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.
A few days ago, my daughter broke free from my grip outside our home and immediately bolted for the street. She made it into the street before I was able to reach her. Terrifyingly, a car was coming right for her. She had put one foot down into the street when I leapt forward and pulled her backward by her forehead. It all happened so fast! Fortunately, no one was hurt this time. But, clearly, my two-year-old cannot manage the freedom to roam around a busy state highway unsupervised.
So, what does consent look like with a two-year-old? For us, it looks like giving her the toothbrush when she demands it instead of brushing her teeth for her. She generally lets me brush them after she finishes anyway. It looks like accepting her choices in clothes without complaint. It looks like sitting up with her for a while when she’s not ready to go to sleep yet. It looks like giving her full control over what she eats from her lunch plate. There are so many daily decisions where I can give her the authority and autonomy she craves. Same goes for my 5-year-old. With him, I negotiate quite a bit (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.
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.
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.
I told a story over on the blog’s Facebook page that I’ll relate here as well. My mother came for a visit last week. Lately, my son has been lashing out at me for reasons related to the transition from public school to homeschool. We’ll be working with an OT to help us identify what needs he has that I’m not meeting, but in the meantime, he has been pinching, hitting, and kicking me. While my mother was with us, she saw what he was doing and she saw me gently stop him and tell him not to touch my body that way. She was frustrated as she believes parents should control children until they can control themselves, so she told him that pinching me made me sad. In response, I told her that it didn’t make me sad at all. It hurt and I wanted him to stop. My emotional read of the situation had nothing to do with the harm he was causing to my body and THAT is what I needed him to consider. I’m sure she was aghast when I offered him a hug.
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:
Months ago, a therapist friend shared with me a page out of a strategic family therapy textbook that looked at how a family’s response to challenging behaviors determines whether the behavior will be resolved or become a problem. The author gave an example of a boy who became temperamental after the birth of his baby sister. His father punished him to stop the behavior, but that punishment served to confirm to this child that his parents loved his sister more than they loved him. His behavior intensified and the punishment followed suit. There was no resolution. In this case, his father saw only one explanation for the behavior: that the child was insolent and disrespectful. He did not imagine that his son was crying out for love and compassion.
In this chapter of the book, the author introduced the idea of Order of Change, which refers to the ways in which a system can change. So much of what we can use to shift the ambit of entire organizations also works for families. It makes sense. Families are organizations composed of people as well. The book detailed two orders of change, but I will include a third to present more options. Important note: The progression from first to third, DOES NOT INDICATE a progression in value. Any one of these might be appropriate in a given circumstance.
First Order Change: Maintains existing structure and uses increases and decreases to restore balance. The goal here is not to change the basis of the system, but to improve upon it. First Order Change is Transactional.
Second Order Change: Revolutionizes how the system functions altogether. The goal here is to change the system where it needs to be altered to work better. Second Order Change is Transformational.
Third Order Change: Tosses the system out the door altogether and encourages members of the system to become aware of system inconsistencies and dysfunction, question approaches, and take democratic steps toward improvement. The goal here is to increase awareness of the issues and buy-in from the participants in the system. Third Order Change is Innovative.
My first thought as I re-read this now, as so many of us are dealing with how we will send our children to school, is that the three orders seem to align with alternatives to the educational status quo. What better way to explain systems change than through something we’re all wrestling with. Let’s consider the catalyst to be the need to protect student health and see what each option provides.
First, there’s revamped brick and mortar school and school-at-home, e-school, or virtual school, whatever your school system might be calling it. Whether your child goes to school in person or stays at home and completes work there, this option packages school into a solution that allows parents to make decisions based on their comfort level with the school’s safety plan while maintaining the expected educational trajectory. For many families, especially those in which the adults don’t have a lot of time at home or are experiencing health issues, maintaining familiarity and taking advantage of the existing system makes sense. The new safety plans and hybrid or virtual options are an example of a first order change that prioritizes the health of the students by making incremental adjustments to the system.
Second, there’s homeschooling. Many options exist wherein an adult teaches a child at home outside the auspices of a brick and mortar school. Each of these echoes the familiar schooling system, but apply revolutionary changes to the schooling approach, the curriculum, the schedule, and so on. Many, many families have withdrawn their children from the school system this fall and have embarked upon the journey of “COVID Homeschooling” which will presumably end when the threat is no more. Some of these folks, like my family, will continue homeschooling for the foreseeable future. This option makes major alterations to the system to prioritize the health of the students.
Third, there’s unschooling. If ever there were a great example of Third Order Change, this is it. Haven’t heard of unschooling? It loosely falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, but it is truly innovative. Learning is completely student-led. Parents don’t teach unless their assistance is requested. Instead, they seek to create opportunity for their children to engage with their areas of interest. There is no curriculum. There is no hard and fast schedule. There is only the natural curiosity of the child being supported by an observant adult. Unschooling is democratic and deeply respectful of children. Personally, I would consider it the most anti-childist educational option for children.
Applying Order of Change Every Day
I offer this information about Order of Change neither to make you feel inadequate nor to overwhelm you, but to present a proposal for addressing challenging behaviors from your perfectly reasonable children. So often, our reactions to our children’s behavior fan the flame instead of creating space for connection.
Take, punishment, for example. Why do parents punish their kids? Because it works… in the short-term. It doesn’t change behavior. It stops unwanted behavior in the present, but does nothing to impact the moral development of the child. Punishment is an example of a First Order Change strategy. It uses the existing paradigm to make a small adjustment to bring the child back into alignment with comfortable expectations. The truth is that many children have grown into functional adults under this paradigm. The trouble is that we can’t know how much better a person’s quality of life might have been had they been given opportunity to learn, grow, and connect with their parents.
That’s why we, as Peaceful Parents, must recognize that we’re not simply working toward raising kind and respectful children. We’re also working toward giving our children the gift of positive self-image, the ability to work through times of struggle, and such intimate knowledge of themselves that they will recognize when they need extra help to sustain their mental health. Peaceful Parents tend toward Second and Third Order change when it comes to discipline for these reasons. We see that the existing system is childist and often cruel and we look for ways to humanize and elevate our kids. There is great value in First Order Change once we’ve built for ourselves an anti-oppressive system. Until then, it is up to us to question the whys and the hows of the way our culture approaches childlikeness.
Over the weekend, a sweet friend of mine posted a story about her young daughter who knew just what to do when she saw her mother in distress. My friend owns Hoopla! Letters, a custom calligraphy business. (She has designed artwork for me and it is amazing. Shameless plug because, seriously, check her out. She’s been featured nationally.)
Her post was right on time for me as I’ve been needing to be reminded how important emotion coaching really is. For those who don’t know, emotion coaching is a way to positively communicate with children that gives them the skills they need to practice self-regulation.
Dr. John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, has researched and practiced emotion coaching for decades, and he has boiled down his approach to five steps. I’m going to keep this blog post brief and let it stand as a reminder on how we can best help our children through their big emotions. I hope you will return to it, as I will, when you need a little boost.
Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions.
One of the most basic tenets of Peaceful Parenting is that we must be tuned into our kids. In our childist culture that minimizes children’s emotions as being nonsense, it is revolutionary for a parent to recognize that our children’s emotions are as important as ours. A child’s experience after losing a beloved toy can be akin to an adult’s experience after losing a cherished piece of inherited heirloom jewelry. The grief and frustration exist no matter how old a person is. When we understand that our children’s emotions are of great importance, we can begin to pay attention and sense how our children are doing at any point in time.
Step 2: Recognize emotion as an opportunity for connection or teaching.
If you’ve ever heard (or, like me, been told) “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” you’ll know how devastating it can be for a child to have their emotions brushed off like they’re worthless. As Peaceful Parents, we reject the idea that children’s emotions should be suppressed or ignored. We take it a step further and find ways to connect with our kids even in their most volatile emotional states. In many cases, what this looks like is being a non-judgmental presence for the child as they cycle through their feelings.
Step 3: Help your child verbally label emotions.
This step is tough for many adults to do even for ourselves. Often, we don’t know how we feel. We may be too overwhelmed or out of touch with ourselves. But, this practice is crucial to processing our experiences. Have you ever seen an emotion wheel? There are many versions of them and they all look a little something like this:
An emotion wheel can be a helpful tool in helping both children and adults identify what it is they’re feeling and back track to what generated the feeling. With my very young children, I generally stick with the basics. I might say, “You’re feeling angry that brother took your toy.” For older children, I would offer possible feeling labels in collaboration with the child.
Step 4: Communicate empathy and understanding.
This step does get easier with time, but I’m confident in saying that most of us were not raised to be comfortable with other people’s emotions and most of the time, we really don’t quite know what to say. If you find yourself in that situation with your child, try one of these:
“That’s really hard.”
“I understand why you’re [state feeling]”
“I would feel the same way.”
“I’m here as long as you need me.”
“I love you.”
Repeating back what your child has said can also be an effective way of demonstrating that you’re listening with the intent to understand.
Step 5: Set limits and problem solve.
Once the crisis has passed, it’s important to pause and address what caused the upset in the first place. In some cases, it is helpful and informative to set a reasonable limit. Remember, though, limits are not punishments. Responding punitively can easily undo the work you’ve put into connecting with your child.
Recently, my soon-to-be 5 year old, abandoned one toy in search of another. Since we practice turn-taking in our home, the toy was fair game and his little sister picked it up to play with it. When my son returned, he became enraged, even though he had long since moved on. I went through the process of pausing to co-regulate with him, empathizing with his feelings of anger and envy, and reminding him that it was his sister’s turn and he could play with the toy when she had finished. She overheard the entire conversation, and guess what? She brought the toy to him. In her precious toddler heart, she empathized with his feelings and realized he wanted the toy more than she did.
And, that brings me back full circle to my friend and her wonderful daughter who, through the experience of co-regulating with her mother time and again, recognized her mother’s distress and did exactly what had been modeled for her. That is the power of Peaceful Parenting. We model gentleness and prioritize our relationships with our kids. Then, our kids turn around and reflect it all back to us in the most beautiful ways.
As you might have surmised from my writings, I am absolutely fascinated by all aspects of Peaceful Parenting. I want to know the whys as much as I want to know the hows of it. So, when new information crosses my radar, I’m all over it. That’s what happened when I came across the term inductive discipline.
Back in 1967, two researchers, M.L. Hoffman and H.D. Saltzstein, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They had conducted a study in which they assessed 7th graders on their moral development and correlated that data with measures of parental discipline. Leading into the study, they noted an interest in capturing information about the impact of parental practices on the internalization of moral values and the capacity for guilt. Prior research had studied two styles of discipline in particular:
Power Assertive Discipline which is a “moral orientation based on the fear of external detection and punishment… associated with the relatively frequent use of discipline techniques involving physical punishment and material deprivation” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 45)
Love-Oriented Discipline which is a “moral orientation characterized by independence of external sanctions and high guilt… associated with relative frequent use of nonpower assertive discipline” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 45)
In the simplest terms, Power Assertive Discipline generally relies on force to control children, whereas Love-Oriented Discipline generally relies on neglect. In the 1967 study, however, the researchers introduced another wrinkle. They juxtaposed Power Assertive Discipline and Nonpower Assertive Discipline in order to investigate some discrepancies they had picked up in the research. To do that, they split Nonpower Assertive Discipline in two: love withdrawal and induction. Induction refers to “techniques in which the parent points out the painful consequences of the child’s act for the parent or for others” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 46). And, this is where it gets interesting. Check out what they discovered.
Power assertion was associated with weak moral development.
Love withdrawal was associated with negative moral development.
Induction was associated with advanced moral development.
The fundamental difference among these approaches is that:
…as much animal and human learning research has now shown, what is learned will depend on the stimuli to which the organism is compelled to attend. Disciplinary techniques explicitly or implicitly provide such a focus. Both love withdrawal and power assertion direct the child to the consequences of his behavior for the actor, that is, for the child himself, and to the external agent producing these consequences. Induction, on the other hand, is more apt to focus the child’s attention on the consequences of his actions for others, the parent, or some third party. This factor should be especially important in determining the content of the child’s standards. That is, if transgressions are followed by induction, the child will learn that the important part of transgressions consists of the harm done to others (Hoffman and Saltzstein 54).
2. The children of authoritative parents are less likely than the children of authoritarian parents to engage in drug and alcohol use, juvenile delinquency, or other antisocial behavior (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Querido et al 2002; Benchaya et al 2011; Luyckx et al 2011).
4. Parents who avoid reprimanding kids for intellectual mistakes (e.g., “I’m disappointed in you”) may have kids who are more resilient problem-solvers and better learners (Kamins and Dweck 1999; Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008).
5. Encouraging independence in kids is linked with more self-reliance, better problem solving, and improved emotional health (e.g., Turkel and Tezer 2008; Rothrauff et al 2009; Lamborn et al 1991; Pratt et al 1988; Kamins and Dweck 1999; Luyckx et al 2011).
6. An authoritative approach to discipline may help prevent aggression and reduce peer problems in preschoolers (e.g., Choe et al 2013; Yamagata 2013).
7. Kids with warm, responsive parents are more likely to be helpful, kind, and popular.
How Can We Use This Knowledge?
Let’s start by considering what “inductive” means. You may have heard the phrase inductive reasoning, which means making specific observations that lead to a general theory. For instance, a child might induce from burning their hand on a hot car hood that hot car hoods can be dangerous for people. Induction is an effective teaching method for children, because it gives them room to form hypotheses about their lives. By the same token, it can result in false assumptions, so we have to make sure we’re providing accurate, truthful information alongside our explanations of genuine, logical outcomes. So, what do we do in practice?
Manage Our Own Emotions: While it’s important to be honest with our children, too much honesty about our feelings while emotions are intense can become oppressive. Did your child hurt you deeply? Make you feel you couldn’t trust them? Embarass you? These are big adult feelings and you’re feeling them with your adult heart and mind. It will not serve your child to express your personal disappointment in them, as doing so places the focus on the child and not on the child’s impact. When the crisis has passed, it’s ok to use “I” statements to reflect on the impact your child’s actions had on you. For instance, “I felt hurt when you told me you hated me. I know that you said it in anger. I’ve said hurtful things too when I was angry. Can we talk about what happened so we understand each other better?”
Start with the Three Rs: Regulate (or Co-Regulate), Relate, and Reason. Walking with your child through these steps is the most effective way to diffuse a highly emotional situation and arrive at a place of mutual connection. Check out my post Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child for an explanation of how the Three Rs work. In short, we must first help our child come to a place of peace and balance. Then, we should empathize with our child in their distress, even when we’re feeling frustrated with their behavior. Then, and only then, can we work through the situation logically and coach our child toward a better response in the future.
Focus on Impact Without Shaming: I hope it goes without saying that angrily berating a child with “LOOK WHAT YOU DID!” is counterproductive even though it focuses on impact. When we express ourselves in this manner, we risk engendering “intense feelings of anxiety over loss of love which may disrupt the child’s response especially to the cognitive elements of the technique” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 55). Instead, it’s important to start from a place of empathy and gentleness. Name what the other person is feeling. Ask the key question, “What did you hope would happen?” and give your child the opportunity to process what led up to the challenging incident.
My son tends to lash out physically when he’s upset, and the source of his upset is all too often his little sister. She adores him to the point of annoying him. He tries different ways to get her to leave him alone until he suddenly hits or pushes her. Whenever this happens, I help my daughter first, giving her hugs and letting her know I’m there for her. Then, I turn my attention to my son. We run through the Three Rs and, once he is calm and listening, I explain that his sister got hurt when he hit/pushed her. I tell him she is sad and remind him that he loves his sister. And, I usually tell him that he can always tell me when he’s feeling upset with her, and I will help him. Often, that’s all it takes for him to walk over and offer a hug. It’s so beautifully simple when children are very young, isn’t it? These experiences are practice for adulthood when my children will be well acquainted with empathy and will know how to handle even the toughest situations.
Here’s the thing. Children learn by watching and doing. They never need to be punished in order to learn right from wrong. When we teach them what is expected of them and demonstrate the impacts of their actions, they learn. They get it. They develop a moral compass. And, then they are internally driven to do what is right, whether or not they anticipate a parent finding out what they’ve done. The science is clear on this: empathy mediates moral internalization. All we need to do is lead by example.
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 happened to my son before we had his tongue tie revised. 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. Recently, my son was pushing my daughter down over and over while I was out of the room. I could hear it, but I didn’t know what was happening. So, I walked in to observe and I saw that she kept standing too close to him as he was building a train out of blocks. He would ignore it for a while and then push her down. Then, she’d cry and he would destroy his train in response to the sound of her wails. The solution was simple. Help the kids regulate and then invite my daughter to help me 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!
As parents, we will harm our children in some way. It’s the nature of genuine relationships to expand and contract in closeness, to struggle in balancing boundaries, and to waver between selfishness and selflessness. Committing to do the least harm requires that we spend much time considering the impacts of our actions, which is what makes peaceful parenting so challenging for many of us. Reacting is easy. Thoughtfully responding to our children gets exhausting fast, even for those of us who have been doing it for a long while.
This past week, a reply to one of my Facebook posts got me thinking about my own inclination toward defensiveness around my parenting choices. I had posted a meme that compared two ways to speak gently with a child who doesn’t want to take a nap. A reader remarked that a third potential solution was to allow children to choose for themselves when they want to sleep. Gasp! I was poised to explain why their solution couldn’t work for me rather than admitting their suggestion was the gentler, more respectful approach. My childist reaction was to defend my situation whereas the anti-childist response was to simply sit with the suggestion, however uncomfortable it was.
You see, I’ve battled lifelong insomnia. Aside from medication, nothing helps. It is just one of the many symptoms of autism that I experience. My daughter appears to have the same issue with insomnia, which may or may not be a prelude to a future autism diagnosis. She can stay up for an impossible amount of time considering she’s only two. When she decides to sleep, she crashes and you can’t wake her up until she’s ready. Even then, she doesn’t sleep for long. And, we can’t leave her alone when she’s awake or she will tear the house apart. I mean, she will literally peel the paint from the walls. So someone has to stay up with her. And, that someone is always me. So my best solution has been to try to keep her on the same schedule as my son. To do that, though, I have to lie down with her every time she goes to sleep. Sometimes, she plays as we cuddle. Sometimes, she thrashes angrily because she’s so overtired. And, sometimes, I can’t get her to sleep no matter what I do and I have to get up with her to play for a while.
As she gets older, I can teach her some of the skills I’ve learned in my four decades on this planet. The reality is that she needs sleep, but she struggles to get an adequate amount. My solution to impose a schedule is not the ideal option for me as a peaceful parent. My preference will always be to give my children autonomy over their lives.
And, that’s what this reader was offering… an opportunity to make a better choice. I often hear people say things like, “every child is different,” implying that parents should have free license to use whatever approaches we deem necessary. I disagree. While every child is different, children have a right to be free from coercion, punishment, and violence. It is never okay to yell at or hit a child. And it’s not okay to pressure children to bend to the will of an adult. I can’t excuse the childism that influences the way I interact with my kids and neither should you. Our goal must be to reject childism and to choose to be anti-childist.
Ultimately, my anti-childist decision was to like react this reader’s nap alternative and withhold my defensive reaction. Other readers needed to know the clearly anti-childist solution and I needed the reminder. It’s not really about naptime at all. It’s about investigating and diminishing the adult-centric way we address the challenges our children experience.
When we are deciding how we will approach these challenges, there are some questions we need to ask ourselves and wrestle with:
What does my child need?
What do I need?
How can I address both our needs while respecting my child’s autonomy?
Are there alternatives I haven’t tried because they’re inconvenient?
How is childism affecting the decision I’m about to make?
How might this decision harm my child?
How might this decision harm our relationship?
As we seek to do the least harm, we will be challenged by people who have better solutions than the ones we’ve been using. Instead of explaining why we can’t choose the anti-childist option, let’s look for ways to incorporate those better solutions into our approaches. In doing so, our anti-childist orientation will grow and mature with the help of our partners, our children, and our peaceful parenting community.
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 (currently 4 and 2) 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, “Brother, 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 son 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 son will negotiate for a toy! He’ll bring my daughter a toy he knows she loves in exchange for a turn with the toy she’s playing with. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, by and large, my kids 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!
So, you’re on-board with Peaceful Parenting. You try to co-regulate with your kids, empathize, and collaborate with them toward solutions that are mutually beneficial. You’ve been cognizant of your attitude and you’ve been working toward remaining calm most of the time. But, then something happens and you snap. You yell or you spank or you threaten or otherwise forcibly control your child, even though this isn’t who you want to be.
I hope you’re not looking at me thinking that I’ve got it together. That I must never yell or spank or act out in a non-peaceful way. Nope. I’m working toward being a Peaceful Parent just like you are and stumbling all over myself along the way. Let me tell you a story.
This past week, circumstances got the better of me. I thought myself such an accomplished parent one day when I whipped out drawing pads and Crayons for the kids and got to work cleaning up. I even left the kids alone at the kitchen table for a while to draw while I cleaned other areas of the house. Soon enough, I heard Crayons hitting the floor. I returned to the dining room to see my son snapping Crayons in half and shoving them into his mouth to chew and spit on the floor. The anger welled in my chest. I kept it together and asked him to go ahead and sit down so he could keep drawing while I cleaned up the chewed pieces of waxy mess. Instead, he went tearing around the house, a bouquet of Crayons in his hand poised to be cleaved in twain. It was too much and… I started hollering. “SIT DOWN.” “DON’T BREAK ANYMORE CRAYONS!” “LET ME WORK.” “STAHHHHHP!” My reaction only served to fuel the flames and the situation quickly escalated.
I angrily swept and tossed the Crayons (which could have been used again even in their broken state), I ignored my son as he continued to dysregulate, and then, in a moment of fury, I started toward him to snatch away a toy he had in his hand so I could throw it away in front of him in a cruel and punitive move. But, before I got to him, I stopped. I stopped dead in my tracks as my own words echoed back at me. Would you devastate your child for a $1.50 box of crayons? Would you provoke tears for pocket change? And, there it is. Right there. The first step toward ending our reign of punishment. It’s a decision in the heat of the moment. A choice we’ve already committed to.
Punishment Rejection Action Steps
1. Start With a Choice. You have to decide before you ever get angry what your limits are. Yelling is my vice. It’s deeply ingrained from my childhood and it is the language of my hot temper. But, yelling is a punitive act. We use our adult voices to suppress and control our children, leaving them with unseen scars. It may not be as clearly punitive as time out or spanking, but it is undesirable as a tool in our Peaceful Parenting kit. What’s your go to? What punishment do you turn to when you feel you can’t bear anymore? Make a commitment right now to stop. Draw the line in your mind and say, “I will not fall back on this action.” Even if you do it again, reinforce your belief that your actions are unacceptable and then try again the next time.
2. Engage in Prevention. As you may know if you’ve been following my posts, I am a big advocate of the Three Rs: Regulate, Relate, Reason. When my children begin to dysregulate, I intervene then. I try not to wait for the situation to escalate. Most of the time, prevention also helps me avoid dysregulating myself. It gives me a chance to get a grip on my emotions and fully invest in the moment when my kids need me most.
3. Have a Game Plan. Decide, in advance, what it is you’re going to do when you’ve gotten to a point where you’re about to blow your top. The Learning Parent SG put together a fantastic series on what she does as she nears her breaking point. She calls her approach, “Reactive Distancing.”
During a calm moment, take some time to put your game plan together. Decide what it is you can commit to doing when your thinking mind begins to struggle.
4. Think Like a Child. Ever notice how small children go from huge emotions to giggling in no time flat? They aren’t weighed down by the self-judgment and mental turmoil that adults experience. A dear friend of mine told me she takes a cue from Daniel Tiger. When she starts to feel dysregulated, she says, “If you feel so mad that you have to roar take a deep breath and count to 4.” As she counts, her jaw and fists start to relax, and she finds she’s more able to breathe. Then, she makes an effort to speak to her children in a neutral way in an effort to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes neutral is the best she can do and sometimes she’s able to nurture. Either way, she and her children both benefit from her efforts. She shared that she’s learned how valuable things like hugs, cuddles, and tickles can be as she works toward co-regulating with her kids. Play is always called for when tensions are high.
6. Never Stop Trying. Every time you choose to be gentle with your children, you are reinforcing to your own psyche that what you’re doing is good and it’s achievable. Even when you mess up, and oh will you mess up, brush yourself off and make a better choice at the next opportunity. Parenting is about relationship. When we push our kids away with our attitudes, we have to focus on reconciling and confirming to them that the issue is us not them. In the backs of our minds, we have to give ourselves grace enough to say, “I will do better next time” and really mean it.
After the blowup with my son, I sat down with him and apologized. I told him that I was having a hard day and I had no right to yell at him. I told him that I loved him and gave him all the cuddles he was craving. As I was holding him, his little body released its tension and he drifted off to sleep. Turns out, that energy burst he’d had was his last ditch effort at alerting me that he was exhausted. I misread it and got angry when the answer was staring me right in the face. I will not absolve myself of the harm I caused him that day, but I will say that I make good choices more often than not and I am actively working on my temper. I yell less than I did a year ago and still less than I did a year before that. Things are improving over time and, before too long, I will consistently react neutrally when members of my family touch a raw nerve. That’s my commitment to them and to myself. What are you willing to commit to today?
Trivia: Where does the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” come from? If you said the Bible, you’d be dead wrong. In fact, when you learn where it’s actually from, you’ll probably not want to use that phrase anymore.
“Spare the rod” is a line from a 17th century poem called Hudibras by Samuel Butler that mocks Judao-Christian values. (Check out Part 2, Canto 1, line 844.) In this erotic poem, a man is trying to woo a woman who encourages him to submit to aphrodisiac flagellation. The “rod” serves a double purpose, both referring to the whipping and to his penis.
Jokes aside, I figure that’s not what most people intend when they use this humorous phrase. They’re probably referring to Proverbs 13:24 which reads, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (NRSV) There has been much pushback from scholars who have conducted word studies on this passage. In short, reading this verse in its original language clearly indicates that the “rod” is a source of guidance and protection rather than punishment. Dr. Stacey Patton provided a fantastic overview via Facebook in 2016 and others have done similar work. This wonderful sermonette describes the purpose of the “rod” for a shepherd.
I won’t belabor this perspective, as it has been well covered elsewhere. The purpose of my piece is to talk about why Proverbs exists in the first place, with all of its apparent contradictions. For instance, in one place, we see what looks like an admonition to beat children with the rod of correction, while another verse declares that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NRSV). So, which is it? I’m glad you asked!
The book of Proverbs is the second book written by King Solomon, which is chock full of practical advice. Each piece of wisdom is intended to be thoughtfully considered and wrestled with. It is not enough to accept the surface meaning. Insightfully, Torah.org explains of Proverbs, “Much can be learned about the human mind by thinking about why two particular ideas were placed next to each other; why this verse would have been just like the last one… except for that small, almost insignificant difference and what the words actually mean. One can learn how to decide logically between two choices, how to make use of experience to avoid repeating mistakes and from what to stay away while chasing after a goal.”
The underlying mission of Proverbs is to communicate the wisdom of King Solomon, who is referred to as the wisest man to ever live and who still inexplicably fell victim to foolishness. Proverbs illustrates how futile it is to try to put God into a box or to claim wisdom unparalleled for ourselves as though we are not prone to the same faults that plagued King Solomon. Verses in Proverbs are juxtaposed in order to draw out the essence of truth, not just the literal meaning of the words. And, King Solomon utilized the same exaggeration and figurative language in Proverbs that we see throughout the Bible. These rhetorical devices serve the purpose of highlighting degree of importance, and it takes careful consideration to discern just how literal of a read we should be applying to any given verse.
It’s especially important to understand that truth and accuracy were not synonymous at the time Proverbs was written the way they are today. Take the example of the two competing creation stories in Genesis, both of which were intentionally placed together and both of which serve humanity’s understanding of the “why” behind our creation. Critics of Judao-Christian faith point to seeming contradictions throughout the Bible as evidence that the Bible is unreliable, not understanding the spiritual value imbued in these differences. Modern Christians must become comfortable with biblical truth not necessarily coinciding with a literal reading. If we fail to do this, we miss important contextual cues that the Hebrews would have instinctively understood through cultural conditioning.
If we’re going to take Proverbs seriously, we have to do so on the terms of its originating culture, which means we must consider what the Rabbis said. And, we know what the Rabbis said because we have a book of oral tradition: The Talmud. The Talmud is a compilation of rabbinic discussion on the Torah, and it is composed of two parts. First, there is the Mishnah, which is a compendium of oral law. Second, there is the Gemara, which comes in the two versions (Babylonian and Jerusalem), and is a record of rabbinic discussions around topics in the Mishnah. The Mishnah was standardized over the course of many centuries.
…are people taking this verse too literally? How do the classical commentators explain it? Disappointingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, most of the commentators understand that it isn’t a metaphor, it literally refers to disciplining one’s child. But that still doesn’t mean that one should strike one’s child with a stick. In fact, it very much doesn’t.
You see, the Torah was written to be understood by the audience that received it. It speaks about loading donkeys, oxen treading grain, and women delivering babies on birthing stools – things to which most of us cannot relate. It doesn’t talk about DNA or black holes or flatscreen TVs because these are concepts that would have been incomprehensible to the original recipients. Similarly, if King Solomon (the author of Proverbs) wanted to discuss disciplining children, he was going to use corporal punishment as his illustration because time-outs didn’t exist, and I suspected that neither did grounding or docking allowances.
This is not just wishful thinking on my part; let’s examine the sources.
First of all, striking another person is seriously frowned upon in Judaism. Deuteronomy 25:3 tells us that someone sentenced to the penalty of lashes may not be struck more than the designated amount (a maximum of forty lashes). First the Torah tells us that “the wicked one deserves lashes” (25:2), but then we are told that we may not exceed the court-imposed amount because if we do, “your brother will be degraded.” The Sifre, quoted by Rashi on 25:3, demonstrates that before the punishment is administered, the offender is considered “wicked.” After he has paid his penalty, he is once again called “your brother” and it is forbidden to strike him. If we’re not allowed to strike a convicted criminal more than absolutely necessary, it should go without saying that we may not strike someone who was not so sentenced by the courts – not even if their behavior bothers us!
Striking someone outside of the context of court-ordered whiplashes is actually considered evil. In Exodus 2:13, Moshe asks “the wicked one,” “Why will you strike your friend?’” The Talmud in Sanhedrin (58b) points out that the person is called wicked just for raising his hand, even though he has not yet delivered a blow.
The Talmud in Moed Katan (17a) prohibits a parent spanking an older child, based on the principle that we may not do something that will cause others to sin (lifnei iver). The child might respond by cursing the parent or striking back – both serious sins – and the parent would be responsible for provoking that reaction. The Ritva (13th century) says that “older child” isn’t exhaustive. For sure one may not strike a child above the age of bar or bas mitzvah but, additionally, one may not even strike a younger child who is likely to retaliate in words or deeds. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (20th century) suggested that the cut-off for spanking would be age three.
Rav Wolbe’s position is not a mere concession to modern parenting. Peleh Yoetz (1824) says that even in the case of a young child, if the parents know that his nature is not to accept authority, they should discipline him using calm, soft tones.
True, the Rambam writes that a teacher may strike a student (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:2) but that very same halacha specifies that he may not use a whip or a rod, but only a “small strap.” (So much for “rod” literalists!) And how big is a “small strap?” The Talmud in Baba Basra (21a) says no larger than a shoelace.
He goes on to explain that the Talmud dictates the strict use of the “gentlest form of effective discipline” and points out that there is no Torah obligation to use corporal punishment on children. None at all. The Torah simply does not condone spanking as punishment for children. King Solomon knew that.
A weak argument can certainly be made that Bible allows for the corporal punishment of children (largely by omission of the topic in the Law), but it is a gross misinterpretation to claim that the Bible prescribes it. What Proverbs demands is that parents coach and correct their kids, so that the children are brought up with values that orient them toward God. Now that we have substantial evidence that spanking is extremely harmful, Christians should honor the book of Proverbs and exercise the wisdom that King Solomon called us to. If you are still unconvinced, consider carefully Christ’s warning about leading a child to harm.
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!(Matthew 18:6-7 NRSV)
Woe to the adult whose treatment of a child leads that child to hate their parents, their life, or their God!
But, there’s good news. We can bypass the pitfalls inherent in controlling children through violence by rejecting our modern culture’s fixation on punishment and working instead toward fostering the “pleasant words” that are “like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24 NRSV). After all, Proverbs 22:6 reminds us that what we teach our children about godliness is what guides them for life… not how effectively we hit them.
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. My son is in school and his teachers never miss an opportunity to tell me how sweet he is. They aren’t the so-called “brats” (for the record, calling kids names is horrible) a lot of people seem to expect them to be.
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.
My son, for instance, is pretty chill at the most basic level. He mostly works with Peaceful Dad and me and follows directions well, but he needs our patience because he works in his own time. My daughter, on the other hand, is a spitfire. She’s demand avoidant to an extent and will fall to the floor in a heap at the slightest resistance on my part. Respecting my children means I plan in lots of thinking time for my son and I try not to rush him. And, for my daughter, I stay in her space without judgment as she frets. Then, when she’s ready to do something else, we work together.
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.
My son was diagnosed with ASD, Level 2 (since autism is diagnosed by how burdensome we are to allistic people, which is unfortunate) which means the expectation is that he will have far more additional needs as he grows up than an allistic child might. Considering the dire prognoses presented in medical literature, one might expect my son to barely function in the broader culture. In fact, many people do. But, let me tell you a story.
Recently, I took both of my kids to the gym for the first time ever. My gym has free childcare which makes my life so much simpler. So, here you have a young, Autistic boy who has never set foot in this new place and finds himself face to face with brand new sounds and smells that he’s never experienced. He’s led into a small room with an abundance of toys, all bright and mishmashed, and he sees two complete strangers sitting there smiling at him. What does the boy do?
Well, he finds a stand-up racing track and begins racing little cars. He listens attentively to the caregivers, and he has a relaxed smile on his face when it’s time to go home. No meltdowns. No shutdowns. No stimming. No fear. And, the reason? He’s been the recipient of Peaceful Parenting from the day he was born. Peaceful Dad and I are firmly connected with him, so he feels safe. We do not punish or reward him, so he doesn’t feel coerced. We are honest with him and prepare him for new experiences, so he doesn’t feel caught off-guard. We treat him like any other deeply loved person and include him in all our activities, so he has plenty of other experiences to draw from when encountering something new. And he knows that, if it’s ever too much for him, we will respect his needs and find the exit as quickly as we can.
On the way to the gym, I explained in great detail what he could expect. His communication is primarily gestural and minimally verbal, so it’s not as though he could tell me in words that he understood. However, his reaction to the new experience said it all.
No Autistic child is the same and your child may not be able to handle a new experience at a gym like what I’ve described. That’s totally normal and ok. 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. I have learned from you and I’ve been able to offer my son a better life because of you. Thank you!
It’s surprising to me, sometimes, which of my posts take off. It’s never the ones I expect. Last week, I wrote about manners being classist. I knew that my post might ruffle feathers because I was suggesting that children are deserving of respect whether or not they have good manners. I did not anticipate the amount of blowback I received at the very concept that manners are classist. I even read multiple comments where people suggested I was being classist myself because I was insinuating that “poor people” couldn’t teach their children good manners. Oh my! I would never.
To be clear, I condemn the origins of manners and the people who use them to disenfranchise others… not parents trying to prepare their children to live in a brutal culture where even good manners do not ensure inclusion, preservation, or prosperity.
Manners are the behaviors we engage in when we understand the etiquette expected of us. And, etiquette is the social code we’re expected to adopt based on our cultural values. The word “etiquette” comes to us from French and it referred to a physical “ticket” that was provided to visitors of the royal court giving them a list of rules and regulations for appropriate behavior. Apparently, Louis XIV became angry when visitors trampled through his gardens. He posted signs (etiquets) warning people off the flora, but they didn’t pay any mind. Eventually, the King issued a royal decree that no one would be allowed to step on his grass. In time, the etiquets became handheld documents indicating what was allowed and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, if you weren’t in the in-crowd, you wouldn’t gain access to the etiquets. In that way, etiquets served as a barrier to isolate “cultured” people from “uncultured” ones.
Manners were prescribed by the ruling class for everyone else. While that hierarchy has changed with time, the manners we observe today remain classist by their origin. They are inherently othering. We talk about manners in moralistic terms of “good” and “bad.” Do we really believe there is no transference of moral discrimination to the person whose manners don’t live up to our expectations?
Some of the basic issues I have with manners include:
In the human brain, politeness is linked with the system governing aggression, whereas compassion is linked with the system involved in empathetic responses. Put plainly, politeness is a muzzle whereas compassion is a loving response to others.
Etiquette is big business. Finishing schools exist to provide people (primarily women, go figure) with comprehensive protocols on how to comport themselves. The existence of this industry further enforces behavioral expectations across all classes.
Social expectations aren’t consistent even across various geographies in the same country, much less internationally. And, the United States is an international country. Manners are cultural, not universal, so the acceptance of difference is a moral obligation.
“Good” manners do not preserve people of color from racism. Only empathy and understanding from those with the power to effect genuine change (read: white people) can do that. Not too long ago, white people (i.e. “ma’am” and “sir”) regularly warped the language of manners to undermine the dignity of Black people (i.e. “girl” and “boy”) and manners continue to be used in the same way today where whiteness is threatened. Further, calls for Black people to be “compliant” in the face of police brutality and to be more polite when speaking about upsetting topics are fundamentally racist.
“Good” manners may not be accessible to disabled people, like those who can’t tolerate eye contact and, as a result, may be viewed as deceptive or worse. And, the inability to tolerate touch make handshakes pretty tough. There are many social expectations that are unkind to neurodivergent people.
Manners derive from antiquated and oppressive ideals. For example, some theorize that the over-attention to manners in the South has resulted from a culture of “honor.” You know, like defending a woman’s honor so her father can still marry her off to the most profitable suitor?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t teach your children about manners. Yes, teach them manners. Give them a leg up in society to the best of your ability. Let them know how their behavior is perceived. But, at the same time, teach them that it is a privilege to have access to information about how to move effectively through social spaces and to be able to effectively perform “cultured” behavior. Teach them not to make assumptions based on a person’s behavior and, instead, tap into empathy and grace in getting to know others. And, model understanding and consideration for others.
That manners are classist, racist, and ableist (and defensibly sexist too) means our children need to know and understand them to be changemakers. Please and Thank You are nice, but revolutionary empathy is so much more important. Besides, respect and politeness are natural byproducts of viewing all people as worthy equals, even if you aren’t up on your Ps & Qs.