Bringing it Home: the Challenge of Restorative Parenting

At first, when I told Oakley that we were going to do something new at bedtime, something called a Family Circle, he wasn’t too excited about the idea. I think he was worried that we’d have to do away with something else to make room for it, that we’d have to read less books or something. At three years old, any change can be stressfull. No, I reassured him, everything else was going to stay the same, we were still going to read books, talk about his day, and tell his story (the one about his best friend, pinky the pig). Before all that, though, we were going to sit in a circle, me, Momma, and Oakley, and talk and listen to one another.

It’s been three or four days now, and so far it’s gone pretty well. Oakley warmed up quickly to the idea. When we were getting ready for our first circle, he asked if we could put something special in the middle. “Like what?” we asked. “My credit card!” he said, referring to a promo credit card he had found in our community junk mail box. So he got the job of setting up the middle of the circle. Each night, he’s put his credit card and a picture he drew down on the bed, and we’ve all sat around them. So far, all we’ve done in the circle is talk about our high and low for the day, or as we explained it to Oakley,

“something that happened today that felt good, was fun or exciting or nice, and something that didn’t feel good, when you were mad or scared or sad.”

All our circles so far have been very short, just a few quick things that were good and a few that weren’t. Already, however, we’ve started to use the circle to adress behavior. Tonight, Momma’s not so good thing was how hard it was to get Oakley to put his pajamas on that evening, how he often wants to fight and doesn’t want to wear pajamas that will be warm enough. Like he often does when people are telling him that they don’t like his behavior, Oakley tried to change the subject, but when we asked him what Momma had said, it turned out he had understood the gist of it, if not the details. He also seemed to have accepted the idea that I was going to put a sweater on him after he fell asleep, which he had been dead set against just a moment before. My hope is that by starting to use the circle format now, and focusing on a light and connective topic, it will be easier to adress big issues later, since he’ll already be familiar with the process. I also imagine that as we keep having circles, they will be a place where vital information comes up, even without us asking for it.

Even though all of this makes me feel quite hopeful for a restorative household, I still know that parenting outside the paradigm of punishment and reward is quite a struggle. Oakley is still small, and, when we really need him to do something like buckling his carseat or putting on his pajamas, we can still physically force him. Its unpleasant, but its still possible as a last resort. Not for long however. So what do we do when he refuses to do what we want, if we’re not going to threaten him with punishments or bribe him with rewards?

One big thing that I’ve had to do is to constantly question why I want him to do whatever it is, and whether I really am unwilling to budge. It’s true, I want him to put on some warm pajamas, so that we won’t have to wake up twelve times in the middle of the night to put his blankets on. But is it worth the screaming, kicking fight to get them on him? Is it worth the damage to our mutual trust inherent in ascribing a punishment to non-compliance, or a reward for compliance? Sometimes, in the moment anyway, it seems to be worth it. When you’re in the trenches, you kind of have to do whatever it takes to get from home to school to lunch to naptime to bedtime. As much as possible, though, I want to respond to conflicts with him by talking them out, by offering him the opportunity to come up with his own solutions, and by being willing to consider adjusting my requests.

So far, and he is only three years old still, he doesn’t seem able to engage in a reasonable discussion most of the time. As soon as he even suspects that a situation might not go just exactly the way he wants it to, he often goes into full on pouty demand mode, and there’s really no talking to him. I’m going to stubbornly keep on trying, however, and I hope that, someday, it will pay off big time.

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