I've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of "peaceful discipline," or peaceful parenting in general, since reading this great post that came up on my Facebook feed. Despite my efforts to be a more patient, compassionate parent, whenever we're in the midst of another family meltdown, all of my noble intentions get scorched into oblivion by anger and frustration. There will be yelling, a punishment or at least an ominous threat of one, tears and shuffling off to one's respective room, then a silence that is anything but peaceful. And then finally, the worst part: guilt. I wish I'd handled that better.
Kevin and I want to--have to--set limits for our kids, that's a no-brainer. But it's a delicate balance, finding that sweet spot in between overly passive, pushover-style parenting, and totalitarianism, where we channel what I call our "angry scary voice" and ruthlessly enforce our will. My husband trends toward the tougher, disciplinarian style, while I tend to do anything possible to avoid conflict; this latter strategy means our oldest daughter often thinks listening to us is optional, a behavior that we've found difficult to extinguish. My decision to steer our family ship only into smooth waters comes with another cost: while I can usually maintain harmony day-to-day, I can only swallow my frustration and annoyance for a limited time before they eventually build up, spilling out in my own version of an adult temper tantrum.
As I struggle to navigate a path that balances harmony and assertiveness in parenting my own children, I've realized that I need to practice this skill outside of the home too. I had such an opportunity yesterday. After Kevin returned from work, I went for a quick late afternoon run in the neighborhood. It was a beautiful fall day and refreshing to be outdoors, especially after a long night and day playing nurse to Lily, who was finally feeling better after battling croup all weekend.
With the lake on my right, I turned down a quiet, wooded street, running past a driveway where four school-aged boys were playing baseball together. As I doubled back to complete my usual route, I passed the boys for a second time, and suddenly, a baseball whizzed past my head, missing my right temple by inches. My eyes widened in surprise, but I kept going, until I heard the batter gleefully proclaim, "Alrigghtt! Over the head!"
It clicked that this punk was boasting about the fact that he'd nearly hit me, and anger stirred up in my chest, mixing with my breath, heating the crisp autumn air. Something in me went rigid, and in that instant I felt the weight of past hurts as they resurfaced in my memory: times when I was ignored, belittled, or humiliated, and my acquiescent, people-pleasing personality meant that I just let it happen. Not this time.
I turned around, jogging back to the driveway where the injurious ball had originated. One of the boys--perhaps not the one who had hit the ball, but I didn't care--stood in the front yard. My teeth gritted, I glared at him and huffed, "Dude, that was not cool. You're lucky I don't rat you out!" I hoped I sounded threatening, though being barely 5"2 and soft-spoken, I'm not what you'd consider an intimidating person. He looked at me and said nothing. Message delivered, I spun around and ran away.
As I continued my route through the neighborhood, visions spun in my mind about letters I would write to the parents, including snarky comments about the behavior they seemed to be encouraging in their children, and the fact that I had close attorney friends who would fully support me if I wanted to pursue this incident further. I would tell the parents exactly what their angelic children had done and highlight the fact that the culprit had gloated about his wrongdoing; I would share my expectation that the parents would appropriately punish this behavior at home, because I was not going to be threatened, harassed or physically assaulted in my own neighborhood.
But as I kept moving, my mood shifted too. Maybe it was the runner's high kicking in, or maybe it was a deeper insight tugging at me. How can I be a peaceful parent if I don't actively extend that approach to the rest of my life? Was shaming and tattling on these kids really the best approach in this situation? And might my reaction have been a bit exaggerated? All over the world, people are suffering and dying from terrifying diseases. Kids are growing up without enough food, access to medical care or the stability and security of a loving family. Wars are raging, the consequences of which we have yet to fully understand. And yet here I was, riled up over a couple of munchkins who got a little rowdy while playing baseball. Playing baseball.
What style of parenting leads to well-adjusted, confident yet compassionate kids? I honestly have no idea. What I do know is that adding anger and heat to a situation only inflames it more. Instead of restoring harmony, in an effort to "teach someone a lesson," you create a dangerous and unwelcome space where everyone ends up getting burned. And any lesson you'd hoped to impart--of love, compassion, or kindness--is lost in the smoke and ashes.
A few weeks ago at bathtime, Julia was being careless, jumping across the floor onto the bath mat "islands" she'd created, ignoring Kevin's repeated calm requests to please stop that, not considering that her sister was standing directly in her path. In one terrible moment that seemed like destiny, Julia bounced sideways at an awkward angle, sending her little sister's face smashing into the tile steps. Now Lily was wailing, her cheek pink and swollen, as blood oozed from the side of her nose. By the next day, her injury had widened to a deep bruise that spread across her cheek, like the single wing of a butterfly.
There was a lot of yelling immediately after this, and words that shouldn't be repeated here. We were, understandably, furious with Julia. She hadn't listened, and her sister was hurt as a result. Our anger certainly got our oldest daughter's attention. Her eyes filled with tears, her expression turned fearful, and she ran to her room. But our heated reaction didn't heal Lily's injury faster. It didn't make Julia a better listener, or teach her to show compassion to her sister. All our anger did was pin our oldest daughter into a box, where she felt too ashamed and isolated to truly learn from what had happened. Later, as we all talked through the incident more calmly, I know everyone felt better.
So, no, I didn’t write the letter to the parents that I had originally planned. I would not sneak back to that neighborhood late at night, clad in black yoga pants and a hoodie, like some comical spy movie character, to deliver my scathing missive.
Instead, if I were to write a letter to the parents, this is how it would read:
Dear Parents and Neighbors,
You may not know this, but late yesterday afternoon, while I ran through your lovely neighborhood, one of your sons almost hit me in the head with a baseball. He did not apologize for the near-miss, but instead seemed proud of it.
From one parent to another, I know we can agree on how important that “me” time becomes once you are a full-time caregiver to your kids. Yesterday’s run was my time. As I ran, I felt energized and refreshed. For someone who in recent years once doubted her ability to even climb a flight of stairs again, let alone run a few miles, being able to exercise in this way means a great deal to me. I was surprised and felt uncomfortable, even threatened, when the ball veered toward me. I was angry, and I told one of the boys how very uncool it was to aim a ball at a pedestrian and then laugh about it.
I have a feeling you are good parents who are raising good kids. I totally understand why your sons were outside, enjoying one of the remaining beautiful fall days of this year. But I need you to know that what happened felt hurtful to me, even if it was intended as a harmless joke. So I stood up for myself, albeit angrily, but I wanted my voice to be heard. I know you would want your kids to stand up for themselves in the same way, on the playground, in the classroom, and in any situation where they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.
I wish now that I had responded with more compassion, rather than adding my own fuel to the fire. I wish I had said something like, “You seem like a good kid, but I didn’t like that, and if it happens again, I will be letting your parents know.”
We are all doing our best, and I know I'm still learning every day. Your kids gave me a chance to think harder about how to promote peace in my own life and beyond. I wish you - and them - only the best, and hope this season is a happy one for all of you.
PS. To the batter: all is forgiven! But next time you'll have to let me play, too!
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I'm Gina, mom to two girls, writer, and seasoned coffee drinker.