Should Gentle Parents Speak Nicely To Their Kids? No.

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Last week, I wrote about a strange trend in the gentle parenting community where the criticism of naysayers seems to be affecting the direction of the work of gentle parenting content creators. I’m going take this opportunity to expand a bit on speech communication as a gentle parent. So, should gentle parents speak nicely to their kids? Absolutely not. Well, wait, let me rephrase. It really depends on what we mean by nice.

I wrote this a few years ago about kindness versus niceness:

Dictionaries don’t offer much of a distinction, but clearly we do differentiate in common parlance. Niceness is demonstrably synonymous with politeness, whereas kindness exists in a deeper, more committed space. I propose my own definitions for the sake of clarity.

Niceness is the quality of being polite in pursuit of respectability and maintaining the status quo. Niceness avoids conflicts and behaves in socially acceptable ways in order to reveal our best intentions. Niceness derives from humanity’s basic drive to be accepted within a social group. Clothes can be nice. Days can be nice. Dogs can be nice. People can be nice. Niceness is the overarching compliment paid to those who make us feel good. However, it can be misleading at best and fraudulent at worst. Niceness uses adherence to social standards as a means to improve a person’s social standing and, therefore, it cannot be relied upon to advance all people equally. Not when our culture suffers from disparities in equity across all aspects of identity…

…Kindness, on the other hand, is active compassion and connection built out of intentional service to others. It accounts for its impacts.

Authoritarian parents speak nicely to their kids. Mine did. And, it was for the purpose of manipulation. Have you heard of the Uh Oh Song in the authoritarian disciplinary system, Love and Logic? Listen to this explanation of the steps of the Uh Oh Song:

It may sound pretty good on the surface, but it is controlling and coercive. The parent uses a singsongy voice to introduce behavior management that utilizes planned ignoring of the cries of the child who is relegated to their room in an effort to make them act right. Love and Logic simply doesn’t accept that all behavior is communication of an unmet need, every time. Rather, it forces the parent to decide if the child is expressing a need or a want. Do kids want their own way? Of, course they do and you do too. That’s not the point at all. And, the entire process of the Uh Oh Song begins with parents assuming a nice, calm voice. Parents can communicate many emotions behind the façade of a nice voice, not all of them respectful.

So, no, with that said, parents do not need to be nice to their kids. We should be kind instead. Kindness requires respect, empathy, love, and graciousness. There is no reason we shouldn’t be speaking to our kids in our natural tones with good intentions and also an awareness of the impact of what we say and how we say it. We don’t need to be saccharine sweet to show our kids that we see them and care about what they care about. Just be genuine. And, maybe we should also think about telling our kids to speak or be “nice” to others.

How We Talk To Our Kids Matters

I’ve been noticing a growing trend in the gentle parenting community. I’ve seen it all over social media and these posts get a lot of positive feedback from people who agree wholeheartedly. What I’m talking about is parenting influencers who criticize the use of soft, singsong tones in other parents’ clips saying that’s not what gentle parenting is about.

But, here’s the problem. I have yet to see a gentle parent on social media encouraging people to use soft, singsong tones with kids. What I have seen, however, are people like the infamous Michelle Duggar using a soft, calm voice to “correct” her children, knowing full well that all her children were blanket trained and spanked. I’ve seen parents speaking quietly to the camera through gritted teeth in their videos about how their kids are assholes. And, I’ve also seen critics of gentle parenting accuse gentle parents of using unrealistic, infantilizing soft… singsong… tones.

I think what might be happening is that these gentle parenting influencers are all reacting to a bogeyman conjured by critics and forced upon us to reckon with. It’s the specter of a culture that diminishes the work we do by calling our children out of control, calling us enablers, and mocking every move we make. The reality is that gentle parents have lots of different forms of communication that are influenced by age, culture, language, upbringing, and the like. Plus, some of us (like me) who tend toward anger, use whispering as a way to regulate ourselves and draw our children in so that they can hear us and so that we won’t yell. Getting quiet is a great way to be heard when energies are high.

My advice to anyone who wants to know how they should speak to their kids as a gentle parent is to be yourself. Be natural. Speak to your kids the way you speak to anyone else. Gentle parenting is not performative. It is intentional. We aren’t “acting” a certain way. We are working toward being conscious, responsive, connected people in a world that views conscious, responsive, connectedness as weak and foolish. It’s hard.

I have never baby-talked my kids. I usually speak to them the same way I speak to their father and other adults in my life. But, there are times when I whisper. And, there are times when I use soft, low, rhythmic sounds to help my kids ward off an impending meltdown. We can use our voices in ways that benefit our children while still being true to ourselves.

You know what that means, though. If you naturally speak in soft, singsong tones, you’re still doing it right. Live true, friends.

Kids Do Well If They Can

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This week, I’m taking a slightly different approach. I’ve prepared a series of shareable graphics around a concept that I’ve been grappling with as my children have gotten older and their troubles are more developed than the need to nurse and have a diaper change. Truth be told, I flew into an angry outburst this past weekend and had to do a whole lot of apologizing and reconnecting.

I’m currently in physical therapy for a back injury (a large part of why I’m having difficulty maintaining my composure) and my physical therapist told me something really interesting about the body’s healing process. She said that healing is not linear. What happens is that we’ll have higher pain days and lower pain days. Over time, the higher pain days decrease and the lower pain days increase. I find that’s very similar to how I’ve experienced healing from childhood trauma. When I started out with peaceful parenting, I had a lot of angry days. I tried to avoid directing my anger at my children but I failed a lot. As time has gone by, the better days have become far more numerous. I still have emotional explosions and meltdowns, but they’re cropping up less frequently and I’m able to recover more quickly.

I think a lot of us have really rough days and we feel like we’re failing as peaceful parents, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We are HEALING. We are doing the best we can. And, through this work, we are equipping ourselves with tools that help us see our children in a more positive light, find avenues of connection, and protect our kids from the things we experienced as children.

I hope this snapshot series will be helpful to you as you work toward a renewed mindset around becoming the parent you want to be.

Text: If you’ve had any encounters within the world of gentle, conscious parenting, you’ve probably heard the mantra, “kids do well if they can.”

Text: While the idea is ancient, Ross Greene brought modern attention to it as a key theme in his Collaborative Problem Solving model.

Text: When we say, “kids do well if they can” what we mean is that children WANT to do well. They WANT to be an integral and accepted part of their social structure, whether that’s family, school, teams, etc.

Text: In other words, when children “misbehave,” it is not because they are manipulative, devious, or bratty.

Text: Rather, children behave in a way that reflects how well their needs are being met, how connected they feel, and how adequately their brains are able to manage their particular circumstances.

Text: This mantra, “children do well if they can,” is pivotal to allowing our adult minds to shift into an anti-childist, respectful worldview around child rearing and discipline.

Text: When we recognize that, every time a child does something we don’t want them to do, it’s because they CANNOT manage otherwise on their own, we can begin thinking in terms of problem-solving with them as opposed to punishing their childlikeness.

Text: And, when we get to the point where our first instinct is to help our kids when their behavior upsets us, it becomes a lot easier to stop yelling, threatening, and hurting them.

Text: Our children will grow in wisdom over time. They will become more and more able to handle difficult circumstances with grace and self-assurance, and we can help them get there.

Text: By modeling gentleness, curiosity, and helpfulness in the face of difficulty, we can help our kids develop the tools they need to operate from a growth mindset wherein flexibility, empowerment, and hope prevail. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.

Remember The Kids

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A friend of mine shared an experience she had recently during an online discussion regarding a little girl with strawberry-blonde spiral curls. The circumstances were that competing caregivers had different aims over her hair. One set wanted to straighten her hair. The other wanted to preserve her natural curl pattern. After the post received many, many comments, my friend noticed a glaring problem. Everyone had an opinion on what the caregivers should do and how to work things out. However, no one expressed any concern about what the child thought. No one wondered what the little girl preferred or why. No one considered how this battle among the adults might be impacting the child.

No one thought. Children continue to be viewed as spectators of their lives. We prioritize adults and their opinions about children. I wonder how many of us have conversations about our children in front of them. I know I have done it. I have to catch myself. It’s so natural! Children communicate differently and have different priorities. In some ways, it’s like kids and adults are in parallel universes, encountering each other on occasions that warrant communication. But, that’s not the whole truth. We are obviously in the same universe together. The problem we have is that adults tend to steamroll forward to our goals. We have to remind ourselves to pause and check-in with our kids.

I try to make it a priority in my life to include my children rather than simply existing in the same space they are. I use physical touch and affection to connect to the extent of their comfort levels. If I’m discussing something that affects my kids, I seek to involve them in the decision-making process. And, really, it’s not easy. I have to be the one to initiate the interaction most of the time. I have to slow down and get outside my own mind to remember that they probably need a check-in. Considering the fact that I live life as an intentional, gentle parent, it shouldn’t be this challenging! But, it is. If you’re like me, I get it.

I think it’s always important for us to remember the kids whether we’re moving through our own lives and trying to connect with them or when we’re in a position of influence and have the opportunity to interject a comment in a conversation with strangers. Every time we remember the kids, we change a little and we change our culture a little. I think about how limited resources around gentle parenting were just a few years ago. The past decade has seen a huge surge of podcasts, books, blogs, and the like. And, while there have been incredible works in the field for more than 30 years, gentle parenting wasn’t really mainstream.

Today, there are entire articles on major media outlets about us! If you enjoy TikTok, you might have come across the proliferation of gentle parenting influencers on the app, teaching both newer and older generations of parents how to do better, be better. So, yes, please, remember the kids however that may look in your life. It makes a difference for you, for them, and for all of us.

Disrespect Vs Dysregulation

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It’s another versus post! Y’all know I love these. I see it all the time in gentle parenting groups… people asking what the gentle response might be toward disrespectful attitudes. These questions can’t be answered without first considering what disrespect from children looks like in the context of peaceful parenting. What is disrespect in the first place? I think many parents might say things like:

  • Backtalk
  • Defiance
  • Destructiveness
  • Name-calling
  • Sarcasm
  • Insults
  • Cussing
  • Refusal to cooperate
  • Crossing personal boundaries
  • Not doing what they’re told
  • Eyerolling
  • Aggression
  • Raising their voice/Yelling
  • Mocking/making fun of

Where do these reactions come from though? Having done all of these things myself at one time or another both as a child and as an adult, I can tell you exactly how I was feeling: like my own boundaries were being ignored; like I wasn’t being heard; like I was being pushed past my ability to cope; like I was having a trauma response; like I genuinely couldn’t come up with another way to communicate how terrible I was feeling; like it was the best I could do in the moment. Can you relate? Have there been times in your adult life when you said something unkind because you weren’t in a great frame of mind? Have you ever thrown or broken something in an emotional moment? Have you ever yelled or given someone the silent treatment because you were fuming mad? In any of these circumstances, were you in a state of emotional regulation? I doubt it.

I’m going to say something that’s probably going to feel wrong to a lot of people, but I don’t think anyone – adult or child – chooses disrespect outside of a state of dysregulation. And, given what we know about how children develop self-control, we have to acknowledge that children are even less able to overcome dysregulation than adults are. I’d go so far as to say that children probably don’t have the capacity to be disrespectful with intent to harm. Rather, they are lashing out with what they know will communicate the most hurt in an effort to ask for our help in the most basic way.

When we talk about disrespect, what we’re referring to is the way other people make us feel about ourselves. For a lot of adults, the intoxicating power of authority can make us forget that children are not inferior to us. When children do something that makes us feel bad, we can still achieve the presence of mind to know why they’ve done what they’ve done. And, for those of us who are peaceful parents, the response is the same as it would be in any other encounter where our children have behaved in a way that defies our family values: we extend compassion and grace. See, kids can’t make us feel any sort of way. We receive their behavior through the lens of our own pain, from how we were treated as children to the state of our ongoing mental health. Plus, we have to consider how we have been treating our children. Have we created a situation where their reaction to our behavior has generated dysregulation to the point that they’re prompted to shift into a space of disrespect?

If we perceive that our kids are being disrespectful, it’s time to connect! First, stop what you’re doing, take a personal inventory of how your body is feeling, and do some square breathing.

This is not the moment to lecture or correct. It’s the time to let them know they’re loved and accepted; let them know that we see their feelings exploding.; and let them know that they can let us know what’s wrong without fear of retribution. A phrase I try to remember is, “You must be feeling pretty bad to [insert behavior]. How can I help?” My hope here is that you will work toward jumping to empathy and curiosity instead of anger and control. I’ll be working toward the exact same thing myself.

Finding the YES

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I’ve been noticing an unfortunate trend in my life. I feel like I’m going 100 miles an hour every day just trying to keep up with my kids. Between high energy and powerful curiosity, protecting them from all the dangers of the world ends up taking most of my energy. I find it difficult to see beyond the present circumstances, at any given moment, to gain a better understanding of why they do what they do. It’s just so much easier to say no and save myself the trouble sometimes, but no isn’t the most sustainable solution I have in my repertoire by any means. Yet, I’ve been employing no even in situations that could have been salvaged with a little creativity. My kids deserve to be heard and respected, so my behavior needs a check. I write this as much for me as I do for you.

What’s wrong with no?

No leads to frustration, anger, and backlash. And, it’s not just because kids aren’t getting to do what they want. Children aren’t that petty. No is so difficult because it forces transitions that our kids may not be prepared to navigate. It’s not simply about the child not getting to do something. It’s about all the future plans and desires; the courage and the planning that came first. It’s the sudden, unexpected change of plans, and adults know very well how that feels. We make our own plans and, when those plans get derailed by life, it’s upsetting. We say things like, “Now my day is ruined!” because unwanted transitions leave us just as vulnerable as they do our kids. No isn’t just a statement. It’s a seemingly insurmountable barrier when the gatekeeper is a parent.

Finding the YES

The first step to finding the yes is recognizing why we say no. Once we know why, we can search for a workaround. Have we said no to something dangerous? Ok, what alternative activity can we say yes to? Have we said no to something that will cause us difficulty, such as kids wanting to play a messy game? Ah! This one will take some ingenuity. Can they play in the tub or outside? Have we said no because it’s too late or too early or too cold or too hot outside? Understandable. So, can the activity be delayed until a time when they’re in a place that won’t present such a challenge?

Yes cultivates cooperation, so lead with yes and work out the details with your child. Keep your child’s plans intact while negotiating alterations that will suit you both. And, if you must say no, empathize. Let your child know you recognize your part in why their plans aren’t going to work out after all.

I’d love to hear what happens in your family’s world when you trade no for yes in your everyday encounters.

Better Goals Than Independence

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It seems to be a given in USian culture that a parent’s duty is to see that their children are prepared to be independent on or soon after they turn 18. Our kids are meant to be able to look after their own hygiene, find and maintain a job, live alone in a house or an apartment (or negotiate a roommate arrangement), and so forth. To these ends, many caregivers of disabled children feel intense pressure to seek out therapies that will allow their children to approach independence by the allotted deadline. They post in parenting groups asking how best to potty train their children, teach them to dress themselves and how to make their own breakfast. They agonize over the timing of developmental milestones and push down their anxiety to support their kids as best they can. But, why?

Take a breath. Slow down. Listen.

Very few people are fully independent, living off the grid, and singlehandedly hunting or growing everything they eat. Humans aren’t built that way in the first place. We are social creatures. We’re meant to live in community with each other. Unfortunately, our consumerist, ableist, White Supremacy Culture has convinced too many of us that our worth is tied up in what we can produce through performance. If we don’t operate in a typical way, we are the weakest link, and we don’t deserve to be included. Absurd. Absolutely absurd. No, we are worthy simply because we are and it is morally incumbent upon other members of our culture to make sure we are safe and cared for.

Independence seems reasonable in a scenario where asking for help is regarded as weak and burdensome to others. I get it. So, reject that mentality. You don’t have to participate. Opt out and teach your kids to do the same. And, when you’re ready, embrace interdependence as a much worthier alternative to independence.

Plug your children into their community and model qualities like empathy, helpfulness, partnership, and justice. Investigate why our culture so prizes isolationism and individualism above cooperation and community, and then help your kids understand. On your way, consider other goals that will serve your children better than independence to the extent that they are able, such as:

  1. Unabashedly asking for help when it’s needed.
  2. Locating, navigating, and securing resources.
  3. Learning how to find the decision-makers.
  4. Practicing how to ask effective questions and listen actively.
  5. Becoming powerful self-advocates who will not be pushed to the side.
  6. Understanding policies and procedures.
  7. Recognizing and defending their rights.

I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t be receiving support for self-care and daily living. Not at all. I think children should be given opportunities to gain autonomy and agency. I do not, however, believe that a caregiver choosing independence as a goal for a child is respectful or helpful. No person should be in training to become entirely self-sufficient without their explicit consent. We are an interdependent people. Teach into that reality.

The Stress And Burnout Continue. But I Have A Plan!

I had such intentions for what I’d write about this week. In fact, I have a bunch of topics I’ve compiled that I know I want to write about. There they sit on my growing to do list. I was debating whether or not to even post an article this week, because I am so burned out. I can’t catch my breath these days. Every weekend, I have grand ambitions and I think maybe, just maybe, this is the week I get it together. But, that week never comes, or at least, it hasn’t this year. So, I knew this was the article that needed to be written.

I’m finding it difficult to be a peaceful parent, especially as my kids are experiencing some transitions now as they grow older and wiser. They are a beautiful handful and I want to be the very best parent I can be to them. But, in order to do that, it seems I must let everything else fall apart. The house, the schedule, our homeschool plans. I have to sacrifice something in order to be competent in another area. My husband, bless him, has really stepped up with cleaning tasks around the house ever since I added a job to my absurd list of responsibilities. I’m so grateful to him for the partnership and, yet, I still can’t get it together. Anyone else feel this way?

The American Psychological Association’s David Ballard, PsyD produced a list of symptoms for Forbes.com. Now, Dr. Ballard’s list is specific to job burnout, so I’ll note only the points he lists that absolutely nail how I’m feeling. How about you?

  1. Exhaustion
  2. Lack of Motivation
  3. Frustration, Cynicism and Other Negative Emotions
  4. Cognitive Problems
  5. Interpersonal Problems at Home
  6. Not Taking Care of Yourself
  7. Generally Decreased Satisfaction
  8. Health Problems

Check, check, check, all the way down. All I want to do is sleep. And, I don’t think it’s depression. I know what that feels like and, for me, it feels like emptiness and hopelessness. I don’t feel those things, but I do feel so overwhelmed that I can barely get started on the first simple task. My executive function is wrecked. When I give myself permission, I can sit down and connect with my family. Then, when I do, it’s hard not to think about the piling list of things I’m neglecting.

I really want y’all to know that these feelings are common in this day and age. I won’t launch into a diatribe about white supremacy and capitalism here, but those are two significant driving forces behind why we all struggle so much. It’s okay to take care of yourself. It’s even revolutionary to do so.

I’ve been investigating ways to make this season a bit more bearable and I’m going to share them here, both to give others some ideas and also to remind myself. Here’s what I’m actively trying to do to survive:

  1. I started following KC Davis on Facebook and TikTok. She’s an expert in struggle care, and she helps me figure out what I can do rather than dwelling on what I can’t.
  2. I let things slide in our homeschool week. I have a list of things I’d like to accomplish every week and I work collaboratively with the kids toward these things. However, we are an unschooling-friendly crew and our days are mostly child-led. If the kids aren’t feeling it or if I’m not feeling it, I literally take a pen and cross off whatever isn’t working out from my list. Then, we choose something we all prefer. Sometimes, my plans resonate with the kids and sometimes they don’t. It is what it is.
  3. If the kids are dysregulated, instead of trying to manage them while still addressing other responsibilities, I sit down and help them. Sometimes, this means I don’t make the beds until 5 PM and the day’s dishes get piled up or we have to cancel certain therapies and activities. I can’t do everything, so my goal every day is to do something really well.
  4. Insomnia makes it difficult for me to sleep in the first place and then I also have my own insomniac child. We are two exhausted peas in a pod. So, at night, I lie down on the couch and help her relax into sleep. Sometimes I drift off too, but more often, I’ll be awake watching tv on low sound or reading something enjoyable. Even though it’s late, and I’m stuck underneath a softly snoring child, the rest is invaluable. It helps me lower my pulse and just breathe. Doesn’t do much for my touch sensitivity at the end of a long day, but once I’m free to go to bed myself, that helps a lot.
  5. I grab some prepared freezer meals in my grocery trip. They’re expensive and our budget is very small, but it’s worth having a couple options that don’t involve me cooking a whole meal. So, every week as I plan out our meals, I slide in a meal from the freezer section of the supermarket to stand in wait for those nights when I just can’t bring myself to cook.
  6. We clean during the week and try to reserve weekends for rest and recuperation. This one is difficult, but between the two of us, my husband and I make a reasonable dent in the cleaning task list every week. It’s not perfect, but we keep the house up pretty well.
  7. I comfort eat. Didn’t expect that one, did you? I fully believe that comfort eating is a natural and positive way our bodies deal with stress. I don’t binge or stress eat constantly, but after a particularly difficult day, I certainly will curl up on the couch with some ice cream. However, I do it with full recognition of what’s happening. It’s not mindless. It’s intentional. I’m doing it for a purpose and when that purpose is fulfilled, it’s done. Giving myself permission to use the joy of eating to benefit my mental health, helps me a lot.

I’d love to get your ideas for how to deal with burnout! What helps you in the really difficult seasons?

Meeting Needs Without Reinforcing Bad Behavior

Well, this is a conundrum. If we believe behavior is communication and we need to communicate with our kids to meet their needs, how does this work exactly? Here’s how the process usually goes down within traditional parenting:

  1. Child misbehaves
  2. Parent reacts
  3. Parent punishes
  4. Child gets quiet
  5. Parent lectures

Part of the trouble with addressing needs in the midst of undesirable behavior may be, in part, a struggle to break free from traditional parenting. We can’t “let” a child “misbehave”, right? Wait… can we? Can we give our children space to behave in ways that would have gotten us whooped? I believe so. That’s how we get a pulse on how our kids are feeling when other forms of communication escape them. And, it means that #1 in the process above is bunk.

How about #2? As peaceful parents, our goal is to respond, not react, so that won’t work. #3? That’s a big problem since we don’t punish either. #4 sounds nice, in theory, but shutting our kids down is the last thing we want to do when we need their input, so that’s also a no. And, then #5? I’m sure you can understand why lecturing children is pointless when what they need is understanding and a few new skills.

Let’s recreate that process for the peaceful parent:

  1. Child indicates distress through behavior
  2. Parent responds gently, halting destructive behavior and offering empathy
  3. Parent helps child re-center, giving space for upset and voice to emotions
  4. Child self-regulates
  5. Parent and child get to the bottom of the problem and find a way through

I try to become curious and invested rather than ignoring or controlling when I see my children behaving in a way that does harm, and I will tell you, it’s hard for me. It’s hard to manage my own emotions when I feel like my children aren’t heeding my words. I feel disrespected sometimes as they have such leeway to process their feelings in the way that works best for them. I wasn’t granted that kind of generosity of spirit as a child. I was parented in a harsh and traditional manner. Sure, I shut my mouth and appeared to obey, but my heart grew darker every time I was coerced, manipulated, or otherwise psychologically manhandled. It became so easy to lie to my parents as I got older. I knew that if I fell in line and acted like I was doing what they wanted from me, they’d eventually leave me alone.

Today, I am an adult who pushes everyone away when I’m feeling emotional. Anger is my predominant feeling too. Peaceful parenting tends to churn up all the old junk I was never allowed to process and it hurts so much. I often feel a tremendous urge to hit and slap my children when they’re doing things I don’t like. It would come so naturally. But, I don’t, because I don’t want my children to go through what I’m going through.

I want them to feel heard, supported, and loved. I want them to learn what they need most to find equilibrium when life gets hard. I want them to find solutions to their problems that do the least possible harm to anyone, including them. And, I know that affection and gentleness do not reinforce “bad” behavior. They comfort the human behind the behavior and sooth troubled hearts.

A More Effective And Empathetic Response To Grief

Grief isn’t something many of us are well-equipped to deal with. It comes in so many forms, from the worst possible thing we could imagine experiencing to a child not getting the cup they want at lunch time which, in all fairness, may also be the worst thing they’ve ever experienced. We are conditioned to diminish it for our comfort and, presumably, for the good of the grieving person. But, we all know there’s no off switch for grief. It comes in waves and follows us, swelling to tears at the most inopportune times. We carry it for years, even a lifetime. And, while it’s true that grief usually gets less painful with time, it’s never gone. Yet, so few of us know what to do about it and, when we make attempts at empathy, they can come across as dismissive. This is true of the way we try to comfort our children, just as it’s true of the way we try to comfort anyone else. We’re simply inexperienced and, oftentimes, ignorant of how we can truly help.

Psychotherapist, writer, grief advocate, & communication expert, Megan Devine, knows something about how people grieve. She has spent her career learning what people need most in the worst moments of their lives. Growing up in the United States within a toxic, puritanical, white supremacist culture that does not value genuineness or gentleness has left me, like many of you, inexperienced with emotional self-regulation. It’s one of the reasons I rely so heavily on approaches like Emotion Coaching. Without clear direction, I am lost when it comes to supporting people who are experiencing emotional upset. A couple months ago, a reader of my work named Stephanie Cohn brought an extraordinary video to my attention. In this beautiful 4-minute piece called, “How do you help a grieving friend?”, Megan Devine shares one of the most important lessons I’ve received as a peaceful parent. I hope you will be as moved as I was! (Transcript below)

So, what do we do about all the pain we see in the world, all the pain we feel in our own lives, and why does it seem like our best efforts to help somebody feel better always backfire. I’ve been studying intense grief and loss – baby death, violent crimes, accidents, suicides, and natural disasters – and I’ve learned something really interesting.

Cheering people up, telling them to be strong and persevere, helping them move on… it doesn’t actually work. It’s kind of a puzzle. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain. This is true for those giant losses and the ordinary everyday ones.

Educator, Parker Palmer writes, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.”

He’s talking about acknowledgement here. Acknowledgement is this really amazing multi-tool. It makes things better even when they can’t be made right. For example, somebody’s struggling. Their baby died or there’s been a bad accident or their mom got sick and they’re just sad. It’s way more helpful to join them in their pain than it is to cheer them up. But, here’s what we tend to do instead.

“You have two other children. You need to find joy in them.” Or, “You know what you need? You just need to go out dancing and shake it off.” Or, “I felt really sad once. Did you try acupuncture?”

We’re not really sure what to do with someone’s pain, so we do what we’ve been taught. We look on the bright side. We try to make people feel better. We give them advice. It’s not like this is nefarious. I mean, we try to cheer people up because we think that’s our job. We’re not supposed to let people stay sad. The problem is you can’t heal somebody’s pain by trying to take it away from them.

Now, acknowledgement does something different. When a giant hole opens up in someone’s life, it’s actually much more supportive to acknowledge that hole and let pain exist. It’s actually a radical act to let things hurt. It goes against what we’ve been taught. In order to really support you, I have to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to you. If I try to cheer you up, you end up defending yourself and your feelings. If I give you advice, you feel misunderstood instead of supported. And, I don’t get what I want either, because I wanted you to feel better.

It’s pretty rare that you could actually talk somebody out of their pain. Rarely does the admonishment to look on the bright side actually heal things for someone. It just makes them stop telling you about their pain. It’s so tempting to try to make things better. When somebody shares something painful, it’s much more helpful to say, “I’m sorry that’s happening. Do you want to tell me about it?” To be able to say, “This hurts,” without being talked out of it, that’s what helps. Being heard helps.

It seems too simple to be of use, but acknowledgement can be the best medicine we have. It makes things better, even when they can’t be made right.

I’m reminded of Robot Hugs’ comic entitled, “Nest,” from about eight years ago that makes me cry every time I see it:

I seek to empathize with my children, no matter how they’re behaving, because I want them to feel safe, loved, and understood. I hope that, as I get more comfortable with their emotions, they’ll allow me into their blanket nests when they need someone to be there when they’re sad. And, I hope that, somewhere in the midst of this relationship building, they will learn how to do the same for others.

7 Tips For More Peaceful Family Outings

A few days ago, I received a compliment about my children from someone I pass by every week on the way to one of the many therapies that my family members attend. I was at our local medical center by myself for an appointment and the person checking me in told me that my children are always quiet and calm when they walk through the building. I was immediately reminded that my babies are growing up and beginning to recognize social expectations. Of course, I do not want them to abide by expectations without considering the implications, but I do want them to learn to “play the game” so to speak. My children and I do not pick up social cues easily. It takes a lot of thinking, planning, and mimicking what other people do, so this compliment was particularly celebratory in that sense. When I mentioned what happened to my friends, one asked me how I got my children to be quiet and calm in public. After I answered, I realized that my approach might be helpful to even more people. So, here are some of the things I try to do consistently in order to set my kids up for success.

  1. Create a low demand, no punishment/no rewards household. It starts at home. I put in work daily to reduce the need to place expectations or demands on my children. I try to establish routines that become second-nature, so they don’t have to think about what’s coming next. And, when things are off-kilter and my children make choices that do not correspond with our family values, I do not coerce them into compliance with punishments or rewards. If I need for them to stop doing something, I gently stop them. Then, we reset together and find emotional balance. And, then they are free to go back to what they were doing. My goal is not to control them, but to help them self-regulate and learn, through doing, how to live in community with others. So, I intervene as much as I can before something upsetting happens rather than waiting for the kids to make a mistake so I can jump on them about being bad.
  2. Offer high responsiveness to needs. My children don’t have to wait long to have their needs met. If they are hungry, I feed them. I don’t use food as a bargaining tool. If they are tired, they sleep. I don’t fuss at them that they should wait until night time to sleep. If they need to go outside and run, we do that. And, we do it no matter what their behavior has been otherwise. I do not take away the opportunity to run outside, because I don’t like what they’ve been doing inside. If anything, I’m encouraging them to go play and get that energy out! So, when we leave to go somewhere, they aren’t generally hungry, thirsty, tired, emotionally overwhelmed, etc.
  3. Work on emotion coaching. Speaking of being emotionally overwhelmed, we don’t really do that here. All emotions are always welcome and affirmed. I do not tell my children to stop crying. I don’t tell them to calm down when they are clearly having big feelings. Whether at home or away from home, we practice emotion coaching. I’m tuned into them, so I know when something isn’t quite right. I view emotional moments as an opportunity to connect with them; not to get frustrated with them. I listen to them and help them identify what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it. I affirm their emotions and tell them “It’s ok to feel {emotion}.” And, then I work with them to rectify the situation they’ve found themselves in. For example, if my child sees a toy they like in the store and it’s not in our budget to get, I will gently stay with them as they experience the frustration, anger, and grief at having their plan to play with that toy derailed. I let them know, “It’s ok to be upset. You really wanted that toy!” I offer affection and let them know we can go when they’re ready. When we hear and connect with our kids, they can work through the biggest of feelings.
  4. Plan and prepare. Before we go anywhere, I explain where we’re going and what we’ll be doing. I also tell my kids what I need for them to do. Children do not inherently know how to behave in different circumstances. And, frankly, neither do adults! We all have to learn how to navigate unknown environments. So, when it’s time for a new experience, I explain the expectations, such as “Please use walking feet and quiet mouths,” and ask my children to tell me what they’ve understood me to be saying. Getting that confirmation helps me know if they’ve heard me and if there are any gaps in knowledge.
  5. Listen actively. Especially when we’re out and about, I am listening for my children’s needs. When something is wrong, I stop what I’m doing and pay close attention. Then, I repeat back what I hear them saying, and we make a plan to help resolve the issue. For instance, if my child gets hungry while we’re out, we make a plan for when we’ll get a snack and what we’ll have. I try to avoid quick retorts like “Not right now” in favor of problem solving.
  6. Organize time with first, then. This one is very helpful for us. Younger children may not grasp the concept of time yet, but they usually understand sequence. I’ll say something like “First, we’re going to pick up medicine at the pharmacy, then we’ll return our library books, then we’ll play at the park for a little while, and then we’ll go home.” If at any point during the trip, they ask what we’re doing, I can quickly run back through the list of destinations, so they can get an idea of where we are in the schedule.
  7. Plan fun activities. This may well be the most powerful tip I’ve got. I try to add fun things into our schedule when we have to be away from home. Being in the car, walking around different places, waiting, being bored… it’s all a lot for kids. They’d much rather be playing and having fun, and it makes sense. They’re built to play! So, if we have to be out, we might as well enjoy ourselves. It might look like getting some play time in at the park or another location of their choice. We might stop for ice cream or visit a friend. It’s simply baked into the way we do things as a little unit. I make no promises that we’ll do something exciting as a reward for cooperation. Rather, I look for things to do that will be fun and try to make them happen. On days when I’m in a hurry and have to say no to the things my children want to do, I can confidently tell them that we’ll do it next time, because it’s how we operate.

And, most important of all, I understand that this is a process. My children are growing up. They’re doing the best they can with the life experience they have so far. If something isn’t working for them, it’s my responsibility to help guide them to a solution. I’m the adult in the situation. That one’s hard to remember sometimes when I’m frustrated too, but it’s the reality. So, if your kids have trouble managing their energy levels and their emotions when your family is away from home, be curious and investigate what’s happening. Children succeed when their needs are met in a way that is tailored to their unique selves.

Why The “United Front” Is As Disrespectful As Fighting Dirty In Front Of Kids

Black parents having a talk with their despondent child

“We have to present a united front or the kids will” be confused, manipulate us, doubt our authority, what else? What are all the terrible things that will happen if parents do not fuse together like a brick wall for the children to shatter against? But, good cop/bad cop parenting doesn’t work either, right? This article by Judy Koutsky for SheKnows.com lays out five reasons good cop/bad cop parenting is no good.

  • It divides the family.
  • It creates instability.
  • It makes kids choose sides.
  • It can create unhealthy gender labels.
  • It pits one parent against the other.

And, I’m sure it does all of those things. Sounds awful! Any form of parenting that invokes any form of manipulative policing definitely isn’t the answer. When parents are angrily playing off each other to coerce their kids to behave in a way they prefer, not much good can come from it. The same is also true of parents who present a resolute, unified mindset. That united front? It’s manipulative and forceful too. It leaves no room for discussion. No room for growth for the kids or for the parents. So, what do you do? Fortunately, there’s a more natural, reasonable, human-centered way to communicate as a family.

Have a conversation, without all the reactive posturing. Develop a family plan for how decisions will be worked out when there’s disagreement. It’s wonderful for kids to see logical, respectful discussions being had by their caregivers. What a wonderful way to learn how to agree and disagree amicably! Having family conversations that involve the children also allows their voices to be heard and helps them understand the reasoning behind why their caregivers might have reservations about whatever it is they want to be able to do. If it’s too big of a decision for one conversation, take extra time to think and chat. Then, even when a decision has been made, it’s ok to rethink it and find a compromise that works better.

Presenting a united front or battling in front of kids results in little more than cutting the children out of the problem-solving equation. It disregards their intellect, their development, and their agency. While adults should avoid laying too heavy a question or decision on children, involving them is beneficial for everyone who will be impacted. There will be times when caregivers have to make a decision that upsets their child and if that upset happens, it is justified and understandable. When the process of coming to a decision – even one that is unfulfilling for the child – eliminates the hostile, overbearing approach of traditional parenting methods, there is room for connection. For empathy. For all the things children need to find their way through their disappointment and receive support in transitioning to different plans. No one in our families should be pitted against one another. Not the parents against the children and not the parents and against the parents. Not when everyone can work together for the good of all.

For further related reading, check out:

Under No Circumstances Should You Be Consistent With Discipline!

and

Of Course They Want Their Own Way

Changing Tables Are A Human Right

Photo of Black mother preparing to change her child's diaper

A reader and I were recently discussing a group post she had seen about the lack of appropriate diaper changing facilities for children at restaurants. The overwhelming sentiment was that, ideally, restaurants should provide changing areas to improve the customer experience which would, of course, boost profits; but it is ultimately the parents’ personal responsibility to make sure their children’s needs are met. I talk about meeting needs a lot and I fully agree that parents should be consistent and intentional about ensuring that children have everything they need to do the best explorative learning and self-regulation they can.

Parents – who are natural advocates and caregivers for their children – are told to figure it out. Just stay home if you can’t adequately care for your child in public. And, while I do not believe that parents are inherently marginalized for being parents, there are intersections of marginalization between parenthood and gender, ability, race, and so on. In particular, caring for children has traditionally been the realm of women and, misogyny being what it is, parents – including men and nonbinary people by proximity – face disadvantage in USian culture. Things like the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) do benefit parents, but they also benefit many other people. Pregnant people are ostensibly protected from job loss under the Civil Rights Act under a clause that prohibits sex discrimination. It’s not because pregnant people are parents. Considering the lengths cultures worldwide go to in order to support families, the minimal assistance parents receive in the U.S. results in glaring, disproportionate hardships. Parents are not explicitly marginalized, but women undeniably are and, as women are the primary caregivers of children (and elderly parents and disabled family members and anyone else who is vulnerable within a household), we should take great care in rejecting that misogyny is a factor in the way our culture treats parents.

So, no. It is not ultimately the parents’ personal responsibility to prepare for every potential challenge they might face when they go out in public with their children. The public also bears responsibility. And, we have demonstrated an acceptance of our social responsibility to support vulnerable people… as long as they are adults… by enacting laws of protection against undue harm. Back in 1990, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed after decades of effort by disabled self-advocates. Today, disabled people have the power of the law behind us when we need to address unequal and inequitable treatment. I mention the ADA specifically to draw similarities between the need for disabled people to access protections and the same need for children. How long before the ADA was passed were disabled people and their caregivers told they needed to figure it out when there were differences in access and outcome as compared to non-disabled people?

Today, we recognize why toileting accommodations for disabled adults not only make sense, but also represent the common decency we should have for other humans. Yet, somehow, infants – who are not only medically incontinent but are also physically unable to meet their own hygiene needs – do not deserve accommodations as well. Why might this be?

Childism.

The lack of changing tables in bathrooms directly impacts children in a way that it does not affect adults. Babies need appropriate accommodations to ensure that they are receiving the best possible support by their caregivers. If a business serves children, as most restaurants do, it is incumbent upon that business to ensure that children’s human rights are upheld, including sanitary elimination. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to hygienic toileting is a fundamental human right. Parents being required to change babies anywhere but a place designated for children with the requisite safety features violates this right, not because it inconveniences the parent but because it endangers the child. Infants are not an extension of their parents. They are their own complete human beings with their own distinct rights that we deny with impunity.

Failure to support the demand that businesses provide for the human needs of children, up to and including litigation and other legal measures, constitutes harmful discrimination in the form of childism. Children need robust, legal protections that they may never get, because unlike other marginalized groups, children do not have the social capital to fight for their own rights. We are the only ones who can.

Authoritarianism in Commercials

If you’re the kind of parent who watches TV, well hop right on this here couch, because I’ve got an extra seat with your name on it. In my television travels, I’ve been struck by the juxtaposition among child-related commercials that pop up for me often. Have y’all seen these yet?

Potato Pay

Back in 2018, Ore-Ida came up with the concept of frynance. In other words, bribery. The idea is that parents should purchase Ore-Ida fries to use as rewards to compel their kids to eat green vegetables. It’s clearly supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, as seen in this intro piece:

However, frynance is built on something real. It draws from the idea that we have to force unwilling children to eat what we tell them to eat. It leaves no room for children to encounter new flavors in an unobtrusive, unfamiliar way. Frynance mocks both the development and autonomy of children. But, it’s just a joke right? Ok, sure. Somehow, we have made it ok to build a multi-million dollar ad campaign on ridiculing a marginalized group. It’s just not that funny to me.

Maybe y’all have seen this one too?

In this one, we see a Black mom chasing her child through the house demanding that they eat “one more bite.” The saddest part is that the latter half of the commercial actually demonstrates how we can give children power over what they put into their bodies. The Satter Institute provides guidance on how we can raise children who are a joy to feed. We should be offering kids foods they enjoy alongside foods they don’t yet know or don’t yet like. For a phenomenal strategy to help support our kids developing palates, check out Kids Eat in Color or Kids Eat in Color on Instagram.

How to DAD

In contrast to those childist commercials is a series featuring New Zealander parenting influencer, Jordan Watson of How to DAD. He was tapped for a series of commercials for Purex laundry detergent in which he can be seen playing with his children and having fun. The overall theme of these commercials is meeting children where they are and not letting a little mess get in the way of connection. They’re all done playfully with happy kids. For instance:

In many of the commercials, you can hear the kids giggling and laughing. My very favorite one (which I cannot find online) has Watson and one of his daughters in various scenes. The child asks to do one messy activity after another and Watson happily agrees each time.

My take-away is that we can be kind to children if we want to be, but sadly, it’s profitable not to be. In the case of the Purex commercials, I get the sense that they hired this wildly popular influencer who happened to be an invested and kind father and the result was a series of ads that weren’t cringey. Would Purex have come up with these scenarios in the absence of Jordan Watson? I’m not hopeful they would have. And, it’s a real problem because commercials are intended to key into our cultural values and reach us in a way that makes us more likely to spend money. Ore-Ida wouldn’t have kept their Potato Pay campaign running for several years straight if they weren’t also raking in cash as a result.

I’m curious what else y’all have noticed in commercials and on tv in terms of affirming childist values?

Of Course They Want Their Own Way

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Are You Raising An Entitled Child?” in which I looked at the qualities that trigger adults to label children “entitled” and the reasons such a position is ill-informed. Today, I’m going to talk about another dimension to the problem of misperceiving children’s motivations. I’m sure you’ve heard people speak of certain children as needing to “get their own way” in order to be happy, though I daresay we all know how nice it feels for things to go our way. That should be the first signal that there’s a problem. We know it’s lovely to have things go the way that makes us feel best, yet we criticize children for their very same, very normal, human desire.

This is childism, plain and simple, and it’s a paradox. On one hand, we won’t acknowledge children’s right to autonomy and agency. On the other hand, we expect more of children than we expect of ourselves. We place them in this impossible position, because we have relegated them to a position beneath us such that we don’t want them to be our equals and we also don’t want them to bother us. But, we can’t have it both ways. We have a couple choices. Either we pour goodness and gentleness into them when they’re little, so that they can gain wisdom, resilience, and empathy as they get older. Or, we order them around and hold them accountable to our impossible standards, preparing them for little more than compliance with an authority figure. Children can succeed because of our approach or in spite of it. The choice lies with us as caregivers.

Recently, in a group for caregivers of Autistic people, and I saw a brilliant commenter explain that the behaviors we’ve come to expect from children “not getting their way” are actually evidence of a difficult transition. The child meets a barrier to the thing they desire and they struggle with the change as well as the disappointment around it. What a wonderful insight! Children who are upset at “not getting their way” are, in fact, experiencing dysregulation due to a transition they were neither anticipating nor inviting. They simply weren’t ready. And, then, an adult effectively places the responsibility onto the child to self-regulate during and expertly navigate the upheaval of these moments of disappointment. Why not become part of the solution instead?

When children begin to demand that we bend to their desires, we need to listen. What are they asking for? Is it something we can provide? Have we been unreasonable in our expectations of them? Are we saying no because we don’t want to be bothered or is there a reason we have to say no that we can help our child understand? How can we respond empathetically whatever our decision might be?

Take this scenario for example.

Child: “I want another cupcake, please!”

Caregiver: “Not right now. We’ll have more tonight.”

*Child begins to dysregulate*

Child: *screaming and stomping* “I want another cupcake!!!”

If we view children as demanding, annoying underlings, the child in this scenario might look combative, entitled, even ridiculous. But, if we see what’s really happening, that the child met an unexpected barrier and does not have the tools to work through it, we can offer real, lasting help.

Caregiver: “Oh! I can see how much you want another cupcake! They are yummy. It’s really hard to wait when you see some cupcakes left over and you want one of them.”

*Caregiver might offer a hug, deep breaths, some time outside, or other calming strategy*

Caregiver: “Since there are just enough left for our family to share this evening at suppertime, I was hoping to put them aside until then. Would you like to have your cupcake now or would you like to have it with us later on?”

It doesn’t matter how the child responds here. That’s really the point. Children have a right to input on decisions that affect them. There will be times when the answer is simply no and we will need to stay with our children to offer empathy and support. But, the reality is that no is all too often our kneejerk reaction to a question from a child, any child really. We come up with all sorts of reasons to deny children even the simplest choices. If we can make these difficult transitions easier, especially when we can yield control over a child’s decisions to that child, why not go for it? We’d all be better off if we trusted each other to make age-appropriate decisions and jumped to empathy before judgment.