The “Age Appropriate” Measuring Stick For Expectations is Broken

Many parent-child struggles are manifested by requests and expectations that are not “age appropriate.” It’s one of the first recommendations parenting “gurus” and “experts” recommend assessing when you’re sailing in troubled waters. While it’s a good concept (better than the normal alternative of expecting too much, too soon), it leaves A LOT to be desired. In fact, it has the potential to be destructive to the relationship.

I’m going to use two examples to help make this case, one smaller one, and one larger one…

Example #1: My almost 4-year-old daughter wanting me to get up and get ketchup out of the fridge for her sausage (and why I did it).

Example #2: A parent wants their 4-year-old to clean up their playroom when they’re done.

Let’s take a look at both of these examples from an “age appropriate” measuring stick and then from the approach that I recommend…

Example #1: My almost 4-year-old daughter wanting me to get up and get ketchup out of the fridge for her sausage (and why I did it).

Is it an “age appropriate” expectation for my daughter to get her own ketchup out of the fridge when I’m in the other room working (I work from home and need few distractions to stay on task)?

For some kids this age, this might not be an age appropriate expectation. In my specific situation, however, we’re talking about a 3-4 year old who gets her own oatmeal out of the pantry, opens the canister, puts the appropriate amount of water in it, pushes a chair over to the microwave, puts it in for 2 minutes, gets the cinnamon out of the cupboard over the stove, and then mixes it and eats it without any assistance.

Can she get ketchup out of the fridge? She gets everything else out of the fridge, so why not? She’s gotten ketchup out of the fridge herself in the past. By all accounts and the historical record, a ketchup deficit is a problem she’s equipped to solve on her own.

So let’s assume I say, “I’m working, you know how to get your own ketchup out of the fridge.” And then she melts down. Or we get into a power struggle where she’s making demands and I’m “holding a limit” because “I know what she’s capable of.” And then she has a meltdown.

Remember, this was an age-appropriate request. And I’m being a “peaceful parent.” I’m not yelling or raging or punishing or shaming or anything else. I’m very matter of fact. But is it the right move? 

Example #2: A parent wants their 4-year-old to clean up their playroom when they’re done.

Is it age appropriate? Many parents will say, “My 4-year-old has cleaned up their playroom before so I know it’s an age appropriate request.” That’s the measuring stick for which many things are determined to be age appropriate or not.

So the parent says, “You know how to clean up your room. I can’t let you play with any more toys until the ones you’ve used are picked up.” And then a meltdown happens. Or a power struggle ensues, followed by a meltdown. Maybe even a parental meltdown.

And once again, this is “peaceful parenting.” The parent is setting limits. The parent is very matter of fact and calm and not punishing or shaming or threatening.

The parents may fear that if they don’t hold this limit, their child will learn that they don’t really have to clean their room. Or the parents fear that if they help clean the room, they’ll always be expected to help and the power struggle will go on indefinitely.

There is legitimacy to those fears. And their request is “age appropriate.” But is it the right move?

The “age appropriate” measuring stick is often too black and white and rationalizes a less productive and less empathetic course of action.

For some reason, the default is to treat children differently than we treat adults. Even for those who have tried to detach from the idea of “training” children and “bringing them up” in the world, there are leftover ideas and feelings that continue to manipulate our choices and tactics.

When my wife or a friend asks me to get up and get the ketchup for her, I’m very unlikely to respond with, “You now how to get your own ketchup out of the fridge.” But she does. She knows. And I know she knows. So it leads me to think, “there must be a reason why she’s asking when she knows she can get it herself.”

Guess what? We can think the same about children. When I stop to ask myself, “why is my daughter asking for this when she’s capable of doing it herself and knows she’s capable of doing it herself?” a lot of insightful doors open.

But we don’t ask that question about kids. Instead, we get consumed with the fear that if we don’t train teach them to get their own ketchup, we’ll be failing as parents. So we stand our ground.

What if my daughter is asking me to get the ketchup for the same reason my wife or friend is asking me to get the ketchup? What if my daughter is asking me to help clean her room for the same reason my wife asks me to get up in the middle of the night with the teething baby when it’s her turn to do so?

Usually, my daughter gets her own ketchup without asking for (or demanding—kids!) my help. Usually, my wife gets up in the night when it’s her turn. So if they’re asking me (or otherwise freaking out), there must be a reason. What is it?

Pro Tip: Sometimes kids ask by melting down or whining. It’s not necessarily a logical, measured attempt at communication.

Instead of assessing whether an expectation is “age appropriate,” let’s start assessing the current PME resources of the human in question.

To be clear, this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way and one that I’m still learning to this day. I’m a type-A, highly independent only-child. If I wanted something done in the past, I did it myself and I expected the same from others. This usually manifested as not being thoughtful or helpful. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but needless to say that the approach I’m about to outline wasn’t my default. But I’m glad to have figured it out…

The reason my wife may ask me to get the ketchup or get up with the teething baby when in the past she’s gotten her own ketchup and gotten up with the teething baby is because right now, in this moment in time, she’s lacking resources. She might be lacking physical resources—her body is physically too tired, her knees hurt, she has a headache, whatever. She might be lacking mental resources (probably not in this specific situation). Or she might be lacking emotional resources—she has no patience left, she’s drained, she’s starving, she’s stressed to the max, whatever.

My daughter might ask me to get the ketchup for different specific reasons, but all related to the same concept. In other words, she’s capable of getting her own ketchup, but at this particular moment her resources are too exhausted to close the gap and make it happen.

The ketchup seems trivial to me, but to my daughter, it’s the straw that might break her. Getting up in the night when it’s not my turn seems unfair to me, but it might be the straw that breaks my wife at this particular time.

Where my wife might begrudgingly drum up the energy to get her own ketchup if need-be or take the teething child downstairs, children don’t typically have this capacity. When their physical, mental, or emotional (PME) resources are low, it’s a nuclear meltdown. This is why children flip their shit over what seems like the smallest stuff (adults sometimes do this too, btw!).

When PME resources are high, kids are able to meet age-appropriate expectations. When PME resources are low, they’re unable to. So using the measuring stick of “age appropriateness” is a total failure since PME resources are dependent on circumstances that have nothing to do with the expectation.

If you’re in a situation where there’s a struggle or you foresee one, it’s helpful to do a quick PME assessment.

  • Does my child currently have the physical resources to meet my expectations (are there any physical barriers?)?
  • Does my child currently have the mental resources to meet my expectations (are there any intelligence/logic/reason barriers?)?
  • Does my child currently have the emotional resources to meet my expectations (are there are any mood-based barriers)?

This assessment has nothing to do with what your child has previously done. If they’ve cleaned their room 150 times in the past but they want your help right now and you hold the attitude that they need to do it themselves because they’re capable and this is “age appropriate,” then you’re totally missing the human angle. You’re being as detached and unempathetic as if you told your wife, “you’re capable of getting the ketchup yourself.”

So if you do the PME assessment and can put an X in ANY of the boxes, the situation doesn’t have to be about limits and expectations anymore. There doesn’t need to be a power struggle. You’re allowed to be a human who steps in to help another human, even if the task seems menial.

And you know what? You’re still teaching your child a lesson. You’re teaching them to tune in to what’s going on in someone else and to provide a helping hand if you realize that they’re exhausted or otherwise ill-equipped at the present time to tackle a certain task.

My daughter was starving. She was quickly running out of PME resources. I could tell that she just didn’t have it what it would take to push a chair over to the fridge and get the ketchup herself. So I got it for her even though it meant stopping the work I was doing and going to a different part of the house to help her out.

Maybe one day she might do something helpful for me when she realizes my PME resources are low instead of “pushing my buttons” the way so many parents describe…

The Viral Popularity of Child Abuse

A grandmother pulls a knife on her grandson in the car. A mom rages at her pre-teen son over his grades and forces him to come get hit even as he prays to God for safety. A mom writes a lengthy post on Facebook of her dumping her kids’ ice cream in the garbage because they forgot to say “thank you.” People cheer on a cop who body slams a young teen girl who won’t get out of her desk. A mom films two school teachers preparing to paddle her child as he begs her for help.

These are just a few examples from the recent rash of viral child abuse videos that seem to be racking up a collective applause on the internet. The videos themselves are tragic enough. The comments, as usual, are even more tragic.

You may feel like some of these examples aren’t child abuse. Most wouldn’t consider throwing your child’s ice cream in the garbage as child abuse. And while that may not be child abuse as its typically defined, publicly shaming your children on social media in exchange for hearts from friends *is* abusive behavior.

It also makes you a hypocrite.

None of these parents want to be publicly shamed, but they’re all too willing to do it to their children. None of these parents want to be assaulted, but they won’t hesitate to hit their kids and film it. None of these parents want to be body slammed by a cop, but they cheer it on when it’s a young teenage girl. None of these parents want their ice cream thrown in the garbage, but it’s a “great lesson for Facebook” when it involves kids.

What drives this? Why is this behavior on the part of parents so encouraged and celebrated that it continually goes viral for all the wrong reasons? Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to…

Many adults are caught in a generation vs generation war. They believe in the “kids-these-days” myth and the “leniency” myth. They want to prove to the world that they’re on Team Adult.

Today’s adults are in an us-vs-them leadership model. Rather than seeing a child as an innocent human being that deserves to be nurtured, children are mostly seen as wild animals that need constant behavior correction to be tamed and domesticated, else they become dangerous.

This is why mainstream parents use operant conditioning tactics, treating their children more like dogs and mice than human beings. This is why children’s lives operate more like contrived mazes than a land of exploration and opportunity.

There’s a lack of trust in children to do pretty much anything on their own. A toxic pessimism that bleeds into moral judgement. The mainstream believes that children will only be good if they’re trained to be good. And ironically, that “training” requires doing to them things we consider to be “bad” in any other context.

The story goes that the current ills of society are due to a majority of parents not training their kids well enough. “Parents are too lenient,” they say. “Kids are allowed to do whatever they want,” they say.

It’s this mentality that drives the social sharing of “this-is-my-parenting-isn’t-it-awesome” videos. Parents are thirsty for approval from their peers and nothing is hotter right now than showing Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest how much you’re dedicated to Team Adult by all the creative ways you make Team Child suffer.

“Everyone look! My kids were arguing so I forcibly isolated them together in a tee shirt with condescending phrases written on it.”

“Fuck yeah! You go girl! That’ll teach those brats. Can you make this public so I can share your parenting badassery? Maybe if we share this enough more parents will teach their kids some manners.”

Nothing like trading your child’s trust and self-esteem for likes on Facebook from people you haven’t even met, right? #ParentingToday

Of course, the “kids-these-days” and “leniency” stories couldn’t be any further from the truth. The vast majority of parents admit to hitting their children on a fairly consistent basis. Homes and schools, the two places kids spend the vast majority of their time, have never had more rules and regulations at any point in history than they do now. The implementation of authoritarianism is at an all time high.

Maybe this idea that “kids are out of control” is simply not true. And maybe in the few cases where it is true, it’s driven by the fact that they’re locked inside of the psychological prison of authoritarianism. Or the fact that they’re locked in the actual prisons of public and private school systems.

We hit them (to teach them not to hit), we rage at them (to teach them to communicate in a nicer way), we coerce them with punishments and rewards (can you teach authenticity through inauthenticity?), we discard their intrinsic desires while force-feeding them our brand of “education” and “life experience,” we teach them that their emotions are undesirable (while we rage and shame and play the victim card and bitch about everything under the sun), we love them conditionally (while claiming it’s for their own good)…

…And most of all, we see nothing wrong with *us.* It’s always the child that’s broken and needs fixing. No matter how obviously hypocritical we are as parents, the child deserved it.

But children aren’t broken. We are. Because we weren’t broken when we were kids and most of us got “fixed” by our parents. But the “fixing” we’ve come to know and use ourselves is actually the act of breaking. Literally. Breaking the body. Breaking the mind. Breaking the spirit. Breaking-in. Taming. Domesticating. Training. These terms make up the undeniable foundation of mainstream parenting.

If all of these things happened to you…you are not fine. The very fact that you advocate for these things happening to young, defenseless children is evidence that you are not fine. This idea that, “I was spanked and turned out fine” is a rationalized fairy tale told by people who are too afraid to say, “I deserved better. A lot better.”

These tactics must stop. The social shaming must stop. The psychological abuse must stop. The physical abuse must stop. It’s not authentic. It’s all a thoughtless result of exposure to CULTure. When you behave in this way you are not the solution, you are the problem.

The world will continue to be a broken place if we continue to break our kids. And it’s not unconditional love that’s breaking them. It’s not negotiation that’s breaking them. It’s not non-violence that’s breaking them. It’s not cooperation, or patience, or being a calm, assertive leader that’s breaking them.

These things don’t break, they build.

Don’t be afraid to say you deserved better. And don’t be afraid to extend that recognition to your own children.

Ditch the Team Adult jersey. Come join Team Humanity and follow your own advice for once: Treat people—including your children—the way you want to be treated as a human being. Not the way your bullshit rationalization of your childhood tells you you should have been treated, but the way you want to be treated right this minute as a living, breathing, compassion-deserving individual. Make the shift. Acquire better tools. You’ve got this.

Why Parenting May Not Matter (A Casual Rebuttal)

An article published on the 1st of December titled, Why Parenting May Not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research is Probably Wrong, is making it’s way across the interwebs in viral fashion. I saw the article the day after it was published and had a lot of issues with it. But when it showed up in our Revolutionary Parenting Facebook group only 2 days later, it motivated me to respond.

I know you’re busy, as am I, so I going to make this casual. If you like minimal fluff, you’ll enjoy this format…

I want you to consider the possibility that your parents did not shape you as a person. Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood.

Right off the bat the author struggles with their use of grammar and rhetoric. The act of “shaping someone as a person” is never defined. What does that mean? The same mistake is made with the word “personality.” What’s a personality, to this author?

It’s tough to come to conclusions when foundational terms aren’t defined. But he does end up alluding to what he considers parts of a personality…

The knowledge that some people are more trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive than others is essential to navigating life. It’s simply not a good personal policy to assume that everyone you stumble upon in life has your best interest at heart.

So from this allusion, I’m expecting the article to make the case that parenting does *not* have a meaningful impact on these things. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

In terms of compelling evidence, let’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 Tinca Polderman and colleagues just completed the Herculean task of reviewing nearly all twin studies published by behavior geneticists over the past 50 years.

It’s interesting that the setup for the opening argument is a meta-analysis (basically an analysis of a collection of studies in order to create more statistical relevance). For the sake of time, I’ll direct you to an external explanation of the problems with meta-analysis so I don’t have to list them all here.

Before progressing, I should note that behavioral geneticists make a finer grain distinction than most about the environment, subdividing it into shared and non-shared components.1,2,3,4 Not much is really complicated about this. The shared environment makes children raised together similar to each other.3 The term encompasses the typical parenting effects that we normally envision when we think about environmental variables. Non-shared influences capture the unique experiences of siblings raised in the same home; they make siblings different from one another. Another way of thinking about non-shared environments is that they represent the parts of your life story that are unique from the rest of your family. Importantly, this also includes all of the randomness and pure happenstance that life tends to hurl in our direction from time to time. Returning to the review of twin research, the shared environment just didn’t matter all that much (that’s on average, of course, for some traits it mattered more than others). The non-shared environment mattered consistently.

While this paragraph contains a lot of words, it only ends up making one argument: [Shared environments don’t do much while non-shared environments influence children most].

And don’t forget, that argument is made based on a meta-analysis, of twin studies no less which are problematic in and of themselves. Hang on to that argument…it’s going to matter shortly.

You’ve read that twin studies contain an insidious flaw that causes them to underestimate shared environmental effects (making it seem like parents matter less than they do). The assumptions of twin research, however, have been meticulously studied. The methods of twin researchers have been around for decades and have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and (perhaps most importantly) cross validated with other techniques that rely on different assumptions entirely.3,4 They work, and they work with impressive precision.

Man, nothing like dismissing opposing views with nothing more than an appeal to antiquity (“the methods…have been around for decades”) and a pseudo-argument (“they work” is not an argument supported by, “they have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and cross-validated”).

In other words, you can’t reasonably say that the research methods are valid because “they’ve been around for a while” and “have been scrutinized” (especially when you don’t list the arguments against the methods). If that’s not problematic enough, suggesting the methods “work with impressive precision” is exponentially problematic.

Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think.

The author apparently wants us to dive into the studies to look at the data ourselves rather than using the data to make specific arguments. In other words, the approach here amounts to nothing more than, “take my word for it.”

What’s very problematic here is that the important terms still haven’t been defined. We still don’t know what “personality” or “shaping” or “development” mean in specific terms, nor do we have detailed examples.

And now we’re throwing a very convoluted term, “parenting,” into the mix. Were different types of parenting analyzed, or just parenting in general? It seems the detail has been limited to “permissiveness” (and by whose analysis were these parents permissive?), reading to children, and “whatever else.”

One logical explanation for this is a lack of parenting influence for psychological development. Judith Rich Harris made this point forcefully in her book The Nurture Assumption (an absolute must read). 6 As Harris notes, parents are not to blame for their children’s neuroses (beyond the genes they contribute to the manufacturing of that child), nor can they take much credit for their successful psychological adjustment. To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group (a fascinating topic, but one that merits its own separate discussion).

Again, the author is sharing conclusions without sharing data, details, or examples. Your choices are: take the authors word for it or go read The Nurture Assumption yourself and analyze the data yourself.

What’s the point of writing an article that makes the argument, “parenting doesn’t matter,” if you’re only going to provide conclusions without arguments or examples while simply referencing where the data can be found?

This is fundamentally important. We don’t even know if the author is talking about children raised full time by their parents (perhaps, home educated) or if we’re talking about children who are sent to school for 8 hours a day and who do 2 hours of after school activities.

Obviously, if you don’t play much of a role in your child’s life, it’s going to appear that you don’t play much of a role, isn’t it? Where are those key details?

Now, the astute critic will respond with their own research in hand, papers centering on the deleterious impact of child abuse and severe neglect. There is a wealth of evidence linking child abuse with all sorts of developmental delays, and Harris fully acknowledges this. Mercifully, child abuse is not pervasive in the population, meaning that most kids don’t experience it and it is unlikely that it explains large swaths of why some kids are more extroverted or intelligent than others.

The failure to define terms is an epidemic. The author now introduces the convoluted term, child abuse, without defining it.

You can’t say, “child abuse is not pervasive in the population” when you haven’t defined the term. What is child abuse? Is that hitting kids with belts? Starving them?

What about spanking? I consider spanking to be child abuse (and the research on brain development would tend to agree). Since spanking is approved in America by a 2-1 margin, can we really say that “child abuse” is not pervasive?

What about chopping off a boy’s foreskin? I’d consider that child abuse as well. And since 81% of American boys are circumcised, it seems we have pervasive child abuse occurring inside our borders.

Was the trauma from spanking or circumcision included in this analysis? And let’s keep in mind that those are only two examples of dozens.

That said, consider an analogy shared with me by the psychologist Steven Pinker: dropping your iPhone from six floors up is guaranteed to ruin it—iPhones don’t bounce. The impending destruction awaiting your phone as it plummets toward the Earth is assured, and the fact that you played no part in designing or building your phone will not atone for your slippery fingers. The same analogy applies to parenting, in some respects. It is possible for parents to wreck something that they did not construct (i.e., their child’s healthy development, language growth, cognitive ability, etc.) if their parenting style is harsh enough. Hopefully it is evident that this type of “parenting” is not the topic at hand.

In other words, “we’re ignoring, for the sake of our argument, that destructive parenting practices can have major negative consequences on children due to the false premise that destructive parenting practices aren’t a widespread problem.”

False premise, meet false conclusion.

Children who are spanked (not abused, but spanked) often experience a host of other problems in life, including psychological maladjustment and behavioral problems.8 In a study led by my colleague J.C. Barnes, we probed this issue in more detail and found some evidence suggesting that spanking increased the occurrence of overt bad behavior in children.8 We could have stopped there. Yet, we went one step further and attempted to inspect the genetic influences that were rampant across the measures included in our study. What we found was that much of the association between the two variables (spanking and behavior) was attributable to genetic effects that they had in common. The correlation between spanking and behavior appeared to reflect the presence of shared genetic influences cutting across both traits.

And there we have it. Spanking, to this author, is not abuse. And again, he’s going to make an argument without citing specific evidence, details, or examples, leading you to yet another study that you have to read and interpret yourself.

This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.

Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics.

One glaring issue with not providing specific examples to back up arguments is that it makes your “case” hard to argue against. 

“This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.” — How do I argue against this without an example?

“Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics.” — Can we have an example to work with?

CAN WE HAVE AN EXAMPLE PLEASE? OF ANYTHING? <tap tap tap…is this thing on?>

All fluff and claims. Little evidence. Little substance.

Is it possible that parents really do shape children in deep and meaningful ways? Sure it is. In line with the phrase often trotted out by my ilk: “it’s an empirical question.” The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors. What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children. So, why the dogmatic adherence to the idea that parents are the “puppet masters” in our lives? The are many reasons, some of which are explicitly religious (the whole “spare the rod spoil the child” bit) and some are more secular, rooted in dubious research, but we should nevertheless let them all go.

Oh boy. “What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children” is a blend of straw men and red herrings.

Who is arguing that parents are responsible (in some direct fashion, I assume) for their kids having autism? It’s certainly not the majority making that argument. So this is a rebuttal to an argument that was never presented.

But wait…he threw in ADHD there. That complicates things. Are we sure that parents have no hand in their child developing ADD/ADHD? Gabor Mate, MD seems to think they do.

Any time someone starts a sentence with “What we do know…” it’s time to get skeptical. Do we really? Who is “we?”

“…and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children.”

Since we still haven’t defined “personality,” it’s hard to come to this conclusion isn’t? This conclusion is especially problematic when we include the early allusion to how personality is defined: “trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive.”

The ACE study has shown quite clearly a distinction between adverse childhood experiences and negative physical and psychological outcomes in life, including the use of coping mechanisms in addictive ways (of which Gabor Mate concludes that ADD is a coping mechanism).

If we’re going to be assessing the outcomes of honesty and trustworthiness, for example, we would need to first assess the honesty and trustworthiness of parents. This is highly complex. Every parent who tricks their child into believing in Santa Clause is presenting one blow to honesty and trustworthiness. That’s just one example of thousands. Was any of this analyzed? We don’t know, because the author provides no details.

He also mentions intelligence. And again, he doesn’t really define the term. Intelligence by what measure? IQ? What about emotional intelligence? What about the capacity to love and have deep, lasting relationships? What about social intelligence?

And again, this talk about parents as “puppet masters” in our lives is difficult to assess because we still haven’t been told how much time the kids in the studies were spending with their parents verses with other people and in other institutions.

It’s also problematic that the focus on genetics in this article did not mention the study of epigenetics and the ability for genes to be turned on and off by…tada…the environment in which children are raised in.

Going back to Gabor Mate on this:

It’s a common mistake to think that everything that’s biological is genetically caused. Biology is greatly affected by what happens in a person’s life, in her family, in the society around her, and so on. For the most part genes don’t predetermine or “cause” anything that happens – they just lay out a set of potentials that might happen, given the right (or wrong) environmental inputs. Especially in early childhood, our brains are very much affected by social and psychological relationships. And, in fact, for its lifetime the brain is in constant interaction with the environment. So something can absolutely be biological without therefore being written in genetic stone.

Why was the capability of genes to lead to different “expressions” (outcomes) not highlighted in this article? The entire argument seems to be founded on the premise that genes are just genes and they create outcomes regardless of environment factors. At least, that’s the feeling I got from it.

Natural selection has wired into us a sense of attachment for our offspring. There is no need to graft on beliefs about “the power of parenting” in order to justify our instinct that being a good parent is important. Consider this: what if parenting really doesn’t matter? Then what? The evidence for pervasive parenting effects, after all, looks like a foundation of sand likely to slide out from under us at any second. If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development in order to treat them with the dignity afforded any other human being, then perhaps it is time to recalibrate your moral compass; does it actually point north or just spin like a washing machine (see Pinker’s work for this same point made more elquently10)?

So, we’re getting down to the “lesson” this article offers. But again, it leaves us only with disappointment in the form of yet another straw man argument.

“Why parenting may not matter and why most social science research is probably wrong” has nothing to do with “If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development…”

That seems like it came out of left field. So all people who pay attention to social science research and parenting advice are being defined as people who want god-like control over their kids?

What an absurd notion.

If you want happy children, and you desire a relationship with them that lasts beyond when they’re old enough to fly the nest, then be good to your kids.10 Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.

So here we have a prescription with, again, no details. What does “be good to them” mean? What are people supposed to glean from this article and this advice? What action can they take or stop taking to better the lives of their children?

None. Nothing. Nada. And the same conclusion, which no real evidence has been provided for, is reiterated at closing: “Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.”

No, we don’t know that. In fact, all of the actual evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth

To hear your child make such a fuss.

It isn’t fair—it’s not the truth—

He’s fucked up, yes, but not by us.

The real conclusion here: Parents will do and say anything to not have to take responsibility for the negative outcomes of their children.

Secondary conclusion: I’m very sad now.

Your Child’s Bad Behavior Won’t Stop Until You Make This One Change

Too many parents believe that children, at the core, are not interested in doing what’s “right.” That children who don’t want to share are “selfish brats.” That children who say what they think without a filter are “rude” or “impolite.”

When a child is upset, throwing tantrums, or pushing buttons, the child is “giving me a hard time.” When commands aren’t met with immediate obedience it’s because the child is “misbehaving” and “disrespectful.” When a child tries to negotiate or find another means to get what they want, they’re “manipulative” and “deceitful.”

It’s all “bad” behavior. And it must be “fixed” by authoritarianism. Time-outs, “naughty chairs,” groundings, “taking charge,” spanking, “showing them who’s boss,” “being in control,” and so on.

There are two big hurdles with this approach. First, if a child is bad, can these tactics “fix” them? Second, what if the child is not bad? What will these approaches do to their soul and their psyche?

If a child is disrespectful, can you smack respect into them? If your co-worker is being disrespectful, would smacking them be a productive tactic?

If a child is manipulative and dishonest, will a “naughty chair” instill virtue in them? Or will it just lead to them working harder to not get caught?

Authoritarian strategies don’t work. They seem to, in the short-term, but fail miserably in the long term. That’s because authoritarianism is antithetical to virtue and authenticity. Punishments *do* teach—they teach human beings to avoid punishment. But that’s all.

What I’m more interested in is the second question: “What if a child is not bad? What will these tactics do to their soul and their psyche?”

This is the million dollar question because the fundamental truth is this: There are no bad kids. Kids do the best they can with the physical and psychological tools at their disposal.

When a child is upset, throwing tantrums, or pushing buttons, the child is having a hard time. When commands aren’t met with immediate obedience it’s because human beings instinctually avoid oppression. When a child tries to negotiate or find another means to get what they want, they’re thinking critically and problem solving.

It’s all very rational behavior relative to their physical and psychological development. When they’re throwing a tantrum, it’s because they don’t have the capacity to logically communicate with you. When they’re “disobedient” it’s because they desperately want independence and autonomy. Or it’s because you’re interrupting them. Or it’s because you’re asking them to do something that’s not age appropriate.

If you see kids’ behavior as “bad,” you’ll always approach them with the belief that they need to be coerced and “corrected.” If you see kids’ behavior for what it is—the best they can do at the time—then you’ll approach situations with empathy, understanding, and actual leadership.

Of course my child is throwing a tantrum in the middle of aisle seven after I told her we aren’t going to buy the family size bag of M&Ms. She’s tired, she’s hungry, and she’s THREE. She’s not a “brat.” She’s not “bad.” She’s not manipulating me (she doesn’t even know what an M&M is). A tantrum is the best she can do at the time with the immense frustration and emotion inside of her. Knowing this, I can provide what she actually needs: Empathy. Validation. Connection.

As a parent, you have three options during rough times. You can act like a three year old yourself (yelling, hitting, punishing, etc.). You can ignore. Or, you can lead authentically.

I’m not saying authoritarianism is akin to acting like a three year old to get a rise out of you. And I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. I believe we need to be honest with ourselves. If I yell at my 3 year old or spank my 3 year old or otherwise punish my 3 year old, I’ve employed tools that are no better than theirs. If I ignore them, all I’m doing is ignoring their needs. And if I tell myself that any of those tactics are “real leadership,” I’m lying to myself. And I’m modeling her own behavior back to her, which reinforces that behavior.

And because human beings are biologically programmed to oppose oppression, these control-based responses are going to evoke an ongoing war. The ever common “power struggle.” Oppression begets rebellion. And the stronger the will of the child, the bigger and longer and more costly the war. For many, the result is a total loss of connection that manifests most publicly during the teenage years.

Those “bad” teenagers were “bad” kids. And they’re not “acting up” because nobody “disciplined” them, they’re “acting up” because they’ve always “acted up” because their parents saw their behavior as “acting up” rather than what it actually was—behavior. Not good, not bad. Just behavior. The behavior of a young human being who didn’t have the capacity to behave any differently.

Assuming a child is “acting” anything implies that they’re in total control of their behavior. That everything they’re doing is a choice. It’s another extension of the “my bad kid is doing all this on purpose” mindset. But there are no bad kids. Kids do the best they can with the physical and psychological tools at their disposal. 

All the authoritarianism in the world can’t correct bad behavior because coercion doesn’t have the capacity to correct it. If authoritarianism “works” it’s because you broke your child’s spirit. If a child is obedient, it means their will is no longer their own. No matter how much you think you’re winning, you’re losing. And you’re losing what’s most important to you, your child’s authenticity and your connection with them.

The sooner you can see your child’s behavior for what it is, the sooner you will truly be there for your child as a leader. This affords you the opportunity to give them real skills for better handling hard situations. Not just through teaching, but through modeling. And you’re able to give them these tools in a way that empowers their spirit and strengthens your bond.

This small but revolutionary shift in mindset instantly transforms all bad kids back into their natural state—kids. Just kids.



Your Children Don’t Need “Positive Reinforcement”

Is “positive reinforcement” the most popular parenting and schooling phrase? I don’t have any hard statistics, but if I were to bet money I’d split my bet between “obedience” and “positive reinforcement.”

The question typically starts out like this: “How can I get my child to ‘X?'” Then comes the famous answer, “Do ‘Y,’ he needs positive reinforcement.”

It’s a parenting and schooling sacred cow. And oh do I love slaughtering those.

I’m writing this, by the way, as an extension of my article on praise, because praise is a popular form of positive reinforcement. If you haven’t read that article yet, you may want to start there as it lays the groundwork for this article.

“Positive reinforcement” is not a nice sounding term coined by well-meaning parents. It was a term coined by a scientist. A “behaviorist” named B.F. Skinner who is often referred to as the father of Operant Conditioning, which is a learning process based on seeking or avoiding the consequences of specific behaviors.

Punishment and Reinforcement are both forms of Operant Conditioning. But there are two forms of both. You can have positive punishment or negative punishment and positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Positive and negative are scientific terms in this regard, not moralizations of the type of reinforcement.

B.F. Skinner developed his Operant Conditioning theories by putting lab animals in an “Operant Conditioning Chamber,” later called “The Skinner Box.” Trapped in this box, the animals were subject to different types of punishments and reinforcements and their behavior was recorded.

This isn’t rocket surgery. Anyone who has a dog knows what operant conditioning looks like. You teach a dog to sit by coaxing them into the position and then rewarding them with a treat. They associate the reward with the treat and thus learn to obey the “sit” command. This is what Skinner would call “positive reinforcement.”

On the flip side, a shock collar is used as “positive punishment” to get a dog to stop doing an undesirable behavior. The use of the shock after the behavior teaches the animal to avoid that behavior.

“Reinforcements” get an animal to do something. “Punishments” get an animal to stop doing something. There’s no problem, scientifically, with any of this. As I said, it’s very basic stuff. The problem is that society believes operant conditioning is a great way to raise children.

Mainstream parents employ operant conditioning every day….

Positive Reinforcement = Stickers, rewards, treats, praise. (You get children to repeat a behavior by rewarding them for it).

Negative Reinforcement = Nagging (You get a child to repeat a behavior by introducing a negative stimuli until they perform the behavior to escape it. The child learns to do that behavior or be subject to incessant nagging, for example).

Positive Punishment = Spanking. Threats. Rage. (You get a child to stop doing something undesirable by doing something undesirable to them).

Negative Punishment = Time out. Confiscating property. “Grounding.” (You get a child to stop doing something undesirable by removing something they enjoy).

Looking at that list, most mainstream parents are probably scratching their heads wondering, “Yeah? So?” This is especially true when it comes to positive reinforcement because it sounds so kind and gentle. And that’s precisely why positive reinforcement is so popular.

But what’s rarely talked about is the two types of operant conditioning. There is Natural Operant Conditioning and Manufactured Operant Conditioning (no need to look up these terms, I just made them up. Again, it’s not rocket surgery). In other words, animals and humans can become conditioned through natural stimuli or through “training.” 

Your children cannot escape operant conditioning because all behaviors have natural consequences. What your child can escape, with your help, is training—the manufactured use of operant conditioning.

Human beings are not dogs or lab rats. Humans have more complex emotions. They have a much greater capacity for critical thinking. In short, they’re not stupid lab animals.

While it’s necessary to condition and train animals because they don’t reason well, it’s not necessary to condition and train human beings. When you use manufactured operant conditioning on a child, you’re treating them the same way you’d treat your dog. Many parents even use the phrase “good boy” or “good girl” on their child. That’s proof that I’m not embellishing.

Not only is it unnecessary to train human beings the way you train animals, it’s disrespectful. It’s also highly ineffective for achieving the bigger, long term goals you have for your children.

“How is it disrespectful?” When operant conditioning is used as training it degrades trust and your connection with other human beings. If you make a mistake at work and your boss reprimands you in front of the entire office, it doesn’t make you want to get better so you can help the company, it makes you want to be better so you can avoid his wrath. And you hate him for that.

Or what if you made that mistake, which really had no major consequences to the company, and he docked your pay by $100 just to teach you a lesson? Would that bring you closer to him and the company you work for? No, you’d be pissed. Welcome to how kids feel every day under the thumb of parents who employ operant conditioning strategies.

“How is it ineffective for long term goals?” Training humans makes their behavior inauthentic. If kids are conditioned to repeat or avoid certain behaviors for rewards or the avoidance of punishment, their behavior is coerced. Coerced behavior is not virtuous. It’s not values-based. It’s not voluntary.

They’re not saying “Thank you” because they’re truly thankful, they’re saying it because they were trained to say it. They’re not keeping their room clean because you’ve managed to get them to buy into the value of having a clean and tidy space, they’re doing it to avoid your wrath. And when they live on their own, they’re not likely to follow through. Or worse, they’ll be messy out of spite. See, you haven’t given them tools, you’ve given them treats and fear.

This also brings us back to the difference between the reasoning ability of humans vs animals. Humans are smart. Unlike dogs, they know that when people aren’t watching there won’t be rewards or punishments. When their own self-interest overrides their training, they’ll stray from their programmed thinking. Instead of having real values and principles, conditioned humans are constantly doing a cost-benefit analysis to decide if undesirable behavior is worth carrying out at any given moment. B.F. Skinner himself explicitly stated this.

A person who has been punished is not less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.

~ B. F. Skinner

If you want blindly obedient children who have a weak emotional connection with you, operant conditioning is the way to go. If you want virtuous, honest, empathetic, authentic children who think for themselves and respect you as a true leader, you must abandon your operant conditioning approach in favor of reason. In favor of the five pillars of revolutionary parenting: empathy, integrity, self-awareness, patience, and negotiation.


Kids Don’t Need or Want Your Praise

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the idea of not praising children. Alfie Kohn, an author on education, human behavior, and parenting has argued that, “Rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin.” He’s talking about the coin of coercion and manipulation. Carrots and sticks. And praise falls squarely into the reward category.

Kohn uses the phrase “good job” as an example, calling it a “verbal doggie cookie.” Most parents, teachers, and coaches use the phrase so much it no longer has any real meaning other than “I approve.” It’s also contextually inaccurate. Kids are not doing jobs, they’re trying to explore and enjoy life. So praise, whether you intend it to be or not, is often seen by children as a reward.

Rewards and punishments (including praise) can also communicate to children that they are loved, accepted, and approved-of conditionally. This is not the intention of most parents, but intention doesn’t matter. All that matters is what the child experiences and how they interpret those experiences. When you praise and light up when kids do well and withdraw or criticize when they don’t, they quickly get the message that they must meet certain conditions in order to get their emotional needs met.

Praise is also the adult’s judgement of an outcome. And whenever an adult is judging an outcome, the child will override their own judgement and adopt the adult’s. Or fail to judge the outcome at all. This runs counter to healthy, authentic self-esteem. To be fulfilled, kids must be able to judge situations and outcomes for themselves.

But is praise really a reward? Does it really create the same negative outcome as a sticker book for good behavior or a new toy for doing some good deed? Don’t kids need it? These are the questions even the most authentic parents struggle with. I heard a very principled parenting leader recently say, “I think praise can be overdone, but I don’t think we should go to the extreme of not praising children at all.”

It’s easy for revolutionary parents to see the destructiveness of punishments and rewards, but it’s very difficult to let go of praise. It leads people to feel negligent. And confused. What do I say and do instead?

If you’re not quite sold on the “praise is counter-productive” argument, or if you still think praise is a good idea in some capacity, let me help you see this from another angle…

Praise is not naturally sought by children. They don’t need it and they don’t want it. It is counter to their psychological development.

Parents think children need praise for optimal development, but it only clouds their development. The previous three arguments—and the research that Alfie Kohn often cites regarding rewards—shows this.

Parents think children want praise, but it’s not truly what they want. Only children who have previously been praised, seek praise. What children want and need is your attention and your interest. That’s all. No more, no less. That’s what children naturally seek. Children don’t say, “Dad, come praise me.” They say, “Dad, come watch me.” Or, “Mom, come participate with me.”

When children accomplish something, they don’t look to see if you’ll praise them, they look to see if you were watching them. Your attention and your interest in them is what fulfills them in that moment.

Refraining from telling them how good they did or how proud of them you are is not negligence, it’s great leadership. It affords them the space needed to judge their own work and bathe in their own intrinsic pride. And because they have your attention and interest, they get to celebrate that with you. That’s pure fulfillment.

When children fail at something, they don’t naturally hope you’ll criticize them. What children want and need in times of failure is, again, your attention and your interest. If they’re confused, they’ll want your guidance. If they’re hurt, they’ll want your validation. They want your safety. They want your connection.

Parents who are stuck in the praise/criticize paradigm have children who embellish victories and hide or lie about failures. Kids’ biological need for unconditional love and acceptance *requires* them to be inauthentic in that paradigm. And of course, when parents catch children doing this they criticize even further. They don’t understand the loop they’ve created. They especially don’t understand that the loop isn’t safe.

Since kids don’t want or need praise, and because it’s counter-productive, there’s no reason to use it. Even sparingly. If you’re having trouble overcoming your desire to praise, it’s almost certainly because praising your children makes *you* feel good. It has nothing to do with your kids.

And that’s okay. It’s a challenge I’d encourage you to overcome, but it doesn’t make you a bad parent. Just acknowledge that your use of praise is about you and not them. Being an authentic parent is as much about being honest with yourself as it is with your kids. That authenticity will take you to where you want to go as a revolutionary parent.

Have You Taught Your Children “The Four Agreements?”

To be a revolutionary parent, you must understand that your children are a blank slate. They have an equal capacity to be good and bad. Moral and immoral. Productive and destructive. It’s the inputs they receive from you and others that will determine which path they travel.

Ruiz says that all children are born perfectly loving, playful, and genuine. However, parents teach their children what Carl Rogers called conditions of worth–standards of behavior the children must follow to receive love and avoid criticism. Eventually these standards become internalized into what Eric Berne called a life script–an unconscious set of instructions for living life. According to Ruiz, most of these unconscious beliefs are perfectly arbitrary or downright false. Many of them are irrational and unnecessarily limiting.

An unfortunate fact of being a child is that you fail to question things. Children fail to question because they rely on trust. They take things at face value. Your words and assertions are heard and felt and then internalized. Everything you say and do is a form of indoctrination. CULTure is indoctrination. And this indoctrination becomes a script. A computer program. And it runs on a loop until awareness is brought to it.

In “The Four Agreements”, don Miguel Ruiz calls these indoctrination loops, “agreements.” It’s your child agreeing with the indoctrination because their only choice is to do so. Their very survival depends on it.

Ruiz says that children do not know any better than to agree with the adult realities into which they are indoctrinated. Children do not argue with the meanings of words or grammar as they are learning language. If my parents tell me I am smart and handsome, I believe them. If they tell me I am stupid and ugly, I believe them. Children have no choice but to agree. They are like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, shackled and forced into believing that shadows of artificial objects are real.

And worse, these scripts are much less like computer “programs” and more like computer “viruses.”

We are so well trained that we are our own domesticator. We are an autodomesticated animal. We can now domesticate ourselves according to the same belief system we were given, and using the same system of punishment and reward. We punish ourselves when we don’t follow the rules according to our belief system; we reward ourselves when we are the “good boy” or “good girl.”

“Self-Awareness” is one of the five pillars of revolutionary parenting because it’s critical, as a parent, that you identify the scripts running in your own life. If those scripts aren’t identified and canceled, they will be passed on to your children. Self-awareness is the realization that you are the author and control the script. This allows you to discard parts of the script that are not serving you and author in new scripts.

This, by the way, is antithetical to what CULTure wants from you. Religion, statism, schooling, media, and big business all want you and your children to succumb to their indoctrination loops. To question nothing. In fact, “school” was designed to afford more control over the specifics of the indoctrination narrative.

So the best thing that we can do for our children is to equip them with the capacity to identify indoctrination loops, question them, and overcome them. This will pave the way for living an authentic life. Of course, children learn best through modeling so it’s very helpful if they witness you doing the same in your own life.

Ruiz lays out a process for replacing destructive agreements with four distinct “healthy” agreements that, when implemented, allow for maximum freedom, happiness, and authenticity. And these are agreements that I believe all revolutionary parents should strongly consider adopting for themselves. And eventually inviting their children to adopt.

Agreement #1: Be Impeccable With Your Word

To be impeccable with your word means to speak truthfully about yourself and others. Where most people may take this at first glance to mean, “be honest with others,” it’s much more powerful than that. Being impeccable with your word is also a full-blown dismissal of your “inner-critic,” which we explained in Revolutionary Parenting Radio Ep21: How You Talk to Your Child Becomes Your Inner Voice, is just a programmed script.

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use your power of your word in the direction of truth and love. You can measure the impeccability of your word by your level of self-love. How much you love yourself and how you feel about yourself are directly proportionate to the quality and integrity of your word. When you are impeccable with your word, you feel good; you feel happy and at peace.

Agreement #2: Don’t Take Anything Personally

The first agreement suggests that we should avoid treating others and ourselves hurtfully. The second agreement provides us with a way of dealing with potentially hurtful treatment from others. It’s an understanding that each person is being manipulated by their own history of trauma and indoctrination loops and that their treatment of you is not a reflection on your own worth or credibility. In fact, if you care what other people say about you, that’s an example of you making another faulty agreement.

Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up. You eat all their emotional garbage, and now it becomes your garbage. But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell. Immunity to poison in the middle of hell is the gift of this agreement.

Agreement #3: Don’t Make Assumptions

Assuming that you know what other people are thinking or feeling about you is a limiting thought pattern. Often, you will be wrong and will choose words and behaviors that lead to destructive consequences. Assuming is a common pitfall of troubled relationships.

In any kind of relationship we can make the assumption that others know what we think, and we don’t have to say what we want. They are going to do what we want because they know us so well. If they don’t do what we want, what we assume they should do, we feel hurt and think, “How could you do that? You should know.” Again, we make the assumption that the other person knows what we want. A whole drama is created because we make this assumption and then put more assumptions on top of it.

Agreement #4: Always Do Your Best

If you do your best in all you do and are honest with yourself, then there is no capacity for shame or guilt. And how great would the lives of children be (and adults) if our best was accepted, even when we fall short of some arbitrary mark?

Just do your best — in any circumstance in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or tired, if you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment. You can only be you when you do your best. When you don’t do your best you are denying yourself the right to be you. That’s a seed that you should really nurture in your mind. By always doing your best, you will break a big spell that you have been under.

While The Four Agreements are not the be-all, end-all of personal development, recovery, and freedom, they’re certainly a gigantic leap in the right direction. “If you are impeccable with your word, if you don’t take anything personally, if you don’t make assumptions, if you always do your best, then you are going to have a beautiful life. You are going to control your life one hundred percent.”

Pick up the book from Amazon and start incorporating it into your life. If you have older children, invite them to read it with you.

A Call for Less Perfection-Seeking in Peaceful Parenting

A conversation in our Reboot Your Kids Facebook Group inspired me to write this article. A scenario was brought up regarding a toddler screaming in a parent’s face and how to handle the situation.

My stated philosophy is to use the simplest tactics at your disposal first and then escalate your response and behavior if necessary. In my response to this parent, I mentioned the simpler approaches but offered an example of an escalated approach as well:

“When you scream in my face I feel like I need a lot of space from you.” And then you can go in another room and lock the door if needed. If they cry, it’s a good sign they got the message, to which you can open the door and say “I can come back out if you agree you won’t scream in my face.”

I could have explained this tactic in many ways. “If you can’t stop screaming in my face, I’m going to go into the other room.” And honestly, I could have explained it better with a lot more context. But it was early in the morning and I hadn’t had my coffee yet.

The objection was that this tactic amounts to abandonment or conditional love. In other words, it’s “not perfect” and there are better, “optimal” alternatives.

Of course, this is where context must come in. I explained the following:

  • That I’ve never had to do this with my own child because she’s sensitive and responds very well to simple requests.
  • That the simplest tactics should always be used first and that this is an example of an escalated tactic.
  • That children have different personalities and not all will respond to the simple tactics.
  • That this may not even require locking the door. By simply going into the other room the child will likely follow you and be concerned, prompting you to ask them if they agree not to scream at you. They agree and all is well.
  • That children of different ages require different approaches and that even though I’m responding to a question about a toddler, I’m offering suggestions that may very well apply to older children better because there are parents of older children reading my answers. The biggest complaint I get is, “you never offer suggestions for X age.”
  • That this tactic is no different from the “If you hit me, I need to go in the other room to keep myself safe” tactic. It’s an emotionally healthy tactic that teaches children that hitting drives people away.
  • That if “love withdrawal” is a concern, you can easily alleviate this concern in the child by clearly explaining to them, “When I go in the other room, I still love you. But I will not let you scream at me/hit me.”
  • That the healthy/unhealthy-ness of the situation is dependent on the parent’s attitude, delivery, and intentions. You can easily make the tactic unhealthy by displaying anger and coldness. Or you can make it healthy by displaying calm-assertiveness, attentiveness to the child’s reaction, empathy, validation, and so on.

Still, there were objections. And that prompted me to write this article because I feel we can easily go to an unhealthy place in parenting groups where there is an insistence on always using the “optimal” technique in every situation. In this paradigm, parents easily start to get the idea that if they fail to choose the optimal technique, they’ve done something wrong. They begin to feel that perfection is necessary to win. They become frustrated. Or they walk on egg shells. Or they give up altogether.

So let’s take a step back and consider these additional points:

  • *Even if* a parent angrily went in another room and slammed the door and locked it and stayed in there for 10 minutes, they could rescue the situation by coming out and apologizing and explaining themselves and reconnecting. That one incident will not have any lasting impact on the child.
  • Parents have different personalities too. And different triggers. Not all parents will have the level of patience needed in certain situations to choose the “best” or “optimal” response. Choosing ANY response that’s in alignment with authenticity and a principled approach is all we should ask of them.
  • There are parents who have never met strong-willed or highly-limit-pushing children who believe and often vocalize that certain responses are “over the top” or “unnecessary.” It’s not fair to communicate this to parents if the tactic is authentic and principled. It’s the parent’s job to respond in a way that is in alignment with their child’s needs and personality.

And this brings me to an important concept I like to call “Never-Evers.” I’ve laid out the principles of authentic parenting and have proposed “optimal” tactics and strategies for dozens of situations. But just as important as those, which I haven’t talked about before, are very simple “Never-Ever” rules for your behavior as a parent.

A Never-Ever is something that you have committed to never, ever do:

  • Under NO circumstances will I hit my child.
  • Under NO circumstances will I scream at my child.
  • Under NO circumstances will I ever outright abandon my child.
  • Under NO circumstances will I ever call my child names, threaten my child’s safety, etc.

As I just stated, parents have different personalities and triggers. Right? You’re going to run into a situation where you have a choice between exploding on your child and breaching your Never-Evers or choosing a “non-optimal” authentic approach.

In these situations where you are triggered and/or highly stressed and feeling like you’re approaching the edge of the cliff, all the talk about “optimal” responses goes out the window. All that’s important now is making sure you don’t breach your Never-Evers.

So maybe you run into a room, shut the door, and scream into a pillow at the top of your lungs while your child sits hopelessly in the hallway crying. Is that the “optimal” approach? Of course not. Is it an acceptable approach? Hell yes. You didn’t breach your Never-Evers in a society where parents breach your Never-Evers pretty much every day. Your choice to isolate yourself and vent in the way that you did *protected* your child from you. In short, you ma’am—or sir—are a fucking winner.

In order to be a successfully authentic parent, you need to know that these options are on the table. There are options that are NEVER on the table (as I just described) but if you think all non-optimal responses make you a failure as a parent or if you believe that non-optimal responses will harm your child, then your parenting career is hopeless. And at the same time, you’re going to drive yourself insane.

Parents start to look at other peaceful parents and think, “I bet she never gets angry. I bet she never feels like slapping the shit out of her child. I bet he never raises his voice. I bet he never gets frustrated…” Parents think this precisely because we’re always talking about the “optimal” responses as if we’re always capable of employing them. And these thoughts cause peaceful parents who are normal and winning to think less of themselves. And this impacts their parenting quality.

I think it’s time to take a step back from that paradigm, start letting people off the hook more often (including letting ourselves off the hook), and recognize that “winning” has a lot of different looks.

Step Up Your Validation Game

One of the biggest parenting “simple swaps” you can make is to replace emotional dismissal with validation. As a strategy, it can help you quickly resolve conflict and lessen emotional outbursts. As a core principle, it protects your child’s psychological health.

…when we tell a child that he doesn’t feel what he is feeling, we strip him of his natural protection. Not only that. We confuse him, disorient him, desensitize him. – Liberated Parents, Liberated Children

That’s right, validation is critical. Not just for children, but for all human beings. Consider yourself in this regard. Do you enjoy spilling your emotions to someone only to have them downplay your experiences and question how you’re feeling? Of course not. So give your child the same respect and empathy.

Agree? Nice. Let’s move on.

So when most parents make this simple swap, it comes off as quite amateur. It can be uncomfortable at first and it takes practice to master. When it comes to validation, amateur validation seems empty and doesn’t quite do the trick.

Don’t get me wrong, making any change in this direction is a great thing. All I’m saying is that you can easily do better.

Let’s go over an example that came up in the Reboot Your Kids support group:

I need some insight… We are new to authentic parenting! Our oldest daughter is 4.5. She goes to her biological father’s house once a week in the afternoons and every other weekend. When we pick her up from him she always throws a huge tantrum. Kicking, screaming, the whole 9 yards. How should we handle the situation? She has also thrown this fit in other situations when she doesn’t get her way but it is less often. Any advice is appreciated.

If we look at this situation from outside the “inner circle” of the parents view, it’s clear that the daughter’s strong emotions are 100% legitimate. She doesn’t get to see her father often and she has big feelings about that. There are no solutions to this challenging situation. Validation is all we can (and must) offer.

But amateur validation probably won’t do the trick here. If the child doesn’t feel deeply connected with and validated to the core, there won’t be much relief.

Being validated by someone who is experienced and deeply empathetic leads to feeling connected, understood, and valued. Being validated by someone who is inexperienced feels disconnected—like a robot is talking to you. Or someone who doesn’t really care.

Amateur validation: “That’s really hard.”

Yeah, you’re damn right it’s hard. That’s all you have to offer? I’m bleeding out of my heart over here and that’s what you’re going to muster? That’s the extent of your effort?

That’s what the person who desperately needs validation is feeling.

Deeper validation…

“You feel sad about having to leave your dads?”

“Yeah that’s very hard. You don’t get to see him often.”

“What’s your favorite part of seeing him?”

“You probably wish you could see him more often?”

“Yeah, I understand. That’s really tough.”

“Do you want to write him a letter we can send him? I can help you.”

“It’s hard having parents who are not together/it’s hard having to go back and forth between my house and dads, isn’t it?”

That’s some serious validation. For the person who is hurting, this level of validation shows true connection and empathy. They can feel that you’re working hard to put yourself in their shoes and understand what they’re going through.

And in this type of situation, the last two lines are the icing on the cake. They acknowledge that mom has a hand in this challenge we’re facing here and by saying these lines she’s taking responsibility. That’s crazy powerful, especially to a child (it’s expected when it’s another adult, by the way).

Asking to help write a letter says, “Hey, I may not be on the same page with your dad, but I’m setting that aside because I know it’s important to you and your well-being is more important than how I feel about your dad.

Also, using questions in your validation gives your child prompts for communicating their feelings. This helps them get their emotions out instead of stuffing them down. For very young children, you can even throw in questions about specific emotions: “Do you feel sad? Or angry? Or frustrated?” This significantly increases their emotional intelligence.

Next time you come across a situation that requires validation, see if you can step your game up. And keep an eye out for the results 🙂

Bullying won’t die because parents won’t stop bullying their kids.

It pains me to see our schools systems spending time and money trying to teach kids about bullying in an effort to make it stop. It pains me even more that the school system believes children are culpable.

For example, StopBullying.gov has a link to “the role kids play” on their “What is Bullying” page. Interestingly, there is no link for “the role parents play,” “the role teachers play,” “the role uncles play,” or similar.

There are many roles that kids can play. Kids can bully others, they can be bullied, or they may witness bullying. When kids are involved in bullying, they often play more than one role. Sometimes kids may both be bullied and bully others or they may witness other kids being bullied. It is important to understand the multiple roles kids play in order to effectively prevent and respond to bullying.

Actually government, none of that will effectively prevent bullying. And tiptoeing around this issue, making every possible effort to not highlight the role parents play is cowardly. You’re hereby stripped of your role in this matter.

Bullying is not a child-driven problem, it’s an adult-driven problem. Kids learn to be bullies from their bully mother and bully father. Their bully teachers. Their friends’ bully parents.

The constant negative interactions with adults and the other adverse experiences children have are the soil bullies sprout from. It’s also the soil the bullied sprout from. Being bullied by parents and other adults strips you of your self-worth and self-confidence. It makes you a target for bullies.

We’ve been led to think that it’s only the computer nerd with his too-full backpack that gets bullied. It’s not. Most of the time it’s Johnny with his abusive alcoholic father and his bitch mother who stands around watching her only child’s soul be destroyed, silently giving the okay.

If only the bullies and the bullied knew they were on the same team.

And this is why bullying will never die. Not until we stand up and address the root cause. Not until we clearly point fingers at adults who systematically disrespect and abuse children. Spanking, isolation, conditional love, coercion, yelling and screaming, threatening, raising the bar to impossible heights, laughing at a child’s pain, devalidating, frequently being intoxicated, mistreating others in the presence of children; these are all examples of the tools of bullies and the process by which they’re handed down.

Children don’t just experience these tools in the household. They’re built into the public school system. They’re built into the doctor’s office. They’re built into nearly every interaction children have with adults in our society.

The latest craze is to post videos of your children getting shots, screaming in fear, with you laughing in the background. Or posting your children in a big ant-sibling-rivalry t-shirt looking shameful while you gather hundreds of likes from your bully friends for being a creative disciplinarian. Sorry mom, having the best parenting board on Pinterest isn’t a virtue. Bullies, all of you.

Every “what do you think about this parent’s response” thread on Facebook has a gazillion comments that are almost exclusively pro-parent and ant-child. Like the mom who assaulted her son in Baltimore for participating in the riots. Do you think that’s the first time that boy has been assaulted by his mother or father? It’s okay for mom to be violent, but not for her son to be. I get it—nobody has principles. Bullies, all of you.

If you truly care about ending bullying, then it starts with you stepping up and refusing to teach skillful bullying to your children. It also starts with you stepping up to make sure that your children learn the language of love and peace at every possible moment through your interactions with them. Once that is done, start standing up for other children. Lastly, start objecting to the systematic abuse and disrespect of children in our society.

Being peaceful to children is the only way to have peaceful children…and then peaceful adults.

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