Calf Liver Gummies Are Not Delicious.

Dissecting the intersection of gentle parenting, momfluencers and diet culture with Sara Louise Petersen.

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If you asked any of these gentle parenting experts, they would say parenting is the most important work in the world. But they are also perpetually downplaying the hardest parts of it—which means not ever making visible the parts of parenting that we most need to change.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I am chatting again with Sara Louise Petersen. She’s the Burnt Toast resident momfluencer expert, and you can catch her previous episodes here and here. Sara is also the author of an upcoming book about momfluencers and the awesome new Substack newsletter In Pursuit of Clean Countertops, which is a must-subscribe!

Today, Sara and I are chatting about the gentle parenting trend—and how it intersect with our conversations around gender roles, diet culture, and more.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

PS. The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is almost to $9,000! We are so close to our goal and will soon be picking which state election to fund. So if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.


Episode 41 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Sara! You are the resident Burnt Toast momfluencer expert, which I admit is not a category of expert I knew that I needed when I launched the podcast, but it turns out it very much is. And you just started your own Substack newsletter! So let’s talk about that first.

Sara

It’s called In Pursuit of Clean Countertops. It’s not about countertops. It’s not about cleaning. The title is a nod to all of the things that momfluencer culture invites you to pursue and desire and want. I started it a little over a month ago based on an inflammatory post by @BallerinaFarm, Hannah Neeleman. She’s a big one. Her husband Daniel Neeleman started his own Instagram account relatively recently. He posted about the way that Hannah loves to clean and natural light and children like to congregate around her. It just made me feel a lot of a lot of feelings, Virginia. So that was the the post that started it at all.

Virginia

I had a lot of feelings about that post, as well. I also love your new Weekly WTF which is so cathartic to read.

Sara

My goal is to take the text threads that we all have with our friends, which can be more like, “Holy shit. Did you see this? This is enraging this is infuriating,” and explore why is it infuriating. Why am I feeling these feelings? To expose the systemic issues at play.

Virginia

Today you are coming back on this podcast because we want to dissect a sub-trend of momfluencing culture. We’re talking about “gentle parenting.” I also see it called “positive parenting.” It’s important to say right off the bat, there is no official definition of this concept. Jessica Grose wrote a piece for The New York Times where she described it as “a sort of open-source mélange, interpreted and remixed by moms across the country.” And yes, that is really what it is.

Sara, do you want to read this definition that we found in this piece in The New Yorker by Jessica Winter, just so everyone’s on the same page about what we’re talking about here.

Sara

So, okay:

In its broadest outlines, gentle parenting centers on acknowledging a child’s feelings and the motivations behind challenging behavior, as opposed to correcting the behavior itself. The gentle parent holds firm boundaries, gives a child choices instead of orders, and eschews rewards, punishments, and threats—no sticker charts, no time-outs, no “I will turn this car around right now.” Instead of issuing commands (“Put on your shoes!”), the parent strives to understand why a child is acting out in the first place (“What’s up, honey? You don’t want to put your shoes on?”) or, perhaps, narrates the problem (“You’re playing with your trains because putting on shoes doesn’t feel good”).

The gently parented child, the theory goes, learns to recognize and control her emotions because a caregiver is consistently affirming those emotions as real and important. The parent provides a model for keeping one’s cool, but no overt incentives for doing so—the kid becomes a person who is self-regulating, kind, and conscientious because she wants to be, not because it will result in ice cream.

Virginia

That is what I want my children to be, is the thing. This is the goal I think a lot of us have for kids. And yet the path for getting there is so convoluted. Let’s talk about when we each first became aware of this trend and how it’s showing up in our parenting.

Sara

I became aware of it by way of attachment parenting, which was just everywhere when I had my first kid, who is now almost 10. Attachment parenting is the whole 'if the kid is crying, the kid is not being annoying. It’s expressing needs or desires and it’s your job as the parent to interpret the cries.’ In attachment parenting, you’re not thinking of the kid’s behavior as an impediment to your life, but as the kid expressing his or her or their individuality. I was all about this when I was pregnant. I read all the Dr. Sears books. And then, almost immediately after having my first child, I just felt like I was being gaslit. I remember reading something... Kelly Something?

Virginia

Oh, yes, KellyMom. Oh, I’m having a trauma response. It’s been a minute.

Sara

I know. So my kid was not sleeping and I remember reading on KellyMom something like “when cluster feeding happens and baby only wants mom, consider it a compliment.” And I was just like fuuuuuck this. Fuck this!!

Virginia

It’s not a compliment. I’m so tired.

Sara

Attachment parenting kind of feeds into gentle parenting really well in that it’s all about prioritizing the child’s needs. And very rarely are the parent’s needs anywhere in the conversation.

Virginia

I had a pretty knee jerk reaction against attachment parenting, although, you know, my oldest is eight, so same time period. It was everywhere. But I was like, this is just code for the woman does everything. And I didn’t sign up for that. It’s not what we’ve agreed upon in my house. We’re not doing it.

But then the gentle parenting thing for me, it was discovering Janet Lansbury’s work when my older daughter was a toddler and the toddler tantrums started.

(Note from Virginia: I forgot to mention in our conversation that I’ve interviewed Lansbury for parenting articles a few times and think she’s incredibly smart and thoughtful, even if her tantrum advice didn’t always land for me. If you are also a Lansbury fan, this Ariel Levy profile is a must-read.)

I was constantly having to negotiate with this person who is totally irrational, according to the way I understand the world. And who is demanding a lot from me in ways that just don’t make sense anymore. At least with a baby, you’re like, well, you’re hungry, or you’re cold or—their needs are just more concrete and not emotional. But suddenly, in the toddler years, you’re sorting through this emotional stuff, as well as—I’m now going to get mail from people saying babies have emotions. I know they do. I know they have emotions. But there’s something about engaging with a tiny verbal child or quasi-verbal child that is just much harder for me.

So this whole gentle parenting approach, I sort of clung to it like a life raft. Will someone explain why these children scream so much? And gentle parenting has these '“answers” for you. But what was interesting, even when my older daughter was two or three, was how much it didn’t work with her. All this advice about, like, “What’s up? You don’t want to put your shoes on? Or you’re playing with trains because shoes don’t feel good?” She would just be enraged when I did that. I think it felt like very patronizing to her. She was like, “I am telling you how I feel through my yelling. You putting words to it is not making me better.”

Sara

Well, one of my challenges that you’re speaking to is: You’ll get this script and the lines that you’re reciting are at odds with your feelings, which are often rage, impatience, annoyance, frustration, despair. So if you’re reciting this script that is like, “I can see you’re having really big feelings right now. And that’s okay. Your big feelings are valid,” kids, I think can tell that you are feeding them a line from a script. Or at least my kids definitely can. It oftentimes in my household has made things worse.

Virginia

Yes. Because then you’re getting more frustrated while trying to recite the script.

Sara

And then you’re doubly frustrated because the script isn’t working.

A post shared by Dr. Becky Kennedy | Parenting (@drbeckyatgoodinside)

Virginia

So, let’s talk more about the scripts because they are one of the most common tropes of the way gentle parenting is performed online. I want to talk about this Dr. Becky post. (Above.)

If I have a child screaming, “I hate you! I hope you die!,” which has happened in my life, me responding with calmness is almost denying the feeling. The goal, ostensibly, is to label their feeling, but you’re denying the feeling because you’re responding so stoically to their feelings. Something about it feels so inauthentic.

Sara

The other thing that just really stands out to me in this mantra is “the real story is my child’s pain.” There’s no room for the parents’ feelings in this mantra.

Virginia

I don’t disagree with the argument here that a small child using that word doesn’t really mean the word the way an adult does. Like, this isn’t them being verbally abusive. I understand that. But that doesn’t stop it from feeling bad when it happens. And we are supposed to so totally center the child’s emotions to the point of having no emotional response to it. It’s just never going to happen, that way.

Sara

What if the kid is saying “I HATE YOU” to the sibling? You have to attend to the kid who’s having feelings and saying I hate you. And you have to attend to the kid who is the target of the “I hate you.” It’s just so much more complicated than any of these scripts would have you believe.

Virginia

I think what’s interesting about this movement is there’s a lot of emphasis on not being punitive towards kids when they do bad things. When they hit, when they bite, when they say I hate you. An older model of parenting would have been to punish those behaviors. And their argument is: We’re never going to help kids move past these behaviors if we demonize the kid who’s doing the bad thing. Which I understand. But if you have a dynamic where an older brother has just slapped his little sister in the face, what is that girl learning? That someone who loves you can hurt you like that?

Sara

We don’t want our children to internalize our feelings. But I also don’t think it’s terrible if our kids see us have an emotional reaction, such as anger or frustration. It’s natural to have a reaction when somebody says, “I hate you,” or when you get slapped in the face. We need to allow for the parents’ humanity in all of this. If your facial expression becomes angry, that’s okay. You can still value the child’s humanity and individuality and hold space for both things.

Virginia

There’s a lot of talk about how if you tell your child how you feel, you’re making them codependent. I just feel like this is a real big leap because the alternative is you’re teaching your child their emotions should always be centered. That feels like a terrible model for future relationships.

Sara

In the Jessica Winter piece, she gives the example of if your kid is having a meltdown and you’re in the middle of vacuuming, you should by all means stop vacuuming and say to the kid, “your feelings are more important than housework.” Winter writes:

The housework that [Robin] Einzig says to put off is a synecdoche for everything that the gentle parent—and, perhaps, the gently parented child’s invisible siblings—must push aside in order to complete a transformation into a self-renouncing, perpetually present humanoid who has nothing but time and who is programmed for nothing but calm.”

Virginia 

And when is the vacuuming getting done? Maybe you don’t want to spend your whole day being interrupted during a chore that should take 15 minutes. This feels very much of a piece with what we see in momfleuncer culture. That’s @BallerinaFarm cleaning her house with a smile while the kids are frolicking around. This image of joy and calmness through domestic life doesn’t line up with anything I’ve ever experienced in domestic life. I don’t think it lines up with most people’s experience.

Sara

No. I constantly talk to my kids when I’m feeling overwhelmed or how a lot of work goes into keeping a house and raising kids. I’m sure some gentle parenting advocates would tell me I’m burdening my kids with my own suffering or whatever. But it’s true and nobody ever talked to me about this openly, about how being a parent and being a grown up is hard.

Virginia

Making that work visible is so important for so many reasons. We are never going to make progress on our larger cultural gender roles if we are continually downplaying this work. I’m sure if you asked any of these gentle parenting experts, they would say parenting is the most important work in the world. That’s why they’ve devoted their careers to giving us all the scripts! But when you’re perpetually downplaying the hard parts of it, and when you’re needing to perform it in this really controlled way, you’re not actually ever making visible the parts of it that we need to change. 

Sara

I can see a future where kids who are parented perfectly according to the gentle script, turn into parents themselves and say, like, “What the fuck? This is hard as shit! Why did my parents always present as so calm and pulled together?”

Virginia

I mean, that assumes anyone’s able to actually execute gentle parenting. I f\have my doubts that anybody is this parent, even three days a week. The other night, my child who, like I said, screams in fury if I try a gentle parenting script, we were having a thing. I finally said to her, “I am a human being with emotions, and you are hurting my feelings right now.” And one part of my brain was like, You are breaking all the rules. You aren’t supposed to tell her that she’s hurting your feelings. But that was what turned the corner in that particular moment. I’m not saying she was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I hurt your feelings.” There was no apology. But it did make her pause for a moment and have this recognition of, Oh, right. I am powerful here. My words have impact. She took a slight step back and we were able to then get on a much better track.

A thought I had a lot, especially when I was parenting toddlers was: If an adult treated you like this, it would be an abusive relationship—and yet we are supposed to accept this wholeheartedly from children. It’s one of the things that is so hard about parenting. Because they are children and emotional capabilities are not fully developed, so you literally sign up for accepting abuse for several years. It’s not abuse, but it does not feel great.

Sara

I’m sure you’ve had this experience, where you are heated, you are furious, you’re having big emotions and the person you’re arguing with is stoic and calm and seemingly unaffected by your big emotions.

Virginia

It’s the worst!

Sara

It’s the worst. So I can totally understand why being the kid at the receiving end of these scripts would be infuriating. Like, I’m kicking and screaming and like spitting at you. Why isn’t this having any impact?

Virginia

It feels kind of manipulative in that way, like you’re trying to make them feel powerless. Because kids want a reaction. They’re looking for connection. Often the yelling is an attempt to get your attention and get your connection. So if you’re giving them Robot Mom, you’re not connecting with them authentically.

A post shared by Toddler Experts (@biglittlefeelings)

Virginia

Okay, so another big theme, and also m big division point with gentle parenting, is the fact that they frame timeouts as an act of trauma. This is a @biglittlefeelings post. They are big in this space and I have a lot of feelings about that. Because, with both my kids, there are times when timeouts save my family. We all need to step away from each other. I don’t think it is punitive or traumatizing to teach a kid that when your feelings are so big that you can only deliver them in hurtful ways that you need to take some time alone We call them “cool downs” which is totally trying to soften the language. But giving myself permission to use those with my kids has helped so much.

Sara

I have a kid who, when she’s having her biggest feelings, will remove herself. Like, her instinct is to go and sob sob, sob for 15 minutes. But if I try to go in before 15 minutes, it’s bad. It’s only after that she has that cathartic release that she’s even capable of connecting. 

Virginia

I am sure there are kids who want to collapse on you and need that sort of experience. But recognizing that, if you yourself are someone who needs to go be alone to think through your big feelings, maybe your kid needs that, too. And maybe it’s okay.

Sara

Another thing that I want to highlight that’s giving me some big feelings is the caption. It says:

When the parental response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain–like that caused by rejection–looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.

This is not great. 

Virginia

There’s no citation, there’s no science. We would need to fact check the heck out of that.

Sara

It just feels so manipulative and like playing into parental shame and guilt.

Virginia

I bet it’s stemming from the same research used to argue for attachment parenting, about how if you let a baby cry it out, you’re inflicting physical pain on them. And then when we looked at which data they were using, it was children who’d been neglected for months in orphanages. It was not children in loving homes who are being asked to cry for 15 minutes to fall asleep. I’m guessing this is orphanage research again and that research is very important for understanding the impact of true trauma. But it is not helpful to give to parents who are trying really hard to be decent parents. 

The other trope I wanted to hit on is: Speaking in the child’s voice. This is a post from Robin Einzig’s Facebook page:

Photo via @DanceWithMeInTheHeart on Facebook

Sara

I just want to describe the image because it’s doing a lot of work. It’s a painting of a very cherubic looking three or four year old, whose eyes are just full of innocent wonder and who has like rosy little pursed lips. She just looks like a blank canvas that you as the parent might be in danger of destroying. So it says, “When you cut it for me, write it for me, open it for me, set it up for me, draw it for me, and make it for me or find it for me. All I learned is that you do it better than I do. So I’ll let you do it. In the textbooks, this is called learned helplessness, but actually I call it clever on the part of the child and less than clever on the part of the adult.”

Virginia

Sick burn from a gentle parenting expert. 

Sara

Also the quote says “quote unknown.”

Virginia

I mean, obviously the quote is unknown. They just made it up. They’re not quoting a human child because no child has ever said, “You know Mom, when you do this for me, all I learned is that you’re better at things than me.” 

Sara

So this one’s really thrown me for a loop.

Virginia

It’s another one of those super paralyzing pieces of advice. I remember reading some advice like this. The argument was, if you’re drawing with your child and if they see how you draw a cat, then they’ll never learn how to draw a cat themselves, like in their own vision of a cat. And I remember trying to do that and being like, well, this just sucked all the fun out of drawing. I’m actually kind of good at drawing cats and now I feel like I can’t draw a cat. You’re simultaneously supposed to do nothing for them so they can have all of these learning experiences, yet also be emotionally available to the point you can’t get your vacuuming done.

Sara

How the hell are you supposed to get anything done if you’re letting a two-year-old do all these things? You will spend your entire day having the two-year-old cut something. 

Virginia

This is just one of those constant tensions of parenting where of course they have to eventually learn to do these things for themselves. But when you’re trying to get out of the door or set them up with an activity, so you can get things done, of course, you’re going to do the hard parts for them. Because life demands it.

Sara

Because of life! Like really. Because of life.

Virginia

One more good quote from the Jessica Winter piece:

Gentle-parenting advocates are near-unanimous in the view that a child should never be told that she “made Mommy sad”—she should focus on her internal weather rather than peering out the window. “Good job!” is usually not O.K., even if you corroborate why the job is good. “Because I said so” is never O.K., no matter how many times a child asks why she has to go to bed.

So Sara, when we were talking about this trend, you really found the mom influencer to end all momfluencers. She’s definitely at the most extreme end of the spectrum. So tell us about @milkgiver, please.

Sara

So I’ve been following her for a long time. This type of momfluencer is catnip for me because they present with this very cool hipster, maybe used to live in Brooklyn type of vibe. So I’m initially attracted by their Shaker style fisherman’s sweaters. And then I get lured into the messaging, which often gets into very intense prescriptive nutrition stuff. There’s a lot of beef liver gummy making. 

A post shared by @milkgiver

Virginia

She’s in a striped caftan type garment. I mean, I think I have the same mug as her right here because you know, #influenced. I’m pretty sure she has an East Fork pottery mug. So I’m not here to hate on her mug choice.

Sara

I have yet to pull the trigger, but I’m sure I will, Virginia. I’m sure I will.

Virginia

You will not be sorry.

Anyway, she’s basically buried in children while having her morning coffee, is the image.

Sara

You know Mary Cassatt paintings? It’s giving me those vibes. Like, you know, adoring children, beatific mother. It’s a long post, the thesis of which is that we, as mothers have so much power over giving our children happy, trauma-free childhoods. She says,

…for the most part, I, as a mother, hold the incredible power of creating happy childhoods for my little ones or not so happy childhoods…

And this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

there have been so many recurring themes in my life and something I keep hearing in the health and wellness circles is how disease or illness can be caused by past trauma. how interesting is that to think about?

So, I’m not loving the direct connection between “I slammed the door or put my kid in timeout or lose my temper” and “down the road my kids might get cancer.”

Virginia

It defies the major thesis of all parenting research, which is that good enough parenting is all you really need. It’s reminding me quite a lot of the shaming that fat moms get. That your unruly body will be the cause of all of this downfall to your children. And again, that’s not borne out by research.

Sara

I have a therapist friend who is always like, “I actually take a lot of comfort in the fact that like, my kids can talk about whatever parts of their childhood in therapy later down the road. That’s okay.”

Virginia

That’s a great point.

Sara

It’s okay if 20 years from now, my kid is like, “Mom always bitched about cleaning and how hard childcare was.” That’s not the end of the world.

Virginia

There are a lot of tools we can give our kids—including future therapy—to make up for our imperfections. I’m just looking at @milkgiver’s grid now and it is many whimsical hats. It is a lot of homemade. A homemade dollhouse, a homemade garland. Oh, and we should talk about the nutrition piece a little more because I definitely want us to hit on the way gentle parenting intersects with diet culture. Did you say she’s into calf liver gummies?

Sara

There are so many gummies. So many.

Virginia

How do you even make liver into a gummy? I know she’ll have a tutorial for me.

[Note from Virginia: Our post-recording fact-check revealed that @milkgiver actually makes beef gelatin gummies. We regret this error but not too much because calf liver gummies will surely be next.]

Wait, can we also talk about the fact this woman doesn’t have a name? She’s just @milkgiver. 

Sara

I do know her first name just because I’ve been following her forever, but yeah the fact that her identity is the giving of milk to children by way of her Instagram handle says a lot. 

Virginia

Even in the bio line, it’s just wife and mother of three, homeschooling, gentle parenting, Orthodox Christianity, knitting, nutrition, simple living. No name, no identity for you outside of how you serve your family. 

Sara

Do you see the photo on the grid with the dried oranges?

A post shared by @milkgiver

Virginia

Okay, so she writes:

How did I get here? From being a fast food junkie, to vegan teen, to full out cigarette and alcohol addicted young adult to mama of three religiously wearing her blue blocker glasses in the evenings, taking raw liver shots and avoiding fluoride at all costs. This crunchy mama road isn’t always an easy one, and high five to anyone else desperately trying to keep their kids away from the junk being thrown at them right and left, I see you! It’s not always an easy path, but it is one I enjoy and ultimately follow because I like feeling good, I like keeping my kids healthy, and I like having energy, because that helps me to be a better mom. That’s my top goal in life currently, and being mostly healthy helps A LOT with it. It’d also be cool to live a long time. But who knows 😉🤎 #crunchymama #embracethecrunch

Oh, Sara. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

Sara

I knew you wouldn’t.

Virginia

I mean, she’s just combining so many different things. “Fast food junkie” is not the same thing as an alcoholic. Let’s be real clear about that. Addiction is a terrible disease that destroys lives. Eating a lot of fast food is not the same thing.

Sara

Even even the term junkie in that context.

Virginia

You are not a junkie because you like fast food.

And then this, this whole message of, okay, you have to take the hardest road to do everything. Even if you don’t want to eat fast food every day, there’s a big gulf between that and taking raw liver shots and avoiding fluoride. We’re just combining every possible wellness trend. It’s like she needs to check every single box here in a way that’s exhausting and overwhelming, and not at all doable for anybody. And also not necessary. Nobody needs to take raw liver shots in their lives. People have lived to be 100 years old without ever taking raw liver shots.

Sara

I also don’t like the the use of the word “desperate.” She says, “high five to anyone else desperately trying to keep their kids away from the junk.” How about we desperately try to like give all kids access to food, period?

Virginia

That would be cool.

Sara

It just feels like such a classic trope of the self-optimizing white motherhood stuff. “Because I like feeling good. I like keeping my kids healthy.” The implication is that if she were not to follow all these super strict guidelines, she would knowingly be not giving her kids a healthy life. 

Virginia

Also this vibe of, “oh well, that’s just me! I like feeling good. I like having healthy kids.” Oh, really? Do you think mothers living in poverty don’t like to feel good? They’re not feeding their kids enough food every day because they don’t like having healthy kids? This isn’t a whimsical choice for you. This is something you can do because you have a ton of privilege.

Let’s also talk about if you are a parent desperately trying to keep your kid away from junk food, how fast that’s going backfire and harm your child’s relationship with junk food. I mean, how many letters do I get? (For starters: This one, this one, this one, and this one.) This is probably the number one question I am asked. Sneaking food is just how it plays out every time because your kids know that your raw liver gummies are not as delicious as their friends gummy bears.

Sara

The other thing that’s kind of hysterical to me is this is also not in agreement with gentle parenting. We’re supposed to enable our kids to have the tools within themselves to navigate life. So this feels like a direct contradiction. 

Virginia

The interesting thing about the way gentle parenting and diet culture intersect is most gentle parenting folks are really big proponents of Division of Responsibility, which is about empowering kids to listen to their bodies and trust their own hunger and fullness. So you’re not counting bites, you’re not requiring them to finish stuff or eat their broccoli before they have the cookie. The problem is, it gets layered in with this idea of, “I have to choose things like calf flavored gummies and green smoothies and all of these perfectly healthy things.” And then I’m frustrated because my kids still is asking for Little Bites muffins and not my homemade spelt muffins or whatever. It’s using Division of Responsibility as a script for diet culture. You’re still trying to control them, but you’ve coopted this other rhetoric to do it. 

Sara

I’m sure you’ve written and talked about this before, but what happens if you are so hyper-controlling the environment that your kid is choosing from? What happens when your kid enters the real world of actual food choice?

A post shared by Toddler Experts (@biglittlefeelings)

Virginia

Those are the kids who go on playdates and eat the whole sleeve of Oreos at their friend’s house or eat sugar by the spoonful. I am not shaming those kids, I am not shaming those parents. It’s a totally natural response. You’ve been restricted, these foods have been banned. Forbidden fruit is really powerful and really tempting. Your mom’s not gonna let this stuff in the house. So it’s super understandable.

This is another thing where they give us a lot of scripts! Let’s talk about this @biglittlefeelings post (above).

Sara

My response as my kid is, “I don’t want either bowl. Fuck the bowl, lady!”

Virginia

Giving them a choice of the bowls is not going to distract them from the fact that they want cereal. Especially if you’re not offering cereal very often. I’m not saying you should cave in the moment and be a short order cook and just like immediately whisk off the bowl of yogurt and granola and give them the cereal. But you might do better to say, “let me pack cereal for your snack for school,” or “I totally hear you. Let’s make sure we have cereal for breakfast tomorrow.” If we’re gonna give kids permission to have all their big feelings, let’s spend some time on the big feeling about cereal instead of just like moving right past it and trying to distract them with the bowl choices.

Again, it runs so counter to the larger message of what they tell us to do. But she doesn’t want to give in on the cereal, so she’s trying to control the food from a diet culture perspective— and then the gentle parenting quickly falls apart in the face of that goal.

I also want to say it’s fine if sometimes you do say, “yeah, you know what, I’m gonna grab you the bowl of cereal.” Making a bowl of cereal is not the most time consuming thing. If this allows you to move on with your morning because it’s just been one of those mornings, it’s fine. It happens. We don’t need to feel like we failed because we did that. That’s another piece of this: When you don’t follow the scripts, you have to feel like you got it wrong.

Sara

Totally.

Virginia

Let’s wrap up by talking about some parenting folks we do like.

The person that I really liked that I wanted to talk about is Claire Lerner. She is the author of the book, Why Is My Child in Charge. I am going to put in a caveat that her chapter on food is not totally there. There’s definitely some diet culture stuff in it. But this was a really useful book for me to read because she does help parents understand why we end up in those power struggles. And a big thing I like is that she’s pro-timeouts when the kid needs it. She recognizes a place for them.

She also really encourages parents to hold boundaries and not feel guilty about it. One line that she uses that I like is “you don’t have to like this.” I’ve started using this when I do say no to my kids about something and they throw a fit. I’m like, “You don’t have to like it, but this is what we’re doing.” And that has been so liberating. Because of course they’re having a tantrum. They don’t like being told TV is done for the day. But they don’t have to like it, we’re just doing it.

Sara

@Destini.Ann is someone I love. She’s just so approachable and the mother’s emotions are always valued. Her Instagram bio says “sign up for parent coaching below. Peaceful parent, but real AF.” That kind of tells you what you need to know. 

Virginia

Yeah, I like it. I like it a lot. “Gentle is not my default.

Sara

Yes. Let’s acknowledge that gentleness is not everybody’s default and is labor.

Another great one is @EricaMBurrell. I’ll limk to one of her reels where she’s talking about how gentle parenting is not something that white people own.

Virginia

That’s really interesting because that certainly is the impression you get on Instagram.

Sara

Black parents have talked a lot about how Black culture plays into parenting mores and how there is a lot of judgment lobbed by white people towards Black parenting, without bothering to engage with Black culture.

Virginia

Yeah, that’s excellent. And then @supernova_momma?

Sara

In her Instagram bio it says “Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, Mother of Two, Autism /Neurodiversity Acceptance, Sometimes I twerk.” A lot of her content speaks specifically to neurodiversity, which I can imagine being so so tricky to maneuver in the gentle parenting space.

Virginia

I think anytime your kid is dealing with something extra—whether it’s a disability, neurodiversity, or certain life experiences—there is this disconnect. You try to follow the rules they’re laying out and your kid has a completely opposite reaction to it and then you feel like you did something wrong, when in fact, the advice wasn’t inclusive and wasn’t thinking about your kid at all.

Sara

Almost all the problems with gentle parenting arise from not respecting both the parent’s individuality and the kid’s individuality. Both you and I have talked about specific parenting experiences where we recognize, we intuit what our kid needs in that moment. We can intuit that this script is not going to work for either of us. So we make a choice based on our knowledge of our kids’ specific needs and specific personalities and our own specific needs and specific personalities.

Virginia

I think it speaks to the fact that, as a culture, we don’t really empower parents—we especially don’t empower moms—to have that confidence in ourselves. You’re simultaneously expected to know exactly what to do and to have all this motherly intuition that guides you perfectly. But you’re also not really empowered to feel like you can make the right choices without outside experts, because we have such rigid standards and expectations. I just think it is helpful to start to realize you can make choices for yourself on this stuff. There is not a parenting police. Dr Becky’s not going to come to your house and edit your scripts.


Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Sara

My new obsession is Jessica Defino’s newsletter. It’s called The Unpublishable and it’s a takedown of the beauty industry. I just find it so, so delicious. She’s so funny. She’s so smart. I interviewed her recently for my newsletter

Virginia

It is so rare to find beauty content that is not tied to advertising—like so, so, so rare. So she’s a great voice. Hopefully she will be on a Burnt Toast episode soon. Stay tuned! It’s in the works. 

Okay, my recommendation is a recommendation that I feel I’ve been journeying to for a long time, that I was always meant to be this person and now I finally am.

I am now someone who does puzzles.

I think no one is surprised, if you know me at all, that I am now in the puzzling phase of my life, that I am I am a puzzler. I started it while we were on vacation. We had two days of a sick kid because that’s how family vacations roll. And so we were in our Airbnb and they had a bunch of puzzles. And I was like, I’m gonna do some puzzles while we’re hanging out here. It was so soothing!

I think my husband always knew this about me, before I knew it about myself because several years ago for Christmas, he had given me an 1000 piece puzzle and he’d given me this cool felt mat thing (similar to this one). So you can do the puzzle but you can also roll it up if you’re not done. Because I have a dog and kids and you know, I can’t leave the puzzle out all the time. So I came home and dug it out of the closet and now I’m working on this puzzle in the evenings. I’m so happy. I’m just so happy. It was definitely at the point on vacation where my kids were like, “can we have lunch?” And I was like, “No, I’m doing this puzzle.”

Sara

It sucks you in. 

Virginia

Yeah, I was like, “I’m not a parent right now. I’m a puzzler. You have to raise yourself.”

Sara

When I will start a puzzle, the kids will be nowhere in sight to do the hard edges or whatever, and then they’ll come in like little vultures as soon as I’m down to like 50 pieces. Like, back off. Don’t steal my thunder.

Virginia

Yeah, mine did not want to do it at all. My older daughter did sort of like sit and haze me while I was doing it for a while, which was fun for both of us. But I think she’s got a puzzler in her, too. She’s just not there yet. I think it’ll come out, especially now that this is my life.

Sara

And your identity.

Virginia

It’s my identity now. And what it’s really great for is, this week I had a piece getting some pushback on Twitter and I was having a day where looking at Twitter was not going to be helpful to me. That evening, I put the phone down and puzzled away instead of looking at Twitter. I was really proud of myself!

My inaugural puzzle, found in a Joshua Tree Airbnb.

All right, Sara. Thank you so much for being here. Tell everyone where we can find you and find your newsletter!

Sara

Definitely check out my newsletter, it’s called In Pursuit of Clean Countertops. I’m on Instagram at @SLouisePeterson and I am on Twitter as the same thing.

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The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.