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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
Investing in their interests
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:
A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
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.
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.
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 bya 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.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a response after seeing the fallout from a post made by Kristen Coggins of @krissycouch where she stated, “You are not a bad parent. You are triggered.”
Gentle parents jumped all over her. This is what I said,
If you felt your parent was a bad parent and this post feels dismissive, I get it. There may not be room for any grace when your wounds are raw from harsh treatment and abuse. You don’t have to be the person who intervenes when you’re so close to trauma, but someone needs to. I wish I had folks in my corner speaking gently to my parents and helping them change their ways even today.
Every parent harms their kids. There’s no way around that. This post is speaking to the parents who are consumed with guilt and want to do better. It excuses no one for their abusive behavior. We are still responsible for the pain we inflict no matter our intentions.
So, how do we hold parents accountable and also leave room for the grace required for growth?
Y’all know I can’t stand the phrase “shit parent” and it’s for this exact reason. I’m trying to give parents an alternative, wake them up to their own need for intervention, reorient them to their children’s humanity. And that is what this post is about.
We call ourselves cycle breakers, but let’s not be so limited as to believe those around us who haven’t embraced conscious, gentle parenting aren’t also breaking cycles of their own.
When we box people into impossible standards, we lose them. The most consistent request I receive from readers of this blog is for real-life advice on how to gently parent given their particular life circumstances. [Sidebar: If you aren’t following my Facebook page, please head over and hit that Follow button! Because I don’t talk about my kids on this blog, I don’t have much of a means to provide real-life scenarios, so I use my Facebook page to search for great examples of peaceful parenting and share them there.] I have dear friends who read what I write here, and I have been convicted by some for the way I word things sometimes. I can get so impassioned that I sometimes come across as a harsh critic of anyone who doesn’t parent the way I do. That’s never my intention though. My goal is always to amplify the voices of children who are impacted by the ways we choose to interact with them.
I think it’s helpful for all of us to examine our approach through an anti-childism lens. I’ve written about the rights of children and the freedoms of children in relation to childism and I understand it’s difficult to strike a balance. Not only are we working against the current of modern “wisdom” about children as their parents’ property, but we are dealing with real human individuals who have varying capacities and intelligences. The freedoms we can negotiate for one child may not be the same ones we can negotiate with another. I’ve gotten criticism from more traditional parents that my approach is too lenient and also criticism from free-range parents that my approach is too strict. Again, I’ll note the importance of balance and giving our children what they need to thrive. I want to urge nuance in these conversations because, in excluding parents from what we view as the only right way, we leave them standing in that awful current of modern “wisdom” with no support.
The very idea that there is only one right way derives from the legacy of white supremacy. It’s true that there is right and there is wrong. Domestic violence against children is wrong, for instance. Calls to end spanking are right. However, the way we carry out our efforts to curtail spanking impact different people groups in different ways. If we support laws to arrest parents who spank, we will perpetuate the racist oppression of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Melanated People (BBIMP). If we demand better education and support for parents who spank, we risk harming poor parents who can’t take time off work to receive educational services. Perhaps a better use of the law would be to bring education and support to the workplace through some sort of mandatory federal funding stream that ensures no one will lose out on their income as they learn to make healthier choices. I don’t have the answers and I would much rather hear from the people who would be impacted by such measures.
Now, I’ve noticed some peaceful parenting voices wishing to separate our approach from the quadrant system advanced by Maccoby and Martin, based on the work of Baumrind. From their perspective, gentle parenting functions outside of any traditional understanding of parenting approaches. I recognize the desire to break free from traditional ideas around children, but I disagree. I appreciate the structure of the quadrant system in helping us understand where we are with our children in terms of connection and expectation. We lose a valuable educational tool when we toss it out.
Actually, a true quadrant graphic makes it even more apparent how flexible this system really is. In the following graphic, the blocks are in the same places as the chart above, but the arrows demonstrate how we move throughout the system. You’ll see there is plenty of space to stretch out in the authoritative block. Some gentle parents lean more toward the permissive side and some lean more toward the authoritarian side, but all reside firmly within the high connection/high expectation block.
A fair goal, in my opinion, is to give people the tools they need to plant themselves inside the authoritative block without all the extra criticism. There are some authoritative parents who punish their kids through logical consequences. Y’all know good and well that I am opposed to the use of punishment, but you better believe I’m still going to keep the lines of communication open with these parents. Some of my readers spank their kids and they admit it to me. In emotionally charged moments, they strike out. They know how I feel about it, but they still tell me about their experiences. Many of these same parents credit the things they’ve learned through my, often fraught, experience for the ways in which they’ve changed their perspectives on the relationship between parents and their children. This is a process. I have never met a parent who, with one salvific decision, suddenly became an ideal gentle parent who never, ever harms their kids. I’m a gentle parent and I know I’m doing things that my children will grow up and remember with sadness. I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m trying to be genuine, humble, kind, and open to change.
Let’s keep talking about a different way to parent even in the face of criticism from people who don’t get it and those who don’t want to get it. Let’s give parents a new path even if they aren’t in a place where they can manage it themselves. But, please, stop gatekeeping peaceful parenting and stop telling parents they aren’t doing it right. Who is served by the weaponization of rigid and lofty morality?
We cannot sacrifice parents for their children or children for their parents. Choosing one over the other is not liberation from childism. We fall short when we do not honor both.
…and other things parents say. When I was a child, my mother was very open about wanting to get some distance from me. She would mournfully say she wanted to “go home.” In time, I came to understand that “home” was heaven. In other words, she wanted to die and be as far away from me as possible. I’m sure many parents can relate to the feeling of wanting to escape. But, let me speak for the kids. The more I understood what she really meant, the more anxious I became. I would try to alter my own behavior, as a young child, to try to keep her from feeling bad. The more she pulled away, the more urgently I felt the need for connection.
Those wounds haven’t healed. So, when I see parents openly talking about getting away from their children, it scratches at those scabs. I see it online and wonder if the kids can feel their parents pulling away like I did. I see it in person too and I know the children are listening, because I listened. I write this not to shame parents or suggest that we don’t need alone time to recuperate and center ourselves.
We absolutely do need that time. Every person, adult and child alike, needs time to do the things that energize us to take on the challenges of life. Setting aside time to do this is a healthful behavior. Encouraging our kids to do the same prepares them for a lifetime of positive self-care. But, making our kids the reason we need a break – rather than our own very human need for time spent alone away from adult responsibility – may end up remaining with our children into adulthood, like it has for me. It’s not the kids that are the problem. The problem is trying to pour from an empty cup.
It is always positive for children to see us set healthy boundaries in a gentle way with them. It can be as simple as “I’m starting to run out of emotional energy and I need a little time to recharge. I’ll be ready to paint with you then! Give me about 20 minutes and I’ll be right back with you. I love you!” Try to let your kids know what you need and then make sure take your own boundaries seriously. That’s how they’ll learn to do it themselves.
This past weekend was Mother’s Day and the half-joking, half-exasperated posts online about life-draining children abounded. It’s so uncomfortable for me to see; people relishing the time they have away from their kids to feel “complete again.” I have to wonder how these parents might feel if someone were to say the same thing about them.
I ask you to receive this as a vulnerable insight and not as a criticism; to remain available and connected with your children without laying the responsibility of your mental health at their feet; to find the things that genuinely recharge you and seek them out; to model positive self-care; to recognize the importance of knowing when it’s time to disconnect and recover; and to frame the problem not as one’s children but as a valid need for sustenance of spirit.
Around this time last year, I wrote a piece called Squaring Santa where I dove into the myth and tackled the childism inherent in a cultural collaboration to deceive kids. Upon re-reading it, I’ve realized it comes across as strongly worded and for good reason. Learning the truth about Santa as a child shattered the magic of Christmas for me. No, Christmas was never about Santa or gifts. What hurt me was that my parents had lied to me and encouraged me to believe something they knew was untrue. Christmas was tarnished from that point and it took getting caught up in the excitement of my own children around the Christmas season to regain much of what I had lost. That’s just my story though. I know millions of people perpetuate the Santa myth because they had warm cozies about it as kids and that nostalgia can make it difficult to see the lie for what it is.
Last week, I was looking for matching pajamas for my family and I saw some with little Black Santas. As I considered the cost, I realized how strange it was that I had no problem with Santa PJs considering how I feel about the Santa tradition. Out of curiosity and a desire to explore, I asked friends if anyone among them chose not to participate in the Santa tradition and why. The most common response what that they didn’t want to deceive their kids and break their trust. Some noted that their children had expressed reservations about a strange man breaking into their homes while they were sleeping. Some went further to say they preferred to talk about the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. Others said they do participate in the Santa tradition in some form, but do not employ the behavioral tactics to pressure their kids into being “good.” And still others said their children understand it’s a game and not real, so they aren’t being duped, but they’re still enjoying the make-believe excitement of it all. Everything they said resonated with me.
There is no denying how ubiquitous Santa has become in the United States. He’s part of our cultural vision of Christmas, for better or worse. Schools really push Santa as well. It can be hard to be a child in this country and not wonder about whether Santa is real. So, first, I want to affirm everyone who does not wish to participate in the Santa tradition at all for whatever reason. Do whatever it is that makes sense for your family. I would advise against demonizing Santa or ignoring that the tradition exists at all, because doing so could create a major conflict for your children. It could also push them to condemn their friends or take up a position of superiority.
If You Don’t Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition At All
Decide what you want your child to know, making sure to recognize that you will not be able to completely avoid Santa during the Christmas season.
Give your child the words to say when people (especially other children) ask them about Santa. Specifically, work with your child to prepare responses to “What do you want Santa to bring you?” And, “Have you been good this year?” Children typically don’t want to get entangled in a lengthy discussion, so sidestepping the questions can be useful.
“What do you want Santa to bring you?” Response: “I’d love to get [gift] for Christmas this year.”
“Have you been good this year?” Response: “I don’t think kids should be rewarded for being good or punished for being bad.”
Explain that it is considered bad form to intrude on others participating in the Santa tradition. If you want your child to tell the truth to other children about Santa, that is your prerogative and it is the anti-childist position. However, if you’d prefer to encourage your child to extend grace, you can let them know it’s ok not to discuss Santa at all with other children (or simply use the canned responses you have prepared together).
If You Do Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition Without the Childism
Tell your child the truth. Santa is a myth. However, Santa is also a fun cultural tradition that your child can participate in with full knowledge of reality.
Teach your child the history of Santa, including the origins in St. Nicholas of Myra, as well as differences in the Santa tradition around the world.
Share other cultures’ holiday traditions, particularly the ways in which they infuse kindness and generosity into their holidays.
Introduce Santa images with a variety of complexions rather than perpetuating white supremacy in the form of white Santa only.
In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.
A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.
Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.
If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?
Several months ago, I wrote a piece called In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time. The resounding critique I received was that it is too dangerous in this day and age to allow kids unsupervised access to the internet. And, y’all, I could not agree more.
Plus, one in five kids has been sexually solicited online. The stakes are high and we have every reason to be extremely concerned. To be clear, I vehemently reject any notion that a child can be safe online without any adult supervision. Adult predators are targeting our kids. Therefore, our children are unsafe. Period. So, what do we do?
My children are still very young, but I am implementing some solutions already. I am also learning from other parents and adjusting my approach as a result. Thus far, these are my mandatory basics:
Be Honest About the Dangers
I have no intention of terrifying my children, but I will absolutely let them know the possible outcomes of risky activity. I know from having been a child myself that I didn’t really “get it” when adults issued warnings. It was only when I had my own experiences that I understood. I recognize that this is likely the case for my own children, so my responsibility is to prepare and protect them in the meantime.
Be Aware of What Your Child is Doing
It’s so much easier to let a child fall into the online world so we can get our own tasks done, right? But it’s a big gamble. We need to pay attention. We need to know who our kids are talking to, what information they’re receiving, what information they’re giving out and so forth. I’m not certain where I stand yet on technology that allows parents to spy on their children directly. That makes me uncomfortable as an anti-childist parent but I will confess that, if it’s a choice between my kids leading a predator to our home versus peeking in on their online activity… I get why there’s a market for that sort of tech.
Consider Parental Controls
One of the easiest ways to restrict content is to go through your home’s wifi settings and this article explains how to do just that. Beyond that, all modern handheld technology offers the ability to manage parental settings either as a built in app or a downloadable one. When seeking out a downloadable app, check to see how well it filters web content, whether it has location tracking, and if it works across multiple operating systems.
That said, parental controls aren’t guaranteed and they aren’t foolproof. Coaching kids in internet safety is far more effective and reliable.
Practice Safety Measures
It’s one thing to tell a child what to do, but showing a child what to do on their preferred device will lead to better understanding and use. One simple exercise we can do with our kids is website vetting. Go to a website and point out all the reasons the website looks legitimate or all the reasons it doesn’t. This exercise teaches kids how to locate reputable information while protecting themselves from danger. And, be sure to let your kids know what to do if they run across something troubling.
Teach Kids About Consent and Boundaries
This one could easily fit under the previous heading, but it’s too important not to mention separately. One of the best ways to protect children from predators is to teach them about consent and boundaries from a very young age. They need to know that they can say no to and even hurt an adult who does something to their bodies that is scary or painful. Years ago, a sex educator went viral for saying that adults should get consent from babies before changing their diapers. She was laughed into oblivion, but she had a point. We should always be talking through what we’re doing to our children’s bodies and giving them an opportunity to decline.
Maintain an Open Connection With Your Child
A parents’ best defense against danger from external forces is a respectful, connected relationship with their child. Kids who aren’t afraid to come to their parents with uncomfortable information will come to their parents. My children never “get in trouble” with me. When they approach me, they know they will not be punished no matter what they do or say. They will be accepted fully and loved endlessly. So, when the time comes for them to tell me something difficult, they won’t have to think to themselves, “Ugh, my mom is going to kill me!” All the while, I am teaching them our family’s values and acknowledging that they have their own path. I am only here to love, guide, and protect them until they are adults themselves.
Make Clear Agreements
Coming to some mutually agreeable decisions around internet access is a substantially beneficial preventative measure before any threat arises. What are your non-negotiables? For my family, one of our non-negotiables is age. Our kids will be discouraged from accessing social media until at least age 16. What are your biggest concerns? How can you address those concerns with buy-in from your child? A friend had the brilliant idea to work with her daughter on an Instagram contract that has some built in actions if things go awry. The most wonderful part of this contract for me is the fact that her daughter had veto rights on the elements and still wanted to agree to all these things that would keep her safer.
Act Quickly at the First Sign of Danger
If you do learn that someone has been targeting your child, report it. Report it immediately. And, you have some options. You can call 911. You can contact the FBI. You can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678 or report.cybertip.org. Don’t feel like you’re blowing it out of proportion. If your protective senses are tingling, something is very wrong.
Unlimited Screen Time =\= Unmonitored Screen Time
I strongly promote unlimited screen time as restriction is all too often a source of compulsion. Kids need the availability of unlimited time in order to learn what is optimal for them.
We’re back from our first ever week-long break since we started homeschooling and a lot has changed. I have pondered and prayed over a conversation I had with @healingfeelingmother, a reader on Instagram who asked me questions about why I mention specifics about my kids on a public facing platform. My initial response was that the blog is anonymous specifically to protect my children’s identities. But, that conversation set something off in my mind.
Soon, thereafter, I read this post by Ellen Stumbo:
Whew. That hit home. Even though I am Autistic myself, I have no right to speak freely about another Autistic person’s experience without consent. Actually, I have no right to speak about any person’s experience without consent. Here I am, an anti-childist advocate and I’m violating my kids’ privacy on a near-weekly basis. Sure, the blog is anonymous for now, but the plan is to go public in the future once my kids can consent to me becoming what amounts to a public figure in the world of peaceful parenting, however minor my role would be. Even if I’m not talking about them specifically, it would still impact our entire family for all of my words to be associated with me (and us). There’s a reason celebrities are so careful to hide their kids away from the spotlight and, while I’m not saying I’d become a celebrity, the concept still applies to my little section of the internet. Others have already forged this path and I’m stumbling along making mistakes because I wasn’t paying attention.
I went back to see what I had written specifically about my children and, while it wasn’t a lot, so much of it was incredibly revealing. I wrote about moments of vulnerability, emotions, bodily functions, and more all in the name of offering other parents a glimpse into how peaceful parenting can work for them too. I’ve been exploiting my children for the benefit of other children. It has to stop.
Over the past week, I have scoured the blog to remove all references to my kids. No little stories about them or references to them that are in any way traceable. I’m in the process of deleting many of my Facebook posts and archiving most of my Instagram posts that are problematic. And, moving forward, if I need to tell a story to get a point across, it will be de-identified, whether it is my own or someone else’s, unless I have specific consent to discuss it.
Finally, I have a request of all of you. If you see me post something that is inappropriate about my kids, call me out. Tell me I’ve crossed a line so I can rectify the problem. I want to make sure that, once we go public, no one can scroll back through my words and find anything about my children that could be used to shame them or discriminate against them. Thank you all for your continued support of this blog! You are truly my people.
You know how, sometimes, you run across new information that leaves your mind spinning? That happened to me this past week when I read something about the difference between permission and consent, and immediately thought of my efforts toward anti-childism. It’s not something I’d really thought much on before, so I’ve been doing a little more reading and reflecting. To be clear, here’s the deal:
Permission means gaining approval from a superior whereas consent means coming to a mutual agreement that either party can say yes or no to.
I talk a lot about the need for consent on this blog, but there are also times when I’ve mentioned “allowing” and “letting” my kids do things. I’m realizing that my permission-based orientation is at odds with my efforts to elevate children. What I really want to do is flatten the traditional hierarchy parents and children tend to operate from, which means preferring agreement over commands wherever possible.
I’m sure many of y’all reading this will immediately question what this means in terms of safety issues. Children are a unique group of people. They are fully human and fully deserving of rights while also being newer to the world and in need of guidance. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what anti-childism really looks like when we, parents, are responsible for protecting our kids from danger, but I’m doing my best.
For instance, when a toddler breaks free and immediately bolts for the road, we must do whatever we can to save our child. Toddlers cannot manage the freedom to roam around a busy street unsupervised. So, what does consent look like with a two-year-old? Perhaps it looks like giving her the toothbrush when she demands it instead of brushing her teeth for her. Perhaps, it looks like sitting up with her for a while when she’s not ready to go to sleep yet. Perhaps, it looks like giving her full control over what she eats from her lunch plate. There are so many daily decisions where you can give your child the authority and autonomy she craves (something that wasn’t allowed when I was a child).
I’m reminded of a graphic I ran across some time ago by Kristin Wiens:
I’m challenging myself to rethink those moments when I want to use my adult authority to pressure my children into bending to my will. In those moments, it’s difficult to remember that sharing power ends up creating an environment of cooperation. I invite you to this challenge as well. Let’s see how often we can come to an agreement with our kids rather than lording over them. I bet it gets easier with time.
Almost all children will go through periods where they lash out in some way and spitting, hitting, biting, and kicking seem to be the most common behaviors. What should you do when your child lets loose? It’s critical to understand what underlies the behavior. We could fancy ourselves investigators for this purpose. What precipitated the event? Here’s a list of replies your child might give you if they could.
I just felt like it.
I need your attention.
I need freedom. Give me space.
It’s too noisy in here.
My sibling took my toy.
Stop touching me!
You’re not listening to me.
This is fun!
Let me do it my way.
I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
I was curious what would happen.
My body doesn’t feel good.
Both my 2 year old and my 4 year old spit, hit, bite, and kick at one time or another, so I completely understand the frustration and that gut feeling of wanting to react in an unkind way. But stop! Stop for a minute and think about what’s happening. Let’s categorize the “whys” for greater understanding.
I need your attention. You’re not listening to me.
Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to see children as annoyances who drain our time and our energy. We don’t want to “give in” when our kids express their need for our attention in undesirable ways. However, empathetic communication actually increases well-being. It’s not simply a way to meet our children’s needs. It also improves our relationship. If your child needs your attention, try a little active listening.
Some of the pitfalls I face when it comes to listening to my kids include thinking of something else while my child is communicating, trying to figure out what I’m going to say next, and attempting to manipulate the direction of the conversation. If you’re anything like me, one or more of those statements might resonate.
Professional communicator and educator, Julian Treasure, recommends a four-step approach to listen with investment:
Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
Appreciate: Pause and think
Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
Ask: Learn more
If you know your child needs your attention, give it freely. Silence those harmful voices telling you not to spoil your child. You cannot spoil a child with love and affection. Quite the contrary, kids who are perceived as spoiled tend to be those children who have a) not had their boundaries respected so they react with belligerence or b) not been given enough attention and therefore do not trust that their needs will be met.
I need freedom. Give me space. My sibling took my toy. Stop touching me! Let me do it my way.
In our childist culture, it’s easy to get caught up in “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” thinking when it comes to children. We’ve got to work toward flipping that perspective around and radically respecting our children’s autonomy.
Years ago, sexuality educator, Deanne Carson, made headlines when she advocated for asking infants if it was ok to give them a diaper change. She acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to consent, but said that asking for consent and pausing to acknowledge them lets children know that their response matters.
I fully admit that I scoffed at her comments at the time, even though I was already three years into my Peaceful Parenting journey, as I was sorely lacking an understanding of childism.
Yes, you can let your baby know you’re about to change their diaper. Consent does start from birth and it never ends. We must prioritize navigating our children’s demands for bodily autonomy and their health-related needs. It’s not easy or simple, but it’s our responsibility.
If you know your child is enforcing a boundary, respect it. Bottom line. For guidance on helping siblings through the tough task of sharing/turn-taking, check out this article.
I’m tired. I’m hungry. It’s too noisy in here. I’m anxious. My body doesn’t feel good. I’m frustrated.
Discomfort shows up physically and mentally. Both are completely real and valid. In our culture, we tend to tell children how they’re feeling. We dismiss skinned knees with “You’re ok” and toileting urgency with “You just went!” Children are too often forced into the constraints of our schedules and whims, and it’s not ok. Kids deserve for their needs to be met. Where the dominant culture tells us that our children are manipulatinrg us, it is incumbent upon us as Peaceful Parents to reject that perspective wholesale. If our children need to use the bathroom, they will. If they feel sick, we listen. If they are anxious, we soothe.
And, a note to those who fear all this responsiveness will lead to spoiling children. It won’t, but as we get into more complex needs, our responses may need to evolve. All children need accomodations, some more than others. Autistic Mama wrote a fantastic piece called Are You Accommodating or Coddling Your Autistic Child and really it applies to all children. In it, she explains:
The line between accommodating and coddling boils down to one specific question.
What is the Goal? You have to ask yourself, what is the goal here?
Let me give you an example…
Let’s say your child has a history assignment and is supposed to write two paragraphs on the civil war.
What is the goal of this assignment?
To prove knowledge of history.
Now any tool or strategy that doesn’t take away from that goal is an accommodation, not coddling.
So typing instead of writing? Accommodation.
Verbally sharing knowledge of the civil war? Accommodation.
Writing a list of civil war facts instead of using paragraphs? Accommodation.
Because the goal of the assignment is a knowledge of history, not the way it’s shared.
We can empower our children to solve their own problems by showing them how to be problem-solvers from a young age. We can teach our children to ask for what they need and demonstrate that their needs matter by obliging their requests. As they get older, we can empower them to seek reasonable accommodations in a variety of environments by considering what needs they must have met in order to succeed and to advocate for themselves.
I would be remiss not to mention one thing here of great importance to the Autistic community. AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE NOT INHERENTLY VIOLENT. Violence is not a criteria for diagnosis. So many people ponder why it seems like Autistic children tend toward aggression. Well, imagine having to endure all the little things you dislike (flavors, sounds, textures, etc.) all the time and then being treated as though you’re a burden for asking for it to stop. You might be driven to aggression as well. It’s hard being Autistic in a world that isn’t made for you. Meet the needs of Autistic kids and you’ll see a drastic decline in any aggression.
If you know your child is uncomfortable, try to help relieve that discomfort. Some children are unable to clear saliva and may spit or drool as a result. This is common with children who need lip or tongue tie revisions. If your child is anxious, try these measures. Whatever is going wrong, seek out a solution to support your child rather than punishing them.
This is fun! I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try. I was curious what would happen. I just felt like it.
Our children’s top job is to learn through play. We must leave some room for childlikeness, even when it comes to things that are as upsetting as aggression. As strange as it might seem to us, children do many things because they’re testing out how their bodies move and what effect they can have on their environment.
If you know your child is playing, try directing their play into a form that is more conducive to your family’s lifestyle. Getting down on the ground to wriggle around kicking can be fun. Just make sure the goal truly is play or your actions could come across as mocking.
Tips for Interrupting Aggression
Respond Gently. First and foremost, try not to meet force with force. Understand that children start out several steps ahead of us in terms of emoting because of their stage of brain development. The calmer we are, the better we can respond. And, if you need to physically stop your child from harming you, use the least force you possibly can.
State Your Boundary. Let your child know your expectation in clear, unambiguous terms. Try “I know you want to hit me because you’re angry. I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you hurt me.”
Engage the Three Rs. When you need to engage with a dysregulated child, remember to Regulate, Relate, and Reason. For many children, just acknowledging and empathizing alone will resolve the aggression, so that you can work toward meeting the need.
Give Your Child an Alternative. Understand that there are two types of aggression: the type you can mediate, like hitting and the type you can’t, like spitting. You can stop a child from hitting, biting, and throwing. You can’t stop a child from spitting, peeing, or pooping. In all cases, it’s crucial to address the underlying need, but you may also be able to introduce an alternative such as giving a child a chewie to chomp in place of spitting or even a towel to spit into. Whatever alternative you choose must be desirable to your child and easy to access when the need calls.
Resolve the Underlying Need. I cannot stress enough how important this one is. You’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong for your child and help them fix the problem. For example, when a child is pushing his sister down over and over again, take notice of why it’s happening. Is the sibling standing too close? Bothering the child while he’s playing? Once you figure out the need, the solution is often simple enough. Help the kids regulate and then invite the other child to help you in the other room.
Give Children the Words.Kids do not instinctively know how to ask for what they need. I hear a lot of parents telling children to “Use your words.” Let me tell you how very unhelpful that is! Parents, please use YOUR words. Give your child the language they should use to have their needs met, even if you have to do it over and over and even if you have to ask questions to get there. The more you model how to use language under stress, the more capable your children will be in following suit.
Avoid Confusing Messaging. While you’re giving your child the words, remember that children think in very concrete terms. There’s a series of books by Elizabeth Verdick called the Best Behavior Series and it includes such titles as Teeth Are Not for Biting, Feet Are Not For Kicking, and Voices are Not For Yelling. Read those titles again… carefully. How do we chew our food without biting? How do we swim without kicking? And how to we call out for help without yelling? It’s not logical, so it’s not going to make a lot of sense to a child. Kids might learn in spite of these messages, but it’s best to avoid them if possible.
Consider an Assessment. If your child’s aggression doesn’t seem to be manageable using any of the tips above, consider that something deeper may be going on and that you might not have all the information you need to meet their needs. Put aside concerns about stigma and work with a professional to help you and your child understand what’s happening.
For very important anti-childist, anti-authoritarian reasons, many peaceful parents promote friendship between parents and children. Yet, I struggle with the concept of being in a friend relationship with my children for similar reasons why I don’t believe people who support marginalized communities can declare themselves allies. I can’t dictate to my children how they will regard me. I can demonstrate to them the qualities of friendship and how positive relationships work, but I will simultaneously be working out my anti-childist journey. While they remain children, there will be tension in the balance of power and fragile progress in my unlearning of childism. It’s not as simple as declaring myself their friend and then palling it up with them.
It’s up to my children to decide how they will characterize our relationship. I can provide many of the wonderful qualities of friendship like honesty, acceptance, and respect, but I am also responsible for teaching, guiding, and protecting. It’s… complicated. If they don’t view me as a friend, I’ll be ok.
Truth be told, I completely understand and agree with the reasoning behind why parents want to be friends with their kids. I don’t think it’s strange at all that adults and children enjoy friendship. Obviously, the content of such friendships is different from adult-adult friendships. For instance, we should never burden children with our adult worries. But, we already know that different friendships manifest in different ways. We have coworker friends that we go to lunch with but may never see outside the office. We have childhood friends who remain in our lives but at a distance. We have mom friends online who know our deepest, darkest secrets but whom we may never meet in person. Friendship is not a one size fits all scenario. Adult-child friendships are cool as long as there’s a high degree of propriety and a complete absence of abusive behavior. I hope someday to achieve the status of “friend” to my children and here’s why.
Friends are their own complete people first and foremost. It’s one thing to want to be close to another person and another to be codependent. Friends have their own separate identities, needs, and wants, and they have mutual respect of all these things.
Friends care and are invested in each other. Friendship involves a selflessness in that friends pay attention to each other and elevate each other’s needs.
Friends have integrity. They are trustworthy and dependable. They tell the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. And, they do these things with the intent to uplift and never to tear down.
Friends improve morale. Friends offer a self-esteem boost. It feels good when people want you around and even better when they go out of their way to seek you out. As social creatures, humans need friendships for our mental health and this aspect of friendship in no small way explains why.
Friends believe in each other. It is so important to have people in our lives who know us well and understand us. One of the most critical aspects of friendship is being trusted.
Friends forgive. All relationships experience decline and growth. When we mess up, we have to know that our friends love us enough to mend the bond and move forward even stronger than before.
Friends listen and support. Good friends know when they need to be quiet and listen intently. They empathize and seek to support their friends in the most helpful ways whether that means validating feelings or giving advice or even riding out to take care of business when the situation calls for it.
Friends give and take. Allowing for free flowing reciprocity is so important. Friends don’t need to keep score. They just need to provide whatever support is required and ask for what they themselves need. That’s how friends show up for each other in the good times and bad.
There isn’t a single thing in that list that doesn’t also apply to my hopes for parenthood. This is the type of parent I want to be, which means there must be room for friendship in my relationship with my children. How that will end up looking is anyone’s guess. It’s going to develop organically, fostered with love and intentionality. I will demonstrate friendship to my children whether or not they consider me their friend and, maybe in time, I’ll hear those sweet words “You’re my best friend, mommy.” What an awesome day that would be!
Did y’all see the study from November 2019 that found screen use greater than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was associated with decreased microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills? Big yikes! Does that mean screens cause brain damage? That’s certainly a question I’ve seen floating around the internet. Parents are rightfully concerned about screen time when study after study shows these terrible outcomes.
And, that 2018 literature review on the physiological and psychological effects of screentime. You might as well just give up at this point.
And, that whole Research Roundup that seems to exist to fill parents with dread. Oh, the horror!
But, check this out.
The 2013 review found that there is very little research on infants and toddlers and that more research is needed to better understand the environmental, socio-cultural, and behavioral correlates for young children.
The 2015 review found that none of the studies they looked at from 1999-2014 could establish a causal connection, measurement errors of screen time exposure and sleep limited the outcomes of the studies, and factors like characteristics and content of screens was not well understood.
And, the 2018 review found that psychophysiological resilience in children requires the ability to focus, good social coping and attachment, and good physical health all of which could be impacted by “excessive” digital media use. They further recommend more research on duration, content, after-dark use, media type, and number of devices.
In fact, there’s a 2015 literature review on the association of parental influences with physical activity and screen time among young children found that there is a causal connection between the parents’ physical activity and screen use and that of the children. It should come as no surprise that the behavior of parents directly influences the behavior of their children.
And, that first study I mentioned? The one from 2019 about how screens change the brains of little kids? If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the sample size is both small and homogenous and that the survey and testing scores used in the study did not meet the threshold for statistical significance when income was included in the model. Those details change the story a bit.
Minding the Nuance
The reality is that there is valuable research happening, but we simply don’t understand what’s really going on. That’s why the pediatric organizations that exist to protect our kids are sounding the alarm. They’re saying look at all this data we’re seeing! Something is happening. Pay attention. So, if your family’s lifestyle flows better without any screens, by all means, do what works for you. This post is for those of you who want to incorporate screens without fear.
There are some things we can discern intuitively about screen use.
It can be distracting. Background sounds from a TV at low volume add static to the environment where infants and toddlers play. A measurable impact has been found on the ability of very small children to develop play skills naturally when TVs are used as noise fillers.
It can signal trouble. While we don’t know that screens cause depression, we do know that children who watch a lot of TV often have clinical depression that necessitates medication. So, it’s worth paying attention to what your kids are doing, so that you can intervene if necessary.
It can replace other healthful behaviors. A child who is watching TV or playing video games is not outside running around. And, a child who is watching TV or playing video games is not telling you about the troubles they’re having.
Now, something that doesn’t get enough air time in these discussions is the economics of restriction. Essentially, by restricting a thing, we increase its value. As explained by Pam Sorooshian, unschooler extraordinaire,
When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person’s thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.
The more you restrict, the more they’ll crave screens. It can feel uncomfortable to loosen the reins and it’s pretty likely your child will consume seemingly impossible amounts of flickering deliciousness at first. But, over time, and in the presence of intentional investment in your child’s needs and wants, screens will lose their luster and become just another activity.
If you’ve been restricting your child’s screen time, because you wanted to do the best possible thing for them or because you felt their screen use was getting out of control, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Not by any means. Just know there is an approach to screen use that is responsible and respectful, whenever you’re ready.
Anti-Childist Screen Use Monitoring
One of the things about the furor over screens that particularly bothers me is the emphasis on cognition and school performance. We’re encouraged to limit our children to a screen schedule of our making, so they can possibly do better in school at some point in the future. But why? Why is academic success the measure of a good life? Why are we not prioritizing our children’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and activities by giving them ownership over the way they choose to spend their time?
We can trust our children to make good decisions when we set them up for success. In our house, I try to limit my compulsion to set rules for everyone. Whenever my kids want to watch TV, I’m ok with it. They have free access to their tablets to use as they wish. But, I also create an environment where they don’t have any desire to obsessively consume that visual stimulation. We spend lots of time outside. We read. We do chores. We play, craft, and bake together. When I see one of my kids struggling to transition from screens to another activity, I intervene. When that happens, it means there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean I need to arbitrarily limit screen time. I have some guidelines for my family in the back of my mind to help ensure that I’m providing the most effective mix of activities and the best possible education around the use of screens.
Be Intentional. Consider using screens on purpose. That means avoiding the use of TVs as background noise and trying not to hand your kids screens to keep them occupied. Instead, let your children decide when they want to use screens and for how long. And, have them choose one screen at a time. In general, our TV doesn’t get turned on until 3 PM, if at all. There’s too much other fun stuff to do.
Be Interactive. Studies show that children can learn a great deal from interactive touchscreens when their parents help them and reinforce what they’re learning.
Be Wise. Particularly when it comes to older kids, parents need to prepare children for the risks of predators and dangerous malware. Talk to your kids about these dangers and make a plan together for how to stay safe.
Choose Educational Content. Programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger provide important information and skills to little kids, especially when families reinforce in daily life what the kids are learning online.
Eat Without Distraction. One rule we do have is that our dining table is a toy-free, screen-free space when we’re having a meal. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration. Family meals are sacred in my house. They’re one of the few opportunities we have to get together and chat over one of the most fundamental human activities.
Get Plenty of Fresh Air and Exercise. Getting outside is so important for every member of the family, but especially children. They need lots and lots of movement throughout the day to improve focus, digestion, motor skills, and sleep. Rather than restricting screens, think about encouraging more movement for balance.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. The so-called warnings about blue light got a little kick in the pants this year. A study challenged the idea that blue light impacts circadian rhythms. We don’t actually know if blue light is a problem. What we do know is that stimulation of any kind interrupts our sleep cycle. In our house, all screens and radios go off at 6:30 pm. That’s our family time and we cherish the ability to interact with each other without distraction. For a great night’s sleep, keep your kids’ room very dark, relatively cool (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit), and comfortably quiet.
Like many parents, when I first became a mom, I was hypervigilant about everything. I stressed myself out trying to do everything by the book, until life taught me that wisdom beats out perfection every time. If you want your children to enjoy screens, let them. Formulate some guidelines for yourself and conduct self-checks to make sure your guidelines are working. Talk with your kids about your concerns. Let them know your values and also that you trust them to know what their minds and bodies need. As new evidence emerges, we’ll be in a great position to shift some of our guidelines to better support our children’s development. Screens are ok, y’all. Promise!