Finding the YES

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

I’ve been noticing an unfortunate trend in my life. I feel like I’m going 100 miles an hour every day just trying to keep up with my kids. Between high energy and powerful curiosity, protecting them from all the dangers of the world ends up taking most of my energy. I find it difficult to see beyond the present circumstances, at any given moment, to gain a better understanding of why they do what they do. It’s just so much easier to say no and save myself the trouble sometimes, but no isn’t the most sustainable solution I have in my repertoire by any means. Yet, I’ve been employing no even in situations that could have been salvaged with a little creativity. My kids deserve to be heard and respected, so my behavior needs a check. I write this as much for me as I do for you.

What’s wrong with no?

No leads to frustration, anger, and backlash. And, it’s not just because kids aren’t getting to do what they want. Children aren’t that petty. No is so difficult because it forces transitions that our kids may not be prepared to navigate. It’s not simply about the child not getting to do something. It’s about all the future plans and desires; the courage and the planning that came first. It’s the sudden, unexpected change of plans, and adults know very well how that feels. We make our own plans and, when those plans get derailed by life, it’s upsetting. We say things like, “Now my day is ruined!” because unwanted transitions leave us just as vulnerable as they do our kids. No isn’t just a statement. It’s a seemingly insurmountable barrier when the gatekeeper is a parent.

Finding the YES

The first step to finding the yes is recognizing why we say no. Once we know why, we can search for a workaround. Have we said no to something dangerous? Ok, what alternative activity can we say yes to? Have we said no to something that will cause us difficulty, such as kids wanting to play a messy game? Ah! This one will take some ingenuity. Can they play in the tub or outside? Have we said no because it’s too late or too early or too cold or too hot outside? Understandable. So, can the activity be delayed until a time when they’re in a place that won’t present such a challenge?

Yes cultivates cooperation, so lead with yes and work out the details with your child. Keep your child’s plans intact while negotiating alterations that will suit you both. And, if you must say no, empathize. Let your child know you recognize your part in why their plans aren’t going to work out after all.

I’d love to hear what happens in your family’s world when you trade no for yes in your everyday encounters.

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

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!

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.

Wisdom From Ye’kuana Mothers That We All Need

As I lean into unschooling a little more bit by bit, I’ve started reading literature about the approach to better understand the lifestyle. I recently picked up Unschooling: A Lifestyle of Learning by Sara McGrath. It’s not a long book, but it’s rich with experience and insight that one can put into practice immediately. McGrath’s book did more than educate me on unschooling, though. She also introduced me to some concepts that I knew innately, but had not yet spelled out. In particular, she touched on the Continuum Concept from Jean Liedloff from her 1975 book of the same name. Liedloff developed the concept after observing the differences in the way Indigenous South American Ye’kuana mothers treated their children in contrast to what she had become accustomed to in her white western upbringing. On the site continuum-concept.org, a description of the Continuum Concept makes clear the expectations of both parent and child. I will post the description here in full so as not to lose anything in translation. (Content Warning: Jean Liedloff’s work contains references to harmful conceptions of what constitutes “civilized” culture.)

According to Jean Liedloff, the continuum concept is the idea that in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, human beings — especially babies — require the kind of experience to which our species adapted during the long process of our evolution. For an infant, these include such experiences as…

• constant physical contact with his mother (or another familiar caregiver as needed) from birth;
• sleeping in his parents’ bed, in constant physical contact, until he leaves of his own volition;
• breastfeeding “on cue” — nursing in response to his own body’s signals;
• being constantly carried in arms or otherwise in contact with someone, usually his mother, and allowed to observe (or nurse, or sleep) while the person carrying him goes about his or her business — until the infant begins creeping, then crawling on his own impulse, usually at six to eight months;
• having caregivers immediately respond to his signals (squirming, crying, etc.), without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation of his needs, yet showing no undue concern nor making him the constant center of attention;
• sensing (and fulfilling) his elders’ expectations that he is innately social and cooperative and has strong self-preservation instincts, and that he is welcome and worthy.

In contrast, a baby subjected to modern Western childbirth and child-care practices often experiences…

• traumatic separation from his mother at birth due to medical intervention and placement in maternity wards, in physical isolation except for the sound of other crying newborns, with the majority of male babies further traumatized by medically unnecessary circumcision surgery;
• at home, sleeping alone and isolated, often after “crying himself to sleep”;
• scheduled feeding, with his natural nursing impulses often ignored or “pacified”;
• being excluded and separated from normal adult activities, relegated for hours on end to a nursery, crib or playpen where he is inadequately stimulated by toys and other inanimate objects;
• caregivers often ignoring, discouraging, belittling or even punishing him when he cries or otherwise signals his needs; or else responding with excessive concern and anxiety, making him the center of attention;
• sensing (and conforming to) his caregivers’ expectations that he is incapable of self-preservation, is innately antisocial, and cannot learn correct behavior without strict controls, threats and a variety of manipulative “parenting techniques” that undermine his exquisitely evolved learning process.

Evolution has not prepared the human infant for this kind of experience. He cannot comprehend why his desperate cries for the fulfillment of his innate expectations go unanswered, and he develops a sense of wrongness and shame about himself and his desires. If, however, his continuum expectations are fulfilled — precisely at first, with more variation possible as he matures — he will exhibit a natural state of self-assuredness, well-being and joy. Infants whose continuum needs are fulfilled during the early, in-arms phase grow up to have greater self-esteem and become more independent than those whose cries go unanswered for fear of “spoiling” them or making them too dependent.

Courtesy of Continuum-Concept.org

Liedloff further explains that, as a child grows up in Ye’kuana culture, they become integrated into the lives of the people. Ye’kuana adults do not center or dote on children. Instead, adults focus on adult activities, pausing as needed to connect with their children. As a result, children gain autonomy, self-reliance, and intrinsic motivation. Indigenous cultures consistently emerge as the originators of responsive, respectful parenting. Stories from around the world tell of communities where young children do not cry, because the adults immediately meet their needs. In the west, we believed we knew better and we sought to overwhelm evolution toward a more efficient society. In doing so, we have lost sight of our humanity.

Such a lifestyle evades many USAian parents who find themselves forced into a multiple income scenario due to the greed of the billionaires who control the means of production. We can choose to care for our children or we can starve, but choose we must. In my family, we choose responsiveness. In doing so, our children do not fall to the ground at toy stores kicking and screaming in frustration and not because we don’t allow it. To the contrary, we acknowledge and validate all expressions of emotion in our family. My children simply don’t tantrum, because it doesn’t occur to them to do so. They know we value and accept their perspectives, thus they needn’t get loud for us to hear them.

I encourage you to find ways to choose responsiveness, patience, and belonging whenever possible in the spirit of Ye’kuana mothers who understand human development far better than our so-called learned experts.

Learned Helplessness Vs Helping

Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments

I recently ran across a meme with a troubling message. It said, 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 bristled immediately. “Never” do for a child? Absolute statements like this make me uncomfortable. I understand that the point is to be decisive and firm, but then there is no room for children to be imperfect or to have needs. Yes, giving children age-appropriate responsibilities builds competence and self-assurance. However, we should be open to children refusing responsibility in an effort to have their other needs met. Seems a lot of us misunderstand why children might be “irresponsible.” There’s a great fear that we’ll foster learned helplessness if we don’t demand that our kids fulfill their responsibilities. But, is that really true?

In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand why depression was so defeating. The first experiment involved three groups of restrained dogs. The first group was restrained and released. The second group included dogs who received an electric shock which they could stop by pressing a lever. Dogs in the third group were paired with dogs in the second group and also received an electric shock. However, their levers did not stop the pain. Instead, the paired dog from the second group controlled the only working lever, which meant that the dog in the third group had to suffer the pain with no control over it and, therefore, little hope of ending it.

In the second experiment, the dogs were presented with a similar scenario, except that Seligman introduced an escape option. The dogs in the first two groups, having either not experienced the shocks at all the first time around or having had access to a lever to stop the pain, fairly quickly escaped when the shocks began. However, the dogs in the third group made no effort and were able only to cry out pitifully when they were shocked. That presumed inability to take action is learned helplessness, and it results from hopelessness in the face of failure.

An especially important aspect of these experiments was the finding that “one cause of learned helplessness seems to be learning that reinforcers cannot be controlled” (409). For those who aren’t familiar with the term “reinforcer,” it means a punishment or a reward. So, the inability to control the punishment of these painful shocks directly contributed to the dogs’ acceptance that the pain was inescapable. No amount of punishments or rewards delivered after the learned helplessness had taken hold had any positive effect on the dogs’ behavior.

What you may find interesting is that Seligman did find a cure for the learned helplessness. He discovered that either picking up the dogs and moving them to safety or using a leash to drag them out of harm’s way provided enough motivation for them to take action. He called it “directive therapy” and it was simply an intervention wherein an outside participant showed each dog how to do what the dog didn’t realize was possible. He found that less and less force was required in pulling on the leash as the dogs began to realize that there was hope. The end result of this portion of the experiment was that all the dogs in group three fully recovered and were able to escape completely on their own (410).

…which brings us to helping. Put simply, learned helplessness is giving up because an obstacle is too insurmountable. For children, it may be sitting in the middle of their room unable to clean up, because they don’t know where to start. It may be accepting punishment for not getting dressed quickly enough because they feel that the punishment is inevitable, and they can’t do what’s expected of them to begin with. As noted in the experiment, the cure for learned helplessness is directive therapy, i.e. demonstrating a way to be successful. In other words, helping. When our children become overwhelmed with their messy rooms, we can intervene by helping them come up with a plan and working on the clean-up with them. Over time, they will gain more competence and the process will be less frustrating for them. When our children struggle to dress themselves, the easiest solution is to recognize that we need to take a few steps back and offer to help them dress. It may take a while for them to do things that seem simple to us, but the more we respond to their need for help, the more capable they will become.

There are three overarching lessons I learned from reading up on learned helplessness:

  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.

Whether a child seeks our help because they don’t know how to do something or because they want to connect with us or because they are weary and need some support or for any other reason, we will always do right by them when we help them, especially when we don’t think they really need the help. In doing so, we invigorate qualities like learning, self-motivation, and confidence… the very things that combat learned helplessness. So, please, help your kids.


If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from therapist Kati Morton! Toward the end of the video, she provides some tools for helping ourselves (and our kids) release these thoughts of helplessness.

Unlimited Screen Time =/= Unmonitored Screen Time

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.

Particularly as COVID has pushed our kids more and more onto screens, organizations like UNICEF have responded with alarm. UNICEF went so far as to hold governments, the IT industry, schools, and parents accountable for the safety of our children. And, for good reason. Dangers abound (source and source):

  • Cyberbullying
  • Cyber Predators
  • Posting Private Information
  • Phishing
  • Falling for Scams
  • Accidentally Downloading Malware
  • Posts That Come Back to Haunt a Child Later in Life
  • Inappropriate Material
  • Physical Danger
  • Illegal Activity

Children are clever, but they are no match for adults who wish them harm. Antivirus software giant, AVG Technologies, reported that children are doing dangerous things online that many of us don’t realize.

40% of children chatted with a stranger online. 53% revealed their phone number. 15% tried to meet the stranger. 6% revealed their home address.

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.

Instagram Contract

1. I agree to keep my settings "private" at all times.

2. I agree to be respectful of myself and others in the words and images I use. This includes agreeing not to use social media to mock, tease, embarrass, gossip, or reveal secrets.

3. I agree for safety not to reveal the specific place I am when I am there. For example, I will not post a picture saying "I am at the pool with a friend and then we are walking home." And I will not post personal information such as my address, school name, phone number, etc.

4. I agree to immediately tell an adult family member if I ever receive any threatening or sexual messages or images.

5 I agree to acknowledge that everything I put online is permanently available, even if it can be immediately deleted or hidden. I understand the people who know technology well can access images and words that have been deleted even if the app tells you otherwise. I understand that when I am grown and an adult, someone can look my name up and find every single thing I've ever put online. This includes bosses, boyfriends, girlfriends, future family and friends, neighbors and co-workers and I will conduct myself online with that in mind.

6. I agree that occasionally I will have Internet blackouts. This means that when I am showing signs of needing a tech break - such as lack of reading or creative activities, irritability, constantly pulling out my phone, unable to concentrate and not wanting to participate in family activities or time - my parents might ask that I stay off the Internet and my phone for a day or two.

7. I agree that Mom will be on my follower list until I am older and have proven that I can use social media responsibly.

If I do not follow these agreements, I understand that I will lose my social media privileges for as long as my parents feel is necessary. I understand that my parents love me more than anything in the world and create these boundaries out of love.

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.

However, my insistence on unlimited screen time does not translate into approval of unmonitored screen time. When security industry experts reveal what they tell their own children, I take note. And, what they are preaching overwhelmingly is that children need boundaries and they need to be protected.

Bottom line, children should not be accessing the internet unmonitored and uneducated.

Permission vs Consent

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:

"Rethinking Power Needs" graphic. Please contact me at peacefulmom@peaceigive.com for an image description.

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.

Curbing Aggression in Young Kids

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.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • It’s too noisy in here.
  • My sibling took my toy.
  • Stop touching me!
  • You’re not listening to me.
  • This is fun!
  • I’m frustrated.
  • Let me do it my way.
  • I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
  • I was curious what would happen.
  • I’m anxious.
  • My body doesn’t feel good.

Addressing Needs

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.

Attention

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:

  1. Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
  2. Appreciate: Pause and think
  3. Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
  4. 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.

Boundaries

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.

Discomfort

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.

Play

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.

Why I Don’t Say I’m My Kids’ Friend

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!

In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time

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.

There’s that 2013 literature review on screen time use in children under the age of three. Bad news.

And, that 2015 literature review on the effects of screen time on children’s sleep found. Terrible stuff.

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!

Three Words That Will Calm Your House

Did the phrase, “asked and answered,” come to mind? These words came to us from the legal world and they’ve been openly embraced in certain corners of the positive (not peaceful) parenting community. It’s a way to shut down a “nagging” child. And, it’s a way for a parent to pit their authority against their child’s needs. We don’t do that around here. If anything, we do the opposite. If a child is asking a question over and over, something has been left unresolved and it’s on us as parents to address it.

With that said, the three words I was actually intending to give you will help toddlers on up to adults across so many different challenges and crises. Kids fighting over a toy or tearing up the house instead of helping to clean it? Parents feeling mentally blocked and unmotivated while attempting to complete a task? Try this: Choose another activity.

People of all ages tend to roll with the words they receive. We all know how unhelpful it is for people to tell us “stop worrying!” when something is really bothering us. As soon as we get to that second word, it reinforces the worry. I talk a lot on this blog about cognitive reframing and the importance of speaking in positives for this very reason. Rather than saying, “stop worrying!” it is more effective, from a psychological perspective, to say what a person should do instead.

So, when my children are fighting over a toy, we first determine whose turn it is supposed to be and then I encourage the other child to choose another activity to do while they wait for their turn.

One of the things that tends to lead to upset for me in my household is when my children are playing and creating a mess where I’m trying to clean. A favorite pastime of theirs is going through my things, which isn’t helpful under the circumstances. I’ll gently stop them and say “I will sit with you later to go through the pens. For now, please, choose another activity, so I can finish this chore.” Then, oftentimes, I’ll give them a couple ideas. “You could feed the baby doll or build with blocks.” Nearly every time, they run off happily to play and I can quickly join them because my work efficiency soars.

There are times when I’m struggling with executive functioning and can’t will myself to do what needs to be done. As I fixate on the task that’s hanging over my head, I begin to dysregulate. I have even cried when I got frustrated enough about not being able to get started. So, in those instances, I try to tell myself to choose another activity. Find something else to get my body moving and pull out the stopper in my brain that’s thwarting my efforts.

Choose another activity has become second-nature to me now that I’ve been using it for so long. It allows me to set a limit AND give my children the undirected freedom to do something else they’ve chosen for themselves. These three words have helped me reduce my reliance on “No…” and “Don’t…” and “Stop…” – all sentence leaders that will ensure that your child will do the opposite of what you’re asking of them, due to that sneaky issue that’s solved by cognitive reframing. So, if you’re looking to reform the language you use and avoid resorting to using adult authority where it isn’t needed, try this approach and then tell a friend!