A STORY ABOUT AFIYA, written by James Berry and illustrated by Anna Cunha, is a magical trip into the world of a young girl. We follow Afiya, whose name means “physical, mental, and spiritual health” in Swahili, as she encounters the beauty and excitement of the natural world. She takes each experience home with her on her plain, white dress, which stands out brilliantly against her beautiful black skin. The next day, the dress is clean and plain white again, ready for the next journey – to the sea, the field, the zoo – everywhere children go to experience nature’s full effect.
The breathtaking illustrations only enhance the poem’s world, drawing you into Afiya’s world as she dances and smiles amid nature’s bounty.
About the Author
James Berry was born in Jamaica in 1924. When he was 17, the United States entered WWII and began recruiting farmhands in the Caribbean, to fill vacancies left by young men who had been drafted. Berry and a few of his friends were excited at the possibilities of work in America. They headed to the States as soon as possible, but it wasn’t what they thought. They were disheartened by the inequality and mistreatment of black people and only stayed in the US a short time. According to Berry, “There was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people.” He returned to the Caribbean for a short time in 1948, before moving to Great Britain to work as a telegrapher, while attending night school and writing.
Berry wrote prolifically, releasing several books of poetry and many children’s stories. In 1981, he was the first West Indian poet to win Britain’s National Poetry Competition. He became known for his work examining the relationship between the black and white communities, particularly the relationship between British citizens and Caribbean immigrants. He was awarded an OBE, the highest honor a poet can attain in Britain, as well as many other awards and recognitions. Berry died in 2017 at age 92, and his work is still beloved by many around the world for its depth and beauty.
Kid Lit Motivates
It’s no wonder A STORY ABOUT AFIYA made the NY Times List of Children’s Picture Books in 2020. It’s suitable as a stand-alone read-aloud, at storytime circle or bedtime. It also opens the door to a lot of activities and conversations. If diversifying your picture book collection and gently opening a conversation about the history of racial injustice in America is important to you (I hope it is), Afiya is a girl we can relate to and Berry’s biography shows us a contrasting experience. The story lends itself to discussing Berry’s work as a poet and many of his poems are for children explicitly. It’s also a beautiful way to discuss Jamaica, even though there’s no way of knowing where Afiya lives because her world is the ubiquitous world of childhood joy.
As with all great picture books, once I finished reading it, I was flush with ideas of how to use the story as an anchor for so many topics and how to extend the story for group storytime activities. I’ve put together a resource pack, available for download on TpT, to go alongside these activities, with the caveat that buying the book is essential – supporting the illustrator, the publisher, and the estate of the author is incredibly important. Please, buy the book.
First and foremost, I can see using the story as a way of discussing James Berry, his life and work, Jamaica, his home country, and Swahili, the language from which the name Afiya comes. I confess that I am not an expert nor an important voice in the conversation about racial injustice and racial equality, specifically how to educate children about it, and I recommend everyone seek out qualified speakers, educators, and authors on this topic. Admitting that, I’ve included a short biography of James Berry, a fact sheet about Jamaica, and some beginner information and phrases in Swahili. Hopefully, this is a respectful start.
Make the plot tangible by having kids draw some of the things Afiya collected on her skirt and matching those things to the places she visited. Stoke the fires of their imagination by asking them to imagine what their clothes might catch if they were like Afiya’s, and have them discuss and draw on their choice of a tee-shirt or dress template. What if their clothing was magical but with different powers than Afiya’s? What powers could their clothing have? (I think my magical clothes would be self-washing, but I’m sure kids will be more imaginative than that!) What memory would they most want to walk around wearing? It’s such a great story for talking about memory and imagination and I’ve designed a simple, effective worksheet as a guide for each of these questions.
The story opens with a title page that explains Afiya (pronounced A-fee-ya) means health and wellness in Swahili. I see this as a great opportunity to talk about names, how important they are, where they come from, and even brainstorming new names or nicknames. This leads into self-esteem activities – drawing their names in large letters with their favorite things surrounding it, or collaging all the things that make them unique, and then sharing this information with the group if preferred.
Since Afiya’s name means health and wellness, use the story as an anchor for health and wellness topics. Lead a conversation on what it means to be healthy, both in body and mind, and how to make healthy choices for whole health. Talk about coping with strong emotions, and have kids think about times a friend (or teacher or parent) helped them with a feeling, and/or a time when a friend could not. Using the experiences I had while working as a therapist, I’ve simplified these conversations for you and provided basic activities to coincide.
As memory and thoughts are part of our health and wellness, talk about how to keep a memory. The conversation goes something like this:
Unlike Afiya’s dress, we don’t get to carry it home on our clothing, but there are ways to make a memory stick.
And what about memories we want to forget? We can’t wash our minds clean and return them to the start like Afiya’s dress when something bad happens, so we must talk to an adult about these kinds of thoughts and have them guide us into changing our thought processes or reframing the experience for us.
There are even things we forget but want to remember! We might want to forget losing a soccer game and remember to bring our lunchbox to school every day.
Simple ways of approaching these conversations as well as worksheets have been created for this purpose.
Finally, talking about memory and thoughts leads me into self-awareness and mindfulness. Learning to unstick distracting thoughts is an important skill that can be learned with practice. Use the scripts and 3 mindfulness exercises I’ve included in the packet to assist with this. A STORY ABOUT AFIYA never mentions mindfulness (or memory for that matter), but there are clearly tie-ins to be made.
We carry our experiences with us and we start fresh in the morning. Sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the flowers, or dance among the butterflies, or wade into the water to look for fish. Sometimes we see a tiger, and perhaps that’s scary and something we want to forget. These are all important ideas that have to do with our health and wellness. Every kid deserves the chance to play freely in nature. We are all Afiya in some way.
I’m a firm believer in having tangible, large-scale, hand-made manipulatives when I lead story time, as they always help to draw in even the most distracted or antsy kid. To that end, Afiya’s journey inspired me to make a poster-size painting of her in her white dress, with dress attachments drawn up like each of the things Afiya experiences. (I’m by no means as talented as Anna Cunha, but I hope that I’ve done her work justice.) Listen for the birds and attach the bird dress (over the static white dress.) Watch for the roses and attach the rose dress. Finally, using sticky dry erase contact paper, I made a dress that can be drawn upon and erased, to give each kid a turn to share their favorite memory with the group or even play a version of Pictionary with their special memory while other kids guess.
To view the companion resource, please visit our TpT store:
I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.
I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.
The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.
I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he?
I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)?
All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.
Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.”
When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?
Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store.
I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.
Real Stories, Not Exaggerations
In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways:
Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here.
The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them.
Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children.
They’re Doing Their Best
The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.
Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.
To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised.
Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated.
If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.
Listen, We’re Not Listening
As a culture, we need to get back to basics.
First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable.
To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.
“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.
LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time.
Reaction Time and Space
In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers.
Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be.
If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.
What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?
The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.
The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario.
The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.
Emotions Speak Louder than Words
While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.)
So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.
Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.
If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them.
What are we actually asking?
Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet.
This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.”
Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW.
For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.
We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.
Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age?
Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long?
Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules?
What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough?
Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?
We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in.
Path to Success
The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:
“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”
“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.
“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?”
“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”
“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.”
“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”
“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”
“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water?
“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?”
“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.”
Every Interaction Guides Them
Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change.
If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.
If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for?
Hope is all that’s left when you’ve tried your best and nature takes its course.
It was early morning, mid-May, on an unseasonably gray day. Sheets of rain were clattering on my car as I drove to my client’s house. The drive to M’s house was always a thoughtful one, and I was anxious about what I was going to say when I got there.
I enjoyed the in-home therapeutic sessions I did with autistic kids, without exception. I thrived in an environment that was at times improvisatory and at times highly structured, and I spent my nights and weekends devising appropriate and meaningful interventions to help them reach their goals. We always made progress together. The families I worked with looked to me in different ways — as a counselor, a teacher, a confidant, a sitter — and, following all scientific evidence, all available resources, and my body of clinical experience, I attempted to impart lessons about building relationships, enhancing quality of life, and maintaining a growth mindset.
It wasn’t just about identifying patterns, sequencing stories, or saying please. It was always about teaching exceedingly complex and particular ideas that could open new pathways of communication and understanding for them and their family.
M’s case was a particularly difficult one, which is why I was chosen by the agency to work with him and his mom, G. My experience and multidisciplinary approach, along with my patience and compassion, would be needed. G’s primary concern was that her teenaged, autistic son was missing a lot of school, “throwing tantrums” (her words) right before he had to get on the bus. I’d been working with M for a few months on creating a consistent routine, using musical cues to prompt and reinforce him through donning his shoes and jacket, and eliciting conversation about things that might happen during the day. Our efforts were variably successful — we might build a streak of eight school days, but the “tantrums” would return.
In cases like these, it was important to look at the antecedent and reinforcing behaviors — what was leading up to and what was following — M’s seemingly sudden, strong refusal to go, which, when paired with both G and M becoming agitated, then led to a meltdown.
There are myriad factors that influence every decision, action and reaction for an autistic person. These are in addition to the physiological reactions they may experience at greater or lesser magnitudes than their neurotypical counterparts, and in addition to the potential difficulties identifying or communicating their needs, preferences, and anxieties. If, like M, they struggle to verbally identify their needs, environmental controls are put in place to narrow down what may be leading to the issue at hand, in conjunction with attempting new pathways of communication and creating or enhancing a sense of self (self-awareness.)
To my most objective observations, there was one clear and unfortunate obstacle to M building a consistent routine and finding regular comfort and success with the primary objective.
G was that obstacle, the only reason the case was so difficult for me, and the cause of my concern as I drove to session that day. A parent’s impact on their child is always complicated and difficult to view objectively, but I’d already seen and heard too many markers for concern.
For all of the time I spent explaining to G that her son was capable of learning, that he had shown signs of improvement, and that progress would at the very least require her to maintain emotional stability during the transitional time, G showed very little desire to learn or adapt. She would listen raptly through my explanations, then immediately launch into an unrelated story about how difficult M could be, how he’d made a mistake earlier in the week, or how she’d had to miss work again. M and I could be having a peaceful conversation at the breakfast table, when G would enter the room, complain loudly that M “better not pull something today”, and then lay out a complicated series of punishments and prizes he could expect depending on how he acted.
It was baffling and deplorable. I struggled to steady myself as I neared the house. Five miles to go. Deep breaths. More presence of mind. It would be a difficult conversation. As a therapist, it was my job to maintain objectivity, a professional demeanor, and an emotional distance, all while advocating for M. Focus on the particulars, not the ideals. Move one tree at a time, don’t attempt to demolish the entire forest in a sweeping overaction. Four miles to go.
In some ways, G was treating her teenaged son like a forever-baby and worse. She believed he would never learn, never cease “throwing tantrums”, and never be anything less than her burden to bear. She jumped in to speak for him when he hesitated, so he often remained silent when she was around. She spoke about him in the third person while he was in the room. She refused to teach or let him learn about his changing, teenaged body, and she allowed him to cuddle beside her in her bed on a regular basis.
In other ways, G seemed to think M should act like an adult.
“He’s doing this to challenge me,” she’d say at the top of her voice, while he jumped under her covers in her bedroom to escape the bus.
“I know you know what you’re doing to me,” she’d cajole, as he lay face-down on the carpet in the foyer.
“Lori (me) is very mad at you,” she’d growl, while I stared at her incredulously, shaking my head vigorously and making x’s with my arms.
“If you don’t go to school today, I won’t let you have your iPad on Saturday, which you earned yesterday for doing such a good job, and then Lisa (sitter) will be very upset with you and she won’t take you to play basketball like I promised yesterday,” she’d threaten and bribe simultaneously.
Then, when he inevitably missed the bus, G would wring her hands and wax happily nostalgic for a time when he was smaller, easier to carry around, easier to control, and not so challenging. G knew M was listening, hiding at the top of the stairs or in the next room, but could not see that her own attitude might be creating the problem at hand, or at the very least complicating it.
On this bleak and brisk day, I was going to insist that G remove herself entirely from the situation for the foreseeable future. M was capable of waking up, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and eating breakfast independently. I’d be there to help with his shoes, jacket, and getting on the bus. I rehearsed the words in my head over and over again on the drive that day.
“At this point, and given everything we’ve seen, the treatment team has decided collectively on a path moving forward.” I planned to pause here, and take a breath. Then, “To understand M’s needs and challenges while transitioning to the bus, we need you to remove yourself from the environment. You can stay in your room with the door closed, or take a walk in the neighborhood, or sit in the backyard obliviously. But under no circumstance can you continue to be present in the kitchen, foyer, or living room while M and I are in session. Mothers have a very powerful effect on their children, and it would be good to know how your presence may be influencing him.” I expected she would be distraught about this and argue, but thought I might be able to get her to commit to being absent on a trial basis to gather data.
I knew M wouldn’t automatically cease having trouble boarding the bus, but I absolutely needed to control for the most caustic and unpredictable variable in the room. I was confident that if she would allow for this change, I could begin to understand the situation.
I was shaken from my rationalizing suddenly. The black SUV several car lengths ahead on this busy, suburban street hydroplaned and skidded to a stop. Into the SUV’s driver’s side door, an American Robin (AMRO) dove with spectacular force, turning to his side at the last minute. Even with my radio on and the sound of the pelting rain on my car’s roof, I heard the collision.
Flying in the rain is particularly dangerous for birds for two reasons. Smaller birds risk trapping water among the air pockets of their feathers and contracting hypothermia. Larger birds struggle to get enough aerodynamic lift in the dense air of low-pressure systems. I suspect that this robin was suffering the latter on this rainy, spring day.
My heart was breaking. I slowly drove past the robin as he lay in the center of the road. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but I knew that he could easily be crushed by someone swerving to avoid the poorly draining shoulders. One short block past, panicked, I pulled a tight U-turn. I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go back. He didn’t deserve to die in the street like that. I threw my hazards on and jumped out into the road.
Drenching in the downpour, I scooped up the robin in canvas I normally used for school supplies. The AMRO was alive, stunned but present. I wrapped him carefully, held him gingerly, and drove with one hand to the nearest side street. I snapped a quick pic and texted a friend who owned a few canaries (They did not respond in time to assist.) I’m not a veterinarian or bird expert by any means, but the Amro seemed to be alright. His feet and wings all seemed in tact and at the proper angles. Though he was stock still, his eye blinked occasionally and seemed to follow my face. With no time to take him to a hospital, I made the difficult decision to place him between a bush and a giant oak tree, nestled between the visible roots. I jumped back in my car, shaken, and dried off as I drove the last mile or so to M’s house.
I wish I could say that I successfully communicated the plan to G, but M was already beginning to make refusals when I arrived. I gathered myself, apologized for my lateness quickly, and succeeded in helping M calm from a screaming wail to a slow sob as the bus pulled away. He had chosen independently to go to his own room, rather than his mother’s bed, and I was optimistic that the sessions might be having a positive effect.
When I returned to the kitchen, G had some news. Due to M’s many absences, she’d been informed that he would have to repeat his current grade level. The school had recommended he continue attending for the remaining month or so, for stability. To minimize her stress, she whispered, she’d decided just today, just now, to remove him from school entirely and start fresh in the fall. She couldn’t do it anymore. She’d already been in the process of buying a new condo in another state. A new school, a new state, and new friends would do M good. Wouldn’t that be nice, to start over? She was musing, I was fuming.
For a teenager that had difficulty transitioning from his home to the bus, I wondered what made her confident that he would transition easily from his home to another, newer, far away home, a new school, and entirely new people. I managed to gently mention something to that effect, despite the bile that was rising within me. She pretended not to hear me and said she was looking forward to selling their current home. Then, she terminated our sessions.
Typically, I insisted on several sessions prior to termination, in order to help ease the transition. It could be very harmful to simply pull a kid from his therapist, then his school, his friends, and his home. He should be offered the opportunity to prepare himself for the change and to say goodbye properly. G announced it would be unnecessary. He would not be taking the bus any longer, so my services were no longer required. I did my best to say goodbye to M, who did not understand that it was the last time he’d ever see me. G lifted his wrist and shook it back and forth to approximate him waving, something he had done many times on his own.
The hottest, most enraging tears mingled with the bone chilling rain as I returned to my car, defeated.
After taking notes and informing the team of what I’d learned, I drove back to where I’d placed the AMRO. I’d only been at M’s house for 20 minutes. Perhaps I could bring the AMRO to the wildlife vet or check to ensure he was still breathing.
I approached the oak tree slowly, careful not to shock him. I crouched down over the root system to find… nothing. There was no trace of him. If he’d been eaten, there would have been feather fragments or tracks. In my heart, I knew he had survived. Perhaps he’d hopped into the bushes nearby or even found a crevice in the enormous oak in which to wait out the rain.
I’ll never know if G went through with her grand reinvention, or if M ever found ways to cope with the changes, or with his self-centered, deluded mother. I am hopeful that as he grows up some of what we did together will stay with him and help him along his path.
We may help save a life with our smallest acts of compassion, but we may never know the full effects of what our actions have wrought.
On Expecting the Expected when Dealing with a Wolf
As a former teacher and therapist, I often found myself in need of a relatable allegory to teach complex aspects of humanity, and the complicated ways we interact, to children. Fables are a natural starting place, but the imagery and animalistic parallels are not as easily understood as they once were. The Modern Retellings series is attempting to change that.
Adapted from Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation to explain that wolves will be wolves, despite what they may say. After the story, read the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, use the discussion questions to lead a conversation about the symbolic parallels, make connections to daily life, and get a glimpse of the inspiration behind the Modern Retellings series.
Modern Retellings for Everyday Life
 Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb
For a hardworking and caring person, the hardest lesson is learning that others may not be.
The Wolf of the Workplace
(in 2 minutes or less)
T was hired to work as a graphic designer for a big company and was excited to do whatever was necessary to succeed. T worked long hours in the office cubicle, submitting work files by email to M, the floor supervisor. T had never spoken to M, and that was okay because M was quick to anger and known to fire new employees for no reason at all.
After 4 weeks of handing in designs and following client briefs, M stormed into T’s cubicle. M was angry because T hadn’t asked for help completing any project and deemed T too new at graphic design to be working alone. M cautioned T that the job was at-will, meaning anyone could be fired anytime for any reason. T heard the message loud and clear.
T was fearful about losing the job, and nervous about being yelled at again, so they changed their approach to suit M. Every time a new client project was assigned, T immediately asked an experienced coworker how to complete the project. Each project took twice as long to complete, but T doing what M asked.
Two weeks after the first visit, M returned to T’s desk. Now, M was angry about T being away from the cubicle too often, bothering coworkers, and relying too heavily on the assistance of others. M said the completed work looked like the copied work of other designers, and that if T did not change tactics, they would be fired.
T was determined to get it right and to please M. In the next week, T balanced artistic vision with help from others. T took each client project, created a first draft, and then emailed coworkers to ask for feedback if they had time and were willing. This way, T couldn’t be accused of stealing work from others or accused of being too new to work alone. T felt the clients and M would be happy with the new strategy.
On the following Monday, T was summoned to M’s office. M angrily explained that no designer should be as flexible as T, that the company didn’t want a designer who was easy to push around. It made no sense to T, because they had done exactly what was asked and they were a skilled graphic designer. T was told to clean out their cubicle and go home. They were fired. M was a terrible supervisor with a mean streak and a bad attitude, and T was glad to be leaving.
A hungry, trickster wolf may appear to be trying to save the lamb from being eaten, but expect that wolf to eat that lamb, no matter what they say or do.
Family Discussion Questions
Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.
In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
T is the lamb. M is the wolf. M is in control and threatening T’s job, and T is trying to please their boss M.
“The Wolf” is known to get angry and fire employees for no reason. M creates a fearful office environment. M wants employees to be afraid and doesn’t seem to care about the design work at all.
“Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
T could not have done anything to change M’s actions, and likely no change to T’s work would have been acceptable to M. But, in the modern workplace, there are other ways to deal with a difficult boss, and depending on the level of comprehension, the conversation can lead in this direction.
There are no wrong answers. Examples might be: Sad or happy to be fired. Scared or nervous of the boss’ anger. Angry at being yelled at for no good reason or for not having hard work recognized.
Wolves in Our Daily Lives
It has taken me nearly three decades to learn that my choices are my own, and I cannot choose for another what they will not choose for themselves. As a child, I was eager to please every person with whom I connected, and that led to a lot of difficult situations surrounding the expectations of others and the expectations I had for myself. Not everyone would be a friend. Not everyone would be acting rationally, morally, or in a justifiable way. No amount of helping, teaching, explaining, or placating could mollify the wolfish way.
Sometimes people will ask the impossible to test boundaries or cause damage. Sometimes people will ask others to bend over backwards just to watch them break in half. Sometimes people sense a person’s weakness and immediately wish to exploit it, rather than adapt to it. Sometimes people choose cruelty over kindness.
For some, this went without saying. For do-gooder, people-pleaser, rationalizing logicians like me, the question of why people act badly towards others was constantly on my mind. I, and others like me, have trouble accepting that we cannot always understand the actions of others, and that people may act irrationally, cruelly, aggressively, and immorally for no reason at all, or for reasons we simply can’t know. If we have done our best, striven to be good, and are still faced with difficulty, we must move forward as best we can, ask for help if we need it, and leave the search for answers behind.
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Wolf and The Lamb?
Do you know any lambs or wolves in your life? What qualities do they have? How would you describe them?
Comment below, and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
This is the 4th part in the Modern Retellings series. Catch up with the series:
Adapted from Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about value and competition. After the story, see the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, read on to learn more about the intention of the Modern Retelling series, and share with me your thoughts or fable ideas.
Friendly, Feathered Competition
(in 2-min or less)
J & R had a friendly competition over everything — who could hit the most homeruns, who would get higher grades, who had the better phone . They both wanted to learn how to drive and to have a sporty, fast car, and boasted about who would be driving first. They passed their driving tests on the same day. When J got home with the new license, there was a brand new Crisio Peacock waiting in the driveway! J texted a picture to R right away — victory! No car could beat this! R had also received a car when arriving home from the test — a 2010 Clumper Crane, which would need some work. At school the next day, J bragged to R that the Peacock was so much nicer than the Crane. “It’s brand new, fast and sporty, not like yours!” R replied easily, “A fancy new car is great and all, but your insurance premiums must be super high and you’ll need to pay for high-octane gas. The Peacock also has the worst safety and crash test ratings on the market. My Crane will survive any accident, last me for years, the insurance will cost me almost nothing, and with the money I’m saving, I can customize it, paint it, and really make it my own.” A few weeks later, J drove into the lot with a crumpled bumper and a bruised ego, and was shocked to find that R’s Crane was detailed and gleaming with the best speaker system he’d ever seen.
The Peacock’s feathers may be more brilliant and colorful, but the Crane knows that his dull gray feathers help him soar through the sky while the Peacock must remain on the ground, suffer the mud, and see those beautiful feathers grow dirty.
I suppose I am quite fortunate to have had parents who made dinner table conversation a priority. While a television played in the background, we’d discuss pieces of our days and catch up on topics of interest. I typically found myself in a way to criticize classmates or express exasperation at teachers- I was a bright, attentive kid, but difficult to challenge. How disappointing the world can be when you’re brilliant and bored — I was Sherlock without a case. I’d raise my hands at the table and expound, “Why do they have to do x like this? Wouldn’t it be better to do y instead?” There was no end to the frustration.
At this point, my father, utilizing the Socratic method, would begin asking me to think through decision trees and the potential motivations of others. While I could never be sure why someone had chosen a particular route, I could work out reasonings for deliberate choices that were made. (It wasn’t until much later I realized that not everyone makes deliberate choices. This was a facet of life that I learned from my mother — some of us swim with the current, some against, and some just allow the water to move us along.) This discussion method, Socratic questioning in particular, raised my empathetic awareness and has made me the person I am today.
I encourage you to open a dialog with loved ones. Use the fables as a starting place. Can you create another analogous, more modern adaptation of the Peacock and the Crane? Are there things that you covet that are not necessarily worth what they seem? Is there another fable or moral that stays with you, one that might be worth sharing with others?
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane?
Is there something you once coveted, but have since realized is not worth the price?
Is there any fable or story that made an impact on your empathy and the way you engage with the world?
Comment below and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
[TLDR: For the Quick Summary, please scroll to the Summary heading.]
Read on for the explanation.
Every parent I’ve ever met wants the best for their kid and parenting is a nonstop job. Parents work long hours, have big hearts, and push their kids to have the very best quality of life they can imagine. While working in-home with autistic kids, I always integrated family members into our sessions — they’d provide support long after I’d gone home for the night. I used my experience and training to give families the building blocks to strengthen their family ties and grow together.
The adage is true; It takes a village.
So now, it is with the best of intentions and my sincerest appreciation for our shared responsibilities that I bring something to your attention:
There is one question we need to stop asking.
I hear The Question so frequently that I honestly wonder about its ubiquity. How did we, as a culture, land on this one question as a means to an end?
It’s a simple and well-intentioned question that steps on its own toes, so to speak. It gets in its own way. Bites its own tongue. Circular reasons itself out of meaningfulness. Causes exactly what it’s attempting to prevent.
In real time, I’m powerless to stop it from being asked. The Question, this one small, well-meant colloquial adult-asks-kid scenario is so annoyingly antithetical to its purpose that I’m dedicating an entire entry to it (one that has been cut down from near-6k words.) It has the opposite effect for which it is meant. It reinforces the behavior intended to be changed.
How is the question raised?
Setting the Scene — Scenario
Jo and I are sitting at their dining room table. Jo is 10 years old, loves to play soccer, use metallic ink pens, and is intensely passionate about narrow interests. They have been diagnosed with co-morbid learning and communication delays. I visit their house several times a week, for a few hours at a time as a “tutor” and I “teach” social skills.
To this end, I use mirroring and modeling techniques, based on the iso-principle, to artificially match their energy and affect for pairing in the relationship. (Over time, I’ll use the technique less.) For now, it helps create a friendly foundation on which to build a learning environment. It also lets me briefly assess and evaluate the appropriate direction for today’s session in particular. There are many potential activities for us, but it’s Jo’s engagement that guides the choice. The session COULD be wacky and wildly energetic, replete with games, songs, and stories. Or, like today, it could be a quiet and reserved approach.
Opening Lines — The Lead Up
Jo is not making eye contact, their hands are down, and their shoulders are drooping. After knowing Jo a few months, I’ve come to expect the ebb and flow (aka dysregulation) of Jo’s emotions and I’ve consistently encouraged them to do what feels comfortable in any given moment.
Jo has unique social and communication needs. They‘re learning how to speak with people (not at them), how to empathize with others, and how to create friendships from incidental connections. They will practice with me, in routine and naturalistic ways, small skills that add up to big strides with me and then slowly generalized to others. My responsibility is to present the complexity of skills into easily manageable, repeatable, and quantifiable behaviors, then guide them to chain the skills together in useful, less mechanistic ways. I don’t expect Jo to learn all of these skills at once. For today, it’s okay if they can’t make eye contact. It’s okay if we sit quietly together for a few minutes without speaking, if they cannot return my greeting, or if they cannot respond to any question I ask. These are the most important skills I’m hoping to model, and we have all of our time together to practice them.
Even if Jo and I have achieved a richly engaging conversation in the past, I don’t anticipate or push for one. Jo is growing their understanding of back-and-forth social exchanges. In the meantime, I know through experience that there’s no sense in forcing them to interact. Over time, I’ll use reinforcement, repetition, role play, singing, game play, and other techniques, to teach this complex task which comes naturally to some, but not so to others.
Enter Mom and the Question of the Ages
Le had greeted me at the door and shown me into the room where Jo waits. She stands in the doorway as Jo and I take our places at the table, hovering expectantly as many moms do. After a beat, she begins shifting her weight uncomfortably as she recognizes what I’ve mentioned: Jo’s disengagement.
Le’s main goal for having me here is to enhance Jo’s communication abilities and the quality of their social interactions. She wants them to make friends more easily. She is very eager to see them communicate with others the way they only seem to communicate with her. Jo CAN talk, after all, but they sometimes struggle to speak genuinely with anyone other than Le. She’s concerned about their daily interactions, especially with adolescence on the horizon. I’ve done my best to educate Le to moderate her expectations. Her relationship with them will always be unique. They are actually very typical for a neurodivergent kid. These skills can take time, and it’s time we must all be ready for.
Let’s Begin — Jo and Me (and apparently, Le)
While I stack my notebooks and pull out my metallic pens, I can sense Le’s discomfort and anticipation. Jo may sense it too. It’s not helping Jo in the slightest.
I model for Le while also seeking Jo’s engagement. I prompt Jo, softly, patiently.
How was your day, Jo?
Good, Jo continues looking at their lap.
What would you like to talk about?
I did something fun today.
Can I tell you about my fun day?
In my head, I’m figuring out the path for this session. I’m using questions to provide opportunities. I’m evaluating the day’s objectives, informed by the overall communication goal and the presenting affect. Given their reserved responses, I’m planning to move to a medium with less conversation, like a worksheet, a music intervention, or a game. It will take the spotlight pressure off.
Jo turns to see Le hovering in the corner by the door. They look up at her, avoiding my gaze completely. (They are nonverbally seeking assistance.) Seeing their head turn, in the way of most well-meaning parents, Le rushes to Jo’s aid and inadvertently asks the most nonfunctional yet somehow pervasive question.
I try and signal Le not to speak, knowing the question is coming, but without rudely cutting her off, there’s nothing I can do. I silently observe Le as she, with the best intentions, reinforces Jo’s communication strife.
The Question that Answers Itself
“Did you tell Lori about … ?” Le prompts.
It’s a common phrasing. Meaningless in this situation, yet we use it regularly. It’s an error that sets my teeth on edge. It does nothing to help the child break out of their shell or learn appropriate interactions. It doesn’t enhance the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t model natural conversation and it doesn’t encourage social exploration. But, as I’ve said, Le’s mistake is a mistake we all make from time to time with kids. Le already knows the answer, and Jo knows she knows.
You Already Know
Whatever follows the question doesn’t matter.
Did you tell Lori about the field trip you went on yesterday?
Did you tell Grandma whathappened over the weekend?
Did you tell your friend where we went after football practice?
Did you tell your teacher about your new shoes?
Did you tell [person][event/thing/action]?
And so on.
Varying Responses with Only One Result
“Did you tell Lori about the field trip?“
Jo, like most kids, responds by sitting quietly without responding. Jo, in a difficult moment, has successfully passed the communication reins to Le, and will now have Le lead the conversation.
Jo looks self-conscious. The thing they didn’t mention is red ink on the page. Jo hasn’t said anything at all, their mom knows it, and yet, their mom has put them in a situation to either say “no” or not respond at all. The question does not open a line of dialog — it creates an end point.
To incorporate the framing of the question, I turn my body toward her saying something to the effect of, “Jo will tell me when they’re ready,” and then turn back to Jo and ask a direct, potentially related, question. Whatever I ask will be open-ended enough to allow Jo the agency of responding, as Le has already removed the agency of choosing a subject. I might ask something like:
Jo, where did you go on your field trip?
Who was on the field trip with you?
Did you take a bus with your class, or ride in a car?
Unfortunately for Jo, Le feels tired of Jo not responding, and wants to show them what to do. Before I can leave space and ask Jo a direct question, Le jumps in again:
You went to the museum, right? Tell Lori about the museum, and what your teacher said.”
In every case that I’ve seen using the “Did you tell…” framing followed by an additional piece of information, every kid, just like Jo, repeats back whatever was said and falls silent again. Jo:
We went to a museum.
This isn’t a natural conversation, and Jo doesn’t even have a starring role in it. I can ask whatever I want now, Jo will likely only shrug or look back to Le. Over time, Jo and Le have adapted this likely unconscious routine, where Jo has difficulty initiating, Le fills in the blanks, and Jo parrots back a response enough to appease me, or any adult Jo is expected to talk to.
An Easy Mistake with Lasting Consequences
In an effort to persuade Jo to begin talking, Le is fabricatinga situation for them to rely on another person to start talking.
In this instance, Le is not teaching them to speak. She is speaking for Jo in a somewhat condescending way. Perhaps Jo doesn’t want to discuss the field trip with me, or perhaps there’s something else on their mind. Maybe they were waiting on a better time to bring it up, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk at all. Le has removed Jo’s agency, likely in response to their own discomfort with our mutual silence.
It’s completely well-intentioned. It’s also detrimental. Le may be the person who saves her friends from awkward conversations at cocktail parties, but her child is also relying heavily on her to do so every day.
If you’re not sure why “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is bad, here are 4 glaring issues I’ve seen in practice.
1. “You KNOW I didn’t”
“Did you tell…?” No, and you know it! Le knows Jo has not told me this story, she’s been standing there the whole time! In no way does this resemble a natural, conversational style. Issue 1: Modeling Unnatural Interaction
2. Insinuating “You should/could have mentioned…”
“Did you tell…?” In natural conversational style, the way most of us would respond to being asked this question would be to say “No I didn’t tell…” followed by actually telling or giving a reason why we haven’t told yet.
Jo doesn’t have a natural conversational style; it’s why they’re working with me. By asking this, Le is expecting Jo to have mastered this part of dialog we take for granted, insinuating they should have mentioned the thing, and holding Jo to a test they can likely at this stage only fail. Issue 2: Setting the Bar Too High While Simultaneously Acknowledging It’s Unreached
3. “Don’t put me on the spot!”
The self-awareness required to answer the question correctly is almost always accompanied by feelings of shyness, discomfort, or poor self-esteem. Le put Jo on the spot to discuss something they picked, and does so repeatedly on a regular basis. After this interaction with me, Jo typically lashes out in anger, at agreed upon boundaries or at themselves.
“Did you tell…?”
“Man, why didn’t I think of telling them about that?” or “I didn’t want to mention that — but now I guess we have to talk about it.”
Issue 3: Creating Feelings of Inadequacy or Poor Self-Esteem
4. “What do I do now?”
“Did you tell…?” is a prompt that reinforces the dependent relationship, and the more it’s used, the more deeply it’s entrenched in their interactions. Jo will wait to be prompted by Le to speak, and will rely on Le for the appropriate topic in any given moment. What will Jo do when Le is not around? Perhaps, lead the conversation alone, but in my experience, if this is a routine occurrence, Jo will clam up or wait to be directed when Le is not around. And who will Jo take prompts from? Potentially, anyone. Issue 4: Conditioning Unwanted Behavior
Show, Don’t Tell
Every adult who interacts with Jo has a responsibility to model natural conversation, so that Jo is able to begin to implement what they learn in our sessions. If Le feels like she must jump in, she can say to me, “Jo went on a field trip today. Maybe they’ll tell you about that when they’re ready.”
Jo’s responsibility is to communicate to the best of their ability, whatever that may be today. They do not need to make me feel comfortable, to act outside of their nature perform for me. They may or may not be aware that communication is even expected, which is completely and totally okay.
It’s my responsibility to show and not tell how I start conversations, what topics are good jumping-off points, and the mechanisms by which our language is figurative, inferential, casual, and anticipatory.
Recapping the Question Not to Ask
When asking “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you are inadvertently and with the best of intentions:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
An Addendum for Minimally Verbal Children
“Minimally Verbal”, or occasionally “Nonverbal”, is the descriptive term therapists use for those who use functional language minimally (if at all).
The Question is Still Problematic
For the minimally verbal, “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is potentially even more detrimental. For functionally verbal children like Jo, the question is problematic for all the reasons listed above. For minimally verbal children with difficulties processing or understanding language, the question reinforces the wrong idea. In this instance, following
Did you tell Lori we went to the park?
will frequently be answered with either an incorrect answer or an echo.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “Yes.” No, you didn’t. Tell Lori we went to the park.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “the Park.”
The responses are not functional. The child doesn’t understand what is being asked. In most cases, parents then respond positively —
“The park.” “Yes! That’s right! We went to the park!”
Functionally, the child sees a happy parent and hears praise. The child will now be conditioned to respond the same way following each “Did you” question.
Did you eat lunch? “Yes. Eat lunch.”
Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes.”
Did the lunch person help you with your lunchbox? “Lunchbox.”
Did you know you forgot your lunch? “Yes.” But did they know?
It is truly amazing to watch as minimally verbal children begin to process language with more specific intervention. For some, with exposure to more concise and deliberate language patterns, start they begin to parse through sentence structure and notice jokes, inference, etc. Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes………Noooooo….” Their faces light up with an inkling of confidence and a dawning of understanding. Not everyone will get to this point of understanding, however.
If you believe a minimally verbal child is either repeating the last word or responding yes or no without truly understanding to a Did you question, remove the prompt from your vocabulary until the child has more of an understanding of Yes/No, Present/Past, and until “You did, You didn’t” is more readily understood.
Other Suggestions for Avoiding the “Did You” Question
Give the therapist or teacher a head’s up. Prior to the session, email/call/text, out of the child’s earshot, and give the details about the child’s day. A good therapist will hear that a child was excited to buy new shoes and will guide the conversation naturally in that direction to allow the child the opportunity for success — if they want to, are able to, and feel comfortable doing so.
Write it down with your child! For children with communication deficits, a small bullet journal of potential conversation topics can go a long way. Each night, have the child think back to what was notable about the day — trips, events, funny moments, fights, whatever they might want to talk about. Write a small reminder for each, or draw a small picture, and then get in the habit of having that book available during the session and beyond. The act of reflecting on a regular basis will help the child to understand what is expected when someone asks “What did you do today?” or “What do you want to talk about?”
If you feel you must prompt, then change up the question. Give a gentle verbal reminder that does not begin with “Did you tell…” There are a lot of ways to do this. Use names and speak plainly so it is clear who is talking to who and ask questions that lead in a specific, but open direction, rather than yes/no.
Lori, yesterday Jo and I went shopping.
Jo, Lori wants to hear about your new shoes.
Lori, you have GOT to hear about this. Jo, tell Lori about our trip to the mall.
Jo, it looks like Lori is wearing new sneakers — you and Lori have that in common. What can you ask her about her sneakers?
These prompts aren’t ideal because they still create boundaries to Jo developing their own natural conversational style, but these prompts are infinitely better than the defeating “did you” prompt.
4. Simply, let it go. That’s right. Just let it go. Let the therapist work. Let the child make progress. Let the moment proceed all on its own. Let everyone sit in what is perceived to be an uncomfortable silence. What made your child excited yesterday, may currently not have the same effect. It was a special moment for the two of you, but not necessarily something to talk about. Perhaps once the session is over, the child will point out that special thing, or wait for the therapist to notice.
If there’s no way to prompt the therapist privately or prompt your child in an open-ended manner, ask yourself — how necessary is my intervention in this moment? Can I let this go? Typically, yes, yes you can.
Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter.
It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills.
By asking the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you may be:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
4. Instead, replace “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” try:
Contact the people the child is going to be talking to ahead of time, so they know what to ask about directly.
Help the child keep a bulleted or pictorial reflection journal as a conversational assistant.
Use a gentle, different verbal reminder, and be open to the child’s answer even if it isn’t on your intended topic.
Let the topic go.
No promises, but…
Jo is a special kid. They’re gifted in their own way. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes very engaging. You may not even know what they are capable of. If you let them develop without prodding, you’ll be amazed at the potential they have. Trust me when I tell you, it will be worth the wait when you hear him learn new skills, gain confidence, and begin to engage others with ease.
I would love to hear your comments, questions, additions, or anecdotes.
Leave a line below or share this post with someone who may benefit.
As a former teacher and therapist, who worked in-home with kids and their families, I primarily assessed social and communication skills. With the support of a team, I facilitated lessons, sessions, and experiences designed to assist in the learning process. The treatment plans for each child were as unique as the children themselves, as were the strategies and methods of structuring sessions. No two sessions, even with the same kid, were ever identical.
When You Teach Kids, They Teach You
There were many things I learned from this work that I intend to share over time, but one lesson remains with me on a daily basis. It informs my incidental interactions with children (and even adults) and has strengthened my own social capital and confidence. It’s a lesson that’s apparent where ever parents interact with their children — shopping in the grocery store, walking through the park, driving in the car, getting ready for bed.
It may sound like a trivial piece of advice. It may seem obvious. However, I can promise, if you dedicate more attention to this one tenet, you will see positive results.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
I Mean Literally
This was the lesson I repeated to parents again and again- parents who struggled to limit screen time, to hold a firm bedtime rule, to navigate dinner table disagreements, among other difficulties. Say exactly what you mean.
Often the things that seem obvious to adults are not actually obvious at all.
Before I offend anyone, I’m not saying there’s never a time not to tell the truth to kids, or that by speaking literally everything will be different. Modeling what you expect from kids is critical in their development. By being literal, you’re showing them that you expect their words to hold weight too. And awareness of the potential to miscommunicate across a language comprehension divide is huge — and knowing their comprehension level is key. Like so many of us who speak conversationally with kids, what is said, what is meant, and what is heard could be three different truths.
When I worked with kids who struggled with figurative language, autistic children and others, I learned to hone in on phrases that were confusing, vague, or misleading. Some subjects came up in more often than others.
“Just a second, I’ll be right there!” Parent calls out when Child requests help from the other room.
Does Child understand that Parent means actually now, or a minute, a few minutes, ten minutes? Maybe, if this is a constant in the dialogue.
But does the literal clocked time of “a second” in this context shift based on the scenario, time of day, type of request, reigning emotion? Likely.
Will the child use the same technique back at their parent when they’re about to miss the bus, when they’re late to brush their teeth, when they don’t want to stop playing a game, or whenever it feels as if they’re stalling? Definitely.
The parent models. The child follows.
Instead, it is much more effective to be direct and honest as often as possible. Here are some examples:
“I will be there in 2 minutes. Please wait for me downstairs and we can talk then.”
“Dinner is in 13 minutes. In 6 minutes, I’m going to ask you to set the table.”
“YouTube time is limited to 45 minutes today and then I will hold your phone while you put your shoes on.”
Time Awareness is Learned, Not Intuited
Many of the parents I worked with reported that their child had ‘no sense of time’. This wasn’t referring to clock reading (although that is also a typical cause of parental concern), but Time Awareness — the ability to mentally track or estimate a specific amount of time in between two events.
It came up in a lot of “behavioral” situations when parents described their kids’ behavior. For example, they woke up for school, hit snooze, and demanded five more minutes repeatedly. It led to lateness, arguments, unruliness, and general angst. It started the day off poorly and was something of a routine. Now what?
Some kids learned time awareness faster than others. It could be picked up through game play, curiosity, recreational sports, or music play. But not every child learned it at the same speed, if at all. And there were strategies I used to help children learn this critical skill. (I’ll explain those strategies in a later entry.) Suffice it to say, time awareness was something that could be learned. To start, parents should focus on modeling expectation and using direct language.
The change to literal time language will be critical. One success story stands out in my mind.
Jim was a 12-yr-old soccer player and liked to watch videos of kids playing soccer and doing soccer tricks on his phone. Liked to might be an understatement. Watching these and other types of videos was getting in the way of dinnertime, homework, and bedtime routines. Despite his mom’s typical prompting (something like “off the phone, now”), he could not or would not put the phone down.
After working with me (and me teaching his parents), Jim started using more direct language, asking for “3 more minutes” on a video (because he became aware of the time remaining), much to his mom’s delight. Before, Mom would say “Now,” and he would repeat or parrot phrases like “be right there,” “I’m coming,” “just a second,” which had become a refrain that meant nothing literally. One video would play into the next and Jim couldn’t understand that he wasn’t actually ‘right there’ at all. Mom replaced Now with Soon with 5 minutes and at the end of this video, giving more lead time and appropriate prompting, and Jim learned to be much more aware and direct.
Time as a Vague Command
“You’re in time-out until I say so.”
If the child is too young to understand time, this is an arbitrary, flexible, and mostly meaningless statement. When will you say so? Now? Is it over yet? Are we there yet? The child likely complains the entire time, asks to get up, moves around. If there is a lesson to be learned with the time-out, or if it was intended to assist in calming, the focus has shifted entirely to the child demanding to be free and ramping up emotionally in louder ways.
If this was the experience of a time-out, time-outs may not have been effective at all, as some parents communicated to me. If utilized with literalexactness and intention, however, time-outs can be incredibly effective.
Time-Outs Require Practiced, Calm Directions for Calming Results
Instead of until I say so, a better approach to proffer a time-out is:
“It is not okay to [explain undesirable behavior calmly]. Sit -describe location- for -exact time in minutes-, and then time-out will be over and [desired behavior].”
Then set a visible timer — a digital timer, a kitchen timer, a marked analog clock, even an hour glass — and donotrespond to the child until the time frame has passed. If they leave the seat, silently steer them back and reset the timer. Ignore yelling, name-calling, and other verbal time-out demands. (Silence was never requested in the time-out directions. If quiet is an important part of the time-out, and the child is capable of being quiet, make that expectation clear in the directions as well.)
It is vital that the language used to initiate the time-out is delivered calmly and directly. A rule was broken, and there is a measurable consequence to breaking it.
Likely, the first attempt will be like the previous, but with repeated effort on a parent’s part, this can work wonders.
It’s also important to adjust the time given accordingly for the child’s abilities and for the particular misdeed. Depending on the child, sitting for a full 60-seconds might require a lot of focus, and that minute could suffice as a starter time-out. Time-outs should fit the child’s developmental ability, the delivered instruction, and the circumstance of the misbehavior — in that order.
Additionally, some kids are truly not able to sit in time-out, or time-out may not be appropriate, and different tactics and techniques may be required. Consult with a care professional for appropriate alternatives. It is never okay to use physical discipline. Do not ever restrain, spank, or harm a child as a consequence or punishment- research and human decency have shown us how harmful and ineffective those parental choices can be.
Hate & Love
“I really hate my boss for making me work late today.”
Hate is a very strong emotion, especially in a child’s mind, though we use it colloquially in all sorts of situations. It represents the pinnacle of anger and dislike. Unfortunately, unlike on scripted TV, kids don’t usually ask, “Do you really hate your boss?” offering a family-friendly opportunity for the parent to explain more in-depth. Hate becomes a less-than-powerful word, hosting many meanings, when modeled in this way.
Then, when the child is in a class with a teacher who assigns homework, the language erupts forcefully, I hate you, Mx Soandso, and I hate school! While it wasn’t the parent’s intention, they’ve helped pattern their child’s behavior, and now the kid’s relationship to their learning environment suffers as a result.
Exact language is carried with a child into every part of their world.
“I love this show, it’s the best!”
Love is also a strong word, perhaps the strongest of the positive emotions. The people, animals, and objects we LOVE are those we care for and never wish to part from. Some children may understand inherently that when their parents tells them they love them, they love in a different way than when they say theylovetrue crime dramas, but other children may not.
Then the problem may arise like this:
Parent: It’s time to get into bed.
Child: But I LOVE this show.
It gets more complicated when parents insist verbally that their child loves or hates something. Most children have volatile emotions — primarily because their brains are still developing sensory processing, emotional processing, coping patterns, and comprehension structures. A child may seem to hate something one day, but love it the next, and needs the modeled leeway to move freely through these states as they begin to use newly forming reasoning skills. If a child has a strong reaction to a certain toy, love and hate may not really be the issue. Try not to assign a word the child hasn’t used or one emotion may be cross-comprehended as something else entirely.
Take this example from my caseload:
Ray was given a toy truck with flashing lights and loud sounds for her 4th birthday. She had asked for it many times at the store and her Dads wanted her to enjoy it as much as she seemed to want it. She played with the truck a few times and really seemed to enjoy it. Then, a week after her birthday, Dad Bryan offered the truck to her, pressing the button to flash the lights and make the sounds, and Ray began to scream.
Bryan responded with You hate this? I thought you loved this? You love this truck. Then he pressed the buttons again hoping Ray would react differently. Ray became inconsolable. Bryan said, I guess you hate this, then took the toy away, and told Dad Mike that the child hated the toy and started to joke openly around the house about how fickle little Ray was about gifts. In actuality, Ray’s reaction likely had little to do with the toy itself.
Mike understood that Ray’s reactions aren’t always tied to the things we think they are. He told Bryan, Okay, we’ll play with this toy another day, in earshot of Ray. Then Mike left the truck in the toy room and offered something different to Ray, this time a truck without lights or sounds. Mike assumed that Ray’s reaction was not specifically tied to ‘loving’ or ‘hating’ the toy.
Mike was right. The next day, Ray was feverish. The day she hated the truck was the day she was developing an ear infection, with no outward sign. When she recovered, Mike and Bryan offered the truck toy again, and Ray accepted it gleefully, as though the screaming had never happened.
Instead of love and hate for less-than situations, use like and dislike where appropriate, and give reasoning whenever possible.
Shades of preference are best developed early and modeled often.
Instead of loving this show and hating my boss:
“I dislike working late because I miss spending time with you.”
“I like watching this show because …”
In this way, modeling more exact language and more patterned reasoning skills develops a hierarchy of preference. Love and hate should be reserved for the most extreme and literal circumstances.
When it comes to identifying a child’s preference, instead of you love and you hate in assumption, better phrases are:
“It seems you don’t want this truck today.”
“When I talk to you and you don’t answer, I feel sad. It seems that you enjoy your phone, but I love talking with you.”
The language we use is full of exaggerations, allusions, and shades of meaning. The interpretation and comprehension of the words we say varies widely — for cultural, developmental, and personal reasons, among others.
Often, we expect that kids will understand our meaning — catch the drift — read between the lines — and this expectation leads to strife and future miscommunication, often patterned early by parents and repeated later by their children.
Nothing is permanent, however. I’ve seen many times how a willing parent, attending to their exact words, can literally change the relationship they have with their child, reduce angst, and improve communication.
It may take weeks but it is worth the effort for the ones you love and the reactions you hate.