Recently a mother asked the Mentors at Natural Parents Network a valuable question about parenting gently with several children in the family…
“I have been working the last couple of years to become a parent I can be comfortable with (doing away with spanking, anger, yelling, and an authoritarian mindset…though my husband is not on the same page concerning that part). I love all that I am learning, but my big problem is following all of these “gentle” suggestions while managing 4 kids (ages 2.5, 5, 6, and 7) at the SAME TIME! My nearly 5 year old has such huge melt-downs that he requires ALL of my mental and physical energy to contain him…and even then it is merely “survival”. I am not very satisfied with my own reactions, and I feel rather “lost” at times as to what to do. My problem is I then resent him and resort to less gentle methods because I have the responsibility of caring for the others at the same time which feels humanly impossible. Also, sometimes the nature of the conflict is one that needs to be resolved immediately (leaving for school, cleaning up a spill, destroying a siblings project) and there is no time for these type of suggestions. Suggestions buy time but don’t get dinner on the table when everyone else is melting down from hunger and the 5 year old is requiring ALL of my attention for some other issue. I really could use something a little more “nitty gritty” for these more crucial moments (or a way to change my thinking as sometimes that helps too!). Have you found any helpful advice/methods concerning managing larger families?”
Here’s how I responded…
Thank you for asking this pertinent question, not only for larger families, but for anyone who struggles to establish or maintain an honorable approach to parenting in the face of challenge. I can relate as I am currently guiding five children ranging from 5 mos. to 12 years of age.
It sounds like you have been learning some very valuable parenting skills that help you parent more in line with your values, much of the time. It also sounds like some of the skills make their way out the window when you are tending to all of the kids at once and the 5 year old (or possibly another child) is having a difficult time. The main question I hear in what you shared is, “How can I honor myself, my child, and all of my children, when time is short and I must meet everyone’s needs at once?”
First, an underlying philosophy is vital. It’s your go-to in moments of question. Putting it into action is the “nitty-gritty” you are talking about. Why is philosophy important? Because if we don’t have our values to guide us, we falter. It’s too easy to revert to what we were raised with, how we react when challenged, or some other variance that isn’t what we really want. It’s the difference between reacting and responding. Part of my personal parenting philosophy is a foundation of relaxation mediation. I teach myself how to respond to the complexities of parenting multiple children and change my default to loving guidance (yes, it’s a practice).
Here are a few resources to refine, redefine, and anchor in a solid philosophy from which to parent from… Simple Inquiry for Parents, Tools for Creating Your Parenting Philosophy, Simple Meditation, I Find My Way to Peace, The Whole Body Camera, and Nurturing Presence. You may also benefit from a parenting mantra – some sort of statement that can help you refocus your attention, mind, and body on what is important to you when challenges arise.
Second, create a chaos plan. This can look like sitting down with a piece of paper and writing what chaos looks like in your home – 5 year old melting down when you have 5 minutes to leave, all of the kids upset at once, feeling overtired and frustrated yourself at bedtime, whatever. Then brainstorm ways to deal with the chaos. If someone is upset and combative, think of what you can direct the other children to – safe activities in their room, ways to help, a snack in the fridge, a book to read – while you help that child.
In helping your child who is upset, think about how this may go if you feel ill prepared versus when you feel you have enough time/sleep/resources . If you feel rested is it easier to listen, reflect what your child is feeling, be there while he feels what he feels, and move to what’
s next? Sure, so building in some time to rest more – even with 5 minutes of conscious relaxation or meditation – may help. That can be part of your preparedness plan; if you are feeling stressed take five minutes and rest a bit so you can refresh yourself for the remainder of the day.
It may also be helpful to prepare some snacks ahead of time for kids to eat while you are dealing with another or need to get out the door. Adding in some extra time before outings can make a difference as well. Allow your mind to explore all possibilities of lightening the experience of chaos through survival thinking. Mentally rehearse how you will meet chaos and see yourself confident as you handle the challenges of parenting.
A lot of figuring out how to prepare for chaos comes from moving through chaos without having what we need in place, so give yourself permission to learn along the way. If you feel like you’re short on skills to help with your chaos plan, talk with another parent who has many children or a parenting mentor.
Now, the in-the-moment application. Again, I am grateful you asked because answering this question is helping me clarify my approach. Here’s what I’ve come up with… and I admit that it’s an evolving process. Kind of like coming up with one’s favorite recipe, you might start with someone else’s that tastes really good, then you modify it, add a little of this here, reduce a little of that, and wa-la… it’s an even yummier yum. Possibly these will be some helpful pointers for you as you come up with your own perfectly evolving approach.
Breathe. Okay, you’re already breathing. Notice your breath. As you assess the situation, focus your attention deeply on the rhythm of your breath. If it’s quick and you feel upset (maybe even furious), allow it to ease a bit and continue to keep your awareness on your breath and body as you move to help your family. This alone can remind you to be intentional instead of reactive or harsh. Great time to bring in a mantra or pointer to your parenting philosophy, too.
Start with immediate needs. What needs attention right now? If you’re getting ready to go out the door and your 5 year old starts to get upset, begin by meeting your own immediate need to acknowledge that things are not going according to plan and it’s okay to feel what you feel. It’s okay for everyone to feel what they feel. If the need in the moment is for your child to be heard, listen – as you get everyone else ready. If the need is for a snack or safety, honor that and get space if necessary for a few moments while you gently continue as planned.
Move to basic needs. Does anyone need to use the restroom, eat, get a drink of water, rest somewhere quiet, connect for a hug? As you meet the immediate needs present, take note of what basic needs may need attention and attend to them. If your 5 year old is still upset let him know you notice he may feel angry/sad/disappointed/whatever you feel he is feeling and if you need to move to help another one of the kids — do that. Just let him know you are making your way to the kitchen to prep dinner. Invite him to come along or come back and check on him in a few moments.
Breathe some more. As you take inventory of what needs to be done in the situation, allow yourself a few moments to just observe, possibly allow your shoulders to relax, and even smile. Wow, this is parenting — full of challenges and I’m learning as I go!
Move to structure. Keeping with routine or rhythm can be helpful when we are willing to flow with the ups and downs of being the caregiver of many. Kids will get upset, we can learn to help them through what they feel. It’s okay to tend to everyone’s needs while someone feels upset. As the child learns that feeling upset is not a problem, but something the family can work through together, the tendency for such emotions to derail the whole family will lessen. Once you feel you’ve regained a sense of equilibrium (use the sit down if helpful), move to what you planned to do before chaos erupted, or what feels appropriate given the circumstances. Invite the children to accompany you to do the dishes, get out the door, whatever. If you have a silly song you can sing along the way, all the better.
Appreciate. Look at your children and feel the love you have for them. Really soak it up (the whole body camera may be helpful to do when all is going well, too).
Breathe. Don’t forget about you in all of this because you are the one guiding everyone else. Instead of letting that statement reinforce any pressure you may feel, consider it a pointer to the immensity of power you have to mother your children through whatever comes. It’s in you… enjoy the journey.