Does Peaceful Parenting Mean Letting Kids Do Whatever They Want?

DrMarkhamThumbnailDr. Laura Markham
Founder of | Author


“Isn’t there a time and a place for a parent to just plain ‘be in charge’?  So often, and especially now, with this new approach, she pretty much does whatever she wants…I don’t want my child to be an uncontrollable brat.” – Amber

SmugBoyOften, parents get confused about peaceful parenting. They think that if they stop punishing, their child will do whatever he wants. But that assumes there are only two choices — being permissive or punitive. What about holding to your expectations while at the same time offering your child understanding, and support to meet your expectations?

Let’s say you tell your child that it’s time for bed, and she ignores you or says NO! What are your choices?

  • Threaten or punish her. (You have to keep escalating, it ruins everyone’s evening, and it erodes your relationship with your child.)
  • Let her do whatever she wants. (You’re compromising on what’s good for your child and the rest of the family. Until you explode, eventually….Not exactly responsible or peaceful parenting!)
  • Set a limit — with empathy.  Say “You really don’t want to stop playing….I hear you. It’s hard to stop. I bet when you grow up, you’ll play all night, every night, won’t you?  AND right now, it’s time to get ready for bed….Do you want to fly your plane to the bathroom, or climb on my back and I’ll gallop you there?”

What makes a peaceful parent isn’t backing away from disagreement. Conflict is part of every human relationship, children learn by testing limits, and your child will never understand why it’s so important to take his bath RIGHT NOW!  So parents need to set limits and expectations fairly constantly.

What makes a peaceful parent is regulating your own emotions so you can stay lovingly connected while you set those limits and work through those disagreements. That’s what creates a more peaceful home. That’s what helps your child WANT to follow your guidance. And that’s what helps children learn to manage their emotions, so they can manage their behavior — and so they want to!

So peaceful parents are more in charge than most parents–of their own reactions, and therefore of the mood in their house. That lets them be better guides to their children.

Of course, there will still be times when your child does get to “do whatever she wants.”  Often, that’s because you approve of what she’s doing, like building a sandcastle on the beach.  Sometimes it might be because she really wants something, and you decide you can live with the results, like having a sand table in the house. Sometimes it might even be against your better judgment, but you decide to give it a try and supervise her, like building a sand castle in a plastic bin in your kitchen. And yes, sometimes you’ll just let things go because you’re holding the baby and you can’t intervene, or you just don’t have the energy for a fight. So you decide it won’t be that hard to sweep up if she brings some sand from her sandbox and dumps it on the kitchen floor to play. That’s known as choosing your battles. But in all of these cases, you’re not abdicating. You’re making a decision.

Peaceful Parenting means you regulate your own emotions first. Then, you try to see things from the child’s point of view, so you often look for a win/win solution that lets the child get some or all of what she wants.  But you don’t let your child “do whatever she wants” if you really think the answer should be No.  You may not think what your child wants to do is safe.  Or maybe you just can’t handle cleaning up another mess, because it will send you on a slide into resentment and yelling. After all, you’re trying to meet your child’s needs, but your needs matter, too, if you’re aiming to stay peaceful!

So Peaceful Parents DO say No. Plenty. And it’s not bad for your child. In fact, that experience of “switching gears” between what he wants, and what you’re asking, is what develops the part of the brain that gives your child self-discipline. But there IS a catch. When kids feel forced and pushed around on a regular basis, it causes resistance. That’s why external discipline doesn’t actually develop self-discipline. The trick is to stay connected and compassionate, so your child knows you’re on his side, and therefore WANTS to cooperate with your request on some level, however reluctantly.

Does that mean your child will always happily cooperate at those times? Unfortunately, no. Often, she’ll still object.  So how can you stay peaceful and positive then?

1. Stay calm.  When you go into “fight or flight” your child will certainly spiral out of control. If you can stay calm, your child is more likely to cooperate.  Research shows that just noticing your breathing will keep you calmer. It also helps to notice your thoughts and reframe as necessary.  For instance, “Why is she doing this to me? I can’t take it!” might become “She’s acting like a child because she is a child…I’m the grown-up here…Whatever happens, I can handle it.”

2. Empathize. If your child feels understood, she’s much more likely to accept your limit. “You really wish you could…You’re so disappointed…You were were hoping that..”

3. Remember that children only accept our leadership because of the relationship we have with them.  If they resist or defy us, it’s a sign that we need to focus on connecting with them. If your child often refuses to cooperate, be sure you’re spending daily Special Time. Every family I know that has made Special Time a priority has reported a more peaceful household.  But the catch is you can’t just read books or make cookies. What your child needs is for you to pour all your love into her, and create the safety for her to show you all those feelings she’s lugging around in her emotional backpack, that will otherwise drive “bad” behavior.   What’s So Special About Special Time?

4. Renounce punishment.  If you’ve been swatting your child’s hand or dragging her to timeout, you can count on her being less cooperative.  That’s because she doesn’t believe you’re truly on her side.  And she isn’t developing the part of her brain that allows her to switch gears — because why should she?  She’s being forced from outside, so she isn’t developing self-discipline. So when you make a request, she doesn’t have the brain control or motivation to comply, unless you threaten. (See What’s Wrong With Strict Parenting?) If you want cooperation without punishing, you need to focus first on connection, so your child WANTS to follow your lead.

5. Look for a win/win solution.  Okay, so she can’t climb up on the shelves. But can you get the stepladder with her and spot her to climb up?  Most of the time, if you clarify your concerns, you can find a way to meet both your needs. This doesn’t mean you go to heroic lengths to meet her desires all day long. It means that your child knows you’re on her side, and that you’ll try to balance her desires with the rest of the family’s needs.

6. Welcome the meltdown. There are times when you just can’t find a win/win solution. Your child’s every desire does not have to be satisfied. In fact, often young humans (like adults) provoke a fight when they just need some help with their emotions. Especially if you’re transitioning from punishment to peaceful parenting, your child may act up to signal that he needs your help to empty that emotional backpack.

So set a kind, clear limit and summon up all your compassion. That creates the safety for your child to show you his tears and fears. When he acts like it’s the end of the world, remember that young children have big feelings, and their brains haven’t yet developed enough to process emotions by talking. Accept his disappointment with as much empathy as you can, even if his anger is directed at you.

Your compassion communicates that you understand, and you’re truly sorry it’s so upsetting for him. Your calm (not your words) communicates that you also know that these are just feelings, which will evaporate once they’re expressed, and the sun will come out again. Experiencing all those emotions in the safety of your presence, and learning that she can make it through and come out okay is how your child develops resilience.

7. Remember that being in charge means you act like a leader, not a dictator.  Good leaders lead by example. They listen, try to balance everyone’s needs, and protect. Being in charge means you take responsibility to provide a wholesome, nurturing environment. It doesn’t mean you need to be controlling or punitive.

8. Take the time to process your own emotions about how you’ve experienced parents being “in charge.”  For instance, if your parents were very strict, you may fear that you’re not in charge unless you’re controlling your child’s every move. Or maybe you don’t want to repeat that pattern, so you don’t set limits at all. That doesn’t help your kids. (See  What’s Wrong with Permissive Parenting?)  And most likely, you’ll end up yelling when things finally get out of hand.  Kids without limits always push us to our limits.

If, instead, we can let ourselves feel all those childhood emotions of how alone we felt, how hurt, how sad …. they no longer control us.  We won’t go into fight or flight when our kids are upset. We’re free to set limits and guide our child with empathy. When we lose it, we can ditch the guilt, step up our self-care, and reconnect with our child

Letting kids just do what they want wouldn’t be good for them, or for us.  But the wonderful thing about empathic limits is that they help kids WANT to cooperate.

So you get to be more peaceful.

See the Spanish translation of this article.

This post was originally posted at on 8/27/15

About Dr. Laura Markham

DrMarkham180tallDr. Laura Markham is the founder of and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. Dr. Laura says that earning her PhD in clinical psychology at Columbia University was just the beginning of her education as a psychologist. Becoming a mother convinced her that parents are doing the hardest job in the world, and need more support. She says her aspiration is to change the world, one child at a time — by supporting parents.

View all posts by Dr. Laure Markham here.

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