Key aspects of fatherhood don’t come easily to Jeffrey. At work, he programs complex algorithms into computers with clear precision. He finds this satisfying and predictable. Yet at home, Jeffrey is often at a loss when it comes to navigating the moods and energies of his preschool-aged children – this is especially true when they fight.
Friends since elementary school, I know firsthand that Jeffrey’s childhood home was often characterized by verbal abuse. A simple argument between his parents easily spiraled into an ugly and insulting yelling match. This made visiting his home unnerving. At the time, however, I had no idea that physical abuse was also a steady constant in Jeffrey’s young life.
Decades later, he confided: “I have vivid memories of my mom coming at me, screaming. She would corner me and slap me repeatedly with both arms flailing. All I could do was curl up in a little ball and cover my face with my hands. It was terrifying. She was totally out of control.”
Yesterday, Jeffrey called seeking advice. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew something was wrong.
“What happened, Jeff?” I inquired.
“I wanted to hurt him, Amy,” he answered. “I didn’t. I walked away. But everything in me wanted to throw my son against a wall.”
We talk for 30 minutes. His boys were fighting over an orange plastic excavator. At one point, Jeffrey’s 3-year-old hit the younger brother.
“Say you’re sorry!” Jeffrey demanded.
The resulting temper tantrum and willful 3-year-old defiance threw my friend deeply off balance. The intensity of his anger overwhelmed him. It took all his strength to walk away.
“You don’t understand. I would have been beaten if I had behaved like he did,” Jeffrey spoke, his voice cracking with grief.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, “Self-regulation is the hardest work any of us ever do, but that’s the first essential ingredient for peaceful parenting.”
Markham is a clinical psychologist based in New York City. Her following is large, growing, loyal and deeply appreciative of the “proven, research-based” information frequently shared on her impressive Aha! Parenting blog
. Known for her helpful conversation scripts or dialogue templates, Markham draws upon cutting-edge discoveries relating to attachment theory and brain development. As more and more American parents move away from harmful parenting models that use force, control or coercion, Markham is America’s parenting coach whose time has come.
Three transformative practices characterize Markham’s work: “self-regulation, connection and coaching instead of controlling.” Like the ballast of a boat, these practices steady parents as they navigate the emotionally turbulent journey of nurturing the next generation. They constitute the theoretical framework found in Markham’s first book, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting,” and her soon-to-be-released “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life,”
which is slated to hit the stands on May 5.
What exactly does self-regulation entail?
Like my friend Jeffrey, I know what it is like to step away from a child to gather composure and return to a state of calm.
“Mommy needs some space,” I tell my 3-year-old son.
As long as there is no immediate need to stay present and safeguard my son’s physical well-being, I find a quiet room to mindfully breathe, remind myself of the virtue of patience and sometimes cry. It only takes a few minutes to move my nervous system out of a “fight, flight or freeze” response. According to Markham, when we are in this primal state, even our children can appear like “an enemy” to conquer.
“Mommy! I need you!” my son calls out for me.
I take three more deep breaths. I stretch, shake my hands, roll my shoulders, close my eyes and pray for a love greater than my limited understanding to guide me. I remind myself of a central parenting goal: I will not yell at, or hit, my child.
As I walk out of the bedroom door, a concerned 3-year-old meets me in the hallway. I kneel down and look at him. “I was mad. That’s OK. In our family, when we are mad, we take deep breaths. Sometimes I need space to help me relax. That’s OK. I always come back.”
I reach out to touch his soft cheek. We look at each other. I remember that I am healing two generations in that moment: the child before me, and the child within me.
Verbal or physical violence in a family is like a jagged, sharp rock. It cuts. It hurts. And if we don’t know how to smooth the edges of this stone, we pass it along to our children. For those of us who grew up in homes haunted by expressions of violence, it’s important to remember that anger itself is not the problem. Certainly, all parents get exasperated, overwhelmed and mad. It’s the engrained pattern that moves one to lash out and hurt “the other” that is the problem. This pattern is woven into the body/mind of a person who has experienced abuse. Unless mindfully transformed and integrated, this energy passes on for generations.
"We can count on children behaving childishly at times. So, we have the responsibility to behave like grown ups, which means not giving in to the temptation to throw tantrums ourselves. As parents, we always have the power to calm a child’s storms – or to worsen them – with our own response."
Self-regulation enables us to mindfully employ this power.
“Say you’re sorry!” Jeffrey demanded.
For Jeffrey, his 3-year-old son’s resistance triggered a cascade of deeply stored emotional and physiological responses. Not only did Jeffrey want to make his son apologize, he wanted to punish him with physical violence for his defiance. He wanted to hurt his child. It’s impossible to stay empathetically connected to anyone in such a state of mind.
Imagine, however, that Jeffrey was able to breathe through and transform his anger with compassion. Imagine he could act from a calm and caring place -- a place where his heart didn’t harden or shut down. Then, he could employ what Markham regards as the second central task of parenting: connection.
According to Markham, staying emotionally connected to our children is central to modeling empathy and successfully setting limits. Only by “going to the source” of offensive behavior – by going into the heart of a child’s emotional world – can parents create a safe space for a child to express the hurt and fear that undergird anger and aggression.
How to do this?
Markham provides numerous step-by-step dialogue templates drawn from her work with thousands of parents. As she thoughtfully breaks down a parent-child interaction, she integrates practical guidance based upon attachment theory and brain development. For example, in “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life,” Markham presents a scenario where a 3-year-old girl kicks her younger sibling. As part of the connecting process, Markham encourages parents to help the 3-year-old brainstorm alternative ways she can express her anger. She can call for a grown-up for help, leave the room or stomp her foot instead of kicking. Markham writes: “Have her actually act out those scenarios, so that she develops muscle memory of them and is more likely to be able to summon them up next time before she loses control.”
Responding with connection, compassion and clarity is a particularly important skillset to employ for families with more than one child. Why? Markham writes: “The sibling relationship is where the rough edges of our early self-centeredness are smoothed off, and where we learn to manage our most difficult emotions.” Parents make “a tremendous difference” when it comes to shaping sibling relationships.
Jeffrey’s 3-year-old naturally used his physical advantage to thwart his younger brother’s efforts to play with the coveted excavator. Markham notes that young children often hit “no matter what parents do.” The prefrontal cortex responsible for self-regulation is in the earliest stages of development, after all. If Jeffrey were to respond by using his own physical advantage, he would only reinforce the concept that might makes right. However, if Jeffrey kindly, painstakingly and repeatedly practices peaceful methods of responding to this behavior, he helps his son learn to compassionately navigate his own emotional world, and that of his brother’s. In fact, Markham cites research showing how children who are raised with peaceful methods of conflict resolution “show more kindness to their siblings and more ability to regulate their emotions” than those raised with “conventional” means of discipline.
Our children depend on us to stay emotionally regulated. Their nervous systems and brains are literally being built by how we daily respond to their actions and feelings. When we stay connected and set limits with empathy, children learn not only how to regulate their feelings but also how to develop positive connections to their parents and/or siblings. As they grow, they become “the kind of [people] we need more of in the world.”
Coach instead of control
Twelve-year-old Lisa loves school and strives diligently for good grades. We talk about her classes, teachers, friends and favorite books. At one point, I ask her if she has ever cheated on a quiz or test.
“Oh no,” she responds emphatically. “I would never do that!”
Then, I ask her the question that most interests me: “Why?”
Basically, her response will fall into one of three categories.
1. I am afraid of getting caught and punished.
2. None of my friends cheat.
3. It’s wrong to cheat. I shouldn’t lie about my work.
These responses represent the three main stages of moral development outlined by American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. The fear of punishment, or promise of reward, motivates people at the first “pre-conventional” stage. The desire to conform to the norms set by one’s social group or society motivates individuals at the second or “conventional” level. It is only in the “post-conventional” stage where moral principles themselves guide the actions of individuals. This gives post-conventional thinkers the wherewithal to challenge social norms that violate principles of justice.
As parents, we hope our children reach the highest stage of moral development. We want them to do what is right, because it is right. We hope they don’t cheat, not because they are afraid of punishment or because it violates the norms of their peer group, but because we want our children to be honest about their schoolwork (and life) because it is the right thing to do.
How do we nurture post-conventional thinking?
As an ethicist and educator, this question is often at the forefront of my mind. Markham’s astute reflections on eschewing parenting methods that emphasize punishments/rewards speak volumes to me. I recommend her work highly to educators. She applies to parenting what more than 40 years of research on moral development and motivation reveal: Systems of rewards and punishments lock us into the lowest levels of ethical expression.
But Markham’s third insight, “coach instead of control,” also speaks to me on a very personal level. Like Jeffrey, I know what it is like to grow up in a home where force and threat were used to control my behavior. I’ve watched my bedroom door fly apart with the force of a singular kick. I’ve had my face slapped so hard my vision blurred. While I knew my parents loved me, I also knew that the use of such force was wrong.
“I am doing my best not to pass on what was done to me,” my father often said. Given what I knew of his past, even as a girl, I was grateful for this stated objective. Today, I choose to build upon his example of positive effort.
The first time I held my son in my arms, I was completely transformed. No one had ever looked at me with such immense love, trust and peace. In moments of frustration, when self-regulation is difficult and connection feels a million miles away, I remember that singular moment. It brings me back to the task of mothering with love -- a task I vow to give my best effort to actualizing. It brings me back to my heart. For it is from this place that I can coach, forswear the desire to control and nurture the highest stages of moral development.
Nurturing a loving home
To his credit, my friend Jeffrey had the wherewithal to step away from his son in a moment of anger. He didn’t raise his hand. He didn’t shout. In fact, he didn’t say a word. He knew that before he could connect to the angry child in front of him, he would need to restore calm to the little boy within.
“You walked away, Jeffrey,” I said. “You walked away and sought support. Given your past, that’s nearly a miracle.”
Not all of us carry such difficult legacies. For those who do, Markham’s work is an invaluable lifeline. There are times that I am astonished by the gratitude I feel for her insightful, practical and research-based presentation of parenting best practices. Yet, even for parents who were raised in peaceful homes, Markham’s work serves as a helpful reminder of what matters most. Due to our busy lives and the many stressors facing American parents today, it can seem like we are “raising our kids in our spare time.” Markham reminds us that parenting our children is the singular most important responsibility we are privileged to bear.
In her interview with me, Markham states, “We are always choosing. Every choice comes down to love or fear.”
Do we parent, or live, from a place of love? No one can perfectly self-regulate, connect or coach. That’s not the point. We are human, and perfection isn’t the goal of parenting. Love is.
Amy Wright Glenn is giving away a copy of Dr. Laura Markham’s new book: “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.” To enter into this giveaway, simply leave a comment below about this article. The winner will be announced here on Tuesday, May 5, so be sure to check back. Please note that PhillyVoice staff and their families are not eligible to enter.