Judge not…

I’ve been committed to Gentle Discipline since my kids were first born. There are different ways to define GD, but for me it means I strive not to use punishment (nor the flip side of that coin – rewards and bribes) with my children. I believe it is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, damaging to the child and my relationship with them. Many have written about GD – check out the link on my sidebar to the Natural Child Project where you’ll find dozens of great articles on the subject.

I was not raised in this manner, and therefore I don’t always have the right tools for a given situation. As kids get older new behaviours and situations emerge so that just when you’ve figured out effective ways to handle everything they are going through, something new comes up. Caught in the moment with no idea how to proceed, letting my own emotions get in the way, it is too easy to fall back on the punitive style of parenting that I and most kids I know were raised with. Inevitably I find this leads us all into a vicious downward cycle, where their behaviour gets worse (because I’ve stopped listening, treating them with respect, and empathizing) so I get even more punitive until one day I snap out of it and realize I’ve strayed off the path.

Daughter turns 8 years old this week. She has become more independent in so many lovely ways that any parent can appreciate, while at the same time exerting that independence in ways that make me want to scream. I have not been responding to this new emergence of her Self very well and there has been more conflict in the home than I would like. I’d already caught myself and made a promise to start doing things better when I came across this post by Code Name: Mama, via the Authentic Parenting blog. It was just the boost I needed. Honestly, I find that the best way to keep from wandering off track is to spend time with mamas who hold the same values I do. When I can’t be with such friends in real life I head to blogs like A Wild and Precious Life for inspiration. And that was just what happened last night after reading this post from This Inspired Life. In it the author talks about not judging our children and I realized that I’d been guilty of a lot of that with Daughter.

I want to share with you a situation that happened today and how I dealt with it after reading and thinking about the issue of judging and of treating our children as people with values and points of view that may be different, but are equally valid, to our own.

The kids and I went to meet our new dentist today and then went to the library. Son was playing on the computer and Daughter was on the floor surrounded by books. I’d had time to get my own books and do some browsing, and I was feeling done (we still had grocery shopping to do). Normally I would simply tell the kids it was time to go, and gently corral and badger them until we left. Today I asked myself: did we really NEED to leave? I didn’t have to be anywhere, we weren’t in a rush, everybody was happy…I asked myself “If I was here with a friend, and not my child, what would I say?”. And so instead I went up to Daughter and said “I’m feeling ready to go now, how about you?” She wanted to keep looking for more books, so I said I’d go sit and look at some of my new picks. I ended up deciding against one and finding something better. I went back to Daughter and asked her how things were going. She made an effort to quicken her pace, limit her selections, and finish up. She did this not because I insisted it was time to go, not because I had made the decision for her, but because she knew I was ready to go and respected that. It felt really good!

After the library we went to the grocery store. In a fit of good mood I offered to buy the kids a treat each (candy from the bulk bin, a rare treat) because I’d had such a good day with them. It was not something I’d brought up at the start, it was not held up as a carrot, and they hadn’t even asked. That’s the kind of treat I feel good about giving. Well, on the way home Son took one of each colour gummy bear and began playing with them. It was important to him that he had one of each. To make a long story short, Daughter took a bunch of his gummy bears and cut them up with scissors as part of a game she was playing. She told me he’d given them to her, but it turns out he hadn’t. He was understandably upset and in my desire to stand up for him I was tempted to tell her off and then make her give him some of her candies. In fact, he said he would be happy if she would replace the colours he lost with her own gummy candies. But she didn’t want to give any to him.

Normally I would step in and basically force her to do so, passing judgement on her for being a selfish and mean person. While I wouldn’t call her those names the message would have come through in my tone that what she was doing was wrong and I was going to make it right, like it or not, because obviously she was incapable of doing so. This implies 1) she doesn’t know that what she did was wrong, 2) she won’t feel bad about it unless I make her feel bad, and 3) she won’t do anything to make up for it unless I force her to.

This time around, I decided to do things differently. I didn’t scold her or try to tell her what she did was wrong. I simply pointed out how her brother felt about her taking and cutting up his candies. I let her see how her actions had affected him. I could immediately see that she indeed felt bad. I didn’t pass any judgement on her for not giving up her own candies, even though to me it would have been the right thing to do. Once she saw that I was respecting her choice not to give him her candies, she noticeably relaxed. No longer focused on having her own precious things taken away she was free to consider the situation, see her brother’s feelings, and come up with a solution. Which she did. A minute later she suggested that the gummy bears would stick together if squeezed (they were only in two pieces each) and she managed to put the bears back together. Son was really happy about that and off they went. It was so rewarding to see how this gentle and respectful approach changed things.

That wasn’t the end of it, however. Some time later, she found the put-together bears and ate them. Son was very upset and we came together to talk about it. Again I refrained from passing judgment or telling Daughter what the right thing to do was. I assumed she already knew she had done wrong, and I wanted to give her some space to find an answer herself. Son asked again for two of her candies in the same colour as the bears she ate, but again she didn’t want to do that. Having eaten them, putting them together was not an option this time. I didn’t pursue the issue with her, I simply went off and comforted Son about his loss. A short while later while I was making dinner, Daughter went of her own accord over to Son and offered him her candies. She would never have done this had I tried to insist she hand them over, and it hasn’t escaped me that perhaps her hoarding stems from fearing that things will be taken from her when she slips up and does the wrong thing (which all of us do from time to time).

I can see now how much I rob my kids of growing and developing as persons when I step in, pass judgment, and make decisions as to how they should deal with things. By stepping back and giving them a chance, they showed that they could in fact handle things – maybe not the way I would have, but handle them just the same. I feel like I’m heading back on the right path now…Thanks to all the mamas who inspire me!

Categories: parenting | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Judge not…

  1. I wasn’t allowed to get away with wilful destruction of other people’s property, even though my own mother had a healthy respect for my self-esteem too. She often let me “get away with stuff” with her, until I came to my own judgment. I’d always find myself apologising to her later. The only exception to getting away with stuff however, was when it came to hurting other people or their property.

    If I ever did, I was brought to account immediately before her and the person involved, and given consequences as decided by the person I affected. My mother had to give her approval for those consequences however, so nothing was ever beyond my means to recompense according to my age.

    She gave me both the freedom to come to my own conclusions, without giving me the right to affect others.

    My mother was severly abused as a child, so she did everything in her power to not only respect who I was as a person, but also ensured I wasn’t the type of person who found it acceptable to disrespect others rights either. I applaud her efforts, considering the poor start that she had gotten. I know how difficult it was for her – all the things she wasn’t taught and yet she had to find the “right” way.

    Perhaps you have resorted to GD for potentially the same reasons? I applaud your efforts too, especially if you’re starting behind the eight-ball. Just remember though, it’s okay to teach them about respecting other people’s property at the same time.

    My mum never judged me as a “naughty” girl when I was sent to face the consequences of my actions. If anything, she taught me that a couragous person faces the music when they do wrong. She was proud of me when I faced the music, so I threw myself into doing the right thing. I loved her every breathe as she faced the music with me.

    Kids stuff up and make mistakes. It’s okay to let them make their own judgments – but having your own judgment as a parent, is something they will learn to love too.

    I have a question for you, I hope you don’t mind; but would expect your daughter to face the consequences of damaging another child’s lollies?

  2. Bravo! I have so many examples of this happening in my home, too. And, like you, I often find myself straying from my true path….fretting over something when, if I were only to go back to my own values and beliefs, it clears up easier and in a more meaningful and productive way. This continues into teenhood, by the way. They don’t cut up gummy bears, but they do tend to become more ego-centric again….:)

  3. ruralaspirations

    Hi Chris, thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment (btw, I loved your blog; have you seen my other blog about our own homesteading experiences? sounds like we have much in common).

    When I read your comment carefully, I think I agree with what you are saying. If my child destroyed someone’s property, and they were at the appropriate age, I would assist them in sitting down with the person affected and working out a solution that was acceptable to all. I believe that is what I did with my kids in the example provided in my post, and they did work out solutions that were acceptable to both of them.

    Where I might disagree (if I understand you correctly) is thinking that kids need to be actively taught right from wrong. At a certain stage of development they become capable of feeling empathy, of understanding that their actions can affect others, that others can hold different opinions and feelings than they do, etc. Where I think they need help is guiding them through the situation, teaching them to trust their instincts and feelings, and allowing them to truly see how their actions have affected the other person (by pointing it out gently, and without judgement). I do believe kids can be prevented from this by such things as parents always “making it right for them”, or by parents not involving the child at all in the solution, or the parent forcing the child to make amends without allowing the child to participate in the process (and thus learn from it)…but I believe in the adage “The child who feels right, acts right”. So I don’t see it as teaching them to respect property specifically, but rather teaching them what to do when mistakes happen and property is affected.

    I came to GD not because my parents were overly strict. They used punishment because they didn’t know of another way, and relatively speaking they weren’t very strict. Instead GD appeals to me because it makes intuitive sense based on developmental science, because I am trying to grow as a person and responding to situations using coercion and violence is not something I value for myself, because I believe it preserves my relationship with my child (and therefore my influence as role model), and because I think it provides the greatest benefits to my children in terms of their self-development. Finally, I believe that “emotional intelligence” is an essential skill for children to grow up successful and happy and I don’t know of any skill that is effectively taught through coercion and punishment. Frankly, at its very best, I think punishment is just a really lousy and ineffective parenting tool (at its worst it is downright abusive and damaging).

    To answer your question at the end…well, I gave it a lot of thought. The bottom line is I realized my daughter would never do to another child what she did to her brother that day. There is something about our intimate relationships that allows us to act out when we feel bad in ways we would never do with those we are not close to; while she pulls some stunts on him (and vice versa) she would not have done that to another child.

    She has, on rare occasion, pocketed some trinket from a friends’ house when nobody was looking. But interestingly, she has always found a way to let me “discover” it as soon as we are leaving or driving away. I can tell immediately that she knows it’s wrong and feels torn between her desire to have the trinket, and the reality of what she did. By not judging her (and funny, but I realized when thinking about this that I would not judge her in that situation – I suppose it’s the mama bear in me that gets nasty when it’s my own son affected) I allow her to experience the natural process of making a mistake, feeling inside oneself that what one did was wrong, bringing it to the attention of someone who can help, and working towards making amends.

  4. What an AWESOME story!! I love it. I love that you were non-judgmental, I love that you let your daughter work out the right way to handle it, I love that your kids were happy with their own solutions. And I love your answer to your commenter 🙂 Your post was much better than mine, but I’m really glad that the conversation I started gave you some breathing room to sit back and let your kids grow!

  5. Sorry I’ve been AWOL, I have been meaning to return in order to reply. Thanks for your honesty. I think at the end of the day, we do what we feel is best and that’s okay. 🙂 I certainly agree with many of your sentiments, even if I wouldn’t apply them in exactly the same way.

    As long as the kids are still developing and learning, that’s the important part. My daughter is 7 and I’ve been learning to step back as she’s ready to step forward.

    I haven’t stopped by your blog in a while, so I’ll have to drop in and catch up again. It’s exciting in your first year, discovering all that land and making all your plans. You learn to read the seasons too.

    It all seems to happen in your first year. 🙂

  6. Well, my kids are only 4 and 2, so I have to say that the empathy is not fully developed at this stage. I also believe, having observed so many children so closely in the last 5 years or so, that some children have a natural affinity for empathy, while others do not appear to be so inclined. Or, perhaps it is this. Some children are highly emotional, and so have a harder time appreciating the emotions of others because their own highs and lows are so intense and consuming. My daughter seems to fall into this latter category and my son appears to be going the same way, and I struggle with trying to find the right way to navigate their emotional intensity. I think it is terrific that in your situation, everything worked out so well for you. It is such hard work, and seeing a great result every once in a while can be so inspiring!

  7. ruralaspirations

    So true, apprenticemom. I would handle the situation differently with a younger child, or even with an older child if I could see they hadn’t gotten to that particular developmental milestone (empathy). I’ve read that empathy develops around 3 – 4 years of age but whether a child can then use that empathy to regulate their behaviour is, I think, another ball of wax. Daughter definitely showed empathy at the “normal age” but her own desires tend to outweigh considerations of the others’ feelings *in the moment*. Part of my challenge is to get her through that moment to where she can then allow herself to consider the other child’s perspective. I think your second point was really interesting. I’m going to take some time to consider that with my own children (Son is quite sensitive) and see how it may apply as I suspect you are on to something there.

  8. Pingback: The Power of Acceptance « FreeLearning

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