also known as, “How do I get them to… XYZ?”
A few examples:
Give choices. “Do you want to come now or in 5 minutes?” “Do you want to walk or shall I carry you?”
Try a win/win solution to get cooperation. Engage them in play: “Fly” them to the table or invite them to bring one of their Lego guys to “watch” them eat.
Ask for help to solve the problem. “You don’t want to keep playing AND it’s dinner time. What should we do?”
Your expectation or limit is not optional, that’s why we say “firm” limits. But rather than threaten or punish, you will provide the support your child needs to get there.
If the limit is ‘no pulling the dog’s tail’ or ‘no writing on walls’, what do we need to do to support the limit?
We might need to separate our child and the dog, and make sure that they are always supervised closely enough that we can swoop in if necessary.
We might need to move the markers where our child can’t reach them unless we are there to supervise.
We don’t need to be mean about it!
In fact, the more you can empathize, the easier it is for a child to accept the limit. We have to let our child know that we understand and that we are on their side even as we have to move them away from the dog, or put the markers up high where they can’t reach.
When you find the marker on the wall, Stop, Drop and Breathe. “It’s so much fun to write on that giant white wall. At the same time, markers are only for paper, sweetie. I’m going to put the markers up here and you can use them when I can watch you.” (and then invite your child to help you clean up the marker as a repair.)
When you see your child pulling the dog’s tail, “Oh! You want to play with him, right? Of course you want to play with the doggie! That will hurt him though sweetie. No pulling his tail. You can rub him on the tummy or throw the ball for him.” Or depending on the situation, “He’s going to go out in the yard for a bit and take a break.”
You might notice that in the above scripts, I started with acknowledging the child’s point of view. “You want to play with the dog…” or “It’s so much fun to write on the wall…”
This is the empathic part of empathic limits. Empathic limits let your child know that you still think they are a good person even as you have to correct them. When we feel understood, it’s easier to give up the fight.
Many parents wonder if you have to take something away, like the dog or the markers, isn’t that a punishment? It can be a bit tricky because parents often *do* take things away as punishment.
The difference here is in our tone and our intent. Parents who take things away to punish are often angry and scolding in their tone, and their intent is to make a child feel bad so they will not do it again. (Or threaten to make them feel bad!)
You might hear parent A at the park say angrily, “That’s it! I told you to stop throwing sand. Now we are going home!!”
You might hear parent B say, with empathy, “It seems like you are having a really hard time remembering not to throw sand. I think we need to head home. We’ll try again tomorrow.” (Or perhaps take a break on a bench and try again.)
Parent A’s tone is angry and the intent is to threaten the child with pain (leaving the park) to get compliance. Parent A thinks the child is giving them a hard time.
Parent B’s tone is kind and the intent is to support the limit of no throwing sand. Parent B knows the child is having a hard time.
Our child may in fact feel bad about a limit we’ve set. That’s okay! It’s not our intention to make them feel bad. Of course they might be sad to leave the park, but it’s what we need to do if they can’t manage and we need to set the limit.
It’s important to remember here that the limit is the lesson and it’s enough to teach our child. We never need to pile on with a scolding or guilt trip.
We can be on our child’s side when they feel bad and come alongside them with a hug and a big dose of empathy.
Peaceful parenting is a lot of hard work. Regulating ourselves when our child is misbehaving and pushing all our buttons is tough. Putting energy into our connection with our child with full lives and busy schedules takes a lot of effort. Setting limits and finding ways to scaffold and support our child takes energy and creativity. And it takes bravery to go against the grain of our society and not use punishment to teach our children.
But if we want kind, responsible, independent and resilient kids who care what we think and want to spend time with us when they grow up, it’s so worth it.
Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and parenting advice columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 13, 16, and 19). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Enjoy your kids again! Find her at sarahrosensweet.com