As I mentioned in this post on spanking, what I do regarding corporal discipline, is such a small percentage of what I do as a parent, every day. In that respect, what I do the rest of the time is, in my opinion, way more important.
So here is my attempt to summarize everything else we do. It's hard to figure out where to start.
For me there are a few givens about parenting that I assume are common ground prior to any discussion with another parent. For starters, I assume that other parents love their children at least as much as I love mine. I assume they proactively work to promote a strong bond between themselves and their children. I assume that they have strong empathy for their children and their struggles, however small, or that they try. I also assume that they care more about their child's well being than their own convenience.
These assumptions are where I start a dialogue about parenting, or discipline, or breastfeeding, or housekeeping, or any number of other topics. I have learned over the years that it is better, in these kinds of discussions, to believe the thing that puts a person in the very best possible light until proven wrong, rather than the other way around.
My long term goal for my children is that they understand just how free they are. I want them to understand themselves as the actors in their own lives, rather than allowing themselves to be acted on by circumstances or other people. I want them to know that their decisions and actions have power, and also that they learn to be responsible with that power. Finally I want to give them the self discipline they need to do with that power and freedom the very best that they can and to live a life they deem worth living.
So with that in mind, what principles and practices do we connect with that in order to achieve this goal for them, as far as our influence will allow us to anyway?
1. Children are people, only smaller and how you treat them forms their expectation of life and people for the rest of their life. I take those studies about how brains are formed and mature very seriously. Did you know that in the first year of life a child is learning whether or not they can trust you? Do you know that whether they form optimistic or pessimistic brain patterns is largely due to whether or not an adult responds to their needs in their formative years?
For this reason, as well as instinct and what is in our hearts to do, we are diligent to respond to the needs of our young children. For us this involves breastfeeding on demand, baby wearing, co-sleeping, night time parenting, otherwise known as getting up and helping a child every time they wake up needing something in the middle of the night, being aware of patterns and times in their life when they need to eat, sleep, poo, etc. and providing for them to be taken care of. We teach them by our actions that we are there for them, no matter what, that they can trust us, and that we will respond.
During this time we keep them close to us. We don't place them in the nursery at church with strange people, we don't put them in day care. We believe it's important that we are the ones who are present to care for their needs, for them to bond with, etc. We start building the parent child relationship right away and make it as strong as is possible.
2. Structure is good for us. We also do what we can to help them feel secure and have some measure of control over their lives by implementing routines and and bedtimes. Order and predictability to a day help children to learn to plan, to biologically order their own minds (circadian rhythms) and helps to alleviate stress and distress for a short person who has so little control over what happens to them on a day to day basis. These of course are guidelines, and flex to allow for whatever is going on at the moment, illness, crisis, special occasions, etc. But I am committed to helping my children all I can by enabling them to get enough sleep, nutritious food and stability of routine.
3. You need practice to be able to be able to make good choices. Within this context we allow for choices and practice making choices every day, not between right or wrong necessarily, but as a way to exercise preference, to learn cause and effect, basic logic, etc. We let them wear heavy pants on a hot day if they insist, after explaining that they will be hot. After a few uncomfortable days they will usually listen to our suggestion to bring a weather appropriate change of clothes, "just in case". There are all sorts of ways in which they can practice making choices, what to eat, what books to read, which shoes to wear, what toys to play with, these are all choices that they get to make every day and learn from experience how they play out. The Girl learned the hard way that wearing dress shoes to the playground didn't work out to be very fun, for instance.
We also give them age appropriate responsibilities which are opportunities to be in charge of something and contribute to the family in a visible and praise worthy way. These jobs are the training ground for so many things later in life and so we make them a big priority.
(I still suck at helping them never leave anything lying around the house though, perhaps because I can't give them what I'm not good at. If I'm honest, I LIKE having stuff out. I reminds me that I was working on it, it looks happy and busy to me and in my mind it's just a step further than the artfully strewn magazines across a coffee table in a design magazine. The objective reality is much more cluttered than that, so I try, but I'm not there yet.)
4. Habits can do us great service, or great harm, and can be consciously developed and strengthened one way or the other. For example, whining is a habit that many parents, myself included at times, unconsciously teach their kids by not listening to them until they whine, and not providing their needs in advance of the rise in voice. Throwing a fit when someone says no, that's a habit. So is cheerfully answering, "Yes mama" when told to do something, clearing your own plate after dinner, and thanking someone for the meal.
Habits are choices already made and made again and again on a daily basis until we're no longer thinking about the action or aware of the decision. They are the automatic fruit of choices. The choice to sit down and relax after a meal instead of cleaning up right away, for example, can lead to an automatic abandonment of a messy table on a daily basis. (This is one I have that I'm working to rectify.) The choice of allowing yourself to raise your voice in a disagreement leads to you always screeching all the time at the first sign of dissent, especially if you're 4.
Conversely, the choice to speak softly, even when provoked, leads to the habit of being a soft spoken person who is gentle with words. (I am not this yet.) And the choice to just get these few dishes out of the way before sitting down leads to a kitchen that is more often clean than messy through out the day.
I work with my children on forming habits that serve them in positive ways, as I work on myself. I won't belabor it any further, for this fascinating subject has been treated very well by Charlotte Mason in The Formation of Character which is available online for free I believe.
5. We teach our kids about our beliefs, because we believe it's true, and what we believe gives our lives meaning and purpose.
You were created to be an agent of redemption. You get to be part of the work of the kingdom of God of restoring the brokenness in this world, bringing life where there has been death, love where there is hate, compassion to the hurts of this world. The relationships you are in right now are part of that. How you treat each other matters. Will you build up, lift up, and make strong that which is weak? Or will you tear down, tear apart and weaken those around you? Do you want to participate in the work of redemption or not?
We work to strengthen compassion, empathy and selflessness in our kids, by example and by making sure they have an idea of how blessed they are and what life is like for so many others. We did this long before we founded The Charis Project.
7. We can't control a lot of things, but we can control ourselves. We talk to them about what they do and don't have power over. We can't control another person or situation. We can't force someone to change for our convenience, though we try. But we can and should control ourselves, our reactions, our responses. We talk through the possible responses available in a certain situation. For example, if someone is being mean to you there are options. You could, yell and scream, or hit them, or be mean back. Or, you could tell them to stop, you could leave, you could tell a grown up that they are being mean, you could decide you don't want to play with them any more if they make a habit of being mean. You have power over you, and none of these options involve trying to exert power over another, or trying to change what they are doing. Then we talk about what the best course of action might be.
8. We do what we can to preserve their freedom. Shame and fear are weak motives for a life. So we don't shame our kids into doing what we want them to, and we don't make them afraid. All of our approaches to parenting come from wanting to empower them, not to crush break or limit them. We watch what we say, and even our tone of voice, so that what they hear from us is encouraging, acknowledges their individuality and their freedom of choice, and speaks positively of their ability. It is not sappy and unrealistic, telling them they are great at everything, like a lot of misguided self help talk. But it is positive and linked to effort.
Rather than, "you are so talented at music" we will say "I like the way you are working hard on learning that song. You are playing it much better than when you first started."
Rather than saying, "How could you be so stupid?" over a hare brained scheme gone wrong we will be more clinical. "Did that turn out the way you thought it would? Did you think about what would happen if you did this? What should you change and do next time?" And sometimes of course we'll just put the parental foot down. "You may not!"
9. We teach them to love by loving them. We connect as many times a day as we can with our kids. Cuddling during stories, listening when they talk, and finding the ways that they feel loved to love them. We home school, in part, to give us more time with them to be able to do this. (The other is to give them an education that honors their mind and their ability to think independently, but that's another post.) This isn't that different from #1 where we teach them they can trust us, but it changes as they grow older and I have to find new ways to connect with them.
There's more of course, and this list is a bit haphazard in it's presentation of what we strive for as parents, but it's a starting place of sorts. And even writing this I feel like a bit of a hypocrite because of course I don't do all of these things well all of the time. I have seasons when mindfulness as a parent flies right out of me and I react to each moment with no long term goal in mind. I find daily prayer is one of the main ingredients in my ability to be a better parent by the way. The other is to have a schedule, or at least a routine, that includes time to do those things that build up all of this.
But this is the goal that I fall short of when I fall short. This is what we do more often than we don't as parents.
This is the context in which I write the post on spanking and the context in which we practice it.
This is the other 98%. Whew!
Now it's your turn. Tell me what you do as a parent that you are particularly proud of and think you do well.