Parenting as Justice Work

A few days ago, my six-year-old had been playing a video game, and told me the characters said they wanted to make the world a better place. Then my son said “It seems like that’s what everyone is trying to do – everyone wants to make the world a better place.”

He said this a few days after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. And I thought to myself “But the challenge is that some people’s view of what would be ‘better’ is very different from other people’s views.”

As we’ve seen this week, some people’s view of a better America is one where everyone is of European descent and where all others have “gone back to where they came from” or have “learned their place.” It’s a view based on hate / prejudice, or driven by fear, or a desire to protect those who are “like me” from those who are different.

My view is of a more just and equitable society, filled with diverse traditions and perspectives, where all members of the society have equal rights and equal protections. My view acknowledges that we are a long ways from that right now, as the marginalized members of our society who may most need the protections are instead the least likely to be well served by our institutions and policies.

What do I, as an individual, do to help work toward my view of a better world? How do I, as a parent, talk to my child about my vision of a better world? What do I, as a parent educator, say to the parents in my classes to encourage them to articulate their own view of a better world and to talk to their children about that? How do I, as a member of a faith community and other communities, work together with others to speak aloud our vision for a better world, knowing that the more voices are united, the more powerful the message is?

Talk about (and embrace) differences

I’ve written three posts in the past, which articulate many thoughts on these topics: Talking to Toddlers About Race; Teaching about Differences and Appreciation of Diversity;  Look Mom! That lady only has one leg! All of these address the fact that children notice differences! (As early as six months, children can classify faces by race and by gender. Source.) They also notice how we respond to them. So, when your preschooler shouts out “Look! That kid has a weird red spot on their cheek!” or “Is that a man or a woman?” or “Why is she wearing that weird robe that covers her all up?” or whatever… think about how to respond. If you “shushhhh” your child, you teach them that the thing they have observed is a shameful thing we don’t talk about in public. If you try to ignore the difference or say “but we’re all the same!” you confuse your child and miss a teaching opportunity.

Here’s another perspective:

“[Being “colorblind”] is not realistic. I’m an African-American woman. … When I walk into a room and I am the only black woman, it’s obvious. There’s no benefit in pretending. …  however, [we don’t] need to act awkward around each other. If we’ve embraced the fact that God has created us as equals, there’s no need or reason for that awkwardness. If someone who is culturally or ethnically different from you comes around, it is unrealistic, unhelpful and possibly unloving to pretend that you don’t notice. So, when your child says, “Mommy why is that woman wearing a dot on her forehead?” Instead of asking them to be quiet out of embarrassment, the colorsmart approach is to take that question as an opportunity to positively explain her different, unique culture. (source)

Here’s another thought:

“I’m going to teach my daughter the truth about race — that our brains are wired to notice looks first. … It’s okay to notice skin color. What’s not okay is to pretend color doesn’t exist. It’s the way you acknowledge color, and how you react, that makes you embrace race, hide from it, or run from it. … it’s [our] job to move beyond primal instinct in order to truly accept everyone — no matter what color or culture they may be. … Step out from behind the curtain of color-blindness, and embrace how not everyone is the same.”   (source)

Or, as one of my friends says to her five-year-old: “everyone’s different, and that’s awesome!”

And it’s not enough to say this with your words… your actions also matter. Children pick up and interpret subtle messages from their environment. So, if all the people you hang out with look and talk a lot like you, your child may interpret that they’re only supposed to hang around people who look and talk like them. (Source)

If we don’t talk about race , religion, abilities and other differences, then our child will come up with their own guesses and interpretations. It is better to talk about it openly so they know our views.

Talk about Inequities

As we talk about differences, and embrace differences, we may also naturally talk about equality – how in the United States, we are supposed to all have equal rights, equal protection, and equal responsibilities. I absolutely want to talk to my child about how things should be. But, I can’t leave it at that… I also have to talk about the fact that things in our country are not truly equal.

“If you tell your kid his entire life that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, are exactly the same, then when your white kid is a white grown up and he sees a disproportionate percentage of the people living in poverty have a different skin color than he does, he’s going to assume it’s because there’s something wrong with them. He will blame the people, not the flawed system. If we’re all the same, those people with brown skin can just work hard and be successful, right? …

By teaching your kids not to see color, you’re teaching them that the black men gunned down by white cops must have been criminals, they must’ve been bad guys, they must’ve deserved it.

By teaching your kids not to see color, you are teaching them that systemic racism does not exist… you are teaching them to be complicit in a culture of racism and fear.

Colorblind is not the answer. Skin color exists. Race exists. Racism exists. To ignore it and pretend it doesn’t is not just the wrong way, but is exacerbating the problem. Ignoring race, being colorblind, teaches kids that there’s nothing to talk about, nothing to discuss. White parents need to ENCOURAGE their kids to talk about race, ask questions, learn. Feed the discussion, not the ignorance.

Teach your kids to celebrate differences. Teach your kids that skin color IS important. Teach your kids that race exists, but bigotry shouldn’t. Teach them that our differences make us amazing. Don’t ignore, embrace.”  (Source)

Talk about Privilege

If I acknowledge that it is harder to be black, or Jewish, or gay in our society, I must also acknowledge that it is easier to be white, Christian, or straight. There is inherent privilege in these identities. “Privilege is the “up-side” of oppression and discrimination. It is about unearned advantage, which can also be described as exemption from discrimination.” Source

Privilege can be mis-interpreted.

“… privilege does not mean that their lives will be easy or that everything is “handed” to them. People tend to think of privilege in terms of super rich people who don’t have to work for anything. It’s hard to see that we are privileged when we are struggling to make ends meet. The fact is that privilege isn’t so much about what is handed to you, it’s about what isn’t even accessible to others. White privilege doesn’t mean that someone gives you a job for no reason, but it might mean that your resume is instantly taken more seriously because your name is John and not Jamal.” Source

I believe that I am a good person, and that I am smart, and that I work hard. So it is easy to believe that I have earned all the things I have in life. But I must also acknowledge that many things were easier for me to earn when I am white, 4th or 5th generation American, of Christian heritage, middle class, straight, cisgender, well-educated, and had a calm childhood with few things that could be considered adverse childhood experiences. (Read more about me and my identity here.)

What are some of the ways I’ve experienced privilege? In a classic essay on Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh lists some examples of the privileges I’ve experienced:

  • I can turn on the TV or open the paper, and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can go shopping… mostly assured I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these things to the bad morals, the poverty of the illiteracy of my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to speak to “the person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I need medical or legal help, my race will not work against me.

My kids will also experience these benefits.

“A white kid growing up in a middle-class family an hour outside Seattle like my kids can work hard and become anything they want to be. A black kid growing up in a poor family in Baltimore could work just as hard as my white kids and not end up in the same place. Do some of those kids “beat the odds” and become super successful? Absolutely. But the fact that there are “odds” to beat is exactly the point of white privilege.” Source

So, what can I do? I’m still going to encourage my kids to be good people and to work hard. When they succeed at something, I’ll still celebrate and tell them they earned it. But when they earn access to some option just because of their privileged status, I will also point that out to them. I’ll ask them to question whether everyone truly had equal access. I’ll ask them to notice when other people do not have the same access as they do, and to question why that is the case.

Use Your Privilege

“Privilege means that you owe a debt. You were born with [privilege]. You didn’t ask for it. And you didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming you for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.”  Source

That might mean speaking up for a person who is being poorly treated at a business due to their marginalized status, or it might mean speaking at a town hall where your voice may be heard better than the voices of those who are often silenced, it might be standing up for someone who is being bullied, or walking alongside marginalized people as they rally for their rights.  There are lots of things we can do as individual adults, and as our kids see us taking action, they learn from our example what our values are.

We can also encourage our children to use their privileges. A mother of a black son (who will transition from “an adorable black boy to a strong black man”) writes:

“We talk to our son about safety issues. We talk to him about being respectful of police (and anyone in authority), about keeping his hands where they are visible, about not wearing his hood up over his face or sneaking through the neighbor’s backyard during hide-and-seek or when taking a shortcut home from school. … Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents.” Source

I’ve got an adorable white boy, who’s likely to transition to a scrawny geeky white man. I don’t have to have these same conversations with him. But I can talk to him about racism (and other -isms) and help him understand how to use his privilege to protect others. As the mother of the black son writes:

“So white parents, please talk to your kids about racism. If they see my son being bullied or called racist names, they need to stand with him. They need to understand how threatening that is and not just something to be laughed off. If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay—just stay right there with my son. Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If they are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble they get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can.

Be conscious of what media messages your kids are getting about race. Engage in tough conversations about what you’re hearing in the news. Don’t shy away from this just because you can. He can’t. We can’t. I have hope that when white parents start talking about these issues with our white kids, that’s when change starts.” Source

When do we start?

We start talking about differences as early as our kids start noticing them. That’s as young as 6 months for race and gender! They start to crystallize beliefs about group identities as by the time they reach preschool. (Source) We can help to shape their initial attitudes on all these things, but not if we don’t start talking about it till they’re 6 or 7 years old. That’s too late to start.

So, from very early on, do step 1: talk about (and embrace) differences.

The other steps are more sophisticated, and require a more advanced cognitive level to understand. As rough estimates: when your kids start talking about what’s fair and what’s unfair is a good time to start talking about equality and step 2 – talking about inequities. This would typically be around age 4 – 6. You can talk about recognizing and using privilege as they get into later elementary school, or before then if you note that they are starting to make assumptions about “____ got that because he deserved it and ____ didn’t get it because she’s not good enough” or any other judgments that imply a developing bias.

Resources for learning more:

To learn more about these topics, click on any of the links above to find lots of great articles.

Also check out resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center. For adults, Ten Ways to Fight Hate. For kids (and educators), the resources on Teaching Tolerance.


Look Mom! That lady only has one leg!

1 leg

I’m an amputee. I had cancer 30 years ago when I was a teenager and my right leg was amputated. It’s nothing new to me – just the way my body is. It is not a subtle handicap – but one you can see easily from 100 feet away. So every place I go where there are children, a child will point and exclaim. “Look, that lady only has one leg!!”

It is fine with me!! Really.

I also hear parents respond to their children. Helpful and positive responses include: “Yes, you’re right, she has one leg.” “Yes, you’ve noticed that she’s different from other people you know. But she’s hiking on the trail just like we are.” “What are those sticks? They’re crutches, they help her walk.” “Yes, she has one leg and uses crutches and you and I have two legs that we walk on.” “I don’t know why she only has one leg. It may have been an accident or she may have been born that way.” “I don’t know – why don’t you ask her.” (You might not use this in all situations, but if I’m smiling back at your child and saying “yep, you’re right” then that probably means I’m pretty approachable.) “Yes, there’s all kinds of people in the world, including some with one leg.” “That’s interesting, isn’t it. Let’s talk about it later.”

I’m sad when instead I hear “Shh… don’t say anything.” “That’s not nice.”

What you’ve just taught your child is that being handicapped is a bad thing. A shameful thing which we don’t talk about in public. You have implied that it is something we should all feel bad about and that it’s better not to think about it.

And you’ve also discouraged your child from being curious and making observations about the world around them.

Now, I get that things can sometimes be awkward. I am not sensitive about my handicap. But some people are, and might find it distressing to be “noticed” so loudly. I still think it’s appropriate for you to respond quietly to your child with some variant of the positive comments above. And then talk to them about it more at some other time.

Children notice differences. It’s part of what they need to do to learn about their world: Identify similarities and differences in the things they see around them. They are constantly constructing their own definitions of things, including all the ways in which people’s appearance can vary.

Whatever the “difference” is that your child is noticing, whether commenting on someone’s skin color, tattoos, clothing, weight, hair, developmental disabilities, or whatever, think about how to respond to it in a way that acknowledges the personhood of the person your child has commented on and encourages your child to still keep making observations and asking questions about their world.

Last week, my 5 year old said quite loudly “Wow. That man is really fat.” Would I have been happier if that had never happened… of course. Do I wish I could take it back? Yes, but what’s said is said, so how do we move forward from there?

I quietly said to him “Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes. It looks like he’s on his way into the library just like we are. Looks like you both love to read.” Later on, I had a conversation with my son about it. I explained that although we as a family do not believe that it is bad if someone is fat, other people in our society do. So, saying loudly that someone is fat might seem like an insult to them, and might hurt their feelings. I encouraged him to make observations like that more quietly in the future. Or ask me later about the people that we see.

I wrote a post a while back about race and how to talk to your child about race. Much of it is relevant to a discussion of other ways that people may differ from each other, and how we also help our children learn what they have in common with different people. You can find it here.

Financial Literacy


On Sunday, I was teaching a class to a group of 9 – 10 year olds. We were talking about the roles that need to be played by various family members to help the family life run smoothly. I happened to mention something about paying the bills so that the lights and the phone stay on. Multiple kids were shocked to realize that this is something their parents do that they were not even aware of.

It made me think of the changes in financial awareness over the generations. When I was a kid, actual paychecks came to the house, and I went with my parents to the bank to deposit them, and then I saw my parents at home at the kitchen table writing checks for the bills, and mailing them, or if they didn’t get it in the mail on time, then we would go to the utility company’s office to drop off the payment. When we went to the store, my parents sometimes paid by check, but more often we paid in cash. You could see how much things cost by how many bills got counted out and handed over. Mom often had a handful of coupons with her at the store, that I had helped her clip. Money was a physical object and our financial life had a visible presence in our house.

That’s very different from my five year old’s experience. Our paychecks are automatically deposited, many of our bills are auto-paid while we sleep. When we do financial record-keeping, our child just sees us sitting at the computer – for all he knows, we’re working, or sending emails to family members, or playing pinball – all things he knows we do on the computer. We go to the store rarely, as we order groceries online and have them delivered, and also order many of our consumer goods online and as far as he knows, they just magically appear at the house. When we do go to the store, I just pull out a card and there’s no clear indication to him whether I’m paying a lot or a little for what we buy (or where the money to buy something came from). He’s never seen me use a paper coupon or drive across town for a sale. (Rather than trying to save money on stuff I buy, I just try to buy less stuff… or I buy used.)

So, I’ve realized that just as parents need to think about literacy in terms of reading, and math literacy, and emotional literacy, it’s also worth thinking about financial literacy. It’s hugely important for their long-term success and stability, and could be considered part of their “college prep”:

While obtaining a college degree is associated with higher earnings, studies also show that people who earn more also tend to spend more. And if those college-educated high earners spend beyond their means, they’ll end up suffering the same [financial] problems as those who never graduated from high school. (source)

So, how do we build financial literacy? What are the money-world equivalents of teaching the ABC’s, then how to read a Dr. Seuss and then on up to literary critique in high school? This post is full of ideas of where to start teaching your child about money, and what to teach them. I will often share my personal decisions about how to handle this, but that’s not because I think it’s the one right way – it’s just so you have an example of how one family has made these decisions. You should do what is right for your family! I’ll also offer tips from other sources.

Physical Manipulables: When we’re building pre-literacy skills with children, we give them alphabet puzzles and magnetic letters to stick on the fridge. To build money literacy, it helps if they can handle actual physical money. As soon as they’re past the mouthing stage, they can be given coins to play with, to practice counting, and to use in pretend play. Once they’ve mastered simple counting of pennies, you can teach that ten pennies is the same thing as a dime. Equivalency is both a great money skill and a great math skill. Later in pretend play, you could charge a specific amount and have them make change.

Let them help you count real money for real purchases: When I go to McDonald’s, I know a drink will cost $1.10, so even before I go to the counter, I can have my child help me count out this much money. At the farmer’s market, I can see that the berries will cost $3, so he can help me count that out. At soccer, when we buy a bracelet for the bouncers(which we do often, so the staff knows us), I give my five year old cash, and he goes to the counter to buy it. Before he goes, I ask him if he need to wait for change or not.

You can also take your child grocery shopping, and encourage them to do price comparisons – “how much is this one per serving vs. this one? This is on sale… but, that doesn’t mean we should buy it. Let’s stick to our list and not do impulse purchases – sometimes those “sale items” end up being more expensive than what we would have otherwise bought.”

My middle child had done this with me so much through the years that she started doing most of our grocery store runs as her family chore when she was 16 and could drive. (Again, the bulk of our groceries get ordered online, but this was for all those last-minute  “hey, we’re out of milk” runs.)

Earning Money: Having their own money is an essential step for kids to start learning about money and about how to manage it. Some parents choose not to give an allowance, and only pay a child for work done. Here’s an example:

3 – 6 year old: Once a week is paid chore day. … A parent has a pile of money that they offer to pay for simple chores. For example, each washcloth folded is 1 cent, taking out the trash is 5 cents, sweeping the floor is a dime. The child is paid immediately for the job and then offered another job. Early Elementary: Each day as the child arrives home from school, they find an envelope with a quarter in it on the refrigerator. On the outside of the envelope there is a list of chores they must complete before 5pm in order to receive the quarter. If the chores are not done by 5pm, they must still do the chores; however, they will not receive the 25 cent bonus. (Source)

As they get older, they can take on odd jobs outside the house. (Check out Ways for Kids to Make Money – a collection of ideas.) When they reach legal working age, you can decide whether you require that they get a job, and if so, do you require that they share a portion of that income with the family. For some families this is a financial necessity. For others, it may be more of a lifestyle choice.

Allowance: Many families choose to give a weekly allowance, if their family finances allow for that.

How much? Some people say $1 per year old. Some may do 25 cents per year old. How much is appropriate for your family depends on your finances, but also on how your child will use it – what you buy for them, versus what they buy for themselves.

What do they use allowance for? For child #3, we started allowance last November when he turned 5 and was starting to understand math and money. He gets $1.25 per week. He has to save 50 cents, put 25 cents in the give-away jar (see below for more on these ideas) and can spend 50 cents. Which pretty much means he buys candy at gymnastics, and a super ball at soccer. Each time, before he puts the money in the slot, I ask him to pause… I say “you have two quarters this week, and you’re spending one of them now. Is that what you really want to do or do you want to save it for something else?” He always chooses to do it, but I want to teach that idea of Pause-To-Be-Sure before you spend the money. His spend money at this age is pretty much about whatever he WANTS – we take care of buying the things that meet his NEEDS.

When our older kids were in high school, we gave them $1 per year old, plus a clothing budget for back to school shopping in the fall, plus a Christmas gift budget. That was all they got from us. We didn’t hand them money to go out to a movie, we didn’t give them money to buy a birthday present for a friend, or to buy makeup, and we give them really minimal birthday and Christmas gifts, so that money was really their sole asset. The clothing budget was enough to buy plenty of clothes if they shopped at consignment stores. If they bought new, it wouldn’t go far. And yes, one time my child chose to spend her whole back to school budget on one high-priced item. (See discussion below on letting them live with the consequences of their actions!)

What is allowance for – how do you earn it? Some people make allowance the child’s salary for doing chores, and if they don’t do the chores, they don’t get the money. The advantage to that is it is closer to what they’ll experience in future paying jobs.

Personally, I don’t like it because it implies that household chores are optional. My oldest child who doesn’t care much about money and doesn’t like doing housework would have happily opted out of this system.

In our family, we have a mutual commitment to the work that needs to be done to keep the family functioning well (laundry, groceries, cleaning, and so on.) We all need to do our part in the work. In exchange for meeting our responsibilities, we also all get benefits – things like a roof over our heads, food, electricity, and yes, allowance for the kids. If you don’t meet your responsibilities, you can lose a privilege of the household (an easy one to take away that “hurts” your kid but not you is screen time… )

Cash Rewards? Cash for Extra Chores?

It’s good to make a conscious decision about whether there are other ways for your child to earn money. Many parents give cash for good grades. We do not. Just as my job is to go to work and do a good job, their job is to go to school and do their best there. (And again, the rewards we get for that are things like housing, food, electricity and spending money…. ) Sometimes, we do go out to eat or go to a movie to celebrate when someone’s done an especially good job at work or school. But it’s not a guaranteed cash reward.

We do pay for extra work outside of normal chores. That might be extra household chores like scraping moss off the driveway, or hemming the new curtains, or re-organizing the garage. Or, it might be doing things for my workplace. I work at non-profits, and I’ve “hired” my kids over the years to help out with some tasks that my employer can’t afford to pay a grown-up to do. So, from my agency’s point of view, my kids are volunteers, but I pay my kids extra to help. This has been everything from preparing bulk mailings to helping inventory class supplies to entering outcome evaluations data into spreadsheets. My middle child, who has always been motivated to earn money, was pretty much a fully trained admin assistant by the time she was 14. She taught my co-workers how to use the postage meter and other office equioment.

There’s a 13 year gap between my second child and my third, so many people joke that I have built-in babysitters. Here’s how we’ve handled that. In general, my husband and I are responsible for the little one. We are his parents, my older kids are not. But my older kids are expected to help out… if they’re in the kitchen and he asks for a glass of milk, they pour it. If he’s crying and I’m making dinner, they can choose to take over dinner prep or work with him, but they have to do one of those things. That’s just part of the jobs of the family, just like cleaning house is. If I need to run an errand, and they’re just hanging out at home, I leave him with them. But, if there’s a time when we need a babysitter where if we did not have these older children we would have to hire outside help, then we pay them for that time. So, when I worked on Tuesday nights all through one child’s senior year of high school, she watched her brother, and I paid her for that.

Save, Spend, Give – How to Divvy up the Pool of Money

When I was a kid, most kids got allowance as pure spending money – we could waste it on whatever we wanted. Many experts now recommend a different approach, that involves an essential idea of money management – saving some money for the future. And many add in a component of charitable giving.

The Moonjar financial literacy program (summarized here) recommends dividing money up into three containers: Spend, Save, and Share. recommends 4 jars:

A spending bank for money to be used soon on everyday things.
A saving bank for money to be used later on larger items.
An investing bank for money that will be used several years from now.
A giving bank for gifts to help others.

The Share Jar or “Giving Bank” can be only for charitable giving; or some families also use this for gifts for family and friends. Having a Share Jar is one way to talk about your family values with your child – is it important to give to people who have less than you do? Or important to give to causes that are important to you? Talk about it.

This article by Sahara Pirie offers a variation of four jars. Her child was required to put 10% of her allowance into each jar, and then divide the other 60% up as she saw fit.

  • Play (spending money for now)
  • Buy Later (a short-term savings which “which teaches the discipline, and deferred gratification, of saving funds to purchase something special”)
  • Give (charity – “Contributing to a larger good is one of our family values”), and
  • Financial Freedom (“We explained that the money would “never come out,” but would grow for when she wanted to retire. We later helped her transfer the money from the jar into a savings account, and later she will get to move the funds, if she wishes, into her own investments.”) Note: I personally find this definition of the financial freedom jar far too abstract… If I were to do it, I would wait to add that jar till my child was in high school, and I would tell them that was their rainy day fund for when they enter adult life after college.

We used the three jar concept with our older kids….. kind of. But, we were not as successful as we could have been with it. Most weeks when allowance day rolled around, we didn’t have cash, so we kind of scribbled down notes about where money would go or sort of kept track in our heads… really, we didn’t keep good track. So our kids didn’t really learn the lessons well. It would work much better to actually have real physical cash in hand. Especially for younger kids (say under age 8) who really need concrete objects to help them understand abstract ideas. We just need to go to the bank and get the cash stash we need to make this happen.

This points out a key thing to remember about allowance: whatever system you set up, make sure it’s easy for you to maintain. Consistency is important!

Tracking spending money

Encourage  your child to keep a money diary where they track what they spend their spending money on so they can decide in retrospect if those choices have made them happy. (I know plenty of adults who had a Starbucks hobby or other habit that was “just a couple bucks a day” then they then added up how much they spent in a month on that, and decided there were other things they’d rather do with that money.)

Saving toward a goal

We were not good with our older kids about setting goals for the savings jar. What tended to happen was they would build up a sum in there for a while, and then spontaneously decide to buy something pricey and use up all the money they saved. It would be much better to set a goal for something that’s important to them, develop a savings plan, track progress, and so on. This allows you to teach financial skills like budgeting, but also allows for more discussion about family values and priorities.

Recently, I had a discussion with my siblings (all in their 50’s) and we each remembered a story from our teens about we had worked very hard for and saved a long time to buy – a guitar, a stereo, a used car, a week at camp… we remembered lots and lots of hours of hard work babysitting, snow shoveling, weed pulling. We remembered tracking our progress toward our goal (and standing outside the music store window and dreaming) and the sense of accomplishment when we achieved what seemed an unreachable goal.

Talking about Money

Do your kids know how much you make? (roughly)  Do they know how you make financial decisions? They should! You are the biggest role model they’ll ever have for how to manage money. Talk to them about it. Be open and honest. Talk about your struggles and your mistakes. Talk about the smart choices you have made.

Prioritizing: What else could I get for that much money? As your children start getting older, they can understand price tags – that item costs $15. They may have saved up $15 and thus be capable of buying it, but you may want them to pause for a moment and realize that money spent on one thing is opportunity lost for spending it on something else. One way of doing this is to compare it to other items – “if you’re going to spend $15, what else could you get for that much money? OK, then, of the options you can afford, which one would you most like to have? Or would you rather keep saving money so that you could buy one of these other items that costs $20?”

How much does that really cost us? It is helpful if your child can contextualize dollar amounts within your family’s lifestyle. $15 can mean a lot of money for some families, and not much for others. So, you could say “That item costs as much as Mama earns in an hour. So, that’s one hour of Mama being at work.”

Wants versus Needs: We had a lot of long talks with our kids about the difference between what we want and what we need. We generally took care of their Needs, but they were on their own for Wants. My daughter told me recently that she remembers when she was young having no idea what that meant, but growing in understanding of it over the years.

Right now, with two in college, the rule is we pay tuition, room, board and books. That’s it. No more money for anything. If they choose to go out for pizza or a movie or want clothes or whatever, that’s on their dime. We also require that they get summer jobs. (We told them we required part-time school year jobs, but somehow that hasn’t happened….) Our older one has had some mighty lean Aprils and Mays when all the year’s money is used up, and a paycheck won’t come till May. We also told them that if they did badly in school and lost their academic scholarships, they would be required to take out loans and cover all those costs themselves in the future. Or if they took more than four years to complete a degree, they would need to take loans for that extra time.

Mistakes – Do you bail them out or make them live with the consequences?

The only way that our kids really learn anything is to have full responsibility for it. And that includes responsibility for their mistakes.

USU recommends

Resist the temptation to come to their rescue. Let kids feel the effects of the buying decisions, good or bad. If you’ll reinforce that they don’t get any more money, they’ll hopefully spend more wisely in the future. You do, of course, have the right to veto certain purchases that are unhealthy, unsafe, or in violation of your family’s principles. Spell those out in the beginning when discussing what allowances can and cannot cover (source)

Ron Lieber, the author of The Opposite of Spoiled says

Stand back and watch them fail spectacularly. No bailouts. You should want them to feel their mistakes deeply and earn money to solve their problems if need be. Better now than at age 24, when errors lead to wrecked credit scores and worse. (Source)

So, remember the year that my middle child spent all her back to school money on one expensive dress? At the time, she rationalized it as “I have lots of older clothes that are fine. So I’ll be fine with nothing else new.” About a month into the school year, she was regretting having no new clothes. And as much as she loved the dress, it wasn’t really something she could wear often. So, she suffered through some regrets, and then ended up taking on lots of extra jobs at home and for my work in order to supplement her clothing supply – with lots of carefully chosen items from the consignment store.

Role Modelling

Remember your children are watching you! I learned from my parents a lot of thrifty habits (coupons, budgeting, reading the insurance bills to make sure everything got paid correctly, and so on.) But I also learned that careful planning led to having money left over in the year’s budget to allow for special family trips.

One of my friends learned that when the monthly paycheck came, life was great for the next week or so – lots of special treats, going out to eat, going to the movies and so on. But, for the last week of the month… scraping to get by, not having enough food in the house to make a lunch for school, and so on. As an adult, she’s had to figure out how not to slip into this trap.

What are you modelling for your child?

Reading Books to Your Child

The Money on the Bookshelf curriculum incorporates children’s books into a financial literacy program. Reading and talking about books is one of the best ways for parents to teach children. Here’s a sampling of recommendations from their chart on recommended books, and what key money management concepts each book teaches.

Title Age Decision Making
Sheep  in a Shop 4 and up Decision making and problem solving
Ox Cart Man 4 and up Goal setting and allocating resources
The Purse 5 and up Goal setting, saving and problem solving
A Chair for My Mother 6 and up Recognizing resources, recognizing success
Something Good 7 and up Prioritizing

For each of the 12 books they cover, the curriculum includes facilitator and parent guides. They’re designed to be used for a class, but I also think parents could easily use them as a resource for family discussions and activities. As a sample, for the book Sheep in a Shop, the guide suggests:

  • First, read the book to yourself, and think about these ideas: the sheep have to choose a gift, there are many things to choose from, it’s hard to decide
  • As you read to your child, talk about: Why was it hard for the sheep to make a decision? They didn’t have enough money – how did they solve this problem?
  • Plan a swap meet with friends where kids can trade toys
  • Help your child choose a gift for someone

Working through one of these books and lesson plans every few months, starting when your child starts kindergarten, would be a great way to ground them in some good financial decision-making skills.


  • Money on the Bookshelf curriculum. This is a fully fleshed out curriculum (even includes icebreakers and evaluation tools if you’re an educator who wants to use this in a group setting.) It is for teaching financial literacy to parents of children age 4 – 10, especially low income parents. It covers everything: one section is on developmental characteristics of each age, and what you should teach at this age.
  • Why Is teaching children money matters so important from Utah State (USU) extension is a whole packet of tips. (Note to educators: this could be a source of handouts for your class – you wouldn’t have to use the whole packet, just the most helpful pages.)
  • has .pdf books and .mp3 audio stories about saving money. There are also follow-up activities for teachers / parents to do after the story.
  • Hands On Banking from Wells Fargo – an interactive set of videos to explain basic concepts of finances and banking. I’m not sure what age group it’s designed for – my five year old found it engaging, but the activities were way over his head. (“If a scooter costs $45.99 and a shirt costs $12.99, how much would a scooter and two shirts cost – don’t forget to include the 10% sales tax.”
  • There are lots more good resources out there. Start your search at Jump Start – this is a searchable database – search for materials by age group and cost (includes lots of free items that are downloadable, plus recommendations for books and more)

photo credit: HODL! via photopin (license)

47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)


There’s an article by Parents Magazine  that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” When I see that headline, I think of things like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Those probably should fall in the category of things never to say to your kids. Or to anyone else’s kids, for that matter.

But what are the horrible, soul-wounding phrases that Parents magazine cautions against? “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Yeah. Pretty harsh, eh?

Now, when you read their article, it’s actually got lots of good content, with some helpful tips. It’s worth a read. I’m not concerned about the topic so much as the tone that is presented by the headline.

A better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Them Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”

But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is better for you than kale”) and it helps to convince people that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“If you don’t follow these tips on screen time, your child will be brain damaged for life.”) Companies who advertise on a magazine’s website appreciate those “clickable” titles, because it means more people look at the article, and thus at their ads.

And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. Here’s just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids”

But, when parents read this headline, or countless others like it, how does it make parents feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”

For example, check out this anxiety and guilt  inducing intro from Parent Society:

If you’re a halfway decent parent, you do your best to not swear at your children or call them names. But other phrases that roll off the tongue can be every bit as dangerous — especially since you might not even realize you’re saying them. Take a look at six phrases you need to cut out of your conversations…

Then to read through  those six dangerous phrases, you have to click through seven pages that are so loaded with ads, it’s hard to actually find the content…

So, let’s first reality check these messages:

  1. Parents will say mean things to their kids. We do. I do – just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
  2. Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
  3. Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!!  However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.

So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered them all [well, almost all] into the left hand column of this table. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you.

The middle column is just to help raise awareness of how these phrases could have a negative impact if over-used over time. The right hand column suggests other options you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Phrase that “parenting experts” caution parents against using Negative / non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child if this is all you ever said to them Alternative things to say or do (on good days when you have the time and energy) that may be more helpful
Good Job / Great Job / Good girl


That’s a beautiful picture
You did that just right
What a perfect building you built!


You’re the best _____ in the whole wide world

Empty praise – if it was something that was really easy for them to do, it’s weird to say good job.

Judgement – implies that there’s one right way to do things.

They’re reached their limit – you don’t think they can do any better.


They’ll someday realize you’re lying or exaggerating and lose faith in your judgment. Or they’ll feel pressure to really become the best.

Only praise things that took effort.


Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product.
Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better.
Read about questions to ask to extend their learning.

Read more about effective praise.

I’m proud of you

I love it when you….

It would make me happy / mad if you…

I’m ashamed when you….

I’ll never forgive you

Conditional love. Also implies that your emotional well-being as an adult is dependent on your child’s behavior of the moment. Let your children know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that their behavior is always OK – it’s not, and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for them – you do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness is not dependent on that.)
Practice makes perfect Well, practice makes much better. But, it doesn’t make perfect because nothing is perfect. And aiming for perfect implies that mistakes are evil. “Practice and you will improve.”
“Making mistakes helps us get better.”
“If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.”
Read more about “Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success.”
You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]

You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one

You always…

You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]

You’re worthless / a loser

Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

This is all labelling. Labelling your child limits them.

If you label them based on a problem behavior, It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they continue to be that way.

If you label them by a “talent” they have, then that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.

You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change.

Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.

You’re just like [someone I don’t like]
Why can’t you be more like….Stop acting like a baby.
You’re so [bad adjective]
Big boys don’t…
Good girls don’t….
The first labels them (see above). The second means they’re always being held to someone else’s standard.
These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else.

If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.

What’s wrong with you? Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation. “What’s wrong?”
“What happened that upset you?”
Let me help you

Just let me do it for you

You’re doing it wrong, let me do it

You’re too slow, I’ll do it

Implies that they’re not competent.

If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?

Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….)
Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…”
Make gentle suggestions “Try…”
If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”
You’re OK (after child is hurt and is crying)

Don’t cry

What a dumb thing to get upset about

Don’t worry, it will be fine

There’s no reason to be scared, just do it

Dismisses their feelings as unimportant.


Tells them not to trust their intuition and just do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teenagers.)

Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worried” then you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.
Don’t talk to strangers. This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers! Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers.
Talk to them about how to tell the difference.
Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers.
Be careful. If over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.” Demonstrate / model how to be safe.
Encourage them to look before leaping.
Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason.
When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. Someday they’ll get that bruise, and they’ll learn something important.
Read more about teaching safety skills.
I’ll never let anything bad happen to you

Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe

I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You can tell that you’ll try to do all these things. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”
You’re in the way.

I can’t get anything done with you around.

Hurry up. You’re making us late.

Shut up.

I have better things to do than…

Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

We all know that children are terribly inconvenient room-mates who just make everything harder. But, we don’t need to tell them that every day!

These sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.

Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment.

When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”

If …. then…..  If you don’t do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment]. “I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.” When … then….  “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.
Wait till your father gets home… Makes someone else into a bad guy.

Implies that you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.

Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.
I told you so

That’s what you get for not listening

Yes, you probably told them not to do something, and yes, it’s frustrating when they do it anyway. But rubbing it in serves no purpose. “Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”
Because I said so Implies that you make arbitrary judgments on a whim and they have no control over that. “I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”

Routines and Rituals

When working with parents of toddlers and preschoolers, I talk a lot about the benefits of daily routines. Today I want to look at the difference between the routines of everyday life and the rituals of the year.

Routines Rituals
When: Daily or Weekly. Everyday life. When: Holidays, Seasons, Life Events
What: Predictable, reliable, easy to learn and to do What: Special, memorable. Specific to family / culture
How they make kids feel: Safe, competent How they make kids feel: Special, loved
·       How they wake up in the morning
·       How you say goodbye when you go to work or they go to school
·       How you reunite and share your day
·       Mealtimes – Do you eat together?
·       Bedtime Routine
·       Birthdays
·       Holidays: Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, religious and cultural holidays
·       Life events: first day of school, graduation, tooth fairy, etc.
Hint from an experienced parent: Keep it short and simple! Hint from an experienced parent: Make it special, but not too elaborate or expensive. It needs to be easy to repeat if you want it to be a tradition.
How you know a routine is working for your family: It makes everyone’s life calmer and more enjoyable. You can enjoy it too! How you know a ritual is working for your family: It feels special, and meaningful and fun to you to. If you’re overwhelmed with stress trying to do something, think about how to simplify it to focus on what’s important to you.

When your child is young, it’s a great time to think about what you want your family rituals to be around holidays and special occasions. If there are traditions from your family of origin or group of friends that work for you, definitely keep doing them. But, if there are traditions that just exhaust or frustrate you, then having a new child in your life is a great excuse to get out of those activities!

Think about what rituals you would enjoy. What would feed special to you? What would be fun for you? What lessons do you want your child to learn about your family values from the way you celebrate holidays? When your child is one year old, test some out. When they’re two years old, repeat the ones that you liked, but drop the rest, and try something new. When they’re three or four years old, experiment some more. By the time they’re five years old, they’ll start noticing and remembering traditions, so it’s nice if you’ve found some good “keepers” by then.

When you do these rituals, reinforce their power by reminding your child that they are traditions: “Every year, you get to open one present on Christmas Eve” or “remember, last year when you were four, you found four balloons in the house – how many do you think you’ll find this year?” Tell them why you do those traditions: “I give you a book every year for your birthday because my dad gave me a book for my birthday every year” or “We always volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. day because it’s important to work to make the world a better place.”

It’s OK if your traditions are different from their friend’s family! When your child says “How come my friend does this and we don’t” you can explain your family culture and how you make the choices that are right for you.

Learn more about daily routines here and specifically about sleep-related routines here.

Read more about birthday rituals here and more about using rituals to connect your child to his/her culture and heritage here.

The Martian – A Study in Character


Since Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, came out, I’ve had many friends recommend it to me. And not just the science fiction fans. All sorts of friends raved about this book! I hadn’t read it yet, but I saw the movie last week, and am now a third of the way through the book. I love the movie and book for a wide variety of reasons… but what I want to focus on here is Character. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is in many ways, the kind of person I want my kids to be, and who I hope to inspire kids in our Inventors class to be. I don’t mean that I want them to be astronauts, or even necessarily scientists. I’m not talking about their academic field or career choice… I’m talking about their character traits.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story: Mark is a botanist and mechanical engineer who is one of six crew members on a mission to Mars. He is believed to be killed, and thus left behind during an emergency evacuation of the planet, and needs to figure out how to survive on his own for years until he can be rescued.

I really liked the movie… but I hadn’t realized how much I liked it until I was listening to the /Filmcast, and Jeff Cannata said (around 46:30) “The hero of this movie is smarts, intelligence, can-do attitude. How not giving up, thinking your way through things, being well-educated… is to be lauded, to be celebrated.” And I thought, YES!

Here are some of the laudable qualities I see demonstrated by the character Mark Watney:

  • Curiosity and desire to learn: All scientists are driven by curiosity, but especially a botanist who has chosen to give years of his life to training and travelling to Mars so he can explore the idea of growing plants on other planets. We learn very little of Mark’s back story, but clearly his career is defined by a desire to learn more.
  • Can-do attitude and willingness to work hard. When he is faced with inconceivable challenges, he doesn’t let them overwhelm him. He just starts working. In the book, there are frequent instances where he says “OK, to accomplish this thing, I need to solve these five problems. That’s’ too much to think about right now. I’m just going to think about one of those problems. After I’ve solved that one, I’ll move on to problem number 2.”
  • Problem-solving: In the book and movie, there’s no “bad guy”. Just a hostile environment, and an unending series of problems to solve. In the book, especially, the focus of much of the action is on the details of how he solves those problems. You wouldn’t think the discussion of how to collect CO2 in a high pressure vessel and how to liberate hydrogen from hydrazine would be interesting to a non-scientist like me, but it was. Not because I care about that specific challenge, but because I am fascinated by how people think and how they problem-solve and Weir does a fabulous job of walking you through Mark’s thoughts.
  • Flexible thinking: Mark is continuously forced to use materials in ways they weren’t designed to be used. This requires looking past the surface of an object. It requires thinking first about the goals you hope to accomplish, then what criteria you need your materials to meet, then searching for the material that meets that criteria. It’s about looking for underlying qualities, and defining for yourself whether they meet your needs. (This is what open-ended materials do for a kid in a tinkering oriented classroom!)
  • Positive attitude: He does, of course, have moments of anger and railing at the unfairness of the situation, and moments of self-pity. But overall, he remains positive and optimistic throughout, with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
  • Forgiving: He understands that his crew did not leave him behind on purpose. He doesn’t waste energy being angry at them, and wants to be sure they are told it was not their fault.

And it’s not just the main character who displays these traits. It’s virtually every character in the movie / book. Another thing that makes this story special is the way it portrays collaboration amongst scientists and engineers, as they work together to solve a problem. We see lots of long hours and hard work and dedication amongst people who have studied long and worked hard to become experts in their field. And we see their excitement when they come up with new possible solutions, their frustration when it fails, their stick-to-it-iveness to keep trying after failure, and sheer giddiness they feel when their idea succeeds.

So, if I’ve decided these are character qualities I want to inspire in the children in my life, how do I teach them?

NPR had a great article this spring about non-academic skills: what to call them and some educational theories on how to teach them. Experts in education agree that there is more to success in life and in career than academics. (Academic skills are of course very important too.) They talk about things like critical thinking, character skills such as gratitude, self-controlgrit, growth-based mindset,  willingness to fail and to try again, social skills and emotional literacy, and love of learning.

How do I teach these things? I’ve written about several of them (see all those links at the end of that last paragraph? Just click on any of them to see my post on that topic.) Other things I think about are: encouraging children to tinker, focusing more on the process than on the product, and focusing on internal motivation more than on punishment and reward.

Someone asked me if they should take their child to this movie. First, this is not a little kids movie. Way over their heads. But…. if I had an 11 – 15 year old child who was at all interested in seeing a movie about space, would I have them watch it? You bet. Watching a movie about how science rocks, scientists are cool, and modelling positive character traits is absolutely a good use of a couple hours. There are some tense situations, a gory wound, some swear words, and some rear nudity. So, if those things concern you, read reviews on Common Sense Media or Parent Previews, or learn exactly what things your child would see and hear on Kids in Mind. I personally find that the overall positive messages of the film outweigh those details.

Gun Play


In our Family Inventors class last week, we had giant tinker toys for the kids to play with. A group of boys designed and built three identical “blasters”. From a tinkering / creativity perspective, I thought these were great examples of working to create and replicate something cool.

But once kids build guns, what comes next? Gun play.

They were pretending to shoot them at each other, and some kids were having fun, but one child was upset about being shot at. I could sense that asking them to stop pretending to shoot the blaster was not going to happen, and asking them to take apart their new inventions would not go well, so I suggested target shooting. I went to draw a target on the white board, but my husband had the even better idea of drawing asteroids on the white board that the kids would “blast apart”. He would draw, erase, re-draw and so on as they blasted asteroids in their defense of the earth.

It was a very fun game. And it re-framed guns. Instead of being tools to hurt other people with, they were tools used to destroy dangerous objects in the distance before those objects could hurt people.

I think that no matter what your views are on guns and gun control, it is inarguable that guns are very powerful tools. The question is how do we talk about appropriate use of this powerful tool. And about harmful uses of this tool.

Does gun play increase aggression?

In this era of appalling incidents of gun violence, parents worry that if children play with guns they will become violent. The research shows this is not true. In fact, just the opposite may be true – playing with aggressive toys as a child may make it less likely to be aggressive as an adult.

I know this from my own experience. I grew up in Wyoming in the 60’s and 70’s. We played with cap guns, BB guns, squirt guns, toy bow and arrows, toy swords. I loved shooting all these things at siblings and friends! Yet, as an adult, I am an extreme pacifist. I have never touched an actual gun, by conscious choice, despite many opportunities. (My siblings and childhood friends from the same environment vary in their choices: some keep guns in the home for self-defense, some own rifles for hunting, others, like me, avoid guns. But none of us are aggressors – no cases of gun violence or gun accidents among the group of us.)

But, I also know this from research. Research does not find a connection between play aggression and real aggression. (Note: It is important to differentiate between play fighting and serious fighting. Serious fighting is motivated by anger and a desire to harm, and must be handled differently. Play fighting has no intent to harm and is enjoyed by all participants. It is important to monitor play fighting, as sometimes a child will accidentally hurt another and the harmed child may strike out in real physical anger as a response.)

Researchers Hart and Tannock say “If playful aggression is supported, it is highly beneficial to child development. The act of pretending to be aggressive is not equivalent to being aggressive. Role reversal, cooperation, voluntary engagement, chasing and fleeing, restrained physical contact, smiling and laughing are common characteristics of playful aggression.” (Young Children’s Play Fighting and Use of War Toys by Hart and Tannock.)

What makes gun play so fascinating? Why are kids so interested in it?

  • Guns are powerful. Kids often feel powerless, so the idea of power is intoxicating.
  • One way that children learn about and make sense of adult experiences is to play at them. So, if they watched a cooking show, they might play at cooking. If they watch a show with guns in it, they’ll want to play with guns.
  • Guns are a way to vanquish bad guys, or monsters. (Note: girls may use magic wands or pixie dust to accomplish the same goal. In both cases, it’s about vanquishing a foe.)

Given all these motivations toward weapon play, it can be hard to successfully ban it. Often attempts to ban it make it even more appealing as the “forbidden fruit.”

Ways to Manage Gun Play:

Re-Direct: You can try white board target shooting like we did, or if children are shooting  actual missiles (like Nerf guns) you can set up empty cans or some other object for them to try to hit and knock over. Or think about what type of energy the guns might shoot out – Teacher Tom tells a story of children firing “love shooters” at each other. Some parents make the rule that you can’t shoot your gun at people, only at imaginary bad guys.

Talk about the power of guns and other options Talk to children about other ways to defeat (or reform or escape) “bad guys” or other creatures that frighten them.

Set Limits: It’s fine to limit the times and places where gun play is allowed. Maybe it’s an outdoor only thing, or only with one particular set of friends, not at school. It’s also important to teach kids to notice the impact of their play on others. How do they know if someone else wants to play the shooting game or would rather not participate? (Encourage them to use words, listen to words, notice body language, etc.) If the play is making you feel uncomfortable, you can say that. “I know you guys are playing, but it made me feel bad when you said you wanted to hurt your brother.”

Ask the kids to help make the rules: In a neighborhood squirt gun battle, not everyone wanted to play. I called the kids over and asked them what they thought fair rules were. One said “Only shoot at people who are playing.” I said “How do you know if they’re playing?” “If they have a squirt gun, you can shoot them.” We all agreed that seemed fair. One child had a smart phone in his hand, and said “don’t shoot people with phones!” I had my laptop and agreed “no shooting anyone who is working with electronics, because the water would ruin them.” That was all the rules we needed for a while, till one child blasted another in the face with a super soaker. New rule: no shooting in the face. Then a car pulled up and kids asked if they could shoot it, and we agreed (with the driver’s permission) that it was fine to squirt water at any car, but FIRST they needed to make sure all the windows were rolled up so no water could get inside.

Check In: When kids are engaged in weapon play, occasionally check in and ask: “Are you all having fun? Is anyone feeling worried or scared?” If anyone feels unsafe, the game needs to change.

Don’t buy toy weapons that can only be used as weapons. But, when they use open-ended toys to create weapons (like tinker toy blasters, or sticks as swords), realize that is just one of many ways they play with those open ended toys. Do safety proof checks: make sure toy weapons can’t cause real harm. If you do buy toy weapons, choose ones that look nothing like a real weapon.

Reduce exposure to media violence. And talk about media violence with your child in ways that reinforce your family’s values. Also, choose toys that don’t tie into violence. (If you choose action figures of a superhero or soldier or someone who always does battle, that is how your child is likely to play with it. Think instead about how a child plays with the action figures from “Paw Patrol” who have adventures as they rescue people.)

Note: If a child actually hurts other children, and either seems to enjoy that, or shows no empathy or remorse, that is concerning. and you may want to consult with a professional about the situation.

Talk to your children about real guns

Children need to know about real guns. We need to talk about them. But we also have to understand that no matter how many times we tell a child not to touch a real gun, if they see one they are likely to touch it. So, we also need to talk with other adults about how to keep real guns away from our kids. This article in Slate does a fabulous job of addressing this topic. Also, check out advice from Seattle Children’s Hospital about gun safety:

Read more on this topic:

Best source: It’s Fine for Kids to Play with Pretend Guns is a great overview of this whole topic:

Weapon Bans:

Keeping Kids from Toy Guns: The author writes “since living abroad … I’ve come to believe that one of the secrets of Asian boys’ self-regulation is the way aggressive play is seen as a normal stage of childhood, rather than demonized and hidden out of sight.”

Superheroism and War Play in the Classroom:  The author says “Working with three, four, and five year olds, the “good versus bad” interaction is constant. War like play is not going away, As educators may we create places understanding of our young “superheroes,” with more attention on the internal needs then what is occurring on the surface. As there is much more going on then meets the eye.”

Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play:
Try to reduce the impact of antisocial lessons that children learn both in and out of play. It can be helpful to encourage children to move from imitative to creative play so they can transform violence into positive behavior. Then talk with them about what has happened in their play (“I see Spiderman did a lot of fighting today. What was the problem?”). Help  children to connect their own firsthand positive experiences about how people treat each other to the violence they have seen (“I’m glad that in real life you could solve your problem with Mary by . . .”). These connections can help defuse some of the harmful lessons children learn about violence. Talking with children about violence is rarely easy, but it is one of our most powerful tools.”

Gun Play: (long but interesting academic discussion)