I see y’all out there. Parents trying to do your very best for your Autistic kids. You talk about how much ABA has helped your child and how you don’t know what you would have done without it. You say that you couldn’t possibly have done what your BCBA or RBT has accomplished. You truly believe that you, the person who knows your child the very best, don’t have what it takes to give your child the world. But, oh Love, you do! You honestly do.
The ABA industry systematically chips away at our confidence in our own instincts and abilities. With those scary prognoses and extensive treatment plans, how could we ever give our child what ABA can? From that perspective, it’s true. We don’t have the skill set to do what a BCBA or an RBT can do. For some parents, that will mean putting a child into ABA and trusting professionals with their care. For others, it will mean getting trained yourself so that you too can use behaviorism to manage your child’s actions. There’s another choice though. A less expensive and time consuming choice. A better choice.
A few days ago, occupational therapist, Greg Santucci, wrote about a fundamental flaw in the concept of ABA, one that we parents need to understand:
So, if the antecedent doesn’t really happen right before a behavior occurs, but rather results from a combination of factors that can stretch back days or even years, how could a BCBA or an RBT possibly recognize what’s wrong? How could they possibly know everything you know? You, Love. You saw what happened when your child’s favorite toy broke last week. You offered comfort and validation, but you knew your child felt grief, so you gave them space to mourn. Then, over the weekend, you saw your child’s energy revving up and you knew they needed to go outside, but rain changed your plans. So, you did your best to help your child get all that energy out while inside the house, but you could see a storm brewing. You have always been there. You are the safe space.
Now, it’s a new week and it’s time for ABA. Your child feels great stress from compounding factors that occurred well before the session. Then what happens? Your child refuses fulfill a demand and they get ignored. As they struggle without the support of a trusted adult, they get punished via planned ignoring for mourning their favorite toy and for needing outside time. ABA works because it crushes children into compliance no matter how they feel or what they need.
You can decide right now never to go back. Never to put your child into a situation where their behavior defines how they will be treated. You can give your child the exact support they need because you experience it all with them. You know when things get hard and how your child needs comforting. You can move past managing behaviors and instead coach emotions, helping your child feel and bear through the difficult times. And, those really difficult situations, like a child running into the street? Change the environment. Use a locking harness to make sure your child stays close to you when cars present a danger. Practice road safety with games like Red Light, Green Light in a safe location. Tell your child stories about how cars can hurt us, seeing the consequences from a child’s perspective. “If you get hit by a car, you won’t get to eat jelly beans until you get better because the car will hurt you!”
With emotion coaching and controlling the environment, you won’t need behavior management at all, and you certainly won’t need ABA. You can do this. You have all the skills already from your years of practice as a parent. Don’t let these medical professionals tell you that you don’t have what it takes. They are lying to you.
Learn strategies for how best to support your Autistic child by following these links:
A few days ago, I settled in to hear the entire hour-and-a-half long talk on How to set limits with your kids… DON’T! from Gentle Parents Unite podcast. In this talk, Sujai and Vivek discuss why arbitrary limit setting can be a form of coercion and control. If you’d like to give the talk a listen, I highly recommend it:
Levels of Limits
I am a strong proponent of the use of limits instead of punishments or consequences (which are just punishments given with a smile). However, something I haven’t discussed at any length is my strategy around limits. I restrict my own employment of limits to instances I judge to be imminently dangerous or destructive. For instance, I won’t let my young kids run into the street alone or dunk their hands into boiling water. Sure, a natural consequence might deliver a more memorable message, like getting hit by a car or hospitalized with third degree burns, but you can surely see why that’s not an option for me. My limits in these cases protect my children from endangering their lives and health. They are rather hard and fast.
Some of my softer limits involve harming belongings, people, and animals. These are more difficult to navigate as there is great benefit to children learning about the world on their own. If a child is smashing their toy into pavement, I will mention that smashing the toy will break it and generally give the child space to make a decision. On the other hand, if the child is using a toy car to try and break a glass window pane in my living room, that is an instance where I may remove the toy and say, “I can’t let this toy break through the glass.” And, I won’t allow children to beat each other up in my presence, but I might hold back if I see a child smack another and the harmed child standing up for themselves. If appropriate, I will intervene and work on some sportscasting to help the children broaden their understanding of the situation. If a child is poking at a cat, I will tell the child that I can tell the cat is unhappy because of its pinned ears and that cat might scratch.
My goal in any instance with my children is to give them as much autonomy as I possibly can while recognizing that they might not understand the potential outcomes of their actions. In some cases, I intervene, as much as I’d rather let them work things out on their own. In other cases, I don’t employ limits at all. For instance, I never force toothbrushing. I start introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste at the first tooth eruption, so that it becomes part of the standard daily routing. Then, if the child resists my efforts at cleaning their teeth, my first step is to hand the toothbrush over and back off. What I’ve found is that, invariably, curiosity and independence kick in, and the child starts to brush their own teeth. And, then when I offer to get the teeth in the back of the mouth, my offer is usually met with willingness, because at that point, I am working with the child on the child’s terms. I don’t use force unless I feel strongly that I absolutely must. And, that’s rare in my house.
Destructive vs Deconstructive
One area I know a lot of parents struggle with is the messiness and chaos of childhood. Kids wreck stuff in one way or another and it’s crucial that they do. It’s one of the most basic ways they have to interact with the world and learn how things work. Sometimes it’s accidental and sometimes it’s on purpose. Either way, it’s ok. Our response depends on the motivation.
Destructive and deconstructive actions have a similar result, but a very different purpose. Children who destroy are often calling out for help. I have found that many times children will smash things that are important to them and then burst into tears at the results of their actions. These instances usually indicate a child who is in a state of distress and dysregulation. And, our response must be compassion and understanding with a goal of connecting with and building up the hurt child.
Deconstruction is educational. Deconstructive activities usually occur when a child is happy or curious. A child dropping an egg on the ground is learning about gravity, shell strength, and splatter. Plus, it’s just fun to deconstruct. Adults do it by smashing sandcastles at the end of the day and turning over dominoes. There’s just something pleasurable in wrecking things in this way. Giving children ample opportunities to deconstruct and be messy is a fantastic way to foster sensory integration! So, do it often.
A big part of what we do as peaceful parents is investigating our own perspectives and responses. Limits are ok when used judiciously and are certainly preferable to punishment. So, first things first, think about your non-negotiables. What is it you feel you absolutely cannot allow your child to do. Write down a list of these non-negotiables.
Second, pause at each item you wrote down and consider carefully if you’ve included it because of imminent threat to your child or because of your own feelings and conditioning around it. Ask yourself what harm it would really do to strike that limit from your list.
Third, take your pared down list and discuss them with your children, regardless of whether you believe your children can reason through them. If your kids are able to discuss the limits with you, have a conversation. They might bring up something you hadn’t considered. Talk with them about how you can best support them in respecting the limits and be prepared to negotiate if they feel the limits are too restrictive.
Fourth, shift your mindset to figuring out how you can say “yes” to your children more often. You and your children can eliminate the perceived need for many limits by finding ways to balance freedom and respect for each other. Practice telling your kids, “I want to help make this happen for you. Let’s think about the possibilities.”
So, does all of this mean we should never say no to a child? Nope. It means we should be cognizant of why we’re compelled to say no. Is there an immediate danger? If not, can we accommodate our child? If not, how can we come to a mutual agreement that respects both parent and child?
If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: limit less, trust more, and be curious about what your child is doing rather than shutting them down.
No matter which of the five main types of discipline you use, it won’t work if you aren’t consistent. Consistency is one of the more important keys to addressing child behavior problems. Consistently setting limits, giving effective consequences and enforcing the rules all day every day can be tough, however. Examine what gets in the way of being consistent and take steps to increase your discipline consistency.
Ugh. There it is. My least favorite advice about imposing discipline. Be consistent. Enforce the rules. It evokes a sense of rigidity. Control. Be consistent and make sure your child knows who’s boss. Be consistent and use your selected punishment immediately every time. Never show a crack in your armor or else your child will take advantage. Sounds pretty stressful to me, both for parent and child. How many parents receive this advice and are chastised for not being consistent when their kids when they behave like… well… children? How many discipline experts claim that children can’t feel secure without consistency? Consistency is a tool of behaviorism, the theory that people’s behavior can be studied and controlled externally, without regard for our thoughts and feelings.
That’s a dog, because behaviorism is what we use to train animals. Sure, humans are technically animals, but we have a capacity to think, feel, and reason that is not paralleled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Our children deserve more than dog training. Now, there may be times when consistency can be useful, such as when Autistic children need their routines to be predictable. Consistency, at the behest of a child, is part of maintaining a respectful relationship. Consistency applied to children without their consent must be carefully considered, because it has the potential for harm.
I’ve written at length about the merits of punishment-free parenting and emotion coaching. I’ve even talked about limits. No, not the limits they’re talking about in that VeryWell Family article above. I mean limits that take into account the needs and wants of children. Limits that lead to a genuine feeling of safety and understanding. And, I have a response to the ubiquitous calls to be consistent:
Be reliable instead.
Be the person your child can run to when everything is falling apart, knowing your response will be one of unconditional love and acceptance. Be the person who knows how to bring your child from crisis to peace through co-regulation. Be the person whose respectful limits are a cushion from harm and not a brick wall they shatter against. Show your child, through your own actions, how to make it through difficult situations, acknowledging every emotion, seeking out resources when necessary, and embracing restoration.
Where consistency means inflexible adherence to a norm, reliability requires dependability and trustworthiness. These are traits we all want to instill in our children and we can do that by first demonstrating them through our approach to discipline. So, next time you have the choice between being consistent or being reliable, you know which one to choose!
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.
Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.
I’m so proud of you!
You can do it!
They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?
The Power of Noticing
There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.
I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.
The Power of Not Noticing
As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.
It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.
When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.
For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.
In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.
A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.
Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.
If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?
Many of y’all have probably figured out by now that I like to deep dive into some common concepts that we all know but, perhaps, haven’t thought about in terms of parenting. Recently, I’ve been thinking about independence versus autonomy and what the distinction means for our children.
‘Autonomous’ means ‘self-directed’. Auto – nomy. From the Greek ‘autos’ – self, and ‘nomos’ – law. It means that your drive to act comes from inside yourself.
‘Independent’ means ‘not influenced by outside forces’. It is from the french ‘in’ – not, and ‘dependant’ – hanging from. It means ‘not hanging from’ – or ‘not dependent on’ anything.
So although the meaning is similar, it is different, as you say.
He is completely autonomous as a freelancer and defines his own programme.
The child is able to play autonomously – she makes up her own games.
The freelancer is independent of any company – no-one tells him what to do.
The child is able to play independently – without her parents’ supervision.
Autonomous – self directed
Independent – not needing or not influenced by others
The sense of the words I had going into my deep dive was borne out in this explanation. I struggle to place significant value on independence as I do not believe it is a particularly important value. It is a very “American” value as this culture has come to believe any dependence on another person constitutes a moral failure, but I do not agree.
I think that we should aim to be interdependent. Not independent. Interdependence means not only that we rely on others, but they rely on us as well. It offers inherent motivation to care for both ourselves and for others. It does not shame us for our human needs and it does not present a moral high ground from which we can look down on those who have different intelligences and capacities.
Interdependence places responsibility on entire cultures rather than on individuals. It is something that is lacking in the United States where we allow our neighbors to go hungry, become victims of state violence, and be silenced by more powerful people. And, interdependence is probably better for our kids too. The push for independence is what leads parents to refuse to take forgotten lunches to school and lock children in their rooms until they clean up all on their own.
Are we putting value on the wrong thing? And, what of autonomy? Autonomy imbues children with power. It is the authority behind self-determined decisions, including how we choose to respond to difficult situations. Everyone reading this certainly wants their children to learn to do things for themselves, but on whose schedule? Is a child who can’t tie a shoe but can cook a full meal any less worthy? These are some of the many questions I have asked myself over these past weeks.
In my own little family, I do my best to ensure my children’s autonomy is as intact as possible. I try to leave decisions in their hands as much as I can without slipping into parentification. For instance, no one in my home is required or expected to clean alone. We all pitch in and the children learn through team involvement. I also don’t rush my children into developmental milestones. We don’t “potty train” kids in this house, for instance. We believe that our children will develop in their own time when given opportunities to try new things. And, that’s the key for us. If we never give the kids a chance to do something on their own, how will they ever know if they can do it? By the same token, if we force the kids to do something new, what are they learning from our coercion? And, what’s the use of teaching them to do something completely on their own without help rather than teaching them to advocate for themselves when they do need help? It all takes balance, which is something I’m learning how to do day to day. It requires deep respect for children and a willingness to actually listen. Not just hear our kids, but listen to what they are communicating in words or in behavior.
So, what’s your take? Do you value independence or autonomy? Do you prioritize one or both? How do you leverage your ability to support your children’s independence or autonomy toward fostering an anti-childist upbringing for them?
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.
Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.
I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:
OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.
Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.
Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.
Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.
When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.
Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.
I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home:
Months ago, a therapist friend shared with me a page out of a strategic family therapy textbook that looked at how a family’s response to challenging behaviors determines whether the behavior will be resolved or become a problem. The author gave an example of a boy who became temperamental after the birth of his baby sister. His father punished him to stop the behavior, but that punishment served to confirm to this child that his parents loved his sister more than they loved him. His behavior intensified and the punishment followed suit. There was no resolution. In this case, his father saw only one explanation for the behavior: that the child was insolent and disrespectful. He did not imagine that his son was crying out for love and compassion.
In this chapter of the book, the author introduced the idea of Order of Change, which refers to the ways in which a system can change. So much of what we can use to shift the ambit of entire organizations also works for families. It makes sense. Families are organizations composed of people as well. The book detailed two orders of change, but I will include a third to present more options. Important note: The progression from first to third, DOES NOT INDICATE a progression in value. Any one of these might be appropriate in a given circumstance.
First Order Change: Maintains existing structure and uses increases and decreases to restore balance. The goal here is not to change the basis of the system, but to improve upon it. First Order Change is Transactional.
Second Order Change: Revolutionizes how the system functions altogether. The goal here is to change the system where it needs to be altered to work better. Second Order Change is Transformational.
Third Order Change: Tosses the system out the door altogether and encourages members of the system to become aware of system inconsistencies and dysfunction, question approaches, and take democratic steps toward improvement. The goal here is to increase awareness of the issues and buy-in from the participants in the system. Third Order Change is Innovative.
My first thought as I re-read this now, as so many of us are dealing with how we will send our children to school, is that the three orders seem to align with alternatives to the educational status quo. What better way to explain systems change than through something we’re all wrestling with. Let’s consider the catalyst to be the need to protect student health and see what each option provides.
First, there’s revamped brick and mortar school and school-at-home, e-school, or virtual school, whatever your school system might be calling it. Whether your child goes to school in person or stays at home and completes work there, this option packages school into a solution that allows parents to make decisions based on their comfort level with the school’s safety plan while maintaining the expected educational trajectory. For many families, especially those in which the adults don’t have a lot of time at home or are experiencing health issues, maintaining familiarity and taking advantage of the existing system makes sense. The new safety plans and hybrid or virtual options are an example of a first order change that prioritizes the health of the students by making incremental adjustments to the system.
Second, there’s homeschooling. Many options exist wherein an adult teaches a child at home outside the auspices of a brick and mortar school. Each of these echoes the familiar schooling system, but apply revolutionary changes to the schooling approach, the curriculum, the schedule, and so on. Many, many families have withdrawn their children from the school system this fall and have embarked upon the journey of “COVID Homeschooling” which will presumably end when the threat is no more. Some of these folks, like my family, will continue homeschooling for the foreseeable future. This option makes major alterations to the system to prioritize the health of the students.
Third, there’s unschooling. If ever there were a great example of Third Order Change, this is it. Haven’t heard of unschooling? It loosely falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, but it is truly innovative. Learning is completely student-led. Parents don’t teach unless their assistance is requested. Instead, they seek to create opportunity for their children to engage with their areas of interest. There is no curriculum. There is no hard and fast schedule. There is only the natural curiosity of the child being supported by an observant adult. Unschooling is democratic and deeply respectful of children. Personally, I would consider it the most anti-childist educational option for children.
Applying Order of Change Every Day
I offer this information about Order of Change neither to make you feel inadequate nor to overwhelm you, but to present a proposal for addressing challenging behaviors from your perfectly reasonable children. So often, our reactions to our children’s behavior fan the flame instead of creating space for connection.
Take, punishment, for example. Why do parents punish their kids? Because it works… in the short-term. It doesn’t change behavior. It stops unwanted behavior in the present, but does nothing to impact the moral development of the child. Punishment is an example of a First Order Change strategy. It uses the existing paradigm to make a small adjustment to bring the child back into alignment with comfortable expectations. The truth is that many children have grown into functional adults under this paradigm. The trouble is that we can’t know how much better a person’s quality of life might have been had they been given opportunity to learn, grow, and connect with their parents.
That’s why we, as Peaceful Parents, must recognize that we’re not simply working toward raising kind and respectful children. We’re also working toward giving our children the gift of positive self-image, the ability to work through times of struggle, and such intimate knowledge of themselves that they will recognize when they need extra help to sustain their mental health. Peaceful Parents tend toward Second and Third Order change when it comes to discipline for these reasons. We see that the existing system is childist and often cruel and we look for ways to humanize and elevate our kids. There is great value in First Order Change once we’ve built for ourselves an anti-oppressive system. Until then, it is up to us to question the whys and the hows of the way our culture approaches childlikeness.
Over the weekend, a sweet friend of mine posted a story about her young daughter who knew just what to do when she saw her mother in distress. My friend owns Hoopla! Letters, a custom calligraphy business. (She has designed artwork for me and it is amazing. Shameless plug because, seriously, check her out. She’s been featured nationally.)
Her post was right on time for me as I’ve been needing to be reminded how important emotion coaching really is. For those who don’t know, emotion coaching is a way to positively communicate with children that gives them the skills they need to practice self-regulation.
Dr. John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, has researched and practiced emotion coaching for decades, and he has boiled down his approach to five steps. I’m going to keep this blog post brief and let it stand as a reminder on how we can best help our children through their big emotions. I hope you will return to it, as I will, when you need a little boost.
Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions.
One of the most basic tenets of Peaceful Parenting is that we must be tuned into our kids. In our childist culture that minimizes children’s emotions as being nonsense, it is revolutionary for a parent to recognize that our children’s emotions are as important as ours. A child’s experience after losing a beloved toy can be akin to an adult’s experience after losing a cherished piece of inherited heirloom jewelry. The grief and frustration exist no matter how old a person is. When we understand that our children’s emotions are of great importance, we can begin to pay attention and sense how our children are doing at any point in time.
Step 2: Recognize emotion as an opportunity for connection or teaching.
If you’ve ever heard (or, like me, been told) “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” you’ll know how devastating it can be for a child to have their emotions brushed off like they’re worthless. As Peaceful Parents, we reject the idea that children’s emotions should be suppressed or ignored. We take it a step further and find ways to connect with our kids even in their most volatile emotional states. In many cases, what this looks like is being a non-judgmental presence for the child as they cycle through their feelings.
Step 3: Help your child verbally label emotions.
This step is tough for many adults to do even for ourselves. Often, we don’t know how we feel. We may be too overwhelmed or out of touch with ourselves. But, this practice is crucial to processing our experiences. Have you ever seen an emotion wheel? There are many versions of them and they all look a little something like this:
An emotion wheel can be a helpful tool in helping both children and adults identify what it is they’re feeling and back track to what generated the feeling. With my very young children, I generally stick with the basics. I might say, “You’re feeling angry that brother took your toy.” For older children, I would offer possible feeling labels in collaboration with the child.
Step 4: Communicate empathy and understanding.
This step does get easier with time, but I’m confident in saying that most of us were not raised to be comfortable with other people’s emotions and most of the time, we really don’t quite know what to say. If you find yourself in that situation with your child, try one of these:
“That’s really hard.”
“I understand why you’re [state feeling]”
“I would feel the same way.”
“I’m here as long as you need me.”
“I love you.”
Repeating back what your child has said can also be an effective way of demonstrating that you’re listening with the intent to understand.
Step 5: Set limits and problem solve.
Once the crisis has passed, it’s important to pause and address what caused the upset in the first place. In some cases, it is helpful and informative to set a reasonable limit. Remember, though, limits are not punishments. Responding punitively can easily undo the work you’ve put into connecting with your child.
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.
As you might have surmised from my writings, I am absolutely fascinated by all aspects of Peaceful Parenting. I want to know the whys as much as I want to know the hows of it. So, when new information crosses my radar, I’m all over it. That’s what happened when I came across the term inductive discipline.
Back in 1967, two researchers, M.L. Hoffman and H.D. Saltzstein, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They had conducted a study in which they assessed 7th graders on their moral development and correlated that data with measures of parental discipline. Leading into the study, they noted an interest in capturing information about the impact of parental practices on the internalization of moral values and the capacity for guilt. Prior research had studied two styles of discipline in particular:
Power Assertive Discipline which is a “moral orientation based on the fear of external detection and punishment… associated with the relatively frequent use of discipline techniques involving physical punishment and material deprivation” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 45)
Love-Oriented Discipline which is a “moral orientation characterized by independence of external sanctions and high guilt… associated with relative frequent use of nonpower assertive discipline” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 45)
In the simplest terms, Power Assertive Discipline generally relies on force to control children, whereas Love-Oriented Discipline generally relies on neglect. In the 1967 study, however, the researchers introduced another wrinkle. They juxtaposed Power Assertive Discipline and Nonpower Assertive Discipline in order to investigate some discrepancies they had picked up in the research. To do that, they split Nonpower Assertive Discipline in two: love withdrawal and induction. Induction refers to “techniques in which the parent points out the painful consequences of the child’s act for the parent or for others” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 46). And, this is where it gets interesting. Check out what they discovered.
Power assertion was associated with weak moral development.
Love withdrawal was associated with negative moral development.
Induction was associated with advanced moral development.
The fundamental difference among these approaches is that:
…as much animal and human learning research has now shown, what is learned will depend on the stimuli to which the organism is compelled to attend. Disciplinary techniques explicitly or implicitly provide such a focus. Both love withdrawal and power assertion direct the child to the consequences of his behavior for the actor, that is, for the child himself, and to the external agent producing these consequences. Induction, on the other hand, is more apt to focus the child’s attention on the consequences of his actions for others, the parent, or some third party. This factor should be especially important in determining the content of the child’s standards. That is, if transgressions are followed by induction, the child will learn that the important part of transgressions consists of the harm done to others (Hoffman and Saltzstein 54).
2. The children of authoritative parents are less likely than the children of authoritarian parents to engage in drug and alcohol use, juvenile delinquency, or other antisocial behavior (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Querido et al 2002; Benchaya et al 2011; Luyckx et al 2011).
4. Parents who avoid reprimanding kids for intellectual mistakes (e.g., “I’m disappointed in you”) may have kids who are more resilient problem-solvers and better learners (Kamins and Dweck 1999; Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008).
5. Encouraging independence in kids is linked with more self-reliance, better problem solving, and improved emotional health (e.g., Turkel and Tezer 2008; Rothrauff et al 2009; Lamborn et al 1991; Pratt et al 1988; Kamins and Dweck 1999; Luyckx et al 2011).
6. An authoritative approach to discipline may help prevent aggression and reduce peer problems in preschoolers (e.g., Choe et al 2013; Yamagata 2013).
7. Kids with warm, responsive parents are more likely to be helpful, kind, and popular.
How Can We Use This Knowledge?
Let’s start by considering what “inductive” means. You may have heard the phrase inductive reasoning, which means making specific observations that lead to a general theory. For instance, a child might induce from burning their hand on a hot car hood that hot car hoods can be dangerous for people. Induction is an effective teaching method for children, because it gives them room to form hypotheses about their lives. By the same token, it can result in false assumptions, so we have to make sure we’re providing accurate, truthful information alongside our explanations of genuine, logical outcomes. So, what do we do in practice?
Manage Our Own Emotions: While it’s important to be honest with our children, too much honesty about our feelings while emotions are intense can become oppressive. Did your child hurt you deeply? Make you feel you couldn’t trust them? Embarass you? These are big adult feelings and you’re feeling them with your adult heart and mind. It will not serve your child to express your personal disappointment in them, as doing so places the focus on the child and not on the child’s impact. When the crisis has passed, it’s ok to use “I” statements to reflect on the impact your child’s actions had on you. For instance, “I felt hurt when you told me you hated me. I know that you said it in anger. I’ve said hurtful things too when I was angry. Can we talk about what happened so we understand each other better?”
Start with the Three Rs: Regulate (or Co-Regulate), Relate, and Reason. Walking with your child through these steps is the most effective way to diffuse a highly emotional situation and arrive at a place of mutual connection. Check out my post Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child for an explanation of how the Three Rs work. In short, we must first help our child come to a place of peace and balance. Then, we should empathize with our child in their distress, even when we’re feeling frustrated with their behavior. Then, and only then, can we work through the situation logically and coach our child toward a better response in the future.
Focus on Impact Without Shaming: I hope it goes without saying that angrily berating a child with “LOOK WHAT YOU DID!” is counterproductive even though it focuses on impact. When we express ourselves in this manner, we risk engendering “intense feelings of anxiety over loss of love which may disrupt the child’s response especially to the cognitive elements of the technique” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 55). Instead, it’s important to start from a place of empathy and gentleness. Name what the other person is feeling. Ask the key question, “What did you hope would happen?” and give your child the opportunity to process what led up to the challenging incident.
Here’s the thing. Children learn by watching and doing. They never need to be punished in order to learn right from wrong. When we teach them what is expected of them and demonstrate the impacts of their actions, they learn. They get it. They develop a moral compass. And, then they are internally driven to do what is right, whether or not they anticipate a parent finding out what they’ve done. The science is clear on this: empathy mediates moral internalization. All we need to do is lead by example.
Almost all children will go through periods where they lash out in some way and spitting, hitting, biting, and kicking seem to be the most common behaviors. What should you do when your child lets loose? It’s critical to understand what underlies the behavior. We could fancy ourselves investigators for this purpose. What precipitated the event? Here’s a list of replies your child might give you if they could.
I just felt like it.
I need your attention.
I need freedom. Give me space.
It’s too noisy in here.
My sibling took my toy.
Stop touching me!
You’re not listening to me.
This is fun!
Let me do it my way.
I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
I was curious what would happen.
My body doesn’t feel good.
Both my 2 year old and my 4 year old spit, hit, bite, and kick at one time or another, so I completely understand the frustration and that gut feeling of wanting to react in an unkind way. But stop! Stop for a minute and think about what’s happening. Let’s categorize the “whys” for greater understanding.
I need your attention. You’re not listening to me.
Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to see children as annoyances who drain our time and our energy. We don’t want to “give in” when our kids express their need for our attention in undesirable ways. However, empathetic communication actually increases well-being. It’s not simply a way to meet our children’s needs. It also improves our relationship. If your child needs your attention, try a little active listening.
Some of the pitfalls I face when it comes to listening to my kids include thinking of something else while my child is communicating, trying to figure out what I’m going to say next, and attempting to manipulate the direction of the conversation. If you’re anything like me, one or more of those statements might resonate.
Professional communicator and educator, Julian Treasure, recommends a four-step approach to listen with investment:
Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
Appreciate: Pause and think
Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
Ask: Learn more
If you know your child needs your attention, give it freely. Silence those harmful voices telling you not to spoil your child. You cannot spoil a child with love and affection. Quite the contrary, kids who are perceived as spoiled tend to be those children who have a) not had their boundaries respected so they react with belligerence or b) not been given enough attention and therefore do not trust that their needs will be met.
I need freedom. Give me space. My sibling took my toy. Stop touching me! Let me do it my way.
In our childist culture, it’s easy to get caught up in “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” thinking when it comes to children. We’ve got to work toward flipping that perspective around and radically respecting our children’s autonomy.
Years ago, sexuality educator, Deanne Carson, made headlines when she advocated for asking infants if it was ok to give them a diaper change. She acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to consent, but said that asking for consent and pausing to acknowledge them lets children know that their response matters.
I fully admit that I scoffed at her comments at the time, even though I was already three years into my Peaceful Parenting journey, as I was sorely lacking an understanding of childism.
Yes, you can let your baby know you’re about to change their diaper. Consent does start from birth and it never ends. We must prioritize navigating our children’s demands for bodily autonomy and their health-related needs. It’s not easy or simple, but it’s our responsibility.
If you know your child is enforcing a boundary, respect it. Bottom line. For guidance on helping siblings through the tough task of sharing/turn-taking, check out this article.
I’m tired. I’m hungry. It’s too noisy in here. I’m anxious. My body doesn’t feel good. I’m frustrated.
Discomfort shows up physically and mentally. Both are completely real and valid. In our culture, we tend to tell children how they’re feeling. We dismiss skinned knees with “You’re ok” and toileting urgency with “You just went!” Children are too often forced into the constraints of our schedules and whims, and it’s not ok. Kids deserve for their needs to be met. Where the dominant culture tells us that our children are manipulatinrg us, it is incumbent upon us as Peaceful Parents to reject that perspective wholesale. If our children need to use the bathroom, they will. If they feel sick, we listen. If they are anxious, we soothe.
And, a note to those who fear all this responsiveness will lead to spoiling children. It won’t, but as we get into more complex needs, our responses may need to evolve. All children need accomodations, some more than others. Autistic Mama wrote a fantastic piece called Are You Accommodating or Coddling Your Autistic Child and really it applies to all children. In it, she explains:
The line between accommodating and coddling boils down to one specific question.
What is the Goal? You have to ask yourself, what is the goal here?
Let me give you an example…
Let’s say your child has a history assignment and is supposed to write two paragraphs on the civil war.
What is the goal of this assignment?
To prove knowledge of history.
Now any tool or strategy that doesn’t take away from that goal is an accommodation, not coddling.
So typing instead of writing? Accommodation.
Verbally sharing knowledge of the civil war? Accommodation.
Writing a list of civil war facts instead of using paragraphs? Accommodation.
Because the goal of the assignment is a knowledge of history, not the way it’s shared.
We can empower our children to solve their own problems by showing them how to be problem-solvers from a young age. We can teach our children to ask for what they need and demonstrate that their needs matter by obliging their requests. As they get older, we can empower them to seek reasonable accommodations in a variety of environments by considering what needs they must have met in order to succeed and to advocate for themselves.
I would be remiss not to mention one thing here of great importance to the Autistic community. AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE NOT INHERENTLY VIOLENT. Violence is not a criteria for diagnosis. So many people ponder why it seems like Autistic children tend toward aggression. Well, imagine having to endure all the little things you dislike (flavors, sounds, textures, etc.) all the time and then being treated as though you’re a burden for asking for it to stop. You might be driven to aggression as well. It’s hard being Autistic in a world that isn’t made for you. Meet the needs of Autistic kids and you’ll see a drastic decline in any aggression.
If you know your child is uncomfortable, try to help relieve that discomfort. Some children are unable to clear saliva and may spit or drool as a result. This 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.
Did y’all see the study from November 2019 that found screen use greater than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was associated with decreased microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills? Big yikes! Does that mean screens cause brain damage? That’s certainly a question I’ve seen floating around the internet. Parents are rightfully concerned about screen time when study after study shows these terrible outcomes.
And, that 2018 literature review on the physiological and psychological effects of screentime. You might as well just give up at this point.
And, that whole Research Roundup that seems to exist to fill parents with dread. Oh, the horror!
But, check this out.
The 2013 review found that there is very little research on infants and toddlers and that more research is needed to better understand the environmental, socio-cultural, and behavioral correlates for young children.
The 2015 review found that none of the studies they looked at from 1999-2014 could establish a causal connection, measurement errors of screen time exposure and sleep limited the outcomes of the studies, and factors like characteristics and content of screens was not well understood.
And, the 2018 review found that psychophysiological resilience in children requires the ability to focus, good social coping and attachment, and good physical health all of which could be impacted by “excessive” digital media use. They further recommend more research on duration, content, after-dark use, media type, and number of devices.
In fact, there’s a 2015 literature review on the association of parental influences with physical activity and screen time among young children found that there is a causal connection between the parents’ physical activity and screen use and that of the children. It should come as no surprise that the behavior of parents directly influences the behavior of their children.
And, that first study I mentioned? The one from 2019 about how screens change the brains of little kids? If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the sample size is both small and homogenous and that the survey and testing scores used in the study did not meet the threshold for statistical significance when income was included in the model. Those details change the story a bit.
Minding the Nuance
The reality is that there is valuable research happening, but we simply don’t understand what’s really going on. That’s why the pediatric organizations that exist to protect our kids are sounding the alarm. They’re saying look at all this data we’re seeing! Something is happening. Pay attention. So, if your family’s lifestyle flows better without any screens, by all means, do what works for you. This post is for those of you who want to incorporate screens without fear.
There are some things we can discern intuitively about screen use.
It can be distracting. Background sounds from a TV at low volume add static to the environment where infants and toddlers play. A measurable impact has been found on the ability of very small children to develop play skills naturally when TVs are used as noise fillers.
It can signal trouble. While we don’t know that screens cause depression, we do know that children who watch a lot of TV often have clinical depression that necessitates medication. So, it’s worth paying attention to what your kids are doing, so that you can intervene if necessary.
It can replace other healthful behaviors. A child who is watching TV or playing video games is not outside running around. And, a child who is watching TV or playing video games is not telling you about the troubles they’re having.
Now, something that doesn’t get enough air time in these discussions is the economics of restriction. Essentially, by restricting a thing, we increase its value. As explained by Pam Sorooshian, unschooler extraordinaire,
When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person’s thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.
The more you restrict, the more they’ll crave screens. It can feel uncomfortable to loosen the reins and it’s pretty likely your child will consume seemingly impossible amounts of flickering deliciousness at first. But, over time, and in the presence of intentional investment in your child’s needs and wants, screens will lose their luster and become just another activity.
If you’ve been restricting your child’s screen time, because you wanted to do the best possible thing for them or because you felt their screen use was getting out of control, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Not by any means. Just know there is an approach to screen use that is responsible and respectful, whenever you’re ready.
Anti-Childist Screen Use Monitoring
One of the things about the furor over screens that particularly bothers me is the emphasis on cognition and school performance. We’re encouraged to limit our children to a screen schedule of our making, so they can possibly do better in school at some point in the future. But why? Why is academic success the measure of a good life? Why are we not prioritizing our children’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and activities by giving them ownership over the way they choose to spend their time?
We can trust our children to make good decisions when we set them up for success. In our house, I try to limit my compulsion to set rules for everyone. Whenever my kids want to watch TV, I’m ok with it. They have free access to their tablets to use as they wish. But, I also create an environment where they don’t have any desire to obsessively consume that visual stimulation. We spend lots of time outside. We read. We do chores. We play, craft, and bake together. When I see one of my kids struggling to transition from screens to another activity, I intervene. When that happens, it means there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean I need to arbitrarily limit screen time. I have some guidelines for my family in the back of my mind to help ensure that I’m providing the most effective mix of activities and the best possible education around the use of screens.
Be Intentional. Consider using screens on purpose. That means avoiding the use of TVs as background noise and trying not to hand your kids screens to keep them occupied. Instead, let your children decide when they want to use screens and for how long. And, have them choose one screen at a time. In general, our TV doesn’t get turned on until 3 PM, if at all. There’s too much other fun stuff to do.
Be Interactive. Studies show that children can learn a great deal from interactive touchscreens when their parents help them and reinforce what they’re learning.
Be Wise. Particularly when it comes to older kids, parents need to prepare children for the risks of predators and dangerous malware. Talk to your kids about these dangers and make a plan together for how to stay safe.
Choose Educational Content. Programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger provide important information and skills to little kids, especially when families reinforce in daily life what the kids are learning online.
Eat Without Distraction. One rule we do have is that our dining table is a toy-free, screen-free space when we’re having a meal. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration. Family meals are sacred in my house. They’re one of the few opportunities we have to get together and chat over one of the most fundamental human activities.
Get Plenty of Fresh Air and Exercise. Getting outside is so important for every member of the family, but especially children. They need lots and lots of movement throughout the day to improve focus, digestion, motor skills, and sleep. Rather than restricting screens, think about encouraging more movement for balance.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. The so-called warnings about blue light got a little kick in the pants this year. A study challenged the idea that blue light impacts circadian rhythms. We don’t actually know if blue light is a problem. What we do know is that stimulation of any kind interrupts our sleep cycle. In our house, all screens and radios go off at 6:30 pm. That’s our family time and we cherish the ability to interact with each other without distraction. For a great night’s sleep, keep your kids’ room very dark, relatively cool (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit), and comfortably quiet.
Like many parents, when I first became a mom, I was hypervigilant about everything. I stressed myself out trying to do everything by the book, until life taught me that wisdom beats out perfection every time. If you want your children to enjoy screens, let them. Formulate some guidelines for yourself and conduct self-checks to make sure your guidelines are working. Talk with your kids about your concerns. Let them know your values and also that you trust them to know what their minds and bodies need. As new evidence emerges, we’ll be in a great position to shift some of our guidelines to better support our children’s development. Screens are ok, y’all. Promise!
As parents, we will harm our children in some way. It’s the nature of genuine relationships to expand and contract in closeness, to struggle in balancing boundaries, and to waver between selfishness and selflessness. Committing to do the least harm requires that we spend much time considering the impacts of our actions, which is what makes peaceful parenting so challenging for many of us. Reacting is easy. Thoughtfully responding to our children gets exhausting fast, even for those of us who have been doing it for a long while.
This past week, a reply to one of my Facebook posts got me thinking about my own inclination toward defensiveness around my parenting choices. I had posted a meme that compared two ways to speak gently with a child who doesn’t want to take a nap. A reader remarked that a third potential solution was to allow children to choose for themselves when they want to sleep. Gasp! I was poised to explain why their solution couldn’t work for me rather than admitting their suggestion was the gentler, more respectful approach. My childist reaction was to defend my situation whereas the anti-childist response was to simply sit with the suggestion, however uncomfortable it was.
You see, I’ve battled lifelong insomnia. Aside from medication, nothing helps. It is just one of the many symptoms of autism that I experience. Anything that makes it more difficult for me to sleep, including my children, becomes an object of great consternation for me. And, the reality is that different kids have different internal clocks, so my best solution has been to get the whole family on a united sleep schedule. Unfortunately, imposing a a schedule onto my kids is not the ideal option for me as a peaceful parent. My preference will always be to give my children autonomy over their lives.
And, that’s what this reader was offering… an opportunity to make a better choice. I often hear people say things like, “every child is different,” implying that parents should have free license to use whatever approaches we deem necessary. I disagree. While every child is different, children have a right to be free from coercion, punishment, and violence. It is never okay to yell at or hit a child. And it’s not okay to pressure children to bend to the will of an adult. I can’t excuse the childism that influences the way I interact with my kids and neither should you. Our goal must be to reject childism and to choose to be anti-childist.
Ultimately, my anti-childist decision was to like react this reader’s nap alternative and withhold my defensive reaction. Other readers needed to know the clearly anti-childist solution and I needed the reminder. It’s not really about naptime at all. It’s about investigating and diminishing the adult-centric way we address the challenges our children experience.
When we are deciding how we will approach these challenges, there are some questions we need to ask ourselves and wrestle with:
What does my child need?
What do I need?
How can I address both our needs while respecting my child’s autonomy?
Are there alternatives I haven’t tried because they’re inconvenient?
How is childism affecting the decision I’m about to make?
How might this decision harm my child?
How might this decision harm our relationship?
As we seek to do the least harm, we will be challenged by people who have better solutions than the ones we’ve been using. Instead of explaining why we can’t choose the anti-childist option, let’s look for ways to incorporate those better solutions into our approaches. In doing so, our anti-childist orientation will grow and mature with the help of our partners, our children, and our peaceful parenting community.