Low-Demand Parenting Is All About Building Trust By Giving In — And These Parents Swear By It

What really changes if you let a kid have a popsicle before dinner? What Amanda Diekman found was: not much and also, everything.

Amanda Diekman knows what you’re thinking when you see her three kids running wild in the grocery store. She does not miss your side-eye when she hands one of her kids her phone to watch YouTube, or when she grabs each kid the candy bar of their choice in the checkout line. Settled into a sensory swing on Zoom with her iPad and pink headphones, Diekman shares what she imagines the average observer thinks of her: “Look at that permissive mom. She needs to get control of her kids. No one is thinking, What masterful parenting.”

But what might seem like chaos actually has a deeply-considered philosophy behind it, and Amanda Diekman is a master of sorts — although, as someone with a self-described opposition to traditional power structures, she would probably hate that word. Diekman, 40, a former pastor with a sunshiny presence, has built a following on Instagram, where she is known as “Low Demand Amanda” and coaches parents to let go of power struggles and drop all but the most essential demands.

Many of her videos feature Diekman, blond hair tucked behind her ears, leaning toward the camera, her presence conveying what feels simultaneously like the brightness of a 12-year-old child and the earnest concern of a knowing parent. If a child needs a candy bar to get through the checkout line without a meltdown, for instance, why not go ahead and buy the kid the candy bar? Why not prioritize our children’s needs over whatever our cultural ideas of what “well-behaved” looks like? In turn, Diekman argues — and a growing number of parents agree — you’re better able to stay calm and present for your kids. “I choose that every day over caring what the other adults think of me,” she tells me. All you have to lose are your expectations.

In other words, when Diekman takes her three children to the grocery store, she is prioritizing her children’s regulation and her own well-being over whatever our cultural ideas of what “well-behaved” looks like. Diekman coaches parents to let go of struggles and drop all but the most essential demands.

Diekman’s demeanor is so warm that it’s easy to miss how radical her ideas are. For instance, in a reel on dropping chore demands, she moves from giving practical tips, such as aligning assigned chores to intrinsic motivation, to challenging ableist and capitalist models of family management. “We can drop demands by not expecting the same thing of each person in the family,” she says. “What a great opportunity to teach about difference or disability or accommodation. Sometimes we help each other out because we just don’t have it in the tank.”

Why not prioritize our children’s needs over whatever our cultural ideas of what “well-behaved” looks like?

This kind of interdependence is deeply embedded in the low-demand model, in part because of its link to neurodivergent and disabled people. At the ages of 38 and 6, Diekman and her middle son both received autism diagnoses. Diekman joined online communities of parents raising neurodivergent children, and there she found the new lens she’d been looking for. Before her middle child’s autism diagnosis, Diekman says she was “high-demand Amanda” and took a traditional rewards-and-consequences approach to parenting. Diekman had had three children in four years, an experience she describes in her 2023 book, Low-Demand Parenting: Dropping Demands, Restoring Calm, and Finding Connection with Your Uniquely Wired Child, and she felt totally overwhelmed by their near-constant meltdowns, aggression, and obsessive behaviors.

When she sought help from a psychologist, she was encouraged to double down on this approach, to set higher expectations and firmer boundaries. She did. Things only got worse. “My children observed and latched onto my obsession with consistency,” Diekman writes. “They began pointing out each rule that another broke and insisting on punishment. Our family culture became warped around this oppressive cause-and-effect parenting.” Diekman’s middle child in particular made it clear that the harder she pushed, the harder he’d push back.

Easing up on screen limits, allowing free access to comfort foods, not enforcing expectations like daily exercise — all of this may sound like permissive parenting. Permissive parenting, of course, would just be an overcorrection to the authoritarian way many of us were raised; better, maybe, but moving too far in the other direction. Diekman understands. She used to feel tremendous fear that permissiveness was a kind of slippery slope that inevitably ended in disaster. She once believed that if you tell your kids they can’t have a popsicle until after dinner, they will then “whine and complain, and then you give them a popsicle, that one act will start this cascade of terribleness, that it will break down the relationship with your child and that they’re going to ask for another popsicle the next day — and not just a popsicle, but 10 other things, too.” Diekman equates that fear of permissiveness with a lack of trust, both in her kids and herself. That lack of trust is corrosive.

The ethos of demand-dropping has eased her family from a season of crisis to, by her own definition, a season of thriving.

But what really happens when you let a kid have a popsicle before dinner? Diekman wants to challenge the notion that our kids are wired to take advantage of us at every opportunity. When I ask her if she even feels the need to differentiate low-demand parenting from permissive parenting, she pauses the conversation to ask me if I’m comfortable with her cursing. I tell her I’m fine with it, and she responds, “F*ck it. I’m willing to take a more radical stance than I think many others are.”

Diekman is troubled by our culture’s assumption that “there is one good and right way to be a human,” which is to be “on a path towards independence, financial security, procreation, and wealth.” We treat children as products, responding to them with an eye for how they will “turn out” as adults rather than treating them as full humans whose needs matter now. Diekman connects the expectation of independence to ableism and, more broadly, to “racism and classism and colonialism, and the entire project of saying that some people deserve to exist, and other people do not.” How would we parent differently if we centered our children’s current-day thriving rather than their future success by traditional standards?

Diekman tells me she developed her platform largely to fill a need that she felt keenly herself in her early days of trying to shift her parenting lens.

In one recent series of Instagram stories, Diekman coached a parent through a seemingly straightforward question about limiting fruit juice consumption. The parent wanted their child to only drink one cup of juice per day, but their child kept trying to sneak more. Should they drop that demand? Diekman walked the parent through their options: The first was to simply remove the juice from the house, which would drop the expectation that the child self-moderate, but this solution might be perceived as punishment and compromise the relationship. Alternatively, the parent could “completely drop the limit” and allow the child free access. Or, a middle ground would be for the parent to find a type of juice that they felt comfortable offering freely. But the slides didn’t end there. Diekman asked the parent to “Get curious about why they’re sneaking. Do they love the feeling of doing something illicit? Do they need a dopamine hit? Is it a form of communication when they’re upset with you? Are they just thirsty and it’s their favorite drink?” Diekman offers that, during her own childhood, sneaking “indicated a lack of trust” that her parents would meet her needs and that she feared being shamed if caught. In Diekman’s worldview, shame leads to disconnection and is a signal that a demand is loaded with judgment.

Diekman tells me she developed her platform largely to fill a need that she felt keenly herself in her early days of trying to shift her parenting lens. While there were plenty of references to “low-demand parenting” in the online communities she frequented, she was “shocked to discover there was no book, no leading voice, no website, no method, no definition, even, of what [low-demand parenting] was.” Diekman wanted a guide, but couldn’t find one. “I didn’t set out to be that person. I needed that person. I needed them desperately.”

But what really happens when you let a kid have a popsicle before dinner?

The most helpful model she encountered was the one developed by psychologist Ross Greene. The core principles of Greene’s work, discussed in his book The Explosive Child, is that “kids do well when they can.” In other words, kids’ challenging behaviors aren’t the result of character flaws or bad parenting, but rather what Greene calls “lagging skills” in areas like frustration tolerance and emotional regulation. Children who lack these skills won’t magically acquire them through rule enforcement. For instance, a child who has a meltdown every morning when asked to put his shoes on is not doing so because he’s obstinate or because his parents lack clear boundaries. He’s expressing overwhelm because something about the demand (the transition to school perhaps, or the coordination the task requires) is too much for him.

Greene largely rejects what he calls “Plan A Parenting” — the approach where the parents implement a consequence if the child fails to cooperate, or an incentive if he does. “Plan B Parenting” involves a series of steps that allow the parent and child to work together to identify the root of the problem and brainstorm solutions. Maybe the child needs to wake up earlier to have more unstructured time before school, or maybe he needs slip-on shoes, or help with the laces. The trouble with Plan B is that it’s not always possible. If an issue is fraught, a child — or the parent — may be unable to productively discuss it, and Greene offers that ideally parents and kids should only be collaborating on one to two manageable problems at a time. For everything else, there’s Plan C, which means letting the problem go — or dropping the demand — until all parties are ready to address it. Plan C may sound like the easy way out, but actually there’s an art to it.

The low-demand approach invites parents to scrutinize all kinds of societal expectations, and doing so can invite us to let go of some of the demands we place on ourselves.

That art is what Diekman set out to describe when she wrote her book, which lays out a six-step process for reframing the relationship between parent and child. It starts with parents identifying an expectation their child is struggling with, and, guided by the process, they spend time reflecting on the origins of the expectation and “get creative” about ways to meet everyone’s needs in other ways.

She initially planned to sell the book herself as a “fancy PDF” for $5 a copy, but was intercepted by an editor at Jessica Kingsley Press, a leading publisher in the field of neurodiversity​​. Only two years later, Diekman’s book and online communities are now touchstones for thousands of parents, many of whom are parenting kids who are newly diagnosed or in need of diagnoses, overwhelmed by the experience of raising children who don’t fit the user manual, feeling the shame of outside judgment, desperate for support and guidance.

Keema Waterfield, a parent and writer based in Missoula, Montana, remembers seeking support for her child prior to his autism diagnosis and being told she was too permissive. Two years into Waterfield’s quest for support, a therapist suggested she implement low-demand practices, an approach that aligned well with Waterfield’s child-led philosophy. For her younger son, low-demand parenting meant dropping nearly all demands for a season as they worked to reestablish trust and safety. This meant no preschool, full-time parent availability and flexibility, free access to his iPad, and a diet of safe foods. For Waterfield’s school-age daughter, low-demand practices come in handy on a smaller scale. To avoid morning struggles, Waterfield packs her daughter’s backpack for her and has her dress for school the night before. This allows her to “support her [daughter] quietly in the background” rather than spend the morning nagging. For both kids, the low-demand approach — while “high-demand for parents,” she admits — has improved trust and connection and allowed her children to build skills at their own pace.

Meghan Hopkins, a parent and counselor in Olympia, Washington, describes the mental labor that low-demand parenting requires, like when a child suddenly doesn’t want to go to a friend’s birthday party and you have to consider how to respond on the spot. “There’s all this calculation happening: What’s my kid’s capacity right now? What’s my own capacity? What’s my priority in terms of health and safety? What about growth and fulfillment? And I’m calculating these things unconsciously, trying to decide whether to push or let go.”

However, the low-demand approach invites parents to scrutinize all kinds of societal expectations, and doing so can invite us to let go of some of the demands we place on ourselves. Diekman encourages parents to proactively drop adult demands as they move toward accommodating their children. For example, Diekman’s own household switched to paper plates for a season, and in lieu of home-cooked food, her family consumed a lot of “premade smoothies, Eggo waffles, cheese and crackers, and PBJs” so that she could attend to her children’s needs more closely.

For Diekman, the ethos of demand-dropping has eased her family from a season of crisis to, by her own definition, a season of thriving. In the first chapter of her book, Diekman describes how her middle son, Michael, had become, in their darkest times, “an active volcano, either silent and rumbling or spewing hot lava.” He spent all day in his room under a blanket and refused to leave the house. It took months of prioritizing trust and connection over expectations and consequences, but Diekman reports, “When my expectation consistently met my boy’s capacity, we’d arrived.” Meltdowns became less and less frequent, and Michael’s interests and self-expression expanded. When I met with Diekman on Zoom, a tall preteen boy passed through the frame in the background to find his father in the kitchen. “That’s Michael from the book!” Diekman announced to me, as if we were spotting a celebrity in the wild. The joy she took in her son was palpable. “I proudly follow my kids,” Diekman offers. “I don’t need to be in the lead.”

Jennifer Berney is a writer, teacher, and parent based in Olympia, Washington. Her book, The Other Mothers, tells the story of her journey to parenthood and the obstacles she faced navigating the fertility industry as a queer woman. She writes about about creative process as a tool for healing at The Scrap Heap.