A few days ago, I settled in to hear the entire hour-and-a-half long talk on How to set limits with your kids… DON’T! from Gentle Parents Unite podcast. In this talk, Sujai and Vivek discuss why arbitrary limit setting can be a form of coercion and control. If you’d like to give the talk a listen, I highly recommend it:
Levels of Limits
I am a strong proponent of the use of limits instead of punishments or consequences (which are just punishments given with a smile). However, something I haven’t discussed at any length is my strategy around limits. I restrict my own employment of limits to instances I judge to be imminently dangerous or destructive. For instance, I won’t let my young kids run into the street alone or dunk their hands into boiling water. Sure, a natural consequence might deliver a more memorable message, like getting hit by a car or hospitalized with third degree burns, but you can surely see why that’s not an option for me. My limits in these cases protect my children from endangering their lives and health. They are rather hard and fast.
Some of my softer limits involve harming belongings, people, and animals. These are more difficult to navigate as there is great benefit to children learning about the world on their own. If a child is smashing their toy into pavement, I will mention that smashing the toy will break it and generally give the child space to make a decision. On the other hand, if the child is using a toy car to try and break a glass window pane in my living room, that is an instance where I may remove the toy and say, “I can’t let this toy break through the glass.” And, I won’t allow children to beat each other up in my presence, but I might hold back if I see a child smack another and the harmed child standing up for themselves. If appropriate, I will intervene and work on some sportscasting to help the children broaden their understanding of the situation. If a child is poking at a cat, I will tell the child that I can tell the cat is unhappy because of its pinned ears and that cat might scratch.
My goal in any instance with my children is to give them as much autonomy as I possibly can while recognizing that they might not understand the potential outcomes of their actions. In some cases, I intervene, as much as I’d rather let them work things out on their own. In other cases, I don’t employ limits at all. For instance, I never force toothbrushing. I start introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste at the first tooth eruption, so that it becomes part of the standard daily routing. Then, if the child resists my efforts at cleaning their teeth, my first step is to hand the toothbrush over and back off. What I’ve found is that, invariably, curiosity and independence kick in, and the child starts to brush their own teeth. And, then when I offer to get the teeth in the back of the mouth, my offer is usually met with willingness, because at that point, I am working with the child on the child’s terms. I don’t use force unless I feel strongly that I absolutely must. And, that’s rare in my house.
Destructive vs Deconstructive
One area I know a lot of parents struggle with is the messiness and chaos of childhood. Kids wreck stuff in one way or another and it’s crucial that they do. It’s one of the most basic ways they have to interact with the world and learn how things work. Sometimes it’s accidental and sometimes it’s on purpose. Either way, it’s ok. Our response depends on the motivation.
Destructive and deconstructive actions have a similar result, but a very different purpose. Children who destroy are often calling out for help. I have found that many times children will smash things that are important to them and then burst into tears at the results of their actions. These instances usually indicate a child who is in a state of distress and dysregulation. And, our response must be compassion and understanding with a goal of connecting with and building up the hurt child.
Deconstruction is educational. Deconstructive activities usually occur when a child is happy or curious. A child dropping an egg on the ground is learning about gravity, shell strength, and splatter. Plus, it’s just fun to deconstruct. Adults do it by smashing sandcastles at the end of the day and turning over dominoes. There’s just something pleasurable in wrecking things in this way. Giving children ample opportunities to deconstruct and be messy is a fantastic way to foster sensory integration! So, do it often.
A big part of what we do as peaceful parents is investigating our own perspectives and responses. Limits are ok when used judiciously and are certainly preferable to punishment. So, first things first, think about your non-negotiables. What is it you feel you absolutely cannot allow your child to do. Write down a list of these non-negotiables.
Second, pause at each item you wrote down and consider carefully if you’ve included it because of imminent threat to your child or because of your own feelings and conditioning around it. Ask yourself what harm it would really do to strike that limit from your list.
Third, take your pared down list and discuss them with your children, regardless of whether you believe your children can reason through them. If your kids are able to discuss the limits with you, have a conversation. They might bring up something you hadn’t considered. Talk with them about how you can best support them in respecting the limits and be prepared to negotiate if they feel the limits are too restrictive.
Fourth, shift your mindset to figuring out how you can say “yes” to your children more often. You and your children can eliminate the perceived need for many limits by finding ways to balance freedom and respect for each other. Practice telling your kids, “I want to help make this happen for you. Let’s think about the possibilities.”
So, does all of this mean we should never say no to a child? Nope. It means we should be cognizant of why we’re compelled to say no. Is there an immediate danger? If not, can we accommodate our child? If not, how can we come to a mutual agreement that respects both parent and child?
If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: limit less, trust more, and be curious about what your child is doing rather than shutting them down.
No matter which of the five main types of discipline you use, it won’t work if you aren’t consistent. Consistency is one of the more important keys to addressing child behavior problems. Consistently setting limits, giving effective consequences and enforcing the rules all day every day can be tough, however. Examine what gets in the way of being consistent and take steps to increase your discipline consistency.
Ugh. There it is. My least favorite advice about imposing discipline. Be consistent. Enforce the rules. It evokes a sense of rigidity. Control. Be consistent and make sure your child knows who’s boss. Be consistent and use your selected punishment immediately every time. Never show a crack in your armor or else your child will take advantage. Sounds pretty stressful to me, both for parent and child. How many parents receive this advice and are chastised for not being consistent when their kids when they behave like… well… children? How many discipline experts claim that children can’t feel secure without consistency? Consistency is a tool of behaviorism, the theory that people’s behavior can be studied and controlled externally, without regard for our thoughts and feelings.
That’s a dog, because behaviorism is what we use to train animals. Sure, humans are technically animals, but we have a capacity to think, feel, and reason that is not paralleled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Our children deserve more than dog training. Now, there may be times when consistency can be useful, such as when Autistic children need their routines to be predictable. Consistency, at the behest of a child, is part of maintaining a respectful relationship. Consistency applied to children without their consent must be carefully considered, because it has the potential for harm.
I’ve written at length about the merits of punishment-free parenting and emotion coaching. I’ve even talked about limits. No, not the limits they’re talking about in that VeryWell Family article above. I mean limits that take into account the needs and wants of children. Limits that lead to a genuine feeling of safety and understanding. And, I have a response to the ubiquitous calls to be consistent:
Be reliable instead.
Be the person your child can run to when everything is falling apart, knowing your response will be one of unconditional love and acceptance. Be the person who knows how to bring your child from crisis to peace through co-regulation. Be the person whose respectful limits are a cushion from harm and not a brick wall they shatter against. Show your child, through your own actions, how to make it through difficult situations, acknowledging every emotion, seeking out resources when necessary, and embracing restoration.
Where consistency means inflexible adherence to a norm, reliability requires dependability and trustworthiness. These are traits we all want to instill in our children and we can do that by first demonstrating them through our approach to discipline. So, next time you have the choice between being consistent or being reliable, you know which one to choose!
Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments
I recently ran across a meme with a troubling message. It said, Never do for a child what he can do for himself. A “dependent” child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on. I bristled immediately. “Never” do for a child? Absolute statements like this make me uncomfortable. I understand that the point is to be decisive and firm, but then there is no room for children to be imperfect or to have needs. Yes, giving children age-appropriate responsibilities builds competence and self-assurance. However, we should be open to children refusing responsibility in an effort to have their other needs met. Seems a lot of us misunderstand why children might be “irresponsible.” There’s a great fear that we’ll foster learned helplessness if we don’t demand that our kids fulfill their responsibilities. But, is that really true?
In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand why depression was so defeating. The first experiment involved three groups of restrained dogs. The first group was restrained and released. The second group included dogs who received an electric shock which they could stop by pressing a lever. Dogs in the third group were paired with dogs in the second group and also received an electric shock. However, their levers did not stop the pain. Instead, the paired dog from the second group controlled the only working lever, which meant that the dog in the third group had to suffer the pain with no control over it and, therefore, little hope of ending it.
In the second experiment, the dogs were presented with a similar scenario, except that Seligman introduced an escape option. The dogs in the first two groups, having either not experienced the shocks at all the first time around or having had access to a lever to stop the pain, fairly quickly escaped when the shocks began. However, the dogs in the third group made no effort and were able only to cry out pitifully when they were shocked. That presumed inability to take action is learned helplessness, and it results from hopelessness in the face of failure.
An especially important aspect of these experiments was the finding that “one cause of learned helplessness seems to be learning that reinforcers cannot be controlled” (409). For those who aren’t familiar with the term “reinforcer,” it means a punishment or a reward. So, the inability to control the punishment of these painful shocks directly contributed to the dogs’ acceptance that the pain was inescapable. No amount of punishments or rewards delivered after the learned helplessness had taken hold had any positive effect on the dogs’ behavior.
What you may find interesting is that Seligman did find a cure for the learned helplessness. He discovered that either picking up the dogs and moving them to safety or using a leash to drag them out of harm’s way provided enough motivation for them to take action. He called it “directive therapy” and it was simply an intervention wherein an outside participant showed each dog how to do what the dog didn’t realize was possible. He found that less and less force was required in pulling on the leash as the dogs began to realize that there was hope. The end result of this portion of the experiment was that all the dogs in group three fully recovered and were able to escape completely on their own (410).
…which brings us to helping. Put simply, learned helplessness is giving up because an obstacle is too insurmountable. For children, it may be sitting in the middle of their room unable to clean up, because they don’t know where to start. It may be accepting punishment for not getting dressed quickly enough because they feel that the punishment is inevitable, and they can’t do what’s expected of them to begin with. As noted in the experiment, the cure for learned helplessness is directive therapy, i.e. demonstrating a way to be successful. In other words, helping. When our children become overwhelmed with their messy rooms, we can intervene by helping them come up with a plan and working on the clean-up with them. Over time, they will gain more competence and the process will be less frustrating for them. When our children struggle to dress themselves, the easiest solution is to recognize that we need to take a few steps back and offer to help them dress. It may take a while for them to do things that seem simple to us, but the more we respond to their need for help, the more capable they will become.
There are three overarching lessons I learned from reading up on learned helplessness:
A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.
Whether a child seeks our help because they don’t know how to do something or because they want to connect with us or because they are weary and need some support or for any other reason, we will always do right by them when we help them, especially when we don’t think they really need the help. In doing so, we invigorate qualities like learning, self-motivation, and confidence… the very things that combat learned helplessness. So, please, help your kids.
If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from therapist Kati Morton! Toward the end of the video, she provides some tools for helping ourselves (and our kids) release these thoughts of helplessness.
Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.
I’m so proud of you!
You can do it!
They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?
The Power of Noticing
There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.
I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.
The Power of Not Noticing
As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.
It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.
When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.
For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.
This post is a collaboration between Peace I Give and Unmasked. Tee Mone’t runs the page, Unmasked, on Facebook, and Unnmasked on Instagram. Diagnosed as an adult with substantial support needs, she works to help others understand what it means to be autistic. She is here to educate and most importantly, learn.
“My child just got diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What do I do?”
If this question is on your mind right now, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to help. It seems that when caregivers of newly diagnosed Autistic children start looking online for guidance, too often they’re bombarded with recommendations from people who understand autism purely from a professional standpoint. They can miss important posts like this one from Autistic Mama. Misinformation about autism is a quick Google search away, and this article is the antidote. If you want to know what you might really do for your Autistic child in plain language from two #ActuallyAutistic people, we invite you to read on.
Facing a brand new experience can be challenging and your feelings around this new diagnosis are valid. Let us reassure you and tell you that there is nothing to fear and nothing to mourn. Your child is not broken but is the same child you have loved all along. Autistic kids are just like any other child with the same very human need for understanding, support, and love. Parenting an Autistic child is simply parenting a child. All children have a unique composition of strengths, weaknesses, needs, and capacities that caregivers must navigate. The difference when it comes to Autistic kids is that you have the wisdom of an entire community of Autistic adults at your disposal to help you understand where your child is coming from. As you become better acquainted with how to connect with your child and address their specific needs in the healthiest way possible, you and your child will both be empowered.
Now, at the top here, we must include a disclaimer that Autistic people are not a monolith. We don’t all feel the same way or share the same beliefs. As the saying goes, “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.” In this piece, however, we will describe how the vast majority of Autistic self-advocates wish to be understood. Neither Peace I Give nor Unmasked criticizes any Autistic person for choosing other forms of self-advocacy that diverge from the majority preferences. However, those decisions lie strictly within the Autistic community. If you are not Autistic, it is not your decision to make.
Autism is a natural neurological variation in humans. Autistic brains are different from allistic brains. Autistic kids are not allistic kids waiting for someone to break them out of a mental prison. They are born as whole and dignified human beings in need of the same care and attention as all children.
When we say “the autistic community”, we mean everyone who is autistic. We mean:
Autistic people who need a lot of support in their day-to-day life, and autistic people who need very little support.
Autistic people who can speak, and autistic people who are nonspeaking.
Autistic people who also have an intellectual disability, and autistic people who don’t.
Autistic people who have other disabilities besides autism, and autistic people who don’t.
Autistic people who were diagnosed by a doctor, and autistic people who figured out they were autistic on their own.
We are all a part of the autistic community, and we have to work together to make sure all of us have our voices heard. Every autistic person belongs in the autistic community. There is no “wrong” way to be autistic. Trying to separate certain groups of autistic people from the autistic community hurts all of us.
What is the Autism Spectrum?
A lot of people who first encounter autism assume that the spectrum is a linear progression from “mild” to “severe.” Please understand that functioning labels like “mild,” “severe,” “high functioning,” and “low functioning” can be extremely harmful to Autistic people, including your child. Autism is a spectrum, but that spectrum looks a lot more like an equalizer than it does a line.
Neuroclastic does a great job of explaining the autism spectrum in this post, but in short, the spectrum encompasses a handful of domains including but not limited to social aptitude, intensity of interests, motor control, and so on. Autistic people are measured against allistic people in each domain, which is inherently ableist. It’s like assessing a computer programmer’s untrained singing voice against professional opera singer, Maureen McKay. The computer programmer may have a fine voice, but it certainly won’t be as polished as McKay’s. Each person needs to be embraced for their inherent worth and appreciated for the gifts they bring to this world. Autistic people bring so much good to humanity.
Sadly, in most areas of the world, societies do not operate in a way that is inclusive of Autistic brains, so Autistic people are largely viewed as deficient. In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm changes the perspective, declaring that a diversity of neurology among humans is normal, necessary, and natural. And, the social model of disability helps to challenge the idea that disabilities must be limiting in and of themselves. The social model demonstrates that, with acceptance, inclusion, and adequate accommodations and technology, nearly every disabled person could have equal access to social spaces. It’s a lofty idea and we can all help to improve the quality of life and access to shared spaces that disabled people deserve.
Disability is not a bad word and, for the majority of us, autism is disabling because society disables us. Functioning labels are part of the way society oppresses us. For example, some of the people who read this article may say to themselves, “the authors of this piece can’t be Autistic” because of the narrow view of autism they have encountered culturally. This is the kind of mindset we want to gently challenge.
Autism as an Identity
Much like other disabled groups that have developed passionate self-advocacy within their ranks, many Autistic people capitalize the “A” in Autistic in recognition that it is part of our identity. It’s who we are. It cannot be separated from us and it cannot be treated or “cured” without destroying us.
If you happen to see someone on social media with an Âû in their name, they likely consider autism to be a critical aspect of their identity. Âû is a reference to the Autistic Union, which has a list of 10 Points describing its ethos. And, Âû is a helpful way for Autistic people to recognize each other quickly in virtual spaces.
Autism as an identity is one of the reasons that Autistic people overwhelmingly reject person-first language (child with autism) in favor of identity-first language (Autistic child). It’s why you’ll notice that Autistic adults often dislike euphemisms like “on the spectrum.” It’s why many of us despise puzzle piece mentality, a position you may be surprised to learn is backed up by science. And, it’s why Autism Speaks is considered a hate group by most within the Autistic community.
Autism is an identity that deserves to be embraced, understood, and accommodated by our greater culture. By the same token, Autistic people have every right to vent about how difficult and painful it is to be Autistic in an oppressive environment.
Many of us engage in a coping technique called masking. If you’ve ever presented yourself differently from the person you really are in order to avoid an argument or get ahead in your career, you probably have an idea of what masking feels like. For Autistic people, it can be a constant requirement in order for us to navigate a world that was not made for us. We pretend to be neurotypical as best we can, so we can avoid uncomfortable situations, “fit in” more readily with others, and go unnoticed. It’s a survival mechanism and it is costly for us. Many Autistic adults must go to great lengths to undo the damage that masking has done to us. So, if an Autistic person lets down their mask around you, consider it a compliment. That means you are trusted to see us as we really are, stims and all.
Check out this post from Tee Mone’t of Unmasked about the raw truth of what masking really is:
Allistic caregivers are crucial to the wellbeing and safety of their Autistic loved ones. A positive, affirming relationship with a caregiver is not only helpful, it may even be life-saving. Caregivers can uphold the dignity of their Autistic loved ones by getting consent before talking about them, limiting the personal information shared about them, not complaining about autism or Autistic people, and taking their needs very seriously. This excellent infographic from the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective provides a snapshot of ways in which to embrace Autistic identity by refusing to pathologize us:
It’s important to note here that there are some Autistic people who are more discreet about their autism, perhaps because they have experienced substantial discrimination or because they view it primarily as a medical diagnosis or because other aspects of their identity are more pronounced. It is up to Autistic people ourselves to decide how we will move through our lives. The best thing our families can do for us is to support us in whatever way we need. Some of us are out and proud about being Autistic. Others are just living life. There’s no shame in any of it.
Generally speaking, it is considered bad form to tell people your child is Autistic without the child’s consent, in the absence of a seriously compelling reason. For instance, you’d likely want to tell medical professionals and your child’s school, so they can better understand your child’s needs. You’d probably not need to tell your family and friends unless they care for your child and require support in providing the best care. You definitely don’t need to tell random strangers or research companies trying to buy your child’s DNA for dubious purposes.
Use great care and discretion with the understanding that disclosing your child’s diagnosis is an extremely intimate and intrusive act. And, finally, consider what information needs to be shared. Do you need to state that your child is Autistic or do you need to let the person know what to expect? For instance, if you’re at a park with friends who don’t know your child’s diagnosis and you know your child tends to elope, you might say, “[Child] sometimes runs off unexpectedly. Would you mind helping me keep watch?”
There is nothing shameful about being Autistic or having an Autistic child. What we’re highlighting here is the importance of respecting the privacy of Autistic people and allowing us the dignity of controlling the way information about our personal identities gets exposed.
Now, if you’re wondering about disclosing to your child their own diagnosis, yes, please! From the moment you know, tell your child. Openly, talk about autism in positive, factual ways as they grow up. Help your child navigate the world by showing them how. Things like social stories (keeping in mind that social stories have a potential to harm) and role playing can be helpful tools to give Autistic kids a concrete view into the hazy, amorphous world of social interaction. Talk with your child and observe their behavior for clues into what you could be doing to better support them. Accept that Autistic is who they are. Not what they have.
Will My Child Ever Fit In?
Depends on who your child interacts with. It’s so important for caregivers of Autistic children to recognize how difficult it is for Autistic kids to make a way for themselves when they’re thwarted at every turn. Autistic children must be given opportunities to connect with other Autistic children as a basic human need. From crucial childhood relationships with both Autistic and allistic children, Autistic kids learn what it means to be a friend. And, guess what, Autistic relationships have been studied! Here’s what we know.
Autistic people ARE empathetic (more on this below).
Autistic people ARE social.
A study on Autistic kids aged 8 to 15 years found that they believed they were good friends to others and also that they enjoyed social interaction.
At least 80% of Autistic children have at least one friend and the majority enjoy their friendships.
Lack of supports is what excludes Autistic kids from social experiences, not autism.
Allistic biases against Autistic people disappear when impressions are based on conversation rather than audio-visual cues (meaning, prejudice against Autistic mannerisms keeps allistic people from having wonderful interactions with Autistic people).
Autistic people tend to be more invested in their social partners and prefer to have genuine conversations rather than small talk.
Autistic adults often prefer the company of other Autistic adults (so get your kids into Autistic social experiences early on).
A special note on empathy. The outdated claim that Autistic people lack empathy is a lie. What’s true is that Autistic people struggle with cognitive empathy when it comes to allistic people, meaning, we can miss certain social cues and misunderstand situations. On the other hand, our affective empathy, the ability to bear with others, is in full effect for lots of Autistic people. Sometimes, affective empathy is so intense and unmanageable that it can lead to meltdowns and shutdowns. Many Autistic people feel deep, genuine, visceral emotions. However, while hyperempathy is a well known Autistic trait, different Autistic people experience varying degrees of empathy, just as it is in the neurotypical world. And, our empathy may not look the same as an allistic person’s.
Relating to Autistic people requires effort on the part of allistic people. Dr. Laura S. DeThorne wrote about this in her piece entitled, Revealing the Double Empathy Problem. In it, she pinpoints a most challenging barrier for Autistic people who are trying to relate to allistic people. She says,
Although the misunderstanding may be bidirectional, it disproportionately stigmatizes autistic people when their perspectives are not adequately represented within institutional power structures, like education, research, and medical systems. When autistic perspectives are not heard, it becomes easy for autistic behavior to be misunderstood and pathologized. Note, for example, much of the autism literature focuses on helping autistic individuals understand nonautistic perspectives, rather than the other way around.
As a caregiver, you can work toward understanding your child on their terms and showing them what a healthy and respectful relationship looks like. All Autistic people communicate. Sometimes it just looks a little different from what you might expect.
Is Early Intervention Necessary?
In the United States, children under the age of 3 are eligible for Early Intervention services when they aren’t meeting their expected milestones and/or if they have diagnosed disabilities that require support. When autism is suspected, many caregivers are pressured by medical professionals and peers to get their kids assessed and into some form of “treatment” as early as possible. We have even seen claims that Autistic children will never “improve” if their caregivers wait too long for “treatment.” That’s simply not true. Autistic brains don’t need treatment any more than neurotypical brains for the mere existence of a particular neurotype. If that weren’t enough, a recent meta-analysis found that there is insufficient evidence to recommend early intervention or treatment for children. Pressure to push children into Early Intervention can be wielded as a scare tactic and that helps no one.
Early Intervention is as embroiled in anti-Autistic ableism as any intervention offering “help” to Autistic people from an allistic perspective. The therapies offered generally seek to bring an Autistic child as close to typical expectations as possible, which is ableist. Autistic people do not need to be more allistic in order to move freely through and contribute to the world around us. So, while Early Intervention is not necessary, we do understand that it is a cost effective way to access services like occupational therapy that can help Autistic kids a great deal. Whatever you decide to do, we encourage you to brush off any pressure that comes your way about changing your child.
Autism is simply a natural way of being. That’s not to say Autistic people don’t need any therapy. There are various forms of therapy that can help Autistic people cope with living as strangers in a strange place without having to be subjected to behaviorism. Different people benefit from different things, so having an open mind can help you find exactly what will serve your child the best.
Occupational Therapy: OTs help identify gaps between a person’s needs and their ability to meet those needs. Autistic people often need support when it comes to motor skills (e.g. dressing/undressing and tying shoes), proprioceptive abilities (e.g. tolerating the taste and texture of food, and knowing when it’s time to urinate), and self-regulation. OTs have the knowledge and experience to recognize where there are disconnects and help Autistic kids integrate their senses and practice new life skills.
Speech Therapy: Speech is widely considered the superior form of communication. It’s not. All forms of communication are valid. Some Autistic people prefer speech, some prefer speech some of the time, and some don’t prefer speech at all. There are many reasons for these differences. What Speech Language Pathologists can do is give your child the tools to improve their speech and/or other modes of communication.
Physical Therapy: PTs specialize in human movement. If your child needs support with balance, motion, or spatial awareness, a PT might be able to help. There is some overlap between what OTs and PTs do for Autistic kids, so our general suggestion would be to start with OT and add in PT, if needed.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT is a cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps people practice regulating their emotions, relate more easily with others, and handle stress, all of which are skills every human person certainly needs. Given the strain of moving through this world as an Autistic person, DBT is often a great fit for addressing lingering traumatic experiences. Side note: Even though DBT and ABA contain the same word, they are NOT the same. DBT is a true behavioral therapy that is beneficial for many. ABA is a behaviorist therapy that is harmful.
And, finally, a note on comorbidities. Autism is a neurology unto itself with its own strengths and weaknesses. Oftentimes, people conflate other diagnoses with autism as though they are one and the same. An autism diagnosis is not dependent on things like IQ, aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, and so on. When present alongside autism, these things may or may not need to be addressed professionally. And, if they do need to be addressed, the supports may be beyond the scope of this particular article. (In other words, we can’t cover every possible therapeutic option, so please seek out support from Autistic adults.)
Will My Child Ever Be Independent?
Are we meant to be? Do you know anyone who is completely off-the-grid and self-sustaining? Seems like it would be a lonely life. We may wonder what the future holds for Autistic kids, but independence need not be a goal. We are, by nature, an interdependent species. We need connection to thrive. So, one of the things Autistic children need to practice is self-advocacy. Empower your child to ask for what they need. Reveal all the avenues available. Some Autistic people do need lots of hands-on assistance into adulthood (which is probably what most people mean when they wonder about independence). That’s totally fine. They are as fully human, fully worthy, and fully deserving of fulfillment as is any person. It’s natural to worry when you’re responsible for the care of a child, but put that nervous energy into helping your child build a network of support.
How Do I Discipline My Autistic Child?
You teach an Autistic child about the world in the same way you’d teach an allistic child, by figuring out how they learn best and presenting information in that way. There is absolutely no need for intrinsic motivation killers like rewards or punishments. Especially not physical punishment. There’s no need to control your Autistic child or force their bodies to do things that are uncomfortable for them (such as demanding eye contact or using hand over hand instruction). When you create an environment where your Autistic child can succeed, your child will have their best opportunity to grow in their relationship with you and to trust you.
As the caregiver of an Autistic child, your child will be best served by your acceptance that most Autistic children have specific needs around sensory processing. Autistic processing of sensory input is different from that of the allistic brain. Responses tend to be more pronounced and overload can be unbearable. Some things to know.
Sensory Seeking and Sensory Aversion: For most Autistic people, our experiences with external stimuli can be heightened. Sensory Seeking means craving input to address uncomfortable understimulation of the nervous system. Seeking may look like enjoying being extra loud, using our bodies to crash into the world around us, and generally filling up a space. Sensory Aversion means craving escape to address uncomfortable overstimulation of the nervous system. Aversion may look like extreme discomfort with anything touching our skin, blocking our ears to muffle a cacophony of sounds, and covering our eyes to shield them from bright lights. While many Autistic people tend to experience either seeking or aversion, given the right circumstances, we can all experience them both.
Meltdowns and Shutdowns: To understand meltdowns and shutdowns, think about the most upsetting day you’ve had recently. Maybe your car broke down, causing you to lose your job. Then you tried to take the bus home only to find that you left the gate open and your dog has run away. And so on. Just a rotten day. You can relate to jab after jab sending you over the edge. When the needs of Autistic people are persistently unmet, the descent into overwhelm is like your really bad day. You might go home and cry, call a friend, or try to relax in front of the TV. Autistics can end up so dysregulated that these calming techniques don’t help. The end result is an uncontrollable explosion of emotion and physiological tension (i.e. a meltdown) or a complete reset of capacity (i.e. a shutdown). Both are upsetting for Autistic people. No one wants to feel that way, so it’s helpful for our families to understand what we need in order to avoid getting to that point. Meltdowns and shutdowns are not necessarily a given. They can often be prevented by addressing our needs.
If you are interested in a gentle discipline approach to guiding both Autistic and allistic children, these articles may help you as you figure out exactly what your child needs most in order to feel safe, secure, and supported.
While this post is about how to proceed with a new diagnosis, we have included this response to those who may ask about how to obtain a diagnosis. Generally speaking, in the United States, autism assessments for children are conducted by developmental pediatricians and pediatric psychologists. Your child’s standard evaluation may involve questionnaires and interviews for the caregivers, observation of the child, and administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and/or the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), along with a review of observations from the child’s teachers and other professionals, if applicable. Be aware that masking (as described in the Autism as an Identity section) can interfere with a medical professional’s ability to diagnose your child. The very thing that helps keep us safe in other circumstances can end up making it more difficult to get the accommodations we need. Please let your child know they don’t have to hide who they are with the doctor.
If you are in the United States, be aware that your insurance company may require a referral from your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. If you cannot afford a standard evaluation or are uninsured, organizations like Easterseals may be able to provide you with discounted services. Be aware, however, that these organizations are not typically autism-forward and may recommend ABA therapy.
In order to be diagnosed, your child must meet the criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (current edition, DSM-5), which includes an unfortunate “severity” scale of 1, 2, and 3, each corresponding to an increasing need for supports and services. These numbers represent how burdensome the doctor expects your child to be and that is a problem. The severity scale also does not account for changes in capacities as your child grows up and it is heavily influenced by your child’s ability to speak. However, speech is not required for communication. Do not be overly concerned if your child doesn’t speak. Take note of the number your child is assigned, but don’t allow it to dictate your acceptance of your child’s capabilities.
Many caregivers question if pursuing a diagnosis is worthwhile. The Autistic community is somewhat split on this. A medical diagnosis can open many doors for your child to receive accommodations and modifications. It can also, sadly, present unwanted barriers, such as being barred from certain jobs, military service, and even being disallowed from emigrating from one’s home country. Despite the potential challenges, childhood diagnosis tends to be easier to obtain. It is incredibly difficult to obtain a diagnosis as an adult, which is why the Autistic community embraces self-diagnosis. We encourage you to read this beautiful post from Autistic Mama about the reasons why early diagnosis can be life-changing. If you want to wait or not pursue a formal diagnosis at all, your child may still be eligible for supports in school. In the United States, schools can conduct their own internal assessments to provide your child with appropriate accommodations and modifications while in school, even absent a formal, medical diagnosis.
On IEPs and 504 Plans
We promised plain language at the beginning of this post and we’re about to take a dip in the blistering world of federal law, so please bear with us as we keep this as simple as possible. We strongly recommend checking out Wrightslaw and the Wrightslaw books if you want to get the most accurate information about accommodations and modifications.
In brief, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees the right of your child to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Part of giving your child a FAPE involves establishing a customized blueprint for their educational track via an Individual Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan.
IEPs are comprehensive action plans that detail precisely which combination of services will provide the ideal learning environment for your child in a special education program. The custodial caregiver (e.g. parent, grandparent, etc) is part of the IEP team and advocates on behalf of the child. The assessment process to be deemed eligible for an IEP can be lengthy and tedious. If your child already has a medical diagnosis, this is one of the times when it comes in very handy. IEPs are nearly limitless. If your child needs a solution, this is where you put it. The IEP is also where the IEP team declares the LRE for an individual student be it a specialized separate class or some form of integration into general education.
504 Plans are guaranteed under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unlike IEPs, 504 Plans do not entitle children to the extensive services of special education. You can think of them as a less stringent counterpart to IEPs that are especially useful for general education students who have specific areas where they need support, such as dyslexia. Students can technically have both an IEP and a 504, but having both is not necessary. It’s important to note that IEPs can and usually do include everything that would be written into a 504 Plan, but the reverse is not true.
In order to obtain supports for your child through an IEP or a 504 Plan, the first step is to contact the school (typically a school/guidance counselor or an assessment coordinator) to request an evaluation. You’ll want to be prepared with as much information as you have about what your child needs. Check out this write-up for a detailed overview of the process.
ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis is billed as a “treatment” for autism, but it has widely been met with scorn due to its proclivity for causing post-traumatic stress disorder in Autistic children. It’s no wonder as the “father” of ABA had this to say about Autistic people, “You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have the person in the physical sense – they have hair, a nose and a mouth – but they are not people in the psychological sense.” For more information on why ABA isn’t welcomed by Autistic people, check out ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have.
Asperger’s: In the United States, Asperger’s has fallen into medical disuse as a diagnosis as the DSM-5 rightly condensed autism into a single diagnosis. Many Autistic people who were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s continue to use this term. However, allistic people should be aware that Hans Asperger was a Nazi eugenicist who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of disabled children (warning: linked article contains functioning labels). Some people have pointed out that he may not have been a Nazi sympathizer, but rather a person who fell in line in order to save his own life. Even if that is the case, he still sent hundreds of children to their deaths and does not deserve the honor of being associated with Autistic people. Please use “Autistic” instead as a caregiver.
Autism is a Superpower: The belief that Autistic people have superhuman powers is a form of inspiration porn that dehumanizes and others us. We are as human as any other person. Our autism is often disabling, because it has not yet been normalized by the broader culture in which we live. Because of our different neurology, there are some areas where we might excel. It’s ok to celebrate accomplishments by virtue of our efforts. It’s not ok to celebrate accomplishments because we are Autistic.
Autism Parent: Curiously, many allistic parents of Autistic children proclaim themselves as “Autism Parents” but are often unwilling to adopt the identity-first language most of us prefer (i.e. Autistic person). “Autism Parent,” and the use of autism as a lead into any conversation about their kids, gives the impression that the caregiver is donning their child’s identity as a sort of uniform to showcase their experience caring for an Autistic person. And, worse, “Autism Parents” often say things like “Autism won today” to indicate they’ve had a bad day. Imagine saying such a thing about any other identity. Please use “Parent of an Autistic Child” instead.
Functioning Labels: “Mild,” “Severe,” “High Functioning,” “Low Functioning,” “end of the spectrum” and so on. These are functioning labels that are meant to communicate to allistic people just how much Autistic people diverge from neurotypicality. Even the levels assigned by diagnosing doctor’s that are meant to indicate anticipated support needs end up communicating how burdensome we are expected to be for our caregivers. Yet, Autistic people’s capacities can slide all over the place, even hour to hour. Functioning Labels provide no useful information. When talking about Autistic people, avoid discussing deficits. Instead, help us advocate to meet our needs. For example, rather than saying “my child is non-verbal,” try “my child uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).”
Person with Autism: Survey after survey demonstrates that Autistic people, on the whole, prefer identity-first language. Autism isn’t a feature. It is the very lens through which our brains process the world. Every Autistic person has an Autistic mind. We cannot be allistic. We cannot “age out” of autism and we cannot be “cured.” It is who we are, therefore, it is always appropriate to use identity-first language (Autistic person) unless you’re speaking about an individual who has specifically indicated that they prefer person-first language.
Puzzle Piece: Since the puzzle piece is ubiquitous, you might not realize that Autistic people generally do not identify with it. The puzzle piece was created by an allistic member of the National Autistic Society and it originally featured a crying child as a symbol portraying autism in contrast to the way “normal” people are supposed to be. It says Autistic people are a baffling mystery. That our minds aren’t complete. And, it garners such ableist phrases as “Until All the Pieces Fit.” Parents of Autistic kids – the group most likely to use it – go to great lengths to explain why they don’t see the puzzle piece as a negative thing. However, a 2018 study confirmed once and for all that the puzzle piece is harmful to the Autistic community. The Autistic community has embraced the gold infinity loop as a more appropriate representation of who we are. (The rainbow infinity loop is a positive symbol for neurodiversity.)
Sesame Street: In April of 2017, Sesame Street debuted Julia, an Autistic girl who would introduce children worldwide to autism. Many Autistic adults were overjoyed, especially given the fact that Sesame Street had spent years developing Julia with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). We knew she would be a genuine reflection of Autistic people. Sadly, in 2019, the partnership between Sesame Street and ASAN ended. In a devastating betrayal, Sesame Street elected to partner with Autism Speaks instead and promote their stigmatizing resources for parents of newly-diagnosed Autistic children.
Symptoms: Autistic people have traits, not symptoms. The way we think and behave is not the result of an illness. It is a manifestation of our neurology and our individual personalities. Use of the word symptom is an example of the pathologizing of autism. Because we are different, there is a tendency from a medical perspective to pinpoint and correct those differences and that tendency makes its way into the literature around autism.
Violence: An unfortunate stereotype exists that Autistic people are prone to violence. In reality, violence is not part of the criteria for a diagnosis. It is not indicative of autism. So, why do caregivers of Autistic kids talk about violence so much? It’s a misunderstanding of what the “violence” actually is. All of us, Autistic and allistic alike, understand what it’s like to be worn down by life and pushed to the limit. This stress is the root of much discomfort, frustration, and even anger. It’s something that Autistic people experience significantly more often than allistic people, because we are moving through a world that does not operate with our needs in mind. Some Autistic people, particularly children, become so overwhelmed that they lash out. It is a form of communication that tells everyone around them that they need help. Not censure. Autistic people are not inherently violent.
How Do I Best Love My Autistic Child?
This one isn’t just about feeling a tender, nurturing draw toward an Autistic child. We know you love your child deeply or you wouldn’t be here. This one is about loving an Autistic child for who they are. Not for who they might be if they weren’t Autistic. It’s about recognizing your child’s stimming and supporting them by providing stim toys and room to stim without judgment. It’s about engaging with, rather than pathologizing the great interest your child takes in the things they love the most. It’s about viewing Autistic people as creative communicators rather than awkward and socially inept. It’s about going directly to Autistic adults, and professionals who listen to Autistic adults, to ask questions about how to support your Autistic child. And, it’s about folding your Autistic child into your family life in the most natural ways. Full acceptance. Unconditional love. Exactly what every caregiver should do for every child. It’s nothing remarkable and it’s the most remarkable thing of all.
We’ll leave you with this video that sums up how we want parents of Autistic children to choose to view their kids in hopes that the more our world understands autism, the higher quality of life all Autistic people can enjoy.
Looking for More?
Our friend, Autistic Mama, is working on another resource she’s calling Autism Diagnosis Journal: A Parent’s 30 Day Guide to Confidently Process Their Child’s New Autism Diagnosis. Autistic Mama, Kaylene George, is an Autistic mother of 6 neurodiverse kiddos, including one Autistic child. Her life’s work is helping parents of Autistic children become better parents, advocates, and autism allies. Her efforts serve to make our society more accepting and inclusive to Autistics. Her newest project promises to be comprehensive and thoughtful, and we encourage you to keep watch for when it drops.
*Please comment below or message Peace I Give with any questions you may have. We consider this to be a living guide to be updated as new pressing questions arise.We are open to criticism as well. Thank you for reading!
Around this time last year, I wrote a piece called Squaring Santa where I dove into the myth and tackled the childism inherent in a cultural collaboration to deceive kids. Upon re-reading it, I’ve realized it comes across as strongly worded and for good reason. Learning the truth about Santa as a child shattered the magic of Christmas for me. No, Christmas was never about Santa or gifts. What hurt me was that my parents had lied to me and encouraged me to believe something they knew was untrue. Christmas was tarnished from that point and it took getting caught up in the excitement of my own children around the Christmas season to regain much of what I had lost. That’s just my story though. I know millions of people perpetuate the Santa myth because they had warm cozies about it as kids and that nostalgia can make it difficult to see the lie for what it is.
Last week, I was looking for matching pajamas for my family and I saw some with little Black Santas. As I considered the cost, I realized how strange it was that I had no problem with Santa PJs considering how I feel about the Santa tradition. Out of curiosity and a desire to explore, I asked friends if anyone among them chose not to participate in the Santa tradition and why. The most common response what that they didn’t want to deceive their kids and break their trust. Some noted that their children had expressed reservations about a strange man breaking into their homes while they were sleeping. Some went further to say they preferred to talk about the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. Others said they do participate in the Santa tradition in some form, but do not employ the behavioral tactics to pressure their kids into being “good.” And still others said their children understand it’s a game and not real, so they aren’t being duped, but they’re still enjoying the make-believe excitement of it all. Everything they said resonated with me.
There is no denying how ubiquitous Santa has become in the United States. He’s part of our cultural vision of Christmas, for better or worse. Schools really push Santa as well. It can be hard to be a child in this country and not wonder about whether Santa is real. So, first, I want to affirm everyone who does not wish to participate in the Santa tradition at all for whatever reason. Do whatever it is that makes sense for your family. I would advise against demonizing Santa or ignoring that the tradition exists at all, because doing so could create a major conflict for your children. It could also push them to condemn their friends or take up a position of superiority.
If You Don’t Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition At All
Decide what you want your child to know, making sure to recognize that you will not be able to completely avoid Santa during the Christmas season.
Give your child the words to say when people (especially other children) ask them about Santa. Specifically, work with your child to prepare responses to “What do you want Santa to bring you?” And, “Have you been good this year?” Children typically don’t want to get entangled in a lengthy discussion, so sidestepping the questions can be useful.
“What do you want Santa to bring you?” Response: “I’d love to get [gift] for Christmas this year.”
“Have you been good this year?” Response: “I don’t think kids should be rewarded for being good or punished for being bad.”
Explain that it is considered bad form to intrude on others participating in the Santa tradition. If you want your child to tell the truth to other children about Santa, that is your prerogative and it is the anti-childist position. However, if you’d prefer to encourage your child to extend grace, you can let them know it’s ok not to discuss Santa at all with other children (or simply use the canned responses you have prepared together).
If You Do Want to Participate in the Santa Tradition Without the Childism
Tell your child the truth. Santa is a myth. However, Santa is also a fun cultural tradition that your child can participate in with full knowledge of reality.
Teach your child the history of Santa, including the origins in St. Nicholas of Myra, as well as differences in the Santa tradition around the world.
Share other cultures’ holiday traditions, particularly the ways in which they infuse kindness and generosity into their holidays.
Introduce Santa images with a variety of complexions rather than perpetuating white supremacy in the form of white Santa only.
A week and a half ago, my friend lost her life in a horrific car wreck that claimed her toddler as well. Her husband and their other children were badly hurt, but they survived after a harrowing touch and go hospitalization. I saw a picture of the kids today. They were smiling and playing with toys. These precious children who are recovering without the comfort of their mother found a reason to smile. It hit me so hard. My heartfelt thought upon seeing the photo was that children are sacred beings who are closest to the innocence that makes us the most human. I want to wrap my friend’s children up in a bubble and never let them experience pain again, but then they could never heal. Without coming to terms with what’s happened, they would never be able to process all the things they must tackle in time. And, healing doesn’t happen in the absence of discomfort.
If death has ever touched your life and made you more aware of your own mortality, you’ll understand why this tragedy laid bare my human frailty and vulnerability. It compelled me to look at what’s important in my life. And what’s not. The little frustrations. Rushing to appointments. Getting down on myself for not keeping up with my own expectations. Fussing at my kids for being kids. Barking at my husband for relaxing while I’m compulsively trying to accomplish an endless list of tasks. Even the work I put into this blog.
I realized that I hadn’t yet decided what this blog would be. In fits and starts, I would spend a little money to advertise certain posts and think up all manner of gimmicks to increase readership. Not because I was seeking fame, but because my mission has always been to help parents treat their kids more respectfully and, therefore, to help kids. However, life tapped the brakes on me this year and I had to scale back. I look at other moms doing amazing things (shout out to Kaylene George over at Autistic Mama) and I want to do so much more. But, that is not where my journey is right now. I’m grateful for all the people who have subscribed to the blog and who follow me on Facebook. I post for y’all! I post for your kids. And, I post for my kids. I’ll keep going as long as you’re willing to listen.
It’s been over a year since I started this blog and I’m only just now figuring out what I’m doing here. I think back to so many other points in my life where I asked the same question, because I realize that whatever I was doing wasn’t working for me. And, I have to apply that same question to my personal life today. Why have I been pressuring myself to do everything and be everything? Why have I been frustrated with my kids and barking at my husband? What’s going on? Would any of it matter at all if I knew I wouldn’t be here tomorrow? Absolutely not.
I’ve got some thinking and praying to do. I’m also going to make a point to stop every now and then to ask what am I doing here? I will make a commitment to all of you as well. On a quarterly basis, I’m going to pose this question to you. Maybe, together, we can step outside of the rush of life and take inventory of the things that are affecting us. We can decide what needs to go and what we should keep in service of a life lived intentionally. Are you with me?
This past week, a friend found herself with a dilemma. Her parents had given her child a police toy to play with and it made her uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about her dilemma, because I’ve faced it too. As someone who works toward being conscious and conscientious about the decisions I make as a parent, issues like this require a lot of consideration. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know what my husband and I have decided.
Our perception of the police is complicated. As a Black man, my husband has been targeted by the police over the course of his life. I have been in the car when he’s been pulled over for no reason and let go as the officer refused to state clearly why we had been bothered. I support the cause of Black Lives Matter and I believe in the use of civil disobedience to protest the egregious treatment of Black people at the hands of the state. I believe that the police are agents of the state issued forth to carry out the dictates of a white supremacist culture. That is the reality we’re living in.
So, why on earth would I allow police imagery in my home? Because while I support defunding and de-militarizing the police, as well as reallocating monies toward community building, I also recognize that even if we could achieve the extinction of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, people would still find ways to hate and to hurt. We will always need some form of refereeing in order to live in concert with one another. That much is true, but policing in its current state does not serve the common good and should be revolutionized.
As I thought about this crisis of conscious, I was reminded of the time my mother brought us a white-centric board book version of the Thanksgiving story. In that moment, I had to make a split second decision. Do I stop her and tell her not to read such a thing in front of my children? I did consider it, but ultimately, I sat as she read and I corrected everything that was wrong. I stopped her every few lines to provide accurate information and appropriate terminology. That is the spirit with which my husband and I interact with the word. We acknowledge the things that aren’t right but, instead of ignoring them, we address them.
When my kids want to watch shows that contain police imagery, I don’t stop them. And, when they receive gifts like Paw Patrol toys, I don’t ban them. Not because I consent to violence, but because proscribing these symbols of tyranny does not eliminate them. It curtails important conversations about them. The police are everywhere. My husband and I have to teach our kids how to interact with them so as not to be killed. We have to explain how members of our community who are kind and care for our kids could be part of a cruel, racist system. We have to help them forge a vision of a future where policing is far less destructive and less necessary. And, we have to give them the space they need to process all of these huge and heavy ideas. Our kids will likely eschew the police in the future, of their own accord. For now, we’re working through concepts that are awfully big for people so new to the world.
So, we won’t go out of our way to expose our children to police shows or toys and we won’t ever buy any. We won’t criticize people whose solution is to ban police images from their homes, as doing so is a completely understandable and valid form of protest. But, we will use the organic opportunities presented to us through curiosity and play to counter the glorification of the police and we will offer, as an alternative, the goal of widespread liberation for Black people from the oppression of law enforcement and criminal justice.
I’m curious how you work through difficult concepts and what you do in your home?
My family has been going through it the past couple weeks. It’s just more of the same 2020 nonsense that everyone is experiencing, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve been thinking about a post on executive functioning, as I can imagine we’re all working a little harder on this skill of late, but also because I recently ran across something that might help our kids be a little more effectual with a lot less work and frustration.
Executive function is the term for the overall management of the brain. It is what allows us to prioritize tasks and get things done and it involves three overarching areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). The eight executive functions are self-control, self-monitoring, emotional control, flexibility, task initiation, organization, working memory, and planning & time management.
There are many brain differences that impact executive functioning including things like autism, ADHD, depression, and trauma to the brain. And, if you’ve spent time around kids, you’ll recognize that their executive functioning is still under construction. In fact, executive function develops all the way into adulthood. Kids who are struggling with it might not be able to pay attention, hold onto a series of instructions, transition from one task to the next, or plan out action steps. As a child, I had many, many hours of therapy to help me improve my executive functioning skills, so I was intrigued when I recently ran across a strategy that promises improvements in executive function.
Kristen Jacobsen (MS CCC-SLP) and Sarah Ward (MS CCC-SLP) are two speech language pathologists who have been studying executive function for the past 20+ years and now co-direct Cognitive Connections, a specialty practice in Massachusetts. Together, they created the 360 Thinking™ Executive Function Program that includes a strategy developed by Sarah Ward called Get Ready, Do, Done. This strategy coaches children to identify what needs to be done at a future time, imagine what “done” looks like, work backward to plan out the steps to get there, and then collect needed materials to accomplish the task. It is a way to lay out each step for those whose brains don’t automatically do the planning for them. The model plans backward before taking steps forward.
What will it look like when I am done?
What steps do I need to take to be done? How long will each step take?
What do I need to get ready?
What materials do I need to do the steps?
Time to do the task. Create a timeline and time markers.
Know when to stop and close out the task.
When I was little, I used to get frustrated to the point of shutting down when I was told to clean my room. In childist terms, I might have been called lazy or stubborn, but the problem I had was that I simply didn’t know what to do! I needed someone to show me my room clean and straight several times, so I’d have the picture in my mind. I needed to be walked around the room and shown where each item was supposed to go. I needed a step-by-step plan, like:
Get cleaning supplies.
Clear off and make the bed to use as a staging area if needed.
Pick up and put away items from the floor as follows: trash, dishes, clothes, toys, books, and everything else.
Organize wardrobe and trunk.
Wipe dust and grime from surfaces.
That never happened for me. I stumbled through housework until well into adulthood when I came across the organizing and cleaning industries and learned how to properly do housework. Even with small children now, I’m able to keep my house nice and clean. I even put laundry away after it’s dried, which is something I never did as a young adult. Check out this quick video that uses cleaning a room to explain executive functioning:
If you’d like to give Get Ready, Do, Done a try, check out these free resources:
In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.
A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.
Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.
If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?
On Saturday, in her first speech as our Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, remarked that “Black women… are often, too often, overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.” I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the familiar and not-so-familiar names that I’ve encountered over the past few days in hopes that this information will make it to your dinner table where you can tell your children about these role models.
There are so many Black women in leadership today who deserve more recognition. I’m going to talk about a few of them who were behind the unexpected voter turnout that flipped Georgia blue. Georgia hasn’t supported a Democratic president since Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, nearly 30 years ago. So, what happened? Black voters, especially young Black voters, came out in force. And, it was no accident. This extraordinary feat in voter registration and empowerment happened at the expert hands of Black women. Whatever your political persuasion, the sheer effort that went into the hundreds of millions of votes cast in the 2020 United States presidential election is impressive.
On the National Stage
Stacey Abrams grew up in Mississippi and moved with her family to Georgia, so her parents could attend graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta. Abrams received a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from Spelman College (an HBCU), a master’s in public affairs from the University of Texas, and JD from Yale Law School.
Abrams’ influential political career began when she was involved with a congressional campaign in high school and went on to be hired as a speechwriter as a teenager. She served for a decade in the Georgia House of Representatives before launching a gubernatorial campaign in 2018 against then-Secretary of State, Brian Kemp. She was the first Black woman on any major party’s general ballot for governor.
Though her valiant efforts garnered national attention, she decided that, instead of pursuing legal action or running for political office in the immediate aftermath, she would strike back against the kind of voter disenfranchisement that had cost her the Georgia governorship.
She launched Fair Fight 2020, an organization that seeks to “promote fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourage voter participation in elections, and educate voters about elections and their voting rights” with a specific emphasis on “voters of color” and “young voters.” She is credited with paving the way to voter registration for more than 800,000 people.
Keisha Lance Bottoms
Arguably, the two most prominent Black women in Georgia today are Stacey Abrams and Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Bottoms was born and raised in Atlanta. She received a bachelor’s in broadcast journalism from Florida A&M University (an HBCU) and a JD from Georgia State University. Her political journey took her from the courtroom to a judgeship to the Atlanta City Council, and then she was elected mayor in 2017. In just three years, she launched herself right into the national arena.
Her remarkable career coupled with her fearless and progressive voice landed her on the short-list for Vice President alongside Representative Val Demings, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Kamala Harris, who was ultimately selected.
These next five women were instrumental in the high voter turnout among people of color and young folks. Here’s a little about their role in the effort.
Top: Nsé Ufot and Tamieka Atkins Bottom: Deborah Scott, LaTosha Brown, and Helen Butler
Nsé Ufot is the Executive Director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan effort “to register and civically engage Georgians,” particularly the growing population of young people of color and unmarried women who represent the majority of the voting age population in Georgia.
Tamieka Atkins is the executive director of ProGeorgia, a civic engagement group “building infrastructure by supporting, connecting and coordinating civic participation efforts of our non-profit member groups.”
Deborah Scott is the executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, a “think and act tank for working communities” that “organizes and educates communities about issues related to labor unions, transit equity, affordable housing, & economic development.” Their non-partisan voter engagement program, Stand Up and Vote! designed to ensure that residents are “educated and engaged in elections at all levels of government.”
LaTosha Brown is a co-creator of the Black Voters Matter Fund, an electoral organizing group that keys in on voter registration, policy advocacy, and organizational development and training. Their hands-on programs, like a Warrant Clinic that helps people clear warrants and fines they can’t afford and lifts barrier to employment, housing, and voting at the most fundamental level.
Helen Butler is the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda whose mission is to improve the quality of governance in Georgia, help create a more informed and active electorate, and have responsive and accountable elected officials. She is especially concerned with justice reform and protecting voting rights.
These women deserve praise and recognition for their hard work. We white parents, in particular, have a responsibility to make Black history come alive for our kids and these leaders are Black history in the making!
Several months ago, I wrote a piece called In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time. The resounding critique I received was that it is too dangerous in this day and age to allow kids unsupervised access to the internet. And, y’all, I could not agree more.
Plus, one in five kids has been sexually solicited online. The stakes are high and we have every reason to be extremely concerned. To be clear, I vehemently reject any notion that a child can be safe online without any adult supervision. Adult predators are targeting our kids. Therefore, our children are unsafe. Period. So, what do we do?
My children are still very young, but I am implementing some solutions already. I am also learning from other parents and adjusting my approach as a result. Thus far, these are my mandatory basics:
Be Honest About the Dangers
I have no intention of terrifying my children, but I will absolutely let them know the possible outcomes of risky activity. I know from having been a child myself that I didn’t really “get it” when adults issued warnings. It was only when I had my own experiences that I understood. I recognize that this is likely the case for my own children, so my responsibility is to prepare and protect them in the meantime.
Be Aware of What Your Child is Doing
It’s so much easier to let a child fall into the online world so we can get our own tasks done, right? But it’s a big gamble. We need to pay attention. We need to know who our kids are talking to, what information they’re receiving, what information they’re giving out and so forth. I’m not certain where I stand yet on technology that allows parents to spy on their children directly. That makes me uncomfortable as an anti-childist parent but I will confess that, if it’s a choice between my kids leading a predator to our home versus peeking in on their online activity… I get why there’s a market for that sort of tech.
Consider Parental Controls
One of the easiest ways to restrict content is to go through your home’s wifi settings and this article explains how to do just that. Beyond that, all modern handheld technology offers the ability to manage parental settings either as a built in app or a downloadable one. When seeking out a downloadable app, check to see how well it filters web content, whether it has location tracking, and if it works across multiple operating systems.
That said, parental controls aren’t guaranteed and they aren’t foolproof. Coaching kids in internet safety is far more effective and reliable.
Practice Safety Measures
It’s one thing to tell a child what to do, but showing a child what to do on their preferred device will lead to better understanding and use. One simple exercise we can do with our kids is website vetting. Go to a website and point out all the reasons the website looks legitimate or all the reasons it doesn’t. This exercise teaches kids how to locate reputable information while protecting themselves from danger. And, be sure to let your kids know what to do if they run across something troubling.
Teach Kids About Consent and Boundaries
This one could easily fit under the previous heading, but it’s too important not to mention separately. One of the best ways to protect children from predators is to teach them about consent and boundaries from a very young age. They need to know that they can say no to and even hurt an adult who does something to their bodies that is scary or painful. Years ago, a sex educator went viral for saying that adults should get consent from babies before changing their diapers. She was laughed into oblivion, but she had a point. We should always be talking through what we’re doing to our children’s bodies and giving them an opportunity to decline.
Maintain an Open Connection With Your Child
A parents’ best defense against danger from external forces is a respectful, connected relationship with their child. Kids who aren’t afraid to come to their parents with uncomfortable information will come to their parents. My children never “get in trouble” with me. When they approach me, they know they will not be punished no matter what they do or say. They will be accepted fully and loved endlessly. So, when the time comes for them to tell me something difficult, they won’t have to think to themselves, “Ugh, my mom is going to kill me!” All the while, I am teaching them our family’s values and acknowledging that they have their own path. I am only here to love, guide, and protect them until they are adults themselves.
Make Clear Agreements
Coming to some mutually agreeable decisions around internet access is a substantially beneficial preventative measure before any threat arises. What are your non-negotiables? For my family, one of our non-negotiables is age. Our kids will be discouraged from accessing social media until at least age 16. What are your biggest concerns? How can you address those concerns with buy-in from your child? A friend had the brilliant idea to work with her daughter on an Instagram contract that has some built in actions if things go awry. The most wonderful part of this contract for me is the fact that her daughter had veto rights on the elements and still wanted to agree to all these things that would keep her safer.
Act Quickly at the First Sign of Danger
If you do learn that someone has been targeting your child, report it. Report it immediately. And, you have some options. You can call 911. You can contact the FBI. You can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678 or report.cybertip.org. Don’t feel like you’re blowing it out of proportion. If your protective senses are tingling, something is very wrong.
Unlimited Screen Time =\= Unmonitored Screen Time
I strongly promote unlimited screen time as restriction is all too often a source of compulsion. Kids need the availability of unlimited time in order to learn what is optimal for them.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece exploring the idea that rewards might be a tool of abuse and, therefore, something parents would be wise to avoid. In the aftermath, I was asked “Isn’t Smiling a Reward?” in the context of pushback from a reader who suggested that there is no way to avoid rewards in parenting. I will grant that the issue is complicated. Of course it is. We’re dealing with human brains! So, I dug a little deeper to better understand if and how rewards might be utilized within the context of peaceful parenting.
The first thing I know innately is that we are social beings. We seek to engage with others of our species as a primitive drive. We use facial expressions and body language to communicate whether other humans are in our circle or not. So, it stands to reason that we would take pleasure from expressions that indicate our inclusion into our preferred social group. With that idea in mind, I took to the science.
Here’s what I learned. Our brains have a reward center that uses the languages of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters, to translate our experiences into something our minds can grasp physically. Brainfacts.org explains, “Dopamine-producing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens in order to evaluate rewards and motivate us to obtain them.” In simple terms, the nucleus accumbens is a structure in the basal forebrain that scientists believe translates external stimuli into understandable gains, which allows us instinctively to recognize which behaviors are more likely to attain rewards and which ones are not. Check out this quick explanation:
We do not have to think to make the reward center of our brain operate. It is a very basic and very old system that operates behind the scenes. We may not even realize that our experiences are subtly altering our behavior. (And, this is why behaviorism is so effective, albeit harmful, for humans.)
In this sense, yes, a parent smiling at a child does activate the reward center in the brain; therefore, yes, smiling is a reward in the same way eating is a reward and sleeping is a reward and street drugs are a reward and so on. The term “reward” in this context means a reinforcer that encourages a person to return to the same behavior over and over again. However, when we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. For instance, providing candy for using the potty or saying “good job” to a child who has cleaned his room. These rewards offer temporary elation and encourage our kids to both crave our attention and unthinkingly submit to our authority.
Peaceful parents do not offer rewards in an effort to mold behavior. Instead of extrinsic (or external) motivation, we prioritize intrinsic (or internal) motivation. We know that extrinsic rewards are demotivating and that children will require more and more payoff to accomplish the same tasks the farther along we go. We don’t bribe our children with candy. If we give them candy, it is not a perk for connecting with interoceptive signals. It is an opportunity to sit around the table as a family and practice eating intuitively. We don’t pay our kids to do chores. If we provide an allowance, it is not an exchange for a job well done. It is an opportunity to learn financial responsibility.
And, we know this is the healthiest way to interact with our children, because science confirms it. A 2009 study found that people with low self esteem who engaged in positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” ended up immediately descending into self-deprecation when the self-praise conflicted with their concept of self. Empty praise backfires.
Alternatively, a 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at the effects of self-affirmation, which involves dwelling on values rather than pointing out personal qualities. Participants were asked to “Please think about an experience involving [VALUE].” That exercise was then followed by visualization and thinking about the experience they’d had. The result was an increase in positive self-worth, which was even stronger when participants considered future events rather than past ones.
Turns out that self-affirmation improves function in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), two areas the deal with self-referential processing (i.e. the parts of the brain that allow us to engage in mindfulness). These increases made the participants more resilient against any negative information that came later. This is why it is always more effective for children when we talk about values and efforts versus toward a future vision than when we talk about personal qualities and snapshot accomplishments. Both affirmations and praise activate our brain’s reward center, but only one insulates us against negative self-worth.
When we smile at our children out of sheer joy at their existence, it is rewarding to their brains, but it is not an effort to coercively manage their behavior. So, please, smile at your kids, hug them, love on them, and affirm them. In doing so, you will build up their self-esteem in a way that can make it unshakeable.
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.
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.
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.