Kids Are Perfectly Reasonable… Seriously

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

First, a story. Last week, I was cleaning in the kitchen area and I thought my kids were happily playing in the living room. Suddenly, they both blew past me, my son chasing my daughter. I should clarify. My son was chasing my daughter and she had a look of dread on her little two-year-old face. They ran around the kitchen table and headed back toward me. I reached out to grab them both into a family hug in hopes of intervening in what looked like it might become a crisis. As I pulled them in, my son slapped my daughter’s hand! He was so upset and kept saying “box” which means his concern was around his Mega Bloks.

My logic center activated and I realized that he must have thought his sister had taken a Mega Blok that he meant to play with. However, there wasn’t one in her hand. I explained to them what I thought I understood had happened and they both relaxed. Then, we set out to look for the errant Mega Blok. It wasn’t anywhere to be found. I think what had happened was that she had already dropped it back in the living room or perhaps that he was simply mistaken about the circumstances. I gave them both another hug and told my son that it looked like all the Mega Bloks were in the living room if he still wanted to play with them. Both kids ran off and played together again.

My son had reacted in anger to an injustice he perceived. That’s something we can all understand. Now, because his brain is so good at thinking emotionally, his reaction was to chase his sister rather than to reason with her. But, it’s not because either child was being unreasonable! They were just think differently. And that’s ok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Talking Doesn’t Work with My Kid”

Looks like we’ve found some common ground, because talking doesn’t work with mine either. Did you think I was going to disagree? Do you think my “hugs and happy thoughts” approach to parenting is doomed to fail? Hold that thought.

If there’s one critique of Peaceful Parenting I’ve heard endlessly, it’s that talking doesn’t work for all kids. Some kids need to be punished supposedly. And, many of those who rightly acknowledge that punishment does not change the tendency to engage in the behavior that triggered the punishment still punish their children, because talking doesn’t work.

First, let’s think about what we mean by “work.” It doesn’t work to do what? To compel a child to understand the full impact of their actions? To immediately force the child into compliance? To make the child recognize the authority of the parent? Because, if it’s any of those, you’re right, there’s no way talking can succeed on its own.

Second, and more important, the idea that Peaceful Parenting is about talking to a child like we’re all in our own private Disney film and they’ll fall right in line is spectacularly wrong. The hugs, the talking, the empathizing, the affirming, the freedom, the limits… all of these are techniques. They are not a means to an end in and of themselves. Before you will ever have success with any of the Peaceful Parenting techniques I share, you must do two things: 1) painfully rip your worldview to shreds and rebuild it in such a way that places your child on a direct parallel with you in terms of mutual respect and 2) build a genuine, non-confrontational relationship with your child. And then you should still expect childism to infiltrate your reasoning. It takes active work to reject childism and to understand that many of the behavioral complaints we have about our children are a direct manifestation of childism. The very idea that children intentionally misbehave is childism in action. In short, Peaceful Parenting is the antidote to childism and the archetype for positive, healthy relationships between parents and children.

The reason talking will never be effective by itself is that it jumps ahead of all the other work you need to be doing. So, you’ve shifted your worldview, you’re working on your relationship with your child, and suddenly, there’s a crisis. Your child (age doesn’t matter) is furious with you and is treating you unkindly. Stop. Don’t try to talk yet! The first step in the midst of a crisis is to co-regulate with your child. For younger children, that may mean hugs or sitting nearby while the child unleashes. For older children, that may mean coaching the child through breathing exercises or getting your child to an established chill out space. This is the time when you bring your child’s emotional and physiological arousal level into greater alignment with your own. This step is more difficult the younger your child is and, therefore, requires seas of patience which will grow from practice and intention.

The next step is to empathize. Let your child know you understand their distress and that you’re right there to help. With my small children, I tell them things like “You’re angry right now. It’s ok to be angry. You’re safe with me.” Older children and teens will likely need a more grown-up approach such as “I can see how upset you are with me. I understand why you feel this way. We can work through this together. You’re safe with me.” But, please be sure to give your child plenty of grace. Understand that they need time to work through the emotional turmoil. Offering empathy cannot be your way of shutting your child up. Attempting it will backfire horribly.

Finally, after you’ve guided your child through that emotional minefield and you’re in a place of healing, now is finally the time for talking. You can offer your perspective. You can explain any limits you’ve set. You can answer questions. The point here is to engage and provide your child with all the information they need to make a sound and reasonable decision on moving forward.

Your child might negotiate or even reject what you’ve said. It’s ok. Let your child have their own mind. If you’ve set a firm limit that has little wiggle room, be honest. You may need to go back through the three steps again or more than twice before your child has fully reasoned through. If you are looking for immediate compliance, you won’t find it in Peaceful Parenting. At least not at the beginning. But, why would you want immediate compliance? Do you beat your young child for not being able to read or write? Do you shame your teen for not being able to drive before they’ve had a chance to learn? Then, why punish a child who is building self-regulation ability and logical reasoning for learning those skills too slowly for your liking?

If you are expecting immediate compliance every time or children who behave like little adults instead of kids, Peaceful Parenting will never work because your expectations are beyond a child’s developmental abilities. When I first encountered Peaceful Parenting, I too struggled to understand how it could work (and I had no idea what “work” even meant in this context). Now I understand that, for a Peaceful Parent, success looks like children who are open and willing to share their emotions with you, willing to make mistakes and fail without fear, willing to trust that you have their best interests at heart, willing to do the things you ask of them because they know you will reciprocate that level of respect.

I have been peacefully parenting my children from the day they were born. I know a lot of people think it’s hilarious to ask a baby if you can change their diaper, but lessons in consent begin as soon as you, the parent, choose. I didn’t ask my children if I could change their diapers, but what I did do was to sportscast their days. “It’s time to change your diaper! Let’s go to the changing table and get this done.” Many of us do this naturally as we talk with our newborns and infants.

Over the years, I’ve fine tuned my plan for tackling difficult situations. As they’ve grown, my strategies have changed, but my underlying approach continues to be Peaceful Parenting. Do my kids wild out sometimes? Most definitely. They aren’t different from anyone else’s kids. They aren’t more mature or easier. They are as challenging and wonderful as any child I’ve ever cared for and I had many years of experience in child care before I became a parent. But, my children tend toward cooperation and gentleness. I’ve rarely had fights over diaper changes. I’ve never struggled to put them into their car seats. Any time I’ve felt I needed to punish them was because of my own emotions and my reactions to triggering events. They aren’t manipulative or mean or ill-mannered. They are respectful, kind children who are a delight to be around. My son is in school and his teachers never miss an opportunity to tell me how sweet he is. They aren’t the so-called “brats” (for the record, calling kids names is horrible) a lot of people seem to expect them to be.

Peaceful Parenting works for every parent and every child though the routes we each take in addressing the ways our children communicate through their behavior will always differ. Your response may not look much like mine. My responses will not address the needs of every child. I am focused on my own children and tailoring my parenting to their needs, which I recognize because I have spent such a long time understanding who they are and why they do the things they do. I write to spark ideas for how parents can more effectively engage with their children, not to lay out a singular path to parenting success. Peaceful Parenting takes time. You can’t “try it out” or occasionally talk to your kids instead of punishing them. You can’t talk first and punish later. It doesn’t work like that. This is an all in approach as you must surrender to a significant paradigm shift and recognize that behavior is communication. From that perspective, no child on the planet misbehaves.

So, if talking isn’t making a difference for you, you can’t claim it as a weakness of Peaceful Parenting. Talking ≠ Peaceful Parenting. Oh no, it’s so much more!

The Prosperity of Gentleness

Recently, I was talking with a sweet friend about her energetic son. We’ve had many discussions about his behavior, her responses, and steps moving forward. She lives on the west coast of the U.S. with her husband, her teenage daughter, and of course, her little boy. The family is experiencing quite a bit of turmoil due to the strain of interacting with the healthcare system as her husband lives with a chronic, degenerative condition. But, together, this family is making it work and growing in gentleness. She writes:

I have always considered myself a peaceful parent, because I refuse to use physical punishment with my kids. It hasn’t been until recently that I learned how much more there is to being a peaceful parent and have started trying to make changes. I have a teenager and a kindergartener. I’ve had a lot of struggles with the younger one. My son is strong willed and very hyper, and I am not as patient as a wish I was. I get frustrated quickly, which makes for a hard time in our house more often than I would like.

Lately, I’ve been trying new things that seem so simple when I think about them, but aren’t always as simple in practice. The biggest thing is when my son is having a hard time and I’m starting to get frustrated, I try to stop, breathe, and ask myself WHY is he acting the way he is. When I’ve been able to figure out the why, it’s made finding the solution to help so much easier. The other thing I’ve been doing differently is making sure I take the time to explain things to him rather than just answer yes or no. Sounds super simple, almost so simple I can’t believe I haven’t always done it, but better late than never.

Since I started explaining in more detail to him why things need to be a certain way, he’s responded a lot better. Here’s an example of that. A couple weeks ago I had one of those days, we all know those days. Super busy, dealing with way too much and not enough time. I was working on cleaning the house before family was coming to stay with us and my son comes up to me while I’m super busy and asks me to sit down on the couch with him for a bit. I explained to him I couldn’t because I had all this cleaning to do before family got here and that I needed to make sure everything was done so everyone would be comfortable and happy when staying here. He said ok and left and I could tell he was a disappointed, but I was so behind I figured I would make it up to him a little later.

About 20 mins later he came running into the kitchen and said “Mom I helped. Come see!” So I followed him into his bedroom and it was spotless. He cleaned his entire room by himself without me asking him to! He did a great job, so I was able to take break to sit with him and watch a show. Things are far from perfect, most days are still a struggle, but the more I have been following gentle parenting techniques, the better things have been going.

When my friend shared this story with me, I genuinely teared up. What a sweet, precious child she has who loves her so much, he will go out of his way to relieve her burdens just to have a few moments of time with her. And, he’s such a young child too! I can’t help but think about what a wonderful person he will continue to be as he grows up in this household. And, mom. She empathized with him and explained what was happening. Then, when he came to her, she stopped and took him seriously. When she saw what he had done, she showed him appreciation and she gave him her time knowing it was short supply. This is the way we build relationships with our children.