The idea of peaceful parenting sounds equal parts enticing and elusive. The serenity to keep calm and parent on when you’re running late because your kid is having an absolute meltdown? All because you insisted on putting apple slices next to the mac and cheese on their plate? Sounds dreamy.
But according to Kiva Schuler, founder of the Jai Institute for Parenting, peaceful parenting is not only possible, but attainable. “People think peaceful parenting doesn’t work because when they say ‘no’ to their child, the child has a temper tantrum,” says Schuler, who is also author of The Peaceful Parenting (R)evolution: Changing the World by Changing How We Parent. While tantrums are annoying, they’re not bad. Remaining calm and not giving into the tantrum, Schuler adds, is actually a powerful teaching moment.
One common misconception is that peaceful parenting is akin to the permissive parenting style that causes kids to grow up impulsive and rebellious. But unlike permissive parents, peaceful parents incorporate structure and discipline into daily life; they just do so without being too hard on themselves or their kids.
That requires doing a lot of internal work. “If we want actually to raise mature adults, we need to become an adult, which means being able to take personal responsibility, setting boundaries without feeling bad, appropriately working through our emotions, and demonstrating empathy,” Schuler says. “In doing so, we model for our kids behavior we want them to emulate.”
So what does peaceful parenting look like in practice and how can parents achieve it? Fatherly spoke to Schuler about this unique parenting style and what it looks like in practice.
What misconceptions do people tend to have about peaceful parenting?
There is an assumption that if we parent peacefully, things will always be peaceful. But children are not peaceful. And I think without intention, what we’re doing is we’re asking children to control, manage, and still their behavior for our peace. That is an unwinnable game because children are naturally chaotic, have big energy, are loud, and want to test boundaries. These are typical aspects of a child’s emotional, social, and intellectual development.
I think people wonder whether peaceful parenting is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Can we actually raise responsible, values-led adults — which is the point of parenting — while being peaceful?
Of course, from my worldview, the answer is unequivocally yes. But it’s not children’s behavior that needs to change to make that happen — it’s the adults’.
When did you start to realize and accept that the shift had to begin with you instead of your kids?
I have a degree in psychology from Washington University, and I also had pretty significant trauma from my childhood. That combination gave me a deep desire to parent differently than how I was parented. But when I became a parent, I was not parenting peacefully. I was reactive. I had many moments that created shame and guilt and all the things parents feel when we treat the people we love the most poorly.
When my daughter was about 3 years old, she had this really fine, curly blonde hair that was just an impossible mess. One day, she was sure she did not want it brushed, but we were going somewhere, and I cared what she looked like. And in a reactive moment, I took the hairbrush and swatted her on the butt with it. I immediately dropped the hairbrush and burst into tears.
I thought to myself, with all of my education and understanding of child development and my promise that I would never cause my children physical harm, if I’m struggling this much, there have to be numerous other parents like me who know that they want to parent differently, but don’t know how. And that is what started me down the path toward establishing what is now the Jai Institute for Parenting.
Where do parents start in their understanding of how to reconcile both realities — that kids are chaotic but need structure — that seem like they don’t fit well together?
They’re not mutually exclusive. The first step is that parents need to learn to regulate their nervous system to stay calm, even amid chaos. Even when there’s danger.
I often use the analogy of being the Marine in the movie theater when someone yells “fire!” They’re like, I got this, where are the exits? I’m going to guide people toward the door calmly.
We can borrow that leadership stance as parents. We can be structured, speak with firmness, set boundaries, and have expectations. We do that from a place of leadership by teaching and demonstrating versus reacting, yelling, scolding, shaming, blaming, and punishing.
[Kids] function much better from a place of collaboration and partnership than under a dictatorship.
How should parents communicate when kids aren’t listening or obeying — times when parents tend to get impatient?
Like in every other relationship, effective communication is foundational in the parent-child dyad. When I’m working with parents, we borrow heavily from the work of Marshall Rosenberg and nonviolent communication, focusing on communication that does not cause harm to another human being.
Judgment, blame, and defensiveness are all absent from nonviolent communication. So we start with “I” centered statements like “I’m feeling frustrated because I asked you to take out the trash, and it didn’t get done.”
Our job as parents is to teach solution-oriented thinking. So we might ask, “What would support you to get this done today?” or “How might you remember to take out the trash next week?”
We want to build kids up instead of taking them down when they make mistakes, forget things, or misbehave. Kids are so smart when we involve them in creating solutions to what’s not working, and they own it. They function much better from a place of collaboration and partnership than under a dictatorship.
What should parents trying to grow into a peaceful parenting mindset remember when they don’t live up to the bar they’ve set for themselves?
Remember that peaceful parents are not perfect parents. And the kids of peaceful parents are not perfect kids. In this ecosystem, everyone gets to make mistakes. It’s how we clean them up that matters.
And so, as a peaceful parent, I might have a bad day and lash out at my children or act in a way that I feel ashamed about. In the old model, there would be a defensiveness, like, well, if I admit a mistake to my child, I’m going to lose power. We’re here to eliminate that hierarchy. There’s always room for repair. And that starts with acknowledging our mistakes and taking responsibility for them.
In order for peaceful parenting to work, there must be clearly articulated family values.
It’s easy to confuse or conflate power with authority. How would you differentiate between them when it comes to parenting?
Power is when I feel like I am the bigger person who can control someone else’s experience using my power. Whatever I say goes, regardless of your perspective.
Authority is when I present myself as the wiser, older, more mature person, who loves you more than anything, and therefore, it is my role to support you to be safe and to reach your potential to follow through on your commitments. Sometimes I have a more authoritative stance, but I’m still considering that you have a voice.
What’s an example of how the concept of healthy authority has played out in your parenting?
I was a pretty serious dancer growing up, and I always thought my daughter would be a ballerina just like me. She started to resist and didn’t want to go, and I had a blind spot in this area. Finally, she made me a PowerPoint about why she should be allowed to stop dance classes. And what I said to her is, okay, this makes sense to me. Here’s what matters, though. You must find a different way to move your body because, in our family, moving your body is a nonnegotiable. So, what are three ideas you have where you’re going to get consistent movement of your body into your life?
She came back with aerial and cheerleading, which made me think, Oh, God, really? But it wasn’t about me. It was how she would feel excited to move her body. The value was my authority. The choice and how to execute that value was hers to make.
In order for peaceful parenting to work, there must be clearly articulated family values. That is what becomes the anchor for our parenting. So it’s not about the grade on the test or making the team. It’s about the values that drive the authority that we’re executing. Over time, our goal as parents is to model those values and communicate them in age-appropriate ways so our kids can eventually carry those values as their North Star when they go out into the world and become independent people.