Choosing Joy

This post is written for inclusion in the Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted by Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries. All week, April 26-30, we will be featuring essays about non-punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.

Here is what I do not do: I do not spank the Boychick. I do not put him in time outs. I do not count to three1. I do not punish him for failing to live up to my expectations. I do not expect him to live up to anyone else’s unrealistic expectations. I do not use a “naughty step”. I do not use reward charts. I do not, in general, bribe2. I do not believe yelling is particularly effective or acceptable.

Here is what I am not, that people nonetheless often assume when I say the above: I am not perfect. I am not yell-free. I am not a saint. I am not a martyr. I am not a zen master. I am not a naturally low-conflict person. I am not a naturally comfortable-with-chaos person. I am not without anger. I am not without impulses to violence. I am not even without impulses to violence toward my child.

Here’s the thing: I choose — for it is a daily choice, a moment-by-moment choice — this parenting style3 not because it comes easily to me (in case you hadn’t gathered from the above, it doesn’t), or because I’m selfless (I’m not), or an emotional masochist (I’m really not), or because I think people who parent differently are bad parents (I don’t). Rather, I choose it for two reasons: one, I think it’s a way to raise an emotionally healthy, secure, confident, interdependent child, and two — no less important — I like feeling good.

I could expound upon the former point, but the second I think is said less often. Simply: given the choice, I would rather feel good. I would rather look at my child and smile because he’s being rambunctious and learning about his body than tense up and get ready to yell because he’s being wild and tearing through the place (it is, after all, often a matter of perspective). I would rather take the time to find creative solutions that leave us all satisfied than waste hours feeling angry and resentful and listening to him cry and be grumpy. I would rather practice finding joy in chaos than create frustration trying to control that which is not controllable.

Which is not to say he never needs, or gets, guidance, limits, or boundaries (neither is it to say that I’m particularly good at shifting my attitude to one of joy, but when I’m not it’s often because I am stuck in HALT TOT4, or have been triggered by his behavior). But we assume he wants those things, and is at all times doing his best to meet both his needs and our expectations. Our part is to communicate effectively what our expectations are and help him meet them.

Communicating guidance and boundaries effectively means both using language he can understand and making sure our behaviors say the same thing our mouths do: saying “don’t put this in your mouth” is the fastest way to get him to put it in his mouth; saying anxiously “you can do it by yourself” while hovering over him tells him we think he can’t do it; shouting across the room to not dump all the cereal out doesn’t work nearly as well as getting up and righting the container. So we think about our words, and we think about what we’re saying without words, and sometimes we don’t use words at all because he’s not in a place to hear them right then.

Helping him meet our expectations means making sure that they’re reasonable, that there aren’t any impediments, and that he has the tools and guidance that he needs. Reasonable expectations take into account the world he lives in, and his abilities — both his limitations and his strengths (for children are often far more capable than we think). When he’s tantruming on the floor over his popped balloon, we consider that possibly he’s in HALT TOT, and seek to rectify that and address the underlying problem, rather than getting upset over what is only a symptom of an unmet need. And if we want him to say please and speak to us kindly, we make sure he has the words and the modeling to know how to do that.

While working on this post (at night, after The Man took him to bed, when I do all my writing), the Boychick came out of the bedroom, unable to sleep. I helped him go back to bed, after letting him stay up for a little to eat and to use the toilet — and he got back up after another while.

I had a choice, then: I could get upset, and try any number of ways to coerce or manipulate him (ordering, bribing, or threatening him to go back to bed); or I could accept that this night wasn’t going to go how I’d planned, find the joy in the moment, and get creative about either getting him to bed, which would probably have involved going to bed with him, or, as I’m doing right now, writing it with him in my lap. Neither set of options (for there are near endless options within each paradigm) would get me what I originally envisioned for the night; but one way — choosing joy — would leave us both happy. Why would I choose anything else?

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at to the Carnival of Gentle Discipline

Please join us all week, April 26-30, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA and April 30th is Spank Out Day USA. In honor of this we have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives.

Are you a Gentle Parent? Put the Badge on your blog or website to spread the word that gentle love works!
Links will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.

Day 1 – What Is Gentle Discipline

Day 2 – False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy (coming Tuesday, April 27)

Day 3 – Choosing Not To Spank (coming Wednesday, April 28)

Day 4 – Creating a “Yes” Environment (coming Thursday, April 29)

Day 5 – Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All (coming Friday, April 30)

  1. Except on the way to his favorite number, 5, when we’ve agreed that’s how many more times he’s going to do whatever it is I’d like to be done doing.
  2. I do, however, sometimes use lubricants, like making sure I have a snack to hand out when it’s time to get in the carseat.
  3. Joyful parenting, gentle parenting, mindful parenting, attachment parenting, whatever you care to call it; labels don’t matter so much to me as what it feels like.
  4. HALT TOT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Thirsty, Overstimulated, or in need of a Toilet.
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31 Responses to Choosing Joy

  1. Goodness, so many things I aspire to! My mind KNOWS this is the best way to parent, but I fail a lot of the time by getting angry and yelling. I’m working on my anger issues, but it’s still very hard. You seem to have mastered your mind and emotions well; inspiring stuff.

    I loved this line “I would rather take the time to find creative solutions that leave us all satisfied than waste hours feeling angry and resentful and listening to him cry and be grumpy”. Very Zen and where I aspire to be… I find I can get there sometimes but most definitely not at other times; how do you find that balance on a more regular and frequent basis in your life? Do you have tools that help you achieve this or do you know your buttons that get pressed and are working on these? Would love to know!

    • Mrs. Green: Oh I’m so far from mastering my mind and emotions it’s not… well, no, it is kind of funny.

      This is definitely the way I aspire to parent, not the way I do every moment; I’m not sure it’s even my default style, though it’s starting to get there through sheer practice and obstinacy.

      I do know many of my buttons, but that doesn’t mean they go away; rather, it means that I can talk about them, and say “hey, I’m [in HALT TOT/getting triggered/in need of space or a break]; I’m not able to respond to you well right now, let’s go [fix the underlying issue].” Usually, let me clarify, after losing it and yelling at the poor kid.

      As for tools, I use a lot of mindfulness practice, first learned for dealing with my own mood disorder and later found to be really, really useful in a variety of parenting situations, birth and toddler tantrums not least among these. There’s a book I like that has helped me (though I confess I haven’t finished it), called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting

      But I have a lot of anger issues as well, partly from my mood disorder, partly because that’s how I was parented, partly because that’s what we see modeled for us in life and media, and partly because that’s just me. It’s not like I go around all peaceful and zen and zen every day; it’s definitely something I have to work at. And more than that, it’s something I have to work at forgiving myself for not getting right all the time. The more I can forgive myself and feel compassion for myself the times I “fail” (the more I frame those as something other than “failures”!), the better able I am to parent with the joy I want to.

  2. You’ve expressed my desires and ideals as well, and also the realizations and admissions that I don’t always live up to them. Just tonight, driving back too late with an overtired child, I had the decision to snap at his screeching demands or be sympathetic, and it came to me that it really was a choice. I do have control over my own responses and emotions, even though I don’t always act with that control. (In case you’re wondering, I kept it pretty well together, though I think I could have been kinder. It’s hard, every time.)

    I also like your line about “given the choice, I would rather feel good.” I so often come up against this with people who parent more conventionally (for lack of a better term; I hope you can divine what I mean). There’s an expectation that you have to have conflict with your child, and you just have to buck up and get through it, because you’re the adult, and apparently being the adult means making your child and yourself miserable. And I just don’t get it. But when I express any opposing view to this sentiment, I’m made to feel weak and taken advantage of by my controlling child — even though I know they know my child is quite well adjusted, and that I am anything but ineffectual as a parent. It’s just in the moment that the prejudice is so ingrained: not coercing = spineless parent.

  3. I love this post! I think parents see conflict with their child as a litmus for how much control they have and control is their primary goal. I think many parents would love to choose joy but they think that control is how good parenting looks. It is a complete paradigm shift to think of model where peace and joy don’t mean “permissive” parenting.

    I find that my more mainstream friends (ugh I hate labels but you know what I mean) think my parenting choices – like cosleeping, for example – are done out of martyrdom. Like I must just hate sleeping with a toddler but I suck it up because I think I need to. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My parenting choices bring me a great deal of joy and gentle discipline is no different.

    Thanks for your wonderful post! It was such a unique perspective and added so much to the carnival!

  4. Awesome perspective! I think it’s also safe to say that Boychick (and all children) prefer feeling good over not feeling good, and that they, just like us, respond better when they are. So creating an environment where we, the parents, actively cultivate joy is likely to positively influence our children as well as helping us to be better parents. Thank you so much for your post!!

  5. I love your title “Choosing Joy.” The years go by so fast. It seems like yesterday that my children were babies, and they’re already 20 and 25. I’m so grateful that I so thoroughly enjoyed their years at home.

  6. What a great post. Funny thing, I parent gently and with a lot of freedom given my children and they (6 and 8yo) are respectful, lovely, intelligent, strong. Not the lazy, creepy mini-psychos so many “predict” will emerge from gentle parenting.

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. Arwyn, you expressed the way I feel almost exactly. My son is learning, he is growing as a person (socially, emotionally, physically), he loves and is loved – all of it accomplished as gently as possible and without coercion. Children can grow – thrive! – in a peaceful, loving environment.
    What it comes down to for me is this: I treat my son the way I want to be treated. I don’t learn well when I have someone screaming at me. I don’t need to be forced into seclusion in order to get the point. Nor does a child.

  8. I think we have a lot in common, on this. I don’t use rewards or punishments. It’s not always easy. But in the end I do it because I feel better about it. Yes, there are a lot of other reasons, too, but that’s probably the biggest. I need to be happy with the life I’m living, you know?

  9. I strive for a lot of the same things… and fail a good bit of the time, too. I do love the idea of trying to “choose joy.” My challenge is that many times when we have a conflict like that I have a very hard time *not* feeling frustrated or angry, even when opting for the gentler solution.

    One question I’d love to get some advice on– you mention that you don’t count to 3. That’s one thing we’ve started doing lately as a warning for when we need to do something (sit in the car seat & get buckled up, change a diaper or just get into pyjamas for the night, etc) and D refuses to do it or plays around to buy himself time. Sometimes he comes over and does whatever it is we need to before we get to 3, other times I’ll have to take him and force him into it (we do also give warnings ahead of time, like “we’ll go do X in 5 minutes” etc). I would love to hear suggestions on how else to deal with these situations.

    • Marcy: you got some good ideas from the post on playfulness, but to answer your question: sometimes I am able to play him into doing what I want (getting in the carseat is a big sticking point for us, although he — now — likes driving itself quite well), but sometimes not. There are a couple other options I use fairly frequently also:

      One, I negotiate with him. He often wants to do “just one more thing”, and if I both give him the time to do it and communicate with him about it (“You want to swing between the seats and then get in your carseat? OK, go ahead and swing in your seat. You did it! Time for the carseat now, like you said.”), he’ll often get it after doing it. One of the biggest things though is that he’ll detect my impatience; the more I resist, the less likely it is to “work”. But if I give from abundance (and this is when I am thankful and privileged to rarely have tight deadlines for being somewhere), he’ll usually take only what he needs and what we agreed on and be done, both of us happy.

      Two, usually if that’s not working or if I’m not in a place where I can/am willing to do that for whatever reason, I’ll say that it’s time to [get in the carseat], and does he want to do it himself or have me help him? There’s not the time limit/pressure that comes from counting, but there’s still a communication/limit setting from me that we’re done, and he still has some choices. I also am very careful to not make this into a threat; it really is a choice/question, and I’m unattached to the answer either way. Again, it has a lot to do with the energy that comes from me; if I talk sternly, and use my “assistance” as code for force, he knows that, and resists me before we even get there, whereas if I can actually be unattached to (perfectly happy about) either option, and give him the chance to choose, he’ll usually pick one. And if he doesn’t, then I will step in and help him; if (and this is a HUGE “if”) I’ve managed to keep my energy free of resentment, it’ll either work, and he’ll let me help him, or I”ll be in a much better place to deal with the ensuing protestations.

      And then, of course, there’s option three, where I lose it and force him and we’re all miserable for hours, or until I can get to a place where I can get my needs met and make amends to him. Option three is far too often used around here, but I don’t particularly recommend it.

      • Thanks, Arwyn. Those are great suggestions. D is usually pretty cooperative, but there are certain battles that we fight often, and I really hate when I have to physically restrain him in order to, say, change his clothes while he’s screaming at me (in fact, lately every time that happens i start hearing your words on your post about the Boychick’s blood draws, and feeling that guilt about how I’m supposed to be teaching D to respect his body and not let anyone abuse it when I’m sitting there physically forcing him to do something he clearly doesn’t want to do). I try to give choices, etc, but don’t always do a good job of masking my frustration… will have to work on that and see if that helps.

        • Marcy — I’m not so sure “masking” frustration works well; it certainly doesn’t for me. (In an interesting coincidence, today’s Daily Groove talks about this: Caveat: Scott Noelle often bugs me because he comes across as too glib, and doesn’t seem to recognize some of the real privilege he has and the real challenges some parents face, so I don’t unreservedly recommend him. Still, I find he says some helpful things sometimes.)

          What I try to do is actually shift my feelings; not by saying that it’s wrong to feel the way I do (it isn’t), but by reaching for the joy/serenity/compassion that is also always there. And if I can’t, then I say that, and I own my feelings for what they are: “I’m really frustrated right now, and I’m not dealing well with these delays. I’ll feel a lot better if you’ll [get in your carseat] so we can [thing we want to do/activity that will get his/my/our underlying needs met].”

          And if I need to express my feelings, I try to do so in a way that is also fun: I’ll yell and shake my head with my tongue out, or hop up and down on both feet, or blow a raspberry. This often gets us both laughing, and from there everything is easier.

          OR, especially if I’m not in a space I can do that, I’ll ask for help. From The Man if he’s around (usually with a shouted “I’M NOT DEALING WELL GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW!”, admittedly), from the Boychick, from the Universe, whatever.

          AND, if none of that happens, and I scream and I yell and I force — which happens a lot — then, later, I seek first to forgive myself. I am acting out of unmet needs, in an unhealthy environment (isolated family, little community), with a whole lot of stress and not always a lot of resources. Y’know, like my toddler. And like my toddler, I deserve compassion, not shaming; assistance, not force. And I’m the only one who can give it to me.

  10. This reminds me a little bit of my post for the carnival tomorrow. BUt I love the way you framed yours. My aim in choosing not to spank, without really knowing it before reading this, is also to choose joy. It doesn’t always come naturally and I do yell sometimes when I can’t get my head screwed on the right way right away, but at the end of their childhood I want them to look back and not question if they were really loved or not. I want them to know that their parents chose to raise them in a way that would benefit them emotionally. I want there to be proof in that.

  11. (OK, nevermind… just read one of the other carnival posts for today, on the power of play, and I think I got my answer… =P )

  12. i’m glad you posted this. the point about “choosing joy” and what feels good and right is coming at a really good time right now. thank you <3

  13. Beautifully written. Boy, I haven’t been to your blog in a while! Don’t know why, you always have great posts.

    I love your premise “choosing joy.” I do that, too, though I don’t always think of it in those terms. It does feel good. That’s how I know I’m doing it right. ;)

  14. I think your approach is great – it is helpful to remember that my reaction is *by choice* -that even when angry or frustrated or whatever I always have the power (& responsibility) to choose a positive, helpful response.

  15. I’ve been thinking about HALT TOT and wondering if you could (no, seriously, if you even could) add a P for “in pain.” Because I find that when I have a headache or cramps or whatever it is, I find it very hard to respond reasonably.

    Hmm… With a P, you’d almost have HALT POTTY, if only we could also add a Y word. Um, let’s see. Yearning? If your toddler has an unspeakable longing, it could affect mood. Uh-huh. There you are. Let’s see, what else? Yuppie-ism. Oh, I know! Yacking. As in, sick. Ha! :)

    P.S. You don’t really have to change it. I’ve just been considering how irritable I am when in pain or otherwise indisposed and how I behave rather wretchedly to those around me in those times.

    P.P.S. I was going to contact you on Twitter about this, but clearly 140 characters wasn’t going to cut it.

    • Lauren — pain is a huge one, and I was thinking about that one, too. Also fear. And I find that anger is often more a function of the others (especially fear and pain, actually) than an underlying unmet need itself. We could replace anger with agony, or afraid, and get at least one of those in there. (Although then you lose the rhyme of “hunger, anger”, but it might be worth it.)

      Perhaps HALTT TOP: Hungry Afraid Lonely Tired Thirsty in need of a Toilet Overstimulated or in Pain. ?

      OK, so it’s getting a bit unwieldy, but the point remains: when you (or your kids) are not coping well, halt (stop), and consider what’s going on in your body/spirit that might be contributing to overreactions.

      • You could change “Tired” to “Sleepy” (although that’s not strictly accurate, but close) and reorder, and end up with HALT STOP. Heh.

    • What an excellent point about pain. My mom said she always knew I was getting sick because the day before I’d be on the verge of tears all day long and then BOOM! I’d have the flu the next day.

      So, Laura – HALT STOP would be…Hungry, Afraid, Lonely, Thirsty, Sleepy, (in need of a) Toilet, Overstimulated, or in Pain? That sounds nice.

      lol, either way the point is there.

  16. I love this post!! It’s so easy to just get frustrated when your day isn’t going like you planned. I need to do a lot more of choosing joy.

    And we turn everything into a game! somehow that totally works for my son. we live in a second floor apartment and he hates going up the steps. but somehow if he is being a bear its ok. lol

  17. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. So much of what I see about unconditional parenting tells me what I shouldn’t do, but not what I should / what to replace it with. I’ve been trying to figure out how NOT to parent aggressively but also NOT parent too permissively and…flailing in some areas. You’ve given me a number of eye-opening thoughts on ways to approach it.

    Thank you for me. And thank you for my son, who is 15 months old, and who will hopefully benefit from these insights settling in.

  18. I like this post. Although we do use counting – as in, “We need to [get in the car] now, so I’m going to count to three, and I’d like you to be ready to [get in the car] by three,” which means that on two-and-a-half he usually comes running right over with a big smug grin – I try to recognize that there are probably reasons for why he is acting out, and to address those reasons as calmly as I can.

    No lie, it is tough tough tough, and I’m so glad to hear that spoken because too many times I think there’s a tendency to believe that if it’s too hard, something about it isn’t right and that’s not always the case. It’s just hard, period, to balance the wants/needs/expectations of multiple people – even more so when some of those people can’t necessarily identify those or communicate them appropriately with the others. (Thank the gods ours has finally learned the signs for “hungry” and “more” – now it’s way easier to take care of that, at least!)

  19. Thank you so much for this post and also for participating in the Gentle Parenting Carnival. I ended up reading every single post that was included in the carnival, all because of this post! I never knew there was a name for it, although I had already read some of the books on the recommended reading lists. This post and the other carnival posts really helped me think about ways to choose joy, as you say, instead of anger.

    • July, you’re so welcome. I’m glad I was able to introduce you to some really wonderful writers. I haven’t had a chance to read them all myself yet — I hope to over the next week.

      There’s voting from now until next Friday (7 May) for your favorite original post from the Carnival, over at Baby Dust Diaries (in the right side bar). Go cast a vote!

    • July – that just warms my heart! I’m so glad that the Carnival inspired you and hopefully you’ve found some new terrific bloggers to read. :)

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