When I say I don’t punish my eldest, Ryleigh, 9, most (mainstream) parents assume that means she doesn’t listen, or that there’s nothing she “must” do. Gentle parenting is absolutely not permissive. For me, gentle parenting means that I am constantly finding ways to instill self-discipline in Ryleigh.
There are many definitions for the word discipline that unfortunately include the word punish; but the one that applies for my family is this: activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training. That’s what I want my parenting to be: a regimen for Ryleigh that develops and continues to improve her skill for self-control. That is what is lacking in so many adults, and that is what changes in children as they grow – their ability to control themselves. Knowing that she is able to do what I ask also increases my frustration when dealing with Ryleigh. I think this is where parents may get hung up and feel that children can outgrow their response to being parented gently. Toddlers rely heavily on their caregivers to help them control themselves. A 9-year-old child is much more capable, but they first have to choose to comply. I want to help Ryleigh to make the decision to do what’s right; not to intimidate her into doing it. I want my parenting to be an exercise that will enable her to identify when she needs to control herself and how, and to be able to do so confidently.
When I’d first heard about natural consequences I thought, “What friggin’ “natural” consequences? If you don’t get caught, you don’t get taught!” I was wrong. When I am confident that I am doing everything I can to help Ryleigh to avoid trouble, I am genuinely hurt when she doesn’t heed my instructions, because I want the best for her. Hurting others is a natural consequence of purposefully making bad choices. And a child who is emotionally connected to others will care when they hurt someone else; and they will feel hurt. I don’t know many children who seek out activities which make them feel badly. When I have been connecting with Ryleigh she naturally wants my favor. I don’t threaten to withdraw it when she makes a mistake. I don’t tell her I’m upset because she didn’t listen to me. I tell her I’m disappointed that she knew better and chose not to do better.
Additionally, when I give Ryleigh responsibility over her actions she takes herself more seriously. She wants to prove to herself that she can do it, and she feels badly when she falls short where she knows she can succeed. Feeling ashamed is a natural consequence of squandering responsibility. Ryleigh does not like to feel ashamed of herself; and together we work on learning to control ourselves so that we don’t have to feel that way.
I still wonder about natural consequences and if these lessons will really stick with her. I understand why so many doubt that natural consequences can be used as a teaching tool – but I think that’s because too many children’s lives are filled with unnecessary interventions. That term is used repeatedly in the natural parenting world – interventions which are useful on a case-by-case basis, but which have unfortunately become routine practice in mainstream society, despite not being the best option for each individual. Where parenting is concerned, those interventions may be things like television, video games, the Internet, bad association, a parents’ hectic schedule, or having numerous scheduled activities. These are all fine in moderation but when they become woven into the fabric of our household they can eventually undermine the effectiveness of natural consequences.
When a family’s life is heavily bogged down with distractions there may not be much time left to truly consider the more “quiet” consequences, like…feelings. When everyone is always running or plugged in or on the phone or out with friends, it can become an obstacle for a family to find a good rhythm, so feelings may make less of an impact. Now, I try to minimalize the presence of such distractions in my home. There is plenty of time for us to talk and connect, and to feel. When one of us makes a mistake we cannot turn the television on and zone out. We do not have to promise to talk later after the three classes we have scheduled that day. We either talk about it then or it hangs in the air; and in a quiet home, silence is felt.
Natural consequences do work if a child’s environment is filled with more natural experiences. When Ryleigh was younger I was ignorant of our acute need for nature; and I felt I had neither the time nor the self-control to parent gently. I know kids want technology and toys, and I don’t really withhold items from my children; but I do discuss with them the importance of keeping their desire for such prizes in perspective. If we fill our lives with distractions they will, well, distract us. Of course Ryleigh wouldn’t care if I’m not punishing her; and yet her room is filled with every video game and toy she wants, and she always has her iPhone upgraded. She would think she already has what she is supposed to desire, so why care when Mom starts yapping about feelings, or respect, or accountability, or empathy?
She doesn’t have or want all those things though; she has enough to keep her entertained. So when we talk, what I say sinks in. I don’t encourage her to cultivate a covetous need for material things as a way to find happiness. I show her that she can create happiness for herself by setting goals and working to reach them. She has time to reflect. She journals. She blogs. She cycles. She paints. She sings. She plays in the dirt and the rain and the mud and the sun. She runs with strange dogs. She reads on the train. She dresses up. She does her hair. She experiments in her “lab”. She spies. She plays with her younger sister. She shares her feelings with me. It’s working.
I would encourage anyone who has doubts about gentle parenting and natural consequences to give it a try. I choose this over the other, easily-as-questionable route of hitting, shaming, isolating, and disrespecting. If neither method is proven 100% effective I’d rather chance it with the gentle route; I didn’t feel one tenth as good about my parenting or myself, before I started applying it. So far I am having great results and my children are thriving; my little family is thriving. We don’t have everything our society tells us we should have, and perhaps that is why we fare better as a family than society tells us a low-income, single-parent family should. We have something our society can’t give us: power within ourselves, according to our age and capabilities. And right now we’re using ours to learn together. Peace.