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Gentle parenting

How to raise confident little humans

We went away to the Cederberg mountains for a little break this past weekend. I’d been amping Leo up for days leading up to it. “Baby guess what, this weekend we’re going to the mountains for Leo’s holiday!” Big smiles all round! But when we arrived it was a different story. It was almost dark, it was freezing cold, the last hour had been spent traveling down a super bumpy dirt road, Leo was far from amped. I led him into the house and he looked very unimpressed with his little holiday home.

They’re tiny little cottages, with everything you NEED, and that’s it. No couch, no tv, no lounge. All the things Leo loves! Oh shiiiaaat! I had a brief moment of anxiety when I saw the look on Leo’s face. I took him to check out our bedroom and he looked up at the roof to see a big bright light with dead moths gathered in the bottom of it… “Mommy, Leo don’t like dis holiday home! Let’s go home!!!!!” And with that he burst into tears! Great start…

The next morning we woke up to a beautiful crisp morning and I opened up the door to reveal a gorgeous green field out in front of us with a jungle gym and big slide and swings. Uncle Niel and Dad were taking a walk to the park to have their morning coffee and they called to little Leo “Come hang with the boys Leo, let’s go to the park!” He stared out at the huge big space outside that he’d never seen before, had a quick look at the swings and decided that this was BS and he still wanted to go home. “Mommy home!” he said again. “It’s okay guys, you go ahead, he just needs some time to settle in here.” Uncle Niel was confused. He looked at me and said “I don’t remember having a choice when I was his age, I just had to do what I was told!”

Very excited about his very big leaf!

Yip, the good old days! When kids were meant to be seen and not heard! This whole experience got me thinking about the choices we give to our little humans and how parenting seems to have changed quite a bit from when we were all kids.

I don’t like to use labels because I feel like it puts me in a box, and I don’t like to be put in a box, BUT I tend to follow the path of ‘gentle parenting’ as far as my ‘parenting style’ is concerned. This brings with it MANY funny looks, especially when out in public, but mostly for the silliest of reasons.

For example, I give Leo a choice of which kids meal he’d like when at a restaurant. I often do this when the waiter is at the table because then Leo can see that the waiter is waiting for him to make a decision, so he then makes his choice. If he CHOOSES something, he tends to eat it. However, if I order for him and it arrives, then he’ll look at it and ask for something else. Typical. It’s the same at home when we do breakfast. “Leo would you like a banana for breakfast?” “Nooo! DISGUSTING!!” vs “Leo what do you want for breakfast? A banana or avo on toast?” “Banana mommy!” Psychology 101.

Friends of mine often seem to think this is ludicrous. “Why don’t you just order for him, he’s 2, he doesn’t know what he wants!” Well… I beg to differ, because I see the results. I feel like when I give him a choice, I’m helping him to be decisive, confident and assertive, because he actually gets to make a choice, he gets to speak and he gets to be heard. What he says matters and we respect that. And in turn we expect the same behaviour from him. Of course we don’t always get that same behaviour in return, because, well yes, he is 2. Sometimes I get a piece of lego thrown at my head. And that makes mommy very angry. But what we do try to do is model the behaviour we’d like back and I find that doing that with choices every time, really seems to help. Even more so when he’s mad.

For example, he’s just thrown the piece of lego at my head, because he can’t get the one piece of lego to stick to the other piece of lego, so clearly it’s my fault because I’m in the room with him. Smash! Into my head. “F**k dude, what the hell!” I blurt out… I can’t help it, it’s just natural for me to swear in these situations. “Aaaaaaaaaah!” he screams at the top of his lungs and then proceeds to kick the lego castle over all across the lounge floor. So in this moment I now have a choice too.

Choice A: (often the taken choice)

“That’s it, I’m so over this, what is wrong with you, why do you have to be so destructive and break everything! Clean this up now or we aren’t going to the beach later, I’ve had a enough of this nonsense!” Child proceeds to fall over onto the fall kicking and screaming. I get even angrier. “Are you deaf, listen to me!” Mom proceeds to drag child by arm across the floor and tries to force him to pick up lego. Doesn’t work. Mom walks to kitchen and pours a glass of wine and ignores child for 5 full minutes while child continues to have a melt down. Glass of wine down, “Come here baby. Mommy’s sorry for shouting at you and dragging you across the room. It’s just that I don’t like it when you throw things at my head, it really hurts me and it makes me angry. Do you understand? Please don’t do that again okay?” “Yes Mommy.” …. I totally believe him in that moment but it’s never sincere.

Choice B: (when I manage to make this choice, the results are always AMAZE!)

Please note this situation still starts with me yelling out “F**k dude, what the hell!” and then him kicking over the lego castle, however I now make my choice…

“I can see that this lego is making you really angry my boy!” VALIDATE his feeling! I get up off the couch and go to give him a hug while he’s letting out his big scream of frustration. “Are you angry my boy?” “Yes mommy!” he cries through the tears. ENTER CHOICE!! “Should I help you fix the castle again or do you want to go water the garden (oh wait we live in Cape Town), or do you want to blow some bubbles outside?” Now I find at this point, he hears I’ve asked a question and then stops to think about it – I’m telling you this always works! It gets him out of his crazy irrational toddler state and makes him think about making a choice. He then makes a choice, I respect that choice, he feels heard, he stops crying and we get on with the day.

BUT then we obviously have to still deal with the fact that he through a piece of lego at my head and that’s not acceptable. So once he is calm and ready to receive a mini conversation, then we have a little talk about that. I explain to him that when he’s angry there are other options besides throwing things that can land up hurting other people. I show him where my head is sore and he really shows empathy in his eyes for my pain. I don’t force him to say sorry, but often, at this point, he offers a sorry. It’s really pretty incredible to watch.

BUT… Choice B does not happen often, I’m still learning the ropes, much like every other Mom out there. And I’m no parenting guru to say the least, but when I get something to work and it allows for a more peaceful day, then I feel I should share that with other mamas!

One thing I know is that these little humans are a lot more intelligent than most adults believe them to be. If we just take the time to give them choices when they need them, it really makes parenting a much easier road. And this isn’t just for toddlers, you can start using choices from when they are really young. For teeny little babies you can do something as simple as shaking a rattle in your left hand and ringing a bell in the other hand, and then waiting to see which one baby is more interested in, which one do they gaze at more, or which one do they reach out for – that’s your baby making a choice!

If you can relate to this topic, I’d love to hear from you! Please share your comments below and let me know what you think – should we be giving our little humans choices and do you think it will help them in the long run?

Shannon McLaughlin

About Shannon McLaughlin

Shannon is a mama to her busy little toddler Leo, who is the inspiration behind her business, Ubuntu Baba. She strives to create the simplest and comfiest baby carrier on the market, helping new moms to step out into the world again with confidence, freedom and style.

23 Comments

  • Christie says:

    Thanks Shannon. It is hard trying to practice gentle/positive parenting – the older generation doesn’t always get it (and it’s often confused with permissive parenting) but I have shifted my goals for Luca – instead of aiming for compliance (which is what all discipline/punishment based techniques aim for), I have a long term goal that he would be a healthy (mentally and physically), well-adjusted and emotionally intelligent boy. So staying connected, validating his feelings, helping him name his feelings, helping him to exercise autonomy, hearing and respecting his choices (when appropriate obviously) and being respectful are important. I have found a number of helpful books and sites (Janet Lansbury, RIE, Magda Gerber) and a group of friends who do the same. The biggest challenge is to be self-aware, not to take it personally when he has a meltdown (he is dealing with big emotions not being a bad child), practicing radical self-care and learning how to manage my big emotions…
    But as I said, it takes work, being intentional and can be tiring but it’s always the better option…even when it’s not the short term quick fix
    Carry on warrior mom!

    • Thanks Christie, what a great reply. I have the same goals as you, and totally agree, some people see it as ‘lazy’ parenting or letting them get away with whatever they want, but it’s really not that at all. It takes way more patience to parent this way than any other way in my opinion! x

  • Gillian Wentzel says:

    Hi Shannon. I really enjoy these posts (when I find the time to read them). Madi is only 8 months old but I will definitely try Choice B when the time comes. I love my ubuntu carrier BTW, we use it everyday.
    Take care
    Gillian

  • Staci says:

    Hey Shannon, It’s really tough being a mom because in the heat of the moment we don’t always react the best way that will totally help the situation for everyone involved. My almost 5 year old really does have it tough and sometimes I feel so sorry for her that her mother is a bitch and has no patience whatsoever! Haha! But then she really does know how to push my buttons too! I do agree with you that giving them options is the best way to go, it doesn’t always mean, she’ll “eat what she orders” but most of the time, she’s quite happy that she’s been given the option and it sets her mood for most part of the day! One thing I would like to say though, is that something might work one day and the next day it doesn’t but I believe that consistency is the key – keep at it (even when you have no more hair to pull out)! I’m still trying to master this ;) Thanks for sharing x

    • Aah ya excellent point, you think you’ve nailed it as a Mom on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday come along and laugh in your face! Thanks for the tip on consistency, will keep it in mind! xx

  • Caron Gie says:

    Ah, so great! Thank you for your honesty and insights!!!
    As this is the age that they are learning that they are able to direct their world – through their words and actions – giving them choices are key! Otherwise, they’ll just test this new ability to direct their world by saying no to the things they love (and seeing mom lose her shit over it can provide a great sense of achievement… a bit like some adults (read: men (haha)) who like to piss people off just to get attention).
    One thing we need to be careful of though, is providing too many choices! So avo or banana is great – provides an opportunity for him to make a choice, but within a boundary provided by you – the caregiver. But “my little darling, would you like avo? or banana? or waffles? or cereal? or egg? – that’s just going to cause trouble, because they don’t reeeeally have the capacity to make decisions like adults do.

    So well done Mama – for all the times you are able to gather the strength and patience to go with choice two… and yet always remaining authentic with the “f**uck dude, what the hell?*

  • Tracy says:

    I’m a 1st time mom and reading stuff like this is awesome. It’s real life and that is was amazing. I’m learning every day and I would love to put this to the test

  • Michele says:

    Hit the nail on the head with this post Shan! If I order Dyl scrambled eggs to eat while he’s on the jungle gym, he comes backs; says he doesn’t want scrambled and then non-chalantly begins to dig into my fried/poached eggs – or literally helps himself to friend’s rosti off her plate… without asking – much to my embarrassment!
    Several toothbrushes works great until toddler decides he wants to brush his teeth with 2 of the 3 brushes!! Arrrgghh!! Guess it’s still better than not brushing!
    Having a kid is all about teaching them sure…but it’s all about teaching ourselves too – how to control anger, be patient, look at things from the other side, compromise, distract/redirect haha, etc. And hell – I’m still learning THIS valuable lesson – how to respond!

  • Louise says:

    Loved this post. Also have a 2year old boy.
    One thing that I’ve learned to deal sucsessful with tantrums or other bad behaviour…is to always stay calm! The moment you loose your cool, toddler gets what he wants ….attention/ reaction..but for all the wrong reasons. The more you get worked up, the more worked up toddler becomes.
    If you stay cool, and remain in charge of the situation, you can direct their attention away from the negative and give a choice of what is going to happen next.

    • Thanks Louise, totally agree. It’s the staying calm part that takes all the practice in the world, but the more I do it, the easier it seems to get. Getting angry solves nothing and is really just a bad habit!

  • Samantha says:

    Awesome read Shannon. I think we often just go with the fact that as parents and adults, we know best and they should do as they’re told, when in reality I wouldn’t like to be told what to do all the time.
    Your post actually links in to an article I recently read about potty training which totally changed my viewpoint on the whole thing. It basically said that by taking your child to the toilet all the time you’re taking that control away from them and when you let them have the control then it works better (or something to that effect).

  • Sune Vermeulen says:

    I totally agree with this blog post. My 2 year old responds so well to choices – I also use it as mealtimes, he loves to be able to choose what he eats (from a selection of 2 or 3 options I give him). I recently started applying the same thing to brushing teeth: the activity is not negotiable (he HAS to brush his teeth, even though it’s not his favorite activity) but I let him choose between his 2 toothbrushes, and after he has picked one he get’s to choose which toothpaste he wants to use that night (I have 2 brands of toddler toothpaste). He loves it, makes a big show of selecting the one he wants (usually a lot of giggling involved) and then suddenly the daunted task of brushing teeth isn’t so bad anymore! I think it makes him feel more in control of the situation, it’s no longer just something I force him to do (-;

    • Oh my gosh Sune that’s clever! We also have a non negotiable tooth brushing rule, but it’s literally a 20 minute activity every morning, haha, I’m totally going to get another toothbrush and toothpaste and try this out, thanks for the tip! x

  • Imke says:

    I loved reading this! It’s not always easy to give everyone a choice when there’s three, but it is so worth trying!

  • Megan Eadie says:

    I think Choice B is a great idea. I always give Sienna a choice, they really are clever little humans and she amazes me every day on all the things she picks up on and learns. She understands me and reacts so well when I talk rationally to here in a calm voice. Thank you for this article Shannon, great read x

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