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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Parenting without punishment

When I became a parent people joked about 'mummy guilt'. There was a spoken and unspoken agreement among my peers and the people I turned to for advice that feeling guilty as a parent is a given. I often heard the 'joke' that I would leave my dignity at the door of the maternity ward and walk out with guilt stamped on my forehead instead.

Funny, right?

Not really. As the long broken nights accumulate and the challenges move on from keeping your infant alive to navigating the emotional world of your toddler, then on to supporting the emerging identity of your child, stuff happens. We make poor decisions as well as good ones. We pick up bad habits as parents as well as those that help us out. We give ourselves permission to do stuff we never thought we would when we imagined holding that precious baby in our arms - things like yell at them, ignore them, punish them. Sometimes that makes us feel icky, or sad, or disappointed in ourselves. But we often fall short of challenging those actions because don't we all know and joke about the 'fact' that being a parent means guilt will accumulate along the way? Guilt is inevitable, right?

To a certain extent, I think an assumption that we'll feel some guilt is right. Life BC (before children) never drove me to question myself quite as intensely or as frequently as I do now in my role as mother. But a big part of me rebels against the assumption that guilt must be an integral part of my journey as a parent. A flash of guilt that triggers self-reflection, yes, that is inevitable and good. It's a message that I ought to check my behaviour and change it. But guilt that festers and accumulates and gets accepted as 'part of being a parent'? No thanks. You see, I recognise the shadow of shame in that scenario. Shame is guilt's right hand man. And I don't agree to walking through my parenting life with shame as my constant companion.

You see, I've lived with guilt and shame before. In my life BC I struggled with all kinds of uncool stuff. A terribly unhealthy relationship with a guy I loved very much, but who treated me like shit. Years when I got blind drunk on the weekends and woke up with a hangover of shame alongside the alcohol one. A period of disordered eating when I was treated for anorexia and bulimia for a year. Shame was my constant companion in those years.

What does shame do to you when you hang out with it a lot? Well, I know for me, it ground down my sense of self-worth. It made me tired. It made me tearful. It made me angry and then, in the end, it made me numb. Waking up to myself again after the anorexic stage was a really painful journey. But I worked really hard at saying goodbye to guilt and shame back then. I was prepared to like myself enough to stay present - and that is a VERY. BIG. THING. It's also the crux of parenting without punishment: Staying present and liking yourself and your child EVEN when things go wrong.

When motherhood arrived with all the joking about mummy-guilt, I was uncomfortable without really understanding why. Then when lone-parenthood arrived and I felt the guilt and shame associated with that experience pile up, 'mummy-guilt' really wasn't funny. Laughing off each others fears and insecurities only makes us bury them, where the seeds of shame are sown. It's hard to hold your head up high and stay present when the messages we get socially, culturally and intimately are that we are not good enough.

Now that I'm parenting a pre-schooler and a young child, the lessons I've learned about guilt and shame have seeped into my approach to discipline at home. I'd like to say that my awareness of how shitty it is to feel ashamed of yourself means I've never made my kids feel the same, but that would be lying. I'm not blogging about punishment free parenting because I've nailed it. I'm blogging about it because it matters.

The many ways I learned to be ashamed of myself as I was growing up and becoming an adult are still there. And boy, does having kids hit your trigger points. There are many moments in my life as a mum when I've walked away from a situation feeling deeply, painfully ashamed of how I have handled (or more accurately, not handled) myself. There are times I've yelled, times I've cried, or I've been mean because something in ME was hurting. Those times when I've kicked one of their toys, or told them off because I've reached MY limit. And oh yes - I used the naughty step plenty, before I found a better way. I can't even say now that I won't ever lose my temper again because I'm not clairvoyant. But I know that I'm going to try.

And the reason I'm going to try is because I don't want my kids to internalise a sense of shame about who they are. I don't want them to grow up squashing some feelings and hiding others behind playing the fool, or just numbing them out. I'd like to allow them all their big, bold feelings, good and bad. While they feel them, I'd like to teach them to express themselves

  1. - Respectfully
  2. - Empathetically
  3. - Gently
  4. - In a way that keeps them connected to me and to themselves 

Which means I have to model that in the way I handle myself. There will be limits, of course there will. And there are a hundred great blogs out there already about how to set them without punishment. You can check out this one, or this one, for starters! I'm not going to give you a breakdown of 'how to' talk out a big set of typical problems right now. But I am going to share what I've learned in our family:

There is only ONE thing you have got to get nailed down before you deal with your children peacefully and gently, without punishment.

You must let go of your own guilt and shame. Carrying those feelings around inside you means they will seep out around your kids, and despite yourself, you'll pass them on. So channel your inner Elsa and really, truly, LET. IT. GO. You will get stuff wrong. So will they. You will get mad. So will they. You will need to apologise. So will they. Sometimes it will hurt you, a lot, to be the parent. Sometimes it will hurt to be the kid.

It will hurt less when you accept that you are learning together as a family. That each mistake is an opportunity to reconnect, strengthen your bond with each other, and learn how to be empathetic and respectful and gentle with each other as a team. Never let your disappointment in yourself or your child cause you to bring shame into your home. Shame will draw up a seat at your table, and sit between you and the people you love. Shame will talk over the conversations you need to hear, preventing you from feeling loved and connected. Shame will teach your kids not to bother speaking to you because you can't hear them. Shame will numb you out.

Being vulnerable is ok. Saying you are sorry is good. Genuinely learning from all the things that you get right and get wrong along your parenting journey makes you a GOOD parent, so please don't let a pattern of guilt distract you from that fact. Hold yourself with loving kindness and I promise you, it will become natural to meet your kids on that level as well.

The how of parenting without punishment really is much less important than the why

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