Monday, August 22, 2011

Gentle Parenting Isn't All Sunshine And Rainbows

When my son, Oliver, was a baby and I talked about gentle discipline I would very often come by people who smiled and nodded then told me I would change my tune when my son became a toddler, insistent that all of my philosophies were great in theory but stood no chance of actually creating a productive and harmonious home. I very rarely argued with these nay-sayers. The reality was that I DIDN'T really know what parenting my toddler was going to be like, and I certainly didn't have my own experience to draw from to refute questions about the effectiveness of gentle discipline.

But I know now. I know that parenting my high-energy adventurous extroverted aggressively affectionate strong willed toddler is every bit as challenging as people had warned. I also know that my philosophies and ideas about gentle parenting are even more important to me now then they were two years ago.

Yesterday Oliver had his first big toddler fit. I thought he'd had his first fit months ago but yesterday's tantrum was the tantrum to end all previous tantrums. There was screaming, there was hitting and kicking, there was back arching and body flailing. There was a city bus full of passengers to witness it. There was the voice in my head that was full of frustration and even rage because didn't he understand that not running around a moving bus was a safety issue and if he hit me one more time I was going to loose my cool!? It was hot, we were tired, we were hungry, and confined to a small space. 

It. was. awful!

As Oliver began his fit I braced myself for a battle of wills. There was no way I was going to give Oliver what he wanted and he would just have to accept that his only option was to stay seated in my lap. I would have to physically hold him there and just ride it out.

From the irritated crowd came the usual side long glances, understanding smiles, and of coarse the obligatory chorus of 'control your kid already'. The bus driver even asked (well intentioned) if I wanted to be let off to calm him down (Um, NO! I just want to get home as fast as possible thank you!). One woman was looking at me with so much pity that I almost burst into tears.

"Oliver, I know you're getting restless but it is dangerous to run around on the bus" I repeated over and over while I restrained him on my lap taking each kick to the shin and smack to my face with as much patience as I could possibly muster. 'Stop hitting me Oliver, I know you're frustrated but we do not hit!' (Sounds calm on paper but my tone was getting angrier by the minute).

From far in the back of the bus I heard someone say "If that were my kid...' followed by a threatening gesture. And that's when I knew, I really KNEW that as angry and frustrated and embarrassed as I was in that moment continuing the power struggle was not working, it wasn't making me feel better or helping me cope with my emotions, it certainly wasn't helping Oliver cope with his emotions, and at the back of my mind I knew that I was only serving to enforce for the person at the back of the bus the idea that children needed to be forced or coerced into submission and compliance.

I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly to calm myself trying to decide what to do. I still wasn't about to let Oliver run freely down the aisle of a moving bus, but I knew that the grip I had on his wiggling form was tighter then it should be, my nails were biting into the palms of my hands as they balled into fists, I was clenching my teeth together in a desperate attempt not to start yelling and cursing at my toddler. Still flustered and upset I took another breath, and another.

All of the sudden Oliver was looking at me, tears streaming down his face. I took another breath, more exaggerated this time. Oliver took a gulp of air and blew it out, he stopped screaming. He stopped hitting. He stopped kicking and arching his back. We took another deep breath together and I smiled at him.

"Does that feel better? Let's take another breath" Oliver Smiled back as we exhaled again and I loosened my arms around him. "Let's take another one." We continued this way for a few more blocks until Oliver started to giggle as he blew the hair around my face.

"Go home Mommy?" Oliver asked in a soft voice hoarse from screaming.

"We are almost there sweet pea" I told him, and then I really did cry as he lay his head down on my shoulder until we got to our stop.

So we got through the worst temper tantrum Oliver has had so far, in public, under 20 or so watchful judging eyes. While I am not entirely proud of the way I initially reacted, I was able to turn it around by remembering that my relationship with my son is more important to me then 'winning' and that we can both benefit from working through these situations together.

There is no room for threats, intimidation, or punitive action in the relationship I want with my son, and they are certainly not necessary. I don't need to 'control my kid' or force him into compliance. Instead I feel like Oliver learned a valuable coping skill, one that I have reminded him of since during frustrating moments.

If the other passengers on that bus really were watching as closely as I felt they were and passing judgment then I am glad to say that I don't mind being judged on that incident one bit. In my mind, even though I was close to loosing my cool, it was a successful parenting moment, one that I can be proud of.


Kayce Pearson said... [Reply to comment]

Way to be! The thing is, no one outside of our relationship with our child can understand why we do the things we do. The person at the back of the bus saying if it was their kid? That doesn't help you because they don't know your child. Children aren't meant to be controlled, they're meant to be loved.

We also do the breathing thing :) For some tantrums it takes longer to take effect, but it always calms both of us down, which is really what it is all about. We all lose our cool, we all have those moments where we can feel our fingernails digging into our skin, but it is the way that we handle it once we realize what we are doing that counts :)

Jessica said... [Reply to comment]

You brought me to tears with your triumph! Always a struggle to use gentle effect ways, but so important. Even harder when you have eyes upon you and you aren't in the comfort of you own home.

Jane Impromptu said... [Reply to comment]

I have recently been staying with friends and although our parenting practices are somewhat similar my friend is more into time outs and withholding toys or treats to manage behaviour than me. After my boys aged 2 and 4 had some emotional days I was tired and felt like I was failing, me and them. I was talking to my friend about my belief in gentle disciple (yes I was justifying myself) and just them my four year old came to ask us a question, my friend gave him her attention but he said 'I want to talk to my Mum'. She was proud that he knew she would likely say no to what he wanted, which turned out to be a great idea for game that all our children could play together. It was at that moment I realised I was doing a good job. I want my children to be comfortable asking me for help and sharing their ideas, thoughts and feelings with me. Your moment brought a big smile to my face and reminded me of my small success too.

Tara said... [Reply to comment]

I agree - I too had tears! And when I'm on the bus I too get judged - for not being harsh enough or punitive enough ("Uh, Ms. You're son dropped his cracker, picked it up and is now eating it." Me: "Yes, that's what two year olds do. And isn't it nice? he dropped something and picked it up instead of leaving a mess." "Uh. He's going to get very sick. You should make him stop." Me: "Seriously? Make a child stop eating? He's traveled the third world and far dirtier places and didn't get sick. He's breastfed. He's fine." Them: rolled eyes. under breath, "you'll see." I can say he's never gotten sick from doing the things that two year olds do.) Believe me, bus passengers are not parentings' finest.

We too, as non punishing rewarding compassionate respectful parents have some hard moments in the toddler phase (ie when my son threw his backpack at his newborn sister in the car) and you are so right: breathing helps. (A glass of wine when it's over doesn't hurt either.)

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

I just keep rereading this! You are an inspiration!

Sylvia said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you for sharing this moment! I love that you chose your love for your child over the voices of other people.

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