The word “peaceful” is not the first thing that comes to mind when a child creeps into my bedroom at 2 a.m. attempting to snuggle. Peace is also incompatible with whining and car breakdowns. One could argue that it is an impossibility within a nuclear family. One could argue that it’s a dream.
Peace might be hard to achieve — impossible even — but it was nonetheless my destination after I received a copy of Dr. Laura Markham’s new Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook. Markham is an outspoken proponent of parenting with a huge dose of mindfulness and love. She does not believe in discipline. She believes in connection and empathy. She’s a super smart and nice lady I talk to sometimes. I like her and I wanted to believe that I could put her strategies to good use. I wanted to have faith in both her and myself.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Anger Management
Why? Because I found her vision of parenting — one of joy and cooperation between parent and child — deeply compelling. That, my friend, is Shangri-La. Her workbook offered to illuminate a path I was ready to walk. But it’s dark at night and easy to get lost.
My week of peaceful parenting began with the 2 a.m. bedroom invasion.
“Get out,” I grumbled, pushing my youngest away from the bed. I then proceeded to ignore his tearful retreat. Sleep did not come easy after that. Guilt pressed down on my chest. Prior to bed, I’d been studying a workbook chapter on rewiring my brain to respond to my kids with patience and love rather than disdain. I tried to internalize it. Clearly, I failed.
This was going to be harder than I thought.
Markham encourages parents to approach behavioral adversity the same way they might approach being accidentally set on fire. Her version of “Stop. Drop and roll,” is “Stop. Drop and breathe.”: Stop what you’re doing, drop your agenda, and do some thoughtful breathing. Only then can you address your anxieties, approach your child with empathy, and look for a solution.
Picking up the workbook the next morning, I realized much of Markham’s method requires that parents take a hard look at themselves. What triggers the anger? Is there grief? Anxiousness? You can’t expect to approach kids with kindness, the workbook suggested, if you can’t approach yourself with kindness. It was a powerful idea. And one I wanted to get into. But I didn’t have time.
I told myself that I’d get back to it later and skipped ahead. What I wanted were tools to use when my kids were being jerks. And I found them, but only after a serious shift in perspective.
The fact was, according to Markham, that a good deal of the problem was based on the fact that I believed my kids were being jerks. What I was failing to understand was that they were neither that sophisticated or petty. Unlike me.
What I was lacking was an essential empathy for my children. What I lacked was listening and understanding. Reading through the workbook, it struck me that my oldest had only been on the planet for 7 years. And yet, I was expecting him to act like a well-mannered 40-year-old. That was something I could barely do having lived 40 years.
So in the middle of the night when my kid said he was scared, I used the experience of my 40 years to dismiss his fears outright (“There’s nothing to be scared of. Stop being ridiculous.”). What I should have been doing was empathizing that there are a lot of unknowns for a 7-year-old, or exploring why and what he was scared of.
I suddenly realized how big and powerful I was compared to my children. And I’d been using that power irresponsibly on these little boys. Instead of connecting, I’d been a brute. And I didn’t want to be a brute. I’d been raised by brutes. I didn’t like it much.
So for the next few days when problems arose, I followed Dr. Markham’s prescription. I would get down to their level, bring them close and empathize. I would attend to them, actually listen, and repeat back what I’d heard.
Often, this was enough. One evening the 5-year-old stubbed his toe. In the past, I would have given him a modicum of sympathy, told him to shake it off and the crying would continue for a half hour, leading to me becoming frustrated at his overreaction. This time, I pulled him into my lap.
“Ouch, you stubbed your toe,” I parroted. “That hurts and it’s frustrating right?”
He nodded. Wiping his eyes.
“Yeah,” he whimpered.
“What should we do? Wait until it feels better and go play?”
“Yeah,” he said more confidently.
And then we sat. And then he wiped his eyes once more, hopped off my lap and went back to playing. It was a revelation.
In fact, it was enough of a revelation that I kept it up throughout the week. I also took Markham’s advice, meditating on the love I have for my boys. Really falling into the beautiful presence of them. I said yes more often. I built Lego kits with them and marveled at how well they could follow the complicated directions.
There was less shouting. It honestly felt like there was more peace.
Then the car broke down in the parking lot of swim school. It was a battery issue. One we’d ignored. And now we were stuck after swim class with two hungry boys who were losing their minds.
The logistics of the situation were maddening. It would require friends, a failed jump start, and a late night car battery purchase. Even with all the recent love, it proved too much.
With the hood opened, belching out a tangle of jumper cables to a neighboring vehicle, my 5-year-old kept repeating, “We’re all gonna die.” While factual in a broad sense, it wasn’t helpful. The 7-year-old tearfully worried we’d never get home. I turned the key.
The car went click-click-click and the children moaned. I knew I should be looking into their eyes and reassuring them but this moment required expediency. My gut was tight. I wanted to tell my kids it was okay. But it wasn’t. I was angry with myself because I’d neglected a problem and now shit had to get done. I turned the key.
“We’re all gonna die.”
“We’re never going home again!”
“Just be quiet,” I snapped at my boys viciously. “Just shut your mouths.“ There was no kindness in me to be found. No empathy or joy. Everything felt like it was falling apart around my ears. I was an idiot and the whole thing was my fault.
That night there was more crying and frustration and more snapping. And it wasn’t until I was in bed, quiet and thoughtful, when I realized maybe I shouldn’t have skipped that chapter.
So I’ve gone back. Being a peaceful parent, I’ve discovered means being peaceful with yourself, too. That peace has to be the foundation. I’m finally working on it.