My family has been going through it the past couple weeks. It’s just more of the same 2020 nonsense that everyone is experiencing, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve been thinking about a post on executive functioning, as I can imagine we’re all working a little harder on this skill of late, but also because I recently ran across something that might help our kids be a little more effectual with a lot less work and frustration.
Executive function is the term for the overall management of the brain. It is what allows us to prioritize tasks and get things done and it involves three overarching areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). The eight executive functions are self-control, self-monitoring, emotional control, flexibility, task initiation, organization, working memory, and planning & time management.
There are many brain differences that impact executive functioning including things like autism, ADHD, depression, and trauma to the brain. And, if you’ve spent time around kids, you’ll recognize that their executive functioning is still under construction. In fact, executive function develops all the way into adulthood. Kids who are struggling with it might not be able to pay attention, hold onto a series of instructions, transition from one task to the next, or plan out action steps. As a child, I had many, many hours of therapy to help me improve my executive functioning skills, so I was intrigued when I recently ran across a strategy that promises improvements in executive function.
Kristen Jacobsen (MS CCC-SLP) and Sarah Ward (MS CCC-SLP) are two speech language pathologists who have been studying executive function for the past 20+ years and now co-direct Cognitive Connections, a specialty practice in Massachusetts. Together, they created the 360 Thinking™ Executive Function Program that includes a strategy developed by Sarah Ward called Get Ready, Do, Done. This strategy coaches children to identify what needs to be done at a future time, imagine what “done” looks like, work backward to plan out the steps to get there, and then collect needed materials to accomplish the task. It is a way to lay out each step for those whose brains don’t automatically do the planning for them. The model plans backward before taking steps forward.
What will it look like when I am done?
What steps do I need to take to be done? How long will each step take?
What do I need to get ready?
What materials do I need to do the steps?
Time to do the task. Create a timeline and time markers.
Know when to stop and close out the task.
When I was little, I used to get frustrated to the point of shutting down when I was told to clean my room. In childist terms, I might have been called lazy or stubborn, but the problem I had was that I simply didn’t know what to do! I needed someone to show me my room clean and straight several times, so I’d have the picture in my mind. I needed to be walked around the room and shown where each item was supposed to go. I needed a step-by-step plan, like:
Get cleaning supplies.
Clear off and make the bed to use as a staging area if needed.
Pick up and put away items from the floor as follows: trash, dishes, clothes, toys, books, and everything else.
Organize wardrobe and trunk.
Wipe dust and grime from surfaces.
That never happened for me. I stumbled through housework until well into adulthood when I came across the organizing and cleaning industries and learned how to properly do housework. Even with small children now, I’m able to keep my house nice and clean. I even put laundry away after it’s dried, which is something I never did as a young adult. Check out this quick video that uses cleaning a room to explain executive functioning:
If you’d like to give Get Ready, Do, Done a try, check out these free resources:
As peaceful parents, we recognize that rewards and punishment are tools of manipulation and they have no place alongside things like emotion coaching and relationship building. But, should we go so far as to call rewards a tool of abuse? That’s a heavy, heavy word and one I was reticent to use in describing punishments, like spanking, for a very long time. However, within the past year, I have come to realize just how destructive spanking really is. Now, I’m turning my attention to rewards to investigate their effects on children.
Rewards are an implement of a field of psychology called behaviorism. Put plainly, behaviorism is a psychological approach that assumes all behaviors are the result of conditioning and that behavior is always purposeful. It leaves no room for cognitive sources of behavior. So, where behavior is deemed a problem, the solution is not to resolve what is happening with the person internally, but to externally mold the person’s behavior into something the therapist considers more appropriate.
While behaviorism as a branch of psychology traces its roots back to 1913, the use of external manipulation is far, far older. It’s mentioned throughout the Bible, we see it in the form of punishment as marks cut deep on skeletal remains, and we all know it for the anxiety and fear it produces. Behaviorism has some practical applications, such as animal training and smoking cessation when used by choice. Consent is key, as behaviorism has such a substantial potential to be harmful. To understand how very undermining it can be, take this story as an example. I saw it in an autism-related facebook group and it is a fantastic illustration of what I mean.
My degree is on Cognitive Science, which included quite a bit on behaviorism. I was never aiming to be a therapist, and had no idea I was autistic when I was in college.One of the interesting things about behaviorism is that it works even on subjects who have no idea they’re being trained. You can train a grown adult into quite elaborate behaviors without them being aware they’re being trained, or sometimes that they’re even doing the behaviors. Case in point, my brother’s psychology class decided to try training their professor. They picked three behaviors they wanted: writing class notes more towards the middle of the board, using the word “I” more, and tucking his hand into his upper inside pocket a la Napoleon. They then chose three reinforcers: scribbling notes, looking up at the professor, and leaning forward interestedly.The professor was an excellent subject, and by the end of the semester was using “I” in virtually every sentence, had his hand tucked in the target pocket any time he wasn’t using it, and writing all his class notes in a 2 foot square box in the middle of the room-spanning chalkboard, all without realizing he was doing it. In fact when they fessed up at the end of the semester, he didn’t believe them until they turned him around and showed him 3 hours of notes crammed into a tiny invisible square for no good reason.How do you think the professor reacted to the revelation? If you guess “not well”, you’re right. If you ponder why that might be, even though he liked that class particularly (such attentive, responsive students!), and hadn’t minded the training process at all, you may have some insight on why so many autistic people dislike ABA, even in kinder, gentler forms.
Researcher Alfie Kohn suggests that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. He wrote a book about his perspective called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He explains that, “There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.”
So, rewards tend to be demotivators over time. They interfere with natural human curiosity and self-realization. They aren’t that different from using a treat to teach a dog to sit. After all, humans and dogs are both animals. Many of our innate, unconscious motivations are the same, such as seeking food and drink, and avoiding danger. Rewards offer temporary motivation, but it comes at a cost. However, there is a way to keep rewards fresh… and it’s enticing: intermittent reinforcement.
In practice, intermittent reinforcement involves rewarding a subject sporadically rather than continuously for a behavior deemed to be desired. For children, it might be a gold star for being kind to a classmate where the child has to be kind over and over before being noticed. The anticipation of the reward keeps the desired behavior front and center. But, intermittent reinforcement has a dark side. It is a preferred form of trauma bonding used by abusers in violent relationships.
Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).
In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.
Intermittent reinforcement can trigger behavior that looks a lot of compulsion and obsession in humans, especially in the context of a toxic relationship. So, where does this leave us on the question of rewards being abusive or not?
Here is my perspective. The way we wield rewards is crucial. When we use rewards to manipulate our children into doing what we want, we have fallen into dangerous territory. The more we use rewards to coerce children, the more it begins to look like abuse. However, humans do crave social acceptance and recognition is an important part of that. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, has some advice for how to incorporate recognition without falling back on rewards. She says,
The good news is that there are better ways to give our children encouragement. In fact, when children feel seen, accepted and appreciated for who they are, that becomes a super power, an internal source of affirmation that outweighs any external evaluation and gives them an internal compass to express their values, from compassion to hard work.
So when you find yourself starting to say “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!” try these phrases instead.
1. Empathize with his excitement (instead of evaluating and telling him what you think about his accomplishment.)
“Yes! You’re pedaling all by yourself!”
2. Let her know you’re really seeing her (and let her evaluate whether what’s she’s doing is working.)
“I see that you’re doing the sides of the puzzle first.”
3. Empower him to choose how to behave in the future by pointing out the results of his behavior (so he develops his own moral compass.)
“Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy.”
4. Encourage effort (because that’s what creates results.)
“You’re working so hard on that…. I think just a little more practice and you’ll nail it!”
5. Be specific in your description (so your child feels his accomplishment is seen, rather than just a global “good job.”)
“You counted from zero to twenty! Last week, you couldn’t count that far. I see that you’ve been working on learning those numbers!”
6. Ask questions to help your child reflect (so she begins to trust herself to be the arbiter of her own performance.)
“Do you like the way it came out? Why or why not?”
7. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.
“I love it when we work as a team like this! It makes the work so much faster! Thanks so much for helping me.”
Notice the difference? You’re not judging your child. You’re loving him. As Deepak Chopra says, “Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates.” That’s the kind of attention every child needs.
These words ring true for my own family. Peaceful Dad and I do not use rewards or punishments with our crew. And, this decision was recently affirmed when our new speech therapist remarked on our son’s ability to engage with her without the need for rewards. I took the opportunity to gush about peaceful parenting, intrinsic motivation, and emotion coaching. The reality is this: No rewards, no punishments, respectful, and connected discipline is not only possible, it’s also evidence-based and fruitful for all children. It’s achievable, but it does take a big shift in thinking on the part of us parents.
Many of y’all have probably figured out by now that I like to deep dive into some common concepts that we all know but, perhaps, haven’t thought about in terms of parenting. Recently, I’ve been thinking about independence versus autonomy and what the distinction means for our children.
‘Autonomous’ means ‘self-directed’. Auto – nomy. From the Greek ‘autos’ – self, and ‘nomos’ – law. It means that your drive to act comes from inside yourself.
‘Independent’ means ‘not influenced by outside forces’. It is from the french ‘in’ – not, and ‘dependant’ – hanging from. It means ‘not hanging from’ – or ‘not dependent on’ anything.
So although the meaning is similar, it is different, as you say.
He is completely autonomous as a freelancer and defines his own programme.
The child is able to play autonomously – she makes up her own games.
The freelancer is independent of any company – no-one tells him what to do.
The child is able to play independently – without her parents’ supervision.
Autonomous – self directed
Independent – not needing or not influenced by others
The sense of the words I had going into my deep dive was borne out in this explanation. I struggle to place significant value on independence as I do not believe it is a particularly important value. It is a very “American” value as this culture has come to believe any dependence on another person constitutes a moral failure, but I do not agree.
I think that we should aim to be interdependent. Not independent. Interdependence means not only that we rely on others, but they rely on us as well. It offers inherent motivation to care for both ourselves and for others. It does not shame us for our human needs and it does not present a moral high ground from which we can look down on those who have different intelligences and capacities.
Interdependence places responsibility on entire cultures rather than on individuals. It is something that is lacking in the United States where we allow our neighbors to go hungry, become victims of state violence, and be silenced by more powerful people. And, interdependence is probably better for our kids too. The push for independence is what leads parents to refuse to take forgotten lunches to school and lock children in their rooms until they clean up all on their own.
Are we putting value on the wrong thing? And, what of autonomy? Autonomy imbues children with power. It is the authority behind self-determined decisions, including how we choose to respond to difficult situations. Everyone reading this certainly wants their children to learn to do things for themselves, but on whose schedule? Is a child who can’t tie a shoe but can cook a full meal any less worthy? These are some of the many questions I have asked myself over these past weeks.
In my own little family, I do my best to ensure my children’s autonomy is as intact as possible. I try to leave decisions in their hands as much as I can without slipping into parentification. For instance, no one in my home is required or expected to clean alone. We all pitch in and the children learn through team involvement. I also don’t rush my children into developmental milestones. We don’t “potty train” kids in this house, for instance. We believe that our children will develop in their own time when given opportunities to try new things. And, that’s the key for us. If we never give the kids a chance to do something on their own, how will they ever know if they can do it? By the same token, if we force the kids to do something new, what are they learning from our coercion? And, what’s the use of teaching them to do something completely on their own without help rather than teaching them to advocate for themselves when they do need help? It all takes balance, which is something I’m learning how to do day to day. It requires deep respect for children and a willingness to actually listen. Not just hear our kids, but listen to what they are communicating in words or in behavior.
So, what’s your take? Do you value independence or autonomy? Do you prioritize one or both? How do you leverage your ability to support your children’s independence or autonomy toward fostering an anti-childist upbringing for them?
You know how, sometimes, you run across new information that leaves your mind spinning? That happened to me this past week when I read something about the difference between permission and consent, and immediately thought of my efforts toward anti-childism. It’s not something I’d really thought much on before, so I’ve been doing a little more reading and reflecting. To be clear, here’s the deal:
Permission means gaining approval from a superior whereas consent means coming to a mutual agreement that either party can say yes or no to.
I talk a lot about the need for consent on this blog, but there are also times when I’ve mentioned “allowing” and “letting” my kids do things. I’m realizing that my permission-based orientation is at odds with my efforts to elevate children. What I really want to do is flatten the traditional hierarchy parents and children tend to operate from, which means preferring agreement over commands wherever possible.
I’m sure many of y’all reading this will immediately question what this means in terms of safety issues. Children are a unique group of people. They are fully human and fully deserving of rights while also being newer to the world and in need of guidance. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what anti-childism really looks like when we, parents, are responsible for protecting our kids from danger, but I’m doing my best.
For instance, when a toddler breaks free and immediately bolts for the road, we must do whatever we can to save our child. Toddlers cannot manage the freedom to roam around a busy street unsupervised. So, what does consent look like with a two-year-old? Perhaps it looks like giving her the toothbrush when she demands it instead of brushing her teeth for her. Perhaps, it looks like sitting up with her for a while when she’s not ready to go to sleep yet. Perhaps, it looks like giving her full control over what she eats from her lunch plate. There are so many daily decisions where you can give your child the authority and autonomy she craves (something that wasn’t allowed when I was a child).
I’m reminded of a graphic I ran across some time ago by Kristin Wiens:
I’m challenging myself to rethink those moments when I want to use my adult authority to pressure my children into bending to my will. In those moments, it’s difficult to remember that sharing power ends up creating an environment of cooperation. I invite you to this challenge as well. Let’s see how often we can come to an agreement with our kids rather than lording over them. I bet it gets easier with time.
Almost all children will go through periods where they lash out in some way and spitting, hitting, biting, and kicking seem to be the most common behaviors. What should you do when your child lets loose? It’s critical to understand what underlies the behavior. We could fancy ourselves investigators for this purpose. What precipitated the event? Here’s a list of replies your child might give you if they could.
I just felt like it.
I need your attention.
I need freedom. Give me space.
It’s too noisy in here.
My sibling took my toy.
Stop touching me!
You’re not listening to me.
This is fun!
Let me do it my way.
I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
I was curious what would happen.
My body doesn’t feel good.
Both my 2 year old and my 4 year old spit, hit, bite, and kick at one time or another, so I completely understand the frustration and that gut feeling of wanting to react in an unkind way. But stop! Stop for a minute and think about what’s happening. Let’s categorize the “whys” for greater understanding.
I need your attention. You’re not listening to me.
Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to see children as annoyances who drain our time and our energy. We don’t want to “give in” when our kids express their need for our attention in undesirable ways. However, empathetic communication actually increases well-being. It’s not simply a way to meet our children’s needs. It also improves our relationship. If your child needs your attention, try a little active listening.
Some of the pitfalls I face when it comes to listening to my kids include thinking of something else while my child is communicating, trying to figure out what I’m going to say next, and attempting to manipulate the direction of the conversation. If you’re anything like me, one or more of those statements might resonate.
Professional communicator and educator, Julian Treasure, recommends a four-step approach to listen with investment:
Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
Appreciate: Pause and think
Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
Ask: Learn more
If you know your child needs your attention, give it freely. Silence those harmful voices telling you not to spoil your child. You cannot spoil a child with love and affection. Quite the contrary, kids who are perceived as spoiled tend to be those children who have a) not had their boundaries respected so they react with belligerence or b) not been given enough attention and therefore do not trust that their needs will be met.
I need freedom. Give me space. My sibling took my toy. Stop touching me! Let me do it my way.
In our childist culture, it’s easy to get caught up in “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” thinking when it comes to children. We’ve got to work toward flipping that perspective around and radically respecting our children’s autonomy.
Years ago, sexuality educator, Deanne Carson, made headlines when she advocated for asking infants if it was ok to give them a diaper change. She acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to consent, but said that asking for consent and pausing to acknowledge them lets children know that their response matters.
I fully admit that I scoffed at her comments at the time, even though I was already three years into my Peaceful Parenting journey, as I was sorely lacking an understanding of childism.
Yes, you can let your baby know you’re about to change their diaper. Consent does start from birth and it never ends. We must prioritize navigating our children’s demands for bodily autonomy and their health-related needs. It’s not easy or simple, but it’s our responsibility.
If you know your child is enforcing a boundary, respect it. Bottom line. For guidance on helping siblings through the tough task of sharing/turn-taking, check out this article.
I’m tired. I’m hungry. It’s too noisy in here. I’m anxious. My body doesn’t feel good. I’m frustrated.
Discomfort shows up physically and mentally. Both are completely real and valid. In our culture, we tend to tell children how they’re feeling. We dismiss skinned knees with “You’re ok” and toileting urgency with “You just went!” Children are too often forced into the constraints of our schedules and whims, and it’s not ok. Kids deserve for their needs to be met. Where the dominant culture tells us that our children are manipulatinrg us, it is incumbent upon us as Peaceful Parents to reject that perspective wholesale. If our children need to use the bathroom, they will. If they feel sick, we listen. If they are anxious, we soothe.
And, a note to those who fear all this responsiveness will lead to spoiling children. It won’t, but as we get into more complex needs, our responses may need to evolve. All children need accomodations, some more than others. Autistic Mama wrote a fantastic piece called Are You Accommodating or Coddling Your Autistic Child and really it applies to all children. In it, she explains:
The line between accommodating and coddling boils down to one specific question.
What is the Goal? You have to ask yourself, what is the goal here?
Let me give you an example…
Let’s say your child has a history assignment and is supposed to write two paragraphs on the civil war.
What is the goal of this assignment?
To prove knowledge of history.
Now any tool or strategy that doesn’t take away from that goal is an accommodation, not coddling.
So typing instead of writing? Accommodation.
Verbally sharing knowledge of the civil war? Accommodation.
Writing a list of civil war facts instead of using paragraphs? Accommodation.
Because the goal of the assignment is a knowledge of history, not the way it’s shared.
We can empower our children to solve their own problems by showing them how to be problem-solvers from a young age. We can teach our children to ask for what they need and demonstrate that their needs matter by obliging their requests. As they get older, we can empower them to seek reasonable accommodations in a variety of environments by considering what needs they must have met in order to succeed and to advocate for themselves.
I would be remiss not to mention one thing here of great importance to the Autistic community. AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE NOT INHERENTLY VIOLENT. Violence is not a criteria for diagnosis. So many people ponder why it seems like Autistic children tend toward aggression. Well, imagine having to endure all the little things you dislike (flavors, sounds, textures, etc.) all the time and then being treated as though you’re a burden for asking for it to stop. You might be driven to aggression as well. It’s hard being Autistic in a world that isn’t made for you. Meet the needs of Autistic kids and you’ll see a drastic decline in any aggression.
If you know your child is uncomfortable, try to help relieve that discomfort. Some children are unable to clear saliva and may spit or drool as a result. This is common with children who need lip or tongue tie revisions. If your child is anxious, try these measures. Whatever is going wrong, seek out a solution to support your child rather than punishing them.
This is fun! I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try. I was curious what would happen. I just felt like it.
Our children’s top job is to learn through play. We must leave some room for childlikeness, even when it comes to things that are as upsetting as aggression. As strange as it might seem to us, children do many things because they’re testing out how their bodies move and what effect they can have on their environment.
If you know your child is playing, try directing their play into a form that is more conducive to your family’s lifestyle. Getting down on the ground to wriggle around kicking can be fun. Just make sure the goal truly is play or your actions could come across as mocking.
Tips for Interrupting Aggression
Respond Gently. First and foremost, try not to meet force with force. Understand that children start out several steps ahead of us in terms of emoting because of their stage of brain development. The calmer we are, the better we can respond. And, if you need to physically stop your child from harming you, use the least force you possibly can.
State Your Boundary. Let your child know your expectation in clear, unambiguous terms. Try “I know you want to hit me because you’re angry. I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you hurt me.”
Engage the Three Rs. When you need to engage with a dysregulated child, remember to Regulate, Relate, and Reason. For many children, just acknowledging and empathizing alone will resolve the aggression, so that you can work toward meeting the need.
Give Your Child an Alternative. Understand that there are two types of aggression: the type you can mediate, like hitting and the type you can’t, like spitting. You can stop a child from hitting, biting, and throwing. You can’t stop a child from spitting, peeing, or pooping. In all cases, it’s crucial to address the underlying need, but you may also be able to introduce an alternative such as giving a child a chewie to chomp in place of spitting or even a towel to spit into. Whatever alternative you choose must be desirable to your child and easy to access when the need calls.
Resolve the Underlying Need. I cannot stress enough how important this one is. You’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong for your child and help them fix the problem. For example, when a child is pushing his sister down over and over again, take notice of why it’s happening. Is the sibling standing too close? Bothering the child while he’s playing? Once you figure out the need, the solution is often simple enough. Help the kids regulate and then invite the other child to help you in the other room.
Give Children the Words.Kids do not instinctively know how to ask for what they need. I hear a lot of parents telling children to “Use your words.” Let me tell you how very unhelpful that is! Parents, please use YOUR words. Give your child the language they should use to have their needs met, even if you have to do it over and over and even if you have to ask questions to get there. The more you model how to use language under stress, the more capable your children will be in following suit.
Avoid Confusing Messaging. While you’re giving your child the words, remember that children think in very concrete terms. There’s a series of books by Elizabeth Verdick called the Best Behavior Series and it includes such titles as Teeth Are Not for Biting, Feet Are Not For Kicking, and Voices are Not For Yelling. Read those titles again… carefully. How do we chew our food without biting? How do we swim without kicking? And how to we call out for help without yelling? It’s not logical, so it’s not going to make a lot of sense to a child. Kids might learn in spite of these messages, but it’s best to avoid them if possible.
Consider an Assessment. If your child’s aggression doesn’t seem to be manageable using any of the tips above, consider that something deeper may be going on and that you might not have all the information you need to meet their needs. Put aside concerns about stigma and work with a professional to help you and your child understand what’s happening.
Did y’all see the study from November 2019 that found screen use greater than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was associated with decreased microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills? Big yikes! Does that mean screens cause brain damage? That’s certainly a question I’ve seen floating around the internet. Parents are rightfully concerned about screen time when study after study shows these terrible outcomes.
And, that 2018 literature review on the physiological and psychological effects of screentime. You might as well just give up at this point.
And, that whole Research Roundup that seems to exist to fill parents with dread. Oh, the horror!
But, check this out.
The 2013 review found that there is very little research on infants and toddlers and that more research is needed to better understand the environmental, socio-cultural, and behavioral correlates for young children.
The 2015 review found that none of the studies they looked at from 1999-2014 could establish a causal connection, measurement errors of screen time exposure and sleep limited the outcomes of the studies, and factors like characteristics and content of screens was not well understood.
And, the 2018 review found that psychophysiological resilience in children requires the ability to focus, good social coping and attachment, and good physical health all of which could be impacted by “excessive” digital media use. They further recommend more research on duration, content, after-dark use, media type, and number of devices.
In fact, there’s a 2015 literature review on the association of parental influences with physical activity and screen time among young children found that there is a causal connection between the parents’ physical activity and screen use and that of the children. It should come as no surprise that the behavior of parents directly influences the behavior of their children.
And, that first study I mentioned? The one from 2019 about how screens change the brains of little kids? If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the sample size is both small and homogenous and that the survey and testing scores used in the study did not meet the threshold for statistical significance when income was included in the model. Those details change the story a bit.
Minding the Nuance
The reality is that there is valuable research happening, but we simply don’t understand what’s really going on. That’s why the pediatric organizations that exist to protect our kids are sounding the alarm. They’re saying look at all this data we’re seeing! Something is happening. Pay attention. So, if your family’s lifestyle flows better without any screens, by all means, do what works for you. This post is for those of you who want to incorporate screens without fear.
There are some things we can discern intuitively about screen use.
It can be distracting. Background sounds from a TV at low volume add static to the environment where infants and toddlers play. A measurable impact has been found on the ability of very small children to develop play skills naturally when TVs are used as noise fillers.
It can signal trouble. While we don’t know that screens cause depression, we do know that children who watch a lot of TV often have clinical depression that necessitates medication. So, it’s worth paying attention to what your kids are doing, so that you can intervene if necessary.
It can replace other healthful behaviors. A child who is watching TV or playing video games is not outside running around. And, a child who is watching TV or playing video games is not telling you about the troubles they’re having.
Now, something that doesn’t get enough air time in these discussions is the economics of restriction. Essentially, by restricting a thing, we increase its value. As explained by Pam Sorooshian, unschooler extraordinaire,
When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person’s thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.
The more you restrict, the more they’ll crave screens. It can feel uncomfortable to loosen the reins and it’s pretty likely your child will consume seemingly impossible amounts of flickering deliciousness at first. But, over time, and in the presence of intentional investment in your child’s needs and wants, screens will lose their luster and become just another activity.
If you’ve been restricting your child’s screen time, because you wanted to do the best possible thing for them or because you felt their screen use was getting out of control, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Not by any means. Just know there is an approach to screen use that is responsible and respectful, whenever you’re ready.
Anti-Childist Screen Use Monitoring
One of the things about the furor over screens that particularly bothers me is the emphasis on cognition and school performance. We’re encouraged to limit our children to a screen schedule of our making, so they can possibly do better in school at some point in the future. But why? Why is academic success the measure of a good life? Why are we not prioritizing our children’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and activities by giving them ownership over the way they choose to spend their time?
We can trust our children to make good decisions when we set them up for success. In our house, I try to limit my compulsion to set rules for everyone. Whenever my kids want to watch TV, I’m ok with it. They have free access to their tablets to use as they wish. But, I also create an environment where they don’t have any desire to obsessively consume that visual stimulation. We spend lots of time outside. We read. We do chores. We play, craft, and bake together. When I see one of my kids struggling to transition from screens to another activity, I intervene. When that happens, it means there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean I need to arbitrarily limit screen time. I have some guidelines for my family in the back of my mind to help ensure that I’m providing the most effective mix of activities and the best possible education around the use of screens.
Be Intentional. Consider using screens on purpose. That means avoiding the use of TVs as background noise and trying not to hand your kids screens to keep them occupied. Instead, let your children decide when they want to use screens and for how long. And, have them choose one screen at a time. In general, our TV doesn’t get turned on until 3 PM, if at all. There’s too much other fun stuff to do.
Be Interactive. Studies show that children can learn a great deal from interactive touchscreens when their parents help them and reinforce what they’re learning.
Be Wise. Particularly when it comes to older kids, parents need to prepare children for the risks of predators and dangerous malware. Talk to your kids about these dangers and make a plan together for how to stay safe.
Choose Educational Content. Programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger provide important information and skills to little kids, especially when families reinforce in daily life what the kids are learning online.
Eat Without Distraction. One rule we do have is that our dining table is a toy-free, screen-free space when we’re having a meal. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration. Family meals are sacred in my house. They’re one of the few opportunities we have to get together and chat over one of the most fundamental human activities.
Get Plenty of Fresh Air and Exercise. Getting outside is so important for every member of the family, but especially children. They need lots and lots of movement throughout the day to improve focus, digestion, motor skills, and sleep. Rather than restricting screens, think about encouraging more movement for balance.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. The so-called warnings about blue light got a little kick in the pants this year. A study challenged the idea that blue light impacts circadian rhythms. We don’t actually know if blue light is a problem. What we do know is that stimulation of any kind interrupts our sleep cycle. In our house, all screens and radios go off at 6:30 pm. That’s our family time and we cherish the ability to interact with each other without distraction. For a great night’s sleep, keep your kids’ room very dark, relatively cool (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit), and comfortably quiet.
Like many parents, when I first became a mom, I was hypervigilant about everything. I stressed myself out trying to do everything by the book, until life taught me that wisdom beats out perfection every time. If you want your children to enjoy screens, let them. Formulate some guidelines for yourself and conduct self-checks to make sure your guidelines are working. Talk with your kids about your concerns. Let them know your values and also that you trust them to know what their minds and bodies need. As new evidence emerges, we’ll be in a great position to shift some of our guidelines to better support our children’s development. Screens are ok, y’all. Promise!
Ever have moments when you feel like you’re in sync with your kids and things are amazing? If so, did you know you can have even more of those moments? Kids do well when they can, and you can help them out by understanding better where they’re coming from.
Marriage and Family Therapist, Galyn Burke, put together a fantastic resource on the way children’s brains develop. She explains that the three major parts of the brain (hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain) develop on different timelines. They have to. Our brains are complex with high energy demands. It takes a while to get everything in order.
The reptilian hindbrain looks like someone dropped a crocodile brain into our heads. This part of the brain serves the most basic purposes including regulating autonomic functions like breathing and instictive behaviors like threat patrol.
The limbic midbrain is our emotion center. It’s what allows us to be empathetic, social creatures. This is the part of the brain where children process their world.
The neocortex forebrain is where our rational mind lives. This part doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s in humans. We like to think of this area as the logic center, but without the midbrain, our logic is incomplete.
Childhood is an incredibly crucial time in the life of a human being when we learn how to be human. We figure out what emotions are and how to work with them. We learn how to love each other and respect boundaries. And, we learn our personal signs of dysregulation and how to cope. If children are not treated gently and responsively, any of these skills can be hindered.
So, you know that brain development isn’t as simple as 1, 2, 3, but did you know that even babies can think logically before they can talk? Turns out, our ability to reason doesn’t depend on language or understanding. A study that came out a few years back found that preverbal infants notice when something is wrong and try to work out a solution. The scientists figured out that “at the moment of a potential deduction, infants’ pupils dilated, and their eyes moved toward the ambiguous object when inferences could be computed, in contrast to transparent scenes not requiring inferences to identify the object. These oculomotor markers resembled those of adults inspecting similar scenes, suggesting that intuitive and stable logical structures involved in the interpretation of dynamic scenes may be part of the fabric of the human mind.” And our ability to reason explodes from that point.
Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosopy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Gardener and the Carpenter, has been studying children for a long time. What she has found is that children have a greater capacity for innovation and creativity than college students all while applying clear logic. She explains that 3-year-olds will offer a stream of consciousness when asked to give us their thoughts, but if you use their own language to ask them concrete questions, the responses will be sensible and surprising.
Check out this piece explaining some of her experiments. You might just find something useful (Hint: Don’t miss the part where the researcher notes that having children explain something themselves increases their understanding of it.)
Now that you know just how brilliant your child is and you know why they can appear to be illogical, you might be surprised to learn that a very simple solution can flip a switch for your child. When a child’s limbic system is on overload, top to bottom exercises can be useful. These are exercises that require movement across both the top and bottom parts of the body. Things like standing stretches and light weight lifting can help your child’s brain regulate itself.
One final thought that comes to mind is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with its focus on integration. In DBT, there exists a concept of the Wise Mind, which is “the balanced part of us that comprises our inner knowledge and intuition, where our emotional thinking mind (thoughts driven by distressing feelings) and rational thinking mind come together, the part of us that just ‘knows’ that true reality.”
Many adults need therapeutic intervention to learn to live into their Wise Mind. Children, whose brains are still forming, need direction and practice to find this place. When you recognize that your children are logical, but not logical in the exact same way that you are, it can become easier to learn to speak their language and to offer responses that help them integrate all the parts of their brains. I firmly believe that children are perfectly reasonable and I hope that, now, you do too.
Do we? As upstanding citizens and caring humans, most of us feel compelled by empathy to help others who don’t have what they need. We offer our money to organizations that provide supplies and services. We offer our time volunteering to feed people. We value the act of giving freely of ourselves, so… we turn around and teach our kids to share through force? Wait a minute. What is the message we’re sending versus the message we’re intending to send?
If you look up the word “sharing,” you’ll see definitions that involve portioning and joint use of an item. When we tell our children to share a toy, unless both children are playing with a toy at the same time, they are cannot share the toy. We share food when we split it among our family members. We share a couch when we sit together to watch a movie. Sharing is an essential exercise we all must do to survive. We teach our children to share of themselves when we model intentional generosity. It takes very little effort to teach children how to share if we are willing to orient ourselves toward inclusion and restoration. They witness sharing when we leave tips for people who provide us a service. They see it when we move to make room for someone on a bus. They recognize it when a community comes together to set aside land to build homes for people who have none. Sharing is an invitation and a kindness. And, for many of us, sharing is a fundamental component of social justice. When we don’t share, people suffer. In some cases, we have to enact laws to mitigate the harm caused by people who refuse to share, particularly when that refusal is based on unjust discrimination.
Many of us say we want our children to learn to share when what we really mean is that we want them to learn to take turns with other children. Turn-taking is tough! It’s not something that comes naturally to a small child. Yet, we can find ourselves pushing a child too hard to do something that they are not developmentally able to accomplish within the strict confines of our directives. And, there is a significant cost to coercing a child into an action. In 2014, the multidisciplinary journal of Development and Psychopathology published an article that looked at the links between early coercion and later behavioral problems. The researchers followed an ethnically diverse sample of 731 children from ages 2-5 to discover the effect of their parents’ methods in enforcing discipline. What they found was that coercive interactions between caregivers and children amplified the children’s noncompliance and escalated both oppositional and aggressive behavior even into later childhood. Meaning, when we coerce our children, we effectively encourage them to resist rather than to cooperate. So, what do we do instead?
In my house, one of our cherished guidelines is receiving consent. My children understand, through modeling, that we don’t snatch items away from each other. Adults and children alike enjoy the security of knowing that their claim to an item will be honored to the extent possible. Here’s how Peaceful Dad and I make it happen.
When one child receives a gift, we encourage that child to store the gift away from main areas if they don’t want their sibling or other children playing with it. When they’re ready to enter it into circulation, since new toys do lose their luster over time, turn-taking guidelines will apply.
Whomever has possession of a toy retains possession of it for as long as they wish, with one major caveat. Turns do not last overnight. So, the next day, the other sibling will have “first dibs” on that toy should they want to play with it. A “turn” lasts as long as the child is actively playing with a toy. We don’t do toy hoarding here. One toy at a time. Once the child moves onto another toy, the toy left behind is up for grabs.
When one sibling takes an interest in a toy that the other sibling is playing with, we sportscast. “Brother, looks like Sister wants a turn when you’ve finished playing.” We also engage with the child who is waiting by empathizing, “You really want to play with that toy! After Brother’s turn, it will be your turn” and encourage the child to choose another activity. And, then we move on. The goal is to empower the children to establish boundaries and use words to indicate their intention.
There are rare times in our house that fights break out over toys. It’s always unrelated to the toy though. Our children generally choose to play together and cooperate unless something is wrong, so when we intervene, we follow our trusty Three Rs. Once the household is calm again, we sportscast, “It was Brother’s turn before. Brother, would you still like to play with the toy?” And, then everything starts again.
We’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences with turn-taking. Sharing is a little more difficult here. There’s a particular riding toy that my children try to ride together. At first, it’s adorable, but after a while, they often start pushing and shoving. When that happens, we intervene with the Three Rs and do our best to let them work it out.
Every now and then, a fight will break out that gets reactivated even after we’ve worked through the Three Rs. When this happens, we do intervene, usually by leading both children to another activity. I’ve noticed with my young kids that the cure for fights is playtime outside. I can understand how frustrating it is to be on top of each other in a small space for too long. They need a chance to stretch their legs and fill their lungs with air. We go outside at least once a day anyway, but on the more difficult days, we’ll spend extra time in nature. I admit that my patience grows short on those days and my own attitude exacerbates an already volatile situation. So, fair warning, if your kids are fighting, check yourself too.
Outside the Home
When we’re away from home, playing with other children, we respect the rules of the space. I let my kids know that we are not at home and these toys do not belong to us. I employ more redirection in these instances. For example, I might say, “Looks like your friend would like a turn.” I might escalate to something like “five more minutes and let’s go find something else to play with” if my child isn’t showing signs of readiness. The younger the child, the harder this is, I’ve found. But, talking your child through the hardship helps, no matter how old they are.
I can understand that all of this may seem preposterous given what you may have witnessed in your own home, but hear me out. Encouraging consent and self-advocacy gives children tools that will last a lifetime. Helping them wait lets them know they aren’t alone and that you understand them. Giving children authority to take temporary ownership of a toy empowers the child in a world that is incredibly disempowering to children. And, you might discover what I have. When I take a step back, my kids work a lot of things out on their own. For instance, my kids will negotiate for toys! They tend toward willingly giving up their toys to their sibling, because they know the choice is completely theirs. Have faith in your kids. They may surprise you!
Learn 9 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Body Image Today
When children as young as three years old are concerned about their body size, it’s clear we have a serious problem. Preschoolers are supposed to be learning their colors! Not examining their baby fat in disgust. Last year, I wrote a post on Fostering Competent Eating to help families encourage a positive relationship between their children and food. And now, we really need to talk about body image and the ill effects of Diet Culture.
Building Children Up in the Face a Culture that Tears Them Down
Children receive messages about their appearance everywhere they turn: from us, from their peers, from advertising, from toys, from media (social and otherwise), and elsewhere. When a child gets battered about the head by toxic messaging over time, it has a detrimental effect. Our sweet little babies who were so fascinated with their fingers and toes become teenagers who say the most devastating things about themselves. How they get there is an easy-to-track trajectory of negativity and perfectionism.
Mom.com posted a revealing piece about children and body image several years ago and every point still rings true today. In it, Jenna Birch notes the following shocking facts:
Girls Are Dieting by Age 10
‘Thigh gaps’ have become teen status symbols
Board Games Becoming More Image-Conscious
Body-Image Issues in Boys Could Lead to Steroids
Teens Find ‘Thinspiration’ on Social Media
More Kids Under 12 Hospitalized for Eating Disorders
Concept of ‘Fat Prejudice’ Starts as Young as 4
Schools May Perpetuate Bad Eating Habits
Clothes Becoming More Sexualized
Anxiety May Trigger an Eating Disorder
What can we do as parents in the face of such awfulness? To start, we have to understand that there really is no end game. Our work in counteracting negative body image has to be constant both for our children and for ourselves. Coming at this issue from a peaceful perspective, here are some ideas for how to make that happen.
Stop making negative comments about your body and others’bodies. It’s such a tough habit to break when you’ve done it for as long as you can remember. You can start by never again commenting on someone’s weight loss or weight gain. “I’m glad you’re happy!” is a neutral, kind way to acknowledge weight fluctuations that people wish to celebrate.
Talk with your child about what you see in tv shows, movies, and magazines. Pull back the curtain and point out everything that’s unrealistic, making sure to be specific and accurate. Your goal is to present the truth and give your child space to figure out the rest.
Avoid general praise altogether and, instead, focus on specific remarks about effort as much as possible. Instead of “Well done” try “I see how hard you’re working on your book report.” Instead of “Good game” try “You practiced so hard and now you’re making almost every basket!” Instead of “Good job” try “You did it! I know how much effort you put into getting it right.”
Expose your child to the body positivity, size acceptance, and fat liberation movements. No, they aren’t perfect but what is? Letting voices outside of your family speak to your child about how important it is to love our bodies unconditionally can counteract much of the messaging coming through media.
Teach your child about their body and use proper terms for body parts. It can be tough, but it’s important to talk about topics like menstruation, masturbation, and sex as factually and honestly as you can. Using euphemisms and appearing in any way like you’re uncomfortable with the discussion can send a message that something is inherently wrong with our bodies. You can prepare for these discussions by practicing talking openly about bodily functions. For instance, starting in infancy, rather than naming feces things like “stinky” and making comments about how bad your child’s diaper smells, try simply stating “You pooped! Let’s get cleaned up.” Reserve the commentary for your child’s sake.
If your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other treatable mental health burden, prioritize professional intervention. Positive and negative body image fluctuate over our lifetimes, influenced both by external messaging and our internal mental health. Therapists can make a huge difference in the life of a child and, by teaching your child to seek help as a matter of course, you will set them up for a lifetime of well tended mental health. **If your child is displaying symptoms of an eating disorderno matter how much they weigh, get help immediately.
And, of course, this piece wouldn’t be complete without plugging Peaceful Parenting! All of the work you’re putting into being respectful of your kids, honoring consent and bodily autonomy, and speaking lovingly will go a long way toward supplying your child’s inner voice with the power it needs to fight back against negative ideation.
Getting Through Those Tough Conversations
When you need to craft a response to your child’s self-deprecating commentary, remember three things:
Avoid invalidating your child’s feelings and empathize where possible
Challenge the narrative
Example Comment: “I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.”
Avoid InvalidatingAnd Empathize: Resist the urge to say “You’re not fat” or otherwise deny your child’s feelings. Neutrally recognize how they feel in the moment.
Acknowledge Truth: “You’re right that different people have different body types.”
Challenge the Narrative: “ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.”
Daughter: I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.
Parent: You’re right that different people have different body types. ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.
Daughter: You don’t understand! I’m so FAT. I hate myself.
Parent: Uh uh. I DO know how it feels to hate my body. I get it. I’ve felt exactly the same way. It’s hard to overcome those feelings when everyone seems to be telling you to hate yourself because you aren’t their version of perfect. It’s hard. Really hard. I’m here for you anytime you need to unload.
Unfortunately, negative body image can’t be overcome in a single conversation. If it could, the weight loss industry wouldn’t be dealing in $70+ billion every year. You’re going to have thousands of these moments to deconstruct what our culture has built in your child’s mind. Your child likely won’t be receptive at first and may go through many setbacks as the years go by. Give it time and give your child grace. Every effort on your part brings your child one step closer to abundant self-confidence. You are the living stopgap measure standing in the breach until your child finds their own best weapon against this brutal enemy. It’s a hard place to stand, but there is no better person than you to protect your child.
Looks like we’ve found some common ground, because talking doesn’t work with mine either. Did you think I was going to disagree? Do you think my “hugs and happy thoughts” approach to parenting is doomed to fail? Hold that thought.
First, let’s think about what we mean by “work.” It doesn’t work to do what? To compel a child to understand the full impact of their actions? To immediately force the child into compliance? To make the child recognize the authority of the parent? Because, if it’s any of those, you’re right, there’s no way talking can succeed on its own.
Second, and more important, the idea that Peaceful Parenting is about talking to a child like we’re all in our own private Disney film and they’ll fall right in line is spectacularly wrong. The hugs, the talking, the empathizing, the affirming, the freedom, the limits… all of these are techniques. They are not a means to an end in and of themselves. Before you will ever have success with any of the Peaceful Parenting techniques I share, you must do two things: 1) painfully rip your worldview to shreds and rebuild it in such a way that places your child on a direct parallel with you in terms of mutual respect and 2) build a genuine, non-confrontational relationship with your child. And then you should still expect childism to infiltrate your reasoning. It takes active work to reject childism and to understand that many of the behavioral complaints we have about our children are a direct manifestation of childism. The very idea that children intentionally misbehave is childism in action. In short, Peaceful Parenting is the antidote to childism and the archetype for positive, healthy relationships between parents and children.
The reason talking will never be effective by itself is that it jumps ahead of all the other work you need to be doing. So, you’ve shifted your worldview, you’re working on your relationship with your child, and suddenly, there’s a crisis. Your child (age doesn’t matter) is furious with you and is treating you unkindly. Stop. Don’t try to talk yet! The first step in the midst of a crisis is to co-regulate with your child. For younger children, that may mean hugs or sitting nearby while the child unleashes. For older children, that may mean coaching the child through breathing exercises or getting your child to an established chill out space. This is the time when you bring your child’s emotional and physiological arousal level into greater alignment with your own. This step is more difficult the younger your child is and, therefore, requires seas of patience which will grow from practice and intention.
The next step is to empathize. Let your child know you understand their distress and that you’re right there to help. With my small children, I tell them things like “You’re angry right now. It’s ok to be angry. You’re safe with me.” Older children and teens will likely need a more grown-up approach such as “I can see how upset you are with me. I understand why you feel this way. We can work through this together. You’re safe with me.” But, please be sure to give your child plenty of grace. Understand that they need time to work through the emotional turmoil. Offering empathy cannot be your way of shutting your child up. Attempting it will backfire horribly.
Finally, after you’ve guided your child through that emotional minefield and you’re in a place of healing, now is finally the time for talking. You can offer your perspective. You can explain any limits you’ve set. You can answer questions. The point here is to engage and provide your child with all the information they need to make a sound and reasonable decision on moving forward.
Your child might negotiate or even reject what you’ve said. It’s ok. Let your child have their own mind. If you’ve set a firm limit that has little wiggle room, be honest. You may need to go back through the three steps again or more than twice before your child has fully reasoned through. If you are looking for immediate compliance, you won’t find it in Peaceful Parenting. At least not at the beginning. But, why would you want immediate compliance? Do you beat your young child for not being able to read or write? Do you shame your teen for not being able to drive before they’ve had a chance to learn? Then, why punish a child who is building self-regulation ability and logical reasoning for learning those skills too slowly for your liking?
If you are expecting immediate compliance every time or children who behave like little adults instead of kids, Peaceful Parenting will never work because your expectations are beyond a child’s developmental abilities. When I first encountered Peaceful Parenting, I too struggled to understand how it could work (and I had no idea what “work” even meant in this context). Now I understand that, for a Peaceful Parent, success looks like children who are open and willing to share their emotions with you, willing to make mistakes and fail without fear, willing to trust that you have their best interests at heart, willing to do the things you ask of them because they know you will reciprocate that level of respect.
I have been peacefully parenting my children from the day they were born. I know a lot of people think it’s hilarious to ask a baby if you can change their diaper, but lessons in consent begin as soon as you, the parent, choose. I didn’t ask my children if I could change their diapers, but what I did do was to sportscast their days. “It’s time to change your diaper! Let’s go to the changing table and get this done.” Many of us do this naturally as we talk with our newborns and infants.
Over the years, I’ve fine tuned my plan for tackling difficult situations. As they’ve grown, my strategies have changed, but my underlying approach continues to be Peaceful Parenting. Do my kids wild out sometimes? Most definitely. They aren’t different from anyone else’s kids. They aren’t more mature or easier. They are as challenging and wonderful as any child I’ve ever cared for and I had many years of experience in child care before I became a parent. But, my children tend toward cooperation and gentleness. I’ve rarely had fights over diaper changes. I’ve never struggled to put them into their car seats. Any time I’ve felt I needed to punish them was because of my own emotions and my reactions to triggering events. They aren’t manipulative or mean or ill-mannered. They are respectful, kind children who are a delight to be around.
Peaceful Parenting works for every parent and every child though the routes we each take in addressing the ways our children communicate through their behavior will always differ. Your response may not look much like mine. My responses will not address the needs of every child. I am focused on my own children and tailoring my parenting to their needs, which I recognize because I have spent such a long time understanding who they are and why they do the things they do. I write to spark ideas for how parents can more effectively engage with their children, not to lay out a singular path to parenting success. Peaceful Parenting takes time. You can’t “try it out” or occasionally talk to your kids instead of punishing them. You can’t talk first and punish later. It doesn’t work like that. This is an all in approach as you must surrender to a significant paradigm shift and recognize that behavior is communication. From that perspective, no child on the planet misbehaves.
So, if talking isn’t making a difference for you, you can’t claim it as a weakness of Peaceful Parenting. Talking ≠ Peaceful Parenting. Oh no, it’s so much more!
I recently ran across this fantastic article in Psychology Today about nature versus nurture in child rearing. Robert Plomin Ph.D., dives into the research he presents in his book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.
What he has found is that our DNA is the driving force behind our psychology from personality to behavior. Your wonderfully sassy kid is probably genetically designed to be sassy. So strap in and hold on for this ride, because that kid isn’t going to change. (Keep that in mind when you’re feeling some type of way about your child’s “attitude.”)
He notes, for instance, that parents who read a lot to their children likely have children who enjoy being read to at a basic psychological level. So, when your mom friend starts bragging about reading 400 books to her daughter over the summer and asking you how many books you read to yours, don’t feel bad that your own daughter was too busy drawing to be bothered to sit for many stories. Your child’s personality is going to be very close to what it already was at conception, save for a major brain event.
On one hand, it’s freeing to know that all the experiences children encounter and process through the lens of their DNA help form their understanding of how the world works. Experiences are important and the field of epigenetics is informing us more every day about just how important they are. What we know for certain is that it’s crucial to develop a relationship with your child to find out their strengths and aptitudes and build on those. That sassy child I mentioned likely has heaps of natural confidence. Consider all the wonderful things they’ll be able to do, perhaps, in the public sphere. They may become an influencer or a politician. When you take note and support their interests, so many wonderful things will happen.
Peaceful Parenting offers the ideal framework and guidance to work with children’s different personalities and needs. It respects the essence of the child and is flexible enough to move with a child’s genetic tendencies without any of the rigidity that can stifle a child’s inborn potentiality.
ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.
It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many Autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.
At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an Autistic mom of an Autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.
I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to Autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.
Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder
So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is only disabling in cultures where Autistic people are not included and embraced.
Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an Autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what Autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.
A History of ABA Therapy
Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with Autistic children.
Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, Autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make Autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among Autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicablefellow:
Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that Autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.
Autistic Perspectives on ABA
Amythest Schaber is an Autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.
The following list includes links to other Autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:
Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:
If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.
What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?
To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.
I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.
Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help Autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.
Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your Autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sidenote: CBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your Autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.
In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why Autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:
ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.
If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.
No Autistic child is the same and there are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all Autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.
That includes Autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.
You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.
You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping Autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your Autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.
Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies
If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for Autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.
Observation is Not Allowed
No Stimming Allowed
Requires Eye Contact
Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
Focus on Compliance
Focus on Verbal Communication
Punishment of Any Kind
You Are a Good Parent
Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of Autistic adults urging caution.
A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults
This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow Autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. Thank you!