Dear Sara…

“It is so important to get really clear on what your needs are, so you can take care of them before you make requests of your child.”
~Lori Petro

This week I tackle the issue of introducing chores and allowance. A parent writes…

penniesHi Sara,

How do I begin to engage my kids in helping out around the house. I don’t want to do a reward system or have any tasks linked to money. I want to be able to lead by example (which I am trying) however I would like to start encouraging some responsibility (helping put their dish in the sink, take some responsibility of their toys and specific items. I have read a lot on different postings on the FB respectful parenting group and some people have a view that it is not their responsibility- the adults bring these items into the environment etc. I definitely understand that perspective however I am still trying to honor my feelings of helping my kids understand the value and power of being responsible and ultimately organization and efficiency as an adult. I myself am working on these tasks and verbally have expressed that to my boys. For example: “Rhys and Colin if you see that I haven’t put my books/papers/shoes in their spot they belong, let me know. We are working together to keep our home nice and comfortable”. What are your thoughts?





Hi Becky,

So…this is such a great question and I have several points I’d like to make. First, I’d like to just acknowledge your desire to keep any external and monetary incentives out of the whole approach to housework, and keep the focus on a shared, collaborative effort to make your home comfortable for everyone! This is the perfect way to frame things for young children because it is based on logical consequences (toys all over the floor=tripping hazards etc.), and gives them ample opportunities to develop a sense of belonging and ownership in your shared space. It should be that a family works together to help make the home not just habitable, but comfortable and uniquely yours. It also promotes intrinsic motivation, which creates a deeper sense of meaning for children regarding things like chores and encourages self-driven discovery and mastery as they grow. For more on that look here.

Sometimes what sparks the idea of an allowance is when children this age start to become aware of, and interested in money. It’s important to note that this concept is still very abstract for them. If they have expressed an interest in saving for a toy etc. it’s best to offer a small allowance without any strings attached.

(I can hear some people now “but HOW will they learn about the value of it if we don’t teach them?” or “I want them to learn to be responsible with money now!” or even “I don’t want to give them money for nothing.”)

This is the argument that I could understand if we were talking about teenagers, but not young children. I think at this stage in their development it’s important to follow their interest if they have brought it up, and answer their questions in age appropriate ways. And the truth is, they are still dependent on us and will be for quite some time. They don’t need any lessons on how to manage money now…it’s a skill they will grow into as they get older. I think it’s wonderful to give them small amounts of money freely, because everything in a young child’s world revolves around PLAY…even having and spending money.

I think you hit the nail on the head by saying you want to “lead by example.” Modeling being organized and efficient (or any other quality or behavior we’d like to impart) for children is crucial to their ability to internalize and embody those skills. I believe in a balanced approach to cleaning up and don’t swing too far on either the authoritarian (“clean up now or else!”) or permissive (“I’ll take care of everything”) side. I think it’s important to involve young children in the conversations and solutions that happen around what it takes to keep up a household.

Where it gets extra tricky are those times when they flat out REFUSE to clean up.

This is where trust comes in. And even more modeling. It also provides an opportunity to assess what all the factors at play are, and try to see things from their perspective.

Here is what I mean.

Sometimes children get genuinely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of toys to put away…do they maybe have too many and it’s time to put some in storage or donate them? Or perhaps they are tired, or hungry or simply don’t want to…is that okay with you? That’s an important thing to explore and get grounded in.

Do you think they need more time, or better systems in place (i.e. baskets to throw toys into etc.), or would they maybe benefit from making a plan to do the task at later time? The question arises…can you let it go in the moment and rely on faith that they will eventually grow up to be responsible? Or do you want to set a firm boundary and make this a non-negotiable in your house?

Whichever you choose, proceed with conviction and acknowledge and empathize with them if and when they grumble about it.

Mostly I would just be lighthearted about it, and offer to pitch in if they seem overwhelmed. Having it be a connected, family-centered activity where there is laughter, playfulness and cooperation (on your part) can often help alleviate any battles or tension that arise. Best of luck!

Warmly,  Sara


For a great article on introducing chores in a positive way look here.



The Child is the Curriculum

by Sara Zacuto


There is no need

For flashy things

The child is the curriculum

Don’t buy the stuff

(She shouts, she sings)

The child is the curriculum

If you follow close

Listen intently

Watch and learn

Ask and touch gently

They’ll tell you it’s true

Without words, without clues

That the child is the curriculum

All the world says…

They need to be taught

They simply must learn


Sit still, be quiet

Don’t touch and stop crying

Is the message we send

Without even trying

But what happens when we truly accept them, as is?

Follow their lead, without thinking to quiz?

Trust in their learning

Slow down and step back?

Give in to their lead

And cut them some slack?

They show us that they’re capable, worthy and strong

They prove our misguided theories so useless and wrong

The child is the curriculum

It’s my new heart-song


Dear Sara…

by Sara Zacuto

“Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be.”

~Shel Silverstein

This week a parent shares a timely question…


Hi Sara,

Question: What is real?

 For a while, maybe a year, our now 5-year-old son has asked questions about what is real, such as:

 “Are spaceships real?”

“Is Titanic real?”

“Were ghosts real in the olden times?”

Those are relatively easy questions to answer. But thrown into the mix are others, like “Is Santa real?” I don’t think there’s any kind of doubting going on, just a kind of curiosity. I don’t want to lie or say something misleading, but neither do I want to destroy the magical believing of childhood. Advice?

 Yours truly, Pat


Hi Pat!

I’ll start by saying that I absolutely love this stage of childhood where every aspect of reality is being thoroughly questioned and analyzed! I suppose it’s the philosopher in me, but I adore talking with children about the nature of perception, and hearing their theories. I just generally enjoy being intellectually critical with them and deeply appreciate all the unjaded viewpoints they offer. Which, without fail, always leads to the slippery Santa conundrum!

This is one of those particularly challenging things to address because every family and every child engages differently in the Santa mythology…and it becomes impossible to provide answers that are one-size-fits-all. Your own family traditions and values are deeply at play here, as they should be.

Personally I fall in the “Santa is a character from a story but definitely not real” camp. I don’t tell my kids that he is a real person who keeps watch on their behavior, and comes down our chimney to give them presents…but we do read the stories, sing the songs, decorate the tree, exchange the gifts, eat the food, see the lights, and enjoy the brisk air and general loveliness of the season. My conversations with my oldest about Santa have actually been quite limited because I never started out saying he is real so I’ve never found myself in this predicament.

So, you say “I don’t want to lie or say something misleading, but neither do I want to destroy the magical believing of childhood”… and this is the crux of the dilemma, because those two things appear to stand in opposition to each other.

Here is what I think is key when asked these kinds of questions by children: instead of giving a simple “yes” or “no” and go from there, perhaps start to emphasize that different people believe in all kinds of different things, and the great thing is that J gets to decide what he believes in! You can even turn the question around and say “what do you believe?” when he asks.

If you follow his lead in questioning and say things like “Hmmm…is Santa real? I wonder…I know lots of people believe in him”, it puts you in a relatively neutral position. This is of course, harder to do if you’ve spent his entire life telling him with great certainty that he IS real. I find the less you say and the more you begin to listen, and prompt his thinking with questions, the easier it becomes to unveil the truth as he gets older.

Maybe J is getting a bit wise to the whole thing and expecting you to “come clean” as it were. When children enter school they start to hear from their peers about how things are done in each other’s families, and I’ve seen many heated debates taking place on the playground about the existence of Mr. Claus. I think that believing in Santa is quite harmless and I remember with great fondness leaving cookies and carrots out for him when I was small, and the anticipation surrounding waking up to get presents.

The thing that I do find completely harmful and antithetical to the season is the “Elf on the Shelf” craze that has entered the narrative, honestly. It is being marketed as a fun and magical essential “toy”, but truly it is a nefarious and coercive tactic that only aims to shame children into “behaving” because they are being spied on and reported with the threat of not getting presents. In my opinion it is completely immoral to prey upon young children’s magical thinking in the name of managing their behavior. Okay…off my soapbox.

But truly, the most sound advice I can offer is follow your heart on the matter, and don’t do things that feel “off.” If you don’t feel comfortable maintaining the Santa story, then ease out of it and present J with the “secret” about what grown ups do and ask him to guard it with you when younger children, or others who believe are around. Or if you sense that he is not ready to let go of the fantasy yet, enjoy the fleeting time where he is fully engrossed in the whimsy of it all. Best of luck!




Build It Up, Knock It Down

by Sara Zacuto

“Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportuity to rebuild yourself the way you wish you had been all along.”

~ Rae Smith

Does the weight of all the “hustle”…all our busy, coffee-fueled, buzzing, humming lives…the spinning plates act of balancing jobs, relationships, housework and parenting feel overwhelming? Does it feel hard (or even impossible) to slow down, savor, silently observe, reflect…truly reflect...and bring conscious effort to all your endeavors?

Me too.

I feel like I’m consistently swimming (maybe more like treading water, really) in meandering thoughts, projections into the future, useless worries, self-doubt, planning (and over planning), and as a working mother of two, I inevitably end up tending to everyone else but myself. I get snippy, and grumpy and overwhelmed. I start wishing I could just grab onto a life raft and sail away to my own island and sleep like I did before I had kids. I’d like to see what it feels like to live life without the constant pressure of having to be somewhere, do something, make money or meet someone else’s needs. Some days are better than others, of course, but this is a dilemma that I know many of us share. Most days finding a way to live an unhurried existence feels practically unattainable.

This phenomenon, this cultural norm that is actually viewed by some with reverence, (for more on the glorification of overworking look here) is making it more and more difficult to stay connected to each other. Every interaction feels rushed, or we are so exhausted that we simply cannot give the energy, effort or time it takes to sustain a quality relationship with our kids, our partners, our co-workers, and even ourselves. And  because we are so immersed in our cultural norms, and comparing ourselves to others in this social-media age, it’s so easy to get consumed with guilt about not being good at juggling it all. It’s a vicious cycle, and so difficult to break.

When my mind starts to reel from all this, I have to actively practice self care. Reminding myself to be kind, go easy on myself, treat myself to something, make sure that my inner critic is met with some counterpoints about what I AM getting right, forgive myself (again and again), and give myself, and others, the grace and room to screw up. Because when we do inevitably screw up…we get to practice repairing.

This is where working with young children has afforded me the opportunity to learn this extremely valuable lesson:

Every time something gets knocked down there is a chance to rebuild. 

Whether it’s a block tower, your own sense of self worth, or a relationship…every part of the process matters, the deconstruction is just as important as the construction…and reconstruction. Everything is cyclical, and what you end up with is up to you.

Maybe it will look a little different than it did before. Perhaps it will be wobblier, or need extra tape to hold it together. Maybe it will be stronger, with a broader foundation. Maybe you can build it a little higher this time. Perhaps new people will join you to rebuild and bring their unique perspective to the task. Maybe you’ll have to go it alone, and learn what you’re truly capable of.

Being conscious of the role and importance of destruction, and being willful about what you want to grow out of the rubble is the key. It provides the opportunities to develop critical thinking, empathy, intentionality, perseverance and presence with yourself and with others.

Nothing new can be built if nothing ever gets knocked down. We must make room for new growth…and growth can sometimes be painful. Let it hurt…feel it all. When you are ready to carry on you will have a new foundation of understanding to build on.


Dear Sara…

“When we teach our children to “be nice” instead of self-aware – which means, self-directed, self-governed, self-boundaried – we teach them that it is more important to be in a relationship, than it is to be true to oneself.”

~Shefali Tsabary


This week I address a concerned parent over her child’s ability and desire to connect with other children. Here is our exchange…

Dear Sara,

Despite being very outgoing, extroverted, friendly, and energetic, my son has still not developed an interest in same-aged peers. Social groups have formed at the school and he is not a part of any of them. He likes to talk to adults and play with toys. But he is completely uninterested in making friends. I suppose this portion of the developmental clock starts ticking at different times for all kids. And he is neither shy nor lonely that I can see. At 3.5 years old, I predict that he will soon start to realize the benefits of friendships.

My only concern really is that, because he is often such a lone ranger, the inevitable aggression that many kids express and receive (all a part of normal development, emotion regulation, and autonomy) will be more challenging for him. (As an aside, I have seen him kick sand and throw toys at other kids, so I in no way perceive him as a passive victim!) Social networks are essential in their own right. But they also help to offset the stressful experiences all kids have as they learn to navigate the difficult terrain of toddlerhood. When other kids tell him he can’t play with a specific toy or be in a certain place, he just concedes and walks away looking defeated. I want him to have more confidence and to be willing to stand up for himself so that these kinds of interactions don’t simply reinforce his desire to play by himself. I believe the more empowered he becomes, the more positive outcomes he will experience which will, in turn, motivate him more to make connections with other kids.

I’m anxious to hear what you would recommend for this challenge.


Hello Concerned Mama,

Like most challenges I hear about and experience, I always recommend first…looking at things differently, and through the lens of the child. So many of our parental concerns about our children and the challenges they face can be projections, or manifestations of our own unhealed past experiences. And, of course, we always want the best for our children. We want them to be happy, healthy and thriving!

You say “he is neither shy nor lonely” and that he is “completely uninterested in making friends.” From my vantage point it sounds like he is perfectly adapted, well-adjusted and has a healthy ability to engage and disengage with his peers as he feels he needs to. Of course, I have the distinct pleasure of also knowing what a charming, sweet and hilarious kid he is, so I believe with my whole heart that he won’t have trouble making friends when he is ready to.

I believe too, that the particular skill of being able to, and even preferring to, play alone is actually a great strength…one that will serve him well throughout his life and budding relationships. His strong foundation of self-knowledge will allow him to navigate difficulties with others well, and perhaps not allow others to influence him negatively as he matures. His level of social awareness is developing rapidly, and he is very observant and bright.

The thing he might need when he seems overwhelmed by the aggressions that he is privy to (whether he is on the giving or receiving end) is time and a safe place to vent his feelings about it all in the presence of a loving adult. He might need reassurance that it’s okay to take a break from the problem to regulate his emotions before revisiting it. His abilities to cope with and gain new understandings about his feelings will come from actually being given the space and time to feel them…all of them, mad, sad, frustrated, even resignation. The hardest part of the process is remaining present while he feels these things and confides them all in you, and simply listening and reflecting back to him,

“You are sad about this, this is hard. When you are ready we can figure it out.”

As he grows, so will his skills in managing his emotions, and weathering all the disappointments that life dishes out. He will be able to handle those inevitable sorrows with grace if he gets lots of practice in doing so now. That groove of understanding in his mind and heart will be carved deeper if he begins to grasp the cyclic nature of feelings…that they ebb and flow, flood in and recede. And you will be there beside him, holding him tight while you can, as his first and biggest advocate.

All the best,

Dear Sara…

“An important element of respectful discipline is that it requires us to find that sense of certainty in ourselves as loving leaders for our children.”

~Janet Lansbury

This week a parent writes in about the battles (and silliness) that commonly come when we utter the phrase “time for bed.”


Dear Sara,

Lately I feel like I have been in a good space with parenting and respectful parenting and can really see the benefits which has been an amazing feeling. I still have some areas I am working on:

Can you help describe how to set appropriate limits for our little ones in more stressful (for the parent) situations? For example bedtime is nearing, the boys are tired and when they are tired they usually get a little more wound up.  They are running around the living room, not hearing me when I say it is time for bed, we need to go into the room. I try not to repeat myself more than a couple times. So then I go to use my body to block them/stand in front of them to have them look at me and maybe try and hold their hand to say “its bedtime we need to go to bed” but as I approach they run away laughing. It really tests my patience when they run from me. How do I set this limit?
This has also occurred on bike rides or walks, intentionally not listening when I say to stop and wait. This situation is more dangerous as I could be alerting them to danger. I feel a bit helpless in these situations and a little bit of an out of control feeling. Not at all that I feel I need to “control them” more of how to help them understand the limits and why they are important.
Thanks Sara!


Hi Becky,

First off, I’d like to say how fantastic it is that you are seeing and feeling the benefits of respectful parenting. I love hearing the stories about what’s working just as much as I enjoy hearing the stories about what’s not!

Believe me, I understand your frustration. This is exactly what goes on in my household on many nights as well, and I’d bet every other parent reading this is nodding in agreement thinking “yep, mine too.” After I take my kids out of the bathtub (and sometimes before) there is something that just snaps- and I have two naked, slippery, wild kids running through the house laughing and trying to get away from me no matter what (or how calmly) I say “time for bed.” I know that this is not helpful…but solidarity is comforting!

I’d like to tackle your question in two parts. Lets start with bedtime. There are a couple things that stood out in your phrasing of the scenario: like when you say the boys are “not hearing” you when you say it is time for bed. I can guarantee they definitely hear you…but are simply not able to comply because of several possible factors.

You say they are tired…so tired that they’re actually wound up. Perhaps they are overtired at this point and might benefit from pushing the “getting ready for bed” routine up a bit. This will allow more time for them to wind down, and also give you the opportunity to slow things down if limit testing is happening. Being in a rush certainly doesn’t help our abilities to think clearly and respond with any sense of ease.

The other factor I can chalk this up to is development (again, not so comforting…but will help you reframe your expectations of them) You’re kids are both at an age where “listening” (aka complying without an adult having to set physical limits as well) still doesn’t come easy, if at all.

You say “it really tests my patience when they run from me” and I’m sure they pick up on that discomfort and sense that this is a button for you.The truth is they can’t help but to push that button once they know it’s there. It’s an awfully powerful feeling to be able to ruffle your feathers!

Based on your description though, I think you are setting the limit wonderfully…

You are telling them “time for bed” (giving information), and then following through with having to set a physical limit by blocking, getting down on their level and trying to connect. This is the reality of what limit setting looks like, it can feel stressful, inconvenient, messy, and trying sometimes.

They might be much less tempted to test the boundary if you state only once “it’s time for bed” and then follow through right away with nonchalance.

Even when you feel uncertain inside, your children will feel much more at ease if you exude confidence in helping them to bed, even if you have to fake it a first. I’ve found that taking a moment before rushing in and putting on my most self-assured Mama mask, has led me to develop the ability to tap into authentic confidence around setting limits. It has to do with seeing their needs in that moment and being responsive to the need versus the behavior

The part that might be hard is figuring out how to really own and live with that uncomfortable feeling of having your patience tested in this way, and more importantly look at those feelings as opportunities for growth. That’s what makes this approach so hard! It’s completely counterintuitive and challenges you to look at your own role in the relationship and consider how you (or other things such as environment, scheduling or tiredness etc.) contribute to the difficulty.

I can offer a couple practical strategies for you that could possibly help with the whole routine.

Have you tried talking with the boys (when everyone is fed, rested and when it’s NOT bedtime) about the challenges you notice and invite their ideas about how to make it work better for everyone? I use the phrase “I notice this isn’t working for our family” and will ask for ideas about what might work better. Giving children the room to participate in planning things out often gives them a sense of agency and participation in the process of family decision making.

Of course the natural, or logical consequence of their behavior might simply be that they won’t have time to have a story read to them, or get those few extra minutes of playing before it’s time to get into bed. So, stating in a matter-of-fact tone that they’ve run down the clock and won’t have time for a story might possibly help them reevaluate their choice to do so next time.

So, the next part of your question is much more black and white and requires firm boundaries because it pertains to safety.

If the boys are running away from you, and you truly deem it to be an unsafe situation (there are cars driving nearby etc.) then I would take their hand calmly but firmly and say “I need you to stay close to me, there are too many cars driving near us here. I will hold your hand (or you) to keep you safe.” 

Then if the behavior is repeated, I would let them know you cannot stay if you cannot keep them safe. Again, in a matter-of-fact tone…not a threatening one. I often tell my little ones when they are protesting holding my hand, or being held that “it is my job to keep you safe.”

I would not try to alert them to HOW unsafe it is by telling them what might happen if they run into the street. They will understand the serious nature of the limit by your tone of voice and the confidence you exude when physically stopping them. If the consequence of being unsafe while you are out together is that the fun gets cut short, you can simply acknowledge the feelings of upset that they have about it, and validate their disappointment.

And like everything, this too shall pass.


We Need To Talk About Our Boys

by Sara Zacuto

“Perhaps if tearful little boys were comforted instead of shamed, there wouldn’t be so many angry men struggling to express and empathize with emotions.”

~Leila Schott

boys2Here we are again. Another morning after tragedy…reeling from the unthinkable. I have not spent too much time looking at the coverage of the events that took place in Las Vegas. I do not wish to buy into the glorified media spin, and talk of heroes in the midst of terror. I saw people helping each other in the photos, read about the bravery people showed when the stayed with those who were hurt…suffering. And while those are the only glimmers of hope I can find amidst the horror, it still feels like it’s not enough. It’s not. The immense feeling of helplessness and anger I feel about the senseless policies that are currently in place, allowing semi automatic weapons to be stockpiled, is overwhelming to say the least. Yet, here we are again.

My own children, who are 5 and not quite 2, are completely unaware of this, and rightfully so. A huge part of our grown-up responsibility to very young children is to carry the burden of grief and keep them feeling safe in a world where they might  be anything but. This is one of the most excruciating parts of being a parent, and the one that keeps me awake for much longer than I should be at night. How can children even begin to process the scary realities of this gun-loving culture they are being brought up in? I can barely process it myself. I do believe older children (7 and up) need, and benefit from conversations about times of crisis. And if a young child happens to find out about the news, it is best to answer their questions with appropriate language and assure them that you will do your best to keep them safe. For an article about how to navigate those difficult conversations look here.


My mind keeps drifting to the conversations that swirl around these type of events. Aside from the reports speaking to the obvious need for gun control, the topic of mental health in particular is one that seems to always accompany these acts of violence, especially when they are carried out by a single individual. The outcry for gun control, however justified, is one that I hold little faith in changing. I’ve called my representatives, marched in the streets, argued my points online, but it all feels like yelling into the wind. And when mental health is being addressed, no one really speaks to the root of the issue, and it’s infuriating that the conversations we should be having aren’t happening…at least on a national level.

What if we changed the cultural narrative about mental health from the very start? What if we made space for babies (yes, babies!) and young children, boys especially, to feel the full extent of their feelings without shaming, invalidating, distracting, or worse, punishing them? What if the ideas we hold about what makes someone strong are challenged? What if we start to lean in to our own discomfort about hearing children cry, or get angry, and gently push ourselves to connect instead of disconnect in those moments? What if we tell them things like “I hear you” and “this is hard” and “I will stay with you until you feel better” and most importantly “I love you” when they are upset? How will children learn to empathize with others if it is not modeled for them? How will they learn to view their strong feelings as “visitors” who come and go? And how will they learn to cope with, and manage these big feelings without practicing the skill of doing so as they grow up?



We HAVE to start talking about feelings from the get go…and modeling for children how to deal with upset, conflict, disagreement and sadness. We need to make and hold space for their outpourings, not ask for them to hold it all in. We need to empathize with their little hearts when they are upset, and show them that they are lovable and capable of getting through tough times. We need to say things as seemingly obvious as “everybody cries” and “it’s okay to cry.” We need to nurture the humanity in them, the threads that connect us all. Boys receive so many misinformed messages about toughness, strength, manhood and masculinity through the media they consume and the expectations that are placed on them by their peers, families and even teachers.

This pernicious and repressive collective attitude is creating an environment where boys grow into men who have no idea how to express anger, frustration, sadness and grief in any kind of healthy way. They are disconnected from their own emotional lives, and from the emotional lives of others. They are unable to even articulate why they are so angry. Empathy is not nurtured and therefore absent from their thinking…it is not just damaging…it is dangerous. It is a deeply ingrained problem that has such momentum, but we CAN, and should start turning it around and going the other way.


I am lucky to work in an environment where children are given tools, and language to support their emotional literacy, and  strengthen their abilities to solve conflicts without force. But I think about the world of boys out there who are not being given the same opportunities and my heart breaks knowing that something so simple could change so much. I want for our hurting world to heal, for our voices to be heard, and for our children to feel safe and seen for who they are…we have to start somewhere.



“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”

~Fred Rogers

Resource articles: