A Kid, a Crab, and an Invitation

families low demand parenting foundations practical tips Jun 09, 2024
A Kid, a Crab, and an Invitation

 Written by Keema Waterfield, Certified Low Demand Parenting Coach (now accepting clients!)


“I wonder if the crabs would like a visit today,” my nearly 6-year-old son said the other morning. He was referring to four sand fiddler crabs that live at the nearby Butterfly House and Insectarium.

“Maybe they missed you over the weekend,” I replied.

“They probably don’t know I have a new crab friend,” he said, in his friendly professor voice that he reserves for Extremely Important Special Interest Subjects. He waved his new toy in the air, a plastic six inch blue crab named Blueberry, after a celebrity YouTube crustacean.

I checked my watch, gauging how much room I had to say yes right now, or yes later. “The Butterfly House opens in 10 minutes. I bet we could finish breakfast and buzz over to say good morning to the gang before it gets busy.” Once the school field trip classes arrive, we know this special outing can turn into Stress City in 30 seconds flat.

“I can eat my toast so fast,” my son said.

“I can get our shoes,” I replied.

As if he’d been doing it his whole life, my child employed declarative language to invite me into an outing.

A year ago, when my son was in burnout, I couldn’t ask him so much as an indirect question. When I wanted his input to prevent a stress response, I might silently show him two packages of pasta, say, shells or capellini, and sometimes he’d point at his preference. Sometimes he ignored me, and I had to make an educated guess. Sometimes he picked one, but then the moment he saw it on the plate he screamed that I’d made the wrong kind and kicked it across the room.

When I first introduced declarative language at home last spring, I told my husband, “This is the easiest accommodation you can make right now. All you have to do is not ask direct questions.”

I was right and wrong. Sure, it’s easier than dropping demands can be in the beginning, when you have piles of deep digging ahead of you. It’s easier than doing a cost/benefit analysis around public school, homeschool, or unschooling. But it’s harder than simply saying nothing and watching for body cues. And for adults with established language pathways, pivoting to declarative language can feel nearly as challenging as learning a new language.

As I brought in declarative language, I noticed my son relaxing more when I spoke, listening more intensely to my words. I realized that his delayed responses weren’t a reluctance to engage, but a slowed processing speed. I learned that he loved an open invitation scaffolded by fart jokes. “I could get excited about taking a walk today, but only if you don’t fart in front of me,” I might say. “Seriously, I wouldn’t be able to breathe if you did that! Then you’d have to carry me home when I pass out.”

My daughter, now 8.5, latched onto this accommodation the fastest. “Imagine you’re taking the question mark off,” I suggested. Instead of Do you want to build a zoo in Minecraft?, you make it an open ended statement.  I’d like to build a zoo in Minecraft if anyone wants to join me. “The invitation is still there,” I said, “but the expectation of a response goes away.”

My husband, whose strong ADHD and sensory profile may yet have more to discover, struggles with declarative language the most. He is more comfortable with direct questions, because it’s what he’s used to, and it feels like the most straightforward path to gather information. And he prefers to give straight directions, rather than take the slower route of an invitation to discovery. He works very hard to slow down and think through what erasing the question mark for our son looks like as often as he has the capacity. For him, it is challenging work. A massive gear shift.

Some PDA children can tolerate a more direct approach than others. Our son, notably, cannot. He shows us by rage quitting in the middle of a game that needs too much instruction, or saying, “I don’t know!” if he’s asked to make a choice. We’ve learned it’s far easier if Big Sis is given any unavoidable instructions within earshot of Bro, so he’s not experiencing a direct threat response while still absorbing the information by proximity.

Declarative language doesn’t solve everything. 20 minutes at the Butterfly House or a grocery store can attest to that. But it does knock one major area of threat down a couple of notches. Our kids with sensitive nervous systems will still inevitably face a certain number of choices in a day. There are sensory, environmental, physical and situational factors constantly moving in the background. Maybe shifting from direct question to an invitation only puts one spoon back in the drawer, or three, or ten. But that’s not nothing for our kids, when they already have a limited number of spoons to work with before their stash is depleted for the day or week.

Now, it comes so naturally for my kids that we walk around all day making invitations. I’d love ramen for dinner, said to no one in particular. Or, I bet some worms popped up after the thunderstorm. Of course, we fail plenty, too. There are some inevitable hard times when a ‘yes’ isn’t possible. But we’re only a year-and-a-half in. Imagine what ten years of practice will bring!

My son wandered into the room while I was finishing this post tonight and did two things: a fake snuggle up next to me so he could fart on my arm, followed by an invitation. “I have a feeling when you’re done working, Tickle Town will probably open up.”

Tickle Town did indeed open a few minutes later.

I’m so glad I got the invite.



* Credit to Linda Murphy and RDI for the incredible insights on declarative language.

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