You’re in the middle of an important phone call and your 6-year-old keeps barging in on you. Do you: A. Yell at him B. Bribe him to be quiet with a handful of goldfish or C. Take a few deep breaths, surmise that your son is trying to feel more connected to you and tell the person on the phone that you’ll call them back in an hour? If you answered “C” then congrats—you have mastered the art of peaceful parenting and can skip all of the below. But if you’re like the rest of us, well, keep reading.
Peaceful parenting (which is, as it sounds, the concept that parents should approach learning and discipline from a place of love and calm) is all the rage right now, and with good reason: This generation has wised up and realized the authoritarian role played by parents in the past did more damage than good. We now know that the iron fist accomplishes precious little when it comes to some of our top parenting priorities, like encouraging cooperation and respect from our kids. That’s why I call myself a peaceful parent...on a good day, that is.
The truth is that my 3 and 5-year-old children frequently push all the buttons until I get snappy and then spiral into an abyss of mom guilt once the dust has settled. And there are many in my circle of mom friends who can relate: We all want to do better, be better—but struggle to change our parenting behaviors when push comes to shove, literally. (I can’t be the only parent who condemns fighting between siblings by screaming at them...)
So is this gentle parenting technique a more effective modern alternative, or is it just a quixotic project—the kind of pie-in-the-sky aspiration I soothe myself to sleep with at the end a rough day? Honestly, I don’t know. But I can report that having immersed myself in the quintessential book on the subject, Dr. Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, even this skeptical mama is feeling inspired and ready to practice the empathy I preach to my kids on repeat. If you’re curious about peaceful parenting but don’t have the time to read the book from cover to cover, check out our summary below so you can get started.
First, what is peaceful parenting?
The peaceful parenting method operates on the principles of mindfulness and patient love—concepts that sound more concrete than candy-coated in Markham’s straightforward guide. Once put into practice, this tender approach promises fewer tantrums and power struggles, and a stronger parent-child bond. The premise is that when parents stop yelling, punishing and threatening, they are in a better position to truly listen to and work in harmony with their growing children. But here’s the catch: This method only works if you’re willing to hang up your boss hat and allow your kid’s needs to be the lens you look through before you act. On the surface, this parenting approach sounds sanctimonious—tell me something I don’t already want to do but can’t—but the book breaks it down into an actionable process. Bonus: Markham doesn’t make her method out to be an all-or-nothing endeavor, so perfection isn’t a prerequisite.
And how can I practice peaceful parenting?
It’s not an easy process, friends. Fortunately, there’s a good chance your kid has already given you a primer. After all, kids have a knack for holding up the proverbial mirror and showing you all your parenting missteps—and on the path to peaceful parenting, you’re going to have to take a long, hard look. The key to peaceful parenting is to consistently confront and care for your own inner child, so you can better connect to your real-life offspring. This undertaking requires vulnerability and self-awareness, but the work is done gradually and unfolds during daily interactions with your kid. Here are four simple steps to take when you’re ready to walk the road to peace. (Hint: Slow and stable wins the race.)
1. Control yourself
The logic is sound: Kids will not stop throwing tantrums if they frequently witness their fully-grown mentors flying off the handle. Part of the problem, according to Markham, is that gentle parenting was decidedly not trending when we were tots and when triggered, we’re prone to mimicking the behaviors of our parents. This means that most of us still have a lot of learning left to do, especially when it comes to patience. So, how do we become more patient? Markham suggests you put a sock in it when one of your kids gets your goat and your lungs are ready to unleash the rage: “Close your mouth, even in mid-sentence. Don’t be embarrassed; you’re modeling good anger management. Save your embarrassment for when you have a tantrum.” Remember when you learned how to “stop, drop and roll” in school? Well, Markham says to stop, drop (whatever you were doing) and breathe.
So far, so doable. But let’s get real: Sometimes parents need to vent. According to Markham, it’s best to do so once the feeling has passed, since “research shows that expressing anger while we are angry actually makes us angrier.” So the next time your child is driving you bonkers and you’re about to snap, come clean to your kid by admitting you’re too angry to engage right now and would like to discuss the transgression later. Only when you’ve calmed down, should you then ask your daughter why she felt the need to pour all of your expensive perfume down the sink.
2. Listen to your anger
Kudos on canning it in the heat of the moment—but repression is not the ultimate goal, so don’t stop there. While Markham insists that parents rise to the occasion and react responsibly when angry, the secret to success is self-awareness and healing. That means every moment of anger (no matter how successfully you rein it in) is a teachable moment, an opportunity to better understand and stay one step ahead of your personal triggers. No parent wants the past to rule present choices, but anyone can fall into that trap says Markham, “because so much of parenting, like every relationship, happens outside our conscious awareness.” Bottom line: Slow yourself down in front of your child and once you’ve recovered, carve out some time to reflect on what had you so bothered to begin with, and know that it matters—compassion for oneself is a prerequisite for peaceful parenting.
3. Coach your child
This principle of peaceful parenting might just be the most difficult one to get on board with. Let’s say your kid whacks his younger sister on the head even though he knows you have a very clear “no hitting” rule. Your gut reaction may be to put him in a time-out or take away his iPad for the day. Because how else will he learn? Well, according to peaceful parenting, punishments and power dynamics will only cause more misbehavior. Instead, talk to your son (once you’ve calmed down, that is) about why he hit his sister (“You must have been really angry when Liz took your toy away”). Help him connect with his own feelings and then give him the opportunity to come up with a solution (“Do you think that there's something you can do to make your sister feel better?”). Collaboration, back-and-forth dialogue and exchange of ideas are the goal here.
4. Start connecting
Peaceful parenting isn’t just about transforming the way you communicate when you’re upset; it requires parents to bring that degree of mindfulness to all behaviors. As Markham explains, “every interaction creates the relationship.” In practice, this means projecting positivity and warmth even during the most mundane parts of the day (yep, even while you’re washing the dishes). Still, it isn’t enough to giggle your way through your grown-up to-do list. “To a young child, anytime your attention is focused elsewhere is a separation...That’s why all parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their children, just to repair the daily erosions created by life’s normal separations and distractions.” So every trip to the grocery store is a small trauma for your tiny person, but don’t be discouraged—the solution is simple and probably pretty familiar: “Play is one of the most reliable ways to smooth the tensions and build trust with your child.” If this sounds exhausting, it’s because, well, it is (at least at first). But there’s some good news: Once the parent-child relationship has been strengthened, kids become more cooperative and better behaved. In other words, the work is front-loaded, but peaceful parenting is a piece of cake once you’ve fostered a loving connection.
The benefits of peaceful parenting
Proponents of peaceful parenting swear that the approach makes life easier on every level—and considering what we know about the toxic effects of anger, it makes sense. Research shows that the disciplinarian approach (like spanking or “because I said so”) doesn’t work and actually leaves lasting scars. In contrast, peaceful parenting is an investment in your child’s long-term emotional health, and that alone makes it appealing. (Because at the end of the day we all just want to raise good humans, right?) But you don’t have to wait until your child grows up to reap the rewards of your hard work. Children that experience consistently positive and gentle nurturing are less likely to act out and engage in power struggles with parents, says Markham, so the instances where you’d be tempted to raise your voice become few and far between.
The drawbacks of peaceful parenting
Peaceful parenting is widely praised as an enlightened and effective way to raise children, so don’t worry, this softer style won’t result in an undisciplined or spoiled child. Really, the only drawback of peaceful parenting is that it is hard. Anger and annoyance are regular emotions for most parents because kids are demanding and the job of meeting their needs is a 24/7 commitment. Peaceful parenting doesn’t make those feelings go away, it just forces you to rewire your brain and break all the bad habits that prompt you to react destructively. As beneficial as this method is, it begins with a lot of self-work and that tough undertaking is on-going. Since the bar is set so high, parents that lack the resources to put forth the herculean effort involved in peaceful parenting (*raises hand*) may become discouraged—and a frustrated, defeated parent is even less likely to take the high road with a child. Still, proponents say that this child-centered method is well worth the work it requires, so why not give it a shot? Just remember the road to peace is a rocky one at times, so don’t saddle yourself with an unrealistic expectation of perfection.