The Brutality of the "I Turned Out Fine" Argument

A couple years back, The New York Times published an article called “The Fallacy of the ‘I Turned Out Fine’ Argument.” In the interest of specificity, I will simply quote the key logical problems with this argument, as explicated in that piece:

It’s what’s known as an anecdotal fallacy. This fallacy, in simple terms, states that “I’m not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be O.K. for everyone.” As an example: “I wasn’t vaccinated, and I turned out fine. Therefore, vaccination is unnecessary.” We are relying on a sample size of one. Ourselves, or someone we know. And we are applying that result to everyone.

It relies on a decision-making shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Related to the anecdotal fallacy, it’s where we draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call. In this case, autobiographical information is easily accessible — it’s already in your head. We were smacked as kids and turned out fine, so smacking doesn’t hurt anyone. But studies show that the availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can cloud us from making accurate decisions utilizing all the information available. It blinds us to our own prejudices.

It dismisses well-substantiated, scientific evidence. To say “I turned out fine” is an arrogant dismissal of an alternative evidence-based view. It requires no perspective and no engagement with an alternative perspective. The statement closes off discourse and promotes a single perspective that is oblivious to alternatives that may be more enlightened. Anecdotal evidence often undermines scientific results, to our detriment.

It leads to entrenched attitudes. When views inconsistent with our own are shared we make an assumption that whoever holds those views is not fine, refusing to engage, explore or grow. Perhaps an inability to engage with views that run counter to our own suggests that we did not turn out quite so “fine.”

Where is the threshold for what constitutes having turned out fine? If it means we avoided prison, we may be setting the bar too low. Gainfully employed and have a family of our own? Still a pretty basic standard. It is as reasonable to say “I turned out fine because of this” as it is to say “I turned out fine in spite of this.”

Recently, I participated in a large 1,000+ comment discussion about spanking. Nearly every commenter supported spanking and many made the “I turned out fine” claim. Anywhere you see adults treating children in a violent manner, you are bound to also find people making complimentary comments to the effect that they received the same treatment themselves as children and it taught them to respect their elders. Respect? I’d be curious to know what that means to them, since so many people cannot believe that giving respect to children engenders respectfulness from children.

I was discussing that heartbreaking thread with a friend who remarked:

I was ruminating on statements of erasure like that. And I wondered if it exists because it’s too painful to consider that they themselves were also mistreated.

Because to acknowledge someone’s pain means realizing you were maimed too.

Statements of erasure. She took my breath away. That’s exactly what people do when they suggest that the often unbearable pain one person experiences can’t be that bad if others survive it without obvious scars. What about the deep scars? The ones they deny. The ones they can’t accept. The ones that offer points of empathy and connection to others who shared the same experience?

Adults who defend spanking, and were spanked as children, openly admit that they tried to avoid being spanked. They know it hurt. Yet, they inflict the same uncomfortable experience on their kids. Not only that, they also vehemently defend their parents’ decision to spank them. Consider the following description:

[Children who will become adults who condone spanking] are placed in a situation where they feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor. The psychological response follows after a period of time and is a survival strategy for the victims. It includes sympathy and support for their [parents’] plight and may even manifest in negative feelings toward [advocates] who are trying to help [spanked children].

I admit I tweaked the wording with my own edits. This is actually a description of Stockholm Syndrome, a survival mechanism that manifests when people cannot escape their tormentors and find themselves becoming psychologically attached as a means of protection from harm. It is a form of trauma bonding and it is frighteningly similar to what happens to spanked children who become spankers as adults. These adults demand their “right” to hit their children in order to make them behave despite the fact that spanking not only doesn’t make children behave, it also increases the risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children. Spankers will say that can’t be true, because their children are wonderfully behaved. If spanking works, though, why do you have to spank a child more than once? Moreover, is the child really well behaved, or are they experiencing an instinctive survival response that makes them passive?

The evidence is clear that harsh treatment does maim kids. For instance, a 2009 study found reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults who had been exposed, as children, to occasional spanking with a paddle on the buttocks that neither resulted in injury nor was conducted in anger. To be clear, the area of their brains that was affected manages the abilities to 1) distinguish oneself from others, 2) see oneself in others, 3) empathize with others, 4) predict behavior in others, and 5) use logical judgment in interpreting behavior in others. You can imagine how incredibly detrimental such brain changes would be. And, there are millions upon millions of people who have been affected and may not even realize it. And, the scariest part for me is that there is no way to predict the effects spanking will have on a child. Why take the risk?

When a commenter in that spanking discussion I mentioned earlier was asked what spanking offered that other forms of punishment didn’t, she responded “immediacy.” People are willing to permanently damage their children’s brains to achieve immediate compliance even when they know what the evidence says. And, if you’re thinking that perhaps spanking without the use of an object is a better option, think again. The evidence is staggering that physical (e.g. spanking, calisthenics, etc.) and emotional (e.g. public shaming, belittling, etc.) violence harms kids.

Years ago, when Adrian Peterson was being tried for abusing his toddler son, Cris Carter had this to say about right and wrong when it comes to parenting:

The harsh treatment we felt was unfair as children was unfair. We didn’t deserve it and our parents were wrong for it. The fact that we (me included) have ever felt any different is the result of the gaslighting our culture does to kids. We’re all left believing a lie. Consider times your bad experiences have been minimized. Think back to those frustrating moments when you’ve been made to believe you were overreacting when you weren’t. That’s what our culture does to children every day. Our entire culture is childist, so it’s no surprise that so many of us are convinced that it’s normal to yell at and hit kids. After all, they can be irrational and we adults have to assert our authority over them… just like men did to women not that long ago and just like white people have long done to people of color. We’ve seen this kind of discrimination carried out before. It’s not new, but kids simply don’t have enough social capital to effect change on their own.

Who would we be if our parents had been gentle and respectful with us? What would society be as a whole? Here’s the saddest part. No one can possibly know who they might have been had their parents been gentle and respectful with them. What we do know is that respectful, responsive parenting approaches are evidence-based. They succeed with all children, because they account for eventualities. They succeed across neurotypes and other differences. Even kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder find relief with peaceful techniques.

I have great empathy for parents. I know how stressful it is to be a mom with a unique set of challenges and others have so many more challenges. What some may see as judging parents, I see as protecting kids since kids are the ones affected by childism. I’m always speaking for the child’s perspective. The unfortunate truth is that no one who experiences violence in any form, be it yelling or spanking or whatever, comes out ok on the other side. We survive and can flourish, but we still carry those scars with us and they come out in unexpected ways, like losing patience with our own children. We fall back into the patterns we knew as children and those often become our parenting vices.

If you were treated harshly like me, you did not turn out fine. You survived… with scars. But, humans are extraordinary and resilient. We can turn challenge into promise through force of will and support by people who want to see us succeed. Now that you know, here’s the inevitable choice: continue the generational trauma, or choose a completely different path. The path I chose was Peaceful Parenting. You have to find your own path, though I do hope you find your way back to this blog! I would love to support you in your efforts to improve the lives of your kids.

Parents Don't Matter But Matter So Much Too

I recently ran across this fantastic article in Psychology Today about nature versus nurture in child rearing. Robert Plomin Ph.D., dives into the research he presents in his book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.

What he has found is that our DNA is the driving force behind our psychology from personality to behavior. Your wonderfully sassy kid is probably genetically designed to be sassy. So strap in and hold on for this ride, because that kid isn’t going to change. (Keep that in mind when you’re feeling some type of way about your child’s “attitude.”)

He notes, for instance, that parents who read a lot to their children likely have children who enjoy being read to at a basic psychological level. So, when your mom friend starts bragging about reading 400 books to her daughter over the summer and asking you how many books you read to yours, don’t feel bad that your own daughter was too busy drawing to be bothered to sit for many stories. Your child’s personality is going to be very close to what it already was at conception, save for a major brain event.

On one hand, it’s freeing to know that all the experiences children encounter and process through the lens of their DNA help form their understanding of how the world works. Experiences are important and the field of epigenetics is informing us more every day about just how important they are. What we know for certain is that it’s crucial to develop a relationship with your child to find out their strengths and aptitudes and build on those. That sassy child I mentioned likely has heaps of natural confidence. Consider all the wonderful things they’ll be able to do, perhaps, in the public sphere. They may become an influencer or a politician. When you take note and support their interests, so many wonderful things will happen.

My son, for instance, is pretty chill at the most basic level. He mostly works with Peaceful Dad and me and follows directions well, but he needs our patience because he works in his own time. My daughter, on the other hand, is a spitfire. She’s demand avoidant to an extent and will fall to the floor in a heap at the slightest resistance on my part. Respecting my children means I plan in lots of thinking time for my son and I try not to rush him. And, for my daughter, I stay in her space without judgment as she frets. Then, when she’s ready to do something else, we work together.

Peaceful Parenting offers the ideal framework and guidance to work with children’s different personalities and needs. It respects the essence of the child and is flexible enough to move with a child’s genetic tendencies without any of the rigidity that can stifle a child’s inborn potentiality.

ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have

ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.

It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.

At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an autistic mom of an autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.

I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.

Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder

So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is only disabling in cultures where autistic people are not included and embraced.

Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.

A History of ABA Therapy

Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with autistic children.

Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicable fellow:

Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.

Autistic Perspectives on ABA

Amythest Schaber is an autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.

The following list includes links to other autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:

Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:

If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.

What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?

To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.

I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.

Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.

Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sidenote: CBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.

In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:

Learn about the SCERTS Model by clicking here

ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.

If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.

My son was diagnosed with ASD, Level 2 (since autism is diagnosed by how burdensome we are to allistic people, which is unfortunate) which means the expectation is that he will have far more additional needs as he grows up than an allistic child might. Considering the dire prognoses presented in medical literature, one might expect my son to barely function in the broader culture. In fact, many people do. But, let me tell you a story.

Recently, I took both of my kids to the gym for the first time ever. My gym has free childcare which makes my life so much simpler. So, here you have a young, autistic boy who has never set foot in this new place and finds himself face to face with brand new sounds and smells that he’s never experienced. He’s led into a small room with an abundance of toys, all bright and mishmashed, and he sees two complete strangers sitting there smiling at him. What does the boy do?

Well, he finds a stand-up racing track and begins racing little cars. He listens attentively to the caregivers, and he has a relaxed smile on his face when it’s time to go home. No meltdowns. No shutdowns. No stimming. No fear. And, the reason? He’s been the recipient of Peaceful Parenting from the day he was born. Peaceful Dad and I are firmly connected with him, so he feels safe. We do not punish or reward him, so he doesn’t feel coerced. We are honest with him and prepare him for new experiences, so he doesn’t feel blindsided. We treat him like any other deeply loved person and include him in all our activities, so he has plenty of other experiences to draw from when encountering something new. And he knows that, if it’s ever too much for him, we will respect his needs and find the exit as quickly as we can.

On the way to the gym, I explained in great detail what he could expect. His communication is primarily gestural and minimally verbal, so it’s not as though he could tell me in words that he understood. However, his reaction to the new experience said it all.

No autistic child is the same and your child may not be able to handle a new experience at a gym like what I’ve described. That’s totally normal and ok. There are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.

That includes autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.

You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.

You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.

Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.

  1. Observation is Not Allowed
  2. Indefinite Therapy
  3. Extreme Hours
  4. No Stimming Allowed
  5. Requires Eye Contact
  6. Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
  7. Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
  8. Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
  9. Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
  10. Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
  11. Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
  12. Focus on Compliance
  13. Focus on Verbal Communication
  14. Punishment of Any Kind
  15. Presumes Incompetence

You Are a Good Parent

Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of autistic adults urging caution.

A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults

This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. I have learned from you and I’ve been able to offer my son a better life because of you. Thank you!

And, reader, thank you for listening.

Update (February 10, 2020): After I published this piece, it came to my attention that Alfie Kohn recently published an outstanding piece regarding new research into ABA. It’s well worth a read!

Why I'm Capitalizing Black Now and Henceforth

Why in the world am I talking about writing rules on a parenting blog? There must be more important things to discuss. Oh no, white friends. This is critically important! Let me tell you why.

Recently, I came across a post in a group about cultural fluency in which the author expressed frustration at seeing people use a lowercase b when referring to Black people. It surprised me. I’ve been using lowercase letters for Black and white for as long as I can remember. It was a requirement for my college papers many years ago.

My initial reaction was to get defensive. How could I have been wrong all this time?? Maybe I’m not wrong after all. When I’m feeling defensive, I know it’s because I’m actually feeling convicted. So, I took that energy over to a trusted resource group and posed a question about capitalization. One response, in particular, hit me hard. The author, a Black woman, is an Arts & Culture writer, so you better believe I took her position seriously. She explained:

Black is capitalized when used in reference to Black people because Black is then a proper noun, referencing a people. When not capitalized, black is a color, an adjective. An adjective by nature is an “added descriptor” that modifies another word. This implies that you can remove the adjective. In a post-colonial, diasporic world, folks feel compelled to assert that their identity is not an added factor to their being, but essential. Blackness (as it has been driven from colonial concept to tangible reality in our world) is a way for peoples of the diaspora to connect in identity beyond the borders in which they find themselves and outside the context of colonization. It’s similar to how native and Native mean completely different things. Now, white was not capitalized in the recent past because white was not something that people identified as… Italian-American, Jewish, etc were the proper nouns because these were used as markers of identity that were attached to, adjacent to, “whiteness.” HOWEVER, in the present with the rise of white supremacy, people are capitalizing white because it is becoming (being framed as) an identity in and of itself. A lot of white supremacist manifestos capitalize white to prove a point that whiteness is a thing to rally around and unite behind. I have much less to say on that. So that’s that on that. But yes, Black is capitalized if you’re referencing the people. It makes my eye twitch to see it in lowercase at this point.

Whew. Each point she makes is absolutely relevant. Every time I’ve used a lowercase b, I’ve been actively disenfranchising Black people. I’ve been using my platform, as a white woman, to minimize Blackness. And, countless people watched me do it. I have no idea whom I may have influenced subconsciously. And influenced I most certainly did.

Last year, The Brookings Institution changed its style guide to remedy the lowercase b once and for all in their publications. In describing their reasoning, they note the history of capitalization and the harmful influence of failing to capitalize cultures:

In fact, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the federal government struggled to determine what to call freed Black people. The government used various labels: black, negro, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon. It wasn’t until 1930 that the U.S. Census Bureau finally settled on one prevailing term: “negro.” Years earlier, W. E. B. Du Bois, activist and co-founder of the relatively new NAACP, had launched a letter-writing campaign to major media outlets demanding that their use of the word “negro” be capitalized, as he found “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.” After initially denying the request, the New York Times would update its style book in March 1930, noting, “In our Style Book, Negro is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’”

However, over several decades, as the term Negro grew out of favor, the spirit of that decision fell by the wayside. Since that time, the U.S. Census Bureau and many major institutions—including Brookings—have used the lowercase term “black” to represent more than 40 million Black Americans.

Not just a typographical change: Why Brookings is capitalizing Black

The trouble with a deceptively small issue, like the capitalization of a single letter, is that these small issues pile up over time and become big issues. This week, a story hit the headlines about DeAndre Arnold, a Black student in Texas, who has been both suspended and barred from walking at his graduation because his hair doesn’t meet the standard of the school’s dress code policy.

Supporters of the policy point to its explicit ban against hair on male students that is longer than their collars. That policy, clearly, wasn’t written with this Trinidadian family in mind. The men in Arnold’s family grow their dreadlocks out well past collar length. Up to now, Arnold’s mother had been carefully styling her son’s hair to ensure that it met the requirement, but the powers that be decided that it wasn’t enough.

Let’s be real. That policy was written for white students. Period. And, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Because the policy isn’t culturally inclusive, and it normalizes white grooming protocols, a young man has been forced to make a choice between his culture and his education. At first glance, the policy may look innocent enough. It’s not. It’s harmful.

By the same token, the lowercase b isn’t innocent either. Don’t think I didn’t notice that, based on the article I linked about Arnold, the Washington Post has obviously opted for a style guide that minimizes Blackness when talking about a Black family. Even in an article that seemingly provides a well-rounded account of what’s happening with this student and his family, there is glaring anti-Blackness just two words into the read. When Blackness is undermined so gracefully in publications across the country, it adds up. Readers who are passing judgment on the ruling that placed Arnold on suspension are reading about a (lowercase b) Black student. The entire controversy is about nothing but his culture, yet articles like the one I linked openly downplay Black culture in an insidious way.

White is not a culture. It is a descriptor. But Black… Black is a culture, a shared life, a way of existing in a space that tears you apart at every turn. So, for my part, I have updated this blog to ensure that all references to Black people have been appropriately corrected. Furthermore, I am committed to using this blog for the elevation of Black people in any way I can, including the tiniest clack of the keyboard.

Psst… Manners Are Racist and Ableist Too.

It’s surprising to me, sometimes, which of my posts take off. It’s never the ones I expect. Last week, I wrote about manners being classist. I knew that my post might ruffle feathers because I was suggesting that children are deserving of respect whether or not they have good manners. I did not anticipate the amount of blowback I received at the very concept that manners are classist. I even read multiple comments where people suggested I was being classist myself because I was insinuating that “poor people” couldn’t teach their children good manners. Oh my! I would never.

To be clear, I condemn the origins of manners and the people who use them to disenfranchise others… not parents trying to prepare their children to live in a brutal culture where even good manners do not ensure inclusion, preservation, or prosperity.

Manners are the behaviors we engage in when we understand the etiquette expected of us. And, etiquette is the social code we’re expected to adopt based on our cultural values. The word “etiquette” comes to us from French and it referred to a physical “ticket” that was provided to visitors of the royal court giving them a list of rules and regulations for appropriate behavior. Apparently, Louis XIV became angry when visitors trampled through his gardens. He posted signs (etiquets) warning people off the flora, but they didn’t pay any mind. Eventually, the King issued a royal decree that no one would be allowed to step on his grass. In time, the etiquets became handheld documents indicating what was allowed and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, if you weren’t in the in-crowd, you wouldn’t gain access to the etiquets. In that way, etiquets served as a barrier to isolate “cultured” people from “uncultured” ones.

Manners were prescribed by the ruling class for everyone else. While that hierarchy has changed with time, the manners we observe today remain classist by their origin. They are inherently othering. We talk about manners in moralistic terms of “good” and “bad.” Do we really believe there is no transference of moral discrimination to the person whose manners don’t live up to our expectations?

Some of the basic issues I have with manners include:

  • In the human brain, politeness is linked with the system governing aggression, whereas compassion is linked with the system involved in empathetic responses. Put plainly, politeness is a muzzle whereas compassion is a loving response to others.
  • Etiquette is big business. Finishing schools exist to provide people (primarily women, go figure) with comprehensive protocols on how to comport themselves. The existence of this industry further enforces behavioral expectations across all classes.
  • Social expectations aren’t consistent even across various geographies in the same country, much less internationally. And, the United States is an international country. Manners are cultural, not universal, so the acceptance of difference is a moral obligation.
  • “Good” manners do not preserve people of color from racism. Only empathy and understanding from those with the power to effect genuine change (read: white people) can do that. Not too long ago, white people (i.e. “ma’am” and “sir”) regularly warped the language of manners to undermine the dignity of Black people (i.e. “girl” and “boy”) and manners continue to be used in the same way today where whiteness is threatened. Further, calls for Black people to be “compliant” in the face of police brutality and to be more polite when speaking about upsetting topics are fundamentally racist.
  • “Good” manners may not be accessible to disabled people, like those who can’t tolerate eye contact and, as a result, may be viewed as deceptive or worse. And, the inability to tolerate touch make handshakes pretty tough. There are many social expectations that are unkind to neurodivergent people.
  • Manners derive from antiquated and oppressive ideals. For example, some theorize that the over-attention to manners in the South has resulted from a culture of “honor.” You know, like defending a woman’s honor so her father can still marry her off to the most profitable suitor?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t teach your children about manners. Yes, teach them manners. Give them a leg up in society to the best of your ability. Let them know how their behavior is perceived. But, at the same time, teach them that it is a privilege to have access to information about how to move effectively through social spaces and to be able to effectively perform “cultured” behavior. Teach them not to make assumptions based on a person’s behavior and, instead, tap into empathy and grace in getting to know others. And, model understanding and consideration for others.

That manners are classist, racist, and ableist (and defensibly sexist too) means our children need to know and understand them to be changemakers. Please and Thank You are nice, but revolutionary empathy is so much more important. Besides, respect and politeness are natural byproducts of viewing all people as worthy equals, even if you aren’t up on your Ps & Qs.

Kids Don’t Owe Anyone Good Manners

Manners are classist. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way. Throughout history, the way people acted has been a signal of how polished their upbringing was. Perfectly wonderful and kind people have found themselves the target of snubs simply because they didn’t exhibit an acceptable level of refinement.

We should take care in judging people based on the way they behave. Years ago, I worked for an organization that kept an accountant on retainer. This guy was the picture of unkempt. Messy clothes, greasy hair, gruff personality, old clunker for a car. I was surprised that a businessman would appear to care so little about the image he was projecting given how much my parents drilled into me the importance of “putting your best foot forward.” Well, the joke was on me (and my parents), because that accountant was a wildly successful millionaire CPA.

When it comes to kids, it makes sense to want to build in them the traits that make family life run smoothly. Genuine care for one another results in things like kindness and helpfulness. But, what’s expected of kids is politeness… the ability to navigate social expectations we’ve all apparently agreed are good. There’s a lot of learning to be done and, for some kids, it just never clicks. Manners are confusing! They were confusing for me as a child. The idea that I should practice social choreography in order to merely appear like I cared about people made so much less sense than just bypassing the trappings and honestly caring about people. Why did it matter if I said “yes ma’am” when I was going out of my way to do kind things for my mother? It still doesn’t make sense to me to this day. Personally, I’d rather we be in true relationship with each other and treat people the way they want to be treated.

Manners are really nothing more than modern day chivalry that harken back to a time when people were very careful not to reveal their true intentions. That doesn’t sound like anything I want my children involved in. Nonetheless, children do need to understand the expectation and be able to “play the game” so to speak. They need to be given the words to say and practice the actions to take, so that they have the tools they need to succeed in a world where people who despise each other are still required to be polite to each other in the workplace. There are real life implications and consequences, and children are better served to be told the truth than to be coerced into being polite for politeness’ sake.

So, for our purposes in fostering genuineness in our children, I propose we buck the system and encourage kindness instead of politeness. I say we demonstrate to our children, through modeling, to pay close attention to what’s happening around them; to comfort the sad friend, to help the stranger whose hands are full by opening a door, to listen intently when someone is speaking, to gently hand money to the clerk instead of tossing it carelessly onto the counter. In short: treat people like they are deserving a dignity and respect.

And, when we notice children – any children, not just our own – with “bad manners,” let’s be extra kind to them and treat them respectfully too. Show them what it’s like to live in community and in relationship with people who deeply care about their wellbeing.

Click here to read the follow-up

Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Whether you’re having in-person conversations or online, someone somewhere has probably told you that peaceful parenting can’t work for every child. “Every child is different” they say, with the full force of unfortunate implications behind each word.

Every child is different. Some need to be punished.

Every child is different. Some need to be shamed.

Every child is different. Some need to be spanked.

Every child is different. Some need to be arrested.

It’s simply not true. None of it. While peaceful parenting can seem to be an unachievable ideal from the outside, it is an evidence-based approach that takes into account the advances in neuroscience we’ve made over the past century. It is a scientific marvel. And, once you dig into it, you see that it is appropriate for every. single. child.

Well, what about that kid screaming “NO!” in his mother’s face while she sits there unsure of what to do?

An authoritarian parents might lay down the law. “You will NOT treat your mother that way!” Punishment is the answer here!

A permissive parent might allow the behavior to happen and make excuses. “Oh, he just tired. It’s ok.”

A neglectful parent might completely ignore the child.

An authoritative, peaceful parent would address the issue head on. We’ve got a fantastic solution for overwrought children who have lost their ability to regulate: The 3Rs and a limit. As a reminder, the 3Rs are regulate, relate, and reason. This formula was developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma-informed care, and it can be effective for all children.

Regulate

This one is why you should never, ever, ever ignore a child’s undesirable behavior. Children, especially young ones, aren’t very good at self-regulation. The human capacity to self-regulate is a matter of development more than it is a matter of skill. But, we can help our children learn techniques that promote self-regulation. We can be most useful in this educational process by co-regulating with our children. Co-regulation refers to the way a child in a well-attuned relationship with a caregiver can sync physiologically with the adult. The process is different depending on your child’s neurology and personality. Some children need to be hugged. Some just need to be present with the adult. Some children need verbal assurances, such as “I’m right here with you. I’ll be here as long as you need to feel better.” However it works for a particular child, the goal is for the adult to share calmness with the child through physiological accord (think deep breathing), emotional stabilization, and social proximity.

Relate

Relating involves the very human act of empathizing. Once your child’s body and mind have relaxed, the next step is to let your child know he isn’t alone in how he feels. Children’s emotions are human emotions. No matter how trivial their concerns may seem to us, we can understand them. My favorite way to relate is to affirm how my child is feeling. For instance, “You’re angry because I said we’re going to turn off the tv in 5 minutes. You want to watch more tv! I know watching tv is fun.” You could let your child know of an instance from your own childhood when you had a similarly upsetting experience. The goal here is to let your child know you see them. You feel their distress and you understand it.

Reason

Once your child’s body and mind are working in concert with your own, you can explain what’s happened. Using the tv example, I might say, “We need to turn off the tv, because it’s time to take a bath and read our book before bed. Once the tv goes off, we get to play in the bathwater!” The age of your child determines how you will reason. All children, including infants, deserve an explanation for the things that upset them. They understand more than we may give them credit for and, at the very least, they will grow up learning how reason and logic work. If your child begins to get upset again, start back from the first R. Make sure not to skip any of the Rs. They work in sequence. And, a critical note, if your child is dysregulated because of a physical need like sleepiness or hunger, please be sure to address that need in your reasoning.

Limit

Setting a gentle limit may be what upset your child in the first place. You do not need to ignore the limit during the 3Rs. I was recently asked by a friend what she should do in a bookstore where her daughter became dysregulated in an aisle upon being told it was time to go. She told me that her daughter didn’t want a hug and, while she attempted to co-regulate by sitting near the child without touching, her daughter continued to play around in the store. I told my friend, in this case, I would gently take the child’s hands and physically stop her. She said that would set off another meltdown. I told her that’s ok! That’s what the 3Rs are for. Often, we do need to cycle back through until our kids are feeling better.

Our goal can’t be for our child to be happy with our limits, because that’s just not reasonable. I remember being told, as a child, that it was my responsibility to be joyful in the face of admonition. No. Children are just learning how to deal with disappointment. We don’t need to place impossible expectations on them in the process. As an adult I have had to learn how to take criticism without exploding or shutting down, because I didn’t learn how to do it as a child.

Forget all that. Our goal is to ensure that our child feels loved and supported in the midst of their unhappiness and even when they’re expressing that unhappiness in ways we don’t like. So, if you have to scoop up your child and head out the door while she fusses at you because you’ve run out of time, sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. The work you’re doing by engaging in the 3Rs, giving your child time to process their feelings, and being kind even as you are firm is to establish a pattern of empathy and support that your child can rely on. One that will continue to impact her positively.

One of the criticisms leveled against peaceful parenting is that it just takes so long. It’s true. This approach is a long game and individual interactions can take a while (so build in extra time to make sure your kids get the full benefit of your attention). We are working on fostering the development of genuine human beings who embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, observe the world to see where they can help the most, and find healthy ways to overcome hardships. It’s so much quicker and easier to punish and you could very well do that. But, why? Why would you put off the work of growing up by controlling your kids? Punishment teaches nothing but not to misbehave around people who punish you. It does not teach accountability.

So you have a few choices. One, fall back on punishment and force your kids into compliance; two, let your kids spiral into dysregulation and make excuses for their behavior; three, neglect your kids altogether; or, four, support your child’s psychological and moral development by putting the work in from birth; no punishment required.