I Nearly Dialed 9-1-1

Whenever I’ve been out with my two kids, and we return home, I like to give my son a little freedom to make his way into the house. He enjoys the outdoors and has certain spots he likes to check to see if any animals have appeared. In particular, he’s always on the hunt for frogs and rabbits. After all, we’re in a semi-rural location with some land and lots of places to explore.

Today, just after noon, we returned from some errands. I took LL from her carseat and set her on my hip before picking up the myriad bags I needed to take inside. I hollered for BB to come along so we could eat our lunch. He scampered up behind me and I heard his heavy footfall on the porch behind me. I rounded the corner and made it to the door. Once inside, I set LL down to play and put all my bags on a shelving unit near our front door. I couldn’t have been inside more than one minute, but I couldn’t hear BB anymore.

I stepped back outside and looked around. Didn’t see him. I walked back to the parking area. Not there either. As LL watched from the living room window, I walked around looking in all of his usual haunts. When I couldn’t find him there, I went back up to the front of the house and looked around. Still didn’t see him. I started to get concerned. I went back to the parking area and walked down to the street level. I looked up one side of the sidewalk and down the other. I peered across the way to a park we frequent. Still no sign. I was getting frantic at this point. I started calling his name in that scary broken voice of panic. Nothing.

My mind was swimming. What if he got too close to the road and someone had picked him up? But, how? He was out there for no more than a minute and he had been on the porch. Where could he be? I walked back up to the front of the house still calling even more terrified. I started to walk to a small man-made pond near the house when I saw him. He was running toward me happily yelling “VULTURE!!” He had gone down near the water feature to look at a volt of vultures that had been sunning themselves along a wrought iron fence surrounding the water. But, because of the topography of the land, I couldn’t see him from the house.

He hadn’t done anything wrong per se. He was in a location we visit often together. He hadn’t gone past the “line” which is a joint in the concrete of our parking area beyond which is a busy state highway. He is very good about stopping at the line and never crosses it without an adult present. He also knew from experience that I curtail his adventures for a while when he ignores a safety limit. Whenever that happens, I hold his hand all the way into the house to make sure he’s ok. It takes time for me to trust in his judgment again.

But, this time, he followed the rules. All except for announcing himself or coming to me when I called. However, thinking back, it was probably a very short amount of time between when I first started calling and when he showed up. It just felt like an eternity when I thought I’d lost him.

This is where it gets really tough. How do I give him freedom to learn to be responsible and protect his safety at the same time? I’ve been thinking about the situation all day since it happened and I realized that my next step is to set a firmer boundary on the side of my house near the water feature. He needs a physical marker to know where to stop. I also need to work on having him respond or return when I call.

But, what I will not do is punish him for being a kid who respects the rules we already have in place. Even though my mommy heart was gripped with terror, I know he needs opportunities like this one to know he can always run back home and be accepted even when he hears that fear and upset in my voice.

Disrespectful Expectations

Several weeks ago, a friend told me this story about an interaction between her tween son and her mother. Since many of us are gearing up for big family events tomorrow, this topic is something worth thinking about. My friend, a 30-something-year-old Black mother of two in Texas, had this to say:

So today she apparently asked my 12 yr old if he could help her get 2 gallons of water from her car and he said no. She came to snitch and I’m sure was trying to embarrass him and I just said “I’ll help you.” He seemed annoyed she interrupted our conversation to tell me that. My family has no respect for children. I honestly assumed he didn’t feel like it. He had just gotten home and rode his bike from school today and he was getting his snack together. I wouldn’t want to stop preparing food to get water either when it can wait. It wasn’t perishable food she was asking for help with but it honestly didn’t matter to me. I teach them ‘you can always ask but sometimes the answer is no.’

She explained further that there is some background between her son and her mother. It seems she oversteps her bounds and tries to impose her ideology on the children. My friend’s son receives her actions as judgmental. When she asked “Do you want to help me with something?” he answered literally “No” because he was busy.

I can almost see the pearl-clutching! I come from a very Southern, very authoritarian background where adults owned all rights to the labor of children and children had no right to refuse. It was considered the height of rudeness and deserving of quite a spanking. I’ll grant that a young boy who had the strength to ride his bike all the way home from school surely has the strength to go outside to grab a couple gallons of water. Plus, it’s perceived as rude not to be considerate of an elderly relative’s wishes.

Before we had our children, Peaceful Dad and I created family guidelines, and one of those guidelines is “We always choose to help.” We teach our children that we are the heart and hands of Christ to our world. We help out of love. Not obligation. And never because someone wants to assert a flawed belief that my children should be subordinate. I don’t entertain discussing my kids negatively like this grandmother did, no matter who the adult is. I will always ask the adult to speak directly to my child if there’s been a problem. I can be there for moral support, but my child needs to be part of the conversation.

Had this scenario happened in my house, I probably would have broached the topic with my son to understand his perspective while affirming that no one is obligated to help anyone. I would want my son to know that there are relationship consequences for refusing a request for help, particularly since there exists a social expectation that children are to serve adults. This is something children need to be aware of, and it’s something worth discussing as we guide our children through the trials of childism.

Her entitlement was completely inappropriate. No one has a right to anyone else’s labor. I imagine my friend’s son would have graciously agreed had his grandmother asked, “When you finish eating your snack, would mind helping me get some gallons of water out of my car?” So, let’s flip this around. Is it not also rude of an adult, knowing this child was tired and hungry, to demand assistance with a non-urgent matter while the child is in the middle of making himself something to help him recover from his long day and his long ride? Could the request not have been made in a more understanding and compassionate way wherein both of their needs could have been met?

The trouble here is that, for many adults, the outcome isn’t as important as the interaction. They say they like seeing kind, cooperative, and respectful children, but what they really expect is deference and obedience.

That’s childism!

Rudeness is a matter of perception. In this case, the requester ultimately got the help she was requesting, so the problem was solved. I don’t want to suggest that kids be encouraged to break social “rules” for the sake of being controversial. I think it’s important for children to be aware of expectations and cultural consequences. But, at the same time, we also need to be holding adults accountable for how they interact with kids, and we need to instill self-confidence and self-worth in our kids so that they know how to navigate social expectations with grace and wisdom.

If a child is uncomfortable with a request being made of them, we can be there to help guide the conversation. Otherwise, we can give kids room to work out their own relationships and support them in upholding boundaries… even with elderly relatives. And, even at big family events.

I asked my friend what had changed since her own childhood that caused her to support her son in his interaction with her mother. She said:

In the past I would have felt pressured into forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When my daughter came along I realized that I was raising my kids differently than I was raised and than the kids in my family were being raised. One day my grandma asked my 1 year old for a hug at easter and my nephew who was about 4 said she “don’t do hugs.” My granny said “I don’t care, come give me a hug girl!” It was right then that I was like “oh hell no!” She is not about to force herself onto my child and traumatize her and then leave me with the job of cleaning up. So I stopped her in that moment and said “we don’t force physical contact on people,” and I looked at my daughter and said “can you wave bye bye to granny?” And she didn’t do that either and I said “maybe next time” and shrugged it off. That’s when I started looking into ways to fend off my pushy relatives because I knew there would be more situations like these in the future.

I went from spanking my son to not believing it was necessary I hardly ever took my kids out during nap time or would leave when they got tired because they just slept better at home and to prevent putting them in situations where they were over tired and would act out. Long ago, I decided that just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.

Just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. That is an entire lesson right there on its own! We can teach our children how to say, “I’m busy right now, but I’ll be with you as soon as I finish.” We can foster relationships in our children’s lives that meet their needs and those of the adults they care about. When the challenge in a child’s life is a social expectation, let’s allow genuineness and honesty to win out. It’s ok for children to say “not now” or even “no” to adults. Unclutch those pearls!

So, how do you instill a sense of selflessness in your kids? How do you foster the development of a human who enjoys being helpful whenever possible? I’m sure there are many ways families are doing this every day (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!) I’ll mention one of the ways that has been invaluable for my family. We include our children in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty simple, but it takes planning and patience. It can be difficult to allow kids to help in their own developmentally appropriate ways. It’s messy and time consuming, but it is wonderfully affirming for your child! If you’d like to try it out, the key is to resist the urge to do things for your children. Don’t take over. If you want to insert yourself into the activity, help out! Demonstrate by modeling what’s expected. Openly speak with your child about the expected outcome, step by step. Children don’t know the process to get to an end result until they learn it. For example, including children in putting laundry away might look something like this:

  • Parent invites the child to help
  • Child accepts
  • Parent quickly explains what’s about to happen – “We’re going to take the clothes out of this laundry basket, fold them neatly, put them back into the basket, and then put them into their drawers. I’ll help you!”
  • Parent demonstrates how to fold an item of clothing and hands some clothes to the child
  • Parent and child go through the steps together

Many children will likely not be able to fold to an adult’s expectation, be able to open drawers and sort, and the like. Some direction is helpful, but allowing the child to try and accepting their effort as is goes a long way to instilling a love of helping in a child. And, start young. Thank your infant for helping you pick up toys even if it becomes a game. There are so many ways to include and appreciate kids. You and your child will figure it out together.

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 2 of 2

Continuing from Part 1

So, what do you do when you encounter an undesired behavior after your child has already stepped beyond a limit? If not punishment, then what?

I’ll let you in on a secret. Here’s what you do: Say, “I love you no matter what you do.” Let those be the first words out of your mouth. Communicate to your child first and foremost that their behavior does not define your relationship. It doesn’t matter what the child has done. Say “I love you” regardless. Children tend to be binary thinkers. It can be difficult for them not to regard themselves as either good or bad without much gray area in between. They need to know that they are loved, no matter what.

After your child understands that your relationship with them is secure regardless of the outcome, the work begins. If their actions have resulted in harm, they need to be given an opportunity to rectify what’s happened. And, whether or not their actions have resulted in harm, they need the chance to create and implement a plan for the future. No punishment needed.

Restorative Practices

Children do not inherently know how to be in relationship with other people. They learn and they stumble… often. If your child has done something that has caused any sort of harm, incorporating restorative justice principles can help begin the healing process.

  1. Give the aggrieved parties space to communicate their perspectives. If you are the aggrieved party, bring in a neutral arbiter to help.
  2. Employ the CLAIM method to guide your child through this process.
    • C: Center Yourself. Draw in your fears of judgement and be brave.
    • L: Listen. Pay attention to what’s being said rather than preparing a rebuttal.
    • A: Acknowledge. Take responsibility for your actions (and apologize and/or make restitution if necessary).
    • I: Inquire. Ask how you can do better in the future. Keep in mind that this involves labor. The other party has a right to decline.
    • M: Move Forward. Change your behavior and teach others to do the same.
  3. Enunciate the harm that has been caused, both tangible and intangible.
  4. Confirm the resolution with all parties and establish an accountability plan with your child.
  5. Support your child through their inevitable feelings of ostracization from those they harmed. Encourage them to give it time and to be kind.

Children of all ages and neurologies can benefit from modified versions of this process. BB is 4-years-old and minimally verbal, so our communication is largely through behavior, gestures, and facial expressions when he’s under stress. I assume competence as everyone should with every child. I don’t baby talk my kids. Instead, I follow these same recommendations with my children, knowing that they understand something of what I’m saying and will understand fully in the future.

The skills you impart through this process will provide your child with the tools necessary to become versed in conflict management and active listening, both of which are critical relationship skills.

Setting New Limits

Peaceful Parents try to get ahead of challenges and take proactive steps to avoid them. When challenges occur despite our best efforts, we regroup and work with our kids on resolving remaining issues and on solving the underlying difficulty before it happens again in the future. Our philosophy is that children do well when they can, and that we can equip them to do better by addressing their unmet needs and building skills.

When you learn about a challenge after the fact, try to resist the urge to punish. It can be extremely unnerving to feel like you aren’t doing anything, but I assure you, what you do instead will send ripples of goodness into your child’s future.

It’s important to talk with your child about what’s happened, opting for open-ended, non-accusatory questions like “What were you hoping would happen?” that garner a more developed response than “What happened?” Again, age will determine how far you can go.

Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, we learn disappointing truths about our kids. This can be hard for us and for them. Protecting your relationship in the face of missteps means choosing your approach carefully. Remember that children instinctively react when they are afraid. In order to reason with your child, you’ll need to keep them in a cognitive space by reassuring them that they’re safe with you.

Let’s consider a pretty common (and developmentally appropriate) difficulty for children: lying. If your child lies, you’ll be less inclined to believe what they say in the future. However, rather than undermining your relationship by saying, “I don’t trust you,” you can instead try to frame the situation in a way that can be solved. Speak factually and coach your child toward a resolution using “I” phrases to express your feelings. “I’m sad that you didn’t tell me the truth. I want to be someone you can always talk to. What can we do in the future to make sure you don’t ever feel you have to lie to me?”

In this reconciliatory space, you can help your child determine their own solutions for what to do, giving them ownership and power over their choices. Knowing that children aren’t hardwired yet for wise, measured decision-making, you can ask questions to better understand what your role will be in making sure limits are observed as part of a renewed plan for the future.

If it happens again, walk with your child through the exact same process. And, if that sounds too much like kids “getting away with bad behavior,” think about how many times parents have to turn to punishment over and over again because there is insufficient behavioral change. We’re working on moral development here. Not obedience.

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 1 of 2

Are they different words for the same thing? Does it even matter as long as children behave the way they’re supposed to? Let’s dive into this hotly debated topic and see if we can parse out the differences, the benefits, and the downsides.

First, I’d like to talk a bit about discipline. This term originated in Latin as “disciplina” and it simply meant instruction. Give a word a few centuries of cultural influence and you end up with a word that came to mean things like suffering, scourging, and chastisement in the late Middle Ages. If you don’t know what scourging means, beware because it’s nasty. It was used as a form of corporal punishment centuries ago (and, unfortunately, it’s still used in some areas of the world). A whip would be fashioned with knots or barbs to inflict the most damage possible on a person’s flesh and then the lashing would begin, mostly across the back, until the perpetrator was left bloodied and exhausted. Many people succumbed to their wounds, because they lacked the medicines they needed to treat and repair the torn flesh.

Given that trajectory, it makes sense that discipline is used today primarily to refer to physical punishment, in the context of child rearing. The steps we took to get from the intellectual pursuits of ancient Romans to the dark and brutal torture of the Middle Ages would be an interesting study. For our purposes at the moment, what I want you to know is that there is a spectrum of understanding when it comes to the word discipline and that Peaceful Dad and I land way over on the side of “instruction.”

While I can’t hope to encapsulate the entire meaning of these words in such brief statements, these self-penned working definitions will help you understand the distinctions I’ll be making later on.

  • Punishment: A negative, arbitrary ramification determined by a parent/caregiver and applied in an effort to correct unwanted behavior.
  • Consequence: A negative ramification stemming from a child’s action that occurs either without the influence of a parent/caregiver (i.e. “natural” consequence) or with the influence of a parent/caregiver in direct connection to the infraction (i.e. “logical” consequence).
  • Limit: A boundary defined by culture and/or family in the interest of safety, socialization, or education.

Punishments

Parents punish because it works. It stops the behavior in the moment and shuts the child down, so the nuisance is gone. However, punishment doesn’t work the way most people think it does.

We know that the logic center in human brains doesn’t fully form until around age 25 and that regularly coaching kids on how to reason through problems is a crucial part of teaching their brains how to think logically. However, punishment does not rely on logic. It relies on fear and control to coerce children into compliance. Children may run away, fight back, shut down, submit, cry, or become overwhelmingly exhausted when faced with punishment, especially physical punishment. You might find it interesting that these are all instinctive survival responses to stress that we all have, children and adults alike. And, if these children are not reasoning through their experiences, they may be falling back on innate self-preservation measures.

Punishment is effective beyond the immediate moment of infraction only when the enforcer is present and the punishment is severe enough to elicit strong fear. This is why, sadly, punishment can slip easily into abuse when the diminishing returns lead to escalation. Punishment is demoralizing and hurtful from the child’s perspective.

Consequences

Many parents shun punishments but desire a method of demonstrating to children that their behavior is unacceptable. Natural consequences can be a fantastic teacher. Pull the cat’s tail and you’ll get scratched. It doesn’t take a parent intervening to make that happen. Natural consequences are automatic and often unavoidable.

Children learn a great deal from natural consequences as they form relationships. When children are mean to their friends, their friends may not want to play with them anymore. That’s a natural consequence that leaves space for the child to learn how to repair a friendship. Natural consequences can be very useful, but they can also act as punishments.

Sometimes parents let natural consequences happen, knowing their child will be hurt. They want to “teach the child a lesson” (which is a surefire sign that indirect punishment is taking place). If you tell your child not to touch a hot burner on the stove and the child reaches for it, you have two choices: let the child be burned or intervene. One is cruel and the other is educational. Natural consequences don’t have to take full effect for a child to learn.

Logical consequences are selected by parents and may involve input from the child. In that sense, they are preferable to punishment. They are intended to be directly related to the unwanted behavior. For instance, a logical consequence for breaking a rule about running through the house and destroying a family heirloom might be helping to clean up the pieces and then having a time out to sit and chill.

Consequences can be effective and they can also be abused. To complicate matters further, you run into the trouble of children not recognizing the difference between a punishment and a consequence, which defeats the purpose of making the distinction in the first place.

Limits

Limits are respectful boundaries that allow all parties to be in relationship with each other and know what the guidelines are. It is possible to enforce a limit without adding on a punishment or a consequence. Limits define expectations and parents can then walk their children through how to appreciate and abide by that expectation.

The difficulty remains in terms of the child’s interpretation of a limit or a consequence. It may feel very much like a punishment to be reminded of a limit. That’s why it’s important to give the child power over the situation. Giving children power can feel foreign in a culture that diminishes the autonomy of kids, but hear me out.

Dr. Laura Markham has an absolutely fantastic primer on limit setting that I refer to often. I will try to do her justice in my explanation. For a limit to be most effective, it must:

  • be reasonable to the mind of the child (“When we throw dirt, it can get into people’s eyes and hurt them.”)
  • be explained to the child beforehand (“When we get to the park, please remember that dirt must stay on the ground and not be thrown at other kids.”)
  • be enforced consistently and with gentle firmness (“I see you’re having trouble not throwing dirt. Would you like to swing or go down the slide instead?”)
  • be under the authority of the child (“Looks like you’re still having trouble not throwing dirt. Let’s head home for now and come back tomorrow when you’re feeling calmer.”)

At any point in the exchange, the child may feel angry or coerced. Remember to remind your child of the expectations they affirmed and avoid using their behavior to assign a punishment or consequence. Your child doesn’t reason the way you do, especially if your child is under the age of six. Young children do not reliably have the ability to apply episodic memories to their future decision-making. Your young child is not considering the possibility that a consequence or punishment could result from their behavior.

What Do These Disciplinary Techniques Look Like in Real Life?

Imagine a boy called Caleb. He wants to walk to the park with his mom and his siblings to get some fresh air and play a bit. It’s a little chilly outside, but he’s all warm from being cozy in his house. He doesn’t realize that he’s going to get very chilly while on the walk and he will be unbearably cold by the time they reach the park. His mom checks her weather app and realizes it’s too cold to go without a jacket, but Caleb really doesn’t want to wear one and he tells her just that. What should mom do?

Punishment: Mom chastises Caleb for talking back and not obeying and declares that they won’t be going to the park now OR for the rest of the week.

Natural Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. He huddles down shivering while his siblings play.

Logical Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. Mom gives him a picnic blanket and instructs him to wrap up and sit on a bench while his siblings play.

Limit: At the house, Mom says, “I understand you don’t want to wear a jacket. However, I’m not willing to let you be cold. Would you like to carry a jacket or put it in a backpack to take along?” Mom won’t leave the house until she knows Caleb will be safe and warm at the park. The power to leave the house is in Caleb’s hands and the need for a punishment or consequence is avoided entirely.

Which of these techniques would you prefer to employ? What successes have you had with each? Have you run into any difficulties?

Continue to Part 2

BB Just Bolted Into the Road!

We were at the supermarket when it happened. LL is home with Peaceful Dad, and I had BB with me. It was an ideal opportunity to let him participate in the shopping process.

I had him holding onto the cart handle with me as we cruised through the store. I pointed out the groceries we needed and told him how many to pick up. He counted along as he picked up each item, “one, two,” which is pretty incredible considering he was barely speaking just one year ago. We arrived at self-checkout where he scanned the items and slipped them into bags (almost entirely) by himself.

Uh oh. There was a twinkle in his eye. My body instinctively started toward him even before I registered what was happening. He ran. When autistic kids do it, professionals call it elopement. Whatever you call it, it’s terrifying watching your child run toward danger.

I knew I had left behind all my groceries, my phone (with credit cards), and my car keys, but I didn’t care in that moment. It was all replaceable. I ran. I yelled, “stop!” I clapped my hands to get him attention. All to no avail. Everyone at the store entrance stared at me with surprised expressions. They were frozen. A store employee yelled “hey!” and a man in the crosswalk area spun around and grabbed BB, letting his own cart continue careening through the lot. I caught up a moment later and took BB’s hand. I thanked the man and calmly started back as he looked on with a stunned expression. He had enforced a limit and, in the process, showed BB that bolting is not acceptable.

I saw everyone watching me and I knew they were waiting to see what I would do. Would I be a proper southern mom and whoop him right there in front of God and everyone or would I be “that mom” who didn’t know how to discipline her child? I could have explained loudly, “He’s autistic and he bolts sometimes!” But, I make an effort not to reveal aspects of his identity he hasn’t consented to me sharing, and I’m actively working to destigmatize autism. Neurotypical kids bolt too. It’s kid behavior and I want folks to be understanding of children. I didn’t explain anything. I simply let the “thank you” stand.

We walked back into the store and completed our transaction while I told BB that running into the street is dangerous and that he’d scared me. I told him that I’d keep him safe next time by using our wrist tether. Prevention is key when it comes to childlike behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be this way forever. We’ll try again and he may still bolt. It’s ok. These instances are decreasing in frequency as he gets older. If you have a bolter too, I get it. Gentleness is for runners just like it’s for kids who reliably stick right next to you.

I will continue to teach my son how to walk safely next to me with and without the tether. I’ll ignore all the moms online who crassly liken tethers and harnesses to dogs on leashes. I’ll thank the strangers who step in to help when we need it. And, I’ll know I’m doing my best.

You are too.