Are You Raising An Entitled Child?

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

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

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

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

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

Meaningful Connection

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

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

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

Intrinsic Motivation vs Rewards

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

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

Perspective-Taking and Emotional Regulation

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

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

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

Boredom and Disappointment

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

Assuming Competence Without Breaking Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Things You Need to Know About Lying

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

1. Our Children Are Not Manipulating Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Lying is Developmentally Appropriate

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

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

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

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

3. Lying Actually Has Some Benefits

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

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

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

Lying to protect the feelings of another

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

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

Lying for self-protection to avoid punishment

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

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

Lying to the self, or self-deception

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

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

Lying to Hurt Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urgency vs. Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before You Advocate For Gentle Parenting…

A couple weeks ago, I posted a response after seeing the fallout from a post made by Kristen Coggins of @krissycouch where she stated, “You are not a bad parent. You are triggered.”

Gentle parents jumped all over her. This is what I said,

If you felt your parent was a bad parent and this post feels dismissive, I get it. There may not be room for any grace when your wounds are raw from harsh treatment and abuse. You don’t have to be the person who intervenes when you’re so close to trauma, but someone needs to. I wish I had folks in my corner speaking gently to my parents and helping them change their ways even today.

Every parent harms their kids. There’s no way around that. This post is speaking to the parents who are consumed with guilt and want to do better. It excuses no one for their abusive behavior. We are still responsible for the pain we inflict no matter our intentions.

So, how do we hold parents accountable and also leave room for the grace required for growth?

Y’all know I can’t stand the phrase “shit parent” and it’s for this exact reason. I’m trying to give parents an alternative, wake them up to their own need for intervention, reorient them to their children’s humanity. And that is what this post is about.

We call ourselves cycle breakers, but let’s not be so limited as to believe those around us who haven’t embraced conscious, gentle parenting aren’t also breaking cycles of their own.

When we box people into impossible standards, we lose them. The most consistent request I receive from readers of this blog is for real-life advice on how to gently parent given their particular life circumstances. [Sidebar: If you aren’t following my Facebook page, please head over and hit that Follow button! Because I don’t talk about my kids on this blog, I don’t have much of a means to provide real-life scenarios, so I use my Facebook page to search for great examples of peaceful parenting and share them there.] I have dear friends who read what I write here, and I have been convicted by some for the way I word things sometimes. I can get so impassioned that I sometimes come across as a harsh critic of anyone who doesn’t parent the way I do. That’s never my intention though. My goal is always to amplify the voices of children who are impacted by the ways we choose to interact with them.

I think it’s helpful for all of us to examine our approach through an anti-childism lens. I’ve written about the rights of children and the freedoms of children in relation to childism and I understand it’s difficult to strike a balance. Not only are we working against the current of modern “wisdom” about children as their parents’ property, but we are dealing with real human individuals who have varying capacities and intelligences. The freedoms we can negotiate for one child may not be the same ones we can negotiate with another. I’ve gotten criticism from more traditional parents that my approach is too lenient and also criticism from free-range parents that my approach is too strict. Again, I’ll note the importance of balance and giving our children what they need to thrive. I want to urge nuance in these conversations because, in excluding parents from what we view as the only right way, we leave them standing in that awful current of modern “wisdom” with no support.

The very idea that there is only one right way derives from the legacy of white supremacy. It’s true that there is right and there is wrong. Domestic violence against children is wrong, for instance. Calls to end spanking are right. However, the way we carry out our efforts to curtail spanking impact different people groups in different ways. If we support laws to arrest parents who spank, we will perpetuate the racist oppression of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Melanated People (BBIMP). If we demand better education and support for parents who spank, we risk harming poor parents who can’t take time off work to receive educational services. Perhaps a better use of the law would be to bring education and support to the workplace through some sort of mandatory federal funding stream that ensures no one will lose out on their income as they learn to make healthier choices. I don’t have the answers and I would much rather hear from the people who would be impacted by such measures.

Now, I’ve noticed some peaceful parenting voices wishing to separate our approach from the quadrant system advanced by Maccoby and Martin, based on the work of Baumrind. From their perspective, gentle parenting functions outside of any traditional understanding of parenting approaches. I recognize the desire to break free from traditional ideas around children, but I disagree. I appreciate the structure of the quadrant system in helping us understand where we are with our children in terms of connection and expectation. We lose a valuable educational tool when we toss it out.

High ConnectionLow Connection
High ExpectationAuthoritative/BalancedAuthoritarian/Domineering
Low ExpectationPermissive/IndulgentUninvolved/Absent

Actually, a true quadrant graphic makes it even more apparent how flexible this system really is. In the following graphic, the blocks are in the same places as the chart above, but the arrows demonstrate how we move throughout the system. You’ll see there is plenty of space to stretch out in the authoritative block. Some gentle parents lean more toward the permissive side and some lean more toward the authoritarian side, but all reside firmly within the high connection/high expectation block.

Source: Kaleido

A fair goal, in my opinion, is to give people the tools they need to plant themselves inside the authoritative block without all the extra criticism. There are some authoritative parents who punish their kids through logical consequences. Y’all know good and well that I am opposed to the use of punishment, but you better believe I’m still going to keep the lines of communication open with these parents. Some of my readers spank their kids and they admit it to me. In emotionally charged moments, they strike out. They know how I feel about it, but they still tell me about their experiences. Many of these same parents credit the things they’ve learned through my, often fraught, experience for the ways in which they’ve changed their perspectives on the relationship between parents and their children. This is a process. I have never met a parent who, with one salvific decision, suddenly became an ideal gentle parent who never, ever harms their kids. I’m a gentle parent and I know I’m doing things that my children will grow up and remember with sadness. I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m trying to be genuine, humble, kind, and open to change.

Let’s keep talking about a different way to parent even in the face of criticism from people who don’t get it and those who don’t want to get it. Let’s give parents a new path even if they aren’t in a place where they can manage it themselves. But, please, stop gatekeeping peaceful parenting and stop telling parents they aren’t doing it right. Who is served by the weaponization of rigid and lofty morality?

We cannot sacrifice parents for their children or children for their parents. Choosing one over the other is not liberation from childism. We fall short when we do not honor both.

Discipline Your Wives

Sometimes women do take things too far. Even though they’re adults, it can be appropriate for men to discipline their wives as necessary. These modern day liberals love to cry “domestic violence” but what happens between man and wife should remain between them in private. It’s important to always try a gentle approach first, but a slap or a light beating should be considered as a final resort if a woman absolutely refuses to listen. Sometimes you have to get loud to be heard and, as long as a man doesn’t leave bruises, disciplining a woman can help improve a marriage.

And, that’s exactly how some of these folks sound defending spanking as a legitimate approach to disciplining children. I based that super heteronormative, violent, and absurd paragraph on what I’ve read of the real “domestic discipline” that goes on in some fundamentalist, Christian homes. When I tell y’all it’s off the wall… gracious.

All of that nonsense leads me into this continuing nonsense. A friend of mine, who is actually not opposed to corporal punishment entirely, sent me this screenshot to work through what she read. In fact, she asked in advance if it would be triggering for me to read about pro-spanking efforts. I’ve been in a pretty good place of late, so I agreed to view her screenshot out of burning curiosity. It’s so over-the-top as to be nearly unbelievable. (And, my friend promptly left the group, because this was too much for her.)

Identifying information removed for the safety of the children.

Image Description: Facebook post in a group for parents who “discipline” shows two teen/tween boys standing under a tent in the woods. The original poster says, “Good morning .. when is a child to old to go over lap for spanking. What position is appropriate for them?” The first response is “lay on his bed or the sofia” and the second is “Over the knee is the best position in my…” and trails off. Presumably, the rest of the comment says “opinion.” No other replies are visible.

Can we talk about how disgusting this is? It’s bad enough that people are hitting little kids, but now you’ve got a whole group of parents trying to work out the physics of spanking teenagers?? It seriously gives me the creeps. As a reminder, the buttocks are an EROGENOUS zone and there is a whole bundle of nerves in the lower back, all of which are impacted by spanking.

Hitting a child on their butt- spanking- can conflate pleasure and pain for children. Attention, is attention, is attention- it doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative. It is ALL processed the same in the brain. So if your child is attention seeking and the way they know how to get it is through acting out- resulting in a spanking, what do you think that’s going to do them neurologically? It’s confusing as hell and has documented consequences into adulthood. And to add to that- even relatively moderate blows to the lower end of the spinal column send shock waves along the length of the spine. There are cases of children who have permanent nerve damage from spanking, and even DEATH- and not from severe beatings either. Several of the cases I read were classified as “mild paddlings.” 

Source: https://www.allanarobinson.com/why-corporal-punishment-is-unacceptable-in-2018/

I’m just so skeeved out by this. I was spanked well into my double-digit years before my mother moved on to more “mature” methods like slapping me across the face. Y’all gotta stop this mess. It’s abusive, ugly, and cruel.

No, Love, Your Child Doesn’t Need ABA

I see y’all out there. Parents trying to do your very best for your Autistic kids. You talk about how much ABA has helped your child and how you don’t know what you would have done without it. You say that you couldn’t possibly have done what your BCBA or RBT has accomplished. You truly believe that you, the person who knows your child the very best, don’t have what it takes to give your child the world. But, oh Love, you do! You honestly do.

The ABA industry systematically chips away at our confidence in our own instincts and abilities. With those scary prognoses and extensive treatment plans, how could we ever give our child what ABA can? From that perspective, it’s true. We don’t have the skill set to do what a BCBA or an RBT can do. For some parents, that will mean putting a child into ABA and trusting professionals with their care. For others, it will mean getting trained yourself so that you too can use behaviorism to manage your child’s actions. There’s another choice though. A less expensive and time consuming choice. A better choice.

A few days ago, occupational therapist, Greg Santucci, wrote about a fundamental flaw in the concept of ABA, one that we parents need to understand:

So, if the antecedent doesn’t really happen right before a behavior occurs, but rather results from a combination of factors that can stretch back days or even years, how could a BCBA or an RBT possibly recognize what’s wrong? How could they possibly know everything you know? You, Love. You saw what happened when your child’s favorite toy broke last week. You offered comfort and validation, but you knew your child felt grief, so you gave them space to mourn. Then, over the weekend, you saw your child’s energy revving up and you knew they needed to go outside, but rain changed your plans. So, you did your best to help your child get all that energy out while inside the house, but you could see a storm brewing. You have always been there. You are the safe space.

Now, it’s a new week and it’s time for ABA. Your child feels great stress from compounding factors that occurred well before the session. Then what happens? Your child refuses fulfill a demand and they get ignored. As they struggle without the support of a trusted adult, they get punished via planned ignoring for mourning their favorite toy and for needing outside time. ABA works because it crushes children into compliance no matter how they feel or what they need.

You can decide right now never to go back. Never to put your child into a situation where their behavior defines how they will be treated. You can give your child the exact support they need because you experience it all with them. You know when things get hard and how your child needs comforting. You can move past managing behaviors and instead coach emotions, helping your child feel and bear through the difficult times. And, those really difficult situations, like a child running into the street? Change the environment. Use a locking harness to make sure your child stays close to you when cars present a danger. Practice road safety with games like Red Light, Green Light in a safe location. Tell your child stories about how cars can hurt us, seeing the consequences from a child’s perspective. “If you get hit by a car, you won’t get to eat jelly beans until you get better because the car will hurt you!”

With emotion coaching and controlling the environment, you won’t need behavior management at all, and you certainly won’t need ABA. You can do this. You have all the skills already from your years of practice as a parent. Don’t let these medical professionals tell you that you don’t have what it takes. They are lying to you.

Learn strategies for how best to support your Autistic child by following these links:

Have you read An Advocate’s Guidebook for Caregivers of Autistic Kids?

Can Limits Be Too Limiting?

A few days ago, I settled in to hear the entire hour-and-a-half long talk on How to set limits with your kids… DON’T! from Gentle Parents Unite podcast. In this talk, Sujai and Vivek discuss why arbitrary limit setting can be a form of coercion and control. If you’d like to give the talk a listen, I highly recommend it:

From the Gentle Parents Unite Podcast

Levels of Limits

I am a strong proponent of the use of limits instead of punishments or consequences (which are just punishments given with a smile). However, something I haven’t discussed at any length is my strategy around limits. I restrict my own employment of limits to instances I judge to be imminently dangerous or destructive. For instance, I won’t let my young kids run into the street alone or dunk their hands into boiling water. Sure, a natural consequence might deliver a more memorable message, like getting hit by a car or hospitalized with third degree burns, but you can surely see why that’s not an option for me. My limits in these cases protect my children from endangering their lives and health. They are rather hard and fast.

Some of my softer limits involve harming belongings, people, and animals. These are more difficult to navigate as there is great benefit to children learning about the world on their own. If a child is smashing their toy into pavement, I will mention that smashing the toy will break it and generally give the child space to make a decision. On the other hand, if the child is using a toy car to try and break a glass window pane in my living room, that is an instance where I may remove the toy and say, “I can’t let this toy break through the glass.” And, I won’t allow children to beat each other up in my presence, but I might hold back if I see a child smack another and the harmed child standing up for themselves. If appropriate, I will intervene and work on some sportscasting to help the children broaden their understanding of the situation. If a child is poking at a cat, I will tell the child that I can tell the cat is unhappy because of its pinned ears and that cat might scratch.

My goal in any instance with my children is to give them as much autonomy as I possibly can while recognizing that they might not understand the potential outcomes of their actions. In some cases, I intervene, as much as I’d rather let them work things out on their own. In other cases, I don’t employ limits at all. For instance, I never force toothbrushing. I start introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste at the first tooth eruption, so that it becomes part of the standard daily routing. Then, if the child resists my efforts at cleaning their teeth, my first step is to hand the toothbrush over and back off. What I’ve found is that, invariably, curiosity and independence kick in, and the child starts to brush their own teeth. And, then when I offer to get the teeth in the back of the mouth, my offer is usually met with willingness, because at that point, I am working with the child on the child’s terms. I don’t use force unless I feel strongly that I absolutely must. And, that’s rare in my house.

Destructive vs Deconstructive

One area I know a lot of parents struggle with is the messiness and chaos of childhood. Kids wreck stuff in one way or another and it’s crucial that they do. It’s one of the most basic ways they have to interact with the world and learn how things work. Sometimes it’s accidental and sometimes it’s on purpose. Either way, it’s ok. Our response depends on the motivation.

Destructive and deconstructive actions have a similar result, but a very different purpose. Children who destroy are often calling out for help. I have found that many times children will smash things that are important to them and then burst into tears at the results of their actions. These instances usually indicate a child who is in a state of distress and dysregulation. And, our response must be compassion and understanding with a goal of connecting with and building up the hurt child.

Deconstruction is educational. Deconstructive activities usually occur when a child is happy or curious. A child dropping an egg on the ground is learning about gravity, shell strength, and splatter. Plus, it’s just fun to deconstruct. Adults do it by smashing sandcastles at the end of the day and turning over dominoes. There’s just something pleasurable in wrecking things in this way. Giving children ample opportunities to deconstruct and be messy is a fantastic way to foster sensory integration! So, do it often.

Establishing Parameters

A big part of what we do as peaceful parents is investigating our own perspectives and responses. Limits are ok when used judiciously and are certainly preferable to punishment. So, first things first, think about your non-negotiables. What is it you feel you absolutely cannot allow your child to do. Write down a list of these non-negotiables.

Second, pause at each item you wrote down and consider carefully if you’ve included it because of imminent threat to your child or because of your own feelings and conditioning around it. Ask yourself what harm it would really do to strike that limit from your list.

Third, take your pared down list and discuss them with your children, regardless of whether you believe your children can reason through them. If your kids are able to discuss the limits with you, have a conversation. They might bring up something you hadn’t considered. Talk with them about how you can best support them in respecting the limits and be prepared to negotiate if they feel the limits are too restrictive.

Fourth, shift your mindset to figuring out how you can say “yes” to your children more often. You and your children can eliminate the perceived need for many limits by finding ways to balance freedom and respect for each other. Practice telling your kids, “I want to help make this happen for you. Let’s think about the possibilities.”

So, does all of this mean we should never say no to a child? Nope. It means we should be cognizant of why we’re compelled to say no. Is there an immediate danger? If not, can we accommodate our child? If not, how can we come to a mutual agreement that respects both parent and child?

If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: limit less, trust more, and be curious about what your child is doing rather than shutting them down.

Under No Circumstances Should You Be Consistent With Discipline!

No matter which of the five main types of discipline you use, it won’t work if you aren’t consistent. Consistency is one of the more important keys to addressing child behavior problems. Consistently setting limits, giving effective consequences and enforcing the rules all day every day can be tough, however. Examine what gets in the way of being consistent and take steps to increase your discipline consistency.

Source: VeryWell Family

Ugh. There it is. My least favorite advice about imposing discipline. Be consistent. Enforce the rules. It evokes a sense of rigidity. Control. Be consistent and make sure your child knows who’s boss. Be consistent and use your selected punishment immediately every time. Never show a crack in your armor or else your child will take advantage. Sounds pretty stressful to me, both for parent and child. How many parents receive this advice and are chastised for not being consistent when their kids when they behave like… well… children? How many discipline experts claim that children can’t feel secure without consistency? Consistency is a tool of behaviorism, the theory that people’s behavior can be studied and controlled externally, without regard for our thoughts and feelings.

What is behaviorism? The theory that psychology can be objectively studied through observable action.

Operant Conditioning: Subject learns behavior by associating it with consequences

Classical Conditioning: Subject learns to associate two unrelated stimuli with each other

ThoughtCo
Source: ThoughtCo

That’s a dog, because behaviorism is what we use to train animals. Sure, humans are technically animals, but we have a capacity to think, feel, and reason that is not paralleled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Our children deserve more than dog training. Now, there may be times when consistency can be useful, such as when Autistic children need their routines to be predictable. Consistency, at the behest of a child, is part of maintaining a respectful relationship. Consistency applied to children without their consent must be carefully considered, because it has the potential for harm.

I’ve written at length about the merits of punishment-free parenting and emotion coaching. I’ve even talked about limits. No, not the limits they’re talking about in that VeryWell Family article above. I mean limits that take into account the needs and wants of children. Limits that lead to a genuine feeling of safety and understanding. And, I have a response to the ubiquitous calls to be consistent:

Be reliable instead.

Be the person your child can run to when everything is falling apart, knowing your response will be one of unconditional love and acceptance. Be the person who knows how to bring your child from crisis to peace through co-regulation. Be the person whose respectful limits are a cushion from harm and not a brick wall they shatter against. Show your child, through your own actions, how to make it through difficult situations, acknowledging every emotion, seeking out resources when necessary, and embracing restoration.

Where consistency means inflexible adherence to a norm, reliability requires dependability and trustworthiness. These are traits we all want to instill in our children and we can do that by first demonstrating them through our approach to discipline. So, next time you have the choice between being consistent or being reliable, you know which one to choose!

Learned Helplessness Vs Helping

Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Power Of Noticing… And Not Noticing (An Alternative to Praise)

Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.

I’m so proud of you!

Great work!

You can do it!

They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?

The Power of Noticing

There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.

Now, when I’ve talked about praise as problematic before, I’ve gotten some pushback over our often involuntary responses to the happiness that flow from us when our children are succeeding at the things that are important to them. Do I think that smiling at a child or clapping in excitement or happily exclaiming Good job! is going to destroy our children’s intrinsic motivation? Absolutely not. When we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. We run into trouble when the strategy we employ to motivate our children becomes a pattern of manipulation rather than genuine connection and the intent to notice.

I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.

The Power of Not Noticing

As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.

Healing Hearts Play Therapy posted a beautiful sentiment around children’s need for freedom of expression without adult over-involvement:

It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.

When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.

For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.

Time-Ins Can Be Problematic Too

In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.

A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.

Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.

If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?

Are Rewards a Tool of Abuse?

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.

Shahida Arabi, author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, writes,

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.

For a deeper dive, check out Isn’t Smiling a Reward?

Independence vs Autonomy

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.

I found this thorough explanation of the differences between these two words on Stack Exchange of all places (and I substantiated it of course):

‘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.

Examples:

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.

So:

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?

Permission vs Consent

You know how, sometimes, you run across new information that leaves your mind spinning? That happened to me this past week when I read something about the difference between permission and consent, and immediately thought of my efforts toward anti-childism. It’s not something I’d really thought much on before, so I’ve been doing a little more reading and reflecting. To be clear, here’s the deal:

Permission means gaining approval from a superior whereas consent means coming to a mutual agreement that either party can say yes or no to.

I talk a lot about the need for consent on this blog, but there are also times when I’ve mentioned “allowing” and “letting” my kids do things. I’m realizing that my permission-based orientation is at odds with my efforts to elevate children. What I really want to do is flatten the traditional hierarchy parents and children tend to operate from, which means preferring agreement over commands wherever possible.

I’m sure many of y’all reading this will immediately question what this means in terms of safety issues. Children are a unique group of people. They are fully human and fully deserving of rights while also being newer to the world and in need of guidance. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what anti-childism really looks like when we, parents, are responsible for protecting our kids from danger, but I’m doing my best.

For instance, when a toddler breaks free and immediately bolts for the road, we must do whatever we can to save our child. Toddlers cannot manage the freedom to roam around a busy street unsupervised. So, what does consent look like with a two-year-old? Perhaps it looks like giving her the toothbrush when she demands it instead of brushing her teeth for her. Perhaps, it looks like sitting up with her for a while when she’s not ready to go to sleep yet. Perhaps, it looks like giving her full control over what she eats from her lunch plate. There are so many daily decisions where you can give your child the authority and autonomy she craves (something that wasn’t allowed when I was a child).

I’m reminded of a graphic I ran across some time ago by Kristin Wiens:

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

I’m challenging myself to rethink those moments when I want to use my adult authority to pressure my children into bending to my will. In those moments, it’s difficult to remember that sharing power ends up creating an environment of cooperation. I invite you to this challenge as well. Let’s see how often we can come to an agreement with our kids rather than lording over them. I bet it gets easier with time.

One Way We Unintentionally Foster Codependency

Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.

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Co-dependent adults struggle to identify who they are and what they need as independent from others; it's as if their sense of self is dependent on the approval or well-being of someone else.  This is the essence of an "outside-in" lens for the world: Other people show me who I am.  I've only learned to find myself and feel safe when other people are happy with me. . Co-dependency is really about self-alienation, because you've been taught that your own wants and feelings threaten the stability of a relationship, so you need to get as far away from yourself as possible. Individuals wired this way are attracted to partners who are narcissistic and low on empathy, the perfect opposing puzzle piece for co-dependent traits. . Co-dependency may appear in adulthood but it starts in early childhood; remember, we are wiring our kids for their relationship patterns. . During childhood, kids are asking these questions: "Who do I have to be to achieve emotional safety? How safe are my own feelings and needs?" . There are very few things that I tell parents not to do.  High on the list are Don't Hit, Don't Terrify, and… . DON'T LINK YOUR CHILD'S EMOTIONS WITH YOUR OWN. . Don't wire your child so that her feelings sit right next to their impact on you. This is not a way to create empathic kids; it is a way to create co-dependent adults. . HOW DO WE CREATE EMPATHY AND AVOID CO-DEPENDENCY? By creating *distance* between our kids' feelings and our own – seeing feelings not for their impact on us but for the pain they cause in our child. . Instead of "That hurts Mommy's feelings," say, "You must be really upset about something to speak to me that way." Instead of "That makes Mommy sad," say, "I can't listen well when you're speaking to me in that tone. I want to hear about what's happening for you. I care about your feelings and you're allowed to have them." . And when you do have big feelings? Take responsibility for these as your own. Tell your child, "You're noticing that I'm upset. Yes, it's true. And here's something else true: My feelings are MINE. You don't cause my feelings and you don't have to take care of them."

A post shared by Dr. Becky Kennedy (@drbeckyathome) on

I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:

OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS

So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.

Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.

Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.

Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.

When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.

Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.

I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home: