In my 25 years of being a parent, a student of human development, a human in constant development, an impassioned researcher of the human sciences, and a parent coach engaged with the challenges and triumphs of real moms and dads, I have gathered a superabundance of excellent information. But I’ve also come to recognize that a great gift in this era of information overload is to arrive at the other side of a gazillion helpful facts to a few solid peaceful parenting principles. I wrote Parenting for Peace around seven such solid-gold nuggets — principles informed by research in fields from neuroscience to developmental psychology to consciousness studies and beyond.
Each principle “accordions out” to include many practical basics, more than I have room to include here (that’s what the book is for!). These, though, are the foundational principles for effective, healthy and peaceful parenting.
The ability to be fully here, right now, with your body, thoughts and feelings. Engaged, connected. One of the greatest needs of the child is regular doses of your undistracted presence. Try “Nothing Else” time: Sit on the floor, amidst the blocks, the books, the dolls… and be available to your child. This is potent, brain-to-brain training time. It is also when parents allows themselves to be taught by their children — curiosity, playfulness, spontaneity. If you can carve out 20 minutes, 15 minutes, even 10 minutes in a day, it’s like a magic vitamin to the relationship mix. It nourishes you both, and also buffers and protects against other disrupting elements of daily life. It also enhances the true self-esteem that flourishes with the child’s experience that she is worth your time, your attention, your presence. Cultivating your capacity for presence is perhaps the most reliable investment you can make for the wellbeing of your children, yourself, and all your relationships.
The knowledge you need to be effective. Essential peaceful parenting awareness includes daily “micro” details such as knowing when the last time your child ate some protein or essential fatty acids (brain food is essential for the ability to “keep it together”)… had some water… or got some sleep. There is also the big picture awareness — like where your child is in the scheme of unfolding brain development, and the capacities unique to that stage. This includes knowing, for example, that a young child’s primary modes of learning are through sensing (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching — indeed, lots of touching!) and doing. This helps parents with a basic discipline issue: for a child to touch something is similar to an adult thinking about that same thing.
Another essential aspect of awareness for parents is a connected sense of our own childhood, and what parenting awakens within us in terms of our history and our story. We all travel with an entourage: us at each age we ever were! When a mother holds a baby in her arms, the baby she once was is also there, with all of the feelings she had then. Ditto the toddler, the preschooler, the kindergartner, the teen… you get the idea. This is often the biggest, blindsiding challenge in parenting!
A fundamental human pacing need, often forgotten in our 27/7, techno-automated world. Rhythm is one of the greatest needs of the young child, and is therefore a parent’s best friend. (Fyi, it’s the biggest ace up “Super Nanny”’s sleeve: the first thing she does is put every family on a schedule!) Young children thrive on and crave rhythmicity to their days, their weeks, even the seasons: “This is when we eat, this is when we nap, this is when we have play time… Tuesdays we go to the park, Wednesdays we go to the Farmer’s Market, Sunday we visit Grandma, and summer is beach time!”
Seems monotonous to us as adults, because we’re essentially different creatures inside our skulls. The circuitry of the social brain wiring up in the early years are critical to the formation of all later brain-based capacities. Rhythm’s external consistency and predictability allow the growing child to gradually internalize regulation and stability — which we now know is the foundation for all human success, including intelligence, relationships, and joy.
The ultimate mode of teaching and learning. Waldorf education founder Rudolf Steiner said that the young child is really an eye, taking in everything, registering everything, without analysis! And they imitate everything. They don’t so much hear our words, but pick up everything else. So the peaceful parenting question/ mantra needs to be be (make sure you’re sitting down for this): Am I worthy of my child’s unquestioning imitation? If we complain about chores — even just in the way we make the gesture of doing the chore — it will be emulated, perhaps not right away, but years from now. So, for example, take care that the books you read to your little one also interest you; if you read to your child forcing yourself to do it, he may very well resist reading later! Also, careful about taking pleasure in matter-of-factly criticizing friends, acquaintances, politicians. By contrast, children learn important lessons from us aspiring to elevate our inner selves. Children take our cues about everything, and become our most exquisite mirrors. Be (or gently strive toward being) the noble qualities you dream of for your child!
The practical demonstration of love, the giving of ourselves to the other: how we cuddle them, feed them, smile at them. Everything is an opportunity for nurturance of our children — how we choose their toys and books, their clothing, the colors for their rooms, what to feed them, even the attitude we hold while preparing their meals! Beauty, reverence, a sense of awe — these are all important ways of nurturing the young child. And, how we discipline, keeping in mind that humans of all ages are always either in “growth or protection” mode, and that harsh reprimands — including “time out” — elicit defense/protection mode physically and psychologically, which is counterproductive on all mind/body levels. This doesn’t mean we never say “no” or set limits — that is another way sure-fire way to make a child feel insecure! When engaging peaceful parenting, we repair the ruptured connection after a break happens.
Calm reliance upon processes outside our immediate perception and control. In other words, the most potent anti-anxiety secret, and perhaps the most subversive item on this list. Everything in our consumerist culture teaches us that we’re not quite enough, but something we can purchase will make up for our lack — like the myriad “educational” techno-gizmos marketed at anxiously devoted parents. Together with the other six principles, trust is an antidote for this anxiety. When I have a new rose that is just budding in my garden, do I tinker with the petals, or do anything with that flower to “optimize” it? No, I enrich and fertilize the soil that the rose is growing in, and I trust in the process of Life unfolding. I also trust that the rosebush can weather storms without me over-sheltering it!
The absence of complication and excess. This applies to our outer environment and our inner life. Simplicity is the portal to joy, and joy lies at the very foundation of health, wellbeing and peace. Definitely with a child younger than six or seven (which is what I mean whenever I refer to “the young child”), but also with older kids, the more we can simplify life, the more peace we will have in the home and woven into the fabric of the child’s developing brain — it becomes a positive feedback loop! The child’s deepest need is to be seen and known. Simplifying daily life helps that to happen more: “When we overbook, we overlook.” A study found that just simplifying dramatically reduced symptoms of clinically diagnosed ADHD! Cultivating a sense of wonder and imagination helps guarantee simplicity, because then everything becomes something amazing: wind through the trees is fairies dancing… a piece of wood becomes an alligator or a doll… a spoon becomes a great flag or a king’s scepter. Then we don’t need to constantly purchase things. And a child — or parent — who can imagine is on a path toward unlimited horizons.
I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my book I’ve been visiting many wonderful groups and conferences around the world, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As well as good old parenting stuff. As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”