Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

How to control your children

This essay is about parenting, power and control, about how to be comfortable exerting power over your child, and about knowing why and when and how to do it. It’s mainly about autistic children.

Everyone wants their child to be happy and successful, and I am assuming that is our common basis for what we do with our children. But there are some myths and fantasies about the nature of happiness and success that can get in the way.

What are the myths about happiness?

First, there is the widespread assumption that children need to reach developmental milestones on time, and that will help them be happy and successful. If a child is not talking by 18 months, parents may feel that something has to be done about it. If they are below grade level, not making friends when their age-mates are, or not interacting the way you expect, then you may feel they are behind. It may be impossible to imagine how someone could grow up and have a career and be independent when they aren’t talking or won’t do school work, and the tendency is to focus on the milestone that they are not meeting, and push them along towards those desired life markers.

In earlier times, people could compare their children’s development with only a few others, and perhaps there has always been social pressure and theories about the best way to raise a child, but now we have something new – statistics based on millions of children. Psychologists have observed countless children and figured out exactly when they say their first word, start walking, and so on – on average. The more we know about averages, the more the differences between our own children and averages seem to be magnified. Then we may want to make those differences go away. Ironically, the more we know about the science of development, the less we accept variation.

It is an error in thinking to to interpret the scientific observations of averages in child development as if they are prescriptions for each child. With my daughter, this error was first applied in the second trimester of her fetal development. The midwife had a chart of weight gain by week of pregnancy, and the numbers on that chart were derived from averages from observation of a great many pregnancies. The midwife tested the weight gain of the baby and said she was below the normal line, and therefore (and here is the error), she should be made to gain more weight. According to the midwife, not being normal was itself the problem. Although it is true that slow weight gain can be a red flag or an indicator of some potentially threatening condition, that was not the concern of the midwife, and there were no tests made for any such condition. She just wanted the fetus to be normal. She suggested that the mother eat more ice cream, as a way to change the number, regardless of the actual health effect of that approach. Had all that scientific data not been available, that mistake could not have been made.

From pregnancy on, professionals are always telling us what normal is (because science is good at that), and we are getting more and more detailed about how normal development is defined. But we need to understand that all of these details, while they may be interesting, are averages and not prescriptions.

Happiness does not come from being normal or average. (Have you met someone who claims their happiness comes from being normal or average?) People are happy when they are moving on their growth path, not when their appearances are measuring up to a psychologist-defined growth path.

One of the dangers of a focus on milestones is that when the child “fails” to meet them, the focus of intervention becomes failure-oriented or remedial. Once we start believing something is wrong, we focus on the failure instead of the success, and that kind of environment programs failure into the child. To repeat, the myth is that all children supposedly need to reach the developmental milestones that are derived from population averages. The reality is that each persons path is different, and variance from averages is not failure. This is true regardless of the amount of variance – a person who appears (from the outside) to be extremely autistic is no more or less a failure on their path than anyone else, and they are not necessarily any less happy because of their not meeting your milestone expectations.

So far I’ve been talking about the first of six myths – the myth that happiness comes from normal development.

A second myth is that interfering with a child’s natural development is hurtful. The logic of this myth is that there is a “natural” expression of needs, and it is the parents’ job to set up an environment where the child is free to be anything they want to be, or even do anything they want. In the extreme, this leads to parents being unwilling to impose anything for fear of squashing the child’s creativity. Practicalities of this approach aside, it is based on a false assumption that people are primarily separate individuals. People are largely formed by relationships, and there is no such thing as an interference-free developmental path. You can choose how to relate, but choosing not to relate is abandonment. Their happiness and basis of success in life grows from your love and your happiness, not from a lack of structure. Living in highly structured rule-bound environments does not prevent happiness.

A third myth is that suffering is bad and should be avoided. This leads some parents to carefully choreograph the children’s lives to avoid any pain and suffering. Anyone who has had their lives so arranged finds their source of suffering somewhere, anyway. Suffering does not block happiness; we need both. And we need practice with both.

A fourth myth is that having material success, ease, affluence, or other benefits given to you leads to happiness. If you believe this, you may have wondered why, in pictures of African villages where the life expectancy is very low and people have very few material comforts, they often seem to be happy. It’s not an illusion; happiness comes from the spiritual and relational dimensions; not from stuff. And, it comes from the movement and the work, not from the arrival. Unhappy people who suddenly get things, or even win a lottery, do not necessarily become happy. People who work for things, or who work through their suffering, can be happy because of the movement that they experience towards their successes.

A fifth myth is that success is externally measured – such as income and job titles. If you want your child to really be happy, you will want them to be successful in whatever way they measure that internally. Success is connecting the inner story to meeting needs, so that she is the agent who makes sure her needs are met. A person feels successful and happy when advancing towards their dreams, not when advancing towards society’s idealized concept of success.

And the final myth is that when parents selflessly sacrifice their own lives to devote everything to the children, that this benefits the children. The reality is that happiness does not transmit that way; it is more of a two way relationship that depends on the parents’ happiness. It’s also not a reasonable goal to fix their life at the expense of yours; both of you need a life that works for both of you.

People grow up to be successful adults after they have been successful at being children. The rest of this chapter will go over control techniques and the reasons for them, geared towards success in the present, which will invariably set the stage for success in the future.

How much control do parents need?

There are two dimensions of control that need consideration: what aspect of their life is under your control, and how absolute that control is.

  • You can control behavior, but not motivations, desires, feelings or any other mental state. You can never control who someone is, only what they do. Trying to make them be someone is damaging.
  • Within the realm of behavior, you can only control the two margins: the minimum required and the maximum allowed. It is impossible and damaging to try to control behavior that falls between the two margins.

To make this clear, here is an example of a guest coming over. The child has a minimum required set of actions – such as: she must say hello, she must sit at the table, and so on. Your minimums depend on who you are and who she is, but the important things is they are actions, not internals. You can’t require her to like the guest or to want dessert. Some children cannot say hello or sit at the table, so of course your particular minimums depend on that. You also have maximum limits: she may not make excessive noise, or hit or insult people. Again those maximums depend on who you are.

There are potentially a lot of things that could be beyond the limits, that you reasonably need control over, like poor manners, soaking up all your time, destruction of things, and when she eats and sleeps. She has to be safe, and others need to be safe from her. You need to balance her needs with yours. All of this control is in the margins, which should ideally cover only 25-50% of her life. In other words you prioritize safety and other major things, and you only control part of what she does, and you drop the small stuff. This leaves the rest of her time to her, which I will call the joyful middle.


The joyful middle

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Micro-interactions are just interactions, looked at in small scale. A main interaction might be that we are eating dinner. A mciro-interaction might be that I reach for a napkin and you move the ketchup out of the way, while you continue to talk. That might seem too little to bother talking about – people might say it is random or trivial. But I want to talk about it anyway because this level of interaction feels really important to me lately. It highlights our neurological connections and differences, more than when you look at it on a larger scale. Sometimes the micro-interactions are very supportive and sometimes they are repressive. If you moved the ketchup, it means you cared and noticed what I was doing.

Micro-interaction experiences

The most recent example that brings this to life is: I had a friend from Autreat visit last week and she brought her partner, and the three of us went out to eat. After that we wandered on the college campus, only because we didn’t know what else to do and it was very windy. We explored art exhibits and theaters in the fine arts complex. When something caught the attention of one of us, we’d stop and allow the thing to make an impression on the others. As we got to a door or intersection, or some other choice in where to go, there was no effort to control the other two people; we were all attentive to the others and would stop and wait for the direction to become a three-way decision. We stood there until the direction took shape, without looking at each other or even always explicitly saying “let’s go this way.” I saw much more in the signs and murals and other objects than I would have without my friend. Little things became bigger.

On another day I was with my wife and noticed that walking in the snow on a hill would send little snowballs down the hill, for a long way. Sometimes they went 200 feet before stopping, and they formed wheels that made different tracks – dotted lines or wavy lines. If you went out to make snowball tracks on purpose, you would probably find it was impossible because the conditions have to be very precise for that to happen. But we weren’t looking for that; we were just open to anything. I remarked that this kind of stopping to notice small things rarely happens with more than two people. Most social conditions are loaded with power differences that make me shut down and incapable of noticing these small things. But it does happen with intimate partners.

A few years ago I was putting a set of board games into a big canvas bag and my autistic friend helped. She alternated with me, putting the next box that would fit properly, all without words. We were equal agents in a larger goal of cleaning up, and seeing this happen was a surge of happiness. Others might use the games-in-a-bag situation to try to win, force me to do it a different way, try to get ego points for “helping”, or some other competitive reason. We just flowed, so flowingly that no words or eye contact was needed, no putting oneself out there, no propping oneself up, no polite gesturing, so much that someone watching might think we weren’t interacting at all. If they thought that, they would be missing the micro-interaction. We were under the radar.

At another time I was at a table with an autistic person and a neurotypical one. The NT was trying to get us to be “social” and was failing. Her questions were dull to me. When she had to leave she apologized and said something revealing that she thought she was the necessary link that made it possible for us two autistics to talk. But in reality she had been the barrier. As soon as she left, the two of us moved closer and looked very intently into each other and quietly shared much more important things than the NT was trying to pry out. This intimacy was there; it is always there and is similar to kind of intimacy you build in a partner relationship, but it wasn’t that; we weren’t even really friends and didn’t touch. All the professionals don’t seem to know about this; why can’t they see it?

At a dinner table with six autistic people another year, it was so memorable because the silences were so supportive of the real. One person would share a feeling, another would share a mental puzzle, another would share her vision of sacredness. It was unbounded by anything, as if no ego was present, and so intimate.

Another year a dinner table of all autistics and one NT really burned into my memory because the two levels of communication were so blatantly separated from each other. The NT carried forth as if she felt no one else was doing anything. She may have felt she had to make the conversation go on all by herself, so it felt like she was all the traffic going over a bridge – loud and visible. Yet the rest of us with higher perceptive sensitivity could interject lots of other things at the same time and carry on another level under the bridge. It was as if we were kids secretly kissing under the table while the adults provided a cover of noise above.

Another time I picked up an autistic person from her house, neither one of us having seen the other before. She skipped everything that would normally be called “social” and said “which one is your car?” It took us about three seconds to get beyond what most people need 15 minutes to do, and it was a relief. A minute later we were talking about childhood memories.

I met another friend last summer, which went so deep so fast, without many words. I wrote about that already.


All of these experiences among autistic people share some features: They are intense, empathic, non-verbal, and under the radar. There is no agenda or ego. There is tremendous space and openness. There is intense reciprocity – watching each other and being responsive. According to theory, we do not do these things. And we don’t normally do them when being watched by people who make these theories. Sometimes we do them in plain sight and are still not noticed, but normally we cower and just wait until no one is watching to be that way.

I experience this a tiny fraction of my life. Is this available to all autistics? To everyone? Do others experience this a lot more often than me? I don’t know.

I want to set up environments where this happens more. In the retreat center (that I’m planning) I hope that there will be enough autistic leadership that even though non-autistic people may be frequently in the majority, we will be able to keep this going without cowering. Maybe we can be open enough that other people will notice; maybe they will open up to it at times.

I want to capture it on video too. It isn’t one of those paranormal things that defies being recorded. But it may be hard to capture because it is fleeting. I want to capture all kinds of micro-interactions, not only these energizing ones that I describe here, but also any interaction – painful, neutral, or otherwise – that reveals neurological affinity and style. I think that having people know about this in general would be a great thing.

NT’s seem to connect power with language. Is all symbolic communication a power game? It all seems intentional and premeditated, and that is a form of wielding power. But at the emotional level, there is no hiding and no winning and that’s what feels so great about it.


Perhaps our best communication is less based in language, more sub-linguistic, somehow under the radar of the NT’s understanding. I’m not making a distinction between verbal and non-verbal, but more of a distinction between symbolic and emotional. Typical communication is said to be mostly non-verbal, but the non-verbal parts are still symbolic and intentional. Autistics tend to be better at catching the verbal than the non-verbal, but at the same time we seem to be better at the emotional than the symbolic.

I had started this line of thought with the idea that spoken words were somehow the highest or most evolved form of communication, but now I’m seeing it more like this diagram. Like any diagram, it isn’t true; it is forcing a mental concept onto reality. It puts the spoken language in the middle and suggests that the NTs shift towards the upper levels which are power-wielding, while autists (when in the flow?) tend to focus more at the lower levels which are more equalizing and direct.


I’m not sure any interaction is “macro”, except a belief that the little interactions add up to more than the sum of the parts. When I fall for that belief, it tends to be more scripted and I don’t feel I’m participating in any interaction at all. Somehow when the interaction is tiny, it feels more authentic and I’m part of it. Has this happened to you? Why do you think it is related? Maybe the more direct interactions are just faster because words and power plays don’t slow them down.