The Great Need For Empathy

“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).

I have been feeling so much lately an urgency for us to prepare the way for our Savior’s return. Obviously that means a hastening of His work — spreading the gospel, redeeming the dead, strengthening the saints. But there’s another aspect that I can’t get out of my head. I feel it is of vital importance. We must heal and prepare our hearts. (Or rather, allow the Savior to do that for us.) We must experience a shift in our thinking and feeling about ourselves and all those around us. We must begin to become a Zion society.

A Zion society lives by attributes such as purity, service, consecration, charity, and unity. Everyone freely gives of their means and time to bless and help each other. Everyone understands one another and all are unified in truth and righteousness. And most significantly, everyone in a Zion society chooses to live this way, rather than being coerced by men and governments to do so. This kind of sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? We know that we must become a Zion people before we will be able to dwell in the Celestial kingdom, but I used to think that this would just kind of happen. I now understand that, while we will perfect this way of living and becoming during the millennium, this is something we must be consciously working toward now. During the millennium, “because of the righteousness of [God’s] people, Satan has no power…over the hearts of the people” (see 1 Nephi 22:26). But we won’t just automatically be that righteous. We must become the type of people that Satan has no power over.

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It can be kind of discouraging to look around and see how far the world is from the principles of a Zion society, even among some members of the church. If you need proof, just bring up politics in a social setting, or spend a while on Facebook or other internet forums, or take a drive during rush hour traffic. It’s rare to see diplomacy, respect for differing beliefs, consideration, unity, or charity. It’s not surprising that the majority of the world rejects the principles of Zion — Babylon (the world) has always existed in opposition to Zion. But it’s all too easy for us as members of the Lord’s church to get caught up in the ways of Babylon as well.

I think we all know that we need to avoid being of the world, and I think we all understand why worldliness is not God’s way. So I’m not going to try to convince anyone of these things. I don’t think that’s as helpful as offering possible solutions to combat the selfishness and pride that prevails around (and perhaps in) us. I prefer to focus on what we can do to become a Zion society. There are several wonderful talks and articles on lds.org that offer specific counsel in this regard. I am going to offer just one principle that we can focus on: empathy.

Empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective — putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling with them.

Why is empathy a key to establishing a Zion society? If we have empathy, we notice others’ feelings and needs, and we care enough to help them. We will be less self-absorbed and more willing to give of our time and means, so that there are no poor among us. If we have empathy, we acknowledge others’ experiences, paradigms, and opinions, and we respectfully find common ground. There will be less criticism, gossip, offense, and enmity, and more understanding and unity. I read a great article on Psychology Today’s website entitled Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder? It talks about this very issue, particularly about a lack of empathy for those who think and believe differently from us. It also goes into brain science a bit and how our brains are hard-wired for empathy and can be re-trained to respond with empathy. Definitely check it out.

Why are we (as a society) lacking in empathy? The article above suggests that it’s a preoccupation with things — money, possessions, status. I certainly think this is a problem, but I think that lack of empathy begins much earlier in life.

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The foundation for empathy development begins in infancy as parents respond appropriately, quickly and lovingly to their babies’ cries and their needs (fyi, parents consistently soothing their babies is what actually leads to those children’s eventual self-soothing, and also models the way to selflessly respond to other’s needs). For the last few generations there has been more and more advice leading parents to ignore their innate instincts and their babies’ cues, to the point that this is now the cultural norm in most developed areas of the world. “Don’t hold your baby too much or you’ll spoil him.” “Let her cry — she has to learn.” “Don’t ever rock or nurse your baby to sleep unless you want to create bad habits that you’ll never be able to break.” All of this advice is conflicting for many parents and causes unnecessary stress. But fear leads most parents to continue the trend of listening to the world’s advice rather than trusting their God-given instincts and listening to their babies. Because of this trend, many of us may not have had totally secure attachments with our own parents, which has lasting effects — not only for us, but for future generations, because, unless we intentionally reflect on our own childhoods and choose to heal unhealthy patterns, we are likely to repeat them.

Moving past infancy we are met with big, strong emotions in toddlerhood. We are conditioned to believe that tantrums and meltdowns are bad behavior or our child’s way of manipulating us, when in reality they are nature’s built-in release valve for all of those big and overwhelming feelings. Toddlers’ brains are still quite under-developed and they are incapable of reasoning through their upsets on their own the way adults are (and even though we are more capable, how often do we react inappropriately when we’re upset??). Adults are their babies’ and toddlers’ emotional regulators until they are capable of that job on their own. Due to this misguided belief about big feelings, most of us probably were not encouraged as children to feel however we felt, and to process those emotions in a healthy way. (I’ve become hyper-aware of the countless times I hear adults telling children to stop crying.) Most of us probably grew up repressing our big emotions, and still do so today, until they manifest in other (uncontrolled and unhealthy) ways when we’re triggered, and we say and do things we wouldn’t otherwise (or perhaps we just shut down emotionally, which harms our relationships). Maybe some of us have a chip on our shoulder because we were never understood, and so we feel like hurting other people back.

And so it continues through childhood and adolescence — society tells us that it is a parent’s job to control their children, and if they don’t, those kids will be unruly and out of control and selfish and entitled. So rather than learning cooperation and problem-solving skills and mutual respect and empathy, kids learn to do the right things for the wrong reasons (fear of being punished or to gain some external reward), at least when there’s a chance they might get caught. Being raised with fear, threats, control and punishment results in disconnection and external motivation. In other words, many people never really develop much of a conscience, self-discipline, concern for others, or a sincere desire to do good for the sake of doing good. See this post for more effective discipline.

“Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions not retribution.” -L.R. Knost

Going back to our society’s obsession with material things, I have to wonder how much of that is a misguided attempt to fill some deep unmet emotional needs?

So then, how do we increase empathy in the world, and in so doing, establish Zion?

Very first, I believe we need to overwhelm our own hearts and souls with self-love, acceptance and compassion. We need to embrace every part of ourselves — even the not-so-great parts — and show ourselves gentleness and compassion. Accept every emotion by simply allowing it to be there without judgment and without using it to hurt anyone. The emotion itself is just a message. Let it be heard and felt. We can reflect on our own childhoods and lives and determine where our beliefs have come from and whether they are true and serving us well or not. We can change our understanding and perspective if we need to. And we can always turn to the Savior to heal us.

From there I believe that Zion begins in our individual homes, with the way we treat one another, and how we teach our children to treat one another. Modeling empathy for our children, particularly by empathizing with them, but also in our interactions with others, teaches them how to empathize with others as well. The home is the perfect training ground to develop character and Christlike attributes. The more parents teach their children empathy, the better off the whole world will be.

We can start by listening to our instincts and intuition that tell us to hold our babies and respond lovingly to their emotional needs (which are deeply real needs).

We can start by accepting all of our child’s emotions, and empathizing with them (even when we need to set limits on their behavior). Resist the urge to stop the crying or to jump to teaching any lessons. You don’t have to fix anything. Just acknowledge their point of view and empathize: “You really wish you could keep playing and you’re disappointed that we have to go home now.” (Then once everyone is calm, you can do your teaching if you need to. Your child will be more open to your teaching once they’ve been heard and understood anyway.) Resisting the urge to stop the crying or fix the problem also builds resilience and shows children that they are capable of handling uncomfortable emotions.

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We can become more present in our lives and focus on people rather than things. People always remember how we made them feel, and children in particular are influenced and shaped by this.

“What is most important almost always involves the people around us.” -Thomas S. Monson

“To you who are parents, I say, show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well. They are so precious. Let them know.” -Thomas S. Monson

While empathy in and of itself is vitally important, I also believe that it is preparatory to a higher law — that of charity. If empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective, then charity can be defined as seeing and feeling for someone from the Lord’s perspective. I believe that the more we practice empathy (stepping out of our own shoes and problems or whatever we’re preoccupied with at the moment, and really seeing and feeling about a situation the way the other person does), the easier it will be for us to see others as the Lord sees them, and to feel about them accordingly. Charity is a gift from God, but we can prepare ourselves to receive that gift by practicing empathy and by living the gospel the best we can. Then once we are each filled with the pure love of Christ, creating Zion will be second nature to us. The two great commandments, loving God first and our neighbor second, takes care of all the other commandments. Let us put God first, practice empathy, and pray for charity.

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Why We Should Be More Concerned With Winning Our Children’s Hearts Than Controlling Their Behavior

What is a “good kid?” I’ve observed that if our kids are well-behaved champion sleepers, we are seen as good parents and our children are seen as good kids. So should we focus on controlling our children’s behavior and making them do what we want them to do? Or is there more to the story?

I was a “good kid” growing up. I have the type of personality that is more naturally compliant. I want to please people and keep everyone happy. I don’t like contention or confrontation, and I really hate feeling like people are upset with me or that I’ve done something wrong. Because of my temperament and personality, fear and threats and control “worked” pretty well on me growing up (meaning that I was obedient). And sure, I have turned out pretty well — I try my very best to make good choices for the right reasons. But I have had a lot of healing that I’ve had to do to get to where I am, as well as learning to find my voice and stand for what I feel is right regardless of others’ opinions. Not everyone will take the initiative or know how to achieve that healing, which might mean that their ability to find their voice and feel good about themselves, and to form strong and healthy relationships, is affected perhaps for the rest of their lives. I have seen this first-hand in my own family.

What’s more, kids who are more strong-willed tend to push back pretty hard against force and control, and if these children feel forced or pushed into doing the right thing, they may choose not make the best choices once they’re out from under the control and threats of their parents (if the fear and control even “work” on them to begin with). I know several families, including mine, that had at least one very strict (authoritarian) parent, that have at least one child who has pushed back hard as a teenager or young adult, to the point of leaving the church and the gospel teachings they were raised with. Now, obviously, all sorts of parents have children who fall away from the church, not just the very strict ones who used force with their kids. And all types of people lose their way, not just the strong-willed ones. But my point is that fear and control always have negative results in relationships, whether it’s psychological damage or power struggles and push-back. Force and fear do not lead to strong and attached relationships, which are crucial if we want to have a healthy, positive influence in our children’s lives, to lead and guide them down correct paths.

Rather than just raising “good” kids who are well-behaved (well-behaved children do not equal good children — all children are inherently good), I want to raise people who make good choices because they want to — because the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rooted deep in their hearts. I don’t believe that force and fear will accomplish that.

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President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “[God] wants to change more than just our behaviors. He wants to change our very natures. He wants to change our hearts” (see his full talk here). That is what I want for my children too. How do we accomplish that?

Alma 31:5 reads, “And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God” (emphasis added). Teaching the truths of God is far more effective than fear or control.

But I think it goes a step further. For instance, teaching gospel truths with an attitude of self-righteousness or condescension will probably not have the right effect, even if the things we’re teaching are totally true. In Alma 17:29 we read that Ammon sought to win the hearts of the servants of King Lamoni, to earn their trust, that he might teach them and have them listen. So not only did he teach them the gospel, he understood the importance of gaining their trust and winning their hearts first. I believe there is a great lesson here for us.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On to Your Kids, said, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” He says that if our children don’t give their hearts to us, and so we use some other means of training them instead of guiding their hearts, we can usually get them to act mature and responsible, but that doesn’t mean they feel responsibility and maturity. And normally when someone acts as if they feel a certain way but doesn’t truly feel that way, we call them hypocrites. They don’t have integrity. Continuing on, Dr. Neufeld says that as a society we seem to be “more interested in behavioral outcomes than true growth.” True growth comes when our hearts are involved. Love and connection and attachment are vital. Watch the full presentation by Dr. Neufeld here.

It is eternally important for us to make good choices and keep the commandments. But President Uchtdorf has explained that the reason for our obedience to God’s commandments isn’t to earn our salvation, or to earn anything, but rather, “we obey the commandments of God–out of love for Him!” And why do we love Him? “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and we feel that love so strongly, so surely. So if we want our children to follow us and obey us, then they must feel our love as well.

“Show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well” (emphasis added). –President Thomas S. Monson

It is not enough just to love our children — if they don’t feel our love, if they don’t feel that they are important to us and cherished by us, then we won’t have the kind of influence with them that we need. But once they give us their hearts, we will be more readily able to lead them back to our Heavenly Father.

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So what can we do to win our children’s hearts? Well, what makes you feel cherished by someone? Is it when they really listen to you? When they’re affectionate toward you? When they smile at you with their eyes and hearts and not just their lips? When they laugh with you? When they give you their time and their full attention? Is it when they do something thoughtful for you? When they show you compassion and empathy through your struggles? When they speak to you calmly and kindly and respectfully, even when you know they’re frustrated? Or when they truly see you, truly know you — faults and all — and adore you anyway?

Whatever helps your child to feel that you cherish them, do more of that. Then do your best to be the kind of person you want them to be, and they will surely follow suit.

 

The Difference Between Anxious Parenting and Responsive Parenting

There are two extremes I’ve noticed when it comes to they way parents respond to their children’s tears and emotions, and I’m sure all of us have been guilty of at least one extreme or the other, at one time or another. I know I have.

 These two extremes are anxious parenting and detached parenting.

 Anxious Parenting

 I try to parent in a way that I feel is very responsive and engaged, but many people might interpret this as anxious parenting. (If I’m being honest, I’m sure there have been plenty of times since I became a mother when anxiousness or fear have driven my reactions! Anxiety is no stranger to me, and although I’ve learned a lot about dealing with it, I’m certainly not perfect at it.) We probably all know someone who could be considered an anxious parent, or a “helicopter parent.” These parents might lean more toward permissive parenting, offering lots of support but not requiring much from their children. These parents love their children tremendously, and they do their very best, just like anyone else. But is it good for children when their parents consistently react with anxiety?

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I have learned that children take their cues from us, the trusted adults in their lives. So if we continually respond to things as if they’re an emergency, our children will be conditioned to react the same way, which can lead to anxiety in the child as well. We probably all react this way from time to time, and we don’t need to worry that this will ruin our children – it’s when we react this way on a consistent basis that this will become our children’s natural reaction as well. Children learn what they live.

 Additionally, when we fail to give our children opportunities to figure things out and solve problems, due to our own anxiety and need to be in control, we convey to them a lack of trust and confidence, and deprive them of growth and learning.

 Detached Parenting

 On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who appear more “laid back” about their children’s distress, those who have an easier time ignoring their babies’ cries. They might be less prone to showing empathy to their children, and might even think that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. They might expect a lot from their children (which conveys confidence in their children, and is a good thing), but with little to no support (which is not a good thing). High demand with low support is called authoritarian parenting. (See this article about finding the sweet spot between high expectations and support.) Not all are demanding though – some of these parents are more uninvolved than authoritarian. It’s the low support that suggests detachment.

Being laid back is actually a wonderful thing in the sense of not being fearful or worried or anxious. I think all of us have the ability to get to this point. But I have to wonder if these particular parents’ “laid back” attitude toward their children’s emotions is actually more a sign of emotional detachment or desensitization to instincts.

 What Causes Us to Respond With Either Anxiousness or Detachment?

 In addition to anxiousness in parents leading to anxiousness in children, there are of course environmental, genetic, and other factors that can cause anxiety. Research also indicates that anxious or detached parenting can be a result of not having a secure attachment with at least one parent – of having our own cries ignored, not receiving empathy ourselves, and not learning to process our own emotions. In other words, if our own parents were emotionally detached, we are more likely to be anxious or detached as parents as well.

detached parent

When people are brought up this way, with emotionally unavailable parents, usually one of two things happens. Some eventually learn to stuff their emotions and become detached emotionally (because this is less painful). They may use humor as a defense, and they usually have great difficulty forming deep, intimate, healthy relationships with others (see here). Others become more needy and insecure, so desperate for love and acceptance and affection that they, too, tend to attract the wrong kind of relationships. They also respond with anger to those more vulnerable emotions, as a defense against them (see here). Unfortunately, neither of these are healthy, and unless we do some healing, both can really hinder our ability to have a healthy sense of self-worth, as well as empathy and charity for others. But the good news is that there is always hope for those of us who grew up without secure attachments to at least one parent (see here).

I have seen a little bit of evidence of the latter example in myself (particularly before I met my husband, but even as a mom at times when feeling anger in response to my children’s strong emotions). But fortunately, it really is possible to heal from our past and to gain understanding and forgiveness. I understand that my parents and their parents and their parents (and so forth) all did their very best, and that many of them were wounded themselves. I also know that the Savior can heal all wounds. I am far from perfect, but I have hope in Him.

As parents we innately have instincts (given to us by God) to respond to our babies’ cries, but if we stuff our emotions (since we never learned how to process them in a healthy way) and ignore those instincts, we become less sensitive to them (see here). Again, if we respond this way occasionally, our children are probably not going to become emotionally detached or anxious. It’s the consistency of either extreme that can hinder them.

 It’s interesting to me that it’s not just anxious parenting that can create anxious children – rather, having their emotional needs ignored (in cases of detached parenting) can lead to anxiety (or depression, or other mental and emotional challenges) in children as well. So is everyone bound to create anxious children? Well, certainly not. What’s the answer then?

 Before I get to that, I want to point out that these responses (anxiousness and detachment) are the extremes, the two ends of a spectrum. Which means that most of us are probably somewhere in between these two extremes. So what’s the sweet spot between the two, the ideal middle ground?

It’s responsiveness.

 As I said, I’m sure some people (especially those who are closer to the ‘detached’ end of the spectrum) think I’m an anxious parent because I try to respond fairly quickly to my babies’ cries and empathize with my children’s feelings when they’re hurt or upset (rather than just telling them they’re fine). Am I making my children anxious by responding this way? Not if I’m truly being responsive instead of responding with anxiousness. What’s the difference?

 The Difference Between Anxiousness and Responsiveness

 The reactions of an anxious parent are more about the parent’s own discomfort than the child’s feelings and needs. They tend to overreact to their child’s struggles because they can’t handle their own discomfort surrounding them.

 A responsive parent, on the other hand, does their best to calm their own fears when there is no emergency (whether those fears are presenting as anger or anxiety), to communicate to their child through their demeanor and tone of voice that there is no emergency, and to respond with empathy (how is my child feeling? What does she need? How would I want someone to treat me if I were in her shoes?). Responsive parents have trust in their child’s abilities and potential, and they offer encouragement and support. High expectation and high support.

Mother Comforting Son

 Empathy and responsiveness are important for a child’s development because they build trust and secure attachments with us, and teach the child to process and manage their emotions (which helps with their behavior and the way they treat others) (see here).

 Determine the Source of Your Reaction

 I think a key in responding to our children appropriately is to assess our own emotional reactions and determine where those emotions are coming from. Are we listening to our intuition? To the Spirit, which encourages love and empathy? Or is our reaction coming from fear? One good way to judge if our emotions are coming from the Spirit or from fear is found in Moroni chapter 7. Verse 16 says, “. . . I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.” Another is found in 2 Timothy 1:7. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Is our reaction something that persuades us to think of and believe in Christ? Does it lead us to do good to others, to treat them the way the Savior would? Do we have a sound (calm, clear) mind? When we can answer these questions for ourselves, we will be better able to choose how we will respond.

 Following our instincts (or the Spirit) might still look like anxiousness to someone else. But if we feel peace and love, if we feel compelled to act in a Christlike manner, then it’s not anxiousness. I’m sure each of us knows what it feels like to experience a “gut feeling,” what it feels like to just know something is wrong (maybe with a child’s health, or like my example of leaving my babies alone to cry) or conversely, when something just feels right (such as holding and comforting my crying child, or even nursing or rocking them to sleep). And whether or not anyone else understands our reasons, I think most of us recognize the importance of trusting our gut feelings, our instincts or intuition. But if we want to be in tune with our intuition, we have to practice acknowledging and processing our emotions, and trusting our instincts. Also – and this is important – even when we instinctively know that something is wrong, we don’t have to feel or convey fear – faith and love can cast out that fear. See this post and this fantastic talk by Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

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 What if it’s not our gut telling us something is wrong, but rather our sympathetic nervous system? If our immediate reaction to something is “emergency!” (aka a fight or flight response) but then we soon realize that no one is in immediate danger of harm or death, we can choose to calm our minds and bodies, and respond with empathy instead of anxiety.

 What if you have an actual anxiety disorder? Some people need extra help learning to calm their minds when they’re anxious, and that’s okay. I hesitated posting this because I didn’t want to give parents with anxiety disorders more to worry about – the fear and worry of “screwing up your child” (making them anxious) will only make things worse. So what can you do?

 First, take a deep breath and give yourself a huge helping of compassion. You are more than enough, and everything will be okay. Second, pray. The Lord knows what you need and He can, and wants to, help. Third, one other excellent tool I have found is meditation. By definition, anxiety makes clearing your mind and focusing your thoughts more difficult. But starting small, with even three minutes of meditation every day, can make a difference. You might find guided meditation most effective, or perhaps mindfulness meditation. Find what works best for you. Meditation is valuable for everyone, and can make a big difference in parenting, so even if you don’t struggle with anxiety, give meditation a try! Fourth, counseling can be extremely helpful for many individuals and families. And lastly, regardless of any tools or resources you may or may not use, any and all healing comes through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Turn to Him. Learn of Him and listen to His words. Seek Him. Trust in Him.

 We don’t ever have to allow fear or anxiety to determine our decisions or the way we respond to things or people. (Easier said than done? For some of us, absolutely. But “with God, nothing shall be impossible” [Luke 1:37].) We can all learn to listen to our feelings, process them, and then choose the best response we can – and help our children learn to do the same.

The Role Emotions Play in Behavior and Correction

Note: My brother, Josh (one of the Mormon guys at twomormonguys.com {the other is my cousin, Dallan}), helped me with this post. He and I have had many conversations on this subject, and I’m so grateful for his participation on this!

My husband and I were watching a sitcom the other day, and in this episode the female character was feeling like her husband wasn’t trying in their marriage anymore and like he was taking their relationship for granted. Instead of talking to him about it she let her feelings become bottled up inside until finally she snapped, accusing him of being lazy and not caring, and causing a big fight. It was clear to me, since I was just an observer, that she could have said something like, “Remember when you used to surprise me with flowers randomly? I loved that, and I miss it. It would really mean a lot to me if you still did things like that.” and the outcome likely would have been much different.

dissonance

 

By yelling at him, she was hoping to be heard and to set her husband straight. But when humans are attacked, our natural reaction is to either fight back (jump on the defensive), run from the fight (avoid the problem and stuff our feelings), or simply freeze and shut down. In moments like these, the reasoning part of our brain is not “on” and so the lesson we’re supposed to be learning isn’t getting through. When we’re being attacked, yelled at or criticized, our autonomic nervous system thinks we are in danger and triggers the fight or fight response. This happens automatically and completely out of our conscious control. We feel worse than we did before, and we can’t do better by feeling worse. You see, we do the things we do because of what we think and feel in that moment, particularly about ourselves. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions. When we feel better, we do better.

Think about how emotionally generous you are when you feel great! When we’re full of love and the Spirit, kindness and patience and generosity just flow from us naturally.

beauty

Children are no different. When they feel badly, they’re more likely to behave badly. And when they feel wonderful, they act wonderful. But we often hold them to a higher standard than we do ourselves in this regard. It’s easy to justify our actions when we’re frustrated or upset (maybe we don’t let the “jerk” driver over when we tries to change lanes in front of us, because he was rude first so “he deserves it.”), but we tend to expect our kids to always be on their best behavior.

We tend to think that our children have to earn our affection and attention, that they must act a certain way first in order to get the attention they so desperately need. But if they could act appropriately without our help, then they wouldn’t be crying out for our attention in undesirable ways to begin with. Children need connection with us to keep their “love tanks” full and to keep themselves regulated. They need help processing the yucky emotions that are driving the bad behavior. They’re much more likely to act the way we want them to when they feel connected to us and when they’re in a positive emotional state.

We also tend to think, “but I’m the adult and they’re the child and it’s my job to discipline and teach them a lesson when they misbehave.” And it’s true, we do have a responsibility to teach! But the thing about teaching and learning is that it can only happen when everyone is calm and in a positive emotional state. As I said before, the rational part (the learning center) of our brain shuts down when we’re in a state of fight or flight. Yelling, criticizing, belittling, shaming, spanking, isolation/withdrawal (time out), etc. all put children in a state of fight or flight and turn off their reasoning centers, making it literally impossible for them to even understand what we are saying. All of these strategies make children feel worse, and again, they can’t do better by feeling worse. They can’t reason or learn while in “fight or flight,” but nor will they even be motivated to do good when they feel shamed. All shame does is make us feel defeated and worthless and hopeless. It is essential that we improve the emotional state first before we can truly improve behavior.

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Now, recognizing that we only act badly when we feel badly does not in any way excuse bad behavior. We are each responsible for our actions regardless of how we feel. This is why we allow all feelings but limit behavior. This is also why we use empathy and emotion coaching. Everyone is swamped by big emotions at times, so it’s crucial to learn how to shift from “fight or flight” back to a state of rest where we can reason, without repressing emotions, so that we don’t continually make bad choices in the heat of the moment that we will later regret. The more we help our children make that shift, the better able they will be to make it on their own eventually. It is only after making that shift that effective teaching, learning, and communicating can take place. Change the emotional state, change the behavior. How do we help our children change their emotional state? Find a way to touch their heart. If they are yelling, respond with a whisper (see Proverbs 15:1). Truly listen to them. Empathize. Show affection. Play with them. Do something that makes them feel connected to you and engaged with. Tell stories. Use the Word of God, or music. Invite the spirit. (See this post for effective Spirit-led discipline.)

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This doesn’t mean that we are enabling bad behavior at all, or being permissive parents. We can recognize sin, and teach children to behave righteously, without doing things that make the child feel devalued, discouraged, or disabled. True discipline (which means ‘to teach’) will always involve calm and clear minds, positive emotional states, and the Spirit, who helps us to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

Why did the word of God have such a powerful effect on the Nephites? Because preaching the word allowed the Spirit to touch their hearts, which changed their emotional state to one of love and a desire to do the Lord’s will.

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I firmly believe that children naturally want to please us and do the right thing. Their hearts are pure. Mosiah 3:19 says that we must “[become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit…” This is children’s true nature. But because young children are immature beings and their brains aren’t fully developed, they get easily overwhelmed by big emotions, and when they feel badly they don’t always act appropriately. Not only this, but when we use control and fear to manipulate them, they then feel the need to fight for their rights and their needs to be met. When we view them as bad (or difficult or selfish or untrustworthy, etc.) we usually see a self-fulfilling prophecy. Helping them with their feelings (and their behavior), connecting with them, and making sure they feel significant and worthwhile and wanted, helps restore them to their natural state–which is a state of goodness. I feel strongly that our society’s view of children needs to change. We must believe that children are good. Labeling them as naughty when they misbehave is not helpful. When our children behave badly, they are not bad–they are hurting. Or maybe they’re simply exploring cause and effect and testing boundaries and limits, because that’s how they learn. Either way, bad behavior does not mean they are bad. Their worth has not changed. They don’t need to redeem themselves in order to deserve our love and kindness and attention. Our Savior has already redeemed every living soul from sin. Our Savior has shown us how to hate the sin but love the sinner unconditionally.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery (see John 8:3-11). Jesus would have been justified by the law to have this woman stoned to death for her crime. But not only did He spare her life, He transformed the entire situation and probably left this daughter of God feeling humbled and hopeful and worthy of forgiveness. I imagine she was overcome with love and gratitude. The perfect love she must have felt from the Savior would certainly have been a much greater motivator to “go and sin no more” than was the shame and scorn of the scribes and Pharisees. The Savior surely understood the worth of each person, as well as the significance of us knowing our worth. He understood the importance of changing hearts, not just behavior.

This way of parenting (touching and guiding hearts) works beautifully, but it isn’t easy. Honestly, the hardest part about parenting this way isn’t our children’s emotions, or even their behavior–it’s taking control of our own emotions (and subsequently, our behavior). We must practice shifting our own emotional state before we will be able to help our children shift theirs. This also requires time and dedicated effort. It might be faster and easier to use fear-based tactics or to just send our kids to timeout, but if we truly want our children to learn how to control their behavior and choose to do the right thing of their own volition, it will require effort on our part to control ourselves and trust the process. And what more important work could we be doing?

Love vs. Fear

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices I make. I’ve heard it said that every choice we make either comes from a place of love or from a place of fear. I believe this is true. In any given moment, what we choose to think, say, or do is either driven by love (or some other “fruit” of the Spirit), or it is driven by fear (or another of Satan’s tools). We know that faith and fear can not exist in the same mind at the same time. And we know that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). We also know that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Feeling fear (or any other “negative” emotion) is not bad, and it does not in any way make us bad. But clearly, the choices we make out of fear are not inspired by the Lord, and thus, will not bless our lives.

What do I mean by “choices we make out of fear?”

Fight or Flight

For one, any time we act while we’re angry, or overcome by “fight or flight” hormones, that choice or action is driven by fear. You might think, “I’m not afraid, I’m angry!” But anger is a masking emotion that covers up more vulnerable emotions, like fear.

An example of this might be when my child is acting up and is not listening to me when I tell her to stop. My mind jumps to conclusions and I get triggered by some ridiculous (and not totally conscious) thought, like “oh no, I’m a horrible mother because I can’t make my child do what I want!” That lack of control causes a fear response. I shift into fight or flight. My brain tells my body that there is an emergency and I must act immediately (fight or flee). If I act in the moment, I might do something like yell at my child or physically handle her roughly, which I will regret afterward. But if I can access my rational brain I will realize that there really isn’t an emergency, and then I can slow down, re-frame my thoughts (e.g. remind myself that we can’t solve anything until everyone is calm, that she can’t do better by feeling worse, and that the answer always starts with connection), and make a choice out of love instead – such as getting down on my child’s level, making eye contact, connecting physically with a gentle hand on her arm, and calmly making my request (or setting my limit) again. I think we all know which choice is more loving and Christlike. But how do we shift out of fight or flight in moments like this?

Try taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes. Count to ten. Tell yourself “It’s not an emergency,” or “I have all the time in the world.” Turn or walk away if necessary. These are the things that work the most effectively for me. There are a myriad of ways to calm oneself, so find what works best for you and practice it. I have even put up sticky notes around my house to help remind me in the moment.

One important note: I have found that it’s so, so much easier to calm down if I choose to calm myself right away – before I get too upset. If I choose to act on my anger, even a little bit, it is 10 X harder to then choose to calm down. Acting on our anger, or even talking about how angry we are, makes us more angry. We are then more likely to feel justified in our angry actions (until later when we’re calm and the guilt comes crashing down on us). Opening the door to our anger even slightly can sabotage our ability to make a choice out of love. So instead, notice the anger and breathe through it. Use your calming strategies. And then choose love.

Is this easy? Nope! Will we sometimes still act on our anger (or fear), even if we practice this a lot? Of course. Because we’re human. But the more often we can calm ourselves instead of acting on our anger, the more our brains will create and reinforce new neural pathways that will help us to calm ourselves more easily in the future. (We can actually create a calmer brain!) And when we do mess up, all is not lost. In any given moment, we can choose love – even if we failed to do so in the previous moment. Additionally, messing up gives us the opportunity to model for our children how to repair relationships. We can apologize for our behavior (which does not excuse our children’s behavior, but rather, models how to take responsibility for our actions). We can try a do-over. And we can move forward.

“What if…”

I have noticed that I am also more prone to make fear-based choices when I start asking, “What if…?” rather than trusting God and the natural processes of things (I’m referring to the type of “what if…” questions that cause us to doubt). This way of thinking can lead us to ignore our God-given instincts and intuition and to make decisions that are based on the wisdom of men. For example, “What if all the experts are right and my baby never learns to sleep on her own? I’d better leave her to cry it out. She might not learn any other way.” (see this post for my experience with sleep training.) Instead, we can trust that God created us with instincts that drive us to respond to and comfort crying babies, and even to hold, rock, and nurse them to sleep. If we trust that this is His design (a design that has worked beautifully for thousands of years throughout the history of the world, I might add) then we don’t need to worry about creating “bad habits.” We can trust that He created each one of His children to learn and develop at just the right pace for each of them, and that even the babies who are not forced to do things before they’re ready all eventually learn to do those things on their own. Along with being developmentally ready, their trust, security, and attachment to the adults in their lives is what enables their independence. We can trust the process.

Side note: some might argue that their decision to sleep train was not made out of fear at all, but rather it was a logical, thought-out decision they made to achieve a desired result – an easier baby who sleeps through the night independently, and better-rested parents. That might sound pretty nice, but it goes against nature and God’s design (and in my experience, when I work with nature instead of fighting against it, things work better). Babies were meant to be near their mothers, even during sleep, as is so clearly evident by the physiological phenomena that occur when babies are in close contact with their mothers (synchronized sleep patterns, regulated breathing, body temperature, heart rate, etc.) (Source), as well as what occurs when they are separated (elevated stress hormones, weakened immune system, sleep disturbances, etc.) (Source). Additionally, it might surprise you to learn that moms who breastfeed and co-sleep get more sleep and report feeling better rested than moms who breastfeed but don’t co-sleep or moms who bottle feed (Source). This has definitely been true for me. Co-sleeping may not be the right answer for all families, but it is a huge blessing for many families – even many families who didn’t think it would work for them. If you’re worried about safety, check this out. And for those who need a third option (other than cry-it-out or co-sleeping) there are more gradual and gentle ways to encourage independent sleep in older babies and young children (also see here).

Now back to doubt and fear. On the other end of the spectrum, asking “What if…?”can also lead to anxiety that we might damage our children if we are less than perfect. “What if I am permanently damaging my children because I can’t seem to stop yelling at them?” “What if my child is struggling with _____ because of a choice I made?” “What if I fail to teach my children all of the most important things?” None of us want to screw up our kids! But fear doesn’t help. It is not productive. It won’t serve to make us or our lives or our children better. Faith, trust, hope, love – these divine attributes do help. Because of the atonement no one is ever damaged beyond repair. The Lord loves us unconditionally, and He trusts us enough to raise His children, even though we are not perfect. We must focus on the good that we do, for “[we] are doing better than [we] think [we] are” (Jeffery R. Holland). When thoughts of doubt creep in, we always have the opportunity to re-frame our thoughts, to re-write our story, to forgive ourselves and others, and to move forward in faith and love – love for ourselves as well as others. Which brings me to:

Self-Destructive Thoughts

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Self-destructive thoughts certainly don’t come from a place of love, but rather from fear. Brigham Young said, “If you have a bad thought about yourself, tell it to go to hell, because that is exactly where it came from.”

Self-destructive thoughts are never helpful or productive, because we can’t do better by feeling worse. We need encouragement from ourselves, not criticism.

We must choose love, not only for others, but for ourselves. We must take compassionate care of ourselves before we will be able to take compassionate care of our children and others.

Using Either Fear or Love to Influence Others

In addition to us being influenced by either fear or love, we use either fear or love to influence our children. After all, unless we are able to physically move them and force them to do what we want for the rest of their lives, influence is all we really have. (And even if we are able to force their actions, we will never have control over their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings – we only have influence.) As hard as this might sometimes be for us to accept, this is how it was meant to be. This is the way we chose for it to be when we chose to follow our Savior in the pre-existence.

D&C 121:41-42 says, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—”

It is popular to use fear (yelling, threats, withdrawal, manipulation, punishment, control, etc.) in parenting to coerce children into obedience, but it seems that the Lord would have us influence them a different way. Punishment, by definition, is not gentle or kind. We might think, “well I’m punishing my child because I love him.” But it is not enough just to love our children – they must feel our love in order for it to really be effective. When we use punishment, our love is lost on our children. But when we set limits with empathy (acknowledge their feelings and perspective), our children feel that we understand them and are in their corner – even if they’re not happy about the limits we set.

One of my favorite quotes is by Gordon Neufeld. He says, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” Our connection with our children (or their attachment to us) is absolutely vital in teaching and guiding them. So how do we win our children’s hearts?

That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, try this experiment: every time you make a choice, ask yourself if it was love or fear that drove you. Then look at the fruits of that choice. And whenever possible, choose love.

“I Will Not Leave You Comfortless”

My babies have never been exceptionally good sleepers. I have never been able to lay them down and have them go to sleep on their own (not consistently, anyway). It takes them a long time (compared to other babies) to sleep long stretches or through the night. They have never been “marathon nappers.” But honestly, I am okay with all of this now that I know what normal infant sleep is.

Still, I have had several people wonder why I don’t just let my babies “cry it out” so that they’ll sleep better. Here’s my experience.

When my oldest was a baby (probably 8-10 months), I was desperate for her to sleep through the night. After all, her cousin who’s the same age had been sleeping through the night for months. I thought something was wrong with my baby, or that I was doing something wrong. I was exhausted and worried and stressed. Almost everyone I talked to, and almost everything I looked at online, suggested leaving her to cry it out. I didn’t like the idea, but I finally decided to give it a try. I thought it was my only option.

So one night after our bedtime routine my husband and I put our daughter down in her crib awake, kissed her goodnight, and walked out. Now, at this point, some babies will fuss for a couple minutes and then go to sleep. Seems like a great solution! But that is not what our daughter did. She was extremely upset (which really is understandable). But we left anyway, and we watched the clock until it was “time” to go back in. I went back in and tried to comfort her (which didn’t work because I didn’t pick her up) and then left again. She screamed bloody murder. I went back to the living room to diligently wait with my husband. But I felt sick inside. Every instinct inside me was screaming at me to go pick up my baby, to hold her and comfort her. But I was supposed to be “strong.” After all, if I didn’t do this, she would never learn to sleep on her own. It was for her own good. Right? I wasn’t so sure. I desperately wanted to throw this whole idea out the window, but I felt like I needed permission.

Finally I said something to my husband. Something like, “Honey, I don’t want to do this.” And then he said, “So let’s not do it. Go get her.” That was all I needed.

I went in to my baby girl and picked her up. I sat with her in the rocking chair and held her tight while she tried to calm down. I cried with her. And then, as we sat there in the stillness that followed, I had some thoughts enter my mind. I wondered what the Savior would do in this situation.

“Then the Holy Spirit enters into my thoughts, saying:

‘Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.'”
(I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus, Children’s Songbook, pg 78)
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Credit: Jean Keaton

I pictured my Savior with my little girl. I couldn’t imagine Him leaving her to cry by herself. In fact, He promised His disciples, and has in effect promised all of us:

 “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”
(John 14:18)

I felt peace in my decision to do the same for my daughter that night.

I have heard some argue that the Lord does require us to do hard things on our own, but I disagree. He does ask us to do hard things, but we never have to do them alone.

 

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 Since that time I have educated myself about infant and toddler sleep and what is normal, and have learned that we as parents do not need to (and shouldn’t) fight our God-given instincts and intuition. Even if we do nothing to encourage it, children naturally learn to sleep on their own eventually. (And for those who just can not wait for that to happen in their child’s own time – and I get it – there are gradual, gentle ways to encourage independent sleep in an older baby or toddler.) God created us the way He did on purpose – He knew what He was doing. So our parental instincts to hold and comfort our child will not create “bad habits” that can’t be broken, and our child is not doomed to a life without sleep unless we traumatize her. We need not fear. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

I feel it’s important to note that I do not judge other parents for making a different choice. Truly. Especially when mental health challenges are involved. I do believe that God can heal all things and that we can all eventually be just like Jesus and do as He would do. But I also know that it’s not always so black and white. Each of us are doing the best we can with the knowledge and experience and abilities we have. We all need support and kindness and love through this journey called parenthood. I hope and pray that this post will offer encouragement and help and hope to those who need it.

And for those who feel, as I did, like you need permission not to sleep train, here it is. Go to your baby. Hold her, cuddle her, love on her. Sleep with her if you wish to. This stage will not last forever. Trust your God-given instincts, your intuition. Choose love. Parent with faith and not with fear. It will all be okay.

Why I Don’t Make My Children “Pay the Price” For Their Misbehavior (And What I’ve Found Is More Effective)

Note: This post has been revised as I have learned more about the most effective ways to inspire positive character traits in children.

I was reading one day about disciplining children and, more specifically, about giving consequences. The author spoke of the importance of responding to negative behavior right away, as well as making sure the consequence is age-appropriate and relevant to the situation (that it “fits the crime”). The author then stressed that it’s necessary that the child “pays the price” (i.e. suffers) for the thing they have done wrong. Something about this (all of it, but especially the last part) felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why at the time. As I’ve thought about it in the weeks and months since, I have had two main thoughts form in my mind.

First, if our focus is on making our child pay for what they have done, then this is not really a consequence (i.e. the result of an action), but rather a punishment (i.e. “to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense,  transgression, or fault”–according to the dictionary). The word discipline means ‘to teach,’ which I think most of us would agree is our goal. We want our children to learn to do what’s right. Consequences that occur naturally can be excellent teachers when we stay out of the way and let the consequence do the teaching, while we offer only empathy (no ‘I told you so’s). But what about punishment? When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person for retribution), they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “reptilian brain” (fight or flight). The learning functions of their brain shut down. They literally can’t learn the lesson we want them to learn while they’re in fight or flight. Additionally, and more importantly, punishment hurts our connection with our child (just as it would strain our connection and relationship with our spouse if they intentionally inflicted pain on us), and thus, their likelihood of trusting and cooperating with us in the future. Punishment simply is not the most effective or healthy or respectful form of discipline.

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Second, and more importantly, Someone else has already paid the price for every sin, mistake, and wrong decision that each of us has or will ever make. He suffered, bled from every pore, and gave His very life to pay that price. We learn from modern scripture that “God [has] suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). For this reason, rather than teaching my children that they must pay a price for their misbehavior, I want to teach them about the One who has already paid the price for every misdeed. I want them to learn to recognize and right their wrongs with His grace and because they want to. I want to teach them early about repentance and how to use this precious gift, so that by the time they reach the age of accountability (see D&C 29:46-47), they are familiar with the application of repentance and, more importantly, their hearts are filled with desire to remain close to the Lord.

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How do I plan to teach my children about repentance from the time they’re very young?

First and most importantly, by consistently helping them become familiar with the Savior and feel His love (through stories, songs, pictures, and testimonies). More on that below. What about in the moment when they make mistakes or poor choices? How can we respond if we don’t dole out ‘consequences’ or punishment?

In her book and in her course, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham teaches parents the importance of setting necessary limits with empathy, as well as how to empower their children to make amends, using what she calls The Three Rs: Reflect, Responsibility, and Repair (see below). Reading and listening to her description of this tool brought to my mind the repentance “steps” that are often taught to youth.
*Note: While specific steps can be helpful, I really want to stress that, just as repentance is so much more than following a set of steps or a checklist, this process must be approached from the heart and with the Spirit, without control or coercion, keeping the relationship with your child at the forefront. It is the principles and the way they are delivered that matter.

Some of the things I’ll share below are things we can do in the moment when our child is struggling; some should only be done after everyone is calm. Additionally there are things we can do at times of calm and connection (as mentioned above) that will inspire our children’s hearts to be generous and repentant, and I will share some specific ideas for this as well — after all, I believe these moments have the greatest effect on the heart, which will have the greatest effect on their choices.

In the moment:

Calm yourself. This approach to discipline (i.e. teaching, guiding) is not effective when we’re angry! The Spirit must be part of this process.
I tell myself “it’s not an emergency.” I shake out my hands and breathe deeply. I remind myself that my child is acting this way because she’s struggling and needs my help to work through the beliefs and emotions driving the behavior and to solve the problem appropriately.

Empathize while setting a limit. The empathy is key here! Repeat what you see and hear without judgment. Don’t pick sides. Acknowledge your child’s perspective and feelings as you gently stop harmful behavior.
*A note about setting limits or boundaries: I have come to question why I am setting a limit and if it is really necessary or if it’s a knee-jerk response. I have decided that there are only two legit reasons for me to set a limit or boundary: for safety reasons, or to protect the rights and property of another person. Any other “boundaries” are really just excuses to control my child.
As I gently stop my child from hitting: “I won’t let you hit. Hitting hurts. You were upset when your brother took your blankie. That’s your special blankie…. When you’re ready we will figure out other ways we can solve this problem.”

The first of The Three R’s (*adapted from Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids): Reflect. In a non-attacking tone, ask the child to start at the beginning and tell you what happened, and really listen to her side. Without blame or shame, help her connect the dots which will help her recognize that, just as she was hurting, her actions hurt someone as well. This is best done through asking questions. Dr Markham says, “When you ask open-ended questions and help your child “narrate” what happened, her rational brain gains understanding. This gives her more control over her emotions and behavior in the future.”
“I heard you yelling; you sounded upset. What happened? How did you feel when brother took your blankie? And then what happened? How did that make your brother feel?”

To sum up, in the moment: As calmly as you can, gently stop harmful behavior (set boundaries) with lots of empathy and lots of listening. Maintain the connection with your child! In the heat of the moment, that’s really it! Check out this article that goes into a bit more detail (this is from one of my favorite respectful parenting blogs).

Once everyone is calm:

The second R: Responsibility (aka Problem Solving). (*It is important to not move on to this step until the child feels that they have been heard and is calm, even if that means it’s later in the day or at your next family meeting [remember they can’t learn or reason while in fight or flight, nor will they be feeling very generous until they’ve been heard].) Part of a child learning to take responsibility is our empowering them be able to respond differently next time. By problem solving together she will be able to recognize that she always has a choice to make and that that choice will impact those around her. It will help her be “response-able” (able to respond respectfully and appropriately). Brainstorm with her appropriate alternative responses for future similar situations. If appropriate, ask her if she’d like to practice now. Remember that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn, and treat them as such!
“What are some other ways you can let your brother know you’re angry that won’t hurt him?” You can discuss strategies for calming down, and then offer suggestions for alternative actions if necessary, such as finding brother’s blankie and trading with him. Practice right then if appropriate.
(*Note: I don’t expect my kids to always make the right choice the very next time. It often takes repeated exposure to true principles before they penetrate our hearts enough to stick. Just look at us with our “favorite sins,” or with the counsel we constantly hear from the Lord. He has to repeat Himself a lot too. More on this in a moment. Additionally, focusing on your connection with your child and helping them process their emotions in a healthy way — in other words, focusing on the heart — will do more to improve behavior than just about anything.)

The third R: Repair. Lastly, invite the child to fix things with the person she hurt in whatever way she’d like when she is ready. Offer ideas if she asks for them. If the child isn’t ready to repair, don’t force it. This probably means that she is still feeling too angry or threatened, so you may go back a few steps if necessary, or simply drop the issue. Trust that if she is feeling connected to you and her heart is being fed goodness consistently (see below), she will repair on her own when she is ready. Forcing an apology won’t actually help her learn to feel remorse or make amends on her own in the future.
“I know you love your brother and you don’t really want him to be hurt, but hitting him did hurt him. So he may not be feeling very close to you right now. Is there something you would like to do to fix your relationship with him? What do you think will help him feel close with you again?”
“You don’t want to fix it? Okay. I know that you’ll think of just the right thing to do to fix things with him when you’re ready.”

To sum up, once everyone is calm: Problem-solve together and invite reconciliation. Remember not to control the situation (or your child) but instead, trust them and trust the process!

In times of calm (not associated with a child’s misbehavior):

Model reconciliation and repentance. Any time you lose it and yell at your child, or forget your end of a deal or a promise you made, or model inappropriate behavior in your dealings with someone else, you can use these as opportunities to model reconciliation and repentance. Apologize. Make restitution if necessary. You can even ask your child if you can pray with them. Confess your wrongdoings to the Lord and ask His forgiveness. Pray for help to do better and for greater love in your relationships.

Use stories or songs to teach positive character traits or behavior. Jesus often taught in parables. I think this is a very effective teaching tool when teaching anyone, but especially children. These stories can be gospel-based (such as scripture stories), but they don’t necessarily have to be. As I said before, stories about Jesus and others from the scriptures who knew Him are some of the most influential.

I recommend filling your family’s down time with these stories, rather than trying to teach them to your children in their moments of weakness. Why? Marlene Peterson of The Well-Educated Heart (this is what we use for our homeschool and it is wonderful!) was talking in a recent podcast about a book by Elizabeth McCracken that teaches character traits to children. She said that the author explains in the book “why it actually backfires to try and teach character directly.” She says, “To do so is a form of compulsion, and the heart resists it. The best thing to do is to plant seeds through story, and then allow them to grow and bear fruit in their proper time and place. The problem is the child who is…taught [directly] may understand [the character trait] in his mind, but knowing is not doing, and knowing is not necessarily desiring…. I’ve seen mothers try and correct character flaws in the moment with a story… For instance, a mom may catch a child telling a lie, and immediately wants to find a story to teach him how bad that is. I was thinking about it; that’s kind of like trying to teach me the harmful effects of chocolate chip cookies on my waistline right as a warm batch is brought out of the oven. I’m probably still going to eat them because it’s really enjoyable, and I’ll resist you telling me otherwise. The little child who told the lie is serving a purpose with that lie. In the moment, he’s not likely ready to give it up. But, teach me in another way about too many chocolate chip cookies, when the temptation isn’t right in front of me, and my heart may make the decision to forgo them in the future. And that’s the point. The heart has to see and feel and desire. No one can force that. But stories can plant desires.”

On her website Marlene has provided access to many of these character stories in audio form (see month 12). Turn them on in the car, while the kids are drawing or doing something with their hands, or at bedtime. (*Note: there are currently some changes being made to the website and the audios are temporarily unavailable. Keep checking back!)

Letting go of punishment and control is very scary for most parents. We feel that it’s our job to make our children behave and obey. But really our job is to lead and guide our children, which requires connection and trust and open hearts. Punishment and control do the opposite of that. Let us inspire hearts instead.

Jesus Wept

jesus-mary-martha-1617344-wallpaperRecently I was venting to my mom on the phone. I was feeling overwhelmed. Frustrated. Alone. I realized that she couldn’t fix my problem, but I just needed to vent.

My mom must have been feeling frustrated or tired or irritated as well, because after a moment of my ranting she said, “Well you know what? That’s life!”

She wasn’t wrong, of course. But that didn’t mean I felt inclined to thank her for the dose of reality—for essentially telling me to just deal with it. Instead my natural reaction was to move into fight or flight, and I nearly hung up on her. What I really needed at that moment was not a life lesson; what I needed was to feel heard and validated and understood. What I needed was empathy.

Now, I’m not writing this to incriminate my mom in any way (she’s actually usually really great at empathizing). Rather, this experience got me thinking about how often we do this to the children in our lives, and how they must feel when we do. For most of us, empathy is not our automatic response.

For example, not long ago my three-year-old dropped her plate of food and it spilled all over the floor. She lost it. She was so upset. My husband and I automatically began an attempt to console her, saying things like, “Calm down—it’s okay!”, “We can get you more food!” and “You’re fine.”

That phrase—“You’re fine.” We say it all the time. Why do we say it, when they clearly are not “fine” inside?

I think, for most of us, it’s because our child’s big emotions make us uncomfortable and we feel an urgent need to stop the upset. This is partly a hard-wired response that ensures we will meet our children’s needs. But I believe it is also the result of being taught our whole lives that big, negative emotions are unacceptable. Our parents worried, and now we worry, that if we indulge children’s sadness and tears then they will become whiney and emotionally fragile. We feel the need to “toughen them up.” Because this is how we were raised, most of us never learned how to process negative emotions appropriately, and instead try to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed emotions don’t just go away—rather they pop up uncontrolled at times (such as when our child has a meltdown) and threaten again to overwhelm us (which we still find uncomfortable). And so what do we do? We get triggered (we move into fight or flight) and we try again to stuff these emotions. We do whatever we can to get our child to calm down and be “good” (i.e. happy and cooperative). Sometimes we even get so triggered in these moments that we yell at our child (anger is a defense against more vulnerable emotions).

The interesting thing about all this? If we, as human beings, are encouraged and allowed to notice and feel our negative emotions, without acting on them in the moment, they evaporate. This happens because our emotions are trying to send us a message, and when we acknowledge the emotions, they can then stop alerting us because the message has been received. What’s more, if someone we love and trust witnesses us feeling our emotions and “holds space” for us, our connection with them deepens. We are then much more likely to accept any guidance they may give us. (Source)

I remembered all of this mid-sentence while consoling my daughter. So I stopped. I got down and hugged her and said, “You are so upset that your food fell on the floor. That was yours and you wanted to eat it, didn’t you?” Through her tears she said, “Yeah.” A few minutes later she was calm and had a new plate of food and all was well. Not only was she given an opportunity to feel the emotions that were swamping her so that they could dissipate and she could move on, but she also felt my understanding and knew that I was on her team.

Consider the Biblical account of Lazarus’ death in the book of John. Jesus was away when his friend died. Upon returning to Bethany, Jesus found that Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were understandably grief-stricken with the loss of their brother. They had great faith that, had Christ been there, their brother would not have died. Imagine the overwhelming disappointment and sadness they must have felt knowing what could have been, but tragically was not, their reality. Jesus, however, knew that Lazarus would momentarily live again. How easy would it have been for him to downplay the loss Mary and Martha had experienced, knowing the joy that soon would follow. He testified to Martha of resurrection, but he never made light of what these sisters were going through. Instead, he not only allowed them their grief, but because of the love he had for his friends, “Jesus wept” with them (see John 11:35). He felt their pain, their grief, their loss. He validated their feelings and honored their experience. Then, and only then, he raised their beloved brother from the dead.

Similarly, our view is often broader than that of our children. Something that seems so inconsequential to us feels to them like their world is ending. We can tell them they’re fine, or to deal with it because “that’s life.” We can even try to convince them to see the bigger picture and to cheer them up prematurely. But if we do, what might we—or they—lose in the process?

Want more help with Emotion Coaching? Check out this article. I also love this mama’s experience.

The Purpose of This Blog

This post contains affiliate links. This means that when you make a purchase using those links, I receive a small compensation at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!

At the beginning of 2016 I began a parenting course taught by Dr. Laura Markham (creator of ahaparenting.com). It has been invaluable and a total game changer for me. I have no doubt it could benefit you as well, but the real reason I’m telling you about it is because as I listened to the audio recordings and did the reading, over and over again I had scriptures, quotes from the brethren, lines from hymns, and spiritual thoughts and impressions enter my mind. It became clear in my mind that peaceful parenting is totally in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This parenting style has helped me better apply gospel principles in my parenting. I think sometimes we (or at least I) have a hard time knowing exactly how to apply the simple truths of the gospel to every aspect of our lives. Delving deeper into the application of peaceful parenting has been a great tool to help me do that in my role as a mother. As I have learned I have received multiple impressions from the Spirit that I was to record the thoughts I’ve had and the spiritual connections I’ve made, as well as the personal experiences I’ve had. I have also received more than one prompting to share them. So, that is the purpose of this blog.

One important thing for you to know as you read my blog is that, while I have a testimony of the things I share, I am not perfect at living them. I am still learning and trying to improve. And I don’t judge other parents for their shortcomings or their beliefs, even if they differ from mine.

Note: Because most of my peaceful parenting education has been through Dr. Markham, I will link to her site often. She has many articles on the different aspects of peaceful parenting, if you are interested in learning more. Another fantastic resource for peaceful parenting is handinhandparenting.org.