Respectful parenting is a heavily criticised and somewhat contentious form of parenting. In the absence of the use of punishment, bribes or rewards, it can be take children longer to choose to use appropriate behaviour on a regular basis. For parents, like us, battling in the trenches day in and day out with children who use aggression, create destruction and prefer to defy than cooperate, it can be so easy to waiver from the respectful parenting pathway in search of some quick fixes for these behaviours.
A while back I posted an article about the sharing issues between my two young toddlers (then 24 months and 11 months). I explained how my eldest daughter, Lucy, was struggling with allowing her younger sister, Penny, to have, well, pretty much anything. From morning to night, I would hear cries of “No! Mine!” even if Penny was clearly not interested in whatever it was Lucy was fiercely protecting. Rarely was Penny able to play freely with a toy or object without having to work through a conflict with her sister.
I wanted to post a ‘Part Two’ to this ongoing saga as I know how common this extremely difficult behaviour is in households everywhere and I also know how hard it can be sometimes to trust and believe that intervening scarcely will still result in a child who knows the value of sharing and shows empathy and consideration for others.
Lucy is now two years and nine months old whilst Penny is just 20 months. These children of mine are delightful in every sense of the word and seek out fun, adventure and a little bit of mischief in many of their undertakings. Despite their long-lived sibling battle, they would both rather play in each other’s company than play on their own. It is extremely reassuring for me to know this as I have often worried that the persistent possessiveness and need for control, Lucy has displayed towards Penny would result in a permanent blight on their developing relationship.
It has been quite a struggle for me to let go of this fear and allow my children the space they need to grow their own relationship. In doing so I have come to realise that with each act of taking, comes an opportunity for giving. For each cry out in anger comes a deeper understanding of each other’s tolerances and limits. And with each act of aggression comes an opportunity to learn empathy as they listen to each other’s suffering and feel their own pangs of misery as a result. As they lay their foundations for their own developing lives, they are learning to let each other in, little by little, step by step. My role is to simply allow this relationship journey to unfold safely without trying to force it, coerce it or manipulate it to unnaturally grow nicely, peacefully or overly quickly.
More frequently now, my patience and perseverance with my chosen technique is being rewarded with little previews of the true, unabashed kindness that my children possess. All those traits of empathy and consideration previously unseen are starting to blossom and fill the house with morsels of joy.
Just last week, I got caught up in the Christmas fever and baked a batch of gingerbread cookies – with the children of course. It was just a small batch. Just enough so that each of us could have just one large heart-shaped cookie each. They smelled wonderful as the aromas of sweet ginger filled the house and once out of the oven, I had a hard time keeping the children away from them long enough to let them cool.
By the time afternoon tea time came, the cookies were ready and the girls were very excited to take their hearts outside and sit side by side on the patio to eat them. Now, I should mention here that Lucy is a notoriously slow eater. She chews each mouthful carefully and is never in a hurry to go for the next one. Penny, on the other hand, devours her food, often barely even bothering to chew, instead gulping things down after just one bite and then hurriedly returning for the next. Penny is consequentially always quick to finish her meals and will often complete a second helping before Lucy is even half way through her first. On this day, with the gingerbread, things were no different.
The girls came wandering back inside about five minutes after going out. Penny had just one small piece left which she quickly shoved in her mouth before reaching out her hand and exclaiming “Bor, Bor!” (her indication for more). I said “You’ve finished your cookie and are asking for more. There’s no more now. There was just one each”. Not content with this, she trotted around into the kitchen, pushed her little step over to the bench where she knew the cookie tray was resting and climbed up. Somehow she knew there was one left – Daddy’s for when he returned home from work. I explained that this one was Daddy’s cookie and that she had finished hers but she was most unhappy with this prospect and proceeded to cry a heart wrenching cry to let me know.
During all this, Lucy stood quietly, watching, observing, clutching her cookie. When Penny began to cry she came towards her and without any hesitation said “Here Penny, you can have some of mine!” and with that she broke off a little corner of her heart and held it out to Penny. Unfortunately, by this stage, Penny was not in a good state. She swung her arms wildly at Lucy’s outstretched hand, sending the little piece flying across the kitchen. I calmly sportscast “You didn’t want that piece Lucy gave you, Penny. She climbed down her step and threw herself dramatically to the floor, screaming. Lucy then said, very matter-of-factly to me “I think Penny wanted a bigger one!” “Yeah” I replied.
What happened next has proven to me that it is not necessary for me to teach kindness, empathy or even sharing. These are innate in children and will come out themselves if they are fostered in the right environment and supported, without judgement as they snake their way through the egocentric stages of those early years. They see us modelling kindness on a daily basis and gradually make their own associations between feeling good about themselves and being treated nicely.
In the kitchen that day, Lucy proceeded to break off the lion’s share of her remaining cookie, handing it to Penny, who was still lying on the floor. Penny, accepted with a look of gratitude leaving Lucy with just one small mouthful in her hand. The girls merrily danced out of the kitchen together, running off to play and stopping only so that Penny could pick up the other piece of cookie that she had previously sent flying. She happily shovelled it into her mouth whilst still clutching the much larger piece she had so kindly been offered before continuing outside with her big sister.
I was left somewhat dumbfounded and strangely feeling like the ‘bad guy’ who didn’t give Penny the cookie she so badly wanted. Lucy had been the one to hear the suffering and sadness in Penny’s disappointed cry and showed remarkable selflessness and empathy to her little sister. The same little sister who had borne the brunt of Lucy’s ongoing emotional outbursts and couldn’t even walk into the same room as Lucy without needing to defend the toy she had chosen to play with, was now being supported and comforted by her long-standing rival.
This Mum couldn’t have been any prouder at that moment!
You might also like to read:
Could NOT Forcing a Toddler to Share Help With Sharing Conflicts? ~Peaceful Parents Confident Kids
The S Word – Toddlers Learning to Share ~ Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare
These Toddlers are NOT sharing ~ Janet Lansbury-Elevating Childcare
It took 18 months of parenting before I realised I was on a dangerously downward spiralling path with my children, pushing them further away and slowly undermining their sense of confidence in themselves and trust in me. As I read more and more about the RIE philosophy, I made significant changes to my parenting approach to become a more respectful and reflective parent for my children. The changes subsequently seen in our household were instant and considerable. Suddenly parenting made more sense. I began really communicating with the girls and was able to slow down and enjoy so many more moments with them – yep even the hard ones! You can read more about my introduction to RIE here.
I began this blog just over six months ago with the hopes to inspire even just one person to become a more mindful and respectful parent as they take on one of life’s greatest roles. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that my little stories would be so well received and that people from all over the world would read them. I have learned so much about myself and my family along the way and feel blessed to be a part of such a supportive community both on the blog and through my Facebook page (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids) I still continually find such strength and encouragement in talking to people about their own respectful parenting journey through these mediums.
If you are visiting for the first time, thank you for taking the time to pop by. My name is Kate and I am a mother of two beautiful toddlers 13 months apart in age. These two munchkins feature heavily in my posts as they are my inspiration and my guides as I negotiate the twists and turns of the Lucy and Penny roller coaster.
I have put together some of my favourite posts here if you wanted to read a little more about some of our stories.
Caring for Emotions
Confidence and Natural Development
I have a daughter with extreme emotions…
She is strong but she is sensitive. Her emotions are bold and bright and always simmer close to the surface, ready to boil over at the slightest indiscretion. I have written about my daughter’s emotions in the past, but as i sit here once again penning my thoughts on this phenomenon which seems to occupy much of our day, I wonder if I do enough for my daughter.
If someone told you that they had a magic cure that would end all sibling rivalry for good, I’m sure you would pay good money to be let in on that secret. Living with siblings who squabble, bicker, fight, torment and harass each other regularly throughout the day can be incredibly draining.
Unfortunately, this magic cure does not exist but there is a sure fire way to reduce the mental fatigue associated with fighting children. This strategy not only empowers children to learn from their arguments but also provides them with the opportunity to develop the skills that will enable them to negotiate through squabbles, themselves.
I have parental meltdowns. Not often, but occasionally my emotions just seem get the better of me. It could be that I am tired, stressed, disconnected from the kids or my husband or that I have been pushed to the brink by my spirited children. Either way, I know it shouldn’t happen. I know I have to work harder to keep my emotions in check. I know that each time I lose it with my children, it affects them and it affects our relationship. Continue reading
“Being Labeled is like being judged for life. It is like your future is laid out for you already”.
~ Author Unknown
We have always tried not to put labels on our children. The personalities are completely different from each other we love that about them. We never want them to think that one is better or more endearing than another or that one is weak vs strong or shy vs outgoing etc.
I remember as a child I was always called the shy, quiet and sensible one whilst my brother was the adventurous yet naughty one and my sister the fun-loving tom boy. I hated being put into my role and found it so difficult to break out of as an adult.
“We need to prepare our children for life outside the family. And life demands that we assume many roles. We need to know how to care for and be cared for; how to be leaders and followers; how to be serious and a little ‘wild’; how to live with disorder and how to create order. Why limit our children? Why not encourage all of them to take chances, explore their potential, discover strengths they never dreamed lay within them.”
We had a little incident here the other day which really brought home how important it is not to confuse the behaviour of a toddler in the highly volatile 1-3 year age bracket with their actual personality and demeanour. Even more important is to ensure we do not label or even perceive them as such things as shy, helpless, dominant, aggressive, victim, bully etc.
It is a short story but one which stopped us in our tracks and has given us a little more insight into the morphing minds of our children. Our oldest child, Lucy (2.5 years) has always been a very active, fun loving little girl who craves attention and approval. She was put into the role of ‘big sister’ when she was only 13 months old and has had some difficulty accepting this role and all it entails.
Her younger sister, Penny (1.5 years) has borne the brunt of some unmet needs in Lucy and has had to deal with some physical and verbal altercations with her older sister from a young age.
Of course, we have always been well aware of the emotions charging through these situations and have used all manner of methods to ensure a) Penny is kept safe and b) Lucy is helped through her feelings of anger and rage with acknowledgements and understanding. We haven’t always got it right but we are slowly refining our methods and we see improvements on a daily basis.
Penny is an independent and goal-oriented child. She shows remarkable perseverance and determination for a child her age and will try many different ways of achieving the outcome she desires before giving up or demanding help. This determination has seen her become quite frustrated when her play is interrupted by her rambunctious older sister who seems to have a desire to control all of Penny’s movements including her play and care giving moments. It has therefore been easy to fall into the trap of seeing Penny as the helpless victim and Lucy as the dominating perpetrator however, as we are slowly realising, not all is as it seems.
This afternoon, Penny had climbed into my husband’s ute in the driveway, soon after he arrived home from work. Penny absolutely loves playing in the cars, standing up in the drivers seat pretending to drive and climbing in and out of the car seats in the back. Today, she chose to sit in Lucy’s car seat and was happily doing so for about 10 minutes when Lucy, noticing Penny playing in there, started heading towards the open door of the ute (the front passenger door). As she climbed in, my husband and I signalled to each other that we had better get over there as Lucy was not going to be happy that Penny was in her seat. We quickly moved over, ready to sportscast the ensuing battle and protect Penny from any potential lashings but were taken aback by the five occurrences which followed.
1. Lucy made her way between the two front seats, passed by Penny sitting in her seat and happily sat down in Penny’s car seat. No battle!
2. Penny immediately began crying hysterically because Lucy was sitting in her seat. In the small breath pauses between each ear piercing cry, I managed to sportscast the situation as it occurred. “Penny, you don’t want Lucy to sit in your seat.” Pause for more crying “You are very upset that Lucy is sitting in your seat.” Pause and wait
3. Lucy climbs out of Penny’s seat and says: “Here you go, Penny”.
4. Penny shuffled out of Lucy’s seat and across to hers whilst Lucy took her position in her own car seat.
5. Both girls played and giggled in there until it was time for us to come and get them to take them to their baths.
This situation showed a side of our two children that reinforces how important it is not to pigeon hole them into roles. Whilst of course they each have their own innate and unique personalities, what they are learning each time they face each other in an altercation or come up against a hardship on a day to day basis is helping to shape the natures that they will ultimately display.
Our roles as parents here are to support them through each crisis calmly and respectfully without treating one as the victim and the other as the perpetrator. At their age, there is always an underlying, untapped reason as to why they are displaying undesirable behaviour so by shaming them or making them feel like the bad guy, we are closing a little opportunity to understand them better and connect with them more deeply.
Furthermore, by treating the other as the victim, removing them from the situation or saying, “Poor you” etc it reinforces to them that they can’t cope with these high stress situations without you and makes them feel even more like a victim.
“Children are born with different personality traits. But as parents we have the power to influence those traits, to give nature a helping hand. Let’s use our power wisely. Let’s not place our children into roles that will defeat them.”
~Faber and Mazlish, Siblings Without Rivalry
We have clearly seen today that Penny is no victim. She is strong in her own right and willing to stand up for herself. Similarly, Lucy is not a selfish aggressor who thinks only of herself. They are both learning from each other and from us as their parents and we are confident they will both grow up to be empathetic, strong and confident young women, completely capable of fulfilling any dream, desire or role they choose.
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury
Isn’t parenthood an amazing thing? One minute we’re on cloud nine because our little one has just learned to walk or we’ve made progress with the sharing issue we’ve been having or both children have slept through the night without a single wake up, and the next minute we have hit rock bottom because we’re tired and moody and our children seem to know just the right buttons to press to get a quick and immediate rise out of us. Before I discovered respectful parenting through RIE, my buttons were bold and bright and within easy reach of my children. I would react instantly and without careful thought of what the future consequences might be to my children or my relationship with them. Usually this involved yelling and scolding, sometimes with a light smack just to reinforce my point (or really because I was at a loss for a better way to react). This always ended in tears and slowly, my relationship with my eldest girl (then 18months) deteriorated to the point where she never wanted to cuddle me, even if I had been away for an amount of time. I was so pleased, therefore, to learn of a much more peaceful and respectful way to parent under the guidance of Janet Lansbury’s blog and Facebook page which demonstrates how Magda Gerber’s parenting philosophies should be put in action.
I was impressed by the useful strategies provided by Janet and those contributing to her page and I found I was able to make significant changes to my parenting in a way I never thought possible. The mood in our household was almost instantly changed and even my husband, seeing how amazingly different the children were using these strategies, got on board and started reading and parenting peacefully with me. Recently, however, things took a turn in our household and although I know that what I am going to write about next may receive some criticism, I wanted to share my experience as further proof for the effectiveness and loveliness of RIE parenting.
We have worked hard in our household to create an environment where the children feel loved and supported and where they can play safely with play objects that foster creativity, imagination and problem solving. My two girls have very different personalities and although close in age (13 months) have such different ways of approaching play, that they sometimes find it difficult to play peacefully side by side. Lucy (2.3 years) is an adventurous, high-spirited, fun-loving girl who loves rough and tumble play and anything that is active and uses a lot of energy. She doesn’t tend to sit for long periods of time with one activity but rather will flit from one thing to the next very quickly, enjoying the cause effect relationships of knocking over, tipping out or watching things fly about when she flings her hand back and forwards between them. Penny (1.2 years), however, is a much quieter child. She is happy to fully explore one play object, tipping it upside down, putting things in it, taking them out, dropping it from a height, putting it on her head or putting it up to her mouth and making sounds into it. She too is fun loving but much less adventurous, carefully considering her options before heading into something full steam as Lucy would do. Penny’s patience in her play seems to frustrate Lucy who prefers the excitement of action and drama.
The differences in their personalities, possibly combined with
- The developmental stage of Lucy
- The fact I have recently started work and the children have had to start daycare
- Pent up jealousy issues between the girls (particularly Lucy of Penny)
have led to some pretty intense conflict in our household over the past few weeks.
At first it began with subtle behaviours. Lucy would see Penny standing at the bench playing with something and she would walk over and assume a position beside Penny, slowly using her body to push Penny out of the way so she would fall and leave her activity behind. In these early days, I remained calm in my discipline informing Lucy that I would not let her push Penny and then blocking any future attempts she made to do so. I also made sure to talk to Lucy about her feelings “Are you feeling rough towards Penny right now?” “I know its hard being a big sister sometimes, I understand and love you but I won’t let you hurt Penny.” This did not seem to deter Lucy, however, and the intensity of her actions against Penny grew over several weeks to the point where Lucy would hit, kick, push or even bite Penny at every opportunity throughout the day. Whether Penny just happened to stroll into Lucy’s play space or was happily playing on the other side of the room, Lucy would make a beeline for her and inflict pain.
Of course, it didn’t take long for Penny to become extremely distressed by these occurrences. She would cry hysterically on each occasion and even if Lucy was just approaching her, she would quickly drop whatever she was doing and try to make a hasty escape. As parents watching this happen, we were distraught. We were trying all we could to stick to the RIE way and discipline calmly with understanding. We changed nap times to limit the time the girls were awake together, we read books with kindness themes and we spoke regularly to both of them about the experiences and feelings they were having. We kept this up for as long as possible until one day, after a particularly hard day with the girls, we made the decision that the discipline we used needed to be amped up. Although I had been reassured otherwise, I had taken on board warnings from a follower that this type of behaviour in children is akin to abuse and can lead to long term feelings of oppression and fear in the victim. For the emotional and physical safety of Penny, we decided we needed to try a punitive style of discipline with Lucy in the hope that this would make a quick change in her behaviour and Penny would not suffer any longer. Moreover, we were getting so wound up ourselves each time Lucy lashed out that it seemed we could not contain our anger any longer. We justified it to ourselves by the fact that everything else we do with her is respectful and thought we could do a debrief with her once we had reduced the behaviour to a point where we were no longer worried for Penny’s well-being.
So, every time Lucy used an aggressive behaviour towards Penny we would state angrily “I will not let you push/hit/bite Penny. Go to your room.” Each time this would happen Lucy would immediately run off to her room, letting out a very emotional cry as she disappeared down the hallway. We then tended to Penny before heading to Lucy’s room where we would find her sobbing with her ‘bunny’ on her bed. We would speak to Lucy about why she was sent to her room and ask her to come back and say sorry to Penny when she was ready (another break from the RIE recommendation to refrain from forcing an apology from young toddlers).
This went on for a day and a half and our household became an extremely stressful, emotional and unpleasant place to reside. Lucy quickly figured out that all she had to do to get out of her room was to say sorry to Penny and often she had run back to us before we had even made it to her room and blurted out a sorry to Penny on her way past. It was clear, however, that she did not really understand the meaning behind the word as within three minutes of the apology she was once again being aggressive towards Penny. Another day passed and I started feeling like the worst Mum in the world. Lucy’s behaviours were not easing and in fact her emotions and reactions to simple requests were getting more and more extreme. This only lasted one more morning and as I sat communicating to my friend the trials and tribulations of our previous three days with the girls, still trying to justify my actions as being for the sake of Penny’s well being, I started to realise that there had to be a better way. This couldn’t continue because no amount of debriefing was going to provide Lucy with the understanding of why we were treating her like this. She was crying out for help and as parents it was our job to figure out what was going on for her and try to help her.
That afternoon, I took leave from housework. Cooking, cleaning, washing, everything would have to wait. It had dawned on me that we were trying to address the issue of aggression after it had already occurred and Penny had already suffered. This in turn was sparking a huge rise in my husband and myself that manifested in anger towards Lucy. It resulted in a reactive response that went against my own teachings that I wanted to be a ‘rock’ for my daughters, showing them that no matter how bad things got, I could remain calm and my love and support of them would be unwavering. So I got into the girl’s play space. I positioned myself so that I was always within arms reach of Penny. Yes, this meant a lot of moving, following and climbing into things with her. It was not good enough to be sitting on a chair watching them play. I needed to be right there so that when Lucy felt the need to be aggressive towards Penny (and she did) I could be there to block it.
So Lucy would approach and I would be vigilant, using lightening fast reflexes (thank goodness I’m a PE teacher :-)) to physically block Lucy’s hands as they lashed out towards Penny. As I would do this, I would look at Lucy and state calmly ‘I will not let you hit Penny. It can hurt her.” At first she would whinge a little and try a little harder but only for the first couple of times I blocked her. After that, she became much more resigned to my resolve to protect Penny. Meanwhile, Penny continued in her play blissfully unaware that she had very nearly been hit or pushed. The tension in Lucy would often visibly dissolve. It was almost like she was saying “Oh, thank you, Mum. I didn’t want to hurt Penny but I didn’t know what else to do.” I remained vigilant like this for about three or four days. At first I would have to block altercations up to a dozen times in a day but over those days, they became much less regular and finally got to the point where I could leave the girls for short amounts of time to get a tissue or grab a water bottle etc. We are now at the stage where I can leave the girls to play but still monitor vigilantly from a little further away. I have come to recognise little cues in Lucy’s behaviour that make me suspect there is some tension building. For example, her actions become a little more frantic and she starts moving without real purpose. It is then that I move in to block any contact she might try to make with Penny. I still talk regularly to the girls about feelings they may have and how I understand it can be hard for them. I usually finds that this evokes a tender response such as a cuddle which I am always happy to give :).
Throughout this whole period we have come a full circle back to using the RIE approach that we should have adopted right from the beginning. I have learnt without a shadow of a doubt that we are all human after all but I am pleased to report that things have calmed right back down in our household for now. I am absolutely confident that using this strategy, both girls will come out the other side of this phase feeling protected, loved and supported. The difference between punitive and nurturing discipline is the difference between fostering a tense, suspicious relationship with a child and creating a bonding relationship that will allow a child to remain confident always in the love and care they have from their parents. It takes a little more invested time but the rewards are aplenty and I wouldn’t have it any other way.