Peaceful Parenting: Working Sideways

July 15, 2013

I’ve written a lot about peaceful parenting and how the major tools for discipline are pro-active rather than re-active.  If you want to have a peaceful family life, the first steps are to work through connection, rhythm, environment, and imitation.  But even while these tools are humming along,  you will still need to set limits – and probably often!  Sometimes it’s necessary to tell a child directly what to do or not to do or what the expectations are.  But often it’s more effective to “work sideways” to address behaviors rather than head-on, especially with children under six.  Young children often respond much better and learn faster when we keep the boundaries in a creative and playful way.

So often parents feel they have two options:  Ignore problem behaviors (and hope they will go away) or directly correct problem behaviors (and make them go away).  But in many cases a third option is the most effective:  Lead your child to the correct behavior by parenting sideways.

 Here are some peaceful parenting tools that approach cooperation, transitions, redirection, and out of bounds behavior by working sideways:

“Mary wore her red dress, red dress, red dress…”

Singing is a great way to get a child’s attention.  They can often “hear” your words better when you sing them.  There is something about singing which feels more gentle to a child and so they are less likely to dig in their heels or to have a big reaction to your request.  I especially like to sing when I need to move something along (like getting dressed) or make a transition easier (like singing “Shoes on, shoes on, lights out, lights out, time to go to the park now…..”).


“I’d like to tell you a story.  Once upon a time…”

Storytelling is a great way to stop any young child in his tracks!  Say you’re folding laundry and all hell is breaking loose – try calling out “I’d like to tell you a story!” and see what happens, or even better, start singing the song that you use when you are about to tell a story.  Stories also carry messages, often in an indirect but powerful way.  A story can be deeply therapeutic for a child even if it doesn’t have a heavy-handed moral (see this book for more information).


“Let’s see how many hops you can do on the hop-on ball!”

Young children are very active and that’s a natural and positive part of their development.  They need to use their bodies all day long in the first seven years – but sometimes all that movement needs some form around it.  If your child is bouncing off the walls, a small amount of directing their energy will go a long way.  Here are some ideas for channeling energy:

  • initiate a singing/movement game (like Skip to My Lou or Ring-Around-the-Rosies)
  • bounce on the trampoline or hop-on ball
  • give physical challenges (“Let’s see how many hops you can do on the hop-on ball!”)
  • stack wood or bricks
  • haul stuff in a wheelbarrow
  • hammer nails, polish or sand wood
  • knead bread
  • pound clay
  • give your child baking soda and let them scrub the bathtub
  • set up an obstacle course (indoors or out!)
  • swing!
  • send them on a scavenger hunt (“Will you please find the most beautiful clover flower and bring it to me?”)
  • provide a way to let off steam inside (an indoor tricycle or small rebounder, for example)
  • go outside where there aren’t any walls to bounce off of!


“Gentle hands.”

Young children respond better to hearing what to do than what not to do.  Often our first instinct if a child is hitting is to say “No hitting!” or “Don’t hit!” and this can actually be confusing to a toddler, who needs to be taught what to do in that situation.  It works better to adopt a simple phrase like “Gentle hands” to repeat as often as necessary, while at the same time just calmly and confidently moving that toddler away from any situations where she is hitting.  Over time she learns “I have gentle hands.”  If it is time to take a bath, you can just calmly and confidently say “Bath time!” (and of course, even better to have a little song to sing when it’s bathtime!) and help your child move in that direction.  Try to avoid escalating, raising your voice, threatening, making promises of rewards, punishing, or using if-than statements – it’s much more effective to just hold your own with a simple positive statement of the expectation.


“Shy little bunny rabbits tiptoe quietly through the library!  Shy little bunnies don’t want to be heard!”

Using language full of images and pictures speaks to the consciousness of your young child.  He is living an imaginative life and when you join him there he can hear you better!  “Great Mother Rain Cloud is blowing on her horn!” works much better than, “Oh, that’s just thunder, it’s nothing to be scared of.”  (That particular image comes from a wonderful story in the book Heaven on Earth – highly recommended!)  Use images that will speak to your child (think about her favorite animals, for example, or stories that she loves).

All of these approaches address problem behaviors (rather than ignoring them and hoping they will go away) but in a sideways, creative, and playful manner.  And the amazing thing is that they promote a connected (and fun!) family life at the same time.


Now it’s your turn:

What’s your favorite way to parent sideways?  I would love to hear about it in the comments below!



{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill July 19, 2013 at 10:22 am

Oh thank you for this post today! It is just what I needed to read. We have a 6 mo old baby in the house and my normally peaceful, grounded 4 yr old son has been testy, defiant, bouncing off the walls, etc. and I am short on sleep and patience these days. But these are beautiful suggestions. Some of which I used to do with him before my daughter was born and all my good sense left me. I have been starting to yell orders out of frustration and feeling like a terrible mommy. Thank you again!! Thank you, thank you, thank you. :-)


Kelly July 20, 2013 at 9:42 am

Jill, I really remember those days with a new baby and being short on patience with my older one – it is so hard, and I promise it will get easier! I’m so happy to hear this post was helpful to you! Blessings –Kelly


Abra September 6, 2013 at 4:18 pm

I just wanted to say thank you for this blog! I’m a single mother who is trying to stay at homewith my 18 month old son as long as possible (through caregiving and working at home.) I would like to homeschool if possible and I’m a big believer in peaceful parenting… but I’m still trying to figure out my “style.”

Your tips are really helpful in getting me thinkingabout things!


Kelly September 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Abra, thank you for being here! I’m so happy you’re enjoying the blog. :)


Lisa November 15, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Love that book, Healing Stories for Challenging behavior, it has been such a great tool for me! It has inspired me to tell a story when I could otherwise just be nagging and ultimately the story is shorter than the nagging!


Kelly November 18, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Lisa, it’s amazing how helpful storytelling can be! :)


anna November 21, 2013 at 11:56 am

Thank you Kelly these are wonderful reminders. I have a 1 year old and a very soon to be 3 year old. I’ve found myself on each end of the spectrum and everywhere in between…yelling and screaming to calm, playful and patient. It depends on so many factors in the day…alignment of the stars, what side of the bed we all woke up on, how much sleep we all got…hormones…do you have any suggestions on what to do if any of the above side ways parenting tips just don’t seem to be working. Yesterday, for example, I was caught in the middle of a full blown tantrum with my 2 year old daughter and I was beside myself. I tried singing, tried distracting, tried waiting it out…eventually I fell back into my old patterns of threats, felt very angry myself…we needed to leave the house and she was having none of it. She would not get dressed and my poor baby boy was waiting patiently, roasting in his snow suit.In reflection I see all the factors that led up to the tantrum and what set it off…just wondering how you handle a tantrum when it’s running it’s course and full blown?
thanks Kelly! I love your site and you are such an inspiring beacon of peaceful mamaness.


Kelly November 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Hi Anna, thank you so much for your comment and for being here! So I think the sideways parenting ideas are great for redirecting and guiding throughout the day but are definitely not a match for a full-blown tantrum! I know tantrums are so stressful. It’s important to give yourself grace! Staying calm in the face of another person’s fury, sadness, confusion, and screaming (no matter how little they are and how much we love them) is possible but it takes courage, patience, understanding, and a whole lot of practice. I think you are right that the thing to do is let the tantrum run its course. What you are witnessing is a child who is experiencing such strong emotions that she doesn’t know how to manage them – she’ll expend a lot of energy during the tantrum and get to the other side of those hard feelings. And yes, it can come at super inconvenient times! So just do what you have to do depending on the situation. Some things that have helped me over the years include getting as much sleep as I can, learning to just sit and be with a child who is out of control (not speaking or reacting, just being there), learning to ignore the voice in my head that is telling me “I have to fix this/make it stop/I screwed this parenting thing up/she needs to learn to behave” and replace it with empathy “She is feeling frustrated/confused/overwhelmed/angry/out of control/scared/powerless/sad and she needs her mama’s love right now.” Also, different children need different things during tantrums. The overarching goal is to create a safe loving container for working through those feelings – for some children that means sitting close but not interacting, for some children singing or rocking while they cry, for some children expressing empathy with words such as “You really want to stay home today” or “You really wanted the pink dress today and I wish it was clean!” – and in some situations you can’t just sit with them but rather you have to just (calmly and gently) put them through the motions of getting out the door or whatever it is. I’ve also learned to get clear about what the boundaries are in my home. It’s my job to hold the boundaries with a kind and firm tone but I don’t expect my little ones to always be gracious about it – as an adult, I can stick calmly to my decisions and limits and at the same time have empathy for their feelings. It took a lot of real-life practice for me to get to that place! So be patient with yourself too. Take care Anna –Kelly


Michelle January 2, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Hello Kelly! I have come back to this and the other connection posts several times and am grateful for the wisdom of patience and practice that you bring to these posts. In your response to Anne, you mention “It’s my job to hold the boundaries with a kind and firm tone…” I am wondering if you have any recommendations for books about setti boundaries with children. Per your recommendation, somewhere along the way, I read “the 5 love languages of children” a few weeks ago “SO HELPFUL!” I believe in my desire to be a connected parent, I have squishy boundaries, then I am super irritated when my tank is empty and my daughter, 6, wants to be extra clingy and kiss my arm “because it is cold,” or my son, 4, is constantly reaching for my ear “because it is cold!” I am daily feeling overwhelmed and literally angry. I am working on making space for myself, that feels like the start, but I think I need help. Any thoughts? Thank-you for your time in considering this request, Michelle.


Kelly January 3, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Hi Michelle, thank you for your wonderful comment! What you’re experiencing (desire to be connected but needing space, the overwhelm and anger) is really common for at-home moms in our generation and I think you’ve identified a couple of the causes – not getting enough recharge/alone time and having squishy boundaries (great way to put it!). Another cause is being isolated – imagine going through your household routines and chores alongside other women while their children play with yours, how different that would be! – which leads to burn out. There is a lot to say on this topic and I’m planning to write a lot more about peaceful parenting (and setting boundaries) on the blog this year but here’s a laundry list of ideas to start with……on the self-care front, be sure that your daily routine includes at least an hour of quiet to yourself every afternoon to do something that you enjoy, prioritize getting enough sleep, daily exercise (something aerobic is great for calming irritability), know that you don’t need to be endlessly entertaining your children or catering to their wants all day and it’s actually a good thing if there are times when you retreat quietly to do your own thing in the background while they play (maybe it’s knitting on the couch, maybe it’s giving yourself plenty of time to cook dinner with your favorite music on), think about whether your partner or a babysitter could take the kids once a week so you can leave the house alone, consider your daily/weekly rhythm and how the pacing feels (is there an extreme of rushing about all the time, or a different extreme of feeling too open-ended or isolated?)…..on the boundaries front, it helps to answer the questions for yourself “Why is my child engaging in this behavior/What is the feeling under it/what does she need?” (could be a feeling of anxiety, could be silliness and wanting to play together, could be wanting attention, could be a habit, could be needing to fill up her own touch tank, etc.), then “Why do I feel irritated/what’s my boundary?” (could be you need more physical space, or fewer interruptions when you’re doing certain things, etc.). Then you can make a script for yourself based on your answers to those questions (for example, “I love to play silly touchy game with you too but I’m not ready to play it until after we’ve finished folding the laundry.”) If you think up a script in advance you’ll be better able to respond with empathy and authority in the moment. And using similar language over and over helps your children learn the boundary (when it’s time for silly touchy game for instance, and when it is not). I’m sorry I can’t think of a book recommendation at the moment for setting boundaries but do let me know if you have more questions….So much to say here and I hope this is a helpful start!


Christina April 14, 2014 at 3:04 pm

This is very helpful advice. I’ve been reading through several posts after finding you on Soulemama’s blog. So many simple mindful tips, but ones that get lost in the shuffle of busyness, fatigue, and impatience. So many of these things I’ve been aware I need to work on, but don’t know where to start or how to change the energy flow. Thank you for the posts and the feedback given in comments. Very helpful and encouraging for this overworked mama.


Kelly April 14, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Christina, I’m so glad and thank you so much for your comment! Blessings to you!


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