Want to Stop Punishing Your Kids? Here’s How.

So, you’re on-board with Peaceful Parenting. You try to co-regulate with your kids, empathize, and collaborate with them toward solutions that are mutually beneficial. You’ve been cognizant of your attitude and you’ve been working toward remaining calm most of the time. But, then something happens and you snap. You yell or you spank or you threaten or otherwise forcibly control your child, even though this isn’t who you want to be.

I hope you’re not looking at me thinking that I’ve got it together. That I must never yell or spank or act out in a non-peaceful way. Nope. I’m working toward being a Peaceful Parent just like you are and stumbling all over myself along the way. Let me tell you a story.

This past week, circumstances got the better of me. I thought myself such an accomplished parent one day when I whipped out drawing pads and Crayons for the kids and got to work cleaning up. I even left the kids alone at the kitchen table for a while to draw while I cleaned other areas of the house. Soon enough, I heard Crayons hitting the floor. I returned to the dining room to see my son snapping Crayons in half and shoving them into his mouth to chew and spit on the floor. The anger welled in my chest. I kept it together and asked him to go ahead and sit down so he could keep drawing while I cleaned up the chewed pieces of waxy mess. Instead, he went tearing around the house, a bouquet of Crayons in his hand poised to be cleaved in twain. It was too much and… I started hollering. “SIT DOWN.” “DON’T BREAK ANYMORE CRAYONS!” “LET ME WORK.” “STAHHHHHP!” My reaction only served to fuel the flames and the situation quickly escalated.

I angrily swept and tossed the Crayons (which could have been used again even in their broken state), I ignored my son as he continued to dysregulate, and then, in a moment of fury, I started toward him to snatch away a toy he had in his hand so I could throw it away in front of him in a cruel and punitive move. But, before I got to him, I stopped. I stopped dead in my tracks as my own words echoed back at me. Would you devastate your child for a $1.50 box of crayons? Would you provoke tears for pocket change? And, there it is. Right there. The first step toward ending our reign of punishment. It’s a decision in the heat of the moment. A choice we’ve already committed to.

Punishment Rejection Action Steps

1. Start With a Choice. You have to decide before you ever get angry what your limits are. Yelling is my vice. It’s deeply ingrained from my childhood and it is the language of my hot temper. But, yelling is a punitive act. We use our adult voices to suppress and control our children, leaving them with unseen scars. It may not be as clearly punitive as time out or spanking, but it is undesirable as a tool in our Peaceful Parenting kit. What’s your go to? What punishment do you turn to when you feel you can’t bear anymore? Make a commitment right now to stop. Draw the line in your mind and say, “I will not fall back on this action.” Even if you do it again, reinforce your belief that your actions are unacceptable and then try again the next time.

2. Engage in Prevention. As you may know if you’ve been following my posts, I am a big advocate of the Three Rs: Regulate, Relate, Reason. When my children begin to dysregulate, I intervene then. I try not to wait for the situation to escalate. Most of the time, prevention also helps me avoid dysregulating myself. It gives me a chance to get a grip on my emotions and fully invest in the moment when my kids need me most.

3. Have a Game Plan. Decide, in advance, what it is you’re going to do when you’ve gotten to a point where you’re about to blow your top. The Learning Parent SG put together a fantastic series on what she does as she nears her breaking point. She calls her approach, “Reactive Distancing.”

During a calm moment, take some time to put your game plan together. Decide what it is you can commit to doing when your thinking mind begins to struggle.

4. Think Like a Child. Ever notice how small children go from huge emotions to giggling in no time flat? They aren’t weighed down by the self-judgment and mental turmoil that adults experience. A dear friend of mine told me she takes a cue from Daniel Tiger. When she starts to feel dysregulated, she says, “If you feel so mad that you have to roar take a deep breath and count to 4.” As she counts, her jaw and fists start to relax, and she finds she’s more able to breathe. Then, she makes an effort to speak to her children in a neutral way in an effort to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes neutral is the best she can do and sometimes she’s able to nurture. Either way, she and her children both benefit from her efforts. She shared that she’s learned how valuable things like hugs, cuddles, and tickles can be as she works toward co-regulating with her kids. Play is always called for when tensions are high.

5. Do the Hard Work on Yourself. Our reactions are not the fault of our children. They are the result of a lifetime of experiences and the neurotransmitter conditioning our brains have undergone. Many of us could improve our situation by shifting to a more positive outlook to build emotional resilience. “Thinking positively” is absolutely NOT the only answer to resolving our lifelong triggers, but it is one action we can take. We can also find a therapist, exercise regularly, reframe negative situations, and relinquish some control.

6. Never Stop Trying. Every time you choose to be gentle with your children, you are reinforcing to your own psyche that what you’re doing is good and it’s achievable. Even when you mess up, and oh will you mess up, brush yourself off and make a better choice at the next opportunity. Parenting is about relationship. When we push our kids away with our attitudes, we have to focus on reconciling and confirming to them that the issue is us not them. In the backs of our minds, we have to give ourselves grace enough to say, “I will do better next time” and really mean it.

After the blowup with my son, I sat down with him and apologized. I told him that I was having a hard day and I had no right to yell at him. I told him that I loved him and gave him all the cuddles he was craving. As I was holding him, his little body released its tension and he drifted off to sleep. Turns out, that energy burst he’d had was his last ditch effort at alerting me that he was exhausted. I misread it and got angry when the answer was staring me right in the face. I will not absolve myself of the harm I caused him that day, but I will say that I make good choices more often than not and I am actively working on my temper. I yell less than I did a year ago and still less than I did a year before that. Things are improving over time and, before too long, I will consistently react neutrally when members of my family touch a raw nerve. That’s my commitment to them and to myself. What are you willing to commit to today?

What Christians Get Wrong About Sparing the Rod

Trivia: Where does the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” come from? If you said the Bible, you’d be dead wrong. In fact, when you learn where it’s actually from, you’ll probably not want to use that phrase anymore.

“Spare the rod” is a line from a 17th century poem called Hudibras by Samuel Butler that mocks Judao-Christian values. (Check out Part 2, Canto 1, line 844.) In this erotic poem, a man is trying to woo a woman who encourages him to submit to aphrodisiac flagellation. The “rod” serves a double purpose, both referring to the whipping and to his penis.

Jokes aside, I figure that’s not what most people intend when they use this humorous phrase. They’re probably referring to Proverbs 13:24 which reads, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (NRSV) There has been much pushback from scholars who have conducted word studies on this passage. In short, reading this verse in its original language clearly indicates that the “rod” is a source of guidance and protection rather than punishment. Dr. Stacey Patton provided a fantastic overview via Facebook in 2016 and others have done similar work. This wonderful sermonette describes the purpose of the “rod” for a shepherd.

I won’t belabor this perspective, as it has been well covered elsewhere. The purpose of my piece is to talk about why Proverbs exists in the first place, with all of its apparent contradictions. For instance, in one place, we see what looks like an admonition to beat children with the rod of correction, while another verse declares that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NRSV). So, which is it? I’m glad you asked!

The book of Proverbs is the second book written by King Solomon, which is chock full of practical advice. Each piece of wisdom is intended to be thoughtfully considered and wrestled with. It is not enough to accept the surface meaning. Insightfully, Torah.org explains of Proverbs, “Much can be learned about the human mind by thinking about why two particular ideas were placed next to each other; why this verse would have been just like the last one… except for that small, almost insignificant difference and what the words actually mean. One can learn how to decide logically between two choices, how to make use of experience to avoid repeating mistakes and from what to stay away while chasing after a goal.”

The underlying mission of Proverbs is to communicate the wisdom of King Solomon, who is referred to as the wisest man to ever live and who still inexplicably fell victim to foolishness. Proverbs illustrates how futile it is to try to put God into a box or to claim wisdom unparalleled for ourselves as though we are not prone to the same faults that plagued King Solomon. Verses in Proverbs are juxtaposed in order to draw out the essence of truth, not just the literal meaning of the words. And, King Solomon utilized the same exaggeration and figurative language in Proverbs that we see throughout the Bible. These rhetorical devices serve the purpose of highlighting degree of importance, and it takes careful consideration to discern just how literal of a read we should be applying to any given verse.

It’s especially important to understand that truth and accuracy were not synonymous at the time Proverbs was written the way they are today. Take the example of the two competing creation stories in Genesis, both of which were intentionally placed together and both of which serve humanity’s understanding of the “why” behind our creation. Critics of Judao-Christian faith point to seeming contradictions throughout the Bible as evidence that the Bible is unreliable, not understanding the spiritual value imbued in these differences. Modern Christians must become comfortable with biblical truth not necessarily coinciding with a literal reading. If we fail to do this, we miss important contextual cues that the Hebrews would have instinctively understood through cultural conditioning.

If we’re going to take Proverbs seriously, we have to do so on the terms of its originating culture, which means we must consider what the Rabbis said. And, we know what the Rabbis said because we have a book of oral tradition: The Talmud. The Talmud is a compilation of rabbinic discussion on the Torah, and it is composed of two parts. First, there is the Mishnah, which is a compendium of oral law. Second, there is the Gemara, which comes in the two versions (Babylonian and Jerusalem), and is a record of rabbinic discussions around topics in the Mishnah. The Mishnah was standardized over the course of many centuries.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz of JewInTheCity.com elucidates the relevance of the Talmud in any discussion of spanking that references Proverbs 13:24. He explains:

…are people taking this verse too literally? How do the classical commentators explain it? Disappointingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, most of the commentators understand that it isn’t a metaphor, it literally refers to disciplining one’s child. But that still doesn’t mean that one should strike one’s child with a stick. In fact, it very much doesn’t.

You see, the Torah was written to be understood by the audience that received it. It speaks about loading donkeys, oxen treading grain, and women delivering babies on birthing stools – things to which most of us cannot relate. It doesn’t talk about DNA or black holes or flatscreen TVs because these are concepts that would have been incomprehensible to the original recipients. Similarly, if King Solomon (the author of Proverbs) wanted to discuss disciplining children, he was going to use corporal punishment as his illustration because time-outs didn’t exist, and I suspected that neither did grounding or docking allowances.

This is not just wishful thinking on my part; let’s examine the sources.

First of all, striking another person is seriously frowned upon in Judaism. Deuteronomy 25:3 tells us that someone sentenced to the penalty of lashes may not be struck more than the designated amount (a maximum of forty lashes). First the Torah tells us that “the wicked one deserves lashes” (25:2), but then we are told that we may not exceed the court-imposed amount because if we do, “your brother will be degraded.” The Sifre, quoted by Rashi on 25:3, demonstrates that before the punishment is administered, the offender is considered “wicked.” After he has paid his penalty, he is once again called “your brother” and it is forbidden to strike him. If we’re not allowed to strike a convicted criminal more than absolutely necessary, it should go without saying that we may not strike someone who was not so sentenced by the courts – not even if their behavior bothers us!

Striking someone outside of the context of court-ordered whiplashes is actually considered evil. In Exodus 2:13, Moshe asks “the wicked one,” “Why will you strike your friend?’” The Talmud in Sanhedrin (58b) points out that the person is called wicked just for raising his hand, even though he has not yet delivered a blow.

The Talmud in Moed Katan (17a) prohibits a parent spanking an older child, based on the principle that we may not do something that will cause others to sin (lifnei iver). The child might respond by cursing the parent or striking back – both serious sins – and the parent would be responsible for provoking that reaction. The Ritva (13th century) says that “older child” isn’t exhaustive. For sure one may not strike a child above the age of bar or bas mitzvah but, additionally, one may not even strike a younger child who is likely to retaliate in words or deeds. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (20th century) suggested that the cut-off for spanking would be age three.

Rav Wolbe’s position is not a mere concession to modern parenting. Peleh Yoetz (1824) says that even in the case of a young child, if the parents know that his nature is not to accept authority, they should discipline him using calm, soft tones.

True, the Rambam writes that a teacher may strike a student (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:2) but that very same halacha specifies that he may not use a whip or a rod, but only a “small strap.” (So much for “rod” literalists!) And how big is a “small strap?” The Talmud in Baba Basra (21a) says no larger than a shoelace.

He goes on to explain that the Talmud dictates the strict use of the “gentlest form of effective discipline” and points out that there is no Torah obligation to use corporal punishment on children. None at all. The Torah simply does not condone spanking as punishment for children. King Solomon knew that.

A weak argument can certainly be made that Bible allows for the corporal punishment of children (largely by omission of the topic in the Law), but it is a gross misinterpretation to claim that the Bible prescribes it. What Proverbs demands is that parents coach and correct their kids, so that the children are brought up with values that orient them toward God. Now that we have substantial evidence that spanking is extremely harmful, Christians should honor the book of Proverbs and exercise the wisdom that King Solomon called us to. If you are still unconvinced, consider carefully Christ’s warning about leading a child to harm.

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7 NRSV)

Woe to the adult whose treatment of a child leads that child to hate their parents, their life, or their God!

But, there’s good news. We can bypass the pitfalls inherent in controlling children through violence by rejecting our modern culture’s fixation on punishment and working instead toward fostering the “pleasant words” that are “like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24 NRSV). After all, Proverbs 22:6 reminds us that what we teach our children about godliness is what guides them for life… not how effectively we hit them.


Recommended Readings on Gentle Discipline:

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits

Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Self-Assessment on Childism:

The Anti-Childism Scale

Rights Versus Freedoms

Parents Don’t Matter But Matter So Much Too

I recently ran across this fantastic article in Psychology Today about nature versus nurture in child rearing. Robert Plomin Ph.D., dives into the research he presents in his book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.

What he has found is that our DNA is the driving force behind our psychology from personality to behavior. Your wonderfully sassy kid is probably genetically designed to be sassy. So strap in and hold on for this ride, because that kid isn’t going to change. (Keep that in mind when you’re feeling some type of way about your child’s “attitude.”)

He notes, for instance, that parents who read a lot to their children likely have children who enjoy being read to at a basic psychological level. So, when your mom friend starts bragging about reading 400 books to her daughter over the summer and asking you how many books you read to yours, don’t feel bad that your own daughter was too busy drawing to be bothered to sit for many stories. Your child’s personality is going to be very close to what it already was at conception, save for a major brain event.

On one hand, it’s freeing to know that all the experiences children encounter and process through the lens of their DNA help form their understanding of how the world works. Experiences are important and the field of epigenetics is informing us more every day about just how important they are. What we know for certain is that it’s crucial to develop a relationship with your child to find out their strengths and aptitudes and build on those. That sassy child I mentioned likely has heaps of natural confidence. Consider all the wonderful things they’ll be able to do, perhaps, in the public sphere. They may become an influencer or a politician. When you take note and support their interests, so many wonderful things will happen.

My son, for instance, is pretty chill at the most basic level. He mostly works with Peaceful Dad and me and follows directions well, but he needs our patience because he works in his own time. My daughter, on the other hand, is a spitfire. She’s demand avoidant to an extent and will fall to the floor in a heap at the slightest resistance on my part. Respecting my children means I plan in lots of thinking time for my son and I try not to rush him. And, for my daughter, I stay in her space without judgment as she frets. Then, when she’s ready to do something else, we work together.

Peaceful Parenting offers the ideal framework and guidance to work with children’s different personalities and needs. It respects the essence of the child and is flexible enough to move with a child’s genetic tendencies without any of the rigidity that can stifle a child’s inborn potentiality.

ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have

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 despicable fellow:

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:

Learn about the SCERTS Model by clicking here

ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.

If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.

My son was diagnosed with ASD, Level 2 (since autism is diagnosed by how burdensome we are to allistic people, which is unfortunate) which means the expectation is that he will have far more additional needs as he grows up than an allistic child might. Considering the dire prognoses presented in medical literature, one might expect my son to barely function in the broader culture. In fact, many people do. But, let me tell you a story.

Recently, I took both of my kids to the gym for the first time ever. My gym has free childcare which makes my life so much simpler. So, here you have a young, autistic boy who has never set foot in this new place and finds himself face to face with brand new sounds and smells that he’s never experienced. He’s led into a small room with an abundance of toys, all bright and mishmashed, and he sees two complete strangers sitting there smiling at him. What does the boy do?

Well, he finds a stand-up racing track and begins racing little cars. He listens attentively to the caregivers, and he has a relaxed smile on his face when it’s time to go home. No meltdowns. No shutdowns. No stimming. No fear. And, the reason? He’s been the recipient of Peaceful Parenting from the day he was born. Peaceful Dad and I are firmly connected with him, so he feels safe. We do not punish or reward him, so he doesn’t feel coerced. We are honest with him and prepare him for new experiences, so he doesn’t feel blindsided. We treat him like any other deeply loved person and include him in all our activities, so he has plenty of other experiences to draw from when encountering something new. And he knows that, if it’s ever too much for him, we will respect his needs and find the exit as quickly as we can.

On the way to the gym, I explained in great detail what he could expect. His communication is primarily gestural and minimally verbal, so it’s not as though he could tell me in words that he understood. However, his reaction to the new experience said it all.

No autistic child is the same and your child may not be able to handle a new experience at a gym like what I’ve described. That’s totally normal and ok. There are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.

That includes autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.

You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.

You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.

Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.

  1. Observation is Not Allowed
  2. Indefinite Therapy
  3. Extreme Hours
  4. No Stimming Allowed
  5. Requires Eye Contact
  6. Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
  7. Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
  8. Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
  9. Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
  10. Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
  11. Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
  12. Focus on Compliance
  13. Focus on Verbal Communication
  14. Punishment of Any Kind
  15. Presumes Incompetence

You Are a Good Parent

Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of autistic adults urging caution.

A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults

This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. I have learned from you and I’ve been able to offer my son a better life because of you. Thank you!

And, reader, thank you for listening.

Update (February 10, 2020): After I published this piece, it came to my attention that Alfie Kohn recently published an outstanding piece regarding new research into ABA. It’s well worth a read!

A Single Change Makes All the Difference

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.

Aggression

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.

Destruction

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.

Defiance

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.

The Reframe

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.

I Nearly Dialed 9-1-1

Whenever I’ve been out with my two kids, and we return home, I like to give my son a little freedom to make his way into the house. He enjoys the outdoors and has certain spots he likes to check to see if any animals have appeared. In particular, he’s always on the hunt for frogs and rabbits. After all, we’re in a semi-rural location with some land and lots of places to explore.

Today, just after noon, we returned from some errands. I took LL from her carseat and set her on my hip before picking up the myriad bags I needed to take inside. I hollered for BB to come along so we could eat our lunch. He scampered up behind me and I heard his heavy footfall on the porch behind me. I rounded the corner and made it to the door. Once inside, I set LL down to play and put all my bags on a shelving unit near our front door. I couldn’t have been inside more than one minute, but I couldn’t hear BB anymore.

I stepped back outside and looked around. Didn’t see him. I walked back to the parking area. Not there either. As LL watched from the living room window, I walked around looking in all of his usual haunts. When I couldn’t find him there, I went back up to the front of the house and looked around. Still didn’t see him. I started to get concerned. I went back to the parking area and walked down to the street level. I looked up one side of the sidewalk and down the other. I peered across the way to a park we frequent. Still no sign. I was getting frantic at this point. I started calling his name in that scary broken voice of panic. Nothing.

My mind was swimming. What if he got too close to the road and someone had picked him up? But, how? He was out there for no more than a minute and he had been on the porch. Where could he be? I walked back up to the front of the house still calling even more terrified. I started to walk to a small man-made pond near the house when I saw him. He was running toward me happily yelling “VULTURE!!” He had gone down near the water feature to look at a volt of vultures that had been sunning themselves along a wrought iron fence surrounding the water. But, because of the topography of the land, I couldn’t see him from the house.

He hadn’t done anything wrong per se. He was in a location we visit often together. He hadn’t gone past the “line” which is a joint in the concrete of our parking area beyond which is a busy state highway. He is very good about stopping at the line and never crosses it without an adult present. He also knew from experience that I curtail his adventures for a while when he ignores a safety limit. Whenever that happens, I hold his hand all the way into the house to make sure he’s ok. It takes time for me to trust in his judgment again.

But, this time, he followed the rules. All except for announcing himself or coming to me when I called. However, thinking back, it was probably a very short amount of time between when I first started calling and when he showed up. It just felt like an eternity when I thought I’d lost him.

This is where it gets really tough. How do I give him freedom to learn to be responsible and protect his safety at the same time? I’ve been thinking about the situation all day since it happened and I realized that my next step is to set a firmer boundary on the side of my house near the water feature. He needs a physical marker to know where to stop. I also need to work on having him respond or return when I call.

But, what I will not do is punish him for being a kid who respects the rules we already have in place. Even though my mommy heart was gripped with terror, I know he needs opportunities like this one to know he can always run back home and be accepted even when he hears that fear and upset in my voice.

Disrespectful Expectations

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.

That’s childism!

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
  • Child accepts
  • 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.