Earlier this week, I saw a reply on a Facebook post about urgency vs control, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I’m reminded of all the “what ifs” I see from parents starting to question the way they’ve disciplined their children. They’ll say, “What if we absolutely have to get to the doctor’s office and my kids won’t cooperate? What’s the gentle approach to that situation?” Or “What if my child is about to pour their drink out and I need to take it from them? How can I do that gently?”
So, first, let’s look at the difference in definitions between urgency and control.
Urgency: a force or impulse that impels or constrains.
What do you notice about these words? The first thing I notice is that both words involve some force. In the case of urgency, that force impels or constrains. In the case of control, that force claims power over someone or something. I think this distinction is important for parents to consider, because my next question is this:
When you are feeling pressed to take action with your children, is it because you are being impelled or constrained bya force outside of yourself?
Think about the last time you used your adult power and parenting authority to require your kids to comply. Was that something completely unavoidable or did you have control over the situation? When we’re stressed out trying to get our kids to the car for a doctor’s appointment (especially one that we’ll be required to pay a fee for missing), what is the cause of our stress? Is it the money we’re going to have to pay? Or is it a lack of planning that evolved into a situation where we’d manufactured urgency where it never needed to exist?
While I’m asking you these questions, I’m asking myself too because, honestly, I can’t recall a time recently when external forces were pushing me to take immediate action. Every time I’ve exerted control over my kids, it’s been by my own choice or by urgency I created for myself by my own inaction. All those times I hollered, “Hurry up, please! Let’s get to the car quickly! We’re late!” it was all me. It wasn’t the kids.
In fact, when I do leave plenty of time, I find that the process of getting to the car is really easy. There’s some playfulness along the way, but a good time buffer leaves room for play. If my goal is to preserve my children’s autonomy (and it is), then who am I to tell them how they will move their bodies from the house to the car? As long as they aren’t harming themselves, whatever their bodies need to do in that moment should be ok.
How about instances that don’t involve a force outside of yourself by impelling you to action? What happens when it’s your child crossing a limit you have established? Earlier, I used the example of a child about to pour their drink out. Is this an urgent situation? Is there value in letting children be messy? Whenever my children are about to make a mess, I think of all the things that could go wrong. The wood floor could warp. Their clothes could stain. Their hands could get sticky and then they could transfer that stickiness to other parts of the house. It’s more for me to clean up. It’s going to take up time that I don’t have. All of these things are valid concerns. What’s the solution? I could snatch the cup. In fact, I find that this is my default. Control the environment. Remove the offending object. But, is there another way to control the environment?
What about handing the child a giant metal mixing bowl to pour the drink into and listen to the sound as it fills? In my house, I already have a large waterproof cover that permanently sits on the table just for this sort of messy play. However, it’s not my first instinct to find ways for my kids to maintain their autonomy. I have to remember to try. My instinct is to stop problems from happening, and that comes from a control mindset. I’m just not so sure anymore that a child pouring out their drink is an urgent situation as much as it’s a problem-solving situation.
Are you yielding to urgency when you push your children? Or, are you taking undue control over them (like me a lot of the time)? I’m going to keep thinking on it and I hope you will too.
I write about peaceful parenting, but I’m far from an expert at it. I’m learning every day just like you. I enjoy teasing out new knowledge from things I’ve already learned. It recently dawned on me that two words I’ve been using interchangeably, boundaries and limits, actual have separate meanings. Digging into the difference has helped me better acknowledge my own needs.
Diffsense.com explains that boundaries are a “dividing line or location between two areas” whereas limits are “a restriction.” In terms of relationships, boundaries are the points of resistance between two people as beautifully embodied in this quote by Prentis Hemphill:
Without boundaries, we risk trampling each other’s needs. I struggle a great deal with people touching my face. The sensory experience feels smothering, so my loved ones know to avoid my face. However, my children do not understand how uncomfortable the experience is for me and they regularly breach this boundary. As a result, I find myself struggling to maintain my calm which makes me less effective as a peaceful parent and in need of greater amounts of self-care. Children simply don’t get it. That’s why it’s so important for us to recognize and honor their boundaries. There will come a time when my kids will finally understand why this particular boundary matters so much to me. And, when they figure it out, they’ll know what to do because of how I’ve treated them throughout their lives. I don’t hug them without consent, force them to eat, demand that they treat me as an unimpeachable authority, or hurt them to prove a point. These are boundaries that allow my children to trust and respect me.
Limits, on the other hand, are the lines within which children can safely move. The space between me, as their mother, and the limit out ahead of us is their “yes space.” Limits change as children grow in maturity and capacity. They are the clearly marked guides to ensure my children’s health and safety. Yes, they may play in the yard. No, they may not run into the street in front of a car. As a peaceful parent, I do my best to find ways to say yes instead of no and to minimize both demands and limits. My goal is to give my children as much access to the world as they can enjoy safely, while leaving plenty of room for risky play which children inherently need. One of the most crucial reasons I don’t fall back onto punishment is because there are so few instances where punishment would be necessary. My kids don’t cross lines because there aren’t many lines to cross.
We need as many boundaries as necessary to feel safe in our relationships. And, as few limits as necessary to keep our children healthy and safe. Once I realized that, it changed my perspective on how to relate to my children, my husband, and everyone else in my life.
A few days ago, I settled in to hear the entire hour-and-a-half long talk on How to set limits with your kids… DON’T! from Gentle Parents Unite podcast. In this talk, Sujai and Vivek discuss why arbitrary limit setting can be a form of coercion and control. If you’d like to give the talk a listen, I highly recommend it:
Levels of Limits
I am a strong proponent of the use of limits instead of punishments or consequences (which are just punishments given with a smile). However, something I haven’t discussed at any length is my strategy around limits. I restrict my own employment of limits to instances I judge to be imminently dangerous or destructive. For instance, I won’t let my young kids run into the street alone or dunk their hands into boiling water. Sure, a natural consequence might deliver a more memorable message, like getting hit by a car or hospitalized with third degree burns, but you can surely see why that’s not an option for me. My limits in these cases protect my children from endangering their lives and health. They are rather hard and fast.
Some of my softer limits involve harming belongings, people, and animals. These are more difficult to navigate as there is great benefit to children learning about the world on their own. If a child is smashing their toy into pavement, I will mention that smashing the toy will break it and generally give the child space to make a decision. On the other hand, if the child is using a toy car to try and break a glass window pane in my living room, that is an instance where I may remove the toy and say, “I can’t let this toy break through the glass.” And, I won’t allow children to beat each other up in my presence, but I might hold back if I see a child smack another and the harmed child standing up for themselves. If appropriate, I will intervene and work on some sportscasting to help the children broaden their understanding of the situation. If a child is poking at a cat, I will tell the child that I can tell the cat is unhappy because of its pinned ears and that cat might scratch.
My goal in any instance with my children is to give them as much autonomy as I possibly can while recognizing that they might not understand the potential outcomes of their actions. In some cases, I intervene, as much as I’d rather let them work things out on their own. In other cases, I don’t employ limits at all. For instance, I never force toothbrushing. I start introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste at the first tooth eruption, so that it becomes part of the standard daily routing. Then, if the child resists my efforts at cleaning their teeth, my first step is to hand the toothbrush over and back off. What I’ve found is that, invariably, curiosity and independence kick in, and the child starts to brush their own teeth. And, then when I offer to get the teeth in the back of the mouth, my offer is usually met with willingness, because at that point, I am working with the child on the child’s terms. I don’t use force unless I feel strongly that I absolutely must. And, that’s rare in my house.
Destructive vs Deconstructive
One area I know a lot of parents struggle with is the messiness and chaos of childhood. Kids wreck stuff in one way or another and it’s crucial that they do. It’s one of the most basic ways they have to interact with the world and learn how things work. Sometimes it’s accidental and sometimes it’s on purpose. Either way, it’s ok. Our response depends on the motivation.
Destructive and deconstructive actions have a similar result, but a very different purpose. Children who destroy are often calling out for help. I have found that many times children will smash things that are important to them and then burst into tears at the results of their actions. These instances usually indicate a child who is in a state of distress and dysregulation. And, our response must be compassion and understanding with a goal of connecting with and building up the hurt child.
Deconstruction is educational. Deconstructive activities usually occur when a child is happy or curious. A child dropping an egg on the ground is learning about gravity, shell strength, and splatter. Plus, it’s just fun to deconstruct. Adults do it by smashing sandcastles at the end of the day and turning over dominoes. There’s just something pleasurable in wrecking things in this way. Giving children ample opportunities to deconstruct and be messy is a fantastic way to foster sensory integration! So, do it often.
A big part of what we do as peaceful parents is investigating our own perspectives and responses. Limits are ok when used judiciously and are certainly preferable to punishment. So, first things first, think about your non-negotiables. What is it you feel you absolutely cannot allow your child to do. Write down a list of these non-negotiables.
Second, pause at each item you wrote down and consider carefully if you’ve included it because of imminent threat to your child or because of your own feelings and conditioning around it. Ask yourself what harm it would really do to strike that limit from your list.
Third, take your pared down list and discuss them with your children, regardless of whether you believe your children can reason through them. If your kids are able to discuss the limits with you, have a conversation. They might bring up something you hadn’t considered. Talk with them about how you can best support them in respecting the limits and be prepared to negotiate if they feel the limits are too restrictive.
Fourth, shift your mindset to figuring out how you can say “yes” to your children more often. You and your children can eliminate the perceived need for many limits by finding ways to balance freedom and respect for each other. Practice telling your kids, “I want to help make this happen for you. Let’s think about the possibilities.”
So, does all of this mean we should never say no to a child? Nope. It means we should be cognizant of why we’re compelled to say no. Is there an immediate danger? If not, can we accommodate our child? If not, how can we come to a mutual agreement that respects both parent and child?
If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: limit less, trust more, and be curious about what your child is doing rather than shutting them down.
Several months ago, I wrote a piece called In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time. The resounding critique I received was that it is too dangerous in this day and age to allow kids unsupervised access to the internet. And, y’all, I could not agree more.
Plus, one in five kids has been sexually solicited online. The stakes are high and we have every reason to be extremely concerned. To be clear, I vehemently reject any notion that a child can be safe online without any adult supervision. Adult predators are targeting our kids. Therefore, our children are unsafe. Period. So, what do we do?
My children are still very young, but I am implementing some solutions already. I am also learning from other parents and adjusting my approach as a result. Thus far, these are my mandatory basics:
Be Honest About the Dangers
I have no intention of terrifying my children, but I will absolutely let them know the possible outcomes of risky activity. I know from having been a child myself that I didn’t really “get it” when adults issued warnings. It was only when I had my own experiences that I understood. I recognize that this is likely the case for my own children, so my responsibility is to prepare and protect them in the meantime.
Be Aware of What Your Child is Doing
It’s so much easier to let a child fall into the online world so we can get our own tasks done, right? But it’s a big gamble. We need to pay attention. We need to know who our kids are talking to, what information they’re receiving, what information they’re giving out and so forth. I’m not certain where I stand yet on technology that allows parents to spy on their children directly. That makes me uncomfortable as an anti-childist parent but I will confess that, if it’s a choice between my kids leading a predator to our home versus peeking in on their online activity… I get why there’s a market for that sort of tech.
Consider Parental Controls
One of the easiest ways to restrict content is to go through your home’s wifi settings and this article explains how to do just that. Beyond that, all modern handheld technology offers the ability to manage parental settings either as a built in app or a downloadable one. When seeking out a downloadable app, check to see how well it filters web content, whether it has location tracking, and if it works across multiple operating systems.
That said, parental controls aren’t guaranteed and they aren’t foolproof. Coaching kids in internet safety is far more effective and reliable.
Practice Safety Measures
It’s one thing to tell a child what to do, but showing a child what to do on their preferred device will lead to better understanding and use. One simple exercise we can do with our kids is website vetting. Go to a website and point out all the reasons the website looks legitimate or all the reasons it doesn’t. This exercise teaches kids how to locate reputable information while protecting themselves from danger. And, be sure to let your kids know what to do if they run across something troubling.
Teach Kids About Consent and Boundaries
This one could easily fit under the previous heading, but it’s too important not to mention separately. One of the best ways to protect children from predators is to teach them about consent and boundaries from a very young age. They need to know that they can say no to and even hurt an adult who does something to their bodies that is scary or painful. Years ago, a sex educator went viral for saying that adults should get consent from babies before changing their diapers. She was laughed into oblivion, but she had a point. We should always be talking through what we’re doing to our children’s bodies and giving them an opportunity to decline.
Maintain an Open Connection With Your Child
A parents’ best defense against danger from external forces is a respectful, connected relationship with their child. Kids who aren’t afraid to come to their parents with uncomfortable information will come to their parents. My children never “get in trouble” with me. When they approach me, they know they will not be punished no matter what they do or say. They will be accepted fully and loved endlessly. So, when the time comes for them to tell me something difficult, they won’t have to think to themselves, “Ugh, my mom is going to kill me!” All the while, I am teaching them our family’s values and acknowledging that they have their own path. I am only here to love, guide, and protect them until they are adults themselves.
Make Clear Agreements
Coming to some mutually agreeable decisions around internet access is a substantially beneficial preventative measure before any threat arises. What are your non-negotiables? For my family, one of our non-negotiables is age. Our kids will be discouraged from accessing social media until at least age 16. What are your biggest concerns? How can you address those concerns with buy-in from your child? A friend had the brilliant idea to work with her daughter on an Instagram contract that has some built in actions if things go awry. The most wonderful part of this contract for me is the fact that her daughter had veto rights on the elements and still wanted to agree to all these things that would keep her safer.
Act Quickly at the First Sign of Danger
If you do learn that someone has been targeting your child, report it. Report it immediately. And, you have some options. You can call 911. You can contact the FBI. You can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678 or report.cybertip.org. Don’t feel like you’re blowing it out of proportion. If your protective senses are tingling, something is very wrong.
Unlimited Screen Time =\= Unmonitored Screen Time
I strongly promote unlimited screen time as restriction is all too often a source of compulsion. Kids need the availability of unlimited time in order to learn what is optimal for them.
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. Anything that makes it more difficult for me to sleep, including my children, becomes an object of great consternation for me. And, the reality is that different kids have different internal clocks, so my best solution has been to get the whole family on a united sleep schedule. Unfortunately, imposing a a schedule onto my kids 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.
Did the phrase, “asked and answered,” come to mind? These words came to us from the legal world and they’ve been openly embraced in certain corners of the positive (not peaceful) parenting community. It’s a way to shut down a “nagging” child. And, it’s a way for a parent to pit their authority against their child’s needs. We don’t do that around here. If anything, we do the opposite. If a child is asking a question over and over, something has been left unresolved and it’s on us as parents to address it.
With that said, the three words I was actually intending to give you will help toddlers on up to adults across so many different challenges and crises. Kids fighting over a toy or tearing up the house instead of helping to clean it? Parents feeling mentally blocked and unmotivated while attempting to complete a task? Try this: Choose another activity.
People of all ages tend to roll with the words they receive. We all know how unhelpful it is for people to tell us “stop worrying!” when something is really bothering us. As soon as we get to that second word, it reinforces the worry. I talk a lot on this blog about cognitive reframing and the importance of speaking in positives for this very reason. Rather than saying, “stop worrying!” it is more effective, from a psychological perspective, to say what a person should do instead.
So, when my children are fighting over a toy, we first determine whose turn it is supposed to be and then I encourage the other child to choose another activity to do while they wait for their turn.
One of the things that tends to lead to upset for me in my household is when my children are playing and creating a mess where I’m trying to clean. A favorite pastime of theirs is going through my things, which isn’t helpful under the circumstances. I’ll gently stop them and say “I will sit with you later to go through the pens. For now, please, choose another activity, so I can finish this chore.” Then, oftentimes, I’ll give them a couple ideas. “You could feed the baby doll or build with blocks.” Nearly every time, they run off happily to play and I can quickly join them because my work efficiency soars.
There are times when I’m struggling with executive functioning and can’t will myself to do what needs to be done. As I fixate on the task that’s hanging over my head, I begin to dysregulate. I have even cried when I got frustrated enough about not being able to get started. So, in those instances, I try to tell myself to choose another activity. Find something else to get my body moving and pull out the stopper in my brain that’s thwarting my efforts.
Choose another activity has become second-nature to me now that I’ve been using it for so long. It allows me to set a limit AND give my children the undirected freedom to do something else they’ve chosen for themselves. These three words have helped me reduce my reliance on “No…” and “Don’t…” and “Stop…” – all sentence leaders that will ensure that your child will do the opposite of what you’re asking of them, due to that sneaky issue that’s solved by cognitive reframing. So, if you’re looking to reform the language you use and avoid resorting to using adult authority where it isn’t needed, try this approach and then tell a friend!
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 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. Here are some of the things I’ve committed to that have helped me push forward.
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.
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?
I recently ran across this fantastic article in Psychology Today about nature versus nurture in child rearing. Robert Plomin Ph.D., dives into the research he presents in his book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.
What he has found is that our DNA is the driving force behind our psychology from personality to behavior. Your wonderfully sassy kid is probably genetically designed to be sassy. So strap in and hold on for this ride, because that kid isn’t going to change. (Keep that in mind when you’re feeling some type of way about your child’s “attitude.”)
He notes, for instance, that parents who read a lot to their children likely have children who enjoy being read to at a basic psychological level. So, when your mom friend starts bragging about reading 400 books to her daughter over the summer and asking you how many books you read to yours, don’t feel bad that your own daughter was too busy drawing to be bothered to sit for many stories. Your child’s personality is going to be very close to what it already was at conception, save for a major brain event.
On one hand, it’s freeing to know that all the experiences children encounter and process through the lens of their DNA help form their understanding of how the world works. Experiences are important and the field of epigenetics is informing us more every day about just how important they are. What we know for certain is that it’s crucial to develop a relationship with your child to find out their strengths and aptitudes and build on those. That sassy child I mentioned likely has heaps of natural confidence. Consider all the wonderful things they’ll be able to do, perhaps, in the public sphere. They may become an influencer or a politician. When you take note and support their interests, so many wonderful things will happen.
Peaceful Parenting offers the ideal framework and guidance to work with children’s different personalities and needs. It respects the essence of the child and is flexible enough to move with a child’s genetic tendencies without any of the rigidity that can stifle a child’s inborn potentiality.
Whether you’re having in-person conversations or online, someone somewhere has probably told you that peaceful parenting can’t work for every child. “Every child is different” they say, with the full force of unfortunate implications behind each word.
Every child is different. Some need to be punished.
Every child is different. Some need to be shamed.
Every child is different. Some need to be spanked.
Every child is different. Some need to be arrested.
It’s simply not true. None of it. While peaceful parenting can seem to be an unachievable ideal from the outside, it is an evidence-based approach that takes into account the advances in neuroscience we’ve made over the past century. It is a scientific marvel. And, once you dig into it, you see that it is appropriate for every. single. child.
Well, what about that kid screaming “NO!” in his mother’s face while she sits there unsure of what to do?
An authoritarian parents might lay down the law. “You will NOT treat your mother that way!” Punishment is the answer here!
A permissive parent might allow the behavior to happen and make excuses. “Oh, he just tired. It’s ok.”
A neglectful parent might completely ignore the child.
An authoritative, peaceful parent would address the issue head on. We’ve got a fantastic solution for overwrought children who have lost their ability to regulate: The 3Rs and a limit. As a reminder, the 3Rs are regulate, relate, and reason. This formula was developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma-informed care, and it can be effective for all children.
This one is why you should never, ever, ever ignore a child’s undesirable behavior. Children, especially young ones, aren’t very good at self-regulation. The human capacity to self-regulate is a matter of development more than it is a matter of skill. But, we can help our children learn techniques that promote self-regulation. We can be most useful in this educational process by co-regulating with our children. Co-regulation refers to the way a child in a well-attuned relationship with a caregiver can sync physiologically with the adult. The process is different depending on your child’s neurology and personality. Some children need to be hugged. Some just need to be present with the adult. Some children need verbal assurances, such as “I’m right here with you. I’ll be here as long as you need to feel better.” However it works for a particular child, the goal is for the adult to share calmness with the child through physiological accord (think deep breathing), emotional stabilization, and social proximity.
Relating involves the very human act of empathizing. Once your child’s body and mind have relaxed, the next step is to let your child know he isn’t alone in how he feels. Children’s emotions are human emotions. No matter how trivial their concerns may seem to us, we can understand them. My favorite way to relate is to affirm how my child is feeling. For instance, “You’re angry because I said we’re going to turn off the tv in 5 minutes. You want to watch more tv! I know watching tv is fun.” You could let your child know of an instance from your own childhood when you had a similarly upsetting experience. The goal here is to let your child know you see them. You feel their distress and you understand it.
Once your child’s body and mind are working in concert with your own, you can explain what’s happened. Using the tv example, I might say, “We need to turn off the tv, because it’s time to take a bath and read our book before bed. Once the tv goes off, we get to play in the bathwater!” The age of your child determines how you will reason. All children, including infants, deserve an explanation for the things that upset them. They understand more than we may give them credit for and, at the very least, they will grow up learning how reason and logic work. If your child begins to get upset again, start back from the first R. Make sure not to skip any of the Rs. They work in sequence. And, a critical note, if your child is dysregulated because of a physical need like sleepiness or hunger, please be sure to address that need in your reasoning.
Setting a gentle limit may be what upset your child in the first place. You do not need to ignore the limit during the 3Rs. I was recently asked by a friend what she should do in a bookstore where her daughter became dysregulated in an aisle upon being told it was time to go. She told me that her daughter didn’t want a hug and, while she attempted to co-regulate by sitting near the child without touching, her daughter continued to play around in the store. I told my friend, in this case, I would gently take the child’s hands and physically stop her. She said that would set off another meltdown. I told her that’s ok! That’s what the 3Rs are for. Often, we do need to cycle back through until our kids are feeling better.
Our goal can’t be for our child to be happy with our limits, because that’s just not reasonable. I remember being told, as a child, that it was my responsibility to be joyful in the face of admonition. No. Children are just learning how to deal with disappointment. We don’t need to place impossible expectations on them in the process. As an adult I have had to learn how to take criticism without exploding or shutting down, because I didn’t learn how to do it as a child.
Forget all that. Our goal is to ensure that our child feels loved and supported in the midst of their unhappiness and even when they’re expressing that unhappiness in ways we don’t like. So, if you have to scoop up your child and head out the door while she fusses at you because you’ve run out of time, sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. The work you’re doing by engaging in the 3Rs, giving your child time to process their feelings, and being kind even as you are firm is to establish a pattern of empathy and support that your child can rely on. One that will continue to impact her positively.
One of the criticisms leveled against peaceful parenting is that it just takes so long. It’s true. This approach is a long game and individual interactions can take a while (so build in extra time to make sure your kids get the full benefit of your attention). We are working on fostering the development of genuine human beings who embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, observe the world to see where they can help the most, and find healthy ways to overcome hardships. It’s so much quicker and easier to punish and you could very well do that. But, why? Why would you put off the work of growing up by controlling your kids? Punishment teaches nothing but not to misbehave around people who punish you. It does not teach accountability.
So you have a few choices. One, fall back on punishment and force your kids into compliance; two, let your kids spiral into dysregulation and make excuses for their behavior; three, neglect your kids altogether; or, four, support your child’s psychological and moral development by putting the work in from birth; no punishment required.
Recently, I was talking with a sweet friend about her energetic son. We’ve had many discussions about his behavior, her responses, and steps moving forward. She lives on the west coast of the U.S. with her husband, her teenage daughter, and of course, her little boy. The family is experiencing quite a bit of turmoil due to the strain of interacting with the healthcare system as her husband lives with a chronic, degenerative condition. But, together, this family is making it work and growing in gentleness.She writes:
I have always considered myself a peaceful parent, because I refuse to use physical punishment with my kids. It hasn’t been until recently that I learned how much more there is to being a peaceful parent and have started trying to make changes. I have a teenager and a kindergartener. I’ve had a lot of struggles with the younger one. My son is strong willed and very hyper, and I am not as patient as a wish I was. I get frustrated quickly, which makes for a hard time in our house more often than I would like.
Lately, I’ve been trying new things that seem so simple when I think about them, but aren’t always as simple in practice. The biggest thing is when my son is having a hard time and I’m starting to get frustrated, I try to stop, breathe, and ask myself WHY is he acting the way he is. When I’ve been able to figure out the why, it’s made finding the solution to help so much easier. The other thing I’ve been doing differently is making sure I take the time to explain things to him rather than just answer yes or no. Sounds super simple, almost so simple I can’t believe I haven’t always done it, but better late than never.
Since I started explaining in more detail to him why things need to be a certain way, he’s responded a lot better. Here’s an example of that. A couple weeks ago I had one of those days, we all know those days. Super busy, dealing with way too much and not enough time. I was working on cleaning the house before family was coming to stay with us and my son comes up to me while I’m super busy and asks me to sit down on the couch with him for a bit. I explained to him I couldn’t because I had all this cleaning to do before family got here and that I needed to make sure everything was done so everyone would be comfortable and happy when staying here. He said ok and left and I could tell he was a disappointed, but I was so behind I figured I would make it up to him a little later.
About 20 mins later he came running into the kitchen and said “Mom I helped. Come see!” So I followed him into his bedroom and it was spotless. He cleaned his entire room by himself without me asking him to! He did a great job, so I was able to take break to sit with him and watch a show. Things are far from perfect, most days are still a struggle, but the more I have been following gentle parenting techniques, the better things have been going.
When my friend shared this story with me, I genuinely teared up. What a sweet, precious child she has who loves her so much, he will go out of his way to relieve her burdens just to have a few moments of time with her. And, he’s such a young child too! I can’t help but think about what a wonderful person he will continue to be as he grows up in this household. And, mom. She empathized with him and explained what was happening. Then, when he came to her, she stopped and took him seriously. When she saw what he had done, she showed him appreciation and she gave him her time knowing it was short supply. This is the way we build relationships with our children.
Several weeks ago, a friend told me this story about an interaction between her tween son and her mother. Since many of us are gearing up for big family events tomorrow, this topic is something worth thinking about. My friend, a 30-something-year-old Black mother of two in Texas, had this to say:
So today she apparently asked my 12 yr old if he could help her get 2 gallons of water from her car and he said no. She came to snitch and I’m sure was trying to embarrass him and I just said “I’ll help you.” He seemed annoyed she interrupted our conversation to tell me that. My family has no respect for children. I honestly assumed he didn’t feel like it. He had just gotten home and rode his bike from school today and he was getting his snack together. I wouldn’t want to stop preparing food to get water either when it can wait. It wasn’t perishable food she was asking for help with but it honestly didn’t matter to me. I teach them ‘you can always ask but sometimes the answer is no.’
She explained further that there is some background between her son and her mother. It seems she oversteps her bounds and tries to impose her ideology on the children. My friend’s son receives her actions as judgmental. When she asked “Do you want to help me with something?” he answered literally “No” because he was busy.
I can almost see the pearl-clutching! I come from a very Southern, very authoritarian background where adults owned all rights to the labor of children and children had no right to refuse. It was considered the height of rudeness and deserving of quite a spanking. I’ll grant that a young boy who had the strength to ride his bike all the way home from school surely has the strength to go outside to grab a couple gallons of water. Plus, it’s perceived as rude not to be considerate of an elderly relative’s wishes.
Before we had our children, Peaceful Dad and I created family guidelines, and one of those guidelines is “We always choose to help.” We teach our children that we are the heart and hands of Christ to our world. We help out of love. Not obligation. And never because someone wants to assert a flawed belief that my children should be subordinate. I don’t entertain discussing my kids negatively like this grandmother did, no matter who the adult is. I will always ask the adult to speak directly to my child if there’s been a problem. I can be there for moral support, but my child needs to be part of the conversation.
Had this scenario happened in my house, I probably would have broached the topic with my son to understand his perspective while affirming that no one is obligated to help anyone. I would want my son to know that there are relationship consequences for refusing a request for help, particularly since there exists a social expectation that children are to serve adults. This is something children need to be aware of, and it’s something worth discussing as we guide our children through the trials of childism.
Her entitlement was completely inappropriate. No one has a right to anyone else’s labor. I imagine my friend’s son would have graciously agreed had his grandmother asked, “When you finish eating your snack, would mind helping me get some gallons of water out of my car?” So, let’s flip this around. Is it not also rude of an adult, knowing this child was tired and hungry, to demand assistance with a non-urgent matter while the child is in the middle of making himself something to help him recover from his long day and his long ride? Could the request not have been made in a more understanding and compassionate way wherein both of their needs could have been met?
The trouble here is that, for many adults, the outcome isn’t as important as the interaction. They say they like seeing kind, cooperative, and respectful children, but what they really expect is deference and obedience.
Rudeness is a matter of perception. In this case, the requester ultimately got the help she was requesting, so the problem was solved. I don’t want to suggest that kids be encouraged to break social “rules” for the sake of being controversial. I think it’s important for children to be aware of expectations and cultural consequences. But, at the same time, we also need to be holding adults accountable for how they interact with kids, and we need to instill self-confidence and self-worth in our kids so that they know how to navigate social expectations with grace and wisdom.
If a child is uncomfortable with a request being made of them, we can be there to help guide the conversation. Otherwise, we can give kids room to work out their own relationships and support them in upholding boundaries… even with elderly relatives. And, even at big family events.
I asked my friend what had changed since her own childhood that caused her to support her son in his interaction with her mother. She said:
In the past I would have felt pressured into forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When my daughter came along I realized that I was raising my kids differently than I was raised and than the kids in my family were being raised. One day my grandma asked my 1 year old for a hug at easter and my nephew who was about 4 said she “don’t do hugs.” My granny said “I don’t care, come give me a hug girl!” It was right then that I was like “oh hell no!” She is not about to force herself onto my child and traumatize her and then leave me with the job of cleaning up. So I stopped her in that moment and said “we don’t force physical contact on people,” and I looked at my daughter and said “can you wave bye bye to granny?” And she didn’t do that either and I said “maybe next time” and shrugged it off. That’s when I started looking into ways to fend off my pushy relatives because I knew there would be more situations like these in the future.
I went from spanking my son to not believing it was necessary I hardly ever took my kids out during nap time or would leave when they got tired because they just slept better at home and to prevent putting them in situations where they were over tired and would act out. Long ago, I decided that just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.
Just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. That is an entire lesson right there on its own! We can teach our children how to say, “I’m busy right now, but I’ll be with you as soon as I finish.” We can foster relationships in our children’s lives that meet their needs and those of the adults they care about. When the challenge in a child’s life is a social expectation, let’s allow genuineness and honesty to win out. It’s ok for children to say “not now” or even “no” to adults. Unclutch those pearls!
So, how do you instill a sense of selflessness in your kids? How do you foster the development of a human who enjoys being helpful whenever possible? I’m sure there are many ways families are doing this every day (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!) I’ll mention one of the ways that has been invaluable for my family. We include our children in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty simple, but it takes planning and patience. It can be difficult to allow kids to help in their own developmentally appropriate ways. It’s messy and time consuming, but it is wonderfully affirming for your child! If you’d like to try it out, the key is to resist the urge to do things for your children. Don’t take over. If you want to insert yourself into the activity, help out! Demonstrate by modeling what’s expected. Openly speak with your child about the expected outcome, step by step. Children don’t know the process to get to an end result until they learn it. For example, including children in putting laundry away might look something like this:
Parent invites the child to help
Parent quickly explains what’s about to happen – “We’re going to take the clothes out of this laundry basket, fold them neatly, put them back into the basket, and then put them into their drawers. I’ll help you!”
Parent demonstrates how to fold an item of clothing and hands some clothes to the child
Parent and child go through the steps together
Many children will likely not be able to fold to an adult’s expectation, be able to open drawers and sort, and the like. Some direction is helpful, but allowing the child to try and accepting their effort as is goes a long way to instilling a love of helping in a child. And, start young. Thank your infant for helping you pick up toys even if it becomes a game. There are so many ways to include and appreciate kids. You and your child will figure it out together.
As someone who has struggled with my weight my entire adult life, this post is really important to me. I tried all sorts of diets and ended up losing 150+ pounds on a paleo/primal diet alongside improved control over my thyroid function. At the time, I thought it was amazing. I mean, who doesn’t want to lose weight?! Since then, I’ve had two children and nursed for a collective total of 4+ years, and it shows. My body is very different than it was before kids. I prayed for years for God to take my appetite away completely. Looking back, wow, what a request! “Dear Lord, please remove one of the basic functions that allows me to live.” It’s incredibly sad, really.
At the end of last year, I stumbled upon an answer I wasn’t expecting: Intuitive Eating (IE). If you haven’t heard of it, we’ll be going over it in this post. IE has changed my life. I’m happier and healthier without losing a single pound.
If you’re ready learn the secrets of raising children who have a great relationship with food, healthy bodies, and happy minds, read on!
Not only am I not a nutritionist, but I’m also a superfat woman who dieted my way up to this point and has no intention of trying ever again to force my body to lose weight. I spent years losing and gaining the same weight and wrecking my metabolism as a result. I even had to have emergency gallbladder surgery due to my wild weight loss efforts. So, why listen to me at all?
Well, I’m posting about nutrition with the goals of interrupting fatphobia in the lives of children, eliminating excessive rules around food, quieting food moralizing, and allowing kids’ bodies to become the natural size they’re meant to be without adult intervention. And, I’m pointing to the collective work of thousands of nutritionists and nutrition scientists in the process. As a peaceful parent, I believe children must have autonomy over their bodies, including when they engage in the most basic act of eating.
Fatphobia is fear and/or disgust toward fatness and fat people. Both thin and fat people experience harmful shaming. We can’t seem to get away from shame as a culture. However, the entire system is stacked against fat people in a way that thin people typically don’t experience.
So, why should you care about any of this as a peaceful parent? Well…
Oh, by the way, the Body Mass Index (BMI) was never intended to be individually diagnostic. The person who developed what would come to be known as the BMI was a social science statistician who was curious about what the “average” person looked like weight-wise in his day, so he measured a bunch of white people and created average weight/height ranges. BMI is descriptive of a population. It was not, and cannot be, prescriptive. It can’t tell you if you’re healthy. Applied accurately, BMI should be reassessed to see what the average person looks like today instead of trying to cram us all into arbitrary weight ranges.
It’s ok to be fat. It’s ok to be slim. It’s ok to be everything in between. What’s not ok is to dictate to children what size their bodies should be. Doing so hurts kids. Particularly when it comes to children of size, weight stigma at home combined with systemic fatphobia leads to things like binge eating, social isolation, refusal of medical care, and other barriers to health. Bottom line, stop worrying about your kids’ weight and, instead, make non-weight related changes to your family’s lifestyle.
Rather than stressing over weight, try encouraging fun movement every day (and you should join in too!), adding in plant foods, going easy on alcohol, and avoiding tobacco products entirely. Doing just these four things will drastically increase your family’s lifespan and quality of lifewithout weight loss or gain. More time with my kids? Yes please!
An Alternative to Traditional Food Rules
Intuitive Eating (IE) is an approach to human-centered nutrition that heals the physical and psychological impacts of dieting and diet culture. It is the ultimate anti-diet that guides our bodies back to the natural responses to hunger and satiety that we were born with. Substantial research informs this approach, so many Registered Dieticians are now working toward (or are already practicing with) IE certification. You may be able to find support in your area through the official IE website or here.
Ultimately, IE can reacquaint adults with our internal systems of food management, and improve our mental health as we disengage from diet culture. For an in-depth beginner’s guide, I highly recommend Rachael Hartley’s Intuitive Eating 101. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, the Facebook group, Intuitive Eating for Beginners, may be just what you need.
Intuitive Eating is a huge topic with lots of blogs devoted strictly to its practice. For my purposes, I’m looking to key in on childhood nutrition to help parents and caregivers make the switch to an approach to nutrition that also strengthens the relationship between child and adult.
Ellyn Satter Institute
The fact of the matter is that children cannot truly practice Intuitive Eating, at least not in the sense that adults can. Children do not manage food purchases, meals, or schedules. As such, the adults in their lives are responsible for guiding them toward Intuitive Eating by fostering their natural inclinations. That’s where Ellyn Satter comes in.
Satter is a Registered Dietitian and therapist specializing in eating disorders with more than 40 years of experience in her field. Her work has provided us a complete picture of how to take children from birth to adulthood without smothering their natural ability to regulate food intake, which is something many adults in the U.S. have lost to dieting.
The Ellyn Satter Institute was established to advance eating competence via theoretically grounded, evidence based, and clinically effective practices. The Institute publishes nutrition guidance, trains professionals, and connects mentors with families.
Normal eating is eating competence. It is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.
It is being able to choose food you enjoy and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should.
Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.
Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.
It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.
Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more.
Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
Division of Responsibility
The key to Satter’s methods with children is Division of Responsibility, which refers to which family member is responsibility for which choices around food. This is where it all begins.
Traditionally, parents have made all the choices. We choose what’s going to be prepared, and when and where we’re going to eat. We also tend to hound our kids to eat.
“Try a few bites and you don’t have to eat anymore.”
“Finish your vegetables and you’ll get a treat.”
“Think of all the starving children who would love to have what you have!”
None of these statements honors the autonomy of the child. What I see is coercion in the first, bribing/rewards in the second, and shaming in the third. What’s a peaceful parent to do?? Here’s what!
So, you choose when and where to eat, you put the food on the plate, and then you trust your child to eat the items they want in the amounts they want. If they don’t try it all, that’s ok.
The Key to Getting Your Kids to Try New Foods
Exposure. That’s it. A 2016 study found that exposure alone drastically increases the likelihood that infants will eat a variety of vegetables for the greater part of their childhood. The same is true no matter the age of the child. The more often you introduce a food, the more likely your child will be to eat it.
I always try to make sure to include at least one item in each meal that I know my children will eat, and sometimes, that’s all they eat. It may be a piece of bread or a bowl of beans or miso soup. I don’t stress it, because I know they nibble on lots of nutrient-dense foods throughout the week, and I keep exposing them to common foods that they won’t yet eat. This hands-off approach paired with the obvious enjoyment they see in my husband and me while we eat means we will have adventurous foodies in time.
The less you intervene, the more likely kids are to try new foods in the future. You can even make a game of it between mealtimes by offering small amounts of new foods for them to taste and critique. You can also improve the likelihood your child will try a new food by inviting them to participate in the process of preparing and cooking the food. Many nights, I bring my kids into the kitchen with me to help cut food, stir pots, taste raw vegetables, and season our food.
Satter recommends structured meals and sit-down snacks. It’s important to prepare what you enjoy and include foods you know your children will like. You need not prepare separate meals for different family members. One meal eaten together is the best way to encourage eating competence in children. Families meals are crucial to the long-term physical and mental health of kids. Check out the research behind the value of family meals here. When you eat together, try to minimize distractions by creating a food only zone. No homework. No electronics. No pets. Just people, the food in front of them, and the full-bodied conversations that can happen in an intimate social space.
Consistent, expected meals plus scheduled snacks help children better manage their hunger and satiety. Plan three meals a day, making sure not to skip any. If your child isn’t particularly hungry at a given meal, that’s ok. Accept whatever form of “no thank you” your child can communicate, if they aren’t ready to eat. A snack time will come along shortly and provide the energy your child needs. Remember, your child is the only person who knows how much or how little their body needs to eat. This is not information you are privy to.
Snacks are meals too, just smaller. Snacks should be available at planned times and include protein, fat, and carbohydrate to provide sustained satisfaction. Encourage your child to eat until they feel good and then head off to do another activity. Snacks should be timed to ensure that your child has a chance to get hungry for the next regular meal.
Nutrients and Forbidden Foods
One of the hardest ideas to release as a new Intuitive Eater is the idea that some foods are “better” than others. Go ahead and put that out of your mind. Food has no morality. On microscopic level, foods have varying levels of macro and micronutrients. Some foods are more nutrient dense than others. No single food has all the nutrients we need to thrive though. We need variety. That variety can include brussels sprouts, french fries, breakfast cereal, steak, oatmeal, apples, cabbage, cookies, quinoa, eggs, almond butter, cheese, candy, or any combination of any foods you enjoy.
Check out this fantastic talk by Tracy Brown, RD regarding food choice:
Offering your child a variety of foods at each meal that cover proteins, fats, and carbohydrates without judging them on what they actually eat is healthy. Since children have limited room in their stomachs for food, it makes sense to try to pack in nutrients, which is why things like whole, plant-based foods work so well. They pack a punch in less space. Win-win for little tummies.
BUT, no food can be off limits. If you restrict your kids’ food options, you risk creating a situation where your child will be compelled to lose control when a forbidden food becomes available. Your goal here is to encourage a relaxed relationship between your child and their food. Satter recommends:
Regularly including fatty, salty foods like chips and fries at meals, so your child will learn how to eat their fill without going wild.
Often, putting a single portion of sweets/desserts at each person’s place and giving your child the option of eating their treat before, during, or after the meal.
And, occasionally giving your child unlimited access to sweets during snack time. For instance, set a plate of cookies on the table and let your child go to town. These opportunities help children exercise their hunger and satiety cues in the presence of highly desirable food (something adults seriously struggle to do). An excellent example of this practice is the wise management of Halloween candy.
Break free from diet culture and guard your mind against fatphobia, so you and your family can experience the freedom and fun of Intuitive Eating! It’s so much easier and more fulfilling to raise a child to eat competently through self-regulation than it is to constantly hound kids about their food choices and their appearance. And, what is a peaceful parent but a guide who helps children find their own way in this world?
In Our House
It’s pretty wild around here. We recently switched to booster pads instead of booster seats/high chairs with straps, so the kids have freedom of movement. We’re practicing good table manners by modeling and coaching, but no one gets in trouble for getting up if they feel they can’t comfortably sit still. We just wait a moment and encourage the child back into their seat.
We follow Satter’s model as closely as we can, but we have to be flexible to accomodate eventualities… including children who don’t know or care about Satter at all. Beyond the food, the most important aspect of our approach, for me, is that we have banned moralizing at the table. We don’t comment on what our kids are (or aren’t) eating. We simply remind them to eat if they become distracted. When it seems they’re slowing down and starting to play with the food, we’ll ask “all done?” We don’t compare one child to the other either. Each child has complete authority over their own plates.
When they ask for food that’s either not on the menu or we don’t have at all, we don’t tell them they can’t have it because it’s bad for them. We say we’ll add it to the menu for the following week. We look for ways to say yes to their blossoming culinary palates while working to establish consistent routines and schedules that help them get in touch with their hunger and satiety.
Our practice of non-judgment around nutrition has resulted in young children who eat a wide variety of food and will try new foods without any prompting. Sometimes, I marvel at them and am surprised by the things they enjoy, but I remain calm and positive during mealtimes. Nothing to see here. We’re just enjoying our food!
Bonus: Simple Sweet Snack Recipe
Check out this low fuss recipe for homemade granola!
8 cups of rolled (old fashioned) oats
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup Just Foods Hemp Protein
1/4 cup Badia Health Seeds, Trilogy, Whole
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp salt
3 whole eggs, whisked (or flax eggs for a vegan option)
1 cup canola oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
Mix together dry ingredients in a large bowl, using clean hands to break everything down together.
Pour wet ingredients into the bowl and mix well. Again, I like to use my hands to make sure the dry ingredients get completely saturated. It’s messy but hands are your best tool here.
Smooth into a large baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 250F for about an hour or until the mixture browns and starts smelling a bit like oatmeal cookies.
Allow the granola to cool completely before storing. I store mine in a large rubbermaid cereal container. This recipe makes pretty chunky granola, so you may need to break large chunks up a bit.
I make a batch most weekends and we nibble on it throughout the week.
How about $50? Less? I’m a numbers person and money motivates me. Not that I seek to hoard it, but that I’m careful to value it appropriately so that my family can stay afloat. I handle the family finances, so money is always on my mind.
This afternoon, my kids were having popcorn as a snack. It’s a choking hazard, but they love it, so I try to make sure they remain seated and calm so they can focus on chewing and swallowing. LL asked me for a treat that we didn’t have, and I tried to explain that to her. She flew into a rage (she’s so my child!) and knocked both her popcorn and her juice onto the floor. I ran into our adjoining kitchen to get cleaning supplies, all the way speaking empathetically to her. She really wanted that treat. She was tired. She lashed out.
In the 20 seconds I was gone, she managed to get onto the table, scurry across it, and toss her brother’s popcorn on the floor too. I came back and he looked shocked. I could see how far gone she was. She needed help. But, to be honest, I was irritated. My instinct was to snatch her up a little too hard and growl through gritted teeth. Something about wasting the food I prepared in this way seemed to touch something deep in me.
I angrily began cleaning up – normally, I’d have her help, but I was upset and I didn’t want to accidentally hurt her in my frustration. As I wiped up the juice on my hands and knees, I thought to myself, we have such a small food budget! This is such a waste. All for what exactly?? A little voice in my mind piped up, how much waste are we really talking here?
Well, let’s see:
Vegan Butter: $.14
Paper Towel: $.01
Cleaning Solution: $.003
Forty-one cents. For $.41, I had to hold myself back from yelling or being physically rough with a little one-year-old toddler who is less than 1/10 my size. It’s toxic. Plain and simple. A result of my culture, my upbringing, my inability to use the same logic center in my own mind that some part of me expects my kids to be able to use flawlessly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve sat down and worked out how much something cost that my kids wasted or broke, and whenever I find that number, it’s always heartbreaking. Earlier this year, my son accidentally broke a $200 TV when he was releasing after-school energy. I was in a great mental space that day, and I wasn’t angry with him at all.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between these two incidents. Why was I angrier over $.41 cents of popcorn, juice, and cleaning supplies than I was over a $200 TV? This is why.
Deep down, it felt like she was disrespecting the effort I had put into getting them cleaned up to eat, preparing their snack, serving it to them, treating them gently, and empathetically letting LL know why she couldn’t have the treat she wanted. Even though my logic tells me she’s not old enough to have any concept of what I was going through, those primal reactions still welled up in my chest.
In the end, I recovered without incident and sat down to cuddle with her. She was having a hard time and she needed me to help her regulate herself. It didn’t take long before she was ready to run off and play as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was still reeling and working through what had just washed over me.
Maybe this technique will help you as it’s helped me in the past. When your child’s actions end up in a loss and you’re out some money, calculate the amount. Then, ask yourself, is the value of this thing worth devastating my child by yelling or hitting. I’d say 10/10 times, the answer is no.
So, what do you do when you encounter an undesired behavior after your child has already stepped beyond a limit? If not punishment, then what?
I’ll let you in on a secret. Here’s what you do: Say, “I love you no matter what you do.” Let those be the first words out of your mouth. Communicate to your child first and foremost that their behavior does not define your relationship. It doesn’t matter what the child has done. Say “I love you” regardless. Children tend to be binary thinkers. It can be difficult for them not to regard themselves as either good or bad without much gray area in between. They need to know that they are loved, no matter what.
After your child understands that your relationship with them is secure regardless of the outcome, the work begins. If their actions have resulted in harm, they need to be given an opportunity to rectify what’s happened. And, whether or not their actions have resulted in harm, they need the chance to create and implement a plan for the future. No punishment needed.
Children do not inherently know how to be in relationship with other people. They learn and they stumble… often. If your child has done something that has caused any sort of harm, incorporating restorative justice principles can help begin the healing process.
Give the aggrieved parties space to communicate their perspectives. If you are the aggrieved party, bring in a neutral arbiter to help.
Employ the CLAIM method to guide your child through this process.
C: Center Yourself. Draw in your fears of judgement and be brave.
L: Listen. Pay attention to what’s being said rather than preparing a rebuttal.
A: Acknowledge. Take responsibility for your actions (and apologize and/or make restitution if necessary).
I: Inquire. Ask how you can do better in the future. Keep in mind that this involves labor. The other party has a right to decline.
M: Move Forward. Change your behavior and teach others to do the same.
Enunciate the harm that has been caused, both tangible and intangible.
Confirm the resolution with all parties and establish an accountability plan with your child.
Support your child through their inevitable feelings of ostracization from those they harmed. Encourage them to give it time and to be kind.
Children of all ages and neurologies can benefit from modified versions of this process. The skills you impart through this process will provide your child with the tools necessary to become versed in conflict management and active listening, both of which are critical relationship skills.
Setting New Limits
Peaceful Parents try to get ahead of challenges and take proactive steps to avoid them. When challenges occur despite our best efforts, we regroup and work with our kids on resolving remaining issues and on solving the underlying difficulty before it happens again in the future. Our philosophy is that children do well when they can, and that we can equip them to do better by addressing their unmet needs and building skills.
When you learn about a challenge after the fact, try to resist the urge to punish. It can be extremely unnerving to feel like you aren’t doing anything, but I assure you, what you do instead will send ripples of goodness into your child’s future.
It’s important to talk with your child about what’s happened, opting for open-ended, non-accusatory questions like “What were you hoping would happen?” that garner a more developed response than “What happened?” Again, age will determine how far you can go.
Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, we learn disappointing truths about our kids. This can be hard for us and for them. Protecting your relationship in the face of missteps means choosing your approach carefully. Remember that children instinctively react when they are afraid. In order to reason with your child, you’ll need to keep them in a cognitive space by reassuring them that they’re safe with you.
Let’s consider a pretty common (and developmentally appropriate) difficulty for children: lying. If your child lies, you’ll be less inclined to believe what they say in the future. However, rather than undermining your relationship by saying, “I don’t trust you,” you can instead try to frame the situation in a way that can be solved. Speak factually and coach your child toward a resolution using “I” phrases to express your feelings. “I’m sad that you didn’t tell me the truth. I want to be someone you can always talk to. What can we do in the future to make sure you don’t ever feel you have to lie to me?”
In this reconciliatory space, you can help your child determine their own solutions for what to do, giving them ownership and power over their choices. Knowing that children aren’t hardwired yet for wise, measured decision-making, you can ask questions to better understand what your role will be in making sure limits are observed as part of a renewed plan for the future.
If it happens again, walk with your child through the exact same process. And, if that sounds too much like kids “getting away with bad behavior,” think about how many times parents have to turn to punishment over and over again because there is insufficient behavioral change. We’re working on moral development here. Not obedience.