Yes, This is a Parenting Blog. No, I Won’t Talk About My Kids.

We’re back from our first ever week-long break since we started homeschooling and a lot has changed. I have pondered and prayed over a conversation I had with @healingfeelingmother, a reader on Instagram who asked me questions about why I mention specifics about my kids on a public facing platform. My initial response was that the blog is anonymous specifically to protect my children’s identities. But, that conversation set something off in my mind.

Soon, thereafter, I read this post by Ellen Stumbo:

Whew. That hit home. Even though I am Autistic myself, I have no right to speak freely about another Autistic person’s experience without consent. Actually, I have no right to speak about any person’s experience without consent. Here I am, an anti-childist advocate and I’m violating my kids’ privacy on a near-weekly basis. Sure, the blog is anonymous for now, but the plan is to go public in the future once my kids can consent to me becoming what amounts to a public figure in the world of peaceful parenting, however minor my role would be. Even if I’m not talking about them specifically, it would still impact our entire family for all of my words to be associated with me (and us). There’s a reason celebrities are so careful to hide their kids away from the spotlight and, while I’m not saying I’d become a celebrity, the concept still applies to my little section of the internet. Others have already forged this path and I’m stumbling along making mistakes because I wasn’t paying attention.

I went back to see what I had written specifically about my children and, while it wasn’t a lot, so much of it was incredibly revealing. I wrote about moments of vulnerability, emotions, bodily functions, and more all in the name of offering other parents a glimpse into how peaceful parenting can work for them too. I’ve been exploiting my children for the benefit of other children. It has to stop.

Over the past week, I have scoured the blog to remove all references to my kids. No little stories about them or references to them that are in any way traceable. I’m in the process of deleting many of my Facebook posts and archiving most of my Instagram posts that are problematic. And, moving forward, if I need to tell a story to get a point across, it will be de-identified, whether it is my own or someone else’s, unless I have specific consent to discuss it.

Finally, I have a request of all of you. If you see me post something that is inappropriate about my kids, call me out. Tell me I’ve crossed a line so I can rectify the problem. I want to make sure that, once we go public, no one can scroll back through my words and find anything about my children that could be used to shame them or discriminate against them. Thank you all for your continued support of this blog! You are truly my people.

Are Rewards a Tool of Abuse?

As peaceful parents, we recognize that rewards and punishment are tools of manipulation and they have no place alongside things like emotion coaching and relationship building. But, should we go so far as to call rewards a tool of abuse? That’s a heavy, heavy word and one I was reticent to use in describing punishments, like spanking, for a very long time. However, within the past year, I have come to realize just how destructive spanking really is. Now, I’m turning my attention to rewards to investigate their effects on children.

Rewards are an implement of a field of psychology called behaviorism. Put plainly, behaviorism is a psychological approach that assumes all behaviors are the result of conditioning and that behavior is always purposeful. It leaves no room for cognitive sources of behavior. So, where behavior is deemed a problem, the solution is not to resolve what is happening with the person internally, but to externally mold the person’s behavior into something the therapist considers more appropriate.

While behaviorism as a branch of psychology traces its roots back to 1913, the use of external manipulation is far, far older. It’s mentioned throughout the Bible, we see it in the form of punishment as marks cut deep on skeletal remains, and we all know it for the anxiety and fear it produces. Behaviorism has some practical applications, such as animal training and smoking cessation when used by choice. Consent is key, as behaviorism has such a substantial potential to be harmful. To understand how very undermining it can be, take this story as an example. I saw it in an autism-related facebook group and it is a fantastic illustration of what I mean.

My degree is on Cognitive Science, which included quite a bit on behaviorism. I was never aiming to be a therapist, and had no idea I was autistic when I was in college.One of the interesting things about behaviorism is that it works even on subjects who have no idea they’re being trained. You can train a grown adult into quite elaborate behaviors without them being aware they’re being trained, or sometimes that they’re even doing the behaviors. Case in point, my brother’s psychology class decided to try training their professor. They picked three behaviors they wanted: writing class notes more towards the middle of the board, using the word “I” more, and tucking his hand into his upper inside pocket a la Napoleon. They then chose three reinforcers: scribbling notes, looking up at the professor, and leaning forward interestedly.The professor was an excellent subject, and by the end of the semester was using “I” in virtually every sentence, had his hand tucked in the target pocket any time he wasn’t using it, and writing all his class notes in a 2 foot square box in the middle of the room-spanning chalkboard, all without realizing he was doing it. In fact when they fessed up at the end of the semester, he didn’t believe them until they turned him around and showed him 3 hours of notes crammed into a tiny invisible square for no good reason.How do you think the professor reacted to the revelation? If you guess “not well”, you’re right. If you ponder why that might be, even though he liked that class particularly (such attentive, responsive students!), and hadn’t minded the training process at all, you may have some insight on why so many autistic people dislike ABA, even in kinder, gentler forms.

Researcher Alfie Kohn suggests that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. He wrote a book about his perspective called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He explains that, “There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.”

So, rewards tend to be demotivators over time. They interfere with natural human curiosity and self-realization. They aren’t that different from using a treat to teach a dog to sit. After all, humans and dogs are both animals. Many of our innate, unconscious motivations are the same, such as seeking food and drink, and avoiding danger. Rewards offer temporary motivation, but it comes at a cost. However, there is a way to keep rewards fresh… and it’s enticing: intermittent reinforcement.

In practice, intermittent reinforcement involves rewarding a subject sporadically rather than continuously for a behavior deemed to be desired. For children, it might be a gold star for being kind to a classmate where the child has to be kind over and over before being noticed. The anticipation of the reward keeps the desired behavior front and center. But, intermittent reinforcement has a dark side. It is a preferred form of trauma bonding used by abusers in violent relationships.

Shahida Arabi, author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, writes,

Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).

In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.

Intermittent reinforcement can trigger behavior that looks a lot of compulsion and obsession in humans, especially in the context of a toxic relationship. So, where does this leave us on the question of rewards being abusive or not?

Here is my perspective. The way we wield rewards is crucial. When we use rewards to manipulate our children into doing what we want, we have fallen into dangerous territory. The more we use rewards to coerce children, the more it begins to look like abuse. However, humans do crave social acceptance and recognition is an important part of that. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, has some advice for how to incorporate recognition without falling back on rewards. She says,

The good news is that there are better ways to give our children encouragement. In fact, when children feel seen, accepted and appreciated for who they are, that becomes a super power, an internal source of affirmation that outweighs any external evaluation and gives them an internal compass to express their values, from compassion to hard work.

So when you find yourself starting to say “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!” try these phrases instead.

1. Empathize with his excitement (instead of evaluating and telling him what you think about his accomplishment.)

“Yes! You’re pedaling all by yourself!”

2. Let her know you’re really seeing her (and let her evaluate whether what’s she’s doing is working.)

“I see that you’re doing the sides of the puzzle first.”

3. Empower him to choose how to behave in the future by pointing out the results of his behavior (so he develops his own moral compass.)

“Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy.”

4. Encourage effort (because that’s what creates results.)

“You’re working so hard on that…. I think just a little more practice and you’ll nail it!”

5. Be specific in your description (so your child feels his accomplishment is seen, rather than just a global “good job.”)

“You counted from zero to twenty! Last week, you couldn’t count that far. I see that you’ve been working on learning those numbers!” 

6. Ask questions to help your child reflect (so she begins to trust herself to be the arbiter of her own performance.)

“Do you like the way it came out? Why or why not?”

7. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.

“I love it when we work as a team like this! It makes the work so much faster! Thanks so much for helping me.”

Notice the difference?  You’re not judging your child. You’re loving him. As Deepak Chopra says,  “Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates.”  That’s the kind of attention every child needs.

These words ring true for my own family. Peaceful Dad and I do not use rewards or punishments with our crew. And, this decision was recently affirmed when our new speech therapist remarked on our son’s ability to engage with her without the need for rewards. I took the opportunity to gush about peaceful parenting, intrinsic motivation, and emotion coaching. The reality is this: No rewards, no punishments, respectful, and connected discipline is not only possible, it’s also evidence-based and fruitful for all children. It’s achievable, but it does take a big shift in thinking on the part of us parents.

Independence vs Autonomy

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.

I found this thorough explanation of the differences between these two words on Stack Exchange of all places (and I substantiated it of course):

‘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.

Examples:

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.

So:

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?

Not Feeling Very Peaceful? Totally Relatable.

Something I hear a lot from y’all is that you don’t really feel qualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Why? Because sometimes you snap and yell or threaten or punish. You think that faltering in your efforts means you aren’t worthy of the moniker, and you think you’re ruining your children. Have I got that right?

If that’s what you think, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. By those parameters, I’m not a peaceful parent either. I mean, have y’all met my temper?! I can go from whispering affirmations to hollering in ten seconds flat. It’s a stress-relief pathway I’m working to deconstruct because it is helping no one. Here’s what you’ve got to understand. There’s peaceful parenting, the concept… the state we are all seeking to achieve. Then there are peaceful PARENTS… human beings who are striving to break cycles and heal wounds. And, well, human beings are a muddle of past traumas, subconscious reactions, and patchy worldviews. We are also thinking, compassionate, connected creatures. We can be all of these things at the same time and still be worthy and wonderful. The trick is to exist in a constant state of examination. Why did I react that way? How could I have done things better? What must happen to restore this relationship?

Of course, it’s not ok to hurt people. I’m not excusing the harm we inflict on the people closest to us, but I do want y’all to consider a different perspective. To see yourself in a different light. If there’s one guarantee in parenting, it’s that we’re going to mess up. Our kids are going to have plenty of stories to tell about what we did wrong. And, if we continue on this peaceful parenting walk, our kids will also be self-assured, secure, and brave. They will see the way we respond to our own flawed behavior and it will inform their future choices.

Parenthood ebbs and flows. One moment, our hearts expand until we feel we can’t bear it. We shower our children with affection and easily navigate the challenges. Then something changes. We feel more distant. They start to annoy us. And, we feel we might explode from the frustration. And, somewhere in between, there are moments when we coast along with our kids in a neutral coexistence. That’s normal for intimate relationships.

Dana Kerford, Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG, seeks to enhance the social-emotional wellbeing of children through friendship skills, but what she’s landed on is a concept that is applicable to all human relationships that involve any sort of intimacy. Her Friend-O-Cycle illustrates the way we draw close and drift apart over the course of a friendship. We can be going along just fine and suddenly a metaphorical fire erupts. Maybe it’s a comment we received negatively. Maybe it’s a perceived snub we didn’t understand. Whatever has happened, the fire itself shouldn’t really even be our focus. Rather, we should be preparing to put the fire out in a healthy way. Kerford recommends confronting the issue directly, talking it out, and then moving on.

Friend-O-Cycle
The normal cycle of a healthy friendship

Healthy Friendship > Fire > Confront the Issue > Talk it Out > Forgive and Forget > Closer and Stronger > Healthy Friendship

Of course, when it comes to parent-child relationships, the process is more complicated than it would be between two young friends. And, so, we keep trying. We search past our egos and find anchor points upon which to reconnect with our children. We bond and we love, all the while recognizing that we’re going to do the same thing over and over and over, because this is what it means to be human. At no point along this journey are you unqualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Keep going.

Five Principles for Intercultural Parenting While White

I am the only white member of my household as my husband and children are all Black. As a result, I live a life that is different from families that are entirely white. My whiteness grants me access and privilege that does not extend to the rest of my family, so I’m outside looking in at their experience while simultaneously living with worries about their lives and welfare. My husband has a long commute for work and I am often afraid of what could happen if he got pulled over or if his car broke down in a predominantly white area. It’s a complicated place to be and one that I didn’t fully understand when I got married.

To help those of you who might not realize just how complex it is for white people and people of color to be in relationship with each other or for white people to parent children of color, I’ve condensed some of the lessons I’ve learned as a mom since my little family got its start all those years ago. If any of this is upsetting, I get it. When we choose to partner with people of color, we’re choosing a road that can lead to a lot of painful self-realization and recognition of challenges we cannot resolve. Our job is to keep investigating our perspectives and motivations, never letting up, for the benefit of our partners and children.

Principle 1. We Must Know Our Place and Understand Our Impact

Start by figuring out where you fall among the 8 White Identities and then do the work yourself to progress along your path. A lot of white parents get stuck in white guilt and heap exhausting performative monologues upon people of color. Don’t do this. We are absolutely steeped in White Supremacy Culture and it gets reinforced for us daily. Read about it. Learn about it. Actively reject it.

"The 8 White Identities"

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As Yolanda Williams of Parenting Decolonized explains, “To divest from white supremacy means you’ll have to give something up, something that you benefit from as a white or non-Black POC. Think hard about it. The fact that it’s a struggle for many to figure out how to divest is a testament to how privileged you are and how intertwined white supremacy is to that privilege.”

It is imperative that we seek out decolonizing and anti-racist resources while understanding that we are colonizers who benefit from the impacts of colonization. We will not be able to decolonize our minds entirely, but we can certainly minimize the harm we do.

Principle 2. We Must Decenter Ourselves and Listen to People of Color

It can be difficult to maintain perspective when we’re close to a situation. When we begin to identify with our partners and children, who are experiencing the trauma of oppression, that feeling is empathy and it’s a good thing. However, we can lose ourselves in it and slip into taking the position of an oppressed person. When we do that, we are centering, which means we are no longer bearing with our loved ones. Rather, we are prioritizing our own feelings and, in doing so, we can lose sight of what we should be doing.

Are you familiar with Ring Theory? It’s an approach to compassionately support grieving people while getting our own needs met. The goal is to avoid unloading our emotions onto the people closest to the grief or trauma. Instead, we should turn to people who are even further from the situation than we are. A typical ring might look like this:

"Ring Theory"

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The person in the center is the focus of our empathy and we must find ourselves somewhere in the concentric circles. Once we know where we are in relation to our loved ones, we need to be careful not to vent inward. I think about Ring Theory often as a white wife to a Black man, because it’s far too easy for me to forget that he is the person experiencing first-hand oppression. Not me. So, what Ring Theory does for me is that it conditions me to be cognizant about how I talk to my Black friends and family about the struggles I’m facing as a white person. And, I try to avoid centering my feelings and fears in conversations about race whether in person or online.

And, when I do need extra support, I have cultivated a circle of friends that includes white people who understand all of this and are willing to validate my feelings or tell me the truth, whichever the situation calls for.

Principle 3. We Know What It’s Like to Be White and Only White

White parents cannot raise children into their non-white cultures. I cannot raise my children to be Black. I am not Black. Therefore, I have to make every possible effort to steep them in their own culture.

For my part, I defer to my children’s Black relatives on matters of race. For instance, my children have a Black father and a white mother and I say they are Black. Why? Because I defer to their father and I understand that the terminology we use every day is crucial as he raises them into their Black identity. I also recognize that my children will not be viewed as white by white people and I am unwilling to send them out into this world unaware of what that means for them. However, I do not argue with Black people who tell me my children are biracial or Black biracial. The parameters of Blackness are not my white business. Group dynamics like these are matters that are internal to non-white cultural groups and they need no white perspectives.

On that note, we have to stop butting in everywhere and getting too comfortable in spaces where people of color are trying to coexist. Remember that neither our presence nor our opinion is needed where people of color are fellowshipping. While our contributions may possibly be of some value, our absence is always of value. That means observing hard and fast rules like no using the n-word (er/a) period, no memes of Black people (aka digital blackface), no speaking up in conversations where people of color are talking about their own business that has nothing to do with you, no walking into discussions that have explicitly been opened to people of color, and no using euphemisms for the word white (e.g. YT, whyte, etc.). If that last one threw you off, here’s an explanation. These words are used online, especially on social media platforms, by people of color because their posts about white people tend to get flagged as hate speech. Their accounts get suspended, which silences them. Predictably, white people don’t experience the same silencing for our blatantly racist posts. And, while we’re on the topic, we should also consider not using words like “Becky” and “Karen” that place distance between us and problematic white people because we are also problematic white people!

And, another thing. If one person of color tells you something you’re doing is ok and 99 others tell you it’s not, take care who you listen to. No group of people is a monolith. Our responsibility is to understand our impact as white people.

The more you learn, the more you will recognize when your choices are separating your child from their culture, which happens often when WE are uncomfortable. We cannot truly identify with our children’s lived experiences, so our children need people around who can. Do not allow your child’s heritage be defined or described in terms of their relationship to whiteness. They have their own needs and it is incumbent upon us as their parents to learn about what they need. From psychosocial necessities to basic hygiene, do not assume their needs are the same as yours. Take it upon yourself to seek out spaces that are managed by people who look like your child and are willing to open up education to white parents. Find folks who will unabashedly challenge your whiteness for the benefit of your kids. Try Unlearning Racism on Facebook as a general starting point. If you are a white parent of Black kids like me, Culturally Fluent Families might be for you.

Principle 4. We Cannot Raise Our Children Into Their Full Cultural Heritage and Birthright

Teach your child about their heritage to the best of your limited ability and give them proximity to it. For some parents, that may even mean moving out of predominantly white areas. Every single choice you make regarding your child is an opportunity to give them exposure to their culture. For instance, if your Primary Care Physician is white, you could find a PCP that shares the same cultural heritage as your child. When you’re deciding on extracurriculars, seek out ways to incorporate aspects of your child’s non-white culture. Embed your children in their cultural institutions such as churches, schools, and organizations that were founded by and for members of your child’s cultural heritage. At the very least, seek access to spaces where your children see their own faces reflected back at them.

And, make sure your children know who their ancestors were BEFORE they were colonized. White supremacy likes to do things like starting Black history off with enslavement as though that is the beginning of the story. We have to counteract that evil. So, think long and hard about everything you willingly expose your child to. Little things as simple as reading Dr. Seuss books can come with lifelong consequences. Every choice matters.

Principle 5. Our Whiteness Is Harmful to Our Children and Their Communities of Heritage

If your kids are your biological children, understand that not every person of color is going to celebrate the infusion of your whiteness in your non-white child. If your kids are not your biological children, especially if they are adopted and do not have a white biological parent, understand that there is a lot of discomfort around white people raising children of color and that you might hear difficult things like claims that you stole a child from a different culture or that you are not qualified to raise your child. Instead of defending yourself, understand that these concerns exist for good reason. Take the initiative to learn why your whiteness is not necessarily appreciated, particularly considering the history of whiteness in the United States.

As you do, pay very close attention to how you use your words to talk about your child’s non-white culture. What we say to our children makes an enormous impact and we may be doing harm unintentionally as our perspective is filtered through our whiteness. No matter who you choose to listen to and what you choose to believe, be very careful how you talk about things like movements by and for people of color such as Water Protectors and Black Lives Matter. Consider that, if you take a negative stance around these movements, it is because you either do not understand their purpose (which is correctable ignorance) or because you understand their purpose and you don’t care (which is racist). You don’t have to throw your full support behind complex things that make you uneasy, but you do need to investigate that uneasiness and, at the very least, avoid disparaging the work that people of color are doing for their own well-being.

Bottom line, people of color do not owe us their labor, their explanations, or their friendship. Realize that we are distrusted and disliked by virtue of our oppressive culture and the ease with which we slip into our privilege to their detriment. We should be doing anti-racist, decolonizing work, no matter how people of color regard us. Let go of the ego.

Final Thoughts

As I learn more about the impact of my whiteness, I have moments when I wonder if it would have been better for me not to have ever encroached on Blackness to begin with. I’m sure there are Black people reading this who would absolutely agree with me and I understand why. I mention this to communicate the weight of what it really means for a white person to choose to parent interculturally. It is not something that can be resolved. Certainly not by using our whiteness as a blanket to snuff out criticism from people of color. It is a choice we will live with as long as we draw breath and it deserves our utmost consideration and respect.

We are responsible for the harm we cause and, frankly, the best thing we can do is shut up and learn every single day. If you are willing to be wrong and to be embarrassed, you’ll make progress. And, if you accept that you will never be everything for your children, you might just be able to give them what they need. Let yourself be left out and let your whiteness be pushed to the side. If you are willing to sacrifice for your children, sacrifice your whiteness first.

One Way We Unintentionally Foster Codependency

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.

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Co-dependent adults struggle to identify who they are and what they need as independent from others; it's as if their sense of self is dependent on the approval or well-being of someone else.  This is the essence of an "outside-in" lens for the world: Other people show me who I am.  I've only learned to find myself and feel safe when other people are happy with me. . Co-dependency is really about self-alienation, because you've been taught that your own wants and feelings threaten the stability of a relationship, so you need to get as far away from yourself as possible. Individuals wired this way are attracted to partners who are narcissistic and low on empathy, the perfect opposing puzzle piece for co-dependent traits. . Co-dependency may appear in adulthood but it starts in early childhood; remember, we are wiring our kids for their relationship patterns. . During childhood, kids are asking these questions: "Who do I have to be to achieve emotional safety? How safe are my own feelings and needs?" . There are very few things that I tell parents not to do.  High on the list are Don't Hit, Don't Terrify, and… . DON'T LINK YOUR CHILD'S EMOTIONS WITH YOUR OWN. . Don't wire your child so that her feelings sit right next to their impact on you. This is not a way to create empathic kids; it is a way to create co-dependent adults. . HOW DO WE CREATE EMPATHY AND AVOID CO-DEPENDENCY? By creating *distance* between our kids' feelings and our own – seeing feelings not for their impact on us but for the pain they cause in our child. . Instead of "That hurts Mommy's feelings," say, "You must be really upset about something to speak to me that way." Instead of "That makes Mommy sad," say, "I can't listen well when you're speaking to me in that tone. I want to hear about what's happening for you. I care about your feelings and you're allowed to have them." . And when you do have big feelings? Take responsibility for these as your own. Tell your child, "You're noticing that I'm upset. Yes, it's true. And here's something else true: My feelings are MINE. You don't cause my feelings and you don't have to take care of them."

A post shared by Dr. Becky Kennedy (@drbeckyathome) on

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:

Systems Theory Can Help You Plan Your Strategy

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.

Comparisons

First Order ChangeSecond Order ChangeThird Order Change
Incremental AdjustmentsMassive AlterationsComplete Overhaul
Curtails ProblemsRoots Out the Source of ProblemsDemocratizes Problem-Solving
Change is QuantitativeChange is QualitativeChange is Everything
Same DirectionNew DirectionNew Universe
Clearly LogicalSeemingly Illogical*Mind Blown*
Change is ReversibleChange is IrreversibleChange is Deconstructive
Preserved ParadigmAltered ParadigmNew Paradigm
Sourced in part from The Open University

Pros and Cons

First Order ChangeSecond Order ChangeThird Order Change
ProsSimple and FamiliarAddresses Structural Causes of ProblemsSame Advantages as 2nd Order, PLUS Flexible and Autonomous
ConsShort-Term Solution to Symptoms; and May Create Problems in Other Parts of the SystemMay Not Offer Immediate Relief; Conflicts with Accepted Paradigms; and Reveals New ProblemsSame Disadvantages of 2nd Order, PLUS Cognitive Dissonance; Resistance from Participants; and Uncertainty
Sourced in part from Christopher Beasley

Order of Change in the COVID Crisis

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.

An Emotion Coaching How To

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.)

View this post on Instagram

This morning, I found out that a huge batch of orders I sent through the post office had either been misplaced or never picked up (the mystery remains), meaning I had to redo and reship everything. Needless to say, I was in quite a state about the loss of money and time. Wren was urgently trying to get my attention as I explained what happened to Dan, and exasperated, I asked her what she needed. She said “you need to take a deep breath, mama. One, two three…” And together we took a few deep breathes. “You feel better?” she said. And I did. ❤️ It was a very, very proud parenting moment. When Wren gets overwhelmed with feelings, this is what we do, and to see a two year old understand when we need to stop and take a breath was pretty magical. I want to send kudos to @peaceigiveblog which has been a godsend as we get through the tantrum age while in quarantine. She practices peaceful parenting and shares her tips and experiences, and I really cannot recommend it enough! And if you’re rolling your eyes at the phrase “peaceful parenting,” I’d like to direct you to the above paragraph. It may not be as immediately effective as time outs, but over time, it works so much better. Wren now asks for quiet time when she gets overwhelmed, making tantrums less and less frequent because she has the tools to take action on her own instead of waiting for us to intervene when she gets out of control. … As a total aside, this is what happens when the government defunds the post office – small business like mine who rely on online retail (you know, like we ALL do now) will be devastated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have been doing this for 8 years and this was the first time anything like this has ever happened. #savethepostoffice

A post shared by Hoopla! Letters (@hooplaletters) on

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.

Five Steps of Emotion Coaching
Dr. John Gottman

Step 1. Be aware of your child's emotions

Step 2. Recognize emotion as an opportunity for connection or teaching

Step 3: Help your child verbally label emotions

Step 4: Communicate empathy and understanding

Step 5: Set limits and problem solve

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.

Harnessing the Benefits of Inductive Discipline

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.

The Background

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.

  1. Power assertion was associated with weak moral development.
  2. Love withdrawal was associated with negative moral development.
  3. 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).

Did you catch it? Shift the focus. When we shift the focus of behavior from the child to the child’s impact, something changes. We engage empathy and studies have evidenced the fact that the ability to mentalize the experiences of others… can lead us to take prosocial steps to reduce their pain.

Why Should You Care?

I’m going to yield this section to Dr. Gwen Dewar of ParentingScience.com who formulated a clear and compelling case for the use of inductive discipline. This list is fantastic! The entire article is wonderful and I highly recommend you read it.

1. Warm, responsive parenting promotes secure attachments, and protects kids from developing internalizing problems.

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).

3. Talking with kids about thoughts and feelings may strengthen attachment relationships and make kids into better “mind readers.”

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.

How Self-Control Develops

ZerotoThree.org, an organization that focuses on development in the first three years of life, found that 56% of parents they surveyed in 2016 believed that their toddlers had the ability to resist doing something they were told not to do before the age of three. And, of those, 18% believed that children had this ability by only six months of age. Let me be clear in saying that it’s impossible for an infant or a young toddler to habitually exercise self-control. Their brains are incapable of this feat. So, let’s talk about it.

Self-Regulation versus Self-Control

Before we launch too far into this piece, I need to make a distinction for your understanding. As I’ve noted before, self-regulation and self-control are two very different things. Dr. Stuart Shanker of Psychology Today explains,

There is a profound difference between self-regulation and self-control. Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation, reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary. The reason lies deep inside the brain.

In this piece, I’ll be talking about both.

Birth to Twelve Months

Newborn and very young infants have not yet discovered that they exist apart from their parents. They have no concept of self-control during this phase. They simply communicate their needs and wants in the only ways they know how. During this time, young infants begin to build self-regulation skills through co-regulation with their caregivers.

The development of self-regulation starts young. Very young. As part of an intensive report prepared for several federal agencies back in 1991, researchers conducted an extensive literature review of studies on infant attachment. The goal of the overall project was to critique the literature review, identify research gaps, and build a consensus for an interdisciplinary research agenda, one that has influenced our understanding of infant brain development over the past 30 years. One clear outcome emerged from the literature. Secure attachment results in “ego resiliency,” which is our adaptability to stressors. It is the capacity that allows us to resist lashing out emotionally under stress. And, it all starts at birth.

By the seven month mark, infants begin to realize that they are separate from their caregivers. This early skill is necessary several years down the road when young children begin recognize that other people have emotions. Starting from about seven months, infants also begin to understand that they can control the movements of their bodies and their personalities start to emerge. This is a time of problem solving and much motor development.

At the end of the first year, most babies can understand a wide range of vocabulary and make some speech sounds themselves. They can typically move themselves around their space and recognize basic boundaries. However, they are still too young to be able to control their impulses without adult assistance.

Twelve to Thirty-Six Months

From twelve to thirty-six months, toddlers are really coming into their own. They might express their wants and needs with a sharp “no” or a jolly “yes.” They’re experiencing independence for the first time and it is thrilling. With independence, though, comes more boundaries. And, toddlers don’t quite get the need for them. At this stage, they don’t have the life experience to recognize cause and effect in a way that older kids do. They’re pretty good with simple guidelines when we remind them, but they may not bring them to mind when they’re about to do something we’d prefer they didn’t. Add to that their lack of impulse control and you have a potential conflict between parent and child. However, resist the desire to punish! Understand that your child is doing the best they can. Check out this post about punishment to understand why it’s problematic.

At this stage, toddlers still don’t have reliable self-control, though their self-regulation may be coming along very well. This is the perfect time to deploy the Three Rs in earnest. Toddlers understand empathy and need our understanding to work through their emotions. You can also model your process of self-regulation by talking through your own experiences. For instance, if you’re at the store and you find they’re out of something you were hoping to purchase, you might say, “Oh no! They don’t have what I needed. I feel angry. I really wanted that. Ok, let me think. Maybe another store has the same thing. I’m going to finish shopping here and then go somewhere else.”

Thirty-Six Months and Beyond

Older toddlers and preschoolers have a better grasp on boundaries and limits, but they still don’t have access to the level of impulse control they need to exercise self-control consistently. They still need an adult to help guide them. And, there’s evidence that tells us the effort we put into our children now pays dividends in the future.

A 2016 study published in the journal, Social Development, sought to examine associations between parental responsiveness and executive function, which is a key component of self-regulation. The population they chose is notable. They selected 3-5 year old socioeconomically disadvantaged preschoolers, thereby mitigating many of the confounding factors present in other populations. What they found was that “higher parental responsiveness predicted greater gains in both delay inhibition and conflict EF over time.” In short, warm parenting improved the children’s ability to wait (i.e. delayed gratification) and their ability to choose or not choose to do a task based on who is demanding it (e.g. Simon Says).

It may be difficult to believe, but children do not begin to have the ability to exercise self-control until 3 1/2 at the earliest but typically closer to 4. Again, that’s the start of self-control. We cannot expect a child under the age of 4 to be able to resist doing the things we’ve told them not to do without our supervision and support. With this information in hand, it may be easier for us to approach our children with their developmental stage in mind. We might try redirecting them to other activities, giving directions in simple terms, limiting their access to danger zones, and other similar methods to gently enforce limits around them without putting too much pressure on them to do more than they cognitively can.

How to Support the Development of Self-Control

Start first by supporting your child’s natural development of self-regulation. The most straightforward way to do this is by co-regulating, being there physically with your child as they experience emotions and frustrations. Model ways to deal with upset and conflict. Give unlimited affection. Avoid punishments and rewards. And, give your child time to grow. Your exercise of patience is crucial.

Licensed Social Worker, Brandy Wells, offers the following advice on helping children with self-regulation:

1 Rest and Nutrition!
We have all seen how lack of sleep, dehydration, or a hungry stomach can derail a day! If we want to teach kids social-emotional skills, we also need to attend to their rest and nutrition. Sometimes what a tantrum-throwing toddler needs most in the moment is a snack or a nap.

2 Breath[e] in the Fresh Air
Provide opportunities for free play and outdoor play. Let the energy out. Increased heart rate = more blood flow to the brain = more brain power. When my older daughter starts to feel emotionally dysregulated, she often takes a walk in the fresh air. As her body begins to fill with happy hormones, her affect becomes calmer. You can also check out these active games that support self-regulation.

3 Blow Away Troubles
Blowing bubbles is a kid-friendly way to practice deep breathing — and deep breathing calms the body down. Plus, who doesn’t like bubbles?! When you blow bubbles too quickly or too slow, it doesn’t work. You need to breathe from the belly, at a regular tempo. Speaking of deep breathing, yoga is another great way for kids to connect with their bodies and stay focused and calm. Try adding 15 minutes a day or a quick session after a meltdown.

4 Read All About It!
Read books about emotions as a way to discuss all the feelings kids have. I love Todd Parr’s books (including The Feelings Book and It’s Okay To Be Different) and the way he displays an array of feeling vocabulary. In addition, sensory “touch and feel” books can help hold your child’s attention during reading time and stimulate their senses.

5 Listen Up!
Calm music can help settle children down. And fun, simple songs can help children remember self-regulation strategies. Check out these Daniel Tiger songs about anger, taking turns, and waiting.

As you’ve read, self-control comes later, around the age of 4. You can help your child practice self-control by playing games like Red Light, Green Light. Help your child reason through difficult situations, all while empathizing with them in their distress. Give your child opportunities to choose between instant gratification and delayed gratification. For instance, “We can go to the park today and get ice cream tomorrow or we can get ice cream now and go to the park tomorrow. Which would you like to do?” And, of course, provide your child with consistent limits and be willing to negotiate those limits.

Additional Readings for More Effective Parenting

A Single Change Makes All the Difference

Talking Doesn’t Work With My Kid

One Cure for Whining

Three Words That Will Calm Your House

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

Curbing Aggression in Young Kids

We Don’t Really Want to Force Our Kids to Share

Fostering Competent Eating

Gentle Support for Your Resistant Child

Curbing Aggression in Young Kids

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.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • It’s too noisy in here.
  • My sibling took my toy.
  • Stop touching me!
  • You’re not listening to me.
  • This is fun!
  • I’m frustrated.
  • Let me do it my way.
  • I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
  • I was curious what would happen.
  • I’m anxious.
  • My body doesn’t feel good.

Addressing Needs

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.

Attention

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:

  1. Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
  2. Appreciate: Pause and think
  3. Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
  4. 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.

Boundaries

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.

Discomfort

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.

Play

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.

Kids Are Perfectly Reasonable… Seriously

Ever have moments when you feel like you’re in sync with your kids and things are amazing? If so, did you know you can have even more of those moments? Kids do well when they can, and you can help them out by understanding better where they’re coming from.

Marriage and Family Therapist, Galyn Burke, put together a fantastic resource on the way children’s brains develop. She explains that the three major parts of the brain (hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain) develop on different timelines. They have to. Our brains are complex with high energy demands. It takes a while to get everything in order.

  • The reptilian hindbrain looks like someone dropped a crocodile brain into our heads. This part of the brain serves the most basic purposes including regulating autonomic functions like breathing and instictive behaviors like threat patrol.
  • The limbic midbrain is our emotion center. It’s what allows us to be empathetic, social creatures. This is the part of the brain where children process their world.
  • The neocortex forebrain is where our rational mind lives. This part doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s in humans. We like to think of this area as the logic center, but without the midbrain, our logic is incomplete.

Childhood is an incredibly crucial time in the life of a human being when we learn how to be human. We figure out what emotions are and how to work with them. We learn how to love each other and respect boundaries. And, we learn our personal signs of dysregulation and how to cope. If children are not treated gently and responsively, any of these skills can be hindered.

So, you know that brain development isn’t as simple as 1, 2, 3, but did you know that even babies can think logically before they can talk? Turns out, our ability to reason doesn’t depend on language or understanding. A study that came out a few years back found that preverbal infants notice when something is wrong and try to work out a solution. The scientists figured out that “at the moment of a potential deduction, infants’ pupils dilated, and their eyes moved toward the ambiguous object when inferences could be computed, in contrast to transparent scenes not requiring inferences to identify the object. These oculomotor markers resembled those of adults inspecting similar scenes, suggesting that intuitive and stable logical structures involved in the interpretation of dynamic scenes may be part of the fabric of the human mind.” And our ability to reason explodes from that point.

Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosopy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Gardener and the Carpenter, has been studying children for a long time. What she has found is that children have a greater capacity for innovation and creativity than college students all while applying clear logic. She explains that 3-year-olds will offer a stream of consciousness when asked to give us their thoughts, but if you use their own language to ask them concrete questions, the responses will be sensible and surprising.

Check out this piece explaining some of her experiments. You might just find something useful (Hint: Don’t miss the part where the researcher notes that having children explain something themselves increases their understanding of it.)

Now that you know just how brilliant your child is and you know why they can appear to be illogical, you might be surprised to learn that a very simple solution can flip a switch for your child. When a child’s limbic system is on overload, top to bottom exercises can be useful. These are exercises that require movement across both the top and bottom parts of the body. Things like standing stretches and light weight lifting can help your child’s brain regulate itself.

One final thought that comes to mind is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with its focus on integration. In DBT, there exists a concept of the Wise Mind, which is “the balanced part of us that comprises our inner knowledge and intuition, where our emotional thinking mind (thoughts driven by distressing feelings) and rational thinking mind come together, the part of us that just ‘knows’ that true reality.”

Many adults need therapeutic intervention to learn to live into their Wise Mind. Children, whose brains are still forming, need direction and practice to find this place. When you recognize that your children are logical, but not logical in the exact same way that you are, it can become easier to learn to speak their language and to offer responses that help them integrate all the parts of their brains. I firmly believe that children are perfectly reasonable and I hope that, now, you do too.

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 act out in a non-peaceful way. Nope. I’m working toward being a Peaceful Parent just like you are and stumbling all over myself along the way. Here are some of the things I’ve committed to that have helped me push forward.

Punishment Rejection Action Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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?