A young mother expressed to me a common concern of new parents, “I’m afraid I’ll be a bad mother to my toddler.”
Before their child is born, new parents often are afraid they will fail at parenthood, that they will be “bad parents.” At first this takes the form of a generalized fear, based on uninformed imaginings. “What if I don’t have what it takes to be a good parent?” “ What if my ignorance damages them?”
Once the child is born, the new parents have tangible experience of the miracle of their child. They see how this experience changes almost daily. As the child becomes able to walk and explore and talk, parents’ concerns take other forms. “How do I set boundaries for my two-year-old without going into a state of fear or anger?”
Thankfully, most parents don’t have difficulty loving their child, but with an impulsive toddler in need of skills and lessons about how to relate to the world, even loving parents can lose their way. They may get so anxious about controlling the child’s behavior “for its own good” that they shut down their loving connection to the child.
The simple solution in every case is to remember and practice the Only Rule of Parenting.
Love the child, and clearly correct their behavior with kindness.
In other words, the only rule of parenting is kindness. Children need, above all, to be able to relax in the knowledge that they can make mistakes (which you will help them learn from) without losing your love.
Parenting Skills Backed by Science
When a parent has to teach a lesson again and again, they may become frustrated and blame the child for “not learning.” “What’s the matter with you? I’ve told you this a thousand times and you just don’t learn!” In a case like this, parents don’t realize that the real reason their child isn’t learning is that they scared the child just before delivering the lesson! A parent’s angry reaction prevents the child from retaining that lesson, because a brain in survival mode is in no shape to learn and remember new information.
So the Only Rule of Parenting is not based on morality, or a sense of “right and wrong.” The Only Rule is a parenting skill backed by science –– the science of how we human beings learn.
Schools where teachers receive training in trauma awareness learn to recognize when their students are in survival mode. Understanding that when a child’s brain is stressed and in survival mode, they are not primed to learn, these teachers and schools create safe spaces and offer friendly responses for their students under stress.
What does this mean for parents? When you want your child to learn a lesson, you teach the lesson with kindness. You are mindful, paying attention to how you speak and act toward your child. You do this not because this is morally “good” parenting behavior on your part. You speak to your child with kindness, clarity and respect because you want to prime their brain for learning what you have to teach them.
You understand that if your child is frightened, shamed, or feeling insecure, most of their energy and attention goes into survival activity, and very little of their energy or attention will be available to learn the lesson.
Of course, to be a kind parent requires cultivating patience and self-awareness so that you can communicate to your child with respect clarity and respect, even when you are upset.
In the best of all worlds, new mothers and fathers everywhere would naturally know how to correct their children’s behavior with kindness. But since not all new parents receive this knowledge before their toddlers start invading the kitchen cabinets, here are 4 key guidelines.
4 Keys to Parenting with Kindness
1. When you need to correct your child’s behavior, communicate that their worthiness to receive your love, respect and support is absolute and unshakeable. Let them know that no mistake they make, even if you get very upset at the mistake, can make them less worthy of your love and kind respect. It looks like this:
• Approach your child communicating loving kindness (“Sweetheart”) and respect (a gentle touch and friendly voice).
• Be fully present with them. Notice them. Make eye contact. Match the child’s “speed,” don’t expect them to suddenly go at your speed. This will usually mean that you have to calm down and slow down.
• Deliver the lesson or correction. Explain why the lesson/correction is a better choice. For example, “Sweetheart (touch them warmly, look them in the eyes), when you do that [be specific] I feel afraid because I think you are going to hurt yourself. Let me show you a way to play with this where you won’t get hurt and can have more fun. OK?”
• End by asking if they understand and agree. If they do, that’s great. You’re done. If they don’t, ask questions to explore their reasons why. Ask your questions with interest and respect. This is a precious opportunity to help them learn to express themselves. “Do you think something bad will happen to bunny if you put him on the shelf?”
2. Avoid double standards. Children are keen observers of their parents and other adults. They readily see the hypocrisy of “Do what I say, not what I do.” If you can’t hold to a particular standard of discipline for yourself, for example not swearing, then don’t impose it on your child. Instead, discuss the nature of swearing and why people do it. Talk about when it may be helpful, harmful, or just harmless fun. Be honest about your own struggles to live up to such standards. This helps them trust you when you make corrections and helps them avoid becoming disillusioned with themselves and the world.
3. Be interested in your child’s ever-changing world. Children are not simply little adults. Stay current with how they think and feel about their life and with the different ways they explore their world. Enjoy their curiosity!
4. Let your children know that you make mistakes too. Share learning experiences you had when you were their age. These lessons can insulate them from unhealthy shame and fear when they make a mistake. It is easy for a child to be accountable for what they have done when they know you have also made mistakes and learned from them. And your child needs to know you will keep loving them, and be their partner in exploring their mistakes to help them learn a better way. Teach them that there is no shame in making mistakes –– everyone does!
Kind Parenting Empowers the Child
The goal of parenting is to protect the child, foster their inner growth with loving kindness, and support them as they travel the path to their own autonomy. Kind parenting skills include supporting their emerging autonomy by encouraging the cutting of the apron strings little by little at the right time, instead of trying to keep the child dependent.
When children are ready to stand on their own two feet in the world, kind parenting allows them to also stand on their own two feet when facing the adults who parented them –– eye to eye, as equally autonomous people.
If you commit yourself to practicing the Only Rule of Parenting –– kindness –– you and your child can truly enjoy each other for a lifetime, first as a parent and child, and later as two self-respecting adults. Good luck!