The Stress And Burnout Continue. But I Have A Plan!

I had such intentions for what I’d write about this week. In fact, I have a bunch of topics I’ve compiled that I know I want to write about. There they sit on my growing to do list. I was debating whether or not to even post an article this week, because I am so burned out. I can’t catch my breath these days. Every weekend, I have grand ambitions and I think maybe, just maybe, this is the week I get it together. But, that week never comes, or at least, it hasn’t this year. So, I knew this was the article that needed to be written.

I’m finding it difficult to be a peaceful parent, especially as my kids are experiencing some transitions now as they grow older and wiser. They are a beautiful handful and I want to be the very best parent I can be to them. But, in order to do that, it seems I must let everything else fall apart. The house, the schedule, our homeschool plans. I have to sacrifice something in order to be competent in another area. My husband, bless him, has really stepped up with cleaning tasks around the house ever since I added a job to my absurd list of responsibilities. I’m so grateful to him for the partnership and, yet, I still can’t get it together. Anyone else feel this way?

The American Psychological Association’s David Ballard, PsyD produced a list of symptoms for Forbes.com. Now, Dr. Ballard’s list is specific to job burnout, so I’ll note only the points he lists that absolutely nail how I’m feeling. How about you?

  1. Exhaustion
  2. Lack of Motivation
  3. Frustration, Cynicism and Other Negative Emotions
  4. Cognitive Problems
  5. Interpersonal Problems at Home
  6. Not Taking Care of Yourself
  7. Generally Decreased Satisfaction
  8. Health Problems

Check, check, check, all the way down. All I want to do is sleep. And, I don’t think it’s depression. I know what that feels like and, for me, it feels like emptiness and hopelessness. I don’t feel those things, but I do feel so overwhelmed that I can barely get started on the first simple task. My executive function is wrecked. When I give myself permission, I can sit down and connect with my family. Then, when I do, it’s hard not to think about the piling list of things I’m neglecting.

I really want y’all to know that these feelings are common in this day and age. I won’t launch into a diatribe about white supremacy and capitalism here, but those are two significant driving forces behind why we all struggle so much. It’s okay to take care of yourself. It’s even revolutionary to do so.

I’ve been investigating ways to make this season a bit more bearable and I’m going to share them here, both to give others some ideas and also to remind myself. Here’s what I’m actively trying to do to survive:

  1. I started following KC Davis on Facebook and TikTok. She’s an expert in struggle care, and she helps me figure out what I can do rather than dwelling on what I can’t.
  2. I let things slide in our homeschool week. I have a list of things I’d like to accomplish every week and I work collaboratively with the kids toward these things. However, we are an unschooling-friendly crew and our days are mostly child-led. If the kids aren’t feeling it or if I’m not feeling it, I literally take a pen and cross off whatever isn’t working out from my list. Then, we choose something we all prefer. Sometimes, my plans resonate with the kids and sometimes they don’t. It is what it is.
  3. If the kids are dysregulated, instead of trying to manage them while still addressing other responsibilities, I sit down and help them. Sometimes, this means I don’t make the beds until 5 PM and the day’s dishes get piled up or we have to cancel certain therapies and activities. I can’t do everything, so my goal every day is to do something really well.
  4. Insomnia makes it difficult for me to sleep in the first place and then I also have my own insomniac child. We are two exhausted peas in a pod. So, at night, I lie down on the couch and help her relax into sleep. Sometimes I drift off too, but more often, I’ll be awake watching tv on low sound or reading something enjoyable. Even though it’s late, and I’m stuck underneath a softly snoring child, the rest is invaluable. It helps me lower my pulse and just breathe. Doesn’t do much for my touch sensitivity at the end of a long day, but once I’m free to go to bed myself, that helps a lot.
  5. I grab some prepared freezer meals in my grocery trip. They’re expensive and our budget is very small, but it’s worth having a couple options that don’t involve me cooking a whole meal. So, every week as I plan out our meals, I slide in a meal from the freezer section of the supermarket to stand in wait for those nights when I just can’t bring myself to cook.
  6. We clean during the week and try to reserve weekends for rest and recuperation. This one is difficult, but between the two of us, my husband and I make a reasonable dent in the cleaning task list every week. It’s not perfect, but we keep the house up pretty well.
  7. I comfort eat. Didn’t expect that one, did you? I fully believe that comfort eating is a natural and positive way our bodies deal with stress. I don’t binge or stress eat constantly, but after a particularly difficult day, I certainly will curl up on the couch with some ice cream. However, I do it with full recognition of what’s happening. It’s not mindless. It’s intentional. I’m doing it for a purpose and when that purpose is fulfilled, it’s done. Giving myself permission to use the joy of eating to benefit my mental health, helps me a lot.

I’d love to get your ideas for how to deal with burnout! What helps you in the really difficult seasons?

Meeting Needs Without Reinforcing Bad Behavior

Well, this is a conundrum. If we believe behavior is communication and we need to communicate with our kids to meet their needs, how does this work exactly? Here’s how the process usually goes down within traditional parenting:

  1. Child misbehaves
  2. Parent reacts
  3. Parent punishes
  4. Child gets quiet
  5. Parent lectures

Part of the trouble with addressing needs in the midst of undesirable behavior may be, in part, a struggle to break free from traditional parenting. We can’t “let” a child “misbehave”, right? Wait… can we? Can we give our children space to behave in ways that would have gotten us whooped? I believe so. That’s how we get a pulse on how our kids are feeling when other forms of communication escape them. And, it means that #1 in the process above is bunk.

How about #2? As peaceful parents, our goal is to respond, not react, so that won’t work. #3? That’s a big problem since we don’t punish either. #4 sounds nice, in theory, but shutting our kids down is the last thing we want to do when we need their input, so that’s also a no. And, then #5? I’m sure you can understand why lecturing children is pointless when what they need is understanding and a few new skills.

Let’s recreate that process for the peaceful parent:

  1. Child indicates distress through behavior
  2. Parent responds gently, halting destructive behavior and offering empathy
  3. Parent helps child re-center, giving space for upset and voice to emotions
  4. Child self-regulates
  5. Parent and child get to the bottom of the problem and find a way through

I try to become curious and invested rather than ignoring or controlling when I see my children behaving in a way that does harm, and I will tell you, it’s hard for me. It’s hard to manage my own emotions when I feel like my children aren’t heeding my words. I feel disrespected sometimes as they have such leeway to process their feelings in the way that works best for them. I wasn’t granted that kind of generosity of spirit as a child. I was parented in a harsh and traditional manner. Sure, I shut my mouth and appeared to obey, but my heart grew darker every time I was coerced, manipulated, or otherwise psychologically manhandled. It became so easy to lie to my parents as I got older. I knew that if I fell in line and acted like I was doing what they wanted from me, they’d eventually leave me alone.

Today, I am an adult who pushes everyone away when I’m feeling emotional. Anger is my predominant feeling too. Peaceful parenting tends to churn up all the old junk I was never allowed to process and it hurts so much. I often feel a tremendous urge to hit and slap my children when they’re doing things I don’t like. It would come so naturally. But, I don’t, because I don’t want my children to go through what I’m going through.

I want them to feel heard, supported, and loved. I want them to learn what they need most to find equilibrium when life gets hard. I want them to find solutions to their problems that do the least possible harm to anyone, including them. And, I know that affection and gentleness do not reinforce “bad” behavior. They comfort the human behind the behavior and sooth troubled hearts.

A More Effective And Empathetic Response To Grief

Grief isn’t something many of us are well-equipped to deal with. It comes in so many forms, from the worst possible thing we could imagine experiencing to a child not getting the cup they want at lunch time which, in all fairness, may also be the worst thing they’ve ever experienced. We are conditioned to diminish it for our comfort and, presumably, for the good of the grieving person. But, we all know there’s no off switch for grief. It comes in waves and follows us, swelling to tears at the most inopportune times. We carry it for years, even a lifetime. And, while it’s true that grief usually gets less painful with time, it’s never gone. Yet, so few of us know what to do about it and, when we make attempts at empathy, they can come across as dismissive. This is true of the way we try to comfort our children, just as it’s true of the way we try to comfort anyone else. We’re simply inexperienced and, oftentimes, ignorant of how we can truly help.

Psychotherapist, writer, grief advocate, & communication expert, Megan Devine, knows something about how people grieve. She has spent her career learning what people need most in the worst moments of their lives. Growing up in the United States within a toxic, puritanical, white supremacist culture that does not value genuineness or gentleness has left me, like many of you, inexperienced with emotional self-regulation. It’s one of the reasons I rely so heavily on approaches like Emotion Coaching. Without clear direction, I am lost when it comes to supporting people who are experiencing emotional upset. A couple months ago, a reader of my work named Stephanie Cohn brought an extraordinary video to my attention. In this beautiful 4-minute piece called, “How do you help a grieving friend?”, Megan Devine shares one of the most important lessons I’ve received as a peaceful parent. I hope you will be as moved as I was! (Transcript below)

So, what do we do about all the pain we see in the world, all the pain we feel in our own lives, and why does it seem like our best efforts to help somebody feel better always backfire. I’ve been studying intense grief and loss – baby death, violent crimes, accidents, suicides, and natural disasters – and I’ve learned something really interesting.

Cheering people up, telling them to be strong and persevere, helping them move on… it doesn’t actually work. It’s kind of a puzzle. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain. This is true for those giant losses and the ordinary everyday ones.

Educator, Parker Palmer writes, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.”

He’s talking about acknowledgement here. Acknowledgement is this really amazing multi-tool. It makes things better even when they can’t be made right. For example, somebody’s struggling. Their baby died or there’s been a bad accident or their mom got sick and they’re just sad. It’s way more helpful to join them in their pain than it is to cheer them up. But, here’s what we tend to do instead.

“You have two other children. You need to find joy in them.” Or, “You know what you need? You just need to go out dancing and shake it off.” Or, “I felt really sad once. Did you try acupuncture?”

We’re not really sure what to do with someone’s pain, so we do what we’ve been taught. We look on the bright side. We try to make people feel better. We give them advice. It’s not like this is nefarious. I mean, we try to cheer people up because we think that’s our job. We’re not supposed to let people stay sad. The problem is you can’t heal somebody’s pain by trying to take it away from them.

Now, acknowledgement does something different. When a giant hole opens up in someone’s life, it’s actually much more supportive to acknowledge that hole and let pain exist. It’s actually a radical act to let things hurt. It goes against what we’ve been taught. In order to really support you, I have to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to you. If I try to cheer you up, you end up defending yourself and your feelings. If I give you advice, you feel misunderstood instead of supported. And, I don’t get what I want either, because I wanted you to feel better.

It’s pretty rare that you could actually talk somebody out of their pain. Rarely does the admonishment to look on the bright side actually heal things for someone. It just makes them stop telling you about their pain. It’s so tempting to try to make things better. When somebody shares something painful, it’s much more helpful to say, “I’m sorry that’s happening. Do you want to tell me about it?” To be able to say, “This hurts,” without being talked out of it, that’s what helps. Being heard helps.

It seems too simple to be of use, but acknowledgement can be the best medicine we have. It makes things better, even when they can’t be made right.

I’m reminded of Robot Hugs’ comic entitled, “Nest,” from about eight years ago that makes me cry every time I see it:

I seek to empathize with my children, no matter how they’re behaving, because I want them to feel safe, loved, and understood. I hope that, as I get more comfortable with their emotions, they’ll allow me into their blanket nests when they need someone to be there when they’re sad. And, I hope that, somewhere in the midst of this relationship building, they will learn how to do the same for others.

7 Tips For More Peaceful Family Outings

A few days ago, I received a compliment about my children from someone I pass by every week on the way to one of the many therapies that my family members attend. I was at our local medical center by myself for an appointment and the person checking me in told me that my children are always quiet and calm when they walk through the building. I was immediately reminded that my babies are growing up and beginning to recognize social expectations. Of course, I do not want them to abide by expectations without considering the implications, but I do want them to learn to “play the game” so to speak. My children and I do not pick up social cues easily. It takes a lot of thinking, planning, and mimicking what other people do, so this compliment was particularly celebratory in that sense. When I mentioned what happened to my friends, one asked me how I got my children to be quiet and calm in public. After I answered, I realized that my approach might be helpful to even more people. So, here are some of the things I try to do consistently in order to set my kids up for success.

  1. Create a low demand, no punishment/no rewards household. It starts at home. I put in work daily to reduce the need to place expectations or demands on my children. I try to establish routines that become second-nature, so they don’t have to think about what’s coming next. And, when things are off-kilter and my children make choices that do not correspond with our family values, I do not coerce them into compliance with punishments or rewards. If I need for them to stop doing something, I gently stop them. Then, we reset together and find emotional balance. And, then they are free to go back to what they were doing. My goal is not to control them, but to help them self-regulate and learn, through doing, how to live in community with others. So, I intervene as much as I can before something upsetting happens rather than waiting for the kids to make a mistake so I can jump on them about being bad.
  2. Offer high responsiveness to needs. My children don’t have to wait long to have their needs met. If they are hungry, I feed them. I don’t use food as a bargaining tool. If they are tired, they sleep. I don’t fuss at them that they should wait until night time to sleep. If they need to go outside and run, we do that. And, we do it no matter what their behavior has been otherwise. I do not take away the opportunity to run outside, because I don’t like what they’ve been doing inside. If anything, I’m encouraging them to go play and get that energy out! So, when we leave to go somewhere, they aren’t generally hungry, thirsty, tired, emotionally overwhelmed, etc.
  3. Work on emotion coaching. Speaking of being emotionally overwhelmed, we don’t really do that here. All emotions are always welcome and affirmed. I do not tell my children to stop crying. I don’t tell them to calm down when they are clearly having big feelings. Whether at home or away from home, we practice emotion coaching. I’m tuned into them, so I know when something isn’t quite right. I view emotional moments as an opportunity to connect with them; not to get frustrated with them. I listen to them and help them identify what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it. I affirm their emotions and tell them “It’s ok to feel {emotion}.” And, then I work with them to rectify the situation they’ve found themselves in. For example, if my child sees a toy they like in the store and it’s not in our budget to get, I will gently stay with them as they experience the frustration, anger, and grief at having their plan to play with that toy derailed. I let them know, “It’s ok to be upset. You really wanted that toy!” I offer affection and let them know we can go when they’re ready. When we hear and connect with our kids, they can work through the biggest of feelings.
  4. Plan and prepare. Before we go anywhere, I explain where we’re going and what we’ll be doing. I also tell my kids what I need for them to do. Children do not inherently know how to behave in different circumstances. And, frankly, neither do adults! We all have to learn how to navigate unknown environments. So, when it’s time for a new experience, I explain the expectations, such as “Please use walking feet and quiet mouths,” and ask my children to tell me what they’ve understood me to be saying. Getting that confirmation helps me know if they’ve heard me and if there are any gaps in knowledge.
  5. Listen actively. Especially when we’re out and about, I am listening for my children’s needs. When something is wrong, I stop what I’m doing and pay close attention. Then, I repeat back what I hear them saying, and we make a plan to help resolve the issue. For instance, if my child gets hungry while we’re out, we make a plan for when we’ll get a snack and what we’ll have. I try to avoid quick retorts like “Not right now” in favor of problem solving.
  6. Organize time with first, then. This one is very helpful for us. Younger children may not grasp the concept of time yet, but they usually understand sequence. I’ll say something like “First, we’re going to pick up medicine at the pharmacy, then we’ll return our library books, then we’ll play at the park for a little while, and then we’ll go home.” If at any point during the trip, they ask what we’re doing, I can quickly run back through the list of destinations, so they can get an idea of where we are in the schedule.
  7. Plan fun activities. This may well be the most powerful tip I’ve got. I try to add fun things into our schedule when we have to be away from home. Being in the car, walking around different places, waiting, being bored… it’s all a lot for kids. They’d much rather be playing and having fun, and it makes sense. They’re built to play! So, if we have to be out, we might as well enjoy ourselves. It might look like getting some play time in at the park or another location of their choice. We might stop for ice cream or visit a friend. It’s simply baked into the way we do things as a little unit. I make no promises that we’ll do something exciting as a reward for cooperation. Rather, I look for things to do that will be fun and try to make them happen. On days when I’m in a hurry and have to say no to the things my children want to do, I can confidently tell them that we’ll do it next time, because it’s how we operate.

And, most important of all, I understand that this is a process. My children are growing up. They’re doing the best they can with the life experience they have so far. If something isn’t working for them, it’s my responsibility to help guide them to a solution. I’m the adult in the situation. That one’s hard to remember sometimes when I’m frustrated too, but it’s the reality. So, if your kids have trouble managing their energy levels and their emotions when your family is away from home, be curious and investigate what’s happening. Children succeed when their needs are met in a way that is tailored to their unique selves.

Why The “United Front” Is As Disrespectful As Fighting Dirty In Front Of Kids

Black parents having a talk with their despondent child

“We have to present a united front or the kids will” be confused, manipulate us, doubt our authority, what else? What are all the terrible things that will happen if parents do not fuse together like a brick wall for the children to shatter against? But, good cop/bad cop parenting doesn’t work either, right? This article by Judy Koutsky for SheKnows.com lays out five reasons good cop/bad cop parenting is no good.

  • It divides the family.
  • It creates instability.
  • It makes kids choose sides.
  • It can create unhealthy gender labels.
  • It pits one parent against the other.

And, I’m sure it does all of those things. Sounds awful! Any form of parenting that invokes any form of manipulative policing definitely isn’t the answer. When parents are angrily playing off each other to coerce their kids to behave in a way they prefer, not much good can come from it. The same is also true of parents who present a resolute, unified mindset. That united front? It’s manipulative and forceful too. It leaves no room for discussion. No room for growth for the kids or for the parents. So, what do you do? Fortunately, there’s a more natural, reasonable, human-centered way to communicate as a family.

Have a conversation, without all the reactive posturing. Develop a family plan for how decisions will be worked out when there’s disagreement. It’s wonderful for kids to see logical, respectful discussions being had by their caregivers. What a wonderful way to learn how to agree and disagree amicably. Having family conversations that involve the children also allows their voices to be heard and helps them understand the reasoning behind why their caregivers might have reservations about whatever it is they want to be able to do. If it’s too big of a decision for one conversation, take extra time to think and chat. Then, even when a decision has been made, it’s ok to rethink it and find a compromise that works better.

Presenting a united front or battling in front of kids results in little more than cutting the children out of the problem-solving equation. It disregards their intellect, their development, and their agency. While adults should avoid laying too heavy a question or decision on children, involving them is beneficial for everyone who will be impacted. There will be times when caregivers have to make a decision that upsets their child and if that upset happens, it is justified and understandable. When the process of coming to a decision – even one that is unfulfilling for the child – eliminates the hostile, overbearing approach of traditional parenting methods, there is room for connection. For empathy. For all the things children need to find their way through their disappointment and receive support in transitioning to different plans. No one in our families should be pitted against one another. Not the parents against the children and not the parents and against the parents. Not when everyone can work together for the good of all.

For further related reading, check out:

Under No Circumstances Should You Be Consistent With Discipline!

and

Of Course They Want Their Own Way

Changing Tables Are A Human Right

Photo of Black mother preparing to change her child's diaper

A reader and I were recently discussing a group post she had seen about the lack of appropriate diaper changing facilities for children at restaurants. The overwhelming sentiment was that, ideally, restaurants should provide changing areas to improve the customer experience which would, of course, boost profits; but it is ultimately the parents’ personal responsibility to make sure their children’s needs are met. I talk about meeting needs a lot and I fully agree that parents should be consistent and intentional about ensuring that children have everything they need to do the best explorative learning and self-regulation they can.

Parents – who are natural advocates and caregivers for their children – are told to figure it out. Just stay home if you can’t adequately care for your child in public. And, while I do not believe that parents are inherently marginalized for being parents, there are intersections of marginalization between parenthood and gender, ability, race, and so on. In particular, caring for children has traditionally been the realm of women and, misogyny being what it is, parents – including men and nonbinary people by proximity – face disadvantage in USian culture. Things like the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) do benefit parents, but they also benefit many other people. Pregnant people are ostensibly protected from job loss under the Civil Rights Act under a clause that prohibits sex discrimination. It’s not because pregnant people are parents. Considering the lengths cultures worldwide go to in order to support families, the minimal assistance parents receive in the U.S. results in glaring, disproportionate hardships. Parents are not explicitly marginalized, but women undeniably are and, as women are the primary caregivers of children (and elderly parents and disabled family members and anyone else who is vulnerable within a household), we should take great care in rejecting that misogyny is a factor in the way our culture treats parents.

So, no. It is not ultimately the parents’ personal responsibility to prepare for every potential challenge they might face when they go out in public with their children. The public also bears responsibility. And, we have demonstrated an acceptance of our social responsibility to support vulnerable people… as long as they are adults… by enacting laws of protection against undue harm. Back in 1990, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed after decades of effort by disabled self-advocates. Today, disabled people have the power of the law behind us when we need to address unequal and inequitable treatment. I mention the ADA specifically to draw similarities between the need for disabled people to access protections and the same need for children. How long before the ADA was passed were disabled people and their caregivers told they needed to figure it out when there were differences in access and outcome as compared to non-disabled people?

Today, we recognize why toileting accommodations for disabled adults not only make sense, but also represent the common decency we should have for other humans. Yet, somehow, infants – who are not only medically incontinent but are also physically unable to meet their own hygiene needs – do not deserve accommodations as well. Why might this be?

Childism.

The lack of changing tables in bathrooms directly impacts children in a way that it does not affect adults. Babies need appropriate accommodations to ensure that they are receiving the best possible support by their caregivers. If a business serves children, as most restaurants do, it is incumbent upon that business to ensure that children’s human rights are upheld, including sanitary elimination. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to hygienic toileting is a fundamental human right. Parents being required to change babies anywhere but a place designated for children with the requisite safety features violates this right, not because it inconveniences the parent but because it endangers the child. Infants are not an extension of their parents. They are their own complete human beings with their own distinct rights that we deny with impunity.

Failure to support the demand that businesses provide for the human needs of children, up to and including litigation and other legal measures, constitutes harmful discrimination in the form of childism. Children need robust, legal protections that they may never get, because unlike other marginalized groups, children do not have the social capital to fight for their own rights. We are the only ones who can.

Authoritarianism in Commercials

If you’re the kind of parent who watches TV, well hop right on this here couch, because I’ve got an extra seat with your name on it. In my television travels, I’ve been struck by the juxtaposition among child-related commercials that pop up for me often. Have y’all seen these yet?

Potato Pay

Back in 2018, Ore-Ida came up with the concept of frynance. In other words, bribery. The idea is that parents should purchase Ore-Ida fries to use as rewards to compel their kids to eat green vegetables. It’s clearly supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, as seen in this intro piece:

However, frynance is built on something real. It draws from the idea that we have to force unwilling children to eat what we tell them to eat. It leaves no room for children to encounter new flavors in an unobtrusive, unfamiliar way. Frynance mocks both the development and autonomy of children. But, it’s just a joke right? Ok, sure. Somehow, we have made it ok to build a multi-million dollar ad campaign on ridiculing a marginalized group. It’s just not that funny to me.

Maybe y’all have seen this one too?

In this one, we see a Black mom chasing her child through the house demanding that they eat “one more bite.” The saddest part is that the latter half of the commercial actually demonstrates how we can give children power over what they put into their bodies. The Satter Institute provides guidance on how we can raise children who are a joy to feed. We should be offering kids foods they enjoy alongside foods they don’t yet know or don’t yet like. For a phenomenal strategy to help support our kids developing palates, check out Kids Eat in Color or Kids Eat in Color on Instagram.

How to DAD

In contrast to those childist commercials is a series featuring New Zealander parenting influencer, Jordan Watson of How to DAD. He was tapped for a series of commercials for Purex laundry detergent in which he can be seen playing with his children and having fun. The overall theme of these commercials is meeting children where they are and not letting a little mess get in the way of connection. They’re all done playfully with happy kids. For instance:

In many of the commercials, you can hear the kids giggling and laughing. My very favorite one (which I cannot find online) has Watson and one of his daughters in various scenes. The child asks to do one messy activity after another and Watson happily agrees each time.

My take-away is that we can be kind to children if we want to be, but sadly, it’s profitable not to be. In the case of the Purex commercials, I get the sense that they hired this wildly popular influencer who happened to be an invested and kind father and the result was a series of ads that weren’t cringey. Would Purex have come up with these scenarios in the absence of Jordan Watson? I’m not hopeful they would have. And, it’s a real problem because commercials are intended to key into our cultural values and reach us in a way that makes us more likely to spend money. Ore-Ida wouldn’t have kept their Potato Pay campaign running for several years straight if they weren’t also raking in cash as a result.

I’m curious what else y’all have noticed in commercials and on tv in terms of affirming childist values?

Of Course They Want Their Own Way

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Are You Raising An Entitled Child?” in which I looked at the qualities that trigger adults to label children “entitled” and the reasons such a position is ill-informed. Today, I’m going to talk about another dimension to the problem of misperceiving children’s motivations. I’m sure you’ve heard people speak of certain children as needing to “get their own way” in order to be happy, though I daresay we all know how nice it feels for things to go our way. That should be the first signal that there’s a problem. We know it’s lovely to have things go the way that makes us feel best, yet we criticize children for their very same, very normal, human desire.

This is childism, plain and simple, and it’s a paradox. On one hand, we won’t acknowledge children’s right to autonomy and agency. On the other hand, we expect more of children than we expect of ourselves. We place them in this impossible position, because we have relegated them to a position beneath us such that we don’t want them to be our equals and we also don’t want them to bother us. But, we can’t have it both ways. We have a couple choices. Either we pour goodness and gentleness into them when they’re little, so that they can gain wisdom, resilience, and empathy as they get older. Or, we order them around and hold them accountable to our impossible standards, preparing them for little more than compliance with an authority figure. Children can succeed because of our approach or in spite of it. The choice lies with us as caregivers.

Recently, in a group for caregivers of Autistic people, and I saw a brilliant commenter explain that the behaviors we’ve come to expect from children “not getting their way” are actually evidence of a difficult transition. The child meets a barrier to the thing they desire and they struggle with the change as well as the disappointment around it. What a wonderful insight! Children who are upset at “not getting their way” are, in fact, experiencing dysregulation due to a transition they were neither anticipating nor inviting. They simply weren’t ready. And, then, an adult effectively places the responsibility onto the child to self-regulate during and expertly navigate the upheaval of these moments of disappointment. Why not become part of the solution instead?

When children begin to demand that we bend to their desires, we need to listen. What are they asking for? Is it something we can provide? Have we been unreasonable in our expectations of them? Are we saying no because we don’t want to be bothered or is there a reason we have to say no that we can help our child understand? How can we respond empathetically whatever our decision might be?

Take this scenario for example.

Child: “I want another cupcake, please!”

Caregiver: “Not right now. We’ll have more tonight.”

*Child begins to dysregulate*

Child: *screaming and stomping* “I want another cupcake!!!”

If we view children as demanding, annoying underlings, the child in this scenario might look combative, entitled, even ridiculous. But, if we see what’s really happening, that the child met an unexpected barrier and does not have the tools to work through it, we can offer real, lasting help.

Caregiver: “Oh! I can see how much you want another cupcake! They are yummy. It’s really hard to wait when you see some cupcakes left over and you want one of them.”

*Caregiver might offer a hug, deep breaths, some time outside, or other calming strategy*

Caregiver: “Since there are just enough left for our family to share this evening at suppertime, I was hoping to put them aside until then. Would you like to have your cupcake now or would you like to have it with us later on?”

It doesn’t matter how the child responds here. That’s really the point. Children have a right to input on decisions that affect them. There will be times when the answer is simply no and we will need to stay with our children to offer empathy and support. But, the reality is that no is all too often our kneejerk reaction to a question from a child, any child really. We come up with all sorts of reasons to deny children even the simplest choices. If we can make these difficult transitions easier, especially when we can yield control over a child’s decisions to that child, why not go for it? We’d all be better off if we trusted each other to make age-appropriate decisions and jumped to empathy before judgment.

Permissive Vs Liberating

Y’all know I love a good “versus” post! Let’s talk about the difference between permissive and liberating parenting. First, though, I must acknowledge that what’s considered permissive parenting is highly cultural. This article from Parenting Science does a fantastic job of explaining about how permissive parenting outside of the U.S. isn’t always problematic and why that may be. In the U.S., when we talk about permissive parenting, we generally mean giving children virtually unlimited freedom without the requisite parental involvement.

Here, unlimited freedom is usually the dominion of white families, especially those who aren’t actively pursuing anti-racism and anti-colonialism. White children carry all the white supremacist messaging – and protections – they receive through osmosis and otherwise and that indoctrination factors into the choices they make. The result can be children who do not recognize safety limits or the personal boundaries of people around them. They can develop an attitude that “I do what I want and I don’t care what anyone says.”

To a significant extent, white children are the only group of kids who have the cultural privilege to do what they like without life-altering repercussions. Bottom line: white USian parents are the most likely to engage in permissive parenting and the least likely to suffer any meaningful backlash as a result. Something to keep in mind, especially when reading about what permissive parenting looks like outside of the U.S.

All of that said, I’ve put together a simple chart to look at the ways permissive parenting and liberated parenting might affect kids and the parent-child relationship. This chart is not comprehensive and each point could be argued but, in the end, it provides a comparative framework to better understand how each approach impacts children.

Permissively-Parented KidsLiberated Kids
Connection is a priorityConnection is a priority
“No” is respected“No” is respected
Not forced into decisionsNot forced into decisions
Met with love and affection from caregiversMet with love and affection from caregivers
Enjoys freedom of thoughtEnjoys freedom of thought
Not subjected to punishment/harsh approaches Not subjected to punishment/harsh approaches
Governs themselvesGoverns themselves with support from caregivers
Has no responsibilitiesAge-appropriate responsibilities; competence assumed
Non-interventionist approach can result in dysregulationCo-regulation with caregiver as needed
Receives limited oversightInvested and involved caregivers
Heavy emphasis on freedomHeavy emphasis on autonomy
Limited efforts to curtail harmful behaviorCaregiver provides gentle intervention; restorative justice
Offered bribes to smooth over unhappinessNo manipulation of kids
No schedulesChild and caregiver develop daily rhythm together
Overruns boundariesBoundaries and consent are crucial
Cannot tolerate mistakes or failuresEmbraces mistakes and failures as life learning
Caregiver does not necessarily seek to liberateFamily is intentional about disrupting oppressive systems


Liberated children hold tremendous autonomy. They have the space to be independent and make their own decisions within a conscious, respectful relationship with their parents. Permissive parenting and liberating parenting have so much in common, because they both embrace the free will and agency of children. However, liberation involves noticing, compassion for self and others, and intentionality that may not be present in permissive homes. I believe the goal of peaceful, gentle parenting should be liberation, starting with an end to childism and branching out to combat the oppression of all survivors of marginalization.

Are You Raising An Entitled Child?

What is an entitled child in the first place? In an article by the same title as mine, Molly Lopez of Highlights.com asks that question. She posed it to a panel of experts and received this reply:

“Typically, entitled kids believe the world revolves around them, that things should be done for them, and that paths should be cleared for them without them putting in much effort. Signs of entitlement include not taking ‘no’ for an answer and acting helpless when they’re not. When an entitled kid messes up, he expects to be rescued. He tends to not be grateful for what he has, and he finds it difficult to be content. Also, he requires constant entertainment. Any child on the planet will exhibit these characteristics from time to time, but if you’re seeing them as a regular pattern, you should ask, ‘Is this an entitlement issue?’”—Ms. McCready “The entitled child feels that she deserves what she wants at all times—financially and/or emotionally. This is very common and normal for very young children. Toddler entitlement is a natural part of growing, but there are limits.”—Dr. Milanaik

Ok, pause. If we genuinely believe that behavior is communication, what might “entitled” behavior be communicating? What I’m seeing is a child who a) is craving meaningful connection, b) struggles with intrinsic motivation likely due to excessive rewards, c) has not been guided in perspective taking and emotional regulation, d) has not had an opportunity to feel bored or disappointed, and e) has not had their competencies respected. Children cannot learn how to meet these needs on their own.

I propose that entitled children do not exist to begin with and urge my readers to reconsider using such stigmatizing, childist terminology against children.

Any time we’re invited to classify children by their outward behavior, I will always have concerns. Labels do save lives when they are adopted by people who can use them to lean into their identities and find community. But, at the same time, when labels are imposed upon marginalized groups by marginalizing people, we need to stop and question what the motivation might be. In this case, it seems to me that adults label children “entitled” to avoid admitting that these same children are not being treated well by adults or guided appropriately. This is not to say that so-called “entitled” behavior is the “fault” of a parent, but there are certainly ways parents can help children not have to rely on uncomfortable behaviors to get their needs met. Here are some ways to help.

Meaningful Connection

Children are full and complete human beings at birth. They desire to be accepted into the social circles they’re born into and those their paths bring them into. Connection doesn’t have to be complicated to be meaningful. It’s choosing our kids over and over, day in and day out, especially when life tries to distract us from our role as caregivers. Some of the simple ways we can connect with our kids, with their consent of course, include:

  • Reading to your children
  • Playing with them
  • Physical affection
  • Investing in their interests
  • One-on-one conversations
  • Helping them with chores and projects
  • Doing fun activities away from home

A child who is firmly connected to a caregiver tends to be less driven to seek out attention and approval from other sources.

Intrinsic Motivation vs Rewards

Arbitrary rewards are the flip-side of punishments when they are used to coercively modify the behavior of children. They are harmful and unhelpful. So, when a child who is desperately seeking meaningful connection receives rewards in place of connection, they will become demotivated to seek out connection in a healthy way. In other words, if we meet a child’s desires without meeting their needs, we will contribute to intense connection- and reward-seeking behavior as an undesirable substitute.

The easy fix is to avoid punishing or rewarding children in order to change their behavior. Kids don’t need sticker charts or ice cream to encourage them to do what we ask them to do. That’s manipulation. Instead, foster a relationship with your child. Establish family expectations and teach them how to meet those expectations in developmentally-appropriate ways. Use connection and limits to gently guide and encourage them.

Perspective-Taking and Emotional Regulation

Perspective-taking refers to the ability to see a situation from someone else’s point of view. It is a skill that cannot be rushed through the stages of development. There are a few schools of thought on how perspective-taking fleshes out in humans, but generally speaking, here’s where we stand.

  • 1-year-olds can match the emotions they see in others
  • 2-year-olds will try to help if they see another person is unhappy
  • 3- to 6-year-olds start to recognize that other people have different emotions than they do and express empathy
  • 7- to 12-year-olds can understand that emotions are complex and may not derive from the immediate circumstances
  • 10- to 15-year-olds can hold multiple perspectives at once and form a big picture
  • 14- to 18-year-olds can begin to investigate social systems and their influences on others

While we can’t rush development, we can certainly support it through emotion coaching in which we help our children name their emotions, notice how others are feeling, work through what has brought the emotions up, affirm their feelings, and help them problem solve. Children who have been labeled “entitled” by-and-large will have not been given opportunities to develop these skills, which is pretty obvious when we consider what an “entitled” child looks like.

Boredom and Disappointment

I firmly believe children have a right to experience boredom and disappointment without an adult swooping in to make it all better. That drive to keep our children impossibly happy is an unfortunate side effect of toxic positivity and a compulsion toward perfectionism, neither of which is healthy or helpful. We can bear with our kids as they get bored or feel disappointed. We can empathize and express solidarity. We can do these things without creating conditions where our children lose the ability to tolerate discomfort.

Assuming Competence Without Breaking Spirits

I once wrote about the adage that we should “never do for a child what he can do for himself. A ‘dependent’ child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on.” I cannot adequately convey how horrible this idea is to me. It’s probably one of the driving forces behind the overall concept of “entitled” children and it is utterly childist. Yes, absolutely, we should assume children are able to do the things they want to do until they show us they need help. And, we should give them space to try. However, letting children fail without support is not the answer. The description of “entitled” children seems to point to kids who have been treated as incompetent and that needs to change. By the same token, proponents for pushing kids farther than they’re able to manage on their own is equally troubling. I’ve found a middle ground that has been helpful for me as a parent:

  1. A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
  2. A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
  3. Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.

So, Should We Give In When Our Children Make Demands?

In a word, yes. I believe we should always give children what they’re asking for if is reasonably within our power. And, we absolutely do not need to manufacture opportunities not to give things to our kids. “Entitled” behavior does not derive from loving treatment by adults. I recently wrote about the power of “giving in” which explains my position:

Experts have lots of ideas for how to curtail “entitlement” in children, but I see so few acknowledging that “entitled” behavior is protective for children whose needs aren’t being met. Meet the needs, build the relationship, address any underlying mental health concerns, and stop labeling kids “entitled.”

“Entitled” children are children whose desires have been granted in place of meeting their needs.

Helping Our Kids HALT

I may be the last person not to have heard of this acronym before. Raise your hand if you haven’t seen it before. I knew about it instinctively and even more deeply through my efforts to connect with my kids. It’s such a simple thing to remember, especially when I’m overwrought myself.

HALT.

Hungry.

Angry.

Lonely.

Tired.

I haven’t been able to pin down an origin, but I do see that HALT is used widely in trauma-informed therapy where people are struggling with such fundamentally dehumanizing experiences that they lose touch with their own human needs. It got me thinking about what children experience every day in childist cultures. They’re told what to eat, what to think, what to wear. They’re encouraged to obey even when obedience means they must deny their own needs. And, there is no escape for so many kids. Traditional parenting approaches demand hierarchies that disadvantage children. It stands to reason that children, who are just learning/have just learned what all the sensations inside their bodies mean, will not recognize their needs at all when they are overwhelmed.

So, when our children seem out of sorts, let’s HALT. Stop and ask yourself, when’s the last time my child had something to eat or drink? Resolve it, if needed. If that’s not the problem, consider whether your child might be angry. If that’s the case, emotion coaching may be the answer. Give it a try. If that’s not it either, maybe your child is lonely. This would be the perfect time to take a little break from whatever we’re doing and give our child some attention. Kids have varying attention needs day to day and even hour to hour. Some days, it might feel like you can get anything done and other days, you’re left wondering what your kids have been up to. That ebb and flow is important for growth in the relationship as is the quality of the interactions you have. So, please, take some time and hang with your kids. And, finally, if none of that resolves the issue, your child may just need some downtime and might not even realize it.

I’ve given up on asking my kids if they need a nap, because they never choose to Maui if I suggest it. I’ll just say, “Oh goodness, I need some quiet time.” I’ll turn the lights down (we already keep most of them off for sensory reasons), snuggle up on the couch with some books, and invite my kids over. If they don’t come right away, I start reading aloud quietly in my little nest. They have full autonomy over their bodies in these instances and I will not force them to comply with my quiet time. They can choose to go anywhere in the house. Typically, they will eventually join me and sometimes even take a little cat nap.

HALT doesn’t end with these four considerations. It is an opportunity to take a look at your child and discern their needs even when they don’t recognize them. In my house, “nature” and “water” could be their own entire letters in the acronym. If nothing else seems to be upsetting my kids, I know that getting them outside to run free in nature or putting them into some form of water will cure many troubles. So, try the basics first. Recognize that children communicate with us through their behavior and prepare yourself next time for the tough moments. You’ll be so glad you did!

Unnoticed Privilege

Recently, I was involved in a discussion about the privilege inherent in the ability to homeschool. In order to homeschool successfully, one must have quite a few advantages such as financial means, stable mental health, and access to resources. That is not to say that there aren’t homeschooling parents who have varying degrees of such advantages. I’m a low-income, Autistic homeschooling mom with intense anxiety that I’m medicated for. I can homeschool because I have a partner who works and helps, a support network that can fill in when he can’t, graduate level education which has given me resources and also the ability to find resources I don’t yet have, and the means to obtain the medications I need for stable mental health. Homeschooling isn’t just the realm of well-off, white moms. But, every homeschooling family has advantages that make this lifestyle possible.

That got me thinking about other kinds of privilege I don’t really notice that I have and what that means for the way I’m impacting others. So many people I come across are resistant to accepting that they have privilege, often because they believe admitting it means they must be bad people. However, assessing privilege should not be an exercise in determining who is guilty and who is not. That’s not the point. Assessing privilege helps us recognize our responsibility in reshaping our respective cultures to genuinely serve and uplift everyone. We are presently far, FAR away from any reality resembling that ideal for so many reasons, most of which involve the oppressive authority of White Supremacy Culture and exploitative social class divisions.

Acknowledging Privilege We Don’t Realize We Have

One way we can undermine both White Supremacy Culture and social class divisions is by knowing the kinds of privilege we have and allowing that knowledge to help us empathize with others and recognize where our perspectives can lead to harm. “Bootstrap mentality” is one such example. The idea that working hard leads to success, as long as you’re doing it right, ignores the real reasons people are not successful. People have to contend with challenges such as lack of access to information or education, inability to generate the resources necessary, unavailability of support structures, and the like. Many of the hardest working people have the fewest resources to show for it. Just because one person is able to overcome their personal challenges doesn’t mean that someone with similar circumstances will be able to do the same. That’s just not how life works.

Two lesser acknowledged benefits of privilege we should observe are the presence of choice and the absence of barriers. Privilege bestows choice predicated on unequal circumstances. For instance, people do not choose to be born into wealth but, once they are, their options and choices in other areas of life are apt to increase. Privilege also shields us from barriers that others face. Considering again those who are born into wealth, will they ever have to navigate the structure of public assistance which is designed to conserve resources and limit pay outs to people who are barely scraping by? Possible, but doubtful. This is why lived experience is so important to understanding the reality of the lives of people who do not have the same advantages we do.

It can be difficult to recognize privilege when we all have our own struggles. We can be privileged in some areas and experience significant challenges in others. The balance of privilege and struggle matters. Those for whom this balance leans heavily toward struggle need more support and consideration, more relief, in order to prosper. This is where we can all benefit each other. By harnessing our privilege and using it to advantage others, we shift the balance and create a more just society for all of us.

A Checklist

We’ve all likely heard of white privilege, but there are other areas that aren’t as commonly discussed. With the help of my readers, I’ve compiled a short list of privilege points we don’t talk about enough. How many of these examples of privilege apply to you?

BASIC NEEDS

  1. I can clean my body every day.
  2. I had stable housing as a child. Bonus: I have financial resources now that cushion me from becoming unhoused.
  3. Chronic physical pain does not significantly impact my quality of life.
  4. I can seek healthcare when something is wrong.
  5. I have reliable power and temperature control in my home.
  6. I am able to comfortably sleep through the night.
  7. I can afford to eat a diversity of foods that contain all the nutrients a human body needs.
  8. My parents had stable physical and mental health when they were raising me.
  9. I was not spanked or otherwise abused as a child.

IDENTITY

  1. My partner(s) and I can be together freely in public with no fear for our safety.
  2. My neurotype is dominant in my culture.
  3. I see people who look like me in positions of influence.
  4. The majority of my country’s primary and secondary schools require students to take classes on the history of my people as told in our own voices.
  5. I am cisgender and heterosexual. Bonus: I am a cishet man.
  6. I do not have to use paid time off or forfeit pay in order to observe the holy days of my religion.
  7. I am an adult with all the rights and freedoms afforded to adults in my country.
  8. I can make personal decisions for myself without anyone else’s approval.
  9. I have never been removed from my first family to be adopted or placed into foster care.
  10. My parents were married when I was growing up.
  11. I communicate in a way and with a language that most people in my country understand. Bonus: I am not discriminated against for the way I communicate.
  12. I can call the police for help without fear of being killed.
  13. My personal qualities and traits are not pathologized.
  14. I can easily get enough clean water to satisfy my thirst.
  15. The adults in my household do not have to work more than one job each to meet the needs of our household. Bonus: At least one adult is able to stay home.

ACCESS AND OPTIONS

  1. I am not expected to purchase two seats on for a flight due to the limited size of each seat.
  2. I have a high school diploma. Bonus: I have education beyond high school.
  3. I have the psychological, financial, and educational ability to homeschool my children.
  4. I can afford clothing. Bonus: I can afford clothes that fit my body.
  5. Vaccines are available to me and I can refuse them if I wish.
  6. I have internet access. Bonus: I have a computer in my home.
  7. I have a committed support system. Bonus: I have contacts and mentors who can help me access resources, information, and networks.
  8. I can read. Bonus: There is an easily accessible library in my community.
  9. I have a car and can drive it.
  10. I can access any public space I want to visit.
  11. I can boycott stores like Amazon and Walmart without risking hunger.
  12. I do not have to pre-plan my grocery shopping trips.
  13. I have a job. Bonus: My job provides paid leave and other benefits.
  14. I am able to do my job from my home.
  15. My full-time job allows me to pay my basic bills without regular assistance and without going bankrupt.
  16. I can access natural, green spaces without much effort.

And, one of the most significant aspects of unknown privilege is simply the ability to say, “I do not believe in privilege” and really mean it.

Learn More

Check out these articles to learn more about how to use your privilege for good!

https://nextbigideaclub.com/magazine/conversation-privilege-is-power-heres-how-to-use-it-for-good/18317/

https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-my-privilege-has-given-me-opportunities-it-s-time-to-use-that-privilege-99153

https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-navigate-your-own-privilege-5076057

https://hbr.org/2018/09/use-your-everyday-privilege-to-help-others

Bad Theology Harms Kids

If you’re not here for the Christian stuff, please bypass this. As a reminder, I’m a clergy wife and seminarian in my own right. I talk about all things Christian every day of my life.

Last month, I came across a post on Facebook that deeply impacted me. It came from humanist chaplain, Jim Palmer. At one time in his life, he was a pastor at the largest church in North America, but he gave it up because his conscience grated against the contradictions he found in his evangelical church. I would say many of us Christians, especially those of us with ties to the clergy, have similar points of crisis. There’s that famous quote (that’s falsely attributed to Mahatma Ghandi), “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” As an aside, it is probably a play on a quote from Bara Dada that says, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.” I’m sure you get my point. Churches, which are supposed to be where people come to draw closer to God and find healing, end up perpetuating the same harm that drives people to them in the first place.

I fully admit that I have had many, MANY points of crisis and moments where I turned my back on churches altogether. It’s been a long and difficult journey to find balance between what I know in my heart to be true of God and how much perversity I can accept from Christians. Here is what Jim Palmer had to say about it:

If you think I have responses to these points, you’re absolutely right! His post fired me right up. And, this read goes out to those who delivered cruel messages to me as a child.

  1. Children are not born evil. They are born precious and beloved of God with a predilection to go their own way and use their free will to choose their own path outside of the will of God. But God is gracious and impossibly patient.
  2. Jesus didn’t come here to be brutalized and murdered. The method of his execution was purely the work of free will. Boiled down, the Bible is the story of how death entered the world and was conquered in the resurrection of Christ. Death is the legacy of Adam and Eve. Not sin. Sin is a corruption of the system that was broken when death became a reality.
  3. This is disgusting. We are made in the image of God. God is in each of us. So unless there is nothing good in God, this cannot be true. It’s an unfortunate inheritance of Augustine’s self-loathing. I do agree that we must be wise about our thoughts and feelings. Suicidal ideation is obviously not of God. We grow in wisdom through spiritual disciplines.
  4. The enemy is the author of chaos, fear, and shame yelling half-truths to blot out the light of God in each of us. God is the God of love. God brings us to understanding through inborn conviction that lets us know something is wrong. God is not an accuser. That’s someone else altogether, the Σατανᾶς (​Satanâs).
  5. Hell as a place created for punishment is an innovation. It would have been foreign to early Christians. Hell is a state of being. It’s the experience of God at different points on the journey to salvation. Those who spend this life ignoring spiritual disciplines and/or hating God would necessarily end up rather uncomfortable in God’s presence.
  6. Every person who has walked the earth is beloved of God. It’s utterly disrespectful to section off entire groups of people as untouchables.
  7. God gave us minds to explore our faith. The reason we have a Bible is because of theologians who got together in lengthy council meetings to observe, test, and debate. If we aren’t asking questions, something is wrong. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s a brittle certainty.

Now, the reason this topic bubbled back up to the surface was because I was horrified to read a post online where a child was terrorized by other children and their warnings of hell as a place for people who are bad. So, let’s talk about hell as a place. Jesus talked about Gehenna in several spots in the New Testament. Gehenna is an actual place on earth where children were sacrificed. Jesus was brought up in a culture that believed that place to be cursed. The area became a garbage-burning dump and sewer. It smelled horrible between the burning garbage (i.e. lake of fire), hot sulfur (i.e. brimstone) from the rich mineral deposits in the area, and sewage, making it the perfect metaphor for a horrible way to spend eternity. We know from Revelation 21-22 that the garbage dump version of Gehenna doesn’t exist in the restored world. It couldn’t because it will be refreshed along with everything else. Which means… we’re all going to be in the same place together. I use this quote from Bishop Irenei Steenberg: “hell is heaven experienced differ­ently.” What we do in this life shapes our eternal experience in ways we don’t yet understand. In other words, stop telling children they’re going to be tortured for eternity if they steal a roll of Lifesavers.

4 Things You Need to Know About Lying

A few days ago, I shared a story told to me by a fellow Autistic mom friend (see Facebook post below). I’ve been wanting to write about children and lying for a long time now and just never had the inspiration. That all changed when I learned what my friend had done. It was beautiful! I’m so pleased to get moving on this topic and offer some education and guidance I’ve learned along the way. Let’s get right into it!

1. Our Children Are Not Manipulating Us

According to the word experts, deception involves convincing someone of something that is not consistent with the facts and manipulation involves controlling someone without their knowledge to one’s own benefit. Can children really do these things? Adults often assume children are capable of behaviors that are beyond them. The Zero to Three Foundation found the following in a survey they conducted:

About half of parents believe that children are capable of self-control and other developmental milestones much earlier than they actually are.

43% of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age 2, and 71% believe children have this ability before age 3. In fact, this skill develops between 3 to 4 years.

36% of parents surveyed said that children under age 2 have enough impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden, and 56% said this happens before age 3. In fact, most children are not able to master this until between 3.5 to 4 years of age.

While children may be capable of the cognitive and social process that results in deception, manipulation requires skill, scheming, and intent. To manipulate, children must:

  • Understand the intent of someone else’s behavior or actions. In neurotypical children, this ability begins around 15 months.
  • Know that what they want is, in fact, different from the person they’re addressing.
  • Develop an alternative version of the facts that they will use to convince someone of their perspective.
  • Convincingly present the narrative.
  • Avoid revealing the facts they are concealing.

These skills grow with age, of course. In children, what we often read as manipulation is an effort to address unmet needs. Children get our attention however they can, and they communicate through behavior. By the technical definition, sure, children can demonstrate many of the qualities needed for manipulation, but it is both childist and ableist to respond to a child’s behavioral communication with such an accusation. We can advance anti-childist aims by using different words. Our children aren’t manipulating us. They are seeking connection and support.

2. Lying is Developmentally Appropriate

The ability to deceive marks an important point in development where children begin to understand that reality involves different experiences. The flip side of deception is a child who is better able to empathize because they start to understand that experiences vary, even within the same life circumstances.

Younger children are also apt to make-believe both out of a need for fun and also when they want to escape their experience (or the consequences of it). Their imaginations run wild and they dream up an outcome that they like better. We should want our children to do this! The ability to see a better way is the basis for all true justice.

And, then, of course, is the fact that little kids do not deceive very effectively, because they are simply not yet sophisticated enough to understand practical neuroscience the way adults can through instinct and observation. While they are still in this stage, we can model honesty and talk about what it means to tell the truth. We can explain the difference between truth and accuracy and help our kids see truth from many perspectives. We can talk about the (life) consequences of lying versus telling the truth, because telling the truth can be hurtful. They need parameters and examples and, above all, acceptance and understanding from us.

Our response is never more important than it is with our neurodivergent children. Keep in mind that children with ADHD face lots of memory scrambling and disorganization as a result of their neurology. They may not remember with great accuracy and their brains may simply be moving too fast to catch all the details they need. Likewise, Autistic children are often known as being very honest, but this may not actually be the case. Many Autistic children are comfortable with the facts; so comfortable, in fact, that they can make the facts work to their advantage in a way that is deceptive. They may stick to the letter of the law, even when they know a spirit of the law exists. It’s all part of negotiating a typical world with a divergent mind.

3. Lying Actually Has Some Benefits

Author Michael Lewis wrote a fascinating piece for the American Scientist called The Origins of Lying and Deception in Everyday Life. In it, he proposes a taxonomy of lying and deception that can help us parse out the motivations and intentions of our children when they lie. I’ve touched on a couple of these already in this piece, and I will include them here to provide a complete picture of his ideological framework. He names four types of lies:

  • Lying to protect the feelings of another
  • Lying for self-protection to avoid punishment
  • Lying to the self, or self-deception
  • Lying to hurt others

The first three relate to cognitive skills that we (should) want our children to develop. Consider the following instances:

Lying to protect the feelings of another

Many of us tell our children to smile and be “gracious” when we receive a gift of an item we already have. I know I was given this directive as a child. And, I know that it did not come naturally to me to tell a so-called little white lie to protect the feelings of the people who gave me gifts because they loved me.

How many of us are completely honest in our relationships? How many of us have lost relationships because we we revealed just a little too much? Children as young as 3 may be able to discern the trajectory of a question and spare someone’s feelings by adjusting the truth. This skill is an early one for neurotypical humans, which leads me to wonder if it is an aspect of social survival that is built into children’s natural development. In that case, a nuanced and developmentally sensitive approach to talking about lying is certainly warranted.

Lying for self-protection to avoid punishment

Lying to avoid harm is a very early development for humans. Children as young as two-and-a-half will try to deceive their parents to avoid an uncomfortable punishment. And, frankly, this is also something we should want our children to be able to do.

This form of self-preservation extends beyond the safety of the parent-child relationship. Think about how we’d hope our children would address predators who mean them harm. Would we affirm our children for lying to a potential kidnapper if it meant keeping them safe? I daresay we would! Yes, I’d want my children to say whatever they needed to say in order to escape harm. This kind of lying also requires a nuanced approach.

Lying to the self, or self-deception

Self-deception is one way we preserve our mental health. We can come up with reasons to accept a hard reality, such as being rejected from a job, that may or may not be accurate for the situation. A lot of people simply call this positive thinking and it can be both helpful and harmful.

As it applies to children, giving them hope is helpful. Encouraging them not to dwell on painful things, but rather to work through them can keep their mental health intact. However, they can also self-deceive in a direction that causes them hurt, such as a teenager not being able to admit a substance abuse struggle. Again, nuanced is most certainly called for here.

Lying to Hurt Others

Now, the one type of lying that has no real social or personal benefit. If you see a pattern where your child does lie simply to inflict pain or shame onto someone else, please keep the option open to call on a mental health professional.

4. We Shouldn’t “Catch” Our Children in Lies

As with everything else we do, our response to lying must be conscious and connected. Loudly accusing a child of lying will get us nowhere and may, in fact, push the child to retreat further into the deception in hopes of avoiding more scary reactions from us.

You can help prepare yourself for the stages of development by doing some research and reading of your own. I’ll get you started by letting you know that most neurotypical children gain the ability to deceive around 2-years-old; they begin to be able to cover their tracks around 4-years-old; and, they can both understand different perspectives and hold onto a falsehood around 7-years-old. However, even at age seven, your child is very, very young and is still learning how their dishonesty lands. It will be many years more before they can effectively deceive and manipulate.

It is absolutely crucial that we, as peaceful parents, prioritize dialogue over coercion and control. The less we rely on rules to force our children into a mold of our making and, instead, get to know their hearts and fulfill their needs, the easier it will be for them to be honest with us. As you likely know by now, demanding a child to tell you why they’ve lied is usually fruitless. While they might seem calm, children who are found lying are often in a state of distress. So, we can start by letting our children know we love them and we want to help them. The next step is to ask the right questions to get the dialogue going. Here are some prompts to try:

If your child is very young and first exploring these limits, be invested. For instance, if a child claims that an imaginary friend did the thing that the child did, ask about it. “Hmm… I wonder why [friend] did that?” Taking an inquisitive approach and investing in the story can help draw out the truth.

If it’s an easy fix, be helpful. “I see that [state what you see]. May I help you [state resolution]?” Immediately offering to help without first scolding or accusing will build trust with your child.

If you know the truth, be curious. “I see that [state what you see]. What were you hoping to do?” You’ll give your child an opportunity to explain themself, so that you’ll have the information you need to help rectify what’s happened.

If you can see that your child is afraid of the consequences, be loving. “Is that what you wish happened?” This one is a beautiful way to connect with a child’s heart and let them know you receive their intent and will honor it.

If you notice that your child keeps lying about the same thing, be proactive. “I know you want to [state desire]. I get it! Next time, please come tell me first and I will help you.”

I encourage you also to work toward an environment where deception is received neutrally and resolutions are always accessible. Give your child less reason to deceive by avoiding punishment at all times, guarding their vulnerability, not harping on past deceptions, and helping your child see a way out of a tough situation. And, of course, think about how you will impart your family’s values around the types of lying that are socially acceptable, and even prescribed. Particularly for neurodivergent children, the boundaries and expectations around “little white lies” must be directly indicated.

A final note: There may be cases when children doggedly hold onto a lie. While deception from children is completely normal and expected, extreme commitment to a lie could be a sign that your child is going through something they can’t manage on their own, such as declining mental health or abuse. It’s so important to pay attention and keep the dialogue open.

If you suspect abuse, you can make a report to your state to get the process started on an investigation. If your child reports abuse, it’s important that you receive what they’re saying without suggesting that you don’t believe. Limit questions to what happened, where and when it happened, and by whom. Asking leading questions (such as suggesting a name of a potential culprit) could hinder the success of a future investigation. Check out a brochure for mandated reporters to understand how they handle cases of suspected abuse. And, see this site for a contact in your state (within the U.S.) for reporting child abuse and neglect.

Urgency vs. Control

Earlier this week, I saw a reply on a Facebook post about urgency vs control, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I’m reminded of all the “what ifs” I see from parents starting to question the way they’ve disciplined their children. They’ll say, “What if we absolutely have to get to the doctor’s office and my kids won’t cooperate? What’s the gentle approach to that situation?” Or “What if my child is about to pour their drink out and I need to take it from them? How can I do that gently?”

So, first, let’s look at the difference in definitions between urgency and control.

  • Urgency: a force or impulse that impels or constrains.
  • Control: to have power over.

What do you notice about these words? The first thing I notice is that both words involve some force. In the case of urgency, that force impels or constrains. In the case of control, that force claims power over someone or something. I think this distinction is important for parents to consider, because my next question is this:

When you are feeling pressed to take action with your children, is it because you are being impelled or constrained by a force outside of yourself?

Think about the last time you used your adult power and parenting authority to require your kids to comply. Was that something completely unavoidable or did you have control over the situation? When we’re stressed out trying to get our kids to the car for a doctor’s appointment (especially one that we’ll be required to pay a fee for missing), what is the cause of our stress? Is it the money we’re going to have to pay? Or is it a lack of planning that evolved into a situation where we’d manufactured urgency where it never needed to exist?

While I’m asking you these questions, I’m asking myself too because, honestly, I can’t recall a time recently when external forces were pushing me to take immediate action. Every time I’ve exerted control over my kids, it’s been by my own choice or by urgency I created for myself by my own inaction. All those times I hollered, “Hurry up, please! Let’s get to the car quickly! We’re late!” it was all me. It wasn’t the kids.

In fact, when I do leave plenty of time, I find that the process of getting to the car is really easy. There’s some playfulness along the way, but a good time buffer leaves room for play. If my goal is to preserve my children’s autonomy (and it is), then who am I to tell them how they will move their bodies from the house to the car? As long as they aren’t harming themselves, whatever their bodies need to do in that moment should be ok.

How about instances that don’t involve a force outside of yourself by impelling you to action? What happens when it’s your child crossing a limit you have established? Earlier, I used the example of a child about to pour their drink out. Is this an urgent situation? Is there value in letting children be messy? Whenever my children are about to make a mess, I think of all the things that could go wrong. The wood floor could warp. Their clothes could stain. Their hands could get sticky and then they could transfer that stickiness to other parts of the house. It’s more for me to clean up. It’s going to take up time that I don’t have. All of these things are valid concerns. What’s the solution? I could snatch the cup. In fact, I find that this is my default. Control the environment. Remove the offending object. But, is there another way to control the environment?

What about handing the child a giant metal mixing bowl to pour the drink into and listen to the sound as it fills? In my house, I already have a large waterproof cover that permanently sits on the table just for this sort of messy play. However, it’s not my first instinct to find ways for my kids to maintain their autonomy. I have to remember to try. My instinct is to stop problems from happening, and that comes from a control mindset. I’m just not so sure anymore that a child pouring out their drink is an urgent situation as much as it’s a problem-solving situation.

Are you yielding to urgency when you push your children? Or, are you taking undue control over them (like me a lot of the time)? I’m going to keep thinking on it and I hope you will too.