When first becoming a parent, you may feel what you say is unimportant. That your baby won’t understand you anyway, right? When they first start exploring their surroundings, you may feel they need to be told ‘no’ or controlled verbally in some way. When they turn to toddlerhood and start walking and talking, you may feel praising them and saying how they make you feel is important. When they turn to children, you could start feeling they need discipline or control to become the great children and adults you aspire for them to become. This blog post will question all of those thoughts and offer a gentle parenting approach to raising children into happy, considerate and motivated individuals.
The Newborn Baby Years – Crying
Babies may not understand words but they can respond to tone of voice, sense of touch and closeness. They naturally seek connection with the only language they know – crying.
Being Emotionally Happy and Contented
Imagine if you were inconsolable and crying loudly for help. You received nothing from the people around you, not even a hug. What would you feel? Unloved? Lonely? Devastated?
Being responsive to a newborn baby’s cries ensures their needs are met. It helps them feel loved, valued and cared for, which all contributes to their self esteem and confidence in themselves. Responding consistently makes them secure, content and happy. If you always got held by your partner when you cried, and given food when hungry, etc, would this make you feel loved and happy? More than likely, yes.
Along with responding to your baby’s cries that they need something, your baby will also learn to trust others. Trust is a longterm relationship quality that develops when you realise other people are there for you and love you for who you are, emotions and all. If your children are consistently responded to, they learn to trust those around them. Not only that, but studies have found that these children also grow up to be more trustworthy too.
Being Considerate to Others
Childhood trauma can trigger strong emotional reactions in adulthood, especially when becoming a parent yourself. Not having needs met as a baby before the age of 2 form subconscious memories so still affect you in the many years to come. See Daniel Siegel’s book below about the development of the brain and childhood memories. It makes sense to me that if needs were met that there will be little trauma to deal with in adulthood compared to those whose needs were regularly not met. In response to the stressful aspects of other people, they are more likely to be considerate of their needs rather than react with strong emotions.
The Exploring Years – Following Commands
Even at an early age babies start understanding some simple commands and basic words. Many toddlers will be able to follow your request to sit down, for example, long before they can speak. Applying the ‘The Yes Brain Child’ concepts from the book by Daniel Siegel, using positive language and phrases really helps get the outcome you want with your child feeling they chose to do it too. Saying ‘No son, don’t do…’ regularly can fill them with frustration and lowers self esteem. They feel everything they are doing is wrong or bad. Instead, try pausing and rephrasing everything with ‘Can you…’ positive requests. This positive language can sound more like a challenge for them than a command, and they can aim to impress you with ‘yes I can!’ responses.
Notice that the ‘yes I can’ responses make the child feel they had some choice in what they are doing. This helps with making them internally motivated to do that going forward. When my child went through a smacking her siblings phase, I initially kept telling her “I won’t let you do that” and protecting the babies. However, I soon realised it was not telling her what she could do instead. I then rephrased our interactions about smacking to say ‘Next time, maybe you could call Mummy for help…’ This formed associations in her brain that when she feels frustrated to call for help, which has now formed into her subconscious responses to stress. For more information about this type of discipline, have a read of my post about dealing with emotions.
Many gentle parents are fans of encouraging intrinsic / internal motivation. What does this mean? It means that as an adult they will be driven to do things because they realise the importance of doing (or not doing) something. It can also mean they do things because they enjoy to. They do not do it simply because of being told to by a figure of authority or in fear of repercussions.
Setting your children up as young as possible to feeling like they are choosing to ‘do the right thing’ will help with their subconscious memories supporting them to continue doing these safer and kinder things in the many years to come. For example in the example of smacking above, if my daughter grows up being constantly told no don’t smack, she won’t feel it was her choice and she may continue doing it for some time. If early on in the behaviour, she is offered a healthier alternative which still gets her need met (i.e. Mummy comes and gets toy back off baby who took it from her), she subconsciously asks for Mum’s help instead of smacking.
Interestingly, she has no idea that this changed behaviour did not initially come from her internal desire to do so. She probably never wanted to hurt her younger siblings, but she didn’t know how else to cope with the frustrations they brought. Since she saw that my suggestion worked consistently, she no longer needed to or wanted to smack. That is now within her own choosing to do the ‘right thing’, not because Mummy told her so.
Being Emotionally Happy and Contented
Toddlers want to impress their parents. If you can use positive language with them from as early as toddlerhood it helps them feel satisfied and content. It’s easy to apply this idea to your own life – if someone keeps telling you you’re not doing a good enough job as a parent, you’re more likely to feel depressed, have low self esteem, anxiety about what to do. If someone is your cheerleader and is constructive in how they discuss parenting problems with you, you are more likely to feel they are helpful and kind. You are more likely to go to this helpful person again for advice. We want our children to come to us and use us as guides through the challenges of life. It will be no different for them if we can raise them in a positive environment.
The Toddler Years – Verbal Communication Develops
Toddlers and young children can start talking about their needs and eventually feelings. Sometimes they can find emotions too overwhelming, or not have the language to be able to explain in words, and in these moments they may scream or screech or cry. They are just an older version of a newborn baby – frustrated, wanting help and having needs but not knowing how to express it verbally. Their screams can be triggering for some parents. Instead of viewing them as attention seeking, trying to view this as their way of communicating just in a bigger version than a baby’s cry and you will be able to be empathetic to their needs.
How do we help our children become internally motivated to do something? The way we communicate with them and the language we use is key. We need to try and limit praising our children. ‘I love it when you sing!’ or ‘Can you sing for Mummy? You’re really good.’ as these become achievement goals in the children. Naturally people are born to seek achievement. But we want them to achieve for themselves and to their own standards rather than waiting for someone else’s recognition, which may cause depression if it never comes. Instead, the aim of all communications with our children should be about their efforts and their feelings, not about our views on their experience. An example will help explain this.
Your child is really talented at sports. You tell them ‘You’re so good at sport! Look at you winning all these races!’. Subconsciously this tells the child you’re proud of them because they’re winning. A gentle parenting approach is to connect with your child and ask them how much they enjoy the sport instead of how much you enjoy watching them. ‘Did you enjoy that? What did you enjoy most? It looked like you were having great fun!’
Rephrasing questions or statements to being about their experience, rather than your experience, means you become a supporter of them being happy in themselves and following their own dreams. The praise and accomplishment responses are generally about your view on your child’s activities and that leads to them working on it to please you, rather than because they simply enjoy it. The praise and accomplishment raised child grows up with anxiety about succeeding and achieving. The gently raised child grows up with confidence that they are capable of achieving but, most importantly, that they are pursuing goals they chose for their own internal motivations.
Being Emotionally Happy and Contented
A child raised allowing their feelings to be expressed on an activity is free to pursue their interests out of enjoyment. They may well chop and change what activities they want to try. If they are genuinely talented at something, the talent has probably developed because they enjoy the activity. They will more likely return to that activity in the longterm if it is their choice to do so, than if they feel pressure to because ‘Mummy thinks I’m great at this’.
Being Considerate to Others
Redirecting behaviours and telling young children what they ‘can do’ rather than what they ‘can’t do’, helps you ensure they are considering others too. When my toddler started smacking, I learnt to discuss that the reason I can’t let her smack is because it upsets her siblings and makes them sad. She agrees and now, at only the age of 3 years old, she is frequently suggesting how things make her siblings feel. This shows already at a very young age she is considering others’ needs too.
Able to Use Own Initiative
Using positive language and guidance rather than formal discipline methods, also discussed in my post on dealing with emotions, is important. Discussions you have with your children will more likely discuss different options that your child could do next time they feel that emotion. This will give your young child the concept that there are different solutions with the same outcome. That one solution will not suit everybody. This helps them grow to use their own initiative and ideas in complex situations.
Feel Authentic to Themselves
Most importantly, it will reduce anxiety and stress as a growing child through to the adult years. They will feel they can continue to have their needs met, whilst considering others’ needs too. They can be themselves and the people around them feel they are treating them respectfully too. This creates great room for healthy relationships in their lives. Who doesn’t want to spend time with someone who loves being themselves, loves you being yourself, ensures both yours and their own needs are met?
Do you understand the importance of feeling authentic and that, without being authentic, you are a higher risk of anxiety and many mental and physical illnesses? If so, I’d recommend Gabor Mate’s book ‘When the Body Says No’, which is an international best seller. It may seem like an irrelevant title to add to your list when raising young children. It is useful for everyone as it delves into the huge consequences that adults have if they’ve been taught not to express emotions and harbour resentment from a young age. It has case study after case study of damage caused by not being yourself and not expressing your true emotions. Gabor even has a section in the book suggesting that if you have the option of feeling guilty or feeling regret – feel guilty every time.
Other People’s Communications With Your Children
I often wondered whether how my oldest daughter spoke to my younger twins would affect the twins’ mental wellbeing. I focused on telling my toddler what she could say instead of ‘NOOO!’, for example “you can ask her to put that here if you want… look *sister*, this can go here”. My eldest would usually copy what I showed her. Over time she even started correcting me if I reacted to her younger siblings with a “no you can’t…”
I cannot say whether the interactions where my eldest does shout ‘NOOO!’ have affected the twins’ minds. Possibly. However, the learning my eldest has experienced through learning how to speak motivationally and supportively to others will help her future interactions for the whole of her life. She also now will be able to correct the twins if they do use negative language, in a similar way that she does to me if I do with one of them.