12 Steps to Gentle Parenting
[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon]
It’s been said that it takes twenty-one days to make or break a habit and that change comes easiest and lasts longest when it’s undertaken in small, bite-sized chunks. Those same principles apply when trying to transform your parenting, as well. Simply resolving on January 1st that, from that day forward, you are going to be a gentle parent and trying to change everything all at once is just setting yourself up for disappointment, frustration, and, more than likely, failure followed by that age-old enemy of peace…mommy guilt.
Instead, try setting yourself up for success by taking a year of ‘baby steps’ to create real, lasting transformation in your parenting. Here are 12 steps you can start any time of the year, not just on January 1st, that offer practical, effective guidance to help you on your journey to gentle parenting. Keep in mind, though, that failure is a natural, normal part of change, so remember to give yourself grace when you fail. (Also, giving yourself grace is good practice for learning to extend that same grace to your children, which is a hallmark of gentle parenting!)
January (Step 1)
Slow down! ~ Gentle parenting is, at its core, based on a strong, healthy parent/child connection, so intentionally including time in your life to build and maintain that connection is vital. Start the year off by examining your daily and weekly schedule and looking for things to reduce or eliminate. Add up how much time your children spend in school, sleeping, in daycare, with babysitters, at sports practices, in music lessons, etc. and look at how much or little time is left over. Time for your family to connect, time to play, time to simply be, are just as important as those activities, if not more so! Eliminate and reduce what you can, and look for ways to build connection into the things you can’t eliminate. For instance, if your child has homework each night, why not sit down and work through the homework with them? As humans, we learn better through interaction, anyway, so you’ll not only be connecting, you’ll be enriching your child’s education in the process! Another area that might benefit from a connection ‘rehab’ is that morning rush to get ready and out the door. Try getting everyone up a half hour earlier to ease the morning stresses that often lead to conflict and can result in a parent/child disconnect.
February (Step 2)
Listen! ~ Once you’ve slowed down enough to breathe, it’s time to stretch yourself and grow as a parent. Like most changes in life, it won’t come easy, but the rewards are well worth it. Fred Rogers said, “Listening is where love begins,” meaning that when we listen, we really get to know someone, learn about what motivates them, and understand their thoughts, hopes, dreams, hurts, disappointments, etc. All behaviors communicate underlying needs, and what we learn about the inner life of our children by listening to them will help us to focus on the needs behind the behaviors instead of simply correcting the ‘symptoms’ (i.e. the behavior).
As a parent, it may seem instinctive to insist that our children listen to us so that our guidance and/or correction can be heard. In fact, the number one complaint I get from most parents is, “My children just don’t listen!” to which I respond, “Do you?”
The reality is that if a child doesn’t feel they are being heard, then even if they stand silently ‘listening’ while we lecture or rant or even just talk, the child is simply rehearsing in their brain what they want to say rather than actually doing any effective listening. As the only adults in the parent/child relationship, it’s up to the parent to be the first to listen, to really listen, because we are the ones with the maturity and self-control to be able to patiently wait to be heard.
March (Step 3)
Live what you want them to learn! ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Consciously, intentionally, and consistently living out how you want your children to turn out is the most powerful and effective character training there is. If you want your children to be kind, be kind. If you want them to be respectful, respect them. If you want them to learn self-control, model self-control. If you want them to be compassionate, treat them with compassion. If you want them to feel joy, enjoy them. If you want them to feel valuable, treasure them. The bottom line is, your children are always watching and learning, so make sure what they see in you is what you want to see in them!
April (Step 4)
Breathe! ~ We all get overwhelmed by the seemingly endless demands of life at times, so this month remind yourself to relax and consciously focus on enjoying your children. It’s just a fact of human nature that when we enjoy something, we pay more attention to it, value it, and treat it better. Applying that fact to parenting, it makes sense to be intentional about taking time to laugh and hug and simply be with our children. Here’s a ‘bucket list’ full of ideas for simple, memorable fun to share with life’s most precious treasures, your children!
May (Step 5)
Book it! ~ It’s been said that our treasure lies where our time, attention, and love is invested. While having special family outings and activities is a wonderful way to enjoy our children, it is in the daily routines and busyness of life that the parent/child connection can often suffer the most. One of the best ways to stay connected with our children is to build time into each day to invest in them, and one of the best investments is in a love of reading. A love of reading is born on the lap of a parent, in the soothing cadence of a mother’s voice reading the same beloved story night after night, in the rhythmic sway of a rocking chair, and in the comfortable rustle of well-worn pages being turned one after another after another. A quiet bedtime routine that includes a nighttime story will not only help bedtime to be happier and smoother, but will also incorporate vital time for you to reconnect with your children at the end of every day.
June (Step 6)
Turn your ‘no’s’ into ‘yes’s'! ~ In any home, like in any civilized society, boundaries are necessary for everyone’s safety and comfort. With gentle parenting, setting limits focuses on connection and empathetic communication rather than control and punitive consequences. This month try setting limits using gentle parenting by turning your ‘no’s’ into ‘yes’s.’ Instead of “No, you can’t have ice cream until after dinner,” try “I know you love ice cream. I do, too! We’re getting ready to eat right now, but what flavor would you like after dinner?” This invites cooperation instead of triggering opposition, another hallmark of gentle parenting!
July (Step 7)
Play! ~ They say that the family that plays together, stays together, and there’s great truth to that. Play is the language of childhood, and through play we get to know and connect with our children on their turf, in their native language, and on their terms. It’s a powerful moment in a parent’s life when they suddenly see their sweet little one as a separate, intelligent, worthy human being who can plan, make decisions, snap out orders, and lead other humans on a journey through an imaginary rainforest or on a trip through outer space. This month, try taking on the role of follower in your child’s land of make-believe, and you’ll discover a whole new world in which your child is strong, confident, and capable, and you’ll come away with a deeper connection with and appreciation for the person, not just the child.
August (Step 8)
Eat well! ~ Along with all of the exercise you’ll be getting playing with your child, take stock of the kinds of food you’re providing to fuel their little engines and enrich their minds. Good nutrition may not be the first thought that pops into people’s minds when they think of gentle parenting, but studies have shown that many behavior issues and sleep problems have their root in unhealthy eating habits, nutrient-poor diets, and food additives (dyes, preservatives, etc.). Children, especially littler ones, don’t take change well as a general rule, and changes to the foods they eat are on top of the list of changes they’ll resist. As a gentle parent, working with, instead of against, our children will help to make eating healthy a fun family project instead of a food fight. Try letting your children help you make weekly menus and shop for the fresh ingredients you’ll be using, and let them help you cook, too. If they feel like a part of the change instead of a victim of it, they’re far more likely to cooperate. If you have picky eaters, don’t hesitate to serve them the same foods you normally do, just with a few added healthy ingredients slipped in to make them healthier. For ideas on ways to make healthy changes more fun, click here.
September (Step 9)
Don’t forget your funny bone! ~ Often the best parenting advice is simply~Chill out! Relax! Laugh a little, for goodness’ sake! Sometimes as parents we get so caught up in ‘fixing’ our children that all we see are problems. We start focusing so much on preparing our children for their future that we forget to let them live in the present. One of the main problems with that is that children are, by their very nature, creatures of the ‘now,’ living fully immersed in each present moment. G. Mistral said, “Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his bones are formed, his mind developed. To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today.” This month, pull out your dusty, old funny-bone, the one that used to keep you in stitches when you were a child, and laugh, on purpose, every day with your child. You’ll be amazed at how a good belly laugh can turn even the worst day into something a little easier to handle and how much a giggle-fest can heal the little rifts that tend to occur in the parent/child connection throughout each day.
October (Step 10)
If you build it, they will come! ~ A shared project can offer a real chance to get to know your child on an entirely new level, so this month find something to build together. Choose something they are interested in, whether it’s a model rocket or tree fort, and watch them blossom as they learn and build and grow. Your role is supportive~finding the materials, helping to read the instructions, offering suggestions or help when they struggle, etc. Simply being there through the process will enrich your connection with your child and offer you valuable insights into their interests and learning style, which will provide tools for you to use when helping them with their homework or homeschooling them.
November (Step 11)
Gratitude is an attitude! ~ Teaching our children to be grateful involves far more than simply instructing them to say, “Thank you.” We all want to be appreciated, and children are no different. Modeling the things we want to see in our children is the single most powerful mode of instruction, so living a life of gratitude ourselves goes a long way toward raising our little ones to be happy, grateful humans. Openly appreciating our children, telling them what we like about them, and thanking them for the things they do is a sure-fire way of inspiring an attitude of gratitude in their little hearts. This month, be intentional in finding things to praise in your children. Don’t be falsely enthusiastic or use “Good job!” as a brush-off to get them to leave you alone. Instead, honestly tell them what you like about them. Tell them ‘thank you’ when they remember to brush their teeth without being told or help their little sister with her block tower. Let them know you think their artwork is beautiful and don’t hesitate to give them a pat on the back for a job well done when they straighten their room. Remember, it is the hungry child, not the satisfied child, who craves food, and, in the same way, it is unmet needs that lead to attention seeking behaviors and unspoken approval that can create ‘praise junkies’ as the unpraised child seeks to fill the very human need we all have for validation.
December (Step 12)
Celebrate! ~ Take time this month to give yourself a pat on the back for working toward your goal of becoming a gentle parent. Congratulate yourself for all that you’ve accomplished and take stock of your successes as well as your failures. Don’t focus on your mistakes. Simply learn from them, forgive yourself, and move forward. Look back at where you were as a parent a year ago and compare that to where you are now. Don’t worry if you haven’t come as far as you’d like. Life is for living and learning and growing, and another year is about to start with a chance to move forward into a new beginning. Everything you’ve invested in your children in the last year has been worthwhile, and everything you’ll invest in the coming years will build on the foundation you’ve begun. So take this month to celebrate you and to enjoy the return on your investment!
Do you see a theme throughout this gentle parenting ’12-step program’? Getting to know and enjoy your children as individuals, intentionally focusing on building and maintaining a strong and healthy parent/child connection, and living what you want your children to learn are the bedrocks of gentle parenting. Walking through these steps, revisiting them when you find yourself struggling, and appreciating the incredible, miraculous gifts that each individual child brings into the world will keep you growing as a gentle parent day after day, month after month, year after year. Live. Laugh. Love. Enjoy!
Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon
*Also published in The Natural Parent Magazine