Marianne McDonald writes how she changed tactics with her toddler at age 3, and how the new approach benefited the whole family – and her sanity!
In her guide, The Gentle Parenting Book, Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains that gentle parenting is for those who want to raise non-violent children who respect and acknowledge the differences in others.
I didn’t experience the terrible twos with my son, so I arrogantly thought there would be no need to reinvestigate discipline methods. But then he turned three and everything changed. Although he was still the loving, sweet child he had always been, he became far more defiant, whiney and we experienced setbacks with potty training. After a period of time-outs, reward charts and straight-up bribery with sweets, things weren’t getting better and I was exhausted and frustrated. Enter gentle parenting.
How to start gentle parenting
Whether you are pregnant with your first or wanting to make a change in the toddler or primary school years, these are Sarah’s 7 Cs of gentle parenting:
Tantrums and undesirable behaviour are usually a cry for attention. Your toddler doesn’t care whether that’s positive or negative attention. He’ll do what he has to to feel connected to you. The irony is, when children display unwanted behaviours, we are often advised to ignore it or give a time-out. Both are exclusionary forms of discipline that will suppress the issue in the short term but in the long term, it can cause your child to bottle up his emotions and make things worse.
What we did:
Around my son’s third birthday I began to feel the need to work more and there were various changes at his school that were difficult for him to process. He was spending less time with me and I was more distracted than usual. I began to plan activities we could do together each day after school. Some days this was baking, other days it was visiting the park or building a robot from cardboard boxes. My husband also began reading him his bedtime story. The effects were almost immediate and within a few days he was more cooperative and calmer.
Sarah explains that all behaviour is a form of non-verbal communication. Valuing what your child has to say builds confidence, although this might require some translation on your part.
What we did:
Instead of immediately reacting to my son’s behaviour, I began trying to figure out what the cause was. Was he overtired or overstimulated? Was he feeling frightened or frustrated? I could then talk him through his feelings by getting down to his level, maintaining eye contact and physical touch and talking to him in a respectful yet firm manner about why I couldn’t allow him to have another biscuit and chase the dog around the living room.
Your little one has next to no control over his daily life – you tell him when to go to sleep, when to eat, what to eat and what to wear. He may attempt to gain control through his behaviour.
What we did:
This is when we experienced potty training regression. My son had been weeing in the potty for a year, but refused to poo in either the potty or toilet, resulting in soiled underpants several times a day at best and constipation at worst. The turning point came when I realised he wasn’t trying to be naughty or defiant. We stopped offering rewards for using the potty and I spoke to his school to ensure that when he was soiled he was taken through the whole toilet routine of flushing and washing hands, but without any dialogue around why he needed to use the toilet. At home we made sure he was able to use the potty safely on his own and stopped constantly asking him if he needed a poo. It took about two or three months, but he began using the toilet independently without prompting and now calls us when he’s done.
According to Sarah, children under seven years are cognitively unable to control their emotions and need an adult to act as a container for their big feelings. When your child’s emotions bubble over, tantrums result. “Your child is not giving you a hard time,” explains Sarah, “they are having a hard time.”
What we did: Parenting through tantrums. Sarah outlines how to deal with tantrums in five simple steps:
- S – Make sure your child and those around him are safe.
- E – Work out what triggered your child’s big feelings and empathise with him. You could say, “I know it’s hard to leave the park when you’re having so much fun.”
- N – Name feeling and explain to your child. “You’re feeling frustrated because you want to stay at the park, but we have to go home for dinner.”
- S – Support your child through the tantrum. Some children need some space while others needs cuddles. But sending your child to the naughty step assumes that he has the ability to regulate his emotions, which he does not.
- E – Exchange the unacceptable behaviour for something acceptable. Instead of telling him to stop running, tell him to walk. Tell your child which behaviour you expect, instead of what you don’t want.
Your child mustn’t be afraid to talk to you. No matter what he tells you, you should offer unwavering support, look deeper into the behaviours and champion his cause. For me, this is an essential part of my parenting strategy as I want to form a foundation for his teenage years that will keep lines of communication and trust open.
What we did:
When I was called into a parent/teacher meeting because my son was pushing other children, I was upset because I had always considered my son to be a gentle and sensitive child. I spoke to the teacher about the possible causes and we settled on the fact that he could be tired and overstimulated because he had started refusing his afternoon nap. I refrained from talking to him about the behaviour, but did begin moving his bedtime slightly earlier or allowing him to sleep in the car on the way home if he fell asleep. Within a week the behaviour was resolved.
All of these strategies will help build your child’s confidence, but don’t neglect yourself. Have confidence in your own parenting abilities and don’t underestimate the abilities of your child. Learn to sit with him through his struggles rather than trying to immediately stop the behaviour.
What we did:
I began listening to my child. Even when he’s telling me how the airplanes fly up, up, up and then down, down, down for the umpteenth time in an hour, I listen. And when he has a tantrum, I don’t ignore him. I sit with him as he gets his emotions out and I don’t take it personally.
Take a long-term view. Sarah explains that it can take months or years for the benefits of gentle parenting to be realised.
What we did:
Despite times when I was feeling frazzled and reverted to my previous behaviours, the effects of gentle parenting were almost immediate. When I am engaged and patient, he is responsive and calm.
More about the expert:
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a child psychologist and mom of four. She has written numerous books on gentle parenting and is known for her scientific approach to various early childhood and parenting issues. The Gentle Parenting Book is available from takealot.com for R445 or for download at audible.com.
Marianne is a freelance content creator and copy editor. She has been part of the Living and Loving team in various capacities over the last six years, but since becoming a mom to a boisterous boy, she has found a special interest in parenting issues including discipline, education and early childhood development. When not running after, and negotiating with, her three-year-old, you’ll find her experimenting in the kitchen.