This post has been in the making for a long time simply because this topic has, in a way, plagued me since the dawn of my parenthood. I feel somewhat like a victim of a 'fog' that seems to have settled on modern parents. A fog that finds us floundering blindly, feeling anchor-less and for loss of any better description, we seem to be really, really lost...
In another era the title of this post might have included the word 'discipline'. However, this word evokes such a wide range of dramatic response that the topic itself seems to get lost behind the conflicting opinions and emotions associated with this particular facet of general 'child bringing up'. I can't in a peaceful conscious use the word 'discipline', not yet at least - not in modern context. Today, it seems that a different approach must be taken and I welcome such an approach because honestly, this is absolutely the root of my chronic parental dilemma.
My own upbringing was traditional. We were disciplined firmly, we were expected to obey, we were expected to be polite and respectful. But we were also desperately loved - cherished. My five siblings and I are happy adults, we feel successful, we are close friends with each other and we absolutely adore our parents.
Such is my conundrum. The way my parents raised us is not a popular way to raise children now. It isn't even really acceptable and from the moment my eldest was born this has proved to be the most challenging thing to balance in my heart. I want to parent naturally, gently, holistically. I want to nurture my 'whole child,' I want to nurture their spirits. I want them to be free and peaceful. I want them to be joyful. Do I feel that these things were left out of my own development? Well, no actually, but there must be a softer way to reach the same end result differently than the way my parents did it, yes? All the modern philosophy preaches this and I would love to believe it.
However, I haven't been able to pinpoint the exact way that this is accomplished and as my children grow older and we play with other older children my confusion grows. This modern approach doesn't really seem to be working for anyone. The children seem, to varying degrees, angry, fractious and unpleasant. They shout, flail, hit and argue. This seems to be the case even with the children who were gently birthed, breast fed, carried, non vaccinated, nutritiously fed, co-slept, alternatively schooled... I have been discouraged to say the least.
And then I came across the writings of Charlotte Mason. As is the case with most things, it is perhaps mostly timing. Possibly, I wouldn't have always connected quite so strongly with her philosophy at a different stage of my parenting journey but now it has struck a chord with me and I feel empowered and enlightened. To begin, and on a slightly different topic, I have always been drawn to the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Specifically the idea of disciplining the mind and not allowing ourselves to be swept away with afflicting emotions. I have learned the value of training the mind through meditation. I also (years ago) trained in martial arts and learned the value of disciplining the body. This is the healthy version of the taboo word 'discipline'. Disciplining mind and body for overall health and happiness. I have learned how to practice this for myself - but how in the world do you teach these things to children without actually disciplining them? Despite what 'the books' say, children don't seem to truthfully learn it on their own?
Perhaps it is simply the way Charlotte Mason words it but I really feel that she has cleared my fog. She talks about building and nurturing 'habits' and that children develop negative habits easily but similarly, they can grow positive habits with our loving guidance. What is a habit after all but a disciplining of our actions and emotions? I have been applying this approach with my children and the results have been wonderful - lovely. I am encouraged beyond words:
My 4 year old son receives an instruction or response to a question that he does not like and immediately he scowls, turns and stomps out of the room. This type of reaction has become common in our home and it makes me uncomfortable. It isn't pleasant or kind. it isn't joyful or peaceful. it is ugly....
However, I have been employing my newly found philosophy, experimenting on new ground. I don't feel angry or frustrated when my beloved child scowls and stomps, instead I call him back and tell him to leave the room again without the scowl and by walking nicely. He scowls, turns and stomps. I cringe but really, why wouldn't he do this? Until now scowling and stomping has been an acceptable habit. I call him back again, my voice is firmer, I tell him to walk out nicely without a scowl. Eventually, he does indeed walk out without the scowl and without the stomp but a habit is hardly formed. T
he next day, three minutes later he reacts the same way to a different instruction. Again I call him back and again we go through the 'no scowling, no stomping' process. Soon (days later?) I give an instruction and although I see annoyance flit across his eyes, he just turns and walks out of the room. Within minutes I hear him playing happily with his sister and I feel a weight, that I didn't even realise I was carrying, fall from my shoulders.
I have adopted this approach in many, many areas of our lives. Placing shoes in their designated baskets, closing doors softly, putting toys away properly, washing hands before dinner, carrying dinner dishes to the sink, speaking kindly, waiting patiently. Is this disciplining? Yes, I suppose it is but it is discipline for the highest reasons; lifelong peace, comfort and joy. Is this exhausting? Absolutely, with three children aged 4 and younger, a house to manage, clothes to wash, meals to cook, books to be read etc. etc.... It is exhausting to always be ready to practice habits with my children. It is easier to just let it go this once. Really though, if I haven't realised by now that mothering is the most challenging and most tiring thing I will ever do, when will I realise it?
Growing habits. I love the way this sounds. I can parent this way. Like the way we practice scales on a piano or practice swimming strokes until it is a second nature not to drown, so can we practice positive, joyful, helpful habits. This is gentle, it is loving and it is nurturing to our spirits. Our children can be peaceful, content and pleasant. They can speak constructively and treat others with gentle kindness. They can listen to instruction and contrary ideas with understanding, they just need to be in the habit of doing so.
My parenting fog is clearing and I feel stronger and more capable. It has taken so long and so many hours of reading and thinking and crying but I finally feel that I am on a wonderful path. Maybe there is indeed a gentle balance in my heart.
Charlotte Mason was an educational philosopher and teacher and wrote a series of books published around the turn of the 20th Century. Her ideas have especially inspired home educating families and are truthfully a celebration of childhood and learning.