My daughter just wrote all over the kitchen wall – with yogurt.
I am exasperated, to say the least. I have a pile of laundry to do, two twin infants that don’t feel like napping, and now I have sticky yogurt on the wall.
My daughter looks up at me (equally covered in yogurt) with a sly smile that tells me that she knows I won’t be happy with what she’s done.
I feel anger boil up in me. She did this on purpose. How many times have I told her not to play with her food? I trusted her to eat her own yogurt while I put her brothers down for a nap, and she intentionally didn’t listen. She is being disobedient, and I need to punish her so that she won’t do it again.
That’s parenting: We teach through consequences and rewards.
At least that’s what I always thought.
My parents parented that way. If I had written on the wall with yogurt, I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten a swat on the butt or sent to the corner.
Supernanny would undoubtedly send her to time out or the “naughty chair.” At a minimum, there would be displeasure in the form of yelling or a lecture.
I agree that these things might help solve the immediate issue. If the issue was only “how to not get yogurt on the walls.” But I want my daughter to learn more than just wall-hygiene from the situation.
I want her to learn how people handle anger – my anger. I want her to learn that my love is not dependent upon her behavior. And I want her to learn that yogurt doesn’t go on walls, and there are other ways to have fun, and that Mommy cares enough to help with that.
I talked in my post “What Could Feminist Parenting Look Like?” about how the goals of feminism translate into parenting goals. All of the mainstream ways of handling the situation would make her feel small and powerless.
That’s not what I want.
I want her to feel empowered and heard as much as I don’t want yogurt on my walls. She has needs (attention, a desire to paint) and so do I (not to have yogurt on the walls). And both of our needs matter.
Mainstream parenting usually negates the needs of the child. If they acknowledge the needs at all, they are considered wrong and to be changed through training.
But parenting is, above all else, a relationship between two people: the parent and the child.
As such, it is an ever-changing negotiation of the needs of those two people. A mother or father comes to the relationship with their own preferences, past experiences, and foibles that influence how they parent.
The parent has the control and the child conforms. This type of parenting is called Authoritarian.
Conversely, when the child is in control and the parent subsumes their needs to the child, we call this Permissive parenting.
Feminist Parenting, on the other hand, recognizes a more egalitarian relationship of mutual respect. The needs of both the parent and the child are equally important and validated.
Parenting Styles in Action
So let’s use the yogurt example to show the differences between the three styles:
Mainstream Control-Based Parenting (also called Authoritarian): The rules have been broken. The child is punished with clear disapproval from the parent through yelling, spanking, and shame (timeout, nose in the corner).
The “consequence” of their actions is that the child has to help clean the whole kitchen wall and floors as punishment. In no uncertain terms, yogurt on the walls will not be tolerated behavior, and if the child wants to be in your good graces, they will comply.
Permissive Parenting: The parent whines about the mess and then cleans it up, mumbling about what a mess-maker the child is. The child sees that yogurt on the walls makes Mommy grouchy, but she cleans it up, so it’s no big deal.
Being permissive is one of the fears with feminist parenting, but look at it from the relationship perspective: If you always subsume your need to your child’s so that they can have everything that they want, are you modeling a healthy relationship?
Feminist Parenting: Your need to have yogurt-free walls is important and so are the needs of the child. In a consensual way, you need to work together to find a solution that honors both needs.
Ok, but how does that work? We have a lot of examples of how to practice control-based parenting but less experience, if any, with feminist parenting.
One tool that I use to help me through a relationship-respecting plan is called DERA: Describe, Empathize, state the Rule, discuss Alternatives.
Here’s a closer look at how this works.
First, I take a deep breath to examine my own emotional reaction to the situation, knowing that my first reaction probably isn’t the best one. Then, I go through the steps DERA:
Describe: In a neutral tone, say, “I see yogurt all over the wall.”
Empathize: “It must have been fun to paint with yogurt.” Think about your child and why you think they did what they did. Maybe it was for attention or just for the fun of cold, slimy yogurt in their fingers.
Try to think about it from their perspective while assuming the best intentions. Remove ideas that “they just did this to make me mad” and find the root need.
You can ask questions if you’re unsure, but make sure you do it in a non-judgmental manner: “Why did you do this?” said with a tone of disapproval is not going to open a dialogue on what their need might be.
Empathizing is an essential ingredient in negotiation. No one – child or adult – feels like discussing a problem if they don’t’ feel that their needs, feelings, or perspective matter.
State the Rule: “However, yogurt is just for bellies and can’t go on the wall. Yogurt can attract ants and ruin the paint.”
This is an example of a neutral “rule”. I wouldn’t recommend the oft-repeated parental phrase “the rule is…” since that also doesn’t open up discussion.
If there isn’t a practical reason for your need, then just go ahead and frame it as a need: “I feel very stressed when there is food on the walls.”
Sharing your needs teaches children how to identify and name their needs, too. This also avoids any “you” statements that place blame. Don’t say “you always make a mess” or “you are stressing me out.” Using “I” statements helps you to own your feelings, rather than the feelings of someone else.
Discuss Alternatives: Discussing alternatives requires looking at the needs of each person. The parent probably has the immediate need of getting the yogurt cleaned up: “I’ll get some towels so we can wipe it up.”
If you can, determine the need in a young child: “Then how about we do some finger- painting on paper later?”
If not, ask the child: “Then maybe we can find a better way to play that we can both agree on? What about we just cuddle and read a book together? What do you want to do?”
Why is this more effective for both the child and the parent? In feminist parenting, I want to respect the feelings of the child. If the child wanted to have fun smearing yogurt, then that is a valid feeling.
Just because it makes me mad doesn’t invalidate the child’s feeling. Authoritarian parenting doesn’t recognize the child’s needs.
Only caring about the feelings of the child can lead to permissive parenting. As a feminist parent, I also want my kids to respect the feelings of others.
Because of this, how I feel about the yogurt on the walls matters, too. It is ok for me not to allow yogurt on the walls. My needs are also valid
Feminist parenting says that since we are both of value, then it’s important that we find a solution that meets both of our needs.
Is this easy? No.
Most of us didn’t have this type of parenting as role models growing up, and most people’s initial reaction is to focus on how it makes them feel
Thinking outside of that control-based box is difficult. That’s what’s nice about having specific steps to follow like DERA.
It allows us to break out of the cycle of control-submission that typifies most parent/child relationships and instead, envision a new way. Over time, it becomes easier.
Can you think of times when you were controlling? How did it affect your relationship with your child? What could you do differently?
Paige Lucas-Stannard is a Parenting Writer and Educator at Everyday Feminism.Paige Stannard is a Staff Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a former NASA research librarian happy to be home raising her 3 IVF babies after nearly a decade of infertility. She blogs about infertility, parenting, and women’s issues at Baby Dust Diaries as well as being the founder of the gentle discipline siteParentingGently.com and co-founder of the breastfeeding rights site NursingFreedom.org. She likes to cook and sew and has, in general, become her mother. Happily. Follow her on Twitter @babydust.. Read her articles here.