Category Archives: Parenting Skills

Toddler Activities in the Time of Coronavirus

In the Seattle area, lots of activities are canceled due to concerns about transmitting coronavirus, but busy toddlers don’t understand this and still need to burn off energy. I’ve written a series in the past about “cheap dates with toddlers.” Here’s some that will keep you busy without putting you indoors in close contact with others.

  • Egg Hunts – need a rainy day play activity for any day of the year? Plastic egg hunts – they’re not just for Easter anymore!
  • Nature Shopping – collecting rocks, leaves, pinecones, or photos.
  • Explore New Parks – covers St. Edward’s, O.O. Denny, and Big Finn Hill in Kenmore. Even on cool rainy days the park is a lot of fun as long as you have appropriate clothing. (Here are some “low contact parks” that may be best options in the coronavirus era.)
  • Counting Cars” on any street corner… kept my boy busy for hours!
  • Go to a Dog Park – even if you don’t have a dog!
  • Construction Theatre – do you have a construction project in your neighborhood? Take your child by from time to time to see the progress.
  • Rock Shops and Plant Nurseries – offer fun outdoor exploration and an opportunity for some basic botany and geology lessons.
  • Go for walks around your neighborhood, or take a drive to somewhere new to walk. You can prolong a walk with kids by making a walk an ABC scavenger hunt. They need to find the alphabet in sequence along your walk in the letters on street signs, garbage bins, license plates, etc. Could do the same w/numbers. Walk until you have found all the letters in order. Also, you could make it a scavenger hunt with a list you compose before you leave home. List all the things you have to pass before you can come home…a green car, a black and white cat, a garbage bin, etc. Or take dice with you and roll at each intersection – odds left, evens right – or adjust if you have 3 options. nice way to explore the neighborhood and fun for them. Or in a downtown area, follow the lights… at every intersection, press the button for the walk light crossing both ways – whichever one says walk first, that’s the way you go.
  • Plan daily Skype calls with grandparents, your friends, your kids’ friends. Have someone else entertain your child for a little while – you get a break, they get to bond, and reduce isolation for all. Folks can read stories, play charades or do puppet shows, do art together, sing songs together, and more.
  • Teach life skills – if you’re doing laundry, can your child help you sort socks? If you’re putting away dishes, can they find all the spoons? If you’re gardening, give them a trowel to dig with.

Other ideas:

You can also check out my “Fun with Toddlers” series, which include songs, games, crafts and books for toddlers, all related to themes, such as Transportation, Spring, Ducks, Stars, and so on.

Resilience

This is a companion piece for “Building Resilience in Children“. This post offers a deeper look at theories of resilience, and links to some key research in the field.

What is Resilience?

So, what is resilience? And how do you know if you have it?

If you were lucky enough to never face any challenges, you’d never know if you have resilience (and honestly, you probably wouldn’t, because we build resilience by facing and mastering challenges in our lives.)

But, for most of us… challenges come to us on a far too regular basis, right?

Types of Challenges We Might Face

Anytime we face a life transition, or a new developmental stage, that’s a challenge. (These predictable developmental cycles are called “periods of disequilibrium.”) Whether that’s a toddler who falls down many times before they learn to walk, or the new parent who has to cope with all the tantrums that might cause. There’s midlife crises, there’s the challenges of aging… those are “expected challenges” that any developmental psychologist can tell you are typical, but that doesn’t mean they’re not hard for the people going through them.

There’s also all the unexpected challenges – the fall in the mud puddle, the flat tire, the spilled milk, the flu.

And then there’s interpersonal challenges – the boss who makes unfair demands, the girlfriend who says she’s “just not that into you,” or the parent who lets you down.

Challenges just keep on coming.

But… and people in the midst of adversity hate it when you say this…  each of those moments of adversity is a learning experience. Each one offers “opportunities for personal growth.” Each one helps us learn how to stretch and how to bounce back.

Bouncing Back

One way of defining resilience is “doing better than expected in difficult circumstances.” We all have times when it seems like life is trying to knock us down, in small ways or in big ways. The question is: how will we respond? It seems there are three main pathways of response: Will we let adversity pin us down? Or will we bounce back up the status quo? Or end standing stronger and taller than ever before? And how can our family and our community and our beliefs help us to bounce back?

Image showing three responses to adversity - defeat, return to the status quo, and empowerment

Resilience is a really complex issue. There are lots of factors that influence our response to adversity. Several different models have been developed to examine factors. I’ll share a combination of those that shows my best current understanding.

Protective Factors vs. Risk Factors

The reality is that hard things come into everyone’s life at some point. Sometimes they’re expected challenges like a move to a new home, but often adverse circumstances arrive out of the blue – an illness, a home break-in, or a job layoff might appear in our metaphorical inbox. When a challenge hits, we start running with it, and we figure out our response as we go along.

running with it

Several things affect our response and whether or not we end up in a good place in the end. The risk factors drag us down. They challenge our ability to cope and to recover from this challenge, and increase the chance of poor outcomes. The protective factors – things that make it easier for us to cope – lift us up and make it more likely we’ll have a positive, empowered result.

risk and protective

What tips the balance for good outcomes is when the protective factors outweigh the risk factors. When we have so many good things going for us that the hard times are easy to overcome.

seesaw

Among the factors that influence our response, some are on the individual level  – specific to that person and the ways they interact with the world, some are found within  their network of family, close friends and communities,  and some are influences from the broader society as a whole.

levels

Individual Factors

Some people are just inherently more resilient than others, no matter what life throws at them. Dr. Thomas Boyce has researched the human stress response for 40 years, and he says some people are dandelions, and some are orchids.

Dandelions are people who can go through almost anything, and be unfazed by it all. Orchids are a lot more sensitive – they’re more vulnerable to stress, and need more support to weather the storms. But given the right nurturing care, they can thrive and become incredibly beautiful.

So what individual factors help to make us more or less resilient?

  • Internal Locus of Control – Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner found that resilient people have a strong internal locus – they believe they are in control of their own destinies. Even if bad things happen to them, they feel they can choose how to let that impact them.
  • Confidence – Resilient people have confidence in their own competence. And they have a growth mindset… instead of thinking of themselves as “not good” at something, they think “I’m not good at it yet. If I just keep working hard, I bet I’ll figure it out.”
  • Temperamentit’s easier to be resilient when you have a sense of humor about life, when you’re naturally easy-going, naturally flexible, and calm.
  • Mental and physical health – Our mental health is influenced by many things beyond our control – genetic, epigenetic, and environmental. Depression can make it supremely hard to bounce back from challenges, and anxiety can mean that even small challenges quickly become overwhelming as you spin into worry about how much worse it might become. Physical illness and disability are challenging circumstances on their own, often creating chronic adversity, and they can also make it harder to bounce back from other challenges. Good mental health and physical health is a huge protective factor.
  • Goals – Having goals you’re working toward helps with resilience – it’s the “eyes on the prize” focus that helps you push through the hard times. Resilient individuals tend to have things outside themselves that give them a reason to get up every day. This can be an interest or passion, such as music or art. This can be big dreams they’re working toward. Or, it can be knowing that other people are counting on them.
  • Perception – According to psychologist George Bonanno, a key individual factor is  how we interpret difficult circumstances. Do we perceive an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Sometimes even something tragic, while very sad in the short term, might also be a powerful life event that changes someone for the better in the long term. This positive perception… finding meaning in loss… is more likely for people who have a spiritual or religious faith.

Which brings us to the next set of protective factors.

Family and Close Community

Our family of origin, and the close communities that we interact with throughout our lives (like a child’s school, an adult’s workplace, or a church community) have a huge impact on resilience. When these circles are healthy, they provide the key protective factor of a secure base.

From these communities, we learn our values – what does it mean to be a good person? We learn about faith – whether that’s a belief in a higher power, or a belief in a greater good, faith can provide a strong beacon of hope in the darkness of despair. We learn our stories. The most powerful stories are when members of our communities say “we’ve had good times and bad times, but we are a strong, resilient people and we keep moving forward together.”

In these communities, we find our key relationships. Researchers at Harvard found that no matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable, committed relationship with a supportive adult. Whether that’s a parent, friend, clergy, teacher or coach. That person offers us emotional support, they help us to see our own strengths, they teach us how to plan and how to cope in healthy ways.

In these communities, we can learn that we are valued, and that we can contribute in meaningful ways. If we have clear roles, we can see that our commitment is essential, and sometimes on our darkest days, what keeps us going is knowing that other people are counting on us, and we have to show up for them.

These communities can also be a source of concrete support – a ride to the doctor’s office after an injury, a bed to crash on when a relationship falls apart, a loan when we can’t pay a bill, someone to watch our kids for us – all these “little things” can help carry us through a hard spot.

Now, the problem is that our families and our communities are not always healthy. And just as a healthy home base can build resilience, an unhealthy family is devastating to our long-term resilience.

There is some really important research in health and mental health called the ACE’s study – where ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences.

Researchers asked people about their childhood – had they experienced things such as abuse, witnessed domestic violence, had parents with mental health issues or addiction or who were incarcerated, or had experienced homelessness. 60% of people have one or more of these experiences in childhood. The more you have, the less resilient you’ll be as an adult. About 12% of people have an ACE score of 4 or higher. With a score of 4 or higher, you’re four times more likely to experience addiction, 3 times more likely to have heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes, far more likely to experience mental health challenges, and 6 times more likely to say you never feel optimism or hope.

The good news about ACE’s is that they can be overcome.

Knowing about the negative impact of ACE’s and working to mitigate it is the first step. Another key step  is connecting to healthy relationships and healthy communities. The research is really clear that even for kids from very toxic home environments, even just one healthy relationship with one positive mentor in the community is a huge boost on their path to recovery.

Now let’s look at the impact of Society and Resources.

Societal Factors and Resources

We have a strong cultural narrative in America – the cultural narrative that everyone can succeed if they “just try hard enough.”

But we don’t have a level playing field in America – we’re not all starting from the same place. A person who is living in poverty, in a crime-ridden neighborhood, where drug use is a common escape from the pain of living just doesn’t have the same resilience resources available to them. Or, even if someone had all the other advantages they could have, if they happen to have dark skin, or happen to be female, or gay, or trans, or disabled, or non-Christian, they have to carry the weight of systematic oppression. click to add That weight makes it harder to magically “bounce back” from challenges.

It is so much easier to be resilient if you happen to have been born into a stable, white, middle class family. If you made it through childhood with an ACE score of 0. If in adulthood, you’ve always had resources… so whatever challenge might arise, you’ve got back-up plans: car insurance, home insurance, health insurance. Flexible hours at work, paid sick leave, and short-term disability pay. Cash in the bank. A safe, warm home. People to take care of you, people to take care of your kids. If you’ve got the skills to research and access any services that you need. If you can speak with educated words and a voice of authority and white skin that afford you respectful treatment by those you encounter. All of these things make it easy to “bounce back” from whatever happens.

So, let’s start talking about how we can build resilience in ourselves and in others.

Building Resilience

At the Societal Level

Let’s first look at this societal level, and what we can do to tip the balance.

societal

We can work to dismantle systematic oppression. Respect and support cultural identities as tools for empowerment. Help increase equitable access to concrete resources and safe communities. Support organizations which work to increase hope in impoverished communities through the arts, access to job opportunities, and tools to help people reach for their dreams.

At the family and community level:

  • Think about the Stories We Tell. Stories can mobilize sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. When you’re facing difficult times, it helps to feel like you’re a part of something bigger. There are three types of stories we can tell – 1) our people are always successful (unfortunately, this can bestow a sense of entitlement if you as an individual are successful or a sense of personal failure if you’re not at the moment), 2) our people are never successful and things always get worse for us, or 3) our people have a history of weathering challenge and emerging stronger than before. That third kind is the best for building resilience for future adversity.
  • Build Relationships, and Be a Mentor. Remember, a key factor in resilience for children or for anyone is having a relationship with someone who believes in them, encourages them to be their best possible selves, and helps them keep moving when life seems too hard. You can be one of those people – not just for your friends and family, but for anyone you encounter in the broader community. Any time we interact with anyone in a way that reflects their inherent worth and dignity, we build their resilience.
  • Invite and Value Contributions. Let people know that their presence in the community matters, and that they can make valuable contributions. This is even in the little things. I’ll occasionally ask a child to help me as I set up or tidy – even a three year old can be asked to help carry something. Sometimes kids are surprised to be asked, because we often don’t ask them. But when we do, and we thank them for their help, it increases their sense of efficacy.
  • Concrete Support. Lending a helping hand to a parent with their hands full, offering a ride to someone recovering from an injury, helping someone work on a resume, passing on news about available affordable housing, or accompanying someone to a support group meeting are just some examples of simple things we can do to help people get back on their feet after a challenge. Keep your eyes open for your opportunities.

At the individual level:

  • Build others’ internal locus of control. Support others in viewing themselves as having control over their destiny. You can use a framework of “I have… I am… I can…” that encourages someone facing hardship to think about what resources they have, to tell themselves a positive story of who they are, and to think about concrete steps that they can take to help improve their situation.
  • Support a growth-based mindset. Carol Dweck has researched what she calls “the Growth Based Mindset” which is a belief that we are capable of learning more and doing better. And Angela Duckworth has researched what she calls “Grit” as a vital mechanism in achieving success despite barriers. One way to build these things is to talk about mistakes, failures, and setbacks as normal parts of learning, not as reasons to quit. Remind yourself and those around you that everyone runs up against things they can’t do. The ones who succeed are the ones who pick themselves up and try again.
  • In terms of Temperament – some people are naturally more fearful, and when things seem hard, their anxiety takes over. Researchers at Yale have learned that if we accommodate too much, it actually makes anxiety worse. If we tell someone “I know that’s scary, so you don’t have to do it”, it actually validates that this thing is way too scary and way too powerful. Instead, we can say to ourselves and others “It’s OK to feel scared. We all feel scared. Let’s make a plan for how we can do it anyway.”
  • We know Mental Health and Physical Health are huge protective factors. So, at the societal level, we can be doing public policy advocacy to increase access to health care. But, at the individual level, with ourselves and others, we can think about self care. We can remember that it’s important to prioritize self care – it helps to help recharge our batteries to give us enough energy to face whatever challenges may come.
  • We know that having a goal in mind helps us to keep pushing forward. Ask people to tell you about their dreams. Help them to figure out what the next manageable step is toward achieving that dream. Emphasize that even when challenges seem hard in the short term, we can work to overcome them and not let them block us from that long-term goal.
  • Perception – Learn how to re-frame challenges for yourself, and share with others what you have learned. There are three aspects to re-framing:
    • If you find yourself believing that when bad things happen it’s always your fault, try reframing to “sometimes bad things happen that are beyond my control. What I can control is how I respond to them.”
    • Stay focused on fixing the specific problem rather than thinking it’s a sign of some global problem. For example, if you don’t get a job you were hoping for, remember that it’s not that you are fundamentally unemployable. It’s just that one job that said no…. keep trying till you find the right fit.
    • View problems as impermanent – it will get better in time, and there are steps you can take to help it improve.

In the end, some of the most important protective factors that build resilience and increase positive outcomes  are the stories that we tell ourselves about the challenges that we face, and the stories that we tell those in our community about who we are, and what we’re capable of. If we believe that we are strong, and can overcome anything, the chances are much higher that we will.

 

Talking to Kids about Earthquakes

rabbits-in-a-hole-earthquake-drill-for-preschool

If your child has recently experienced an earthquake, or they heard about one on the news or in a story, they may have questions, or you may want to take the opportunity to teach them safety skills. We want to focus on how to prepare… not scare.

My general approach when talking about any topic that might be scary for a child is:

  • Talk about how likely (or unlikely) this thing is to happen.
  • Address: Can we predict it? Can we prevent it? Can we at least take steps to prevent it from being a big problem?
  • Explain to them how they would know this thing was happening.
  • Teach what they could do if it happened, in order to make things better.
  • Talk about what the grown-ups around them would do to make it better.
  • Reassure them that even if bad things happens to people, people are tough and resilient, and pull together and make it through.

So, let’s walk through questions your child might have:

How Likely Is an Earthquake?

In many parts of the world, the answer is extremely unlikely. In other parts of the world, it’s quite likely your child will experience many earthquakes over their lifetime. I think you can be honest about your situation. If the likelihood is low, that can be very reassuring for your child to know. If the likelihood is high, we acknowledge that and then we focus on how we prepare and how we learn about earthquakes so we can respond if and when one happens.

Can you predict or prevent an earthquake?

You can’t.

Many people say “and that’s what makes it so scary!” It’s normal to feel that way, but that’s not the way to talk to your kids about earthquakes. Say “We can’t do anything to prevent them, and we can’t really predict when one is coming. So instead of worrying about that every day, we just make a plan for what we’ll do if or when one happens. And every once in a while, we practice how to respond.”

How will I know if there’s an earthquake?

Many adults leading earthquake drills for kids teach what to do, but never stop to think about whether a child would  know when to do those things. We can’t assume they would know that an earthquake was happening. It’s important to describe what an earthquake might feel like, using non-scary descriptions. I’ve said things like “If you’re sitting down, it may feel like someone is holding onto your chair and shaking it back and forth. If you’re standing up, you’d start feeling all wobbly, like you’re in a bounce house and the other kids are bouncing a lot.” If you’re ever in a situation where there’s a similar sensation, point it out: “Wow – when everyone in the stadium stomps their feet, it feels almost like an earthquake.” “The way the bridge at the playground sways back and forth sort of reminds me of an earthquake.”

After a recent 4.6 earthquake in Seattle, here are some descriptions people shared: “At first, I thought it was the dog bumping against the bed.” “It was like being in one of those coin-operated beds that wiggle and shake.” “I heard the dishes rattling.” “My dog started barking just before it happened.” “My cat freaked out and bolted out of the room.” “I thought it was a really loud truck driving by.” “There was a big rumbling booming sound like thunder, then my whole house shook for about 20 seconds.” “I thought one of my kids was shaking the bed.” There were also LOTS of people (including my whole family) that slept through the quake and never noticed anything!

Sharing descriptions like these will hopefully illustrate to your child what it might feel like so they can recognize it, but do it in a non-frightening way.

What you DON’T want to do: don’t go online with your child sitting next to you and search for photos and videos of earthquakes. This can be frightening out of context. If they’ve already seen scary images, you’ll need to reassure them and remind them that a news station will always search a whole city for the single most scary image to share. For example, in Seattle, we had a 6.8 quake, and if you looked at the news, it would show a collapsed brick building in downtown Seattle.  But that was the only collapsed building in town. It did not show photos like one my husband took of the worst damage at Microsoft campus, which was of the drink cooler that came open and spilled 20 cans of soda down to roll around on the floor. So be honest with your child, and say that yes, bad things can happen in an earthquake. But it is more likely that they won’t than that they will.

Let your children know that sometimes an earthquake only lasts a few seconds, and you’re not even sure you felt it. Other times it may last long enough for you to take action to protect yourself.

What should they do if there’s an earthquake?

Teach your child this basic method:

  • DROP down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquake knocks you over). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
  • COVER your head and neck (entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk.
    • If there is no shelter nearby, crawl away from windows and things that could fall on you, covering your head and neck with your hands.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or continue covering your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.

A Children’s Book about Earthquake Response

I’ve written a children’s story book to teach this method: It’s called Rabbits in the Hole: A Story about Earthquake Preparedness, and you can download it by clicking on that link

Some additional guidance for parents

This is more than you would teach kids, but it’s worth knowing. (Source for recommendations.)

If you’re with your child, when they drop, cover and hold, so do you. But you cover over them with your own body, and then cover the back of your neck with one hand.

If you are driving: pull over, stay in your car with your seat-belt buckled (and your child buckled in their car seat) until the shaking stops.

If you’re in bed, stay in bed! Lay facedown, cover your head and neck with a pillow and your hands.

What NOT to do:

  • Do NOT stand in doorways. In modern buildings, the doorways are no stronger than other parts of the house. You are safer under a table.
  • Do NOT try to run outside or run around inside the building. Although it is safer to be near an interior wall, away from windows, it’s not a big enough benefit to risk running to another room during an earthquake. It’s better to drop, crawl a few feet to the safest space, cover, and hold.

What Will the Grown-Ups Do?

Explain to children that during an earthquake, if a grown-up is nearby, they will help to shelter the child by putting their body over the top of the child. If the grown-up is not nearby, the child should still drop, cover and hold right where they are and trust that as soon as the shaking is over, their caregivers will come to them as quickly as possible.

After the shaking, the grown-ups will help to make sure everything is safe around them, and they can help by staying calm and listening well to what they’re told to do. If there’s anything that could be dangerous or needs to be fixed, the grown-ups will help to figure that out.

Don’t expose your young child to pictures of cities devastated by earthquakes. That will only frighten them, and that level of damage is beyond their control and ours. If they have seen those pictures, acknowledge that this is possible and it’s tragic, but it’s not likely to happen to them.

Do talk about (or show pictures of) damage that is challenging but manageable. Good ones might be of a grocery store – there may be big spills and some broken glass that the grown-ups would need to take care of, but soon everything will be set back to right.

If you have a story of someone your kids know who experienced an earthquake but everything turned out OK, that’s a good story to tell. (In general, it’s a helpful lesson for children to hear that challenging things can happen to people, and they can be OK. That actually teaches resilience better than telling your kids that nothing bad will ever happen to them.)

I tell stories about the two biggest earthquakes I’ve been in (a 6.8 and a 5.1): in one, we were at a children’s theatre watching a play about Winnie the Pooh, where they were talking about taking the bounce out of Tigger, then the room started bouncing – we all thought it was a special effect at first! We were asked to evacuate the theater after the earthquake, and everyone left calmly, and we went home, so the sad thing was that we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we were all OK, and our families were all OK. Some people had a few broken things in their house, but nothing too big. The other time, we were at Disneyland watching Fantasmic, and as the pirate ship came around the bend, things started swaying and rumbling. Again, it felt like a special effect. But then they stopped the show, turned up the lights, and asked us to leave the park. So, we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we did get to calmly evacuate through the back part of the park (the employee areas no one is ever allowed to see) which was super interesting, and we went back the next day and everything was OK. They did have some aftershocks, so after each one, they would close the ride, quickly inspect it, and then go right back to having fun.

Telling a story like this, or any story you know, can help to teach that earthquakes can be a big problem, but more often, they are totally manageable if we stay calm and know how to respond.

More Resources

Parenting Style – Offering Choices

TL/DR summary: Giving a child choices (e.g. what to wear, what story to read) can help to build a positive relationship where the child feels valued, empowered, and learns decision-making skills while having fewer power struggles. But if we offer too many choices, the child may feel overwhelmed and the parent may feel out of control. Finding the right balance often starts with the parent deciding which options are available (setting limits), then the child choosing between those workable options.

My post on Offering Choices to Children covers the nitty gritty of how to use this discipline tool. This post is more of a philosophical think piece about the long-term impact of how we handle choices in our families. (Note: in this post, I talk a lot about parenting styles. Learn more about the Four Parenting Styles.)

Three Approaches to Offering Choices

Several times each day in the life of a parent and a child, there are decisions to be made: what to eat at a meal, what to wear, what to do, which story to read, and on and on. Some parents, who learn toward the authoritarian style of parenting make almost all the choices for their child, telling their child what the required option is. Some parents who lean toward the permissive style of parenting let their children make all the choices. Let’s look at the possible pitfalls of taking either of these approaches to an extreme, then let’s look a more balanced (authoritative) approach.

Option 1: Parent Makes All the Choices

There may be lots of reasons some parents decide to make all the decisions. Sometimes it’s just that a parent wants control things (“it’s my way or the highway”), sometimes it’s just faster and easier to make all the decisions rather than waiting on your kid to decide, sometimes it is an authoritarian parent who has very high expectations for the child but is not responsive to the child’s individual needs or preferences. This has been called Tiger Mom parenting style, named after Amy Chua’s book, in which she describes how she made all the choices, such as requiring that her children play piano and violin and requiring them to practice, saying “To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences…”

This parenting style does work well for some parents and some kids.

But, it can backfire in a few ways. Some children rebel against this – in the short term, that means lots of power struggles, and in the long-term it can damage the relationship with the parent. Some children just feel dis-empowered and discouraged, or may not learn independent decision-making and initiative, instead surrendering all control to the parent.

Option 2: Parents Let the Kids Make All the Decisions

This style of parenting could also be called permissive or laissez-faire. Dayna Martin, proponent of Radical Unschooling, says ““[This] includes trusting your child in what they choose to learn; you extend that same trust to other areas of your child’s life, like foods, media, television, bedtime. Parenting is supposed to be joyful, and it can be when we learn to connect with, rather than control, our children. The focus of our life is on happiness and pursuing our interests with reckless abandon together.”

Again, this works well for some parent and for some kids. But, it can backfire.

  • Sometimes children make bad choices, especially if they are given free rein and not much guidance. Like wearing a swimming suit in the winter or eating so much chocolate they get sick. Then parents have to decide whether to let the child live with the consequences of that bad choice – “guess you’ll be cold” – which can be fair or can be cruel depending on how far you take that, or whether to rescue the child from the consequences to keep them happy – which may mean they never learn lessons.
  • Another backfire I’ve seen is children who don’t do well in school or in peer relationships when they’ve been raised in a very permissive environment and don’t understand limits. The child who takes toys away from others any time she wants them and who eats all the cupcakes on the table will soon not have any friends.
  • Having to make choices all the time can actually be exhausting and overwhelming for kids. Have you ever ended up in a restaurant when you’re really hungry and exhausted, and the waitress keeps asking you questions: “How would you like your eggs cooked? What kind of toast? Do you want butter on that? Bacon or sausage?” And you feel like shouting “just bring me food!!!” Or imagine being thirsty and walking into a convenience store in a foreign country where you don’t recognize any of the packaging and you don’t understand what’s happening, and someone is telling you “hurry up and choose, we have to go.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier and more pleasant if someone said “I know you like juice – here’s the grape juice, the apple juice, and an apple cranberry juice – which one would you prefer?” Being asked to make choices all the time can lead to meltdowns for little ones. Having choices within limitations can be very calming.
  • Another common backfire for permissive parenting is that the parents may start feeling like they’re out of control. Some parents just end up feeling frazzled all the time, feeling powerless, and not able to see any way to change how things are going with their kids. Other parents, when they start feeling out of control will hit a certain high stress point, then suddenly flip-flop from permissive to strict – going from “you can do whatever you want” to “I’m done, you’re grounded for a month.” This inconsistency is extremely stressful for kids, and can lead to a lot more anxiety in the future over making their own decisions.

The Balanced Approach

I believe that the optimal approach is the authoritative parenting style. The parent has high expectations for the child and wants them to be successful, so they set clear limits and ensure the child is choosing between options that can be healthy for them (e.g. good nutrition, clothing appropriate to the weather, some screen time but not too much, things that don’t create burdens for other people around the child). But the parent is also highly responsive to the individual child – ensuring that there are options that the child will enjoy and giving some flexibility for the circumstances of the moment.

Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine and How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Muchhas some important ideas about the division of responsibility in feeding. The parent is responsible for what, when, and where the child eats. The child is responsible for whether to eat, and how much. The parent puts the options on the table, the child makes the decision from there, and the parent can relax, knowing that any choices the child makes can work out OK.

I think a similar approach could apply to almost all decisions, from getting dressed, to choosing a bedtime story, to choosing extracurricular activities to choosing where to go to college and what to major in. The parent first evaluates the possible range of options, and decides what criteria would represent a good option. If they’re working with a young child, the parent might and offer only a limited number of viable options (2 options for a 2 year old, 3 for a 3 year old… ) For an older child, they might say “you can choose amongst any of these options, but here’s our limitations and here’s our criteria. You can only choose things that fit those requirements.” They’re the ones “setting the table” with options. The child then is empowered to make the choices within those limits.

I have always told my children “you may be as smart or smarter than I am, but I am wiser than you and will always be wiser than you because wisdom comes from life experience and seeing all the long-term impacts of choices.” So, when I tell them the criteria for a positive choice, that’s coming from all my wisdom. When I let them make the choice, I acknowledge their intelligence.