My near eight-year-old has been raised in an emotionally supportive, non-punitive home. He has never been spanked, put in time-out, or given arbitrary consequences. His dad and I infrequently raise our voices in anger, and have always apologized when we do. High value is placed on kindness and mutual respect, and we all practice empathy on a regular basis.

Because of this, he can now manage his every impulse and tolerate a lot of frustration. He says “please” and “thank you” on cue, and rarely forgets to clear his place after a meal. His bedroom and playroom are spotless, and he never talks back or whines. He is cooperative and pleasant 100% of the time.

Just kidding.josh headshot

Well, about the second part anyway. The first part is pretty accurate, but the rest is total fiction.  However, I do want to share a story with you that bolstered my commitment to parenting with love and not punishment; guidance and not fear.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past seven years, you should have a pretty good feel for what I’m about. The first paragraph is a decent description of the “what” that is often called peaceful, mindful, responsive, or connected parenting. The “how” is trickier to give a brief thumbnail sketch of, but I’ll do my best.

It essentially boils down to:

  • Understanding how child development and brain function impacts children’s emotional lives and their ability to control themselves.

  • Getting that kids need different parenting responses from us depending on which “brain state” they are in. The needs (from a caregiver) of the reptile (fear), mammal (emotional), or human (thinking) brains are unique—and they are: safety, belonging, and teaching, respectively.

  • Knowing that our own adult brains are pretty reactive too, even though we really try to manage ourselves in the face of stress and pressure (parenting or otherwise).

  • Taking such extremely good care of ourselves and getting enough support to unpack our emotional baggage and evoke internal change.

  • Having a tremendous commitment to being aware of our unhelpful self-talk so we can change our parenting paradigm and offer our kids steady, unflustered support.

Easy, right?

Actually, no. It’s tough to override our internal stories about what’s appropriate, how we will not be disrespected, and that they should sit down, shut up, and fly right! Hence, a “new parenting paradigm.”

Emotional competence in little humans is built through a neutral view of strong feelings and outbursts. Emotions are neither good, nor bad, they just bubble-up and happen. If we stop unsafe behavior and offer connection, support, and empathy, as often as we can, the feelings dissipate (metabolize, integrate) all on their own. You’ll steer a child back toward their human brain, where they return, with a calmed nervous system and a more cooperative outlook.

Anyway, my story. So we’ve been doing this space-holding, emotional validation thing for a lot of years now. And sometimes it seems like progress is pretty slow in the self-regulation department. Now I define self-regulation as “the ability to stay in charge of your behavior when you’re upset,” and we’d definitely been seeing glimpses of this growing competency. But what I want you to know is that it still looks messy. Better, but still really messy.

What happened was my boy got frustrated with his LEGO© creation that had broken, as LEGO© creations do. But in that moment, because of some other bothersome feelings he must have had brewing, it was perceived as a personal affront.

He squawked. I offered to help. He declined and tried to fix it. It broke. He fell apart. I empathized and again offered my assistance. He said an extremely clear, “no” and started yelling about how stupid the toys were, falling apart like that.

I let him.

I let him rant and rave. I let him try and fail to get the “stupid, dumb Ninjago mech-guy to STAY TOGETHER!” (SO not the time to give feedback on “appropriate language.”)

I let him scream, “Why do they make them like this??” (Lord knows I’ve asked myself the same thing many times, but I wisely kept my mouth shut on that one.)

I let him grab all the pillows off the couch and throw them on the floor in a fit of rage. (Pillows! Nice choice kid. Way to temper your fury and also not aim them at me—Bravo!)

I let him work his way through his feelings. And he did it, all by himself. I sat on the sofa and offered validation. That was it. I did not have to intervene to keep myself safe from his flying angerballs (fists) like I did when he was younger. He didn’t toss any of his unpleasantness in my direction like he’d frequently done in the past. He did not blame me for his LEGO© troubles, and those of you with children this age will understand that this is HUGE.

Was it a show of emotional maturity? One could argue that it wasn’t. One could even argue that it was “not OK” or “unacceptable.” But I have seen grown men and women behave much, much worse over their petty frustrations (road rage, anyone?). Given the fact that he’s a seven-year-old second-grader, I am going to keep my “growth mindset” lens in place on this one, and call it progress. Excellent, excellent progress.

Related articles:

Why I Praised My Son for Threatening to Throw a Bowl at Me Today

How to Hold Space for a Tantrum and Actually Enjoy Yourself, by Shelley Birger Philips

10 Tips to Help Your Child with Anger, by Laura Markham

Originally published in the May/June issue of Parent & Family