Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments
I recently ran across a meme with a troubling message. It said, Never do for a child what he can do for himself. A “dependent” child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on. I bristled immediately. “Never” do for a child? Absolute statements like this make me uncomfortable. I understand that the point is to be decisive and firm, but then there is no room for children to be imperfect or to have needs. Yes, giving children age-appropriate responsibilities builds competence and self-assurance. However, we should be open to children refusing responsibility in an effort to have their other needs met. Seems a lot of us misunderstand why children might be “irresponsible.” There’s a great fear that we’ll foster learned helplessness if we don’t demand that our kids fulfill their responsibilities. But, is that really true?
In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand why depression was so defeating. The first experiment involved three groups of restrained dogs. The first group was restrained and released. The second group included dogs who received an electric shock which they could stop by pressing a lever. Dogs in the third group were paired with dogs in the second group and also received an electric shock. However, their levers did not stop the pain. Instead, the paired dog from the second group controlled the only working lever, which meant that the dog in the third group had to suffer the pain with no control over it and, therefore, little hope of ending it.
In the second experiment, the dogs were presented with a similar scenario, except that Seligman introduced an escape option. The dogs in the first two groups, having either not experienced the shocks at all the first time around or having had access to a lever to stop the pain, fairly quickly escaped when the shocks began. However, the dogs in the third group made no effort and were able only to cry out pitifully when they were shocked. That presumed inability to take action is learned helplessness, and it results from hopelessness in the face of failure.
An especially important aspect of these experiments was the finding that “one cause of learned helplessness seems to be learning that reinforcers cannot be controlled” (409). For those who aren’t familiar with the term “reinforcer,” it means a punishment or a reward. So, the inability to control the punishment of these painful shocks directly contributed to the dogs’ acceptance that the pain was inescapable. No amount of punishments or rewards delivered after the learned helplessness had taken hold had any positive effect on the dogs’ behavior.
What you may find interesting is that Seligman did find a cure for the learned helplessness. He discovered that either picking up the dogs and moving them to safety or using a leash to drag them out of harm’s way provided enough motivation for them to take action. He called it “directive therapy” and it was simply an intervention wherein an outside participant showed each dog how to do what the dog didn’t realize was possible. He found that less and less force was required in pulling on the leash as the dogs began to realize that there was hope. The end result of this portion of the experiment was that all the dogs in group three fully recovered and were able to escape completely on their own (410).
…which brings us to helping. Put simply, learned helplessness is giving up because an obstacle is too insurmountable. For children, it may be sitting in the middle of their room unable to clean up, because they don’t know where to start. It may be accepting punishment for not getting dressed quickly enough because they feel that the punishment is inevitable, and they can’t do what’s expected of them to begin with. As noted in the experiment, the cure for learned helplessness is directive therapy, i.e. demonstrating a way to be successful. In other words, helping. When our children become overwhelmed with their messy rooms, we can intervene by helping them come up with a plan and working on the clean-up with them. Over time, they will gain more competence and the process will be less frustrating for them. When our children struggle to dress themselves, the easiest solution is to recognize that we need to take a few steps back and offer to help them dress. It may take a while for them to do things that seem simple to us, but the more we respond to their need for help, the more capable they will become.
There are three overarching lessons I learned from reading up on learned helplessness:
A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.
Whether a child seeks our help because they don’t know how to do something or because they want to connect with us or because they are weary and need some support or for any other reason, we will always do right by them when we help them, especially when we don’t think they really need the help. In doing so, we invigorate qualities like learning, self-motivation, and confidence… the very things that combat learned helplessness. So, please, help your kids.
If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from therapist Kati Morton! Toward the end of the video, she provides some tools for helping ourselves (and our kids) release these thoughts of helplessness.
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.
You know how, sometimes, you run across new information that leaves your mind spinning? That happened to me this past week when I read something about the difference between permission and consent, and immediately thought of my efforts toward anti-childism. It’s not something I’d really thought much on before, so I’ve been doing a little more reading and reflecting. To be clear, here’s the deal:
Permission means gaining approval from a superior whereas consent means coming to a mutual agreement that either party can say yes or no to.
I talk a lot about the need for consent on this blog, but there are also times when I’ve mentioned “allowing” and “letting” my kids do things. I’m realizing that my permission-based orientation is at odds with my efforts to elevate children. What I really want to do is flatten the traditional hierarchy parents and children tend to operate from, which means preferring agreement over commands wherever possible.
I’m sure many of y’all reading this will immediately question what this means in terms of safety issues. Children are a unique group of people. They are fully human and fully deserving of rights while also being newer to the world and in need of guidance. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what anti-childism really looks like when we, parents, are responsible for protecting our kids from danger, but I’m doing my best.
For instance, when a toddler breaks free and immediately bolts for the road, we must do whatever we can to save our child. Toddlers cannot manage the freedom to roam around a busy street unsupervised. So, what does consent look like with a two-year-old? Perhaps it looks like giving her the toothbrush when she demands it instead of brushing her teeth for her. Perhaps, it looks like sitting up with her for a while when she’s not ready to go to sleep yet. Perhaps, it looks like giving her full control over what she eats from her lunch plate. There are so many daily decisions where you can give your child the authority and autonomy she craves (something that wasn’t allowed when I was a child).
I’m reminded of a graphic I ran across some time ago by Kristin Wiens:
I’m challenging myself to rethink those moments when I want to use my adult authority to pressure my children into bending to my will. In those moments, it’s difficult to remember that sharing power ends up creating an environment of cooperation. I invite you to this challenge as well. Let’s see how often we can come to an agreement with our kids rather than lording over them. I bet it gets easier with time.
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.
Consider a child who abandons one toy in search of another. When a family practices turn-taking, the toy is fair game, so other children are well within their rights to play with the toy. Children can become enraged when this happens, even when they have long since moved on. When a parent goes through the process of pausing to co-regulate with the incensed child, empathizing with their feelings of anger and envy, and reminding them that it is the other child’s turn and they can play with the toy when it becomes free again, interesting things happen. I have known such a case in which the sibling of the angry child brought the toy back. Empathy overflows from the hearts of well-loved children.
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.
Almost all children will go through periods where they lash out in some way and spitting, hitting, biting, and kicking seem to be the most common behaviors. What should you do when your child lets loose? It’s critical to understand what underlies the behavior. We could fancy ourselves investigators for this purpose. What precipitated the event? Here’s a list of replies your child might give you if they could.
I just felt like it.
I need your attention.
I need freedom. Give me space.
It’s too noisy in here.
My sibling took my toy.
Stop touching me!
You’re not listening to me.
This is fun!
Let me do it my way.
I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
I was curious what would happen.
My body doesn’t feel good.
Both my 2 year old and my 4 year old spit, hit, bite, and kick at one time or another, so I completely understand the frustration and that gut feeling of wanting to react in an unkind way. But stop! Stop for a minute and think about what’s happening. Let’s categorize the “whys” for greater understanding.
I need your attention. You’re not listening to me.
Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to see children as annoyances who drain our time and our energy. We don’t want to “give in” when our kids express their need for our attention in undesirable ways. However, empathetic communication actually increases well-being. It’s not simply a way to meet our children’s needs. It also improves our relationship. If your child needs your attention, try a little active listening.
Some of the pitfalls I face when it comes to listening to my kids include thinking of something else while my child is communicating, trying to figure out what I’m going to say next, and attempting to manipulate the direction of the conversation. If you’re anything like me, one or more of those statements might resonate.
Professional communicator and educator, Julian Treasure, recommends a four-step approach to listen with investment:
Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
Appreciate: Pause and think
Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
Ask: Learn more
If you know your child needs your attention, give it freely. Silence those harmful voices telling you not to spoil your child. You cannot spoil a child with love and affection. Quite the contrary, kids who are perceived as spoiled tend to be those children who have a) not had their boundaries respected so they react with belligerence or b) not been given enough attention and therefore do not trust that their needs will be met.
I need freedom. Give me space. My sibling took my toy. Stop touching me! Let me do it my way.
In our childist culture, it’s easy to get caught up in “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” thinking when it comes to children. We’ve got to work toward flipping that perspective around and radically respecting our children’s autonomy.
Years ago, sexuality educator, Deanne Carson, made headlines when she advocated for asking infants if it was ok to give them a diaper change. She acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to consent, but said that asking for consent and pausing to acknowledge them lets children know that their response matters.
I fully admit that I scoffed at her comments at the time, even though I was already three years into my Peaceful Parenting journey, as I was sorely lacking an understanding of childism.
Yes, you can let your baby know you’re about to change their diaper. Consent does start from birth and it never ends. We must prioritize navigating our children’s demands for bodily autonomy and their health-related needs. It’s not easy or simple, but it’s our responsibility.
If you know your child is enforcing a boundary, respect it. Bottom line. For guidance on helping siblings through the tough task of sharing/turn-taking, check out this article.
I’m tired. I’m hungry. It’s too noisy in here. I’m anxious. My body doesn’t feel good. I’m frustrated.
Discomfort shows up physically and mentally. Both are completely real and valid. In our culture, we tend to tell children how they’re feeling. We dismiss skinned knees with “You’re ok” and toileting urgency with “You just went!” Children are too often forced into the constraints of our schedules and whims, and it’s not ok. Kids deserve for their needs to be met. Where the dominant culture tells us that our children are manipulatinrg us, it is incumbent upon us as Peaceful Parents to reject that perspective wholesale. If our children need to use the bathroom, they will. If they feel sick, we listen. If they are anxious, we soothe.
And, a note to those who fear all this responsiveness will lead to spoiling children. It won’t, but as we get into more complex needs, our responses may need to evolve. All children need accomodations, some more than others. Autistic Mama wrote a fantastic piece called Are You Accommodating or Coddling Your Autistic Child and really it applies to all children. In it, she explains:
The line between accommodating and coddling boils down to one specific question.
What is the Goal? You have to ask yourself, what is the goal here?
Let me give you an example…
Let’s say your child has a history assignment and is supposed to write two paragraphs on the civil war.
What is the goal of this assignment?
To prove knowledge of history.
Now any tool or strategy that doesn’t take away from that goal is an accommodation, not coddling.
So typing instead of writing? Accommodation.
Verbally sharing knowledge of the civil war? Accommodation.
Writing a list of civil war facts instead of using paragraphs? Accommodation.
Because the goal of the assignment is a knowledge of history, not the way it’s shared.
We can empower our children to solve their own problems by showing them how to be problem-solvers from a young age. We can teach our children to ask for what they need and demonstrate that their needs matter by obliging their requests. As they get older, we can empower them to seek reasonable accommodations in a variety of environments by considering what needs they must have met in order to succeed and to advocate for themselves.
I would be remiss not to mention one thing here of great importance to the Autistic community. AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE NOT INHERENTLY VIOLENT. Violence is not a criteria for diagnosis. So many people ponder why it seems like Autistic children tend toward aggression. Well, imagine having to endure all the little things you dislike (flavors, sounds, textures, etc.) all the time and then being treated as though you’re a burden for asking for it to stop. You might be driven to aggression as well. It’s hard being Autistic in a world that isn’t made for you. Meet the needs of Autistic kids and you’ll see a drastic decline in any aggression.
If you know your child is uncomfortable, try to help relieve that discomfort. Some children are unable to clear saliva and may spit or drool as a result. This is common with children who need lip or tongue tie revisions. If your child is anxious, try these measures. Whatever is going wrong, seek out a solution to support your child rather than punishing them.
This is fun! I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try. I was curious what would happen. I just felt like it.
Our children’s top job is to learn through play. We must leave some room for childlikeness, even when it comes to things that are as upsetting as aggression. As strange as it might seem to us, children do many things because they’re testing out how their bodies move and what effect they can have on their environment.
If you know your child is playing, try directing their play into a form that is more conducive to your family’s lifestyle. Getting down on the ground to wriggle around kicking can be fun. Just make sure the goal truly is play or your actions could come across as mocking.
Tips for Interrupting Aggression
Respond Gently. First and foremost, try not to meet force with force. Understand that children start out several steps ahead of us in terms of emoting because of their stage of brain development. The calmer we are, the better we can respond. And, if you need to physically stop your child from harming you, use the least force you possibly can.
State Your Boundary. Let your child know your expectation in clear, unambiguous terms. Try “I know you want to hit me because you’re angry. I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you hurt me.”
Engage the Three Rs. When you need to engage with a dysregulated child, remember to Regulate, Relate, and Reason. For many children, just acknowledging and empathizing alone will resolve the aggression, so that you can work toward meeting the need.
Give Your Child an Alternative. Understand that there are two types of aggression: the type you can mediate, like hitting and the type you can’t, like spitting. You can stop a child from hitting, biting, and throwing. You can’t stop a child from spitting, peeing, or pooping. In all cases, it’s crucial to address the underlying need, but you may also be able to introduce an alternative such as giving a child a chewie to chomp in place of spitting or even a towel to spit into. Whatever alternative you choose must be desirable to your child and easy to access when the need calls.
Resolve the Underlying Need. I cannot stress enough how important this one is. You’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong for your child and help them fix the problem. For example, when a child is pushing his sister down over and over again, take notice of why it’s happening. Is the sibling standing too close? Bothering the child while he’s playing? Once you figure out the need, the solution is often simple enough. Help the kids regulate and then invite the other child to help you in the other room.
Give Children the Words.Kids do not instinctively know how to ask for what they need. I hear a lot of parents telling children to “Use your words.” Let me tell you how very unhelpful that is! Parents, please use YOUR words. Give your child the language they should use to have their needs met, even if you have to do it over and over and even if you have to ask questions to get there. The more you model how to use language under stress, the more capable your children will be in following suit.
Avoid Confusing Messaging. While you’re giving your child the words, remember that children think in very concrete terms. There’s a series of books by Elizabeth Verdick called the Best Behavior Series and it includes such titles as Teeth Are Not for Biting, Feet Are Not For Kicking, and Voices are Not For Yelling. Read those titles again… carefully. How do we chew our food without biting? How do we swim without kicking? And how to we call out for help without yelling? It’s not logical, so it’s not going to make a lot of sense to a child. Kids might learn in spite of these messages, but it’s best to avoid them if possible.
Consider an Assessment. If your child’s aggression doesn’t seem to be manageable using any of the tips above, consider that something deeper may be going on and that you might not have all the information you need to meet their needs. Put aside concerns about stigma and work with a professional to help you and your child understand what’s happening.
For very important anti-childist, anti-authoritarian reasons, many peaceful parents promote friendship between parents and children. Yet, I struggle with the concept of being in a friend relationship with my children for similar reasons why I don’t believe people who support marginalized communities can declare themselves allies. I can’t dictate to my children how they will regard me. I can demonstrate to them the qualities of friendship and how positive relationships work, but I will simultaneously be working out my anti-childist journey. While they remain children, there will be tension in the balance of power and fragile progress in my unlearning of childism. It’s not as simple as declaring myself their friend and then palling it up with them.
It’s up to my children to decide how they will characterize our relationship. I can provide many of the wonderful qualities of friendship like honesty, acceptance, and respect, but I am also responsible for teaching, guiding, and protecting. It’s… complicated. If they don’t view me as a friend, I’ll be ok.
Truth be told, I completely understand and agree with the reasoning behind why parents want to be friends with their kids. I don’t think it’s strange at all that adults and children enjoy friendship. Obviously, the content of such friendships is different from adult-adult friendships. For instance, we should never burden children with our adult worries. But, we already know that different friendships manifest in different ways. We have coworker friends that we go to lunch with but may never see outside the office. We have childhood friends who remain in our lives but at a distance. We have mom friends online who know our deepest, darkest secrets but whom we may never meet in person. Friendship is not a one size fits all scenario. Adult-child friendships are cool as long as there’s a high degree of propriety and a complete absence of abusive behavior. I hope someday to achieve the status of “friend” to my children and here’s why.
Friends are their own complete people first and foremost. It’s one thing to want to be close to another person and another to be codependent. Friends have their own separate identities, needs, and wants, and they have mutual respect of all these things.
Friends care and are invested in each other. Friendship involves a selflessness in that friends pay attention to each other and elevate each other’s needs.
Friends have integrity. They are trustworthy and dependable. They tell the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. And, they do these things with the intent to uplift and never to tear down.
Friends improve morale. Friends offer a self-esteem boost. It feels good when people want you around and even better when they go out of their way to seek you out. As social creatures, humans need friendships for our mental health and this aspect of friendship in no small way explains why.
Friends believe in each other. It is so important to have people in our lives who know us well and understand us. One of the most critical aspects of friendship is being trusted.
Friends forgive. All relationships experience decline and growth. When we mess up, we have to know that our friends love us enough to mend the bond and move forward even stronger than before.
Friends listen and support. Good friends know when they need to be quiet and listen intently. They empathize and seek to support their friends in the most helpful ways whether that means validating feelings or giving advice or even riding out to take care of business when the situation calls for it.
Friends give and take. Allowing for free flowing reciprocity is so important. Friends don’t need to keep score. They just need to provide whatever support is required and ask for what they themselves need. That’s how friends show up for each other in the good times and bad.
There isn’t a single thing in that list that doesn’t also apply to my hopes for parenthood. This is the type of parent I want to be, which means there must be room for friendship in my relationship with my children. How that will end up looking is anyone’s guess. It’s going to develop organically, fostered with love and intentionality. I will demonstrate friendship to my children whether or not they consider me their friend and, maybe in time, I’ll hear those sweet words “You’re my best friend, mommy.” What an awesome day that would be!
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!
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!
Last week, I was dutifully scrolling through my Facebook feed to check in on my friends and see if I’d missed important updates while I had been adulting in real life. I stopped when I saw a post from my close friend, and fellow Peaceful Parent, that started out raw and never let up. She had laid her soul bare right there on the screen.
As I read her palpable words, thoughts welled up in my mind. I recalled being spanked as a child and questioning whether my parents truly loved me. How could they hurt me like that and say “I’m doing this because I love you” moments later? I couldn’t comprehend it. As a parent myself now, I understand how hard it was for them to manage their own emotions and parent two small children at the same time. But, the sadness still lingers even to this day.
Reading my friend’s words helped me to see clearly how much effort it truly takes to choose the peaceful path. So, I asked her if I could share her words here, anonymously, and she graciously consented. I hope her words touch your heart as they have mine.
She shut down as we were walking to the bus and my rage flared.
How dare she. Doesn’t she see that I’m trying my best? I have been nothing but transparent. Does she not know how hard I’m trying?!
She stomped toward the back of the bus and I fumed silently behind her. She sat in an empty single seat and I raged past her to a seat where I could still see her. My inner world raged and I glared at her. She angrily stared straight ahead and looked miserable.
I looked down at my phone for a distraction.
When I looked up, she’d fallen asleep.
The angry swirl of voices coagulated to a single whisper: “it’s not about you.”
The most important and trickiest part of peaceful parenting for me is regulation.
Before I knew of this way of parenting, I knew that I could never beat or spank my child. Aside from my personal trauma of having that experience, it simply never made sense to me. I knew that if I was hitting my child, I would be in a state of anger. That never sounded right to me. And then, if I’m no longer angry, would I be emotionlessly hitting my child? Somehow that sounded even more terrifying.
You can’t peacefully parent if you are dysregulated. You can peacefully parent a child when they’re dysregulated – only if you’re committed to peacefully helping them regulate. And let me tell you, this shit suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.
Feelings have so many meanings attached to them. Analyzing those feelings to achieve regulation requires constant self-awareness. My dysregulation as a parent is laden with generational trauma. How DARE she disrespect! How dare she disobey! Does she know what would’ve happened to ME if I EVER did that?!
The middle layer is usually a feeling of the present – annoyance, exhaustion, hunger, etc. The top layer is the saltiness of recognizing my annoyance, my desire to lash out, containing that desire, and – you guessed it – another layer of intergenerational awareness. Jealousy. Sadness that sometimes I was not granted this self-restraint. The burden of why I need to be peaceful. The wheel to my shoulder as I push it in a new direction.
Also, tears. Tears I feel she doesn’t need to be crying. Or her tears dropping on my shoulder, arms, or clothing.
I looked at her sleeping. Poor thing. I knew she was tired. I knew she had a rough day – some of her favorite foods from the lunch I packed fell on the playground. The teacher thought she was rude. She cried a whole river and stream. She told me herself.
And so my anger subsided. I know that behavior is communication. I just had to sift through my messages to get to hers. Her shutting down is not a snub of my attempts to reason and parent fairly. Later on, she told me that she knew that I was getting mad.
It’s not about me.
It is, but it’s not. My feelings are important too. Of course I want to be appreciated, but it’s not really a 7 year old’s job to say, “thanks for peacefully parenting me, mom.” So what do I need?
What do you need to regulate and regain peace so that you can reach out to your child with peace in your eyes?
Learn 9 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Body Image Today
When children as young as three years old are concerned about their body size, it’s clear we have a serious problem. Preschoolers are supposed to be learning their colors! Not examining their baby fat in disgust. Last year, I wrote a post on Fostering Competent Eating to help families encourage a positive relationship between their children and food. And now, we really need to talk about body image and the ill effects of Diet Culture.
Building Children Up in the Face a Culture that Tears Them Down
Children receive messages about their appearance everywhere they turn: from us, from their peers, from advertising, from toys, from media (social and otherwise), and elsewhere. When a child gets battered about the head by toxic messaging over time, it has a detrimental effect. Our sweet little babies who were so fascinated with their fingers and toes become teenagers who say the most devastating things about themselves. How they get there is an easy-to-track trajectory of negativity and perfectionism.
Mom.com posted a revealing piece about children and body image several years ago and every point still rings true today. In it, Jenna Birch notes the following shocking facts:
Girls Are Dieting by Age 10
‘Thigh gaps’ have become teen status symbols
Board Games Becoming More Image-Conscious
Body-Image Issues in Boys Could Lead to Steroids
Teens Find ‘Thinspiration’ on Social Media
More Kids Under 12 Hospitalized for Eating Disorders
Concept of ‘Fat Prejudice’ Starts as Young as 4
Schools May Perpetuate Bad Eating Habits
Clothes Becoming More Sexualized
Anxiety May Trigger an Eating Disorder
What can we do as parents in the face of such awfulness? To start, we have to understand that there really is no end game. Our work in counteracting negative body image has to be constant both for our children and for ourselves. Coming at this issue from a peaceful perspective, here are some ideas for how to make that happen.
Stop making negative comments about your body and others’bodies. It’s such a tough habit to break when you’ve done it for as long as you can remember. You can start by never again commenting on someone’s weight loss or weight gain. “I’m glad you’re happy!” is a neutral, kind way to acknowledge weight fluctuations that people wish to celebrate.
Talk with your child about what you see in tv shows, movies, and magazines. Pull back the curtain and point out everything that’s unrealistic, making sure to be specific and accurate. Your goal is to present the truth and give your child space to figure out the rest.
Avoid general praise altogether and, instead, focus on specific remarks about effort as much as possible. Instead of “Well done” try “I see how hard you’re working on your book report.” Instead of “Good game” try “You practiced so hard and now you’re making almost every basket!” Instead of “Good job” try “You did it! I know how much effort you put into getting it right.”
Expose your child to the body positivity, size acceptance, and fat liberation movements. No, they aren’t perfect but what is? Letting voices outside of your family speak to your child about how important it is to love our bodies unconditionally can counteract much of the messaging coming through media.
Teach your child about their body and use proper terms for body parts. It can be tough, but it’s important to talk about topics like menstruation, masturbation, and sex as factually and honestly as you can. Using euphemisms and appearing in any way like you’re uncomfortable with the discussion can send a message that something is inherently wrong with our bodies. You can prepare for these discussions by practicing talking openly about bodily functions. For instance, starting in infancy, rather than naming feces things like “stinky” and making comments about how bad your child’s diaper smells, try simply stating “You pooped! Let’s get cleaned up.” Reserve the commentary for your child’s sake.
If your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other treatable mental health burden, prioritize professional intervention. Positive and negative body image fluctuate over our lifetimes, influenced both by external messaging and our internal mental health. Therapists can make a huge difference in the life of a child and, by teaching your child to seek help as a matter of course, you will set them up for a lifetime of well tended mental health. **If your child is displaying symptoms of an eating disorderno matter how much they weigh, get help immediately.
And, of course, this piece wouldn’t be complete without plugging Peaceful Parenting! All of the work you’re putting into being respectful of your kids, honoring consent and bodily autonomy, and speaking lovingly will go a long way toward supplying your child’s inner voice with the power it needs to fight back against negative ideation.
Getting Through Those Tough Conversations
When you need to craft a response to your child’s self-deprecating commentary, remember three things:
Avoid invalidating your child’s feelings and empathize where possible
Challenge the narrative
Example Comment: “I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.”
Avoid InvalidatingAnd Empathize: Resist the urge to say “You’re not fat” or otherwise deny your child’s feelings. Neutrally recognize how they feel in the moment.
Acknowledge Truth: “You’re right that different people have different body types.”
Challenge the Narrative: “ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.”
Daughter: I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.
Parent: You’re right that different people have different body types. ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.
Daughter: You don’t understand! I’m so FAT. I hate myself.
Parent: Uh uh. I DO know how it feels to hate my body. I get it. I’ve felt exactly the same way. It’s hard to overcome those feelings when everyone seems to be telling you to hate yourself because you aren’t their version of perfect. It’s hard. Really hard. I’m here for you anytime you need to unload.
Unfortunately, negative body image can’t be overcome in a single conversation. If it could, the weight loss industry wouldn’t be dealing in $70+ billion every year. You’re going to have thousands of these moments to deconstruct what our culture has built in your child’s mind. Your child likely won’t be receptive at first and may go through many setbacks as the years go by. Give it time and give your child grace. Every effort on your part brings your child one step closer to abundant self-confidence. You are the living stopgap measure standing in the breach until your child finds their own best weapon against this brutal enemy. It’s a hard place to stand, but there is no better person than you to protect your child.
Looks like we’ve found some common ground, because talking doesn’t work with mine either. Did you think I was going to disagree? Do you think my “hugs and happy thoughts” approach to parenting is doomed to fail? Hold that thought.
First, let’s think about what we mean by “work.” It doesn’t work to do what? To compel a child to understand the full impact of their actions? To immediately force the child into compliance? To make the child recognize the authority of the parent? Because, if it’s any of those, you’re right, there’s no way talking can succeed on its own.
Second, and more important, the idea that Peaceful Parenting is about talking to a child like we’re all in our own private Disney film and they’ll fall right in line is spectacularly wrong. The hugs, the talking, the empathizing, the affirming, the freedom, the limits… all of these are techniques. They are not a means to an end in and of themselves. Before you will ever have success with any of the Peaceful Parenting techniques I share, you must do two things: 1) painfully rip your worldview to shreds and rebuild it in such a way that places your child on a direct parallel with you in terms of mutual respect and 2) build a genuine, non-confrontational relationship with your child. And then you should still expect childism to infiltrate your reasoning. It takes active work to reject childism and to understand that many of the behavioral complaints we have about our children are a direct manifestation of childism. The very idea that children intentionally misbehave is childism in action. In short, Peaceful Parenting is the antidote to childism and the archetype for positive, healthy relationships between parents and children.
The reason talking will never be effective by itself is that it jumps ahead of all the other work you need to be doing. So, you’ve shifted your worldview, you’re working on your relationship with your child, and suddenly, there’s a crisis. Your child (age doesn’t matter) is furious with you and is treating you unkindly. Stop. Don’t try to talk yet! The first step in the midst of a crisis is to co-regulate with your child. For younger children, that may mean hugs or sitting nearby while the child unleashes. For older children, that may mean coaching the child through breathing exercises or getting your child to an established chill out space. This is the time when you bring your child’s emotional and physiological arousal level into greater alignment with your own. This step is more difficult the younger your child is and, therefore, requires seas of patience which will grow from practice and intention.
The next step is to empathize. Let your child know you understand their distress and that you’re right there to help. With my small children, I tell them things like “You’re angry right now. It’s ok to be angry. You’re safe with me.” Older children and teens will likely need a more grown-up approach such as “I can see how upset you are with me. I understand why you feel this way. We can work through this together. You’re safe with me.” But, please be sure to give your child plenty of grace. Understand that they need time to work through the emotional turmoil. Offering empathy cannot be your way of shutting your child up. Attempting it will backfire horribly.
Finally, after you’ve guided your child through that emotional minefield and you’re in a place of healing, now is finally the time for talking. You can offer your perspective. You can explain any limits you’ve set. You can answer questions. The point here is to engage and provide your child with all the information they need to make a sound and reasonable decision on moving forward.
Your child might negotiate or even reject what you’ve said. It’s ok. Let your child have their own mind. If you’ve set a firm limit that has little wiggle room, be honest. You may need to go back through the three steps again or more than twice before your child has fully reasoned through. If you are looking for immediate compliance, you won’t find it in Peaceful Parenting. At least not at the beginning. But, why would you want immediate compliance? Do you beat your young child for not being able to read or write? Do you shame your teen for not being able to drive before they’ve had a chance to learn? Then, why punish a child who is building self-regulation ability and logical reasoning for learning those skills too slowly for your liking?
If you are expecting immediate compliance every time or children who behave like little adults instead of kids, Peaceful Parenting will never work because your expectations are beyond a child’s developmental abilities. When I first encountered Peaceful Parenting, I too struggled to understand how it could work (and I had no idea what “work” even meant in this context). Now I understand that, for a Peaceful Parent, success looks like children who are open and willing to share their emotions with you, willing to make mistakes and fail without fear, willing to trust that you have their best interests at heart, willing to do the things you ask of them because they know you will reciprocate that level of respect.
I have been peacefully parenting my children from the day they were born. I know a lot of people think it’s hilarious to ask a baby if you can change their diaper, but lessons in consent begin as soon as you, the parent, choose. I didn’t ask my children if I could change their diapers, but what I did do was to sportscast their days. “It’s time to change your diaper! Let’s go to the changing table and get this done.” Many of us do this naturally as we talk with our newborns and infants.
Over the years, I’ve fine tuned my plan for tackling difficult situations. As they’ve grown, my strategies have changed, but my underlying approach continues to be Peaceful Parenting. Do my kids wild out sometimes? Most definitely. They aren’t different from anyone else’s kids. They aren’t more mature or easier. They are as challenging and wonderful as any child I’ve ever cared for and I had many years of experience in child care before I became a parent. But, my children tend toward cooperation and gentleness. I’ve rarely had fights over diaper changes. I’ve never struggled to put them into their car seats. Any time I’ve felt I needed to punish them was because of my own emotions and my reactions to triggering events. They aren’t manipulative or mean or ill-mannered. They are respectful, kind children who are a delight to be around.
Peaceful Parenting works for every parent and every child though the routes we each take in addressing the ways our children communicate through their behavior will always differ. Your response may not look much like mine. My responses will not address the needs of every child. I am focused on my own children and tailoring my parenting to their needs, which I recognize because I have spent such a long time understanding who they are and why they do the things they do. I write to spark ideas for how parents can more effectively engage with their children, not to lay out a singular path to parenting success. Peaceful Parenting takes time. You can’t “try it out” or occasionally talk to your kids instead of punishing them. You can’t talk first and punish later. It doesn’t work like that. This is an all in approach as you must surrender to a significant paradigm shift and recognize that behavior is communication. From that perspective, no child on the planet misbehaves.
So, if talking isn’t making a difference for you, you can’t claim it as a weakness of Peaceful Parenting. Talking ≠ Peaceful Parenting. Oh no, it’s so much more!
ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.
It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many Autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.
At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an Autistic mom of an Autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.
I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to Autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.
Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder
So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is only disabling in cultures where Autistic people are not included and embraced.
Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an Autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what Autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.
A History of ABA Therapy
Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with Autistic children.
Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, Autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make Autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among Autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicablefellow:
Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that Autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.
Autistic Perspectives on ABA
Amythest Schaber is an Autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.
The following list includes links to other Autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:
Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:
If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.
What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?
To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.
I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.
Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help Autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.
Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your Autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sidenote: CBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your Autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.
In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why Autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:
ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.
If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.
No Autistic child is the same and there are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all Autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.
That includes Autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.
You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.
You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping Autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your Autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.
Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies
If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for Autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.
Observation is Not Allowed
No Stimming Allowed
Requires Eye Contact
Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
Focus on Compliance
Focus on Verbal Communication
Punishment of Any Kind
You Are a Good Parent
Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of Autistic adults urging caution.
A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults
This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow Autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. Thank you!
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.
As you prepare to burst through the gate of a brand new year, your thoughts may center on firm resolutions or even just some loose plans for changes you’d like to see in your life. If being a kinder parent is on your list, I have some comforting news for you. One single change can make all the difference in your efforts to embrace peace and gentleness.
It’s so simple, yet so difficult. It takes intention. It may result in a worldview shift and will likely foster in a positive outlook that can carry you through the toughest parenting challenges. If you have limited time and energy; if you’re overwhelmed at the rigors of peaceful parenting; if you’d hoped you’d have more of a handle on becoming a gentler you but trials and tribulations made your path rockier than you’d ever imagined… if you need help but you don’t know what to help to ask for, I encourage you to do this one, precious, small thing: Reframe.
Reframing is a psychological technique wherein you mentally stand up and move to a different location to see your situation from another, more positive (or at least neutral) perspective. I urge you to watch this incredible 10-minute TED Talk before moving on:
When I talk about reframing in the context of parenthood, I mean choosing to see difficult situations in a new light. As peaceful parents, we know that children do well when they can and, when they can’t, they need our help. Not our wrath. It’s so incredibly hard to honor our own emotions around frustrating incidents while affirming our children’s emotions at the same time. But, that’s what they need from us. In those moments when it becomes too much to bear, taking a breather is always a good decision. It is not a failure. It is self-consideration. When you’re ready to gain new perspective in those tough moments, prioritize empathy.
A friend of mine recently shared with me a difficult interaction she had with her young teenage daughter. The pair were engaged in a mother-daughter clothing battle over cleanliness with the teen wanting to wear her favorite hoodies over the course of several days and her mother wanting to get those hoodies washed and in good order. As we talked, my friend recognized that her daughter was likely associating comfort and safety with her favorite hoodies, which helped reduce her anxiety. So, there was likely a genuine need for her to keep those items close at hand. My friend mentioned that she was planning to get some more hoodies to give to her daughter for Christmas, and I suggested getting two of each, which would make four as gifts and six hoodies in total including the existing pieces. Six hoodies would easily get her daughter through a school week with plenty of time for washing. Once she stepped beyond the conflict, the solution became clear.
When you’re under stress, reframing can feel impossible. It just takes practice and a little ingenuity. Your goal is to view your child in a positive rather than a negative light. With an open mind, you can peer into your child’s heart and see just what’s needed.
I asked friends to share with me some of the most stressful behaviors their children exhibit. You know, the ones that trigger something deep inside that could explode into rage at any moment? Whew! I know that feeling. Let me pause here to say that no one – not me, not you, not anyone – is a machine. Some triggers simply touch too deep, and we do end up exploding. That’s not a fail. We’re human. No way to get around that. We apologize and keep trying. And, that’s what makes us peaceful parents. With that said, I’ll note some of the behaviors that seem to really set folks off.
Children, especially very young ones, seem to be prone to using their bodies to communicate displeasure. They may hit, bite, kick, spit, and scratch, all of which can be extremely upsetting to the adults receiving this inappropriate treatment. It’s especially infuriating when our children hurt each other, especially when it’s an older, larger sibling beating up on a smaller one. Those interactions feel an awful lot like bullying, and that’s something many of us cannot tolerate.
Children use aggression when they don’t have adequate words to express their emotions and when they’ve reached a breaking point. There are certainly cases where some children are violent due to physiological or psychological differences, but most children will lash out at one time or another. This form of communication typically peaks around age 2, but can be present throughout childhood as a child’s (including teens) brain is working primarily off emotion and not logic.
It’s rough when “I won’t let you hit the dog” triggers a toypocalypse as your child slams all her toys onto the floor in a rage. As adults, we know the financial costs involved with destruction. Just walking through the doors of an emergency room costs several hundred dollars to start. That nice dollhouse Aunt Beverly gave your kids last Christmas? $150 down the drain as it becomes the object of a Godzilla-scale attack by a very angry little boy.
There are reasons not to get too caught up in the value of things when your child’s emotional health is on the line, but all the reasoning in the world won’t relieve the fire that burns in your gut when you see your child tearing up their belongings.
As peaceful parents, we want to be countercultural… to view strong responses from our children as natural and healthy. But, there is just something unsettling about a child blatantly doing something we’ve said not to, refusing to eat, throwing food on the floor, and the like. It hits deep and activates our conditioning to view children as subservient and ourselves as singularly worth of respect. Even the calmest among us have a breaking point where we get so fed up, we lash out.
Here’s how it works. When your child does something that sends you right over the proverbial cliff, stop for a moment and recognize that there is an answer. You CAN find a solution! Breathe. Slow down. Look at your child. What’s really happening? If your child is acting in a way that disconnects them from their social group – which is totally contrary to who we are as humans – recognize that there’s a barrier your child can’t overcome no matter how disciplined they might or might not be. Your task is to figure out what that barrier is and guide your child to the solution.
Give reframing a go! Make this your New Year’s Resolution. Once you start to see through the behavior to the need, gentleness will naturally follow. And, if you need guidance to figure out how to support your child through particularly challenging behaviors, I’ll be here all year to help.
That friend I mentioned earlier graciously previewed this post for me. Coincidentally, at the same time, her young son was experiencing a crisis. He had been playing a video game, when he began crying and saying he hated everything. Initially, his father considered taking video games away altogether, but my friend read this post to him and encouraged him to wait. While their son took a breather, they brainstormed why he was acting that way.
Once they put it all together, they realized he had gotten upset when he couldn’t progress past a certain point in the game. My friend’s husband checked the settings and realized they were at a level that was far too difficult for a little boy. After adjusting the difficulty to a more age-appropriate level, he invited his son back in to enjoy a fun father-son game together. The solution was there all along! There is always an answer. You’ve just got to find it.
Want to know something pretty incredible about whining? Researchers have posited that it may actually be an evolution of crying at a time when children “switch from primarily mothers to greater care from other caregivers.” That means whining serves an evolutionary purpose in communication between young children and adults. Kids who whine when resources are limited tend to be heard and that means they tend to survive. Pretty clever, huh? But, stressful nonetheless.
I know my title mentions a “cure” for whining, but in reality, whining is good as far as I’m concerned. It signals that a child is emotional, under or over-stimulated, or just plain done. That kind of information can help you be an even more responsive parent. Whining tells you there’s a need waiting to be met and, if you can pinpoint what it is, you can avoid a meltdown. Before you do anything else, make sure your child’s basic needs are squared away. Hunger? Thirst? Discomfort? Tiredness? Sometimes, all it takes is addressing the underlying situation to resolve the cause of the whining.
However, when that’s not possible or when you can’t determine what the issue is, there’s another trick you can keep up your sleeve. The surprisingly powerful “First/Then” statement. It works in just about every context. Let’s say your child wants to go outside to play, but there are toys everywhere. You might say, “Not until you clean up.” That’s a pretty amorphous statement when you think about it. “Not until you clean up.” There’s no direction. No time frame. No, point a to point b.
Back in the late 1800s, Pierre Janet – a French psychologist who specialized in dissociation and traumatic memory – set out to explore the phenomenon wherein we feel like time passes more quickly as we get older. He came up with the “ratio theory” which suggests that the smaller proportion of our lives that remains, the more quickly we feel we’re hurtling toward the end. There are other theories about the phenomenon, some say it’s memory, others our biological clock. Whatever the truth is, one thing is for sure. Time moves at a snail’s pace for children. We can be sensitive to that even as we establish limits for our kids.
Back to cleaning up those toys. Giving children more of a clear directive without attempting to control their every move often helps motivate them and reduces their need to whine in order to be heard. In our scenario, you might consider saying, “First, I need for you to pick up your toys and put them where they belong. Then, you’re welcome to go outside and play until the sun goes down.” You’ve given your child a task list to check off, time-related landmarks, and the power to choose how long to do the task you’ve given. And, if you really want to level up on your Peaceful Parenting, offer to help your child clean up! The very best cure for whining is to meet your child needs.