I love my children, and I know that the world can be a hard and angry place. I want to be a haven for them. A gentle place. I want to reflect love and tolerance back to them so they can carry that gift into the world.
~ Alex Iwashyna
I recently read a post over at LateEnough.com on why mom-of-two Alex chooses not to spank her children. I agree with her wholeheartedly, and believe there is no room in parenting for violence (of any kind – physical or verbal/emotional). We should all be aware of crossing the sometimes fuzzy line of punitive discipline in our homes – not just because it can lead to escalating violence – but because parenting through fear, intimidation, anger, or violent outbursts is no way to raise a child, nor to live as a parent (you know it just stinks to be a constant rule-barking angry disciplinarian – parents end up missing out on a lot of the joy & so do kids!). If we want our children to grow up to be empathetic, caring, and peaceful with others, we have to treat them with empathy, caring, and peace.
Of course that’s easier said then done, right? The word peaceful doesn’t always seem congruous with life with children. Children are perpetually in motion, breaking rules, testing boundaries, and outbursting. And as adults, I believe most of us have moments where we really feel like we could or want to spank or scream at our kids (or anyone). And, I believe that we ALL have moments where we actually do react less-than-peacefully, in spite of our best intentions. There are times in parenting where our children can be frustrating. Days that are long after nights where sleep was elusive. Sometimes our patience is short and our creativity lacking. And when all of these things come together, it feels much easier to fall back into modes of parenting that were used on us, or methods that work for others, or just what comes out of frustration – even if those methods aren’t how we would ideally want to parent.
But even if yelling or spanking seems easier, it certainly isn’t better. Violence towards our children – in words or deed – isn’t okay. It escalates our stress, it makes our children afraid or worried, and it clouds whatever messages we were trying to send to our kids – because all they’re focusing on is our anger or avoiding being hit or yelled at. I think that most parents understand this and don’t want to resort to violence – whether as a planned out form of discipline, a knee-jerk reaction, or even a last-resort method. But it's not always easy, and it takes awareness, and practice. And more practice.
So, how can we reconcile the desire of “needing to discipline” our children with an innate feeling of wanting to maintain a peaceful home and raise open, empathetic, and loving children? What CAN we do instead of spank to get our message across? And what options are there instead of yelling to get your frustration out and be heard? How do we get beyond the feeling of wanting to act angrily, and into actually acting peacefully?
Here are some ideas that I’ve used to help calm down when I’m angry, and help me move towards creatively disciplining, without resorting to spanking or outbursts. It doesn’t always work – I’m not perfect – but I’m trying every day to be a better parent.
When you know better, you can do better! And our children (and ourselves) will all be better for our efforts.
Calming techniques & alternatives to spanking for parents AND kids:
Count to Ten. Or Twenty. Or One Hundred if need be. Whatever number you need to reach in order to gain some distance between anger and action. You can do this out loud in order to better focus your anger on counting instead of what you were about to scream instead – or – do it in your mind as a metal exercise in patience. Sometimes the sudden Silence Of Mom will get kids’ attention, too. They might ask you what you’re doing. And even participate. End tantrum. Begin teaching.
Walk Away. If mental distance (a la counting) doesn’t work, try actually separating yourself from the situation. Tell your children – as calmly as possible – what you are doing, so that they can understand (and hopefully model in the future!), “I am feeling REALLY frustrated. I’m going to take a break.” Try NOT to put any blame on this statement – as in, “I’m going away because you guys are acting like maniacs!!!!” Of course, this may in fact be true, but screaming it as you’re separating defeats the purpose of calmly removing yourself from the frustrating situation in order to calm down and at the same time, puts bad, and potentially damaging feelings out there. You can scream it in your head whilst walking away. Or… see the next idea:
Scream into a pillow. Seriously, this works. Just make sure you didn’t slam the door on the way into your bedroom towards the pillow into which you’re about to scream. :) Once screaming is done, tell yourself you’ve released all that negative energy, take a deep breath filled with positivity, splash some water on your face, and re-greet the situation refreshed. Chances are in the meantime, everyone else has cooled down a bit too.
Relocate. If your child is old enough (and calm enough), ask her to remove herself from the situation to calm down. Not in a punitive way, as in “go to your room!”, but in a suggestive, empowering way like, “I see you’re feeling frustrated. Maybe you’d like to take some time away to get calm”. Once the storm has passed, you might try building a “calming down” area with your child that she designs with things that are comforting – maybe a photograph of kittens or flowers, an iPod with soothing music, a favorite book or puzzle, a soft blanket.
Distract. Sometimes the only thing that works to break everyone out of a potentially volatile situation is simply changing the scene. Start telling a joke. Start juggling or singing or dancing or doing jumping jacks. Open the back door & walk outside. Turn on the shower or turn on the TV. Break out the bubble gum (sweetened with xylitol of course). Dump out a bucket of legos on the floor (didn’t that feel good?). Just changing it up – allowing everyone to move out of their current frame of mind, then revisiting the issue once all is calmer – often does the trick.
Offer a choice. A choice moves the control into your children’s hands, and gives you a moment to cool off while they think about the choice presented. Even if the choice is: do you want to stop running wildly right now or do you want to leave (fill-in-the-blank-place-where-wild-running-isn’t-acceptable) right now? Of course, if said place isn’t actually fun for the child, this may backfire… but still, it gives everyone a moment to think, and if you do end up leaving, you can also offer the option of returning.
Realize YOU have a choice. Every moment you have a choice. You may feel like you don’t. You might feel like you HAVE to discipline in this moment. That you HAVE to “teach a lesson”. Believe me, I’ve felt that. But you *always* have a choice… and often the best choice is simply to wait it out. Get everyone calmed down by whatever method works best, and THEN talk about the behavior you didn’t like. If it’s a situation that requires immediate intervention (say running into the street or a child hurting another child), intervene swiftly and firmly (a scared voice & face really does work to alert a child to danger – better than a spanking), and separate the child from scene. Then, choose to talk about it later. You never have to spank or yell. You can always choose to do something else.
Pretend someone is watching. If what you are about to say or do isn’t something you’d want your spouse, neighbor, best friend, mom from playgroup, (someone whose parenting opinion you *value*) to hear or see you say or do to your child… don’t do it. Instead, say or do what you’d want someone to think, “Wow, that Mom has her act together!”. I’m not saying we have to live for anyone else’s expectations, but *sometimes* feeling like someone is watching over my shoulder helps me be more measured in my response.
Assess your (and your child’s) current state. Are you hungry or thirsty? Are you trying out a new diet or routine? Did your plans for the day not work out? Are your jeans too tight? Did your child skip his usual nap? Are your hormones out of the norm (because of pregnancy or menstruation for example)? Did you get in an argument with your spouse? Sometimes these smallest things that seem unrelated to parenting can cause big upsets in our ability to react well to situations. Sometimes just realizing, “Hey, I didn’t get my coffee yet this morning!” and sitting down for five minutes with a hot mug of joe puts things into perspective again. The same goes for children. Potty learning, a new sleeping arrangement, starting or ending school, a new sibling, a growth spurt... all of these "little things" can have big effects on little people.
Imagine you are your child. This is a really powerful tool. Getting in the shoes of the person with whom you’re angry is never easy… but it’s so worthwhile. If your child was looking at you, would they like what they are seeing? Would they want to be covering their ears? Are they actually able to hear what you are trying to teach, or is your message so wrapped up in being angry about behavior that they can’t hear anything other than, “you’re doing it wrong”? Imagine what you would want to hear your mother say or do at that moment – and then do it. Maybe it’s a hug, maybe an offer for a snack, a walk outside, a do-over. I can guarantee it isn’t a verbal lashing or spanking.
Please remember that using these ideas instead of spanking or yelling doesn’t mean you don’t discipline. It just means that you are demonstrating to your children that in the face of irritation, you can be calm, measured, and in control. A tantrum isn’t enough to faze you – and kids need to feel that and see that! When they know that it’s possible not to go crazy when they are angry, they’ll begin to do it themselves (let me tell you, it is positively heavenly to hear my child yell, “I’m taking a break” than to hear other, angrier or hurtful things yelled). Once everyone is calm, THEN you can talk about whatever rules were broken or whatever misbehavior occurred, and begin to discuss logical consequences to the action if necessary. Chances are you will be able to be more fair in your assessment of the situation and children will be more open to hearing you out and wanting to fix the problem than in the midst of an angry outburst or while trying to avoid a spanking.
Online resources on the effects of spanking; plus, gentle discipline techniques:
Spanking: Facts and Fiction http://www.stophitting.com/index.php?page=factsnfiction
Gentle Parenting During Toddler Tantrums http://typical-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/04/gentle-parenting-during-toddler.html
101 Things to Do Instead of Yelling or Spanking http://codenamemama.com/2010/08/31/100-things-to-do-instead-of-yelling-or-spanking/
Books to read on non-punitive discipline & keeping cool while parenting:
ScreamFree Parenting by Edward Runkel
Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort
Adventures in Gentle Discipline by Hilary Flower
Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen