The Unintended Consequences of the Peaceful Parenting Movement
Back in the early days of my undergraduate social work program, we learned about “intended” and “unintended” consequences. Intended consequences are what you expected to happen. For example, someone starts some kind of social service program that trains unemployed folks for jobs. Intended consequence: people get jobs. Then we would have to come up with a list of unintended consequences. These might be positive or negative.
People with jobs can now afford healthier food, so they don’t get sick as often. They have benefits, so they can go to the dentist. Folks who never had disposable income before might not have ever learned how to manage their extra money, so they might end up still living paycheque to paycheque. Their friends and family might come knocking asking for help… Unintended consequences.
Still with me, post social-worky rant? Good.
How Does This Relate to the Peaceful Parenting Movement?
Isn’t Peaceful Parenting a Good Thing?
It is a super good thing. Our generation of parents is more aware than ever of how our parenting styles can affect our kids. We’re generally moving from more control-based parenting, viewing children as needing to be seen and not heard, and generally not as full humans with their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. We’re moving towards seeing our children as fully aware, conscious humans who deserve respect and loving guidance. All very good things, which I as a social worker fully believe in. Things we talk about in this article and in this article.
Most of the messages many of us are seeing are on social media with these beautiful quotes about how our kids need us to be. “Be the parent you needed when you were younger” and so on… And again, this is a very good message. Photos and testimonials of families who are now doing spectacularly after completing some kind of coaching program or following a “new” method.
The Unintended Consequence?
These sound bites of parenting wisdom seem to be leaving many of us feeling totally inadequate and often like we’re failing the parenting thing quite miserably. We feel like we’re completely messing up our kids. Because I am not, as it turns out, who I needed when I was younger. And my kids are not me. I am not immune to the doubt/guilt/anxiety about how I’m parenting my kids. Many parents are left with a profound sense of shame.
If you delve into books on peaceful/gentle/conscious parenting, you’ll see that they do, in fact, leave room for parents to make mistakes. But, let’s be honest. How many of us are actually reading ALL the books ALL the way through? Not me!
Day after day in my office, I sit with women who feel like they’re failing their kids. They are absolutely certain they are doing it all wrong and that her kids would be better off with another mom who knows what she’s doing. Sometimes that woman is me, with the same worries. Very sure that my kids will need their own therapy when they’re grown (or sooner!). Which they will. Because I’m kind of a fan of therapy. The thing that changed everything for me, and changes everything for so many other moms, is this: The Good Enough Mother. It’s a thing. Stay with me here.
The Good Enough Mother
A pediatrician and psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott from many, many decades ago did a whole bunch of research on mothers and babies. The very simple message is this: Kids don’t need us to be perfect. I’m not talking about perfect house and birthday parties and cute cut-out sandwiches… I’m talking about perfect in how we respond to them when they’re being tiny terrors.
It means that sometimes I lose my temper and I’m not fully attuned to my child’s inner world, and I am just too tired or frustrated to put the effort into the “I know you’re having a lot of fun at the birthday party and it’s hard to say goodbye. I’ll help you put the toys away and then we’ll go put on your shoes” in my sweet, loving, Mama voice. Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I say, “get your shoes on or you’ll be walking home.” Obviously I’m not making my kid walk home, but the empty threat somehow works. Is it the best, most peaceful way? Nope. Is that the kind of parent I want to be on the regular? Nope. Will that totally screw up my kid for the rest of her life? Nope.
When we mess it up, we repair. I raise my voice because the first 5 times of saying it did nothing. Then, when I’ve cooled off and swallowed my pride, I go back to my child and apologize for my behaviour. Because I’m the adult and she’s the kid. The beautiful thing about apologizing is that our kids learn that it’s ok to not be perfect. They learn to tolerate some frustration and hurt feelings. And they learn how to mend relationships through our example.
So, if you made it this far, you’re probably wondering what’s the bottom line. Should I be doing peaceful parenting or not? Is there something else? Please, please, tell me the secret to doing it right.
The Secret is: There is No Secret.
The secret is, you can mis-attune to your child more than 50% of the time, and they will be ok! Should you do Peaceful Parenting? Probably. But do it imperfectly. Have some compassion for yourself, that you’re doing the best you can.
You love your kids. How do I know? Because you’re still reading this, secretly hoping there’s an actual secret and formula to follow that’s super reliable so you know for certain you’re doing it right. Because you want them to be decent human beings. Because, if you’re like me, you’re analyzing your every interaction with your children, wondering if you did the right thing. If you didn’t love your kids, you would sure as anything not be wasting your time doing that!
Some days you’re going to feel like you are winning at parenting. Some days you’re going to feel lucky if everyone brushed their teeth and no one’s blood is on the carpet while you count down the minutes ‘til bedtime. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It means you are a gloriously imperfect human living with other gloriously imperfect humans.
So be an imperfectly peaceful parent. Be at peace with yourself that you’re doing what you can with what you have today, in this moment. Just do this moment. You can do the next moment different if you want. You can say, “That didn’t go very well, did it? Let’s try again.”
Author: Jessica Cowling, MSW
Jessica is a Registered Social Worker with a busy counselling practice in London, Ontario where she helps overwhelmed, stressed out parents find their confidence in themselves, their parenting and their relationships. Jessica is passionate about postpartum mental health and has the privilege of holding space for new moms (and dads!) to share the very real struggles that new parenthood can bring. It is an honour for her to bear witness to her clients’ healing journeys. In her spare time, Jessica enjoys avoiding housework by playing card games with her family, drinking excessive amounts of coffee, and reading one of the 4 or 5 books she has on the go at any given moment.