I was sitting poolside in Florida, all by myself. I italicize that because it was a fairly momentous event. I am hardly ever alone. As in, pretty much never, not even for a minute. So, it felt like a fairly big deal to have my husband entertaining my daughter in the nearby pool (but out of earshot from me), and to have almost no one around. The lounge chairs were nearly empty; it was chilly by Florida standards.
I superficially noticed a woman sitting pretty close to the chair I’d chosen, but I didn’t pay her much attention.
I sat back to read my book. Upon internalizing that I could do nothing, however, I closed my eyes and kind of zoned out.
After a few seconds, I heard the nearby woman exclaim, “Oh, I am SO sorry!”
I looked up and saw that a dripping wet young child was standing between us. Although I was still perfectly dry, the mama must’ve assumed her daughter had gotten me wet somehow. Smiling back sincerely, I offered, “Oh, there’s nothing to apologize for! I’m dry. Plus, I have a five-year-old, so I totally get it.”
Her daughter ran back to the pool. The mom, however, held my gaze.
“You DO?” she inquired. “Mine just turned five and it’s throwing me for a loop. It’s so hard and I just don’t know what to do with her. Is it like that for you, too?”
As if I’d planned it, but of course I hadn’t, I displayed my handy visual aid. I held out the book I’d brought to read poolside—Discipline Without Damage by Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, R. Psych (afflink)—and replied warmly and truthfully, “We’re all still learning.”
Her jaw just about hit the ground. She asked to take a photo of the book’s cover, and I offered it willingly.
“It’s so hard,” she said with her beautifully thick southern accent. “I’ve done it all wrong.”
I was surprised how much she was confiding in me as a total stranger, but somehow, our conversation felt entirely natural.
She continued, “I nursed her for too long. She was three when she stopped. And I should’ve started punishing her when she was littler; taking things away; smacking; doing what all my friends with older kids said I should do. I’m really too late, aren’t I? The last thing I want is a kid who doesn’t grow up respecting me. I mean, she still sleeps in my bed. I’m doing it all wrong.”
Gently, I offered, “I’m so glad you’re here. I want you to know that you didn’t nurse her for too long. You did what worked for you both. Also, let me tell you—I know some things about this. I’m a mama, too, and sometimes I help other parents. A lot changes at age five. Your girl’s brain chemistry has just changed substantially; it just is hard while you learn about this new version of the same child you’ve always had. Punishment is never the answer. Building a positive lifelong connection with her, is. Respect comes from trust. You’re doing it right.”
She blinked back tears.
I repeated with love, “This is all normal. You’re doing it right.”
She cried tears of relief. I got a little misty, too, because…well, when in Rome, right? Here we were, two strangers, who “got” each other.
We talked through a few specifics of her parenting and of her daughter.
She told me that earlier that day, she’d prayed that someone would just “sit right down next to me at the pool today and tell me what to do.” She confessed that her heart wasn’t hearing the answer by itself, so she’d decided to be specific in her request.
Now, to be clear, I would never call myself an answer to prayer. If anything, when I was “zoning” moments before our conversation, I’d been seeking a bit of direction, myself. Sometimes I wonder if I should be doing what I’m doing, as a gentle parenting writer. It feels right in my heart, but for all the time I invest in it, does it actually help anybody?
When we finished our conversation, she hugged me like a long-lost friend. She thanked me, but really, the gratitude and clarity in my own heart were overwhelming.
If we’re wondering whether gentle parenting is “right” when so much of the world seems anything but gentle, sometimes we need to look no farther than the person right next to us. Even more, we need to trust that something greater than us is at work, and that we’re all exactly where we’re supposed to be.
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