Parenting is hard. Even the most seasoned and consistently gentle parents have their moments (translate: days, weeks or longer) that sometimes feel insurmountably difficult. Just this evening, for example, I managed to really upset my daughter. We've been in a tough "season" for a little while.
As background, we just spent two days driving 800 miles part way across the United States. We didn't plan to do it for a lighthearted vacation in the middle of a pandemic; rather, we left our home rather urgently when we found out it needed some major repair work that would take at least a few weeks to complete. Given that there is a pandemic going on, we couldn't just go hang out with friends for that amount of time.
So, with a car full of "stuff" (including enough sandwiches to last us two days and a toddler-sized travel toilet so we wouldn't have to stop and use any public restrooms), we drove to a temporary rental. Unexpectedly. Unpreparedly. Optimistically, albeit somewhat nervously.
This part of parenting is hard for me—staying centered when nearly everything we've ever known as "normal life" is up in the air. Picking up and leaving everything on short notice is exhausting and stressful. Especially amidst everything else that's going on in the world.
Parenting is hard in these moments. Being little is also hard in these moments.
With exhaustion nipping at our heels, I upset my daughter tonight. In my tiredness, I was rushing her to wash her hands so we could have dinner in our temporary rental home. She never likes being rushed, especially when she's adjusting to something new.
Although I know better, I pressured her to go faster. I was walking behind her and guiding her little body by the shoulders toward the sink. In that moment, along with a "Stop rushing me!" her leg flew backwards and kicked me in the shin.
Given the angle—and how out of character it was for her—I wasn't sure if she'd meant to do it. It hurt surprisingly much given her size. Of course, it also caught me off guard emotionally.
Parenting is hard in these moments. It's hard for the little kids who are just doing the best they can. And it's hard for the adults who are just doing the best they can, too.
I know better than to ask a young child why they did something they aren't supposed to do. Fortunately, I also remembered the wonderful advice an early childhood educator gave me long ago: "Don't get mad, get curious."
So, I kneeled down behind my daughter and said her name. I remarked as calmly and neutrally as possible, "I noticed that your leg just hit my leg. I'm curious. Did you mean to do that or was it an accident?"
She paused for a second and replied honestly, "I kicked you on purpose."
I took a breath.
Then, I said, "You must've been really mad. I won't let you hurt my body; kicking hurts. At the same time, your feelings are valid. It's absolutely okay to be mad. I know you don't like being rushed, and we're both tired and hungry. I love you and I know you love me, too. Let's work through your anger together. No matter what, we're on the same team. Even when things are hard and we get angry, we always make it through them together. Let's find a better way."
We've had plenty of opportunities to discuss rupture and repair together. This is one more for that proverbial bucket.
She nodded. She started to cry and asked for a tissue. We reconnected.
In that moment, our exchange confirmed two important things that all the gentle parenting science talks about:
1. There's no need for punishment, even when parenting is hard.
I don't punish her anyway, but this was further validation of that decision. Her tears showed me that she already felt all the remorse that she needed to feel. Her own moral compass is in fine working order; I never need to add guilt or shame to that.
What good would those things serve?
Her own feelings about what she'd done were a far more powerful teacher than anything I'd have added.
My job was to stay peaceful, set a clear boundary, and help her process the experience in a healthy way. Later, when we were calmer (and fed!), we could brainstorm healthy ways to manage anger.
2. We parent this way for the long run, because we're raising children who will continue to make mistakes (after all, they're human).
Was it great that she kicked me? Of course not.
But when she did, she felt safe enough that she owned up to what she'd done—without fear of backlash. She was honest (you might already know my suggestion for raising honest kids). Even when parenting is hard, my child knew I'm still her safe place—not because of what transpired tonight, but because she has enough life experience with me to know that she can be honest no matter what.
These connections that are "wiring together" in her brain are the same ones that will help her come to me when she's older and the "event" is more than a kick in the shin. We all make choices that we wish we hadn't made; we all follow our impulses sometimes.
If she learns now that she can be honest with me, that's an important message she can carry with her forever.
Parenting is hard, but positive parenting has its payoff. My child knows I'm her safe place no matter what—even when she's made a mistake.
Am I a perfect parent? No, I'm far from it. In moments like these, though, when parenting is hard but I see how things are supposed to go—I remember that we're all just doing the best we can. Our kids are, too.
[This post was originally published on the author's blog.]