This past week, a friend found herself with a dilemma. Her parents had given her child a police toy to play with and it made her uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about her dilemma, because I’ve faced it too. As someone who works toward being conscious and conscientious about the decisions I make as a parent, issues like this require a lot of consideration. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know what my husband and I have decided.
Our perception of the police is complicated. As a Black man, my husband has been targeted by the police over the course of his life. I have been in the car when he’s been pulled over for no reason and let go as the officer refused to state clearly why we had been bothered. I support the cause of Black Lives Matter and I believe in the use of civil disobedience to protest the egregious treatment of Black people at the hands of the state. I believe that the police are agents of the state issued forth to carry out the dictates of a white supremacist culture. That is the reality we’re living in.
So, why on earth would I allow police imagery in my home? Because while I support defunding and de-militarizing the police, as well as reallocating monies toward community building, I also recognize that even if we could achieve the extinction of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, people would still find ways to hate and to hurt. We will always need some form of refereeing in order to live in concert with one another. That much is true, but policing in its current state does not serve the common good and should be revolutionized.
As I thought about this crisis of conscious, I was reminded of the time my mother brought us a white-centric board book version of the Thanksgiving story. In that moment, I had to make a split second decision. Do I stop her and tell her not to read such a thing in front of my children? I did consider it, but ultimately, I sat as she read and I corrected everything that was wrong. I stopped her every few lines to provide accurate information and appropriate terminology. That is the spirit with which my husband and I interact with the word. We acknowledge the things that aren’t right but, instead of ignoring them, we address them.
When my kids want to watch shows that contain police imagery, I don’t stop them. And, when they receive gifts like Paw Patrol toys, I don’t ban them. Not because I consent to violence, but because proscribing these symbols of tyranny does not eliminate them. It curtails important conversations about them. The police are everywhere. My husband and I have to teach our kids how to interact with them so as not to be killed. We have to explain how members of our community who are kind and care for our kids could be part of a cruel, racist system. We have to help them forge a vision of a future where policing is far less destructive and less necessary. And, we have to give them the space they need to process all of these huge and heavy ideas. Our kids will likely eschew the police in the future, of their own accord. For now, we’re working through concepts that are awfully big for people so new to the world.
So, we won’t go out of our way to expose our children to police shows or toys and we won’t ever buy any. We won’t criticize people whose solution is to ban police images from their homes, as doing so is a completely understandable and valid form of protest. But, we will use the organic opportunities presented to us through curiosity and play to counter the glorification of the police and we will offer, as an alternative, the goal of widespread liberation for Black people from the oppression of law enforcement and criminal justice.
I’m curious how you work through difficult concepts and what you do in your home?
My family has been going through it the past couple weeks. It’s just more of the same 2020 nonsense that everyone is experiencing, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve been thinking about a post on executive functioning, as I can imagine we’re all working a little harder on this skill of late, but also because I recently ran across something that might help our kids be a little more effectual with a lot less work and frustration.
Executive function is the term for the overall management of the brain. It is what allows us to prioritize tasks and get things done and it involves three overarching areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). The eight executive functions are self-control, self-monitoring, emotional control, flexibility, task initiation, organization, working memory, and planning & time management.
There are many brain differences that impact executive functioning including things like autism, ADHD, depression, and trauma to the brain. And, if you’ve spent time around kids, you’ll recognize that their executive functioning is still under construction. In fact, executive function develops all the way into adulthood. Kids who are struggling with it might not be able to pay attention, hold onto a series of instructions, transition from one task to the next, or plan out action steps. As a child, I had many, many hours of therapy to help me improve my executive functioning skills, so I was intrigued when I recently ran across a strategy that promises improvements in executive function.
Kristen Jacobsen (MS CCC-SLP) and Sarah Ward (MS CCC-SLP) are two speech language pathologists who have been studying executive function for the past 20+ years and now co-direct Cognitive Connections, a specialty practice in Massachusetts. Together, they created the 360 Thinking™ Executive Function Program that includes a strategy developed by Sarah Ward called Get Ready, Do, Done. This strategy coaches children to identify what needs to be done at a future time, imagine what “done” looks like, work backward to plan out the steps to get there, and then collect needed materials to accomplish the task. It is a way to lay out each step for those whose brains don’t automatically do the planning for them. The model plans backward before taking steps forward.
What will it look like when I am done?
What steps do I need to take to be done? How long will each step take?
What do I need to get ready?
What materials do I need to do the steps?
Time to do the task. Create a timeline and time markers.
Know when to stop and close out the task.
When I was little, I used to get frustrated to the point of shutting down when I was told to clean my room. In childist terms, I might have been called lazy or stubborn, but the problem I had was that I simply didn’t know what to do! I needed someone to show me my room clean and straight several times, so I’d have the picture in my mind. I needed to be walked around the room and shown where each item was supposed to go. I needed a step-by-step plan, like:
Get cleaning supplies.
Clear off and make the bed to use as a staging area if needed.
Pick up and put away items from the floor as follows: trash, dishes, clothes, toys, books, and everything else.
Organize wardrobe and trunk.
Wipe dust and grime from surfaces.
That never happened for me. I stumbled through housework until well into adulthood when I came across the organizing and cleaning industries and learned how to properly do housework. Even with small children now, I’m able to keep my house nice and clean. I even put laundry away after it’s dried, which is something I never did as a young adult. Check out this quick video that uses cleaning a room to explain executive functioning:
If you’d like to give Get Ready, Do, Done a try, check out these free resources:
In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.
A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.
Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.
If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?
On Saturday, in her first speech as our Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, remarked that “Black women… are often, too often, overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.” I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the familiar and not-so-familiar names that I’ve encountered over the past few days in hopes that this information will make it to your dinner table where you can tell your children about these role models.
There are so many Black women in leadership today who deserve more recognition. I’m going to talk about a few of them who were behind the unexpected voter turnout that flipped Georgia blue. Georgia hasn’t supported a Democratic president since Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, nearly 30 years ago. So, what happened? Black voters, especially young Black voters, came out in force. And, it was no accident. This extraordinary feat in voter registration and empowerment happened at the expert hands of Black women. Whatever your political persuasion, the sheer effort that went into the hundreds of millions of votes cast in the 2020 United States presidential election is impressive.
On the National Stage
Stacey Abrams grew up in Mississippi and moved with her family to Georgia, so her parents could attend graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta. Abrams received a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from Spelman College (an HBCU), a master’s in public affairs from the University of Texas, and JD from Yale Law School.
Abrams’ influential political career began when she was involved with a congressional campaign in high school and went on to be hired as a speechwriter as a teenager. She served for a decade in the Georgia House of Representatives before launching a gubernatorial campaign in 2018 against then-Secretary of State, Brian Kemp. She was the first Black woman on any major party’s general ballot for governor.
Though her valiant efforts garnered national attention, she decided that, instead of pursuing legal action or running for political office in the immediate aftermath, she would strike back against the kind of voter disenfranchisement that had cost her the Georgia governorship.
She launched Fair Fight 2020, an organization that seeks to “promote fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourage voter participation in elections, and educate voters about elections and their voting rights” with a specific emphasis on “voters of color” and “young voters.” She is credited with paving the way to voter registration for more than 800,000 people.
Keisha Lance Bottoms
Arguably, the two most prominent Black women in Georgia today are Stacey Abrams and Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Bottoms was born and raised in Atlanta. She received a bachelor’s in broadcast journalism from Florida A&M University (an HBCU) and a JD from Georgia State University. Her political journey took her from the courtroom to a judgeship to the Atlanta City Council, and then she was elected mayor in 2017. In just three years, she launched herself right into the national arena.
Her remarkable career coupled with her fearless and progressive voice landed her on the short-list for Vice President alongside Representative Val Demings, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Kamala Harris, who was ultimately selected.
These next five women were instrumental in the high voter turnout among people of color and young folks. Here’s a little about their role in the effort.
Top: Nsé Ufot and Tamieka Atkins Bottom: Deborah Scott, LaTosha Brown, and Helen Butler
Nsé Ufot is the Executive Director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan effort “to register and civically engage Georgians,” particularly the growing population of young people of color and unmarried women who represent the majority of the voting age population in Georgia.
Tamieka Atkins is the executive director of ProGeorgia, a civic engagement group “building infrastructure by supporting, connecting and coordinating civic participation efforts of our non-profit member groups.”
Deborah Scott is the executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, a “think and act tank for working communities” that “organizes and educates communities about issues related to labor unions, transit equity, affordable housing, & economic development.” Their non-partisan voter engagement program, Stand Up and Vote! designed to ensure that residents are “educated and engaged in elections at all levels of government.”
LaTosha Brown is a co-creator of the Black Voters Matter Fund, an electoral organizing group that keys in on voter registration, policy advocacy, and organizational development and training. Their hands-on programs, like a Warrant Clinic that helps people clear warrants and fines they can’t afford and lifts barrier to employment, housing, and voting at the most fundamental level.
Helen Butler is the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda whose mission is to improve the quality of governance in Georgia, help create a more informed and active electorate, and have responsive and accountable elected officials. She is especially concerned with justice reform and protecting voting rights.
These women deserve praise and recognition for their hard work. We white parents, in particular, have a responsibility to make Black history come alive for our kids and these leaders are Black history in the making!
Several months ago, I wrote a piece called In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time. The resounding critique I received was that it is too dangerous in this day and age to allow kids unsupervised access to the internet. And, y’all, I could not agree more.
Plus, one in five kids has been sexually solicited online. The stakes are high and we have every reason to be extremely concerned. To be clear, I vehemently reject any notion that a child can be safe online without any adult supervision. Adult predators are targeting our kids. Therefore, our children are unsafe. Period. So, what do we do?
My children are still very young, but I am implementing some solutions already. I am also learning from other parents and adjusting my approach as a result. Thus far, these are my mandatory basics:
Be Honest About the Dangers
I have no intention of terrifying my children, but I will absolutely let them know the possible outcomes of risky activity. I know from having been a child myself that I didn’t really “get it” when adults issued warnings. It was only when I had my own experiences that I understood. I recognize that this is likely the case for my own children, so my responsibility is to prepare and protect them in the meantime.
Be Aware of What Your Child is Doing
It’s so much easier to let a child fall into the online world so we can get our own tasks done, right? But it’s a big gamble. We need to pay attention. We need to know who our kids are talking to, what information they’re receiving, what information they’re giving out and so forth. I’m not certain where I stand yet on technology that allows parents to spy on their children directly. That makes me uncomfortable as an anti-childist parent but I will confess that, if it’s a choice between my kids leading a predator to our home versus peeking in on their online activity… I get why there’s a market for that sort of tech.
Consider Parental Controls
One of the easiest ways to restrict content is to go through your home’s wifi settings and this article explains how to do just that. Beyond that, all modern handheld technology offers the ability to manage parental settings either as a built in app or a downloadable one. When seeking out a downloadable app, check to see how well it filters web content, whether it has location tracking, and if it works across multiple operating systems.
That said, parental controls aren’t guaranteed and they aren’t foolproof. Coaching kids in internet safety is far more effective and reliable.
Practice Safety Measures
It’s one thing to tell a child what to do, but showing a child what to do on their preferred device will lead to better understanding and use. One simple exercise we can do with our kids is website vetting. Go to a website and point out all the reasons the website looks legitimate or all the reasons it doesn’t. This exercise teaches kids how to locate reputable information while protecting themselves from danger. And, be sure to let your kids know what to do if they run across something troubling.
Teach Kids About Consent and Boundaries
This one could easily fit under the previous heading, but it’s too important not to mention separately. One of the best ways to protect children from predators is to teach them about consent and boundaries from a very young age. They need to know that they can say no to and even hurt an adult who does something to their bodies that is scary or painful. Years ago, a sex educator went viral for saying that adults should get consent from babies before changing their diapers. She was laughed into oblivion, but she had a point. We should always be talking through what we’re doing to our children’s bodies and giving them an opportunity to decline.
Maintain an Open Connection With Your Child
A parents’ best defense against danger from external forces is a respectful, connected relationship with their child. Kids who aren’t afraid to come to their parents with uncomfortable information will come to their parents. My children never “get in trouble” with me. When they approach me, they know they will not be punished no matter what they do or say. They will be accepted fully and loved endlessly. So, when the time comes for them to tell me something difficult, they won’t have to think to themselves, “Ugh, my mom is going to kill me!” All the while, I am teaching them our family’s values and acknowledging that they have their own path. I am only here to love, guide, and protect them until they are adults themselves.
Make Clear Agreements
Coming to some mutually agreeable decisions around internet access is a substantially beneficial preventative measure before any threat arises. What are your non-negotiables? For my family, one of our non-negotiables is age. Our kids will be discouraged from accessing social media until at least age 16. What are your biggest concerns? How can you address those concerns with buy-in from your child? A friend had the brilliant idea to work with her daughter on an Instagram contract that has some built in actions if things go awry. The most wonderful part of this contract for me is the fact that her daughter had veto rights on the elements and still wanted to agree to all these things that would keep her safer.
Act Quickly at the First Sign of Danger
If you do learn that someone has been targeting your child, report it. Report it immediately. And, you have some options. You can call 911. You can contact the FBI. You can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678 or report.cybertip.org. Don’t feel like you’re blowing it out of proportion. If your protective senses are tingling, something is very wrong.
Unlimited Screen Time =\= Unmonitored Screen Time
I strongly promote unlimited screen time as restriction is all too often a source of compulsion. Kids need the availability of unlimited time in order to learn what is optimal for them.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece exploring the idea that rewards might be a tool of abuse and, therefore, something parents would be wise to avoid. In the aftermath, I was asked “Isn’t Smiling a Reward?” in the context of pushback from a reader who suggested that there is no way to avoid rewards in parenting. I will grant that the issue is complicated. Of course it is. We’re dealing with human brains! So, I dug a little deeper to better understand if and how rewards might be utilized within the context of peaceful parenting.
The first thing I know innately is that we are social beings. We seek to engage with others of our species as a primitive drive. We use facial expressions and body language to communicate whether other humans are in our circle or not. So, it stands to reason that we would take pleasure from expressions that indicate our inclusion into our preferred social group. With that idea in mind, I took to the science.
Here’s what I learned. Our brains have a reward center that uses the languages of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters, to translate our experiences into something our minds can grasp physically. Brainfacts.org explains, “Dopamine-producing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens in order to evaluate rewards and motivate us to obtain them.” In simple terms, the nucleus accumbens is a structure in the basal forebrain that scientists believe translates external stimuli into understandable gains, which allows us instinctively to recognize which behaviors are more likely to attain rewards and which ones are not. Check out this quick explanation:
We do not have to think to make the reward center of our brain operate. It is a very basic and very old system that operates behind the scenes. We may not even realize that our experiences are subtly altering our behavior. (And, this is why behaviorism is so effective, albeit harmful, for humans.)
In this sense, yes, a parent smiling at a child does activate the reward center in the brain; therefore, yes, smiling is a reward in the same way eating is a reward and sleeping is a reward and street drugs are a reward and so on. The term “reward” in this context means a reinforcer that encourages a person to return to the same behavior over and over again. However, when we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. For instance, providing candy for using the potty or saying “good job” to a child who has cleaned his room. These rewards offer temporary elation and encourage our kids to both crave our attention and unthinkingly submit to our authority.
Peaceful parents do not offer rewards in an effort to mold behavior. Instead of extrinsic (or external) motivation, we prioritize intrinsic (or internal) motivation. We know that extrinsic rewards are demotivating and that children will require more and more payoff to accomplish the same tasks the farther along we go. We don’t bribe our children with candy. If we give them candy, it is not a perk for connecting with interoceptive signals. It is an opportunity to sit around the table as a family and practice eating intuitively. We don’t pay our kids to do chores. If we provide an allowance, it is not an exchange for a job well done. It is an opportunity to learn financial responsibility.
And, we know this is the healthiest way to interact with our children, because science confirms it. A 2009 study found that people with low self esteem who engaged in positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” ended up immediately descending into self-deprecation when the self-praise conflicted with their concept of self. Empty praise backfires.
Alternatively, a 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at the effects of self-affirmation, which involves dwelling on values rather than pointing out personal qualities. Participants were asked to “Please think about an experience involving [VALUE].” That exercise was then followed by visualization and thinking about the experience they’d had. The result was an increase in positive self-worth, which was even stronger when participants considered future events rather than past ones.
Turns out that self-affirmation improves function in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), two areas the deal with self-referential processing (i.e. the parts of the brain that allow us to engage in mindfulness). These increases made the participants more resilient against any negative information that came later. This is why it is always more effective for children when we talk about values and efforts versus toward a future vision than when we talk about personal qualities and snapshot accomplishments. Both affirmations and praise activate our brain’s reward center, but only one insulates us against negative self-worth.
When we smile at our children out of sheer joy at their existence, it is rewarding to their brains, but it is not an effort to coercively manage their behavior. So, please, smile at your kids, hug them, love on them, and affirm them. In doing so, you will build up their self-esteem in a way that can make it unshakeable.
We’re back from our first ever week-long break since we started homeschooling and a lot has changed. I have pondered and prayed over a conversation I had with @healingfeelingmother, a reader on Instagram who asked me questions about why I mention specifics about my kids on a public facing platform. My initial response was that the blog is anonymous specifically to protect my children’s identities. But, that conversation set something off in my mind.
Soon, thereafter, I read this post by Ellen Stumbo:
Whew. That hit home. Even though I am Autistic myself, I have no right to speak freely about another Autistic person’s experience without consent. Actually, I have no right to speak about any person’s experience without consent. Here I am, an anti-childist advocate and I’m violating my kids’ privacy on a near-weekly basis. Sure, the blog is anonymous for now, but the plan is to go public in the future once my kids can consent to me becoming what amounts to a public figure in the world of peaceful parenting, however minor my role would be. Even if I’m not talking about them specifically, it would still impact our entire family for all of my words to be associated with me (and us). There’s a reason celebrities are so careful to hide their kids away from the spotlight and, while I’m not saying I’d become a celebrity, the concept still applies to my little section of the internet. Others have already forged this path and I’m stumbling along making mistakes because I wasn’t paying attention.
I went back to see what I had written specifically about my children and, while it wasn’t a lot, so much of it was incredibly revealing. I wrote about moments of vulnerability, emotions, bodily functions, and more all in the name of offering other parents a glimpse into how peaceful parenting can work for them too. I’ve been exploiting my children for the benefit of other children. It has to stop.
Over the past week, I have scoured the blog to remove all references to my kids. No little stories about them or references to them that are in any way traceable. I’m in the process of deleting many of my Facebook posts and archiving most of my Instagram posts that are problematic. And, moving forward, if I need to tell a story to get a point across, it will be de-identified, whether it is my own or someone else’s, unless I have specific consent to discuss it.
Finally, I have a request of all of you. If you see me post something that is inappropriate about my kids, call me out. Tell me I’ve crossed a line so I can rectify the problem. I want to make sure that, once we go public, no one can scroll back through my words and find anything about my children that could be used to shame them or discriminate against them. Thank you all for your continued support of this blog! You are truly my people.
As peaceful parents, we recognize that rewards and punishment are tools of manipulation and they have no place alongside things like emotion coaching and relationship building. But, should we go so far as to call rewards a tool of abuse? That’s a heavy, heavy word and one I was reticent to use in describing punishments, like spanking, for a very long time. However, within the past year, I have come to realize just how destructive spanking really is. Now, I’m turning my attention to rewards to investigate their effects on children.
Rewards are an implement of a field of psychology called behaviorism. Put plainly, behaviorism is a psychological approach that assumes all behaviors are the result of conditioning and that behavior is always purposeful. It leaves no room for cognitive sources of behavior. So, where behavior is deemed a problem, the solution is not to resolve what is happening with the person internally, but to externally mold the person’s behavior into something the therapist considers more appropriate.
While behaviorism as a branch of psychology traces its roots back to 1913, the use of external manipulation is far, far older. It’s mentioned throughout the Bible, we see it in the form of punishment as marks cut deep on skeletal remains, and we all know it for the anxiety and fear it produces. Behaviorism has some practical applications, such as animal training and smoking cessation when used by choice. Consent is key, as behaviorism has such a substantial potential to be harmful. To understand how very undermining it can be, take this story as an example. I saw it in an autism-related facebook group and it is a fantastic illustration of what I mean.
My degree is on Cognitive Science, which included quite a bit on behaviorism. I was never aiming to be a therapist, and had no idea I was autistic when I was in college.One of the interesting things about behaviorism is that it works even on subjects who have no idea they’re being trained. You can train a grown adult into quite elaborate behaviors without them being aware they’re being trained, or sometimes that they’re even doing the behaviors. Case in point, my brother’s psychology class decided to try training their professor. They picked three behaviors they wanted: writing class notes more towards the middle of the board, using the word “I” more, and tucking his hand into his upper inside pocket a la Napoleon. They then chose three reinforcers: scribbling notes, looking up at the professor, and leaning forward interestedly.The professor was an excellent subject, and by the end of the semester was using “I” in virtually every sentence, had his hand tucked in the target pocket any time he wasn’t using it, and writing all his class notes in a 2 foot square box in the middle of the room-spanning chalkboard, all without realizing he was doing it. In fact when they fessed up at the end of the semester, he didn’t believe them until they turned him around and showed him 3 hours of notes crammed into a tiny invisible square for no good reason.How do you think the professor reacted to the revelation? If you guess “not well”, you’re right. If you ponder why that might be, even though he liked that class particularly (such attentive, responsive students!), and hadn’t minded the training process at all, you may have some insight on why so many autistic people dislike ABA, even in kinder, gentler forms.
Researcher Alfie Kohn suggests that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. He wrote a book about his perspective called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He explains that, “There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.”
So, rewards tend to be demotivators over time. They interfere with natural human curiosity and self-realization. They aren’t that different from using a treat to teach a dog to sit. After all, humans and dogs are both animals. Many of our innate, unconscious motivations are the same, such as seeking food and drink, and avoiding danger. Rewards offer temporary motivation, but it comes at a cost. However, there is a way to keep rewards fresh… and it’s enticing: intermittent reinforcement.
In practice, intermittent reinforcement involves rewarding a subject sporadically rather than continuously for a behavior deemed to be desired. For children, it might be a gold star for being kind to a classmate where the child has to be kind over and over before being noticed. The anticipation of the reward keeps the desired behavior front and center. But, intermittent reinforcement has a dark side. It is a preferred form of trauma bonding used by abusers in violent relationships.
Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).
In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.
Intermittent reinforcement can trigger behavior that looks a lot of compulsion and obsession in humans, especially in the context of a toxic relationship. So, where does this leave us on the question of rewards being abusive or not?
Here is my perspective. The way we wield rewards is crucial. When we use rewards to manipulate our children into doing what we want, we have fallen into dangerous territory. The more we use rewards to coerce children, the more it begins to look like abuse. However, humans do crave social acceptance and recognition is an important part of that. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, has some advice for how to incorporate recognition without falling back on rewards. She says,
The good news is that there are better ways to give our children encouragement. In fact, when children feel seen, accepted and appreciated for who they are, that becomes a super power, an internal source of affirmation that outweighs any external evaluation and gives them an internal compass to express their values, from compassion to hard work.
So when you find yourself starting to say “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!” try these phrases instead.
1. Empathize with his excitement (instead of evaluating and telling him what you think about his accomplishment.)
“Yes! You’re pedaling all by yourself!”
2. Let her know you’re really seeing her (and let her evaluate whether what’s she’s doing is working.)
“I see that you’re doing the sides of the puzzle first.”
3. Empower him to choose how to behave in the future by pointing out the results of his behavior (so he develops his own moral compass.)
“Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy.”
4. Encourage effort (because that’s what creates results.)
“You’re working so hard on that…. I think just a little more practice and you’ll nail it!”
5. Be specific in your description (so your child feels his accomplishment is seen, rather than just a global “good job.”)
“You counted from zero to twenty! Last week, you couldn’t count that far. I see that you’ve been working on learning those numbers!”
6. Ask questions to help your child reflect (so she begins to trust herself to be the arbiter of her own performance.)
“Do you like the way it came out? Why or why not?”
7. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.
“I love it when we work as a team like this! It makes the work so much faster! Thanks so much for helping me.”
Notice the difference? You’re not judging your child. You’re loving him. As Deepak Chopra says, “Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates.” That’s the kind of attention every child needs.
These words ring true for my own family. Peaceful Dad and I do not use rewards or punishments with our crew. And, this decision was recently affirmed when our new speech therapist remarked on our son’s ability to engage with her without the need for rewards. I took the opportunity to gush about peaceful parenting, intrinsic motivation, and emotion coaching. The reality is this: No rewards, no punishments, respectful, and connected discipline is not only possible, it’s also evidence-based and fruitful for all children. It’s achievable, but it does take a big shift in thinking on the part of us parents.
Many of y’all have probably figured out by now that I like to deep dive into some common concepts that we all know but, perhaps, haven’t thought about in terms of parenting. Recently, I’ve been thinking about independence versus autonomy and what the distinction means for our children.
‘Autonomous’ means ‘self-directed’. Auto – nomy. From the Greek ‘autos’ – self, and ‘nomos’ – law. It means that your drive to act comes from inside yourself.
‘Independent’ means ‘not influenced by outside forces’. It is from the french ‘in’ – not, and ‘dependant’ – hanging from. It means ‘not hanging from’ – or ‘not dependent on’ anything.
So although the meaning is similar, it is different, as you say.
He is completely autonomous as a freelancer and defines his own programme.
The child is able to play autonomously – she makes up her own games.
The freelancer is independent of any company – no-one tells him what to do.
The child is able to play independently – without her parents’ supervision.
Autonomous – self directed
Independent – not needing or not influenced by others
The sense of the words I had going into my deep dive was borne out in this explanation. I struggle to place significant value on independence as I do not believe it is a particularly important value. It is a very “American” value as this culture has come to believe any dependence on another person constitutes a moral failure, but I do not agree.
I think that we should aim to be interdependent. Not independent. Interdependence means not only that we rely on others, but they rely on us as well. It offers inherent motivation to care for both ourselves and for others. It does not shame us for our human needs and it does not present a moral high ground from which we can look down on those who have different intelligences and capacities.
Interdependence places responsibility on entire cultures rather than on individuals. It is something that is lacking in the United States where we allow our neighbors to go hungry, become victims of state violence, and be silenced by more powerful people. And, interdependence is probably better for our kids too. The push for independence is what leads parents to refuse to take forgotten lunches to school and lock children in their rooms until they clean up all on their own.
Are we putting value on the wrong thing? And, what of autonomy? Autonomy imbues children with power. It is the authority behind self-determined decisions, including how we choose to respond to difficult situations. Everyone reading this certainly wants their children to learn to do things for themselves, but on whose schedule? Is a child who can’t tie a shoe but can cook a full meal any less worthy? These are some of the many questions I have asked myself over these past weeks.
In my own little family, I do my best to ensure my children’s autonomy is as intact as possible. I try to leave decisions in their hands as much as I can without slipping into parentification. For instance, no one in my home is required or expected to clean alone. We all pitch in and the children learn through team involvement. I also don’t rush my children into developmental milestones. We don’t “potty train” kids in this house, for instance. We believe that our children will develop in their own time when given opportunities to try new things. And, that’s the key for us. If we never give the kids a chance to do something on their own, how will they ever know if they can do it? By the same token, if we force the kids to do something new, what are they learning from our coercion? And, what’s the use of teaching them to do something completely on their own without help rather than teaching them to advocate for themselves when they do need help? It all takes balance, which is something I’m learning how to do day to day. It requires deep respect for children and a willingness to actually listen. Not just hear our kids, but listen to what they are communicating in words or in behavior.
So, what’s your take? Do you value independence or autonomy? Do you prioritize one or both? How do you leverage your ability to support your children’s independence or autonomy toward fostering an anti-childist upbringing for them?
Something I hear a lot from y’all is that you don’t really feel qualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Why? Because sometimes you snap and yell or threaten or punish. You think that faltering in your efforts means you aren’t worthy of the moniker, and you think you’re ruining your children. Have I got that right?
If that’s what you think, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. By those parameters, I’m not a peaceful parent either. I mean, have y’all met my temper?! I can go from whispering affirmations to hollering in ten seconds flat. It’s a stress-relief pathway I’m working to deconstruct because it is helping no one. Here’s what you’ve got to understand. There’s peaceful parenting, the concept… the state we are all seeking to achieve. Then there are peaceful PARENTS… human beings who are striving to break cycles and heal wounds. And, well, human beings are a muddle of past traumas, subconscious reactions, and patchy worldviews. We are also thinking, compassionate, connected creatures. We can be all of these things at the same time and still be worthy and wonderful. The trick is to exist in a constant state of examination. Why did I react that way? How could I have done things better? What must happen to restore this relationship?
Of course, it’s not ok to hurt people. I’m not excusing the harm we inflict on the people closest to us, but I do want y’all to consider a different perspective. To see yourself in a different light. If there’s one guarantee in parenting, it’s that we’re going to mess up. Our kids are going to have plenty of stories to tell about what we did wrong. And, if we continue on this peaceful parenting walk, our kids will also be self-assured, secure, and brave. They will see the way we respond to our own flawed behavior and it will inform their future choices.
Parenthood ebbs and flows. One moment, our hearts expand until we feel we can’t bear it. We shower our children with affection and easily navigate the challenges. Then something changes. We feel more distant. They start to annoy us. And, we feel we might explode from the frustration. And, somewhere in between, there are moments when we coast along with our kids in a neutral coexistence. That’s normal for intimate relationships.
Dana Kerford, Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG, seeks to enhance the social-emotional wellbeing of children through friendship skills, but what she’s landed on is a concept that is applicable to all human relationships that involve any sort of intimacy. Her Friend-O-Cycle illustrates the way we draw close and drift apart over the course of a friendship. We can be going along just fine and suddenly a metaphorical fire erupts. Maybe it’s a comment we received negatively. Maybe it’s a perceived snub we didn’t understand. Whatever has happened, the fire itself shouldn’t really even be our focus. Rather, we should be preparing to put the fire out in a healthy way. Kerford recommends confronting the issue directly, talking it out, and then moving on.
Of course, when it comes to parent-child relationships, the process is more complicated than it would be between two young friends. And, so, we keep trying. We search past our egos and find anchor points upon which to reconnect with our children. We bond and we love, all the while recognizing that we’re going to do the same thing over and over and over, because this is what it means to be human. At no point along this journey are you unqualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Keep going.
I am the only white member of my household as my husband and children are all Black. As a result, I live a life that is different from families that are entirely white. My whiteness grants me access and privilege that does not extend to the rest of my family, so I’m outside looking in at their experience while simultaneously living with worries about their lives and welfare. My husband has a long commute for work and I am often afraid of what could happen if he got pulled over or if his car broke down in a predominantly white area. It’s a complicated place to be and one that I didn’t fully understand when I got married.
To help those of you who might not realize just how complex it is for white people and people of color to be in relationship with each other or for white people to parent children of color, I’ve condensed some of the lessons I’ve learned as a mom since my little family got its start all those years ago. If any of this is upsetting, I get it. When we choose to partner with people of color, we’re choosing a road that can lead to a lot of painful self-realization and recognition of challenges we cannot resolve. Our job is to keep investigating our perspectives and motivations, never letting up, for the benefit of our partners and children.
Principle 1. We Must Know Our Place and Understand Our Impact
Start by figuring out where you fall among the 8 White Identities and then do the work yourself to progress along your path. A lot of white parents get stuck in white guilt and heap exhausting performative monologues upon people of color. Don’t do this. We are absolutely steeped in White Supremacy Culture and it gets reinforced for us daily. Read about it. Learn about it. Actively reject it.
As Yolanda Williams of Parenting Decolonized explains, “To divest from white supremacy means you’ll have to give something up, something that you benefit from as a white or non-Black POC. Think hard about it. The fact that it’s a struggle for many to figure out how to divest is a testament to how privileged you are and how intertwined white supremacy is to that privilege.”
It is imperative that we seek out decolonizing and anti-racist resources while understanding that we are colonizers who benefit from the impacts of colonization. We will not be able to decolonize our minds entirely, but we can certainly minimize the harm we do.
Principle 2. We Must Decenter Ourselves and Listen to People of Color
It can be difficult to maintain perspective when we’re close to a situation. When we begin to identify with our partners and children, who are experiencing the trauma of oppression, that feeling is empathy and it’s a good thing. However, we can lose ourselves in it and slip into taking the position of an oppressed person. When we do that, we are centering, which means we are no longer bearing with our loved ones. Rather, we are prioritizing our own feelings and, in doing so, we can lose sight of what we should be doing.
Are you familiar with Ring Theory? It’s an approach to compassionately support grieving people while getting our own needs met. The goal is to avoid unloading our emotions onto the people closest to the grief or trauma. Instead, we should turn to people who are even further from the situation than we are. A typical ring might look like this:
The person in the center is the focus of our empathy and we must find ourselves somewhere in the concentric circles. Once we know where we are in relation to our loved ones, we need to be careful not to vent inward. I think about Ring Theory often as a white wife to a Black man, because it’s far too easy for me to forget that he is the person experiencing first-hand oppression. Not me. So, what Ring Theory does for me is that it conditions me to be cognizant about how I talk to my Black friends and family about the struggles I’m facing as a white person. And, I try to avoid centering my feelings and fears in conversations about race whether in person or online.
And, when I do need extra support, I have cultivated a circle of friends that includes white people who understand all of this and are willing to validate my feelings or tell me the truth, whichever the situation calls for.
Principle 3. We Know What It’s Like to Be White and Only White
White parents cannot raise children into their non-white cultures. I cannot raise my children to be Black. I am not Black. Therefore, I have to make every possible effort to steep them in their own culture.
For my part, I defer to my children’s Black relatives on matters of race. For instance, my children have a Black father and a white mother and I say they are Black. Why? Because I defer to their father and I understand that the terminology we use every day is crucial as he raises them into their Black identity. I also recognize that my children will not be viewed as white by white people and I am unwilling to send them out into this world unaware of what that means for them. However, I do not argue with Black people who tell me my children are biracial or Black biracial. The parameters of Blackness are not my white business. Group dynamics like these are matters that are internal to non-white cultural groups and they need no white perspectives.
On that note, we have to stop butting in everywhere and getting too comfortable in spaces where people of color are trying to coexist. Remember that neither our presence nor our opinion is needed where people of color are fellowshipping. While our contributions may possibly be of some value, our absence is always of value. That means observing hard and fast rules like no using the n-word (er/a) period, no memes of Black people (aka digital blackface), no speaking up in conversations where people of color are talking about their own business that has nothing to do with you, no walking into discussions that have explicitly been opened to people of color, and no using euphemisms for the word white (e.g. YT, whyte, etc.). If that last one threw you off, here’s an explanation. These words are used online, especially on social media platforms, by people of color because their posts about white people tend to get flagged as hate speech. Their accounts get suspended, which silences them. Predictably, white people don’t experience the same silencing for our blatantly racist posts. And, while we’re on the topic, we should also consider not using words like “Becky” and “Karen” that place distance between us and problematic white people because we are also problematic white people!
And, another thing. If one person of color tells you something you’re doing is ok and 99 others tell you it’s not, take care who you listen to. No group of people is a monolith. Our responsibility is to understand our impact as white people.
The more you learn, the more you will recognize when your choices are separating your child from their culture, which happens often when WE are uncomfortable. We cannot truly identify with our children’s lived experiences, so our children need people around who can. Do not allow your child’s heritage be defined or described in terms of their relationship to whiteness. They have their own needs and it is incumbent upon us as their parents to learn about what they need. From psychosocial necessities to basic hygiene, do not assume their needs are the same as yours. Take it upon yourself to seek out spaces that are managed by people who look like your child and are willing to open up education to white parents. Find folks who will unabashedly challenge your whiteness for the benefit of your kids. Try Unlearning Racism on Facebook as a general starting point. If you are a white parent of Black kids like me, Culturally Fluent Families might be for you.
Principle 4. We Cannot Raise Our Children Into Their Full Cultural Heritage and Birthright
Teach your child about their heritage to the best of your limited ability and give them proximity to it. For some parents, that may even mean moving out of predominantly white areas. Every single choice you make regarding your child is an opportunity to give them exposure to their culture. For instance, if your Primary Care Physician is white, you could find a PCP that shares the same cultural heritage as your child. When you’re deciding on extracurriculars, seek out ways to incorporate aspects of your child’s non-white culture. Embed your children in their cultural institutions such as churches, schools, and organizations that were founded by and for members of your child’s cultural heritage. At the very least, seek access to spaces where your children see their own faces reflected back at them.
And, make sure your children know who their ancestors were BEFORE they were colonized. White supremacy likes to do things like starting Black history off with enslavement as though that is the beginning of the story. We have to counteract that evil. So, think long and hard about everything you willingly expose your child to. Little things as simple as reading Dr. Seuss books can come with lifelong consequences. Every choice matters.
Principle 5. Our Whiteness Is Harmful to Our Children and Their Communities of Heritage
If your kids are your biological children, understand that not every person of color is going to celebrate the infusion of your whiteness in your non-white child. If your kids are not your biological children, especially if they are adopted and do not have a white biological parent, understand that there is a lot of discomfort around white people raising children of color and that you might hear difficult things like claims that you stole a child from a different culture or that you are not qualified to raise your child. Instead of defending yourself, understand that these concerns exist for good reason. Take the initiative to learn why your whiteness is not necessarily appreciated, particularly considering the history of whiteness in the United States.
As you do, pay very close attention to how you use your words to talk about your child’s non-white culture. What we say to our children makes an enormous impact and we may be doing harm unintentionally as our perspective is filtered through our whiteness. No matter who you choose to listen to and what you choose to believe, be very careful how you talk about things like movements by and for people of color such as Water Protectors and Black Lives Matter. Consider that, if you take a negative stance around these movements, it is because you either do not understand their purpose (which is correctable ignorance) or because you understand their purpose and you don’t care (which is racist). You don’t have to throw your full support behind complex things that make you uneasy, but you do need to investigate that uneasiness and, at the very least, avoid disparaging the work that people of color are doing for their own well-being.
Bottom line, people of color do not owe us their labor, their explanations, or their friendship. Realize that we are distrusted and disliked by virtue of our oppressive culture and the ease with which we slip into our privilege to their detriment. We should be doing anti-racist, decolonizing work, no matter how people of color regard us. Let go of the ego.
As I learn more about the impact of my whiteness, I have moments when I wonder if it would have been better for me not to have ever encroached on Blackness to begin with. I’m sure there are Black people reading this who would absolutely agree with me and I understand why. I mention this to communicate the weight of what it really means for a white person to choose to parent interculturally. It is not something that can be resolved. Certainly not by using our whiteness as a blanket to snuff out criticism from people of color. It is a choice we will live with as long as we draw breath and it deserves our utmost consideration and respect.
We are responsible for the harm we cause and, frankly, the best thing we can do is shut up and learn every single day. If you are willing to be wrong and to be embarrassed, you’ll make progress. And, if you accept that you will never be everything for your children, you might just be able to give them what they need. Let yourself be left out and let your whiteness be pushed to the side. If you are willing to sacrifice for your children, sacrifice your whiteness first.
You know how, sometimes, you run across new information that leaves your mind spinning? That happened to me this past week when I read something about the difference between permission and consent, and immediately thought of my efforts toward anti-childism. It’s not something I’d really thought much on before, so I’ve been doing a little more reading and reflecting. To be clear, here’s the deal:
Permission means gaining approval from a superior whereas consent means coming to a mutual agreement that either party can say yes or no to.
I talk a lot about the need for consent on this blog, but there are also times when I’ve mentioned “allowing” and “letting” my kids do things. I’m realizing that my permission-based orientation is at odds with my efforts to elevate children. What I really want to do is flatten the traditional hierarchy parents and children tend to operate from, which means preferring agreement over commands wherever possible.
I’m sure many of y’all reading this will immediately question what this means in terms of safety issues. Children are a unique group of people. They are fully human and fully deserving of rights while also being newer to the world and in need of guidance. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what anti-childism really looks like when we, parents, are responsible for protecting our kids from danger, but I’m doing my best.
For instance, when a toddler breaks free and immediately bolts for the road, we must do whatever we can to save our child. Toddlers cannot manage the freedom to roam around a busy street unsupervised. So, what does consent look like with a two-year-old? Perhaps it looks like giving her the toothbrush when she demands it instead of brushing her teeth for her. Perhaps, it looks like sitting up with her for a while when she’s not ready to go to sleep yet. Perhaps, it looks like giving her full control over what she eats from her lunch plate. There are so many daily decisions where you can give your child the authority and autonomy she craves (something that wasn’t allowed when I was a child).
I’m reminded of a graphic I ran across some time ago by Kristin Wiens:
I’m challenging myself to rethink those moments when I want to use my adult authority to pressure my children into bending to my will. In those moments, it’s difficult to remember that sharing power ends up creating an environment of cooperation. I invite you to this challenge as well. Let’s see how often we can come to an agreement with our kids rather than lording over them. I bet it gets easier with time.
Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.
I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:
OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.
Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.
Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.
Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.
When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.
Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.
I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home:
Months ago, a therapist friend shared with me a page out of a strategic family therapy textbook that looked at how a family’s response to challenging behaviors determines whether the behavior will be resolved or become a problem. The author gave an example of a boy who became temperamental after the birth of his baby sister. His father punished him to stop the behavior, but that punishment served to confirm to this child that his parents loved his sister more than they loved him. His behavior intensified and the punishment followed suit. There was no resolution. In this case, his father saw only one explanation for the behavior: that the child was insolent and disrespectful. He did not imagine that his son was crying out for love and compassion.
In this chapter of the book, the author introduced the idea of Order of Change, which refers to the ways in which a system can change. So much of what we can use to shift the ambit of entire organizations also works for families. It makes sense. Families are organizations composed of people as well. The book detailed two orders of change, but I will include a third to present more options. Important note: The progression from first to third, DOES NOT INDICATE a progression in value. Any one of these might be appropriate in a given circumstance.
First Order Change: Maintains existing structure and uses increases and decreases to restore balance. The goal here is not to change the basis of the system, but to improve upon it. First Order Change is Transactional.
Second Order Change: Revolutionizes how the system functions altogether. The goal here is to change the system where it needs to be altered to work better. Second Order Change is Transformational.
Third Order Change: Tosses the system out the door altogether and encourages members of the system to become aware of system inconsistencies and dysfunction, question approaches, and take democratic steps toward improvement. The goal here is to increase awareness of the issues and buy-in from the participants in the system. Third Order Change is Innovative.
My first thought as I re-read this now, as so many of us are dealing with how we will send our children to school, is that the three orders seem to align with alternatives to the educational status quo. What better way to explain systems change than through something we’re all wrestling with. Let’s consider the catalyst to be the need to protect student health and see what each option provides.
First, there’s revamped brick and mortar school and school-at-home, e-school, or virtual school, whatever your school system might be calling it. Whether your child goes to school in person or stays at home and completes work there, this option packages school into a solution that allows parents to make decisions based on their comfort level with the school’s safety plan while maintaining the expected educational trajectory. For many families, especially those in which the adults don’t have a lot of time at home or are experiencing health issues, maintaining familiarity and taking advantage of the existing system makes sense. The new safety plans and hybrid or virtual options are an example of a first order change that prioritizes the health of the students by making incremental adjustments to the system.
Second, there’s homeschooling. Many options exist wherein an adult teaches a child at home outside the auspices of a brick and mortar school. Each of these echoes the familiar schooling system, but apply revolutionary changes to the schooling approach, the curriculum, the schedule, and so on. Many, many families have withdrawn their children from the school system this fall and have embarked upon the journey of “COVID Homeschooling” which will presumably end when the threat is no more. Some of these folks, like my family, will continue homeschooling for the foreseeable future. This option makes major alterations to the system to prioritize the health of the students.
Third, there’s unschooling. If ever there were a great example of Third Order Change, this is it. Haven’t heard of unschooling? It loosely falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, but it is truly innovative. Learning is completely student-led. Parents don’t teach unless their assistance is requested. Instead, they seek to create opportunity for their children to engage with their areas of interest. There is no curriculum. There is no hard and fast schedule. There is only the natural curiosity of the child being supported by an observant adult. Unschooling is democratic and deeply respectful of children. Personally, I would consider it the most anti-childist educational option for children.
Applying Order of Change Every Day
I offer this information about Order of Change neither to make you feel inadequate nor to overwhelm you, but to present a proposal for addressing challenging behaviors from your perfectly reasonable children. So often, our reactions to our children’s behavior fan the flame instead of creating space for connection.
Take, punishment, for example. Why do parents punish their kids? Because it works… in the short-term. It doesn’t change behavior. It stops unwanted behavior in the present, but does nothing to impact the moral development of the child. Punishment is an example of a First Order Change strategy. It uses the existing paradigm to make a small adjustment to bring the child back into alignment with comfortable expectations. The truth is that many children have grown into functional adults under this paradigm. The trouble is that we can’t know how much better a person’s quality of life might have been had they been given opportunity to learn, grow, and connect with their parents.
That’s why we, as Peaceful Parents, must recognize that we’re not simply working toward raising kind and respectful children. We’re also working toward giving our children the gift of positive self-image, the ability to work through times of struggle, and such intimate knowledge of themselves that they will recognize when they need extra help to sustain their mental health. Peaceful Parents tend toward Second and Third Order change when it comes to discipline for these reasons. We see that the existing system is childist and often cruel and we look for ways to humanize and elevate our kids. There is great value in First Order Change once we’ve built for ourselves an anti-oppressive system. Until then, it is up to us to question the whys and the hows of the way our culture approaches childlikeness.
Over the weekend, a sweet friend of mine posted a story about her young daughter who knew just what to do when she saw her mother in distress. My friend owns Hoopla! Letters, a custom calligraphy business. (She has designed artwork for me and it is amazing. Shameless plug because, seriously, check her out. She’s been featured nationally.)
Her post was right on time for me as I’ve been needing to be reminded how important emotion coaching really is. For those who don’t know, emotion coaching is a way to positively communicate with children that gives them the skills they need to practice self-regulation.
Dr. John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, has researched and practiced emotion coaching for decades, and he has boiled down his approach to five steps. I’m going to keep this blog post brief and let it stand as a reminder on how we can best help our children through their big emotions. I hope you will return to it, as I will, when you need a little boost.
Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions.
One of the most basic tenets of Peaceful Parenting is that we must be tuned into our kids. In our childist culture that minimizes children’s emotions as being nonsense, it is revolutionary for a parent to recognize that our children’s emotions are as important as ours. A child’s experience after losing a beloved toy can be akin to an adult’s experience after losing a cherished piece of inherited heirloom jewelry. The grief and frustration exist no matter how old a person is. When we understand that our children’s emotions are of great importance, we can begin to pay attention and sense how our children are doing at any point in time.
Step 2: Recognize emotion as an opportunity for connection or teaching.
If you’ve ever heard (or, like me, been told) “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” you’ll know how devastating it can be for a child to have their emotions brushed off like they’re worthless. As Peaceful Parents, we reject the idea that children’s emotions should be suppressed or ignored. We take it a step further and find ways to connect with our kids even in their most volatile emotional states. In many cases, what this looks like is being a non-judgmental presence for the child as they cycle through their feelings.
Step 3: Help your child verbally label emotions.
This step is tough for many adults to do even for ourselves. Often, we don’t know how we feel. We may be too overwhelmed or out of touch with ourselves. But, this practice is crucial to processing our experiences. Have you ever seen an emotion wheel? There are many versions of them and they all look a little something like this:
An emotion wheel can be a helpful tool in helping both children and adults identify what it is they’re feeling and back track to what generated the feeling. With my very young children, I generally stick with the basics. I might say, “You’re feeling angry that brother took your toy.” For older children, I would offer possible feeling labels in collaboration with the child.
Step 4: Communicate empathy and understanding.
This step does get easier with time, but I’m confident in saying that most of us were not raised to be comfortable with other people’s emotions and most of the time, we really don’t quite know what to say. If you find yourself in that situation with your child, try one of these:
“That’s really hard.”
“I understand why you’re [state feeling]”
“I would feel the same way.”
“I’m here as long as you need me.”
“I love you.”
Repeating back what your child has said can also be an effective way of demonstrating that you’re listening with the intent to understand.
Step 5: Set limits and problem solve.
Once the crisis has passed, it’s important to pause and address what caused the upset in the first place. In some cases, it is helpful and informative to set a reasonable limit. Remember, though, limits are not punishments. Responding punitively can easily undo the work you’ve put into connecting with your child.
Consider a child who abandons one toy in search of another. When a family practices turn-taking, the toy is fair game, so other children are well within their rights to play with the toy. Children can become enraged when this happens, even when they have long since moved on. When a parent goes through the process of pausing to co-regulate with the incensed child, empathizing with their feelings of anger and envy, and reminding them that it is the other child’s turn and they can play with the toy when it becomes free again, interesting things happen. I have known such a case in which the sibling of the angry child brought the toy back. Empathy overflows from the hearts of well-loved children.
And, that brings me back full circle to my friend and her wonderful daughter who, through the experience of co-regulating with her mother time and again, recognized her mother’s distress and did exactly what had been modeled for her. That is the power of Peaceful Parenting. We model gentleness and prioritize our relationships with our kids. Then, our kids turn around and reflect it all back to us in the most beautiful ways.