“Because I said so.”
Remember that one?
Far too many of us understand the childhood frustration of having to follow strict rules at home without a good understanding of why.
I vowed, when I became a young mom, that I would never utter those four words to my own kids. And I can honestly say I’ve followed through with that.
Now, by no means was I a perfect parent. (I’m speaking in past tense here because my boys, at two-months-shy-of 18 and 22 years old are men now, so parenting is a totally different thing these days.) Besides, there’s no such thing. I made plenty of mistakes, especially as someone who started when she was still in her teens, herself.
I definitely had my hard-and-fast rules moments. But mostly, I just let them be if it wasn’t important. I didn’t impose limits on specific foods or activities (within reason). Nobody had to finish their plate. Swearing wasn’t a big deal if it wasn’t inappropriate—not at school and not at Grandma’s. The biggest thing is that rules could change. As a family, we weren’t inflexible.
I also enabled them to make their own choices on what to wear, when to play outside, how to resolve their own squabbles. The point is that unless their health or safety would be affected, they could do, be, and say as they pleased—again, within reason. When things went wrong, we talked about it—about what the problem was and how to fix it. And, also importantly, about how we felt.
It’s funny—some people have commented over the years how I seem like a parent who doesn’t tolerate bullsh*t (I don’t), and how my kids have turned out so well because of their upbringing—I assume they mean because I don’t put up with crap from them. (Again, I don’t.) It’s not like I never yelled. Sure, I lost my temper once in a while. Who doesn’t? But I have my boundaries as far as what I’m willing to accept as their mama, and they understand these things—because we talked them through.
Truth be told, about 90 percent of me fully believes that they turned out well through chance and a bit of love. But I also know that I let them make choices, deal with their own consequences, and I explained the why behind all of it. Nobody can convince me that you can’t reason with a five-year-old. You sure as hell can, if you’re willing to just listen. And a beautiful byproduct of this is that my kids tell me pretty much anything about their lives. They’re not afraid of me, or of being criticized—they feel supported. I guess this is me tooting my own horn a little bit, but I am proud of this. It’s so vastly different from the relationship I have with my own parents, and that’s what I set out to do at the start of my motherhood journey, despite my unexpectedly early start.
What I didn’t know is that this type of parenting has a name. It’s called “gentle parenting.”
What is gentle parenting, exactly? Well, it’s not about just leaving them to their own devices, exactly. (Some of that isn’t really bad, though—out till the streetlights come on, drinking from the garden hose kinda thing.) It’s more about not having strict rules “just because,” and instead, parenting with empathy and compassion. Kids don’t act out because they’re bad; they act out because they’re still learning how to deal with life. Life and its infinite rules and expectations is hard. I still have an internal temper tantrum when I have to go to bed.
Here are 10 things we can do with our kids that make us “gentle parents”:
1. We respect them—we don’t own them. They’re a person; we’re a person; therefore, we are equals. We respect their feelings, their boundaries, and whatever stage they’re at in life. They are not blank canvasses that we are responsible for painting. They already exist in this world, and we’re just there to help them navigate it.
2. When they decide a few weeks after we’ve spent a bunch of time and money on a sport they were interested in—lessons, equipment, the works—that they don’t want to do it anymore, we don’t guilt trip them. We see if we can problem-solve, sure—maybe there’s something more going on. But we don’t force them to stay simply because we’ve spent money and time. We just ask them what they’d like to do instead.
3. We let them cry; we give them space to feel the bad stuff. And then we talk about it.
4. We don’t pay them for good grades. Think of the flip side: bad grades means your kiddo is struggling with something, and that needs to be figured out. Good grades also don’t mean everything is fine. My son, at 22, is just now getting diagnosed with ADHD but he was all A’s throughout grade school.
5. We let them (genuinely) help make family decisions about pets, travel, meals, and almost everything else.
6. We don’t spank, and we don’t require hugs. The only thing you’re teaching a child by hitting them is to fear the hitting. (Side note: this also goes for our fur babies. Cesar Millan’s style of “training” needs to be outright cancelled. Teaching anything to any creature must be force free.)
7. We set examples for how to take care of ourselves. It was always okay for my kids to take a day off of school if they needed one—even if they weren’t physically sick. Sometimes, we’d all decide together to have one of those days. This is especially important if you’re a mama who deals with mental health issues—or if your children do. Learning how to prioritize your needs is a life skill in a society that constantly asks us to put them aside.
8. We say sorry. Whether it’s a really big parenting blunder (see #4), or a small one, we learn how to tell our kids we effed up and what we’re going to do differently.
9. We don’t punish them for telling the truth—even if it’s a hard truth or an inconvenient one.
10. Rather than engage in a power struggle, we try to meet in the middle, whether that’s an exchange, a compromise, or we simply try to come to an understanding about the situation. And yes, this means sometimes we parents have to let things go, too. It can’t always go our way, or the kid won’t trust that you’re truly equals.