Cover image of Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive

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Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive

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Rank #66 in Music category

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Jen Lumanlan always thought infancy would be the hardest part of parenting. Now she has a toddler and finds a whole new set of tools are needed, there are hundreds of books to read, and academic research to uncover that would otherwise never see the light of day. Join her on her journey to get a Masters in Psychology focusing on Child Development, as she researches topics of interest to parents of toddlers and preschoolers from all angles, and suggests tools parents can use to help kids thrive - and make their own lives a bit easier in the process. Like Janet Lansbury's respectful approach to parenting? Appreciate the value of scientific research, but don't have time to read it all? Then you'll love Your Parenting Mojo. More information and references for each show are at Subscribe there and get a free newsletter compiling relevant research on the weeks I don't publish a podcast episode!

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Jen Lumanlan always thought infancy would be the hardest part of parenting. Now she has a toddler and finds a whole new set of tools are needed, there are hundreds of books to read, and academic research to uncover that would otherwise never see the light of day. Join her on her journey to get a Masters in Psychology focusing on Child Development, as she researches topics of interest to parents of toddlers and preschoolers from all angles, and suggests tools parents can use to help kids thrive - and make their own lives a bit easier in the process. Like Janet Lansbury's respectful approach to parenting? Appreciate the value of scientific research, but don't have time to read it all? Then you'll love Your Parenting Mojo. More information and references for each show are at Subscribe there and get a free newsletter compiling relevant research on the weeks I don't publish a podcast episode!

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263 Ratings
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Go to source for educated parenting info

By Harpsgirl - Jan 23 2020
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As an avid reader and researcher who no longer has time to read and dig into the research, due to parenthood and work, I truly appreciate this well informed podcast. Thank you for taking the time and effort to make this quality program!

I'm obsessed with this podcast

By SeveriNishte - Jan 02 2018
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It's exactly what I need to feel informed and confident about my parenting choices!

iTunes Ratings

263 Ratings
Average Ratings

Go to source for educated parenting info

By Harpsgirl - Jan 23 2020
Read more
As an avid reader and researcher who no longer has time to read and dig into the research, due to parenthood and work, I truly appreciate this well informed podcast. Thank you for taking the time and effort to make this quality program!

I'm obsessed with this podcast

By SeveriNishte - Jan 02 2018
Read more
It's exactly what I need to feel informed and confident about my parenting choices!
Cover image of Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive

Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive

Latest release on Feb 10, 2020

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

Updated by OwlTail 8 days ago

Rank #1: 055: Raising Your Spirited Child

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Is your child ‘spirited’?  Even if they aren’t spirited all the time, do they have spirited moments?  You know exactly what to do in those moments, right?


Well then we have a treat for you today.  Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, walks us through the ins and outs of her book on the same topic.  Best yet, we do the interview as a consult with a parent, Kathryn, who has read and loved the book, but struggled with implementing the ideas.

Warning: we spend quite a bit of time brainstorming very specific problems that Kathryn is having with her daughter.  You may not be having exactly the same problem with your child, but the brainstorming method we use is one you can do with a friend – take the approach with you to address your own problems, rather than the specific ideas.

Read more about Dr. Mary’s books and other work on her website.


Kurcinka, M.S. (2015). Raising your spirited child (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: William Morrow. (Affiliate link)

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Jen:                                      [00:39]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I know we’re going to help a lot of parents out today because we are here with Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, who wrote the book Raising Your Spirited Child, which I know is an absolute classic read for any parent of a spirited child. I read the book because a listener had requested an episode on it and what surprised me about it was that I don’t think my daughter is particularly spirited, but I definitely saw elements of her behavior described in the book and what I took out of that was that probably pretty much any child can have spirited elements of their personality or even just spirited moments. And so both the book and this episode are really for anyone who raises a child and who has ever had a moment where they think, “why won’t he or she just do what I ask.”

Jen:                                      [01:26]                   So Dr. Mary has a bachelor’s in early childhood education, a Master’s in family social science, and a doctorate in education. She has written four books on various aspects of raising children, which have been translated into 23 languages. Her son and daughter are now fully fledged adults and she lives with her husband in Bozeman, Montana. Welcome Dr. Mary.

Kathryn:                             [01:46]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:48]                   And so when I mentioned in my fortnightly newsletter, which you can actually receive by subscribing to the show, that I was looking for a coat interviewer to help me interview Dr Mary and really dig into the ways to apply the wisdom in the book. I received a number of responses, but one really stuck out. Kathryn is based in London and she has a four year old daughter who we’re going to call Jane in this episode and a son who’s a little over a year old and we’re going to call him George.

Jen:                                      [02:14]                   I asked Kathryn to help us with this interview because she’d actually read and love the book, but had been struggling with the application of some of the strategies. She’s tried hard to support her spirited daughter as she grows and develops, but has found a particularly challenged in some areas since the birth of her son. So we’re here today to really get into the book, but also go beyond the book and get the real lowdown on how to implement the strategies in the book when the first attempt has maybe been a little bit less than successful. Welcome Kathryn.

Kathryn:                             [02:41]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [02:42]                   All right. So Kathryn, let’s start with you. I wonder if you could please describe your daughter and how she fits into your family dynamic and I know you’ve read the book so you know that the words that are used to describe spirited children are very important. So what words do you use to describe her and what words do people around you who might not have read the book use?

Kathryn:                             [03:01]                   So after reading the book, I would say that in particular it was the intense and persistent elements that really struck a chord, but also she’s sensitive, very perceptive, a very high energy introvert, I would say. And just very articulate about what she wants, funny, enthusiastic, that kind of thing. And in terms of other peoples, there’s never been so much the label’s put on her I would find, but it’s just kind of when people talk, when they’d see something happening, you know, as if, oh, so and so that I know that they’re spoiled and oh well people don’t treat me like King Tut, or you know, just, it’s more in people’s tone. And I, I noticed as well since her brother was born that it’s more she falls into a particular persona kind of in contrast as the main older sibling almost.

Jen:                                      [03:54]                   Is that pretty common? Dr. Kurcinka?

Dr. Mary:                           [03:57]                   As the mean older sibling? Well, certainly one of the things we know about spirited children is their intent. So every emotion is intense, including jealousy, they’re also slow to adapt. So a shift in the family dynamic is certainly going to affect them, but they’re also incredibly perceptive of the stress levels within our family and so often it’s the spirited child who I refer to them as our stress barometers because they’ll often start acting out because they’re taking in the stress around them. And obviously a new baby brings a great deal of stress to a family dynamic.

Jen:                                      [04:42]                   Yeah. Do you feel as though that’s really impacted your family dynamic, Kathryn?

Kathryn:                             [04:46]                   Yes, I would say that has made a huge difference because I think, you know, when people talk about age two and age for as being particularly noteworthy in our family, it was really age three. But I think that’s because that was, you know, in the leadup my pregnancy and then the birth of her, her brother, the starting of preschool. So many things kind of happened at that period of time and therefore also our resources were that much less to kind of cope with it. And whereas I had kind of taken everything on with her, largely myself, because I stayed at home, I didn’t go back to work after my maternity leave and had kind of tried to protect her a little bit there because she had very distinct needs as far as I could see it in terms of being a little bit more sensitive to stimulation and to situations and things I had kept her under my wing a little bit in that respect. Whereas I couldn’t obviously do that with a newborn and also just adjusting to letting go a little bit in terms of preschool, you know, and no longer being her whole world anymore. That kind of rattled things a little bit and of course changed the family dynamic quite a bit and then adding an extra person.

Jen:                                      [05:58]                   And these are all fairly natural things to happen, right? Brothers and sisters are born and their children tend to go up to some kind of care or preschool or something. Dr. Mary, how can we help children and prepare them for the kinds of transitions that Jane’s been going through?

Dr. Mary:                           [06:15]                   Well, there’s several things. One is, as you said, with the starting preschool, there’s also a change in routine in one of the things I talk about and work with families on in my private consultants, there’s two aspects to effective discipline, there’s structure, which is the routine, the rules, the expectations, they’re the things that remain pretty stable and then there’s the emotion coaching and the challenge with a new baby and starting preschool is the structure gets disrupted and so if you think about it’s kind of like all of a sudden moving or changing jobs or changing bosses at work that all of a sudden there are…what you expected in the past is no longer occurring. Things are different, so in preparing them, one is reforming that structure and creating predictability for them, which will then reduce the frequency and intensity of the meltdowns, leaving you the patience and energy to do the emotion coaching when it needs to be done.

Jen:                                      [07:25]                   Yeah, Dr. Mary, you just said something really profound there that helped me to understand the gravity of these kinds of changes in a child’s world. When you talk about being comparable to moving for an adult or changing a boss for an adult, you know, I think if there was a big deal, I need to figure out what a new boss wants for me and how I interact with that person and you know, even as something as simple as changing a child’s teacher at preschool, you might think, well all the other teachers are still there and all the other children is still there, but that’s a very different interaction and it makes me feel as though, oh yeah, I can understand that. I can understand why that would be difficult for a child. Does that help us to bring more compassion to it, do you think?

Dr. Mary:                           [08:02]                   Well, I think it is important to look at that and look at this situation, yes, very compassionately. And that’s another thing that we can do is actually reduced expectations on that older child, which can be hard because it’s like, okay, now you’re the older one and I need to be taking care of the baby. But one of the stress reactions you’ll see is shut down. And shut down behaviors are, I can’t dress myself, I can’t walk, I can’t feed myself, and the natural reaction to those responses are you could do it yesterday or you could do it an hour ago and we push to have them do what they’re capable of doing, but what they’re actually telling us is I’m so overwhelmed, I’m shutting down. And so one thing that we can do as a parent is proactively say to them before they’re demanding, carry me, dress me, feed me, is, “is today a day that you can dress yourself or do you need help?” And if they say I need help, we help them because we recognize, wow, they’re dealing with a lot of stuff here. And so instead of fighting and struggling, we help them, but we also nudge them by saying, okay, you know, today I’ll help you, but pretty soon maybe even tomorrow you’re going to surprise me and do it yourself again. So we let them know we’re not doing this for ever, but we can see that right now, you need a little extra support.

Kathryn:                             [09:46]                   Do you see that dynamic in Jane, Kathryn? Yes, and I think some of those kinds of things about the dressing herself and things like that, that was a little bit easier for me or when we had in meal times the returned to kind of wanting to be fed for a little while or when my son was weaning than wanting to be on our laps as well and so some of that we definitely saw and I think I was used to a little bit more doing things at her own pace beforehand, so that part of it was a little bit easier for me, but I struggled a little bit. I think with things that were just suddenly new in those transitions, so transition around having the new sibling created a kind of a new level to my own intensity. I think in terms of a protectiveness over the small person than she had never shown aggression really before then to see some of those behaviors being targeted towards him specifically rather than wanting to be baby. But something that kind of felt like a bit more of an emergency in the moment kind of thing. That was triggering to me in a way that I hadn’t really been triggered as much in the past,

Dr. Mary:                           [10:54]                   And you’re absolutely right, Kathryn, you know, as a mom who are very protective of our children. It’s kind of the mother bear syndrome and one of the things I think that’s important to recognize, especially with a four year old, four year old and many spirited children, tend to be very bright and have excellent language skills and so we often assume that they have an understanding of things that they don’t because they are so verbal and so when we see behaviors that are potentially dangerous to the baby or a safety issue for the baby, the question becomes what is Jane feeling and needing in this situation? So is it an issue that she actually doesn’t realize, you can’t hug a baby that firmly. And so it’s teaching her how to hold and touch the baby. Is she feeling jealous? So instead of pushing the baby, teaching her to say I want him to go away, and that when she uses the words, we actually at that…because we’re teaching the words at this point, set the baby down and hold her because she used words instead of action. So it’s in those situations stopping to think what is she feeling or needing. Is it a skill issue? Is it a feeling she doesn’t know how to express appropriately. But as a four year old she has no idea that she can harm the baby.

Jen:                                      [12:39]                   Wow. I would never have thought that. Wouldn’t you think that if you hit something it might hurt. But no, that’s a very profound realization I think to understand that a four year old can’t think that.

Kathryn:                             [12:51]                   And I think sometimes if there are kind of two elements to it and like for, it’s the intensity piece around just that kind of out of control, excitement/anxiety, kind of that, you know, in the beginning in particular, if I’m trying to spend time just one on one with her to have a little bit of that, she actually would reject that for quite awhile. And she always wanted to know where he was and oh, if he was asleep she wants to be there waking up. Like she just really didn’t want to take her eyes off him. Like really was affectionate to like overzealously affectionate, but you know, in a way you would expect. But just couldn’t. It was like, yeah, simultaneously just out of control, affection and anxiety around the situation that she just couldn’t quite get to grips with, it felt like.

Dr. Mary:                           [13:42]                   And, and I think that’s an interesting choice of words when you say kind of anxiety about it. And again with the energy and that frenzied energy, we look at the fuel source because that frenzied energy is saying she’s...

Jan 13 2018



Rank #2: 022: How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: Author Interview!

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Have you read the now-classic book How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk?  Ever wished there was a version that would help you with younger children who perhaps aren’t quite ready for a detailed problem-solving session?

Well now there is!  Adele Faber is a co-author of the original book; Adele’s daughter Joanna and Joanna’s childhood friend Julie King have teamed up to write the new version of How to Talk so LITTLE Kids Will Listen, packed with examples of how real parents have used the information they’ve now been teaching for over 30 years.

Join me for a chat with Julie King as we work to understand the power of acknowledging children’s feelings and some practical tools to help engage your younger children to cooperate with you.

Update 5/10/17: An eagle-eyed listener noticed that Julie mentioned her 10-year-old son wanting to sit on the front seat of her car, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children 12 and under should sit in the back seat.  Julie was recounting an episode that happened long before there were CDC recommendations on where children should sit in the car, so please don’t take this as an ‘OK’ to put your 12-and-under child in the front seat.  Thanks!


Faber, J. & King, J. (2017). How to talk so little kids will listen. New York: Scribner.  (Affiliate link)

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Jen:                                      [00:21] Welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I’d like to welcome my guest today, Julie King, who is one half of the writing duo behind the new book, How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, and if that title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s part of what seems to have become a family of books around the classic How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Julie has been educating and supporting parents and professionals since 1995 and in addition to her work with individual parents and couples, she also leads How to Talk workshops and gives parent education presentations to schools, nonprofits, and parent groups. Julie received her AB from Princeton University and a JD from Yale Law School. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is the mother of three. Welcome Julie.

Julie:                                   [01:13]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:14]                   It actually does feel a little odd to welcome you when we’re in your own home. Julie was kind enough to invite me to her home today to have this conversation. So thanks so much for taking the time.

Julie:                                   [01:23]                   Oh my pleasure.

Jen:                                      [01:24]                   So I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about the genesis of this book because it kind of runs in the family a bit, right?

Julie:                                   [01:30]                   Okay. So to tell you the whole story, I have to go back in time to when I was six months old.

Jen:                                      [01:37]                   This is going to be a long story!

Julie:                                   [01:38]                   I’m not going to go through all the details, I promise, but when my parents moved into the house that they still live in when I was born, right before I was born and my mother didn’t know very many people in the neighborhood. I was six months old. She was looking out the kitchen window and she saw another mom with two little kids the same age as me and my brother and she invited that woman in. That was Adele favor and the two of them became very good friends. Joanna. Joanna was the baby and her brother Carl was the older boy and she and I went to nursery school together. Adele took these, what they call Child Guidance Workshops with Haim Ginott and used to call my mother daily and discuss what she was learning and they would talk about what they were going to try on Joanna and her older brother and her younger brother and me and my older brother and younger sister.

Jen:                                      [02:27]                   So you were a Guinea pig for the original book?

Julie:                                   [02:30]                   That’s right. I was a Guinea pig. Um, so she and I became very good friends. We went to school from nursery school all the way through high school together. And um, I was aware that her mother was writing these books as a teenager. I remember going to her house and seeing her mother and Elaime Mazlish writing on yellow legal pads on the kitchen table by hand, and in the eighties when the one of the books came out or was coming out. I got to copy edit the book and I think I found a coma out of place and I felt very proud of my contribution, but I never actually expected to be doing anything with the work until I had my own child and he was in preschool at the San Francisco JCC and they were looking for a more than one time event for parents. They used to bring people in to speak, but they wanted to do something that would be ongoing and I at the time was studying group facilitation and group development and of course I knew this material very well, having grown up with it. So I volunteered to lead a group which was originally scheduled as an eight week group and halfway through everybody said, well, we need another eight weeks to really learn this. At which point I panicked because I wasn’t quite sure what I would do. Well we turned it into an ongoing support group and that first group met for four and a half years. The other people heard about it and asked me to bring the workshop to private groups into nonprofits and that’s how I got into leading the groups originally and my friend Joanna, who is still a good friend of mine who still lives in New York, and I moved out to California…This will happen in New York originally. She started leading workshops in New York, so we would talk to each other about what we were doing and what we were discovering and quite a few years ago when I was still mostly working with parents of preschool-aged kids. People said to me, we love this book, but we need more examples, and so I said, I know what to do. I called Adele and I said, I have your next book for you. She’s written one for teens and she’s written ones for kids at school. I said, now you have to write one for little kids, and she said, more or less. I quote, Julie, I’m too tired. You have to write it. So I called Joanna and I said, Joanna, we have to write this book. So we’ve been collecting material for many years and working very hard for the past two years to really polish it up and create this book.

Jen:                                      [04:49]                   Yeah. Awesome. I did a little comparison between the new book, which as we’re recording has not been released yet, but once, once you hear this interview, you will be able to get the book on Amazon and other bookstores. So I have an advanced copy and I did a little comparison between that and the classic How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and it seemed to me as though the overall concepts are quite similar. The certainly a big focus on handling emotions and engaging cooperation and praise. There’s a little less than the new book on encouraging autonomy, which surprised me a little bit, and you have a spanking new chapter on working with differently wired kids, which we’re going to talk more about in a little bit. I’m guessing that a fair number of my listeners have already read or maybe even own the original book. And maybe that was, you know, they bought it for their first child and maybe they have a toddler in tow now. And I’m wondering if you can help us understand what they would get out of this book that they wouldn’t necessarily get if they have already bought or read the original.

Julie:                                   [05:48]                   Well, let me, let me address that autonomy question. And then the second question as well. Joanna and I talked quite a lot about whether to include a separate chapter on autonomy and we ultimately decided not to in part because we feel like every chapter is about how to encourage autonomy. You know, when we, when we respect a kid’s feelings, when we offer them choices, when we give them information and they get to decide what to do with that information, all of those give the child an opportunity to say to himself or herself, well, I’m going to put the toys away or I’m going to turn off the bathroom light. And we also see that kids have a natural drive to be autonomous and independent. And so a lot of the tools that we’re offering in our book are a way for parents to sort of use that natural drive. So that’s why we didn’t include a separate chapter also because our editor said it had to be under 400 pages and we just had to stop because I think we really could have included another chapter and maybe someday we will, but…

Jen:                                      [06:48]                   Or another book!

Julie:                                   [06:49] Another book, right – no, not another chapter for this book; this book is done. So that’s the answer to the autonomy question. And your other question was, what’s different about this book?

Jen:                                      [07:00]                   Yeah, yeah.

Julie:                                   [07:01]                   There are a number of differences. I think the biggest reason for people to get this book is because every example is about little kids. If you get the original book, there are little kid examples are 10 examples. We, we just are offering you lots and lots of ways to use these tools from stories that were given to us by actual real life people, parents and teachers. And in my experience, the tools make sense to people. But when you’re in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to think of what to do. Yeah. And if you have somebody else’s example and when you have, when you can picture it in your mind, when you can sort of rehearse it a little bit ahead of time, that’s when you can pull up the tool more easily and use it in the moment. So I think that’s the biggest advantage of, of. I mean, I, I love the original book, obviously… People should read both probably, but if you have little kids that make sense to read a book, just about little kids.

Jen:                                      [07:56]                   Yeah, that makes sense to me. I often find when I read books that the principles are aligned with what I’m thinking, but you know, the, the examples and the language they talk through, I’m thinking what would really happen if I said that to my two and a half year old when she really get that? Would you understand it? And so what you’re saying is that because the examples in your book are geared towards younger children, they’re more easy for parents to apply, is that right?

Julie:                                   [08:21]                   Yeah.

Jen:                                      [08:21]                   Okay.

Julie:                                   [08:22]                   And then there’s are several other differences. One of the, the differences that I think will be very helpful to parents is around the idea of taking action. So in the original book there’s a, there’s a skill called take action without insult and doing the workshops. What I found is a lot of parents get confused. Well, what actions should I take? How do I know what to do? I mean, I’ve tried acknowledging his feelings. You know, you’re in the mood to draw. I’ve given them information. Walls aren’t for drawing on; I’ve given him choices. You can, you can draw on this box, you can draw on this paper. But he still took the, took the Sharpies. One of my parents groups, you know, I don’t know why…and started drawing on the walls so, you know, so I felt like I had to say, no, I’ve told you, I’ve told you you can’t do that, you bad boy. I’m taking this away from you. You may not. Now you’re not going to get a chance to see. I’ve already told you that sort of language. And they’re like, well that’s taking action. Isn’t it? Well, the, and you’re nodding your head. Yes it is, and it’s, it’s also we want to offer an alternative, um, in which we protect ourselves or we protect property without attacking the child. So the action is going to look the same. I’m still going to take those Sharpies away, but, but what I’m going to say is I don’t like my walls drawn on. For now, the sharpies are going away and the child knows that I was drawing on the wall. Now I can’t, but you’re not doing it to me, the child. You’re not doing this to make me suffer. You’re doing to protect yourself and protect the walls. Right. So I think that’s, that’s. I think we explain that in the book in a way that’s a little easier for parents to figure out, okay, what do I do in this next situation?

Jen:                                      [10:04]                   Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering if I can selfishly talk a little bit about situation that I’m having around acknowledging feelings. Yes, because I think that that’s, it’s a really central theme in the book and Joanna actually wrote that chapter and she described a scenario where she videotaped to show for a five year old and a three year old wants to know why she didn’t a tape a show for him when he had asked her to tape it and she says to her, a missed TV show doesn’t really seem as though it’s qualifies as being worthy of a meltdown. But to her son it really was because it was important to him, or, it had become important to you and so it seems as though the best way to help him get over it was to help him get through it is the advice that’s given in the book.

Julie:                                   [10:47]                   And so, you know, when my daughter’s having that kind of meltdown, let’s just clarify, to get, to help him means to say, Oh, you LOVE that show! You would have liked me to tape that one for you too.


Jan 20 2017



Rank #3: 094: Using nonviolent communication to parent more peacefully

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Today’s episode pulls together a lot of threads from previous shows, and will also give you some really concrete new tools using what’s called Nonviolent Communication to support you in your parenting.  It’s not like these are concepts that we’ve never discussed before, but sometimes hearing them in a different framework can be the key to making them ‘click’ for you. Our guest Christine King has been teaching these techniques to college students, teachers, and parents for over 17 years.

And I’m releasing this particular interview today because these tools are ones we’re learning how to use in the free online workshop that I’m kicking off on Monday July 8th.  In the workshop we’re going to spend a couple of weeks learning why our children trigger us so much and how to stop being triggered, and how we can move beyond the power struggles we get caught up in with our children so we can have the kind of relationship with them where their true needs as people are respected and met – and so are ours.

Click here to sign up for the free online workshop – it starts tomorrow!

Things we discussed in the show:

Christine’s game for kids can be found here

Videos of Christine’s giraffe and jackal puppet shows are here

List of feelings

List of needs (note that neither of these lists claims to be comprehensive)

Inbal Kashtan’s book Parenting From Your Heart

The No-Fault Zone game

Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

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Jen: 00:01:43 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I'm so excited for today's episode because I think it really pulls together a lot of threads from previous shows and it will also give you some really concrete new tools to support you in your parenting. It’s not like these are concepts that we've never discussed before, but sometimes hearing them in a different framework can be the key to making them click for you. I'm releasing this particular interview today because these tools are ones we are learning how to use and the challenge that I'm kicking off on Monday, July 8th. In the challenge, we're going to spend a couple of weeks learning why our children trigger us so much and how to stop being triggered and how we can move beyond the power struggles we get caught up in with our children so we can have the kind of relationship with them where their true needs as people are respected and met and so our ours.
Jen: 00:02:30 To help us with part of this, I'd like to introduce my guest, Christine King. Christine is a credential K12 teacher, mother of three and describes herself as a teacher and perpetual student. She says on her website that when she discovered the tool we're going to discuss today, which is called Nonviolent Communication or NVC “it seemed like my entire worldview fell into place my lifelong interest in politics and justice, self-transformation and mindfulness.” Christine is a center for nonviolent communication certified trainer and has been teaching NVC principles and strategies to children, college students, teachers and parents for over 17 years. Currently, she teaches NVC at San Quentin State Prison and at the University of California. Today, we're going to talk about how to bring NVC, which helps us to truly understand ourselves and our children to bring a new depth of relationship and ease to our family. Welcome, Christine.
Christine: 00:03:23 Thank you so much for inviting me to your program, Jen. I have listened to a few of your podcasts. I found them inspirational and educational and so I want to thank you for the work that you're doing in this world to promote more respectful and more conscious parenting.
Jen: 00:03:45 Oh, thank you. You've got a lot to live up to then, don't you?
Christine: 00:03:50 Yeah, that's right.
Jen: 00:03:51 So let's start by asking the question that everyone who's listening, who has never heard of NVC before is thinking, what the heck is nonviolent communication? And if I've never heard of it and I'm not practicing it, does that mean that I'm communicating violently?
Christine: 00:04:06 Well, I have to smile hearing your question when you say, if I'm not practicing NVC, does that mean I'm communicating violently? And we get that response a lot in the NVC community. When people first hear the words nonviolent communication, they often say, I'm not a violent person so I don't need this. I think their thought is that violence is primarily sort of a physical aggression and they don't see that it's really embedded in the language that we use. So to answer your question, what is nonviolent communication? I once asked that question to Marshall Rosenberg, who’s the founder of NVC, and what he said to me was exposed that communication process on the one hand and a consciousness on the other. So, we need both the process and the consciousness in order to stay in that place of connection and compassion, especially when people say things that are maybe painful to hear and difficult.
Christine: 00:05:20 So, getting back to that consciousness and the process, the consciousness is this desire to share power with the other person. That includes children, which means being aware of both their needs and being aware of our needs and trusting that it's possible for both of us to get our needs met like even when there's a disagreement. So, before just continuing, I want to say a bit more about shared power because children are smaller than us, it’s so easy for adults to use power over children to get them to do what they wanted them to do. So, parents often will make demands on their children. And especially of course the parent were tired, were stressed, maybe we've had a long busy day and we get home, we just want to rest and the child wants to run around and go crazy and have fun. So, to get them to be quiet or do what we want, we can resort to all kinds of means like bribery, threats, demands, coercion. So, I guess I would say if you're communicating with those tactics then Marshall Rosenberg might say it is a more violent way to communicate and therefore that's going to affect the child's trust, their self-esteem and their willingness to cooperate.
Jen: 00:06:47 I'm not sure before I learned about this, would've equated those sort of techniques that are a regular part of the parenting arsenal I guess brings it right back to violence, doesn't it? But these are things that we do without even thinking about because we feel as though we need our child's cooperation. So we're going to talk today a lot more about what else is there. But I think parents are probably thinking, what else is there if I'm not doing these things?
Christine: 00:07:15 Yeah, yeah. We’ll talk a lot about that hopefully. Yeah.
Jen: 00:07:17 Yeah. So, the idea, I just want to make sure we tease this out fully, you’ve mentioned sharing power with the other person and I think that that's more natural to do when you're perhaps thinking about communicating differently with your partner. When you're thinking about it with your children, I think that's a really kind of radical concept to think that you might share power with your child instead of having power over them. If you do share power with your child, you're not saying, I'm not the parent anymore, you and I are equals, you get to say just as much as I do and what's going to happen?
Christine: 00:07:50 Exactly.
Jen: 00:07:51 So, can you just kind of talk us through how that sort of power sharing works in a parent child dynamic?
Christine: 00:07:57 Yeah, so I think it's not about being a permissive parent per se, like we talk about, you’re either permissive or you are a strict parent. It's really just about acknowledging that your child also has needs and also has feelings. So, if we put our needs above the needs of the child, then the child's going to think my name don't really matter. I mean, they're not going to think that in a concrete way, okay, my names don't matter here, but they're going to feel it and they're going to experience it. So if they are cooperating with us because we make a demand on them or we somehow reward them or punish them or in some way expect them to do what we want them to do, then they're going to do it. But they might do it, but it's not going to be out of this sense of yeah, they're really wanting to do it because they feel honored and they feel that they really matter.
Jen: 00:08:52 Okay. All right. So that leads me nicely to my next question. So, we talk a lot on the show and on the resources that I put out in blog posts and things like that about self-determination theory and that's the idea that all people have a need for autonomy and competence and relatedness. So, I see some connections here in how this intersects with NVC. Can you help us think through that a little bit?
Christine: 00:09:15 Yeah, absolutely. So, I think the idea of self-determination and specifically self-determination theory fits in beautifully with NVC. We all have these natural tendencies to want, to learn, to grow, to master our environment and to also integrate new experiences into who we are. So, NVC encourages that self-determination and self-exploration. So, one interesting aspect of these three elements that you mentioned autonomy, competence, relatedness is how much all of them are related not to extrinsic motivations but intrinsic ones. So, NVC is based on intrinsically motivating and also power sharing. In nonviolent communication, the belief is that everything we say, everything we do is related to a universal human need and that these needs that connects us to the humanity of others. So, I want to encourage these intrinsic qualities in children because it's going to make them stronger and more independent adults as well as strong and independent children.
Jen: 00:10:41 Yeah. Okay. So, before we get into sort of what our needs, and we might think I know what a need is, but there's sort of a very specific idea here. Can you help us think through what are giraffes and jackals and how do you use those to explain principles of NVC?
Christine: 00:10:57 Well, giraffes and jackals are animals and Marshall Rosenberg started using giraffe and jackal puppets to illustrate his message of nonviolent communication. So, the idea is that the giraffe stands for her connection, caring for the needs of both parties. The reason he used giraffe is because it's got a huge heart, one of the largest hearts of any land mammal. So, it's very loving illustration. The jackal is meant to illustrate a more critical perspective. So, who's right, who's wrong, who wins, who loses. There's a sort of kind of win-lose thinking. It's not that the jackal is bad, giraffe is good, we don't want to be thinking in those kinds of right-wrong thinking. But rather the jackal represents habitual behaviors and can be a reminder to return to our compassionate giraffe nature. So, if you go on YouTube, you can find a lot of videos with Marshall Rosenberg and other trainers using the puppets.
Jen: 00:12:17 There's one or two of you, isn't there?
Christine: 00:12:19 Yes. We have so much fun with those puppets.
Jen: 00:12:26 Yeah. I will post a link to those in the references for the episode. So, if anyone's curious to see how that sort of explained with these puppets, it's a pretty cool sort of elementary way of understanding some of these concepts. So, I want you to help us to understand what are some of the central ideas of NVC? Because then I think that kind of gives us the foundation to moving towards putting these into practice. So, it seems to me as the crux of this is kind of differences between things that maybe we haven't even thought too much about there being differences between before. So, let's start with the first one being what's the difference between observations and evaluations?
Christine: 00:13:05 Great. I'm really glad that you asked me that. So, earlier I mentioned nonviolent communication being a consciousness and a process. So now we're talking specifically about the process or the tools. So, the first one is observation. When we're trying to use the language of nonviolent communication, we want to see things as they really are and not as we judge them or evaluate them to be. So we might say, what would a video camera see or hear? So video camera, it's not going to see my child being a “brat”, right? Because that would be an evaluation or a judgment of the child. However, a video camera can hear my child say, no, when I say, hey, could you put your toys away? So, video camera would not see the child's room as a mess and could see toys on the floor, clothes on the bed, and dirty dishes on the counter. The reason this is so important is that if we are coming from a judgment or an evaluation, we've already decided who's right and who's wrong. When we come from an observation, there is no moralistic thinking about who's to blame, who's at fault, and what they need to do to make it right again. Does that make sense?
Jen: 00:14:37 Absolutely, yeah. When we make that evaluation, almost always we're the ones in the right, right?
Christine: 00:14:43 Right. Of course. Why is that?
Jen: 00:14:45 Yeah. If they would do things my way or the way that I need them to be done, then things would be better around here.
Christine: 00:14:53 And you know for me, I'll have to say that observation was the hardest of all the tools. There's only four tools, but that one I spent years just going, okay, that's an evaluation. That's such…
Christine: 00:15:09 Okay, so that's my jackal and it's a reminder to try to return to a consciousness that is more open, more curious more, you know, just like, okay, so this is what happened. Nobody did anything to anybody. This is actually what happened.
Jen: 00:15:27 Right. I just also want to point out, it seems to me to be sort of very western centric view of the world, the idea that there is a truth and that people from other cultures may have other ways of seeing this. What do you think about that? Just briefly.
Christine: 00:15:41 I love that. I love that. I think we do tend to be a little bit more, like you say, a little more moralistic, we're kind of dualistic in the sense of this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad, this is appropriate, this is inappropriate. And can we have a more fluidity in that and look at something and just see it for what it is.
Jen: 00:16:05 Okay. So, let's go into the second of the four tools. What's the difference between feelings and thoughts?
Christine: 00:16:11 Feelings and thoughts. So, we often talk about feelings and we talk about false feelings that are attached to a thought. So sometimes we call that faux feelings or victim feelings. So a true feeling is from the inside out. So you're probably not going to argue with me if I say to you, I feel sad, I feel scared, I feel confused, I feel frustrated, I feel mad because it's my true feeling, right? So, false feeling it may sound like a feeling, but actually it's a thought when the judgment attached. So for example, I might say to a child, I feel taken for granted, right?
Christine: 00:17:01 Or I feel unappreciated. So, you can see that's kind of from the outside in. It's not from the inside out.
Jen: 00:17:08 Yeah. And when you say outside in, it has that kind of evaluation baked into it. It’s not truly something you're feeling. They're probably our feelings that you're feeling that are making you feel uncomfortable, but being taken advantage of is not one of those feelings.
Christine: 00:17:23 Yeah. So when we come from this kind of thinking, then you know, or we say it's a feeling, we're actually blaming the child and we're not taking responsibility for our true feelings and our true needs. So, let's say I say I feel unappreciated. So what would the parent actually be feeling? Maybe sad, maybe unhappy because they're wanting some sort of understanding or acknowledgement or something like that. So, there's kind of a should thinking, you should appreciate me, you shouldn't take me for granted. And again, there's blame. So we're trying to avoid that.
Jen: 00:18:04 Since we're on that topic of feelings, we hear a lot these days about emotional intelligence, which I think is defined as the ability to recognize and experience and name our feelings no matter how uncomfortable they might be. And we touched on this in my episode on Emotion Regulation and can you say a bit more about that emotional intelligence idea?
Christine: 00:18:23 Yes, I'd be happy to. I think that there are many parents, I think I was one of them who want to protect their children from uncomfortable feelings, which is completely understandable. We don't want our children to feel badly. We don't want them to suffer. So, a parent might sort of in a way I wanna say unconsciously, they might deny a child's feeling or discount the feeling, they might say something like, there's nothing to be afraid of or don't be sad, I'll get you another hamster, thinking that this is going to help the child minimize these feelings of fear or sadness or loss and therefore the child is going to suffer less. Right? So, what can happen if we try to protect our children from feelings that we think are uncomfortable or hurt is that the child might subconsciously think their feelings don't matter.
Christine: 00:19:31 Their feelings are not important or not allowed. So, when those feelings might come up for them, they might start to repress them and repressing or exiling feelings of course can lead to other problems. So, the idea then is to allow and encourage our children to feel their feelings as normal and healthy. Then this is going to increase their emotional literacy and their ability to recognize what they are feeling and just allowing those feelings to come and go. An interesting side note is that children who can recognize a name the feelings of other children are actually more popular with their peers, which I find interesting.
Jen: 00:20:16 Because they're better able to understand what these children are experiencing and thus able to tailor their own responses, which makes them more like? Does that kind of how the idea flows?
Christine: 00:20:27 Yeah. It's like they're giving their peers empathy. If they were to say to a child, oh, you seem sad. They're seeing the cues of the other child experiencing or touching on sadness and it's an empathetic connection with that child, which the other child feels kind of validated in their feelings. So yes.
Jen: 00:20:47 Yeah. And I just want to throw out one idea that came to me as you were sort of talking through the idea of validating emotions rather than sort of pushing back on them. One thing I like...

Jul 07 2019

1hr 5mins


Rank #4: 064: Compassion (and how to help your child develop it)

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“Social and Emotional Learning” is all the rage in school these days, along with claims that it can help children to manage their emotions, make responsible decisions, as well as improve academic outcomes.

But what if those programs don’t go nearly far enough?

What if we could support our child in developing a sense of compassion that acts as a moral compass to not only display compassion toward others, but also to pursue those things in life that have been demonstrated – through research – to make us happy?  And what if we could do that by supporting them in reading cues they already feel in their own bodies, and that we ordinarily train out of them at a young age?

Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Associate Director for the Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, tells us about his work to bring secular ethics, which he calls the cultivation of basic human values, into education and society

Learn more about Breandan’s work here:

We also mentioned the Yale University course The Psychology of Wellbeing, which is available on Coursera here.


Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace, T.W.W., Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L., & Schwartz, E.L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion medication training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6(1), 1-15.

Frey, K.S., Nolen, S.B., Edstrom, L.V., & Hirschstein, M.K. (2005). Effects of a school-based social-emotional competence program: Linking children’s goals, attributions, and behavior. Applied Developmental Psychology 26, 171-200.

Lantieri, L., & Nambiar, M. (2012). Cultivating the social, emotional, and inner lives of children and teachers. Reclaiming Children and Youth 21(2), 27-33.

Maloney, J.E., Lawlor, M.S., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., & Whitehead, J. (2016). A mindfulness-based social and emotional learning curriculum for school-aged children: The MindUP program. In K.A. Schoenert-Reichl & R.W. Roeser (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp.313-334). New York, NY: Springer.

Ozawa-de Silva, B., & Dodson-Lavelle, B. (2011). An education of heart and mind: Practical and theoretical issues in teaching cognitive-based compassion training to children. Practical Matters 4, 1-28.

Pace, T.W.W., Negi, L.T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., & Raison, C.L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 87-98.

Rovelli, C. (2017). Reality is not what it seems: The journey to quantum gravity. New York, NY: Riverhead.

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Jen:                                      [00:40]                   Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is on the topic of compassion. I actually need to thank Dr Tara Callahan, whom I interviewed way back in episode four of the show on encouraging creativity and artistic ability for bringing us this episode. She met today’s guest Dr Brendan Ozawa-de Silva at a conference and was kind enough to put us in touch. Dr Ozawa-de Silva is the Associate Director for the Emory University Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, where he’s responsible for Emory’s Social, Emotional, and Ethical learning program, or SEE Learning; a worldwide kindergarten through twelfth grade educational curriculum based on compassion and secular ethics. He received his doctorates from Oxford and Emory universities as well as master’s degrees from Boston and Oxford Universities; I think you’ve actually got more degrees than I do. His chief interests lies in bringing secular ethics, which he calls the cultivation of basic human values into education and society. I’m excited to learn more today about his work and the benefits that it has for children. Welcome Brendan.

Dr. de Silva:                       [01:42]                   Thank you Jen.

Jen:                                      [01:43]                   So can you start by telling us what are secular ethics, what do these have to do with social and emotional learning that parents might already be familiar with?

Dr. de Silva:                       [01:51]                   So secular ethics means basic human values, so things like compassion, gratitude, sense of common humanity, a recognition of our responsibility to one another and to the environment. And if we look at the two words, the word secular means that we approach these ethics not on the basis of any one religion or ideology, but in a broad way on the basis of science, common Sense, common experience. So what we have in common with each other rather than what kind of separates us, which religion and ideology can do, but it doesn’t mean secular in the sense of anti-religious. So secular ethics doesn’t mean anything against religion, but it’s rather what we all have in common despite our religious national cultural differences. And then when we talk about ethics, it’s important to state that we’re not talking about ethics as a set of rules or principles that are being handed down by an authority that this is right and that is wrong; this is good and that iss bad, but really exploring the dimension of what contributes to individual and social flourishing. So what’s beneficial for us, what are the kinds of common values that we would share that will be beneficial to us. So we agree on those values politically and legally. For example, we have laws saying, you know, you can’t steal and you can’t murder people. And those reflect our common values independent of religion. So that’s what we’re approaching it. And the connection to SEL is that we believe that the cultivation of these basic human values is very linked to social and emotional intelligence and social emotional skills. So these moral emotions are actually social emotions, just emotions that involve how we relate to one another. So it’s a kind of different approach to ethics.

Jen:                                      [03:40]                   Yeah. And as you’re listing off those components, compassion, gratitude, responsibility, individual and social flourishing, I’m going down that list thinking, Yep, I want that. I want that for my daughter. So that gives us a framework to think within and to me, that sounds. Yes. I want to know more about that. So can you tell us why this kind of learning is important for children? And specifically I’m interested in it seems as though not all of these concepts are a component of the existing SEL programs. And by SEL we mean social and emotional learning programs as they’re typically taught in schools.

Dr. de Silva:                       [04:15]                   Yeah. Well, I’d like to just very briefly give a story of myself when I was a child when I was growing up because it’s kind of a funny story and it kind of explains why I’m doing this. I remember when I was probably 10 or 11 maybe I first had these thoughts. Even earlier I was kind of thinking and I know what children think about this. Even at a much younger age, I was thinking about what’s important in life and what am I doing here and what am I supposed to be doing? What’s going to happen when I grow up? And I was asking these questions and wondering when in school we would actually be learning about these things. So I thought, well, they’re going to teach us. The adults are going to teach us about the meaning of relationships and loves and meaning in life and what life is about and all these things.

Dr. de Silva:                       [05:03]                   And I thought you know; we’re too young right now, so they’re going to teach us later. So maybe when we get to middle school, they’re gonna teach us these things and got to middle school and I said, no, they’re not teaching us that. And then I thought, well maybe in high school they’ll be teaching us those things and know it’s the same thing. Math, history, biology, you know, and by then I was old enough to realize that even looking at college that we would never be taught these things. So not only are we not taught them, but there’s no space in the school day to even talk about them or discuss them. But I think that as human beings, we all have a need to find meaning in life as you said, as parents. We always want the best for our children. We want our children to have happy lives and we know that there’s a connection between character and flourishing; being a good person, however we define that.

Dr. de Silva:                       [05:47]                   We know that there’s a relationship between that and leading a happy life. So why don’t we make space for that in education and maybe in previous times that’s a space that would have been held by the family or extended family, the community churches, but what we’re seeing in today’s pluralistic society is that increasingly these things aren’t talked about and so kids don’t have a space to talk about them and since all children go through school in some form or another, why not allow school to be the place where we do that. Social and emotional learning is a step in that direction because it creates a space in the curriculum and in the school day for kids to talk about emotions, talk about relationships, but SEL has stayed away from the kind of more thorny question of values and things like compassion and things like meaning because you know that’s moving in the direction of ethics and to some people that starts sounding like religion, but we think that there’s a way to talk.

Jen:                                      [06:49]                   And dangerous, too…

Dr. de Silva:                       [06:49]                   Yeah, exactly. And we have a history of people trying to indoctrinate our kids in various ways and of course we should be very suspicious of that, but we believe that there’s a way of doing it, which is not about indoctrination at all, but about exploration. So our program is very much not about teaching children how to think or what to think, but creating a space where they can explore these questions for themselves to talk about their own anxieties, their fears, their hopes and these deeper questions of meaning so that they can kind of get a jumpstart on those things. And also we think it might be protective against some of the problems that we’re seeing among kids and in schools with regard to anxiety, bullying and just a host of various issues that we’re dealing with.

Jen:                                      [07:33]                   Okay. Your anecdote reminded me of my own moment where I thought the grownups had it all figured out. I was in geography class when I learned about climate change and it was just before the 1992 Rio climate conference and my teacher told us about the conference and I thought, Oh okay, well the adults are going to go and figure out what to do about this and they’re going to come back and tell us and we’re going to do it and climate change will be solved. I believe that’s probably not what happened at the Rio conference or we wouldn’t still have climate change today, but yeah, so when that leads us to the broader issue of the fact that the grownups don’t always have all the answers and that can be uncomfortable I think for teachers and also for parents. And so what would you say to parents who are thinking, oh, I do not want to open this can of worms with my kid because I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what the answer is.

Dr. de Silva:                       [08:22]                   I think that’s a great point. I think there’s a moment in every child’s life. Probably when they have that Aha moment, they realized that the world is a lot crazier than it should be and that means that the, the grownups have not figured all things out. I remember going to school in the seventies and eighties and being taught stop, drop and roll. You know, what happens if a nuclear bomb falls on you learning things like MAD; Mutually Assured Destruction. So if the Russians fire warheads at us in the States, then that’s no problem because we will fire warheads back at them and everyone will die. So yeah, you learn this, you hear these horrifying things as a kid and you realize, yeah, the adults don’t have all the answers but there’s no place in school to talk about that. And for a lot of kids sometimes there isn’t even a place at home.

Dr. de Silva:                       [09:07]                   So I think it is very important for parents to make that space and be courageous enough. It also takes courage from our teachers also to walk into this space where they know they don’t have all the answers. You know, we haven’t figured out our own emotions, our own relationships certainly, but just creating that space is so important and to allow children to explore that. Children have an incredible amount of wisdom on their own and it never ceases to amaze us that when that space is created, the things that they come up with and the learning that takes place just through the conversations. And we also find that parents learn a lot. So a lot of children who go through our program…we’ll bump into the parents and the drug store or at a yoga studio if it’s a school here in Atlanta for example. And they’ll say, you know, my kid was teaching me this about stress and teaching me this about what I can do when I get upset. And, and you know, was seeing me stressed out and saying, know mommy, you can take a few deep breaths now or you can push against the wall. You know, we teach them all these various techniques and those, they get deeper and deeper and deeper. And so the parents, you know, that’s the funny thing is that the parents can also learn, so if parents are open to it, it’s a great opportunity for growth for themselves and their kids and their relationship with their kids.

Jen:                                      [10:21]                   Yeah. And you know, your curriculum addresses kindergarten through age 12, but I think it’s important to note that this isn’t something you have to wait until school age to start. Actually in an astounding moment of coincidence. I was just browsing Facebook before we got on this call and a friend of mine posted a discussion he’d had with his son who’s four and his son, they were just eating lunch. His son said what’s the best thing to do Papa? And he said, I think the best thing is to keep asking questions and his son said Oh, why? And he said, because if you keep asking questions you understand more. And with understanding you become more compassionate. And his son said what’s compassionate? And he said, what do you think it is? And his son said Well, compassionate is when you hear more laughs and more crying and, and, and he said, yeah, that’s right. When you hear more laughs and more crying, you’ll understand yourself and the people around you better and with that more love goes around and I just thought, wow, this kid is four years old and he’s already having conversations like that with his father. So shout out to my friend – you know who you; are not going to out you on the show, but yeah. So yes, we’re talking about a curriculum that’s used in school, but this is also relevant to kids younger than this, right?

Dr. de Silva:                       [11:31]

May 21 2018



Rank #5: 099: How to parent highly sensitive children

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Is your child Highly Sensitive?  Does it sometimes feel as though you don’t understand them, and struggle to support them in the ways it seems they need to be supported?  Or does your child experience and process things more deeply than other children, but this is the first time you’re hearing about High Sensitivity?

In this episode Dr. Michael Pluess helps us to understand how we can know whether our child is highly sensitive, and how to parent these children effectively so they can reach their full potential.

Sep 16 2019



Rank #6: 046: How to potty train a child

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When should I start potty training?  What books should I read?  Can I do it in a day (or a week)?  Do I need stickers (for rewards)?  Does it have to be stressful?

I get these kinds of questions pretty often, and I’d resisted doing an episode on potty training because there are so many books on it already, and everyone has their opinion, and I really didn’t want to wade into it.  But ya’ll kept asking and my resolve has finally crumbled, so today we’re going to talk all about what the research says, what the books say, and how there’s essentially no correlation between the books and the research.  We’ll review the “do it in a day!” methods and what makes them successful, and we’ll also look at child-led methods.  You’ll leave this episode with a clear picture of which is probably going to work best for you, and some concrete tools you can put to work (today, if you need to!) to start what I prefer to call the “toilet learning” process.

Other episodes references in this show
021: Talk Sex Today
009: Do you punish your child with rewards?
020: How do I get my child to do what I want them to do? (Unconditional parenting)
042: Manners

Au, S. &; Stavinoha, P.L. (2008). Stress-free potty training: A commonsense guide to finding the right approach for your child. New York, NY: AMACOM.
Barone, J.G., Jasutkar, N., & Schneider, D. (2009). Later toilet training is associated with urge incontinence in children. Journal of Pediatric Urology 5, 458-461.
Benjusuwantep, B., & Ruangdaraganon, N. (2011). Infant toilet training in Thailand: Starting and completion age and factors determining them. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand 94(12), 1441-1446.

Blum, N.J., Taubman, B., & Nemeth, N. (2003). Relationship between age at initiation of toilet training and duration of training: A prospective study. Pediatrics 111(4), 810-814.
Butler, J.F. (The toilet training success of parents after reading Toilet Training In Less Than A Day. Behavior Therapy 7, 185-191.
Duong, T.H., Jansson, U-B., & Hellstrom, A-L. (2013). Vietnamese mothers’ experiences with potty training procedure for children from birth to 2 years of age. Journal of Pediatric Urology 9, 808-814.
Fertleman, C., & Cave, S. (2011). Potty training girls the easy way: A stress-free guide to helping your daughter learn quickly. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo.
Fertleman, C. & Cave, S. (2009). Potty training boys the easy way: Helping your son learn quickly – even if he’s a late starter. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo.
Gerber, M. (2002). Dear parent: Caring for infants with respect (2 nd Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Resources for Infant Educarers.
Glowacki, J. (2015). Oh, crap! Potty training: Everything modern parents need to know to do it once and do it right. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Goode, E. (1999, January 12). Two experts do battle over potty training. The New York Times. Retrieved from: do-battle- over-potty- training.html
Gross-Loh, C. (2007). The diaper-free baby: The natural toilet training alternative. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Horn, I.B., Brenner, R., Rao, M., & Cheng, T.L. (2006). Beliefs about the appropriate age for initiating toilet training: Are there racial and socioeconomic differences? Journal of Pediatrics 149, 165-168.
Kaerts, N., Van Hal, G., Vermandel, A., & Wyndaele, J-J. (2012). Readiness signs used to define the proper moment to start toilet training: A review of the literature. Neurology and Urodynamics 31, 437-440.
Kimball, V. (2016). The perils and pitfalls of potty training. Pediatric Annals 45(6), 199-201.
Koc, I., Camurdan, A.D., Beyazova, U., Ilhan, M.N., & Sahin, F. (2008). Toilet training in Turkey: The factors that affect timing and duration in different sociocultural groups. Child: Care, Health and Development 34(4), 475-481.
Martin, J.A., King, D.R., Maccoby, E.E., & Jacklin, C.N. (1984). Secular trends and individual differences in toilet-training progress. Journal of Pediatric Psychology 9(4), 457-468.
Matson, J.L., & Ollendick, T.H. (1977). Issues in toilet training normal children. Behavior Theraly 8, 549-553.
Shaikh, N. (2004). Time to get on the potty: Are constipation and toileting refusal causing delayed toilet training? Journal of Pediatrics 145, 12-13.
Taubman, B. (1997). Toilet training and toileting refusal for stool only: A prospective study. Pediatrics 99(1), 54-58.

Vermadel, A., Van Kamepn, M., Van Gorp, C., & Wyndaele, J-J. (2008). How to toilet train healthy children? A review of the literature. Neurology & Urodynamics 27, 162-166.

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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  I had actually resisted doing an episode on today’s topic for quite a while but listeners kept emailing to ask me about it so my resistance has crumbled and today we’re going to talk about potty training.  I prefer to call it toilet learning, but we’re going to look at a lot of different studies on this topic and I’m going to use the language that the individual authors use in their work.

There are SO MANY books about it and everyone seems to have their own opinion about it and I kind of didn’t want to stir the pot. Or even put my oar in it, to mix metaphors.  But you, my dear listeners, have spoken, and so I, your humble research assistant, have listened, and so today we are going to talk about potty training.  And toilet learning.  And we’re going to look at all of this through the lens of respectful parenting, because practitioners of respectful parenting have a fair bit to say on this topic.

So for those of you who listen to the show regularly, it probably won’t be enormously surprising for you to hear that toilet learning is profoundly impacted by cultural considerations.  Starting with the earliest possible age for toilet learning, we come to the concept of Elimination Communication, abbreviated to EC, which was popularized anew in Christine Gross-Loh’s book The Diaper-Free Baby, and I’m going to spare you the $13 on Amazon or even the three week wait in your library’s hold queue and tell you that the method basically involves watching for and learning a baby’s signals that he or she needs to pee or poo and providing opportunities to go at that time, providing opportunities to go at regular intervals even when the baby doesn’t indicate readiness, and making a whistling or zzzzz sound while you hold the baby over a potty or a hole in the garden which tells the baby that it’s time to go.  Not much to it, right?

This approach is, of course, most common in countries where interdependence, rather than independence, is prized – since it relies so heavily on reading signals given by others, it’s not surprising that this approach is used in countries like China and Vietnam where a big part of being a citizen in society is developing the ability to read signals given by other people.  The key to all of this is that it’s done when the baby is very young.  And I’m talking infant stage.  A study conducted by a joint Vietnamese-Swedish research team interviewed forty seven mothers about their potty training experiences from the time the babies were newborns until they were 24 months old; the researchers stopped interviewing the mothers when the babies were 24 months because all of the children were potty trained by then.  To a Western audience, that must sound incredible – I was certainly pretty surprised, and I even had some experience with EC.

The Digo tribe in East Africa begins toilet training a few weeks after birth; they expect some dryness at night by around six months and complete dryness at one year.  The babies are in constant contact with the mothers for the first couple of months of the baby’s life and whenever the mothers sense that the baby needs to pee or poop the mother holds the baby between her knees.  When the baby is 3-5 months old a sibling or other female family member aged between 5-12 years takes over primary care of the baby during the day, and if an accident occurs it is actually the caregiver rather than the infant who is punished.  So in the Digo culture, it is primarily the responsibility of parents and caregivers to recognize and respond to the child after the child indicates their need to pee or poop.  This is in stark contrast to Western cultures where the responsibility is primarily placed on the child to indicate that they need to pee or poop and to get themselves to the toilet, undress, void, wipe, and re-dress.  One study looked at mothers from different backgrounds in Turkey, and found that the both the age of initiation of potty training as well as the age of completion was much earlier among rural families that lived in homes without an inside toilet, families using washable diapers, and families who punish children.  Mothers having an education of more than 12 years tended to initiate training much later and used a more child-led approach.

We had a pretty traumatic first few months with my own daughter’s peeing; she would cry as soon as she peed and would continue to cry until her diaper was changed.  She was also very gassy as well so she actually cried a lot of the time in those early days and we had the Pamper’s diapers with the stripe on them that turns from yellow to blue when it gets wet.  She would start to cry and we would quickly check the stripe to see if it was blue, and it wouldn’t be blue, and she would keep crying and twenty seconds later it would turn blue – she was actually more reactive than the wetness indicator stripe.  We wondered if she might have a urinary tract infection but sometimes she would pee mid-change and wouldn’t cry at all then.  We went through sixteen diapers a day in the first few months; I know this because I hiked around Mont Blanc with her when she was eight weeks old and I had to count how many diapers we were using each day before we went so we could be sure to carry enough.

I think I read The Diaper-Free Baby when she was about five months old, because my in-laws were living with us from the time she was four through six months old to help take care of her while I went back to work.  I knew they would think I was crazy for trying EC so I waited until the day they left to start.  Within a couple of weeks she was doing pretty much all of her pees and about half of her poops on the potty, and when our nanny started work a few weeks later she was stunned to find a seven month-old mostly using the potty.  And the nanny was actually from Thailand, but I guess she had been in the States for entirely too long because a study out of Thailand reports that 80% of 50 infants who were followed by some Thai researchers were fully toilet trained by 12 months.  That study also found that children who weren’t the first child, and who were taken care of by a well-educated mother, were found to start toilet training late – perhaps exposure to more Western ideas, as well as having enough money to be able to afford diapers, were behind this trend.

I read a few books on potty training to prepare for this episode, along with a whole host of empirical research, and I have to say that that’s where the correlation between the two ends – researchers publish the results of empirical studies, but the people who write books on potty training seem not to read that research – or at least, I’ve yet to meet a book that cites any of it.  So let’s start going through some of that research and I’ll bring in information from the books as it seems appropriate.

If we missed the window for teaching through EC, which by all accounts has to be done early in the child’s life, then we have two-main choices for how to proceed – we can do a parent-led approach where we establish a date when we will “train” the child, and we train them on that day – we expect results the same day or certainly within the same week.  Or we can watch for signs that the child is ready to begin learning how to use the toilet, and allow the child to lead the process.

This readiness is, like many of these kinds of things, something that is culturally determined.  A study of 779 parents visiting child health providers in and around Washington D.C. found that the average age at which Caucasian parents believed toilet training should be initiated was 25.4 months, significantly later than African American parents (18.2 months) and parents of other races at 19.4 months.  Higher income was also associated with later toilet training.  This is certainly later than parents have toilet trained in the past – I found an abstract for a study from 1983 (although I couldn’t find the full study) stating that the first appearance of toileting skills appeared between 18 and 36 months in a dataset from 1975, which itself is described as being much later than in a comparable cohort (we have to assume they mean “mostly white”) from 1947.  Another study found that when children start training at a younger age then toilet training takes longer, although these children do end up completing training earlier than children who start later.  Training before the age of 27 months is apparently not correlated with the earlier completion of training, suggesting that there is little benefit to starting before then.

A variety of researchers have produced impressive-looking charts of signals that a child is ready to begin potty training.  One literature review graphed twenty one signs of readiness according to when the sign appears – some of these included the ability to sit and to walk, which appear between four and 18 months, acquiring voluntary control of the pelvic muscles which appears between 9-24 months, and understanding and responding to directions or questions and being able to follow simple commands appears between 9 and 26 months.  The majority of researchers as well as lay authors writing about potty training stress the importance of readiness, but there is no consensus whatsoever in the literature about how many of these readiness signs need to be present for the child to start potty training, which ones are more important in terms of judging an individual child’s readiness.  Many of the authors who say “a child must be ready” often give ages at which certain readiness signs should be present give different ages from each other.

So that gives us some information about when we might start thinking about toilet learning, but what do we actually do when we think that window has opened?  Well, it seems as though there are basically two approaches, and some people who attempt a middle ground between the two.  One approach seems to see toilet learning as the process of “getting urine and feces in the toilet,” as Magda Gerber, who founded the RIE approach to parenting, puts it.  Parents who see toilet training in this way will do whatever it takes to get the urine and feces in the toilet, typically making extensive use of rewards to make that happen.

Let’s cover the with the parent-led approach to toilet training first, which was formally developed by two psychologists named Asrin and Fox in 1974.  Any book published since then that promises parents they can potty train in a defined and short period of time probably uses some elements of this approach, although what they invariably neglect to state is that it was actually developed for “retarded and brain-damaged children,” and then the researchers appear to have decided that it was also applicable to normally developing children as well.  I should be up-front here and say that I haven’t read the book; I couldn’t get it from the library and honestly I didn’t want to give the researchers any money by buying it.  So if you’re considering this approach you should certainly read the book, but the gist of it is that once children are 20 months old (I’m not sure why this is the magic number) and can meet a variety of other criteria like being able to walk, staying dry for a couple of hours at a time, and following simple instructions, you set aside a day for potty training.  You set up a potty in an area big enough to play in, like the kitchen, and you show the child how to use the potty by showing a doll “drinking” water and “urinating” on the potty after taking its diaper off.  You do this a couple of times, first successfully, so the doll “pees” on the potty and gets a reward, and then “unsuccessfully” so the doll wets its underwear and then has to do a practice drill of going to the potty even though they don’t need to go.  You make sure your child drinks lots of fluids so he needs to pee.  Then repeat the same process with the child – when the child pees on the potty, he gets a reward.  If the child pees in his underwear, he has to do the drill of sitting on the potty.  Azrin and Fox tested their method on 34 children with the average child completing training in 3.9 hours and having a 97% decrease in accidents the week after training.  Sounds good, right?

Apparently there were so many reports about failures of parents to train their children using the book that people began to form classes to train parents in using the Asrin and Fox method.  One researcher noted that parts of the procedure are subtle (so don’t try to use this method just from my description; you’ll have to go and read the book) – and parents might lack the self-control required for this method.  It turns out that having extra support ends up being fairly critical for success – one admittedly very small study of ten children randomly assigned the children to either have a parent who would just read the book, or have a parent read the book as well as have an experienced trainer available for “supervision and prompting.”  Children whose mothers just read the book had about five accidents per day at the beginning of treatment, which dropped to about four over the course of five days of treatment, but actually rebounded to a peak of SEVEN accidents per day seven weeks after training before dropping again slightly to a level that was still above where they were when they started.  Children whose parents read the book and had “supervision and prompting” started with four accidents per day and dropped to an average of half an accident per day by day three, and maintained somewhere between half and one accident per day for the next ten weeks.

Now a couple of things stuck out to me here.  Firstly, that the researchers said that ALL of the mothers reported “emotional side effects” in their children, primarily consisting of tantrums and avoidance behavior.  These behaviors were more evident in mothers who only read the book and didn’t get support, and among younger children and usually occurred after an accident when the child didn’t want to sit on the potty again when they didn’t need to go.  Four of the ten mothers felt so uncomfortable that they wanted to stop the training, but “encouragement” resulted in three of the four...

Aug 28 2017



Rank #7: 002: Why doesn’t my toddler share?

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Imagine this: you’re with your toddler son or daughter at a playground on a Saturday afternoon so there are a lot of people around.  You’re sitting on a bench while your child plays in the sandpit where several others are playing as well.  You’re half paying attention while you catch up with some texts on your phone.  You hear a scream and when you look up you see a child you don’t know clutching tightly onto the spade your child had been playing with, and your child is about to burst into tears.

Or this: You’re at the playground on a Saturday afternoon and your child is in the sand pit, but when you hear the scream you look up to see your child holding the spade, and a child you don’t know has clearly just had it removed from his possession.

What do you do?

Assuming you want your children to learn how to share things, what’s the best way to encourage that behavior?  What signs can you look for to understand whether they’re developmentally ready?  Does praising a child who proactively shares something encourage her to do it again – or make her less likely to share in the future?  We’ll answer all these questions and more.

References for this episode

Brownell, C., S. Iesue, S. Nichols, and M. Svetlova (2012). Mine or Yours? Development of Sharing in Toddlers in Relation to Ownership Understanding. Child Development 84:3 906-920.  Full article available at:

Crary, E. (2013). The secret of toddler sharing: Why sharing is hard and how to make it easier. Parenting Press, Seattle, WA.

Davis, L., and J. Keyser (1997).  Becoming the parent you want to be. Broadway Books, New York, NY.

Klein, T (2014). How toddlers thrive. Touchstone, New  York, NY.

Kohn (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise, and other bribes. Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY.

Lancy, D. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

Warenken, F., K. Lohse, A. Melis, and M. Tomasello (2011). Young Children Share the Spoils After Collaboration. Psychological Science 22:2 267-273.  Abstract available at:

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Have you ever thought about how common the murder of children has been in societies we now call “Western” in the past, as well as societies all over the world today?

I recently read a book called The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings by David F. Lancy, and it’s a tour de force that describes attitudes to children across cultures today and in history.  Lancy describes how children in a variety of societies, from the Olmec to the Aztecs and the Greco-Romans, children were sacrificed to the Gods to bring rain, and to function as intermediaries between the divine and the human worlds.  In other cultures the infant is viewed as threatening in its own right or as a vessel or avatar for ghosts and evil spirits.  In Micronesia women might give birth to ghosts; deformed children who were thrown into the sea, burned or buried.  Cannibalism survives in the Korowai, New Guinea, where infanticide is not considered an immoral act because birth practices are repulsive and dangerous and a newborn is demonic rather than human.  Neglect may be even more frequent in the cross-cultural literature than deliberate killing, even if the end result is the same.  A study in Hungary found that mothers of high-risk infants breastfed them for shorter periods than normal infants, and also smiled less often at them and played with them less frequently.  They became pregnant more quickly following the birth of a high-risk infant – they had scaled back their investment in the high-risk infant and acted as if they didn’t expect it to survive.

Children have been and continue to be in many places regarded as property and material goods, as well as a source of income for families.  Slavery is one obvious form of this, but children were also sold into the army (one boy, aged 15, was bartered into the Army by his stepfather as a substitute for a man who paid the stepfather a horse, bridle, and saddle).  At the end of 2012 the UN reported that 175 Malian children were bought from their parents for more than $1000US to serve the Islamic insurgency.  Chinese mothers sell babies to orphanages which then resell them to eager adoptive – often American – parents.

In very many cultures either ancestors or elders – certainly adults – occupy the top of the pyramid of importance in a culture, with adolescents near the bottom and children at the very bottom.  Which is to say that it’s actually pretty remarkable that in the couple of hundred years or so since children were usually to be found working in factories earning money for their families that in WEIRD countries children are now at the top of the heap, dictating our social and cultural structures as we subvert our needs to theirs.  Until the 19th Century, there was no need to cherish an infant, or to help it develop; the death of a child was no great cause for sorrow and newborns were often referred to as “it” or “little stranger.”  With the Protestant Reformation came the sacred duty of parents to rear children for a blameless life.  The Victorians used dress and hairstyles to create androgynous, angelic innocents.  In Japan, children had been seen as utilitarian until after the second world war, where they were romanticized as cute, dependent, and needing much tender care.  By the 20th Century infant death became cause for public concern, and the fight to limit parents from earning a return from their children had strong moral overtones – “neglect” began to replace the fatalistic “God’s will” as the most common post-mortem verdict after child death.  Incrementally, possibly without anyone even noticing, WEIRD cultures have shifted from the adults being most important to the children.

(This podcast is a little different from most of the ones I’m planning for the future but I wanted to start off with it because I think the historical context is so important to understand.  The thing that really struck me the most was that things I take for granted – a child’s right to not be hit or even shamed, the desire to do the best for your children and help them achieve their fullest potential is not the way everybody parents, but hardly anybody has parented that way throughout history and even today it’s not a given.  What I didn’t realize was that virtually every choice I make as a parent is determined by my culture, although I find myself in the privileged position of being able to select what aspects of that culture I believe are most important and even borrow elements from other cultures if I choose.  I’m also privileged because the vast majority of scientific research in WEIRD countries is conducted on white children and parents, so it’s probably at least somewhat applicable to my parenting style.  Parents in other cultures even within the U.S. may parent very differently – Shirley Brice Heath’s seminal book called “Ways with Words” chronicled her years living in and near two poor rural communities in North Carolina.  She noted that in the black community, Trackton, children don’t expect adults to ask them questions because children aren’t considered appropriate conversational partners.  The most common kind of question asked of young children in Trackton was an analogy question, which calls for an open-ended answer drawn from the child’s experiences, designed to test the child’s ability to see things that are similar in their environment.  The adults use a lot of metaphors and similies in their own conversations, including comparing children to something else (“you act like some monkey”), so the questioning develops a skill that is critical to “fitting in” in that particular culture.  Far different from the popular press aimed at white parents today, which encourages parents not to compare their child with others so as to not damage their self-esteem, because every child is different and childhood isn’t a race so every child will get where they need to go at their own pace.

The parents of many toddlers will have weaned by now either because the milk ran out (like mine did) or due to cultural pressures – others may still be nursing and the decision of when to stop, and who decides when to stop (you and/or the child) and how to stop is one for which there are many approaches (Central African foragers apply hot pepper to her nipples which is apparently quite effective).  Providing stimulation to our babies and toddlers in the form of physical contact, the language of ‘motherese,’ and playing games like peekaboo to accelerate physical and intellectual development are a cultural decision.  In many cultures including the Inuit, nobody speaks to the child *at least* until the child is able to speak himself, and even then it is often ignored when it does speak up as it has nothing useful to add to a conversation.  In other cultures children defer to elders, rarely initiate topics of conversation, and take only brief speaking turns.  Adults are to be treated with deference and respect – children don’t express opinions, and adults are hardly likely to ask a child for their opinion.

North American mothers talk to and stimulate their babies to encourage the babies’ development as a unique person, while Japanese mothers comfort and lull babies and see the baby as an appendage – psychologically the boundaries between the two of them are blurred.  North American parents want their children to be popular with peers and well-liked by family and friends, and are willing to do a lot to make that happen.  In East Asia, high academic achievement is the primary objective and the child should willingly forgo popularity for exceptionality.

People control their children’s behavior in different ways.  I loved an example from the Ngoni of Malawi: “A proverb might suddenly be dropped like a stone into a pond.  The conversation rippled away into silence and the boy or girl who had refused to share some peanuts or had been boasting began to wonder to himself “Can that be for me? No? Yes? It is me. I am ashamed.” No one said anything but the shamed one took the first chance of slipping away to avoid further public notice.  The use of proverbs was an effective way of making a child learn for himself and apply the lesson.”  The Japanese use shame as well, as attention is called to filial obligations when children misbehave (“when you do that it makes mommy sad”).  Corporal punishment is still common around the world, from Morocco to Peru.  The rarest strategy, favored in WEIRD societies, is to “reason with” children, which may not be as effective at controlling behavior but does give some early preparation in negotiation skills and also facilitates the development of the (parent-as) teacher-pupil relationship.

Cultural issues have broad implications for the way we transmit knowledge to our children.  In many cultures children are expected to simply sit quietly and watch and learn – and they do.  Middle class North American parents set up learning situations with educational toys, pretend play, and in adjusting everyday activities like baking a cake to help the child learn how to cook.  In Southwest Madagascar an ethnographer observed a two-year old splashing alone in a tide pool, three boys aged around five clambering over a beached canoe, two boys aged about seven preparing and sailing model canoes, two boys aged about eight playing with an abandoned outrigger in the shallows – climbing on it, paddling it, capsizing it, taking turns as captain and mate; when two young men began to prepare to launch a full-size outrigger the two boys paddled over to watch this unfold; then a boy of about 10 came paddling in to shore in a half-size canoe.  An ethnographer who observed the Warao people in Venezuela said that “by the age of three all children know how to maneuver a canoe perfectly…it is truly breathtaking to observe a three year old child push off and paddle a canoe across an enormous river in full control of the craft.”  I know I assumed that everyone teaches their children things they think the children should know – but in the vast majority of non-WEIRD cultures parents don’t believe that knowledge must be crammed down children’s throats – instead the children will either learn because they want to, or because the physical or social consequences of not learning are too great.  In most places teaching is done for the benefit of the caretakers, to make the children easier to deal with, rather than for the child.  I’ve been reading a lot about scaffolding lately, which is the process of providing assistance to children to help them complete tasks that are just outside their current range of competence.  Lancy undercuts this by saying that “elaborate scaffolding is rarely seen in other cultures.  No one wants to waste time teaching novices who might well learn in time without instruction.  Play provides an alternative to adult scaffolding.”

One thing I haven’t seen in the ethnographic literature on other cultures is the concern for the child’s emotional wellbeing that I believe characterizes much of our interactions with our children in WEIRD countries.  We are moving away from hitting, ridiculing, and shaming because of the emotional consequences for both the child and later the adult, whereas I haven’t found any discussion of this at all related to other cultures.  I wonder if the adults resent the treatment they received as children or if, like college grads hired by investment banks, they simply look back on the experience as ‘character-building’ and perpetrate the same treatment on the next generation because, well, why not?  (At least, until the millennials came along…)

So what I’m going to do to tie this all up, which is the same thing I plan to do at the end of each of the future podcasts, is say “what the heck does all of this mean for me?  Why do I even care whether a three year-old Warao in Venezuela can paddle a canoe?”  My challenge both to myself and to you would be to recognize all of the decisions you make on an ongoing basis and just notice – not judge; just notice – the influence of culture on these and then to think about “what is the message I’m sending with what I’m saying or doing” and “is this the message I want to send?”  Dr. Dan Siegel did a great podcast as a guest with the group Zero to Three (look for the link on the blog page for this podcast) where he talks about parenting on automatic pilot: You’re aware you’re saying something or doing something but you didn’t really choose to say or do it; you’re just doing it.  And if you’re not conscious about how your own early experience shaped you, then whatever was said to or done to you ends up just being passed right on down to your kids. Then the interviewer makes a joke about why your parents push your buttons?  And the answer was because they installed them.

So what I encourage you to do is to be conscious of the things you’re saying and doing, and just notice for yourself whether or not these things are in line with the values you want to establish for your children.  So for example, when you’re at the dinner table, do you insist on children sitting up straight and keeping both writs on the edge of the table when his hands are not being used for eating like the French, or do you mostly ignore the children as you converse with the rest of the family, instead expecting the youngest to learn by watching? And I’m not the manners police here; I’m not here to say that one way of doing this is better than the other – I’m just describing two potential extremes that are currently practiced in different cultures today and wondering “how do I fit into this continuum?”  And “is what I’m doing likely to lead to the outcome I want for my child?”

Some other examples: when you’re working on one of your hobbies, how do you handle your child’s interest in the subject?  My two year-old daughter, Carys, is fascinated by cooking and in the past I’ve set up opportunities for her to cook – when we ran out of granola I would set up the kitchen, ingredients, and bowls so as to guide her through the process of making granola.  I’ve been using an approach to parenting called Resources for Infant Educarers, also known as RIE or respectful parenting (more on that in a future podcast), which advocates for not showing a child how to play (which is essentially what cooking is for Carys), but RIE advice officially “runs out” at age 2.  I’d had a hard time finding any information on anyone doing anything beyond that age other than providing educational opportunities to enhance children’s development, but now I see that in the grand scheme of things this is actually really uncommon and that providing her opportunities to simply watch me cook and later take on some of the simpler tasks herself would be just as much of a “learning” experience as the more elaborate set-ups I’d been doing.  When you’re around children who are playing and the play starts to get a bit excited and maybe aggressive, will you intervene or will you step back and let things play out?  Will you encourage sharing by forcing a child to give up a favorite toy to a playmate or by modeling sharing behavior?  And how will your own behavior be shaped by the expectations of your family, friends, and even strangers?  I know I feel the need to put on a bit of a “performance” when there are people watching.

As always, the references for this episode are on my website at; just go to Episode 1, The Importance of Culture in Parenting.

I’m looking forward to the next podcast, where we’ll be talking much more about the difficult topic of toddlers and sharing.

Imagine this: you’re with your toddler son or daughter at a playground on a Saturday afternoon so there are a lot of people around.  You’re sitting on a bench while your child plays in the sandpit where several others are playing as well.  You’re half paying attention while you catch up with some texts on your phone.  You hear a scream and when you look up you see a child you don’t know clutching tightly onto the spade your child had been playing with, and your child is about to burst into tears.

Or this: You’re at the playground on a Saturday afternoon and your child is in the sand pit, but when you hear the scream you look up to see your child holding the spade, and a child you don’t know has clearly just had it removed from his possession.

What do you do?

I find a host of conflicting emotions circle in me in these moments.

I want my daughter – who has just turned two – to understand the value of sharing and to proactively engage in sharing behavior.  I want other kids to engage in this behavior with her as well.  More than that, even, I don’t want my child to be perceived (mostly by the other child’s parent) as an aggressor.  Yet I’ve read that children are mentally incapable of understanding sharing until rather later than age two.  So what do I do?  Do I jump in, remove the spade from my child’s hands and give it back to the boy?  Do I sit on my bench and let them sort it out for themselves, risking the other parent stepping in and perhaps socially shaming my daughter or even me?

Some cultures...

Aug 18 2016



Rank #8: 082: Regulating emotions: What, When, & How

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We’ve already covered emotion regulation a few times on the show: there were these older short episodes on Three Reasons Not to Say “You’re OK!” and Modeling Emotion Regulation, as well as the more recent one on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book Self-Reg.

But I realized I’d never done the episode that should underlie all of these, which discusses what actually is emotion regulation and when (for crying out loud!) our children will be able to do it.  So we cover that in this episode, as well as some resources to help you support your child in developing this capability, the most important of which is Dr. John Gottman’s book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child [affiliate link].

Download your free workbook!

If you’re in the thick of struggles with emotion regulation right now and you find yourself punishing or thinking about punishing your child for behavior that’s driving you crazy, you should definitely download the How to Stop Punishing Your Child (And What to Do Instead) workbook that gives you strategies to help both of you cope better with stressful situations.  Just enter your name and email address below!

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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re going to talk about a topic that’s relevant to all of us at some point, and that’s emotion regulation. We’ve already covered this from a few angles; you might recall episodes on how children learn about emotion regulation through direct teaching and through modeling, as well as the more recent episode on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book Self-Reg, which discusses the potential impact of environmental stressors on self-regulation. But I realized we’ve never done a background episode on what exactly is emotion regulation, when we can expect to see more of it, and what are some resources we can use to support our child in developing this capability, so we’re going to do that today.
Surprisingly, there is no single definition of what is an emotion. Most emotion theorists describe emotional behavior in terms of a chain of events, e.g.:
Stimulus in context > cognitive process > experienced feeling > behavior
Different theorists give different weight to physiological and cognitive processes, and the exact order in which the steps appear (e.g. whether the emotion includes the cognitive appraisal or follows it). Despite the fact that their brains aren’t as well-developed as ours, children still feel emotions in the same way that we do. Dr. John Gottman, who has studied and written about children’s emotion regulation, says that “we have inherited a tradition of discounting children’s feelings simply because children are smaller, less rational, less experienced, and less powerful than the adults around them.” When adults disregard children’s feelings – for example, when we do things like saying “there’s nothing to be afraid of” when they wake up with a nightmare or don’t want to go into a big loud party, the child begins to believe the adult’s judgement and stops trusting their own judgements about their own feelings. They begin to think “well I feel scared, but my trusted caregiver is telling me there’s nothing to be scared of so I must have mis-judged the situation,” when in fact, even adults can wake up scared from nightmares and can feel some trepidation when walking into a loud, crowded party. And it also turns out that understanding your own emotions and the emotions of those around you is critical to regulating those emotions – which is something we all want for our children!

What is emotion regulation?
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no single definition of Emotion Regulation (ER) either. Some definitions include:
- Reflecting modulating and changing emotional states, managing emotion, responding and modulating behavioral expression of emotions, particularly the expression of emotions in socially acceptable ways;
- Monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially how intense they are and when they occur, to accomplish one’s goal (as such, impulse control is a component of emotion regulation);
- At school, children are considered to be self-regulated to the degree that they are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process, although we should note that children of school age are now being required to spend many hours a day learning things that they did not choose and may not be interested in, so to me there’s a big difference in regulating emotions in self-chosen situations and those in which the child MUST participate;
- When referring to the parent’s emotion regulation, one set of researchers says ER refers to the parent’s capacity to influence the experience and expression of their emotions in caregiving contexts.
In spite of the lack of consensus in definition, most conceptions of ER include concepts related to the successful management and modulation of emotional experiences across time and situations to accomplish a specific goal. One of the most respected authors on this topic, Dr. Claire Kopp at the University of California Los Angeles, notes that “success in self-regulation is frequently indexed by how closely the child meets family and social conventions, including a match to expected emotions. Complying with mother's request to wait for a snack until she finishes a telephone conversation is an acceptable form of self-regulation, but wailing bitterly during the waiting period is not. The young child has to learn expectations for appropriate behavior in specified situations (e.g., putting toys away after playing with them) and the arousal level (emotion) that conventionally goes along with standards for conduct (e.g., putting toys away with positive, neutral, or minimally distressed emotional feelings and expressions).” As with so many of the things we discuss on the show, emotion regulation is very much a culturally specific idea. Our old friend Dr. David Lancy reports on a study of the !Kung people in the Kalahari desert which states that “adults are completely tolerant of a child’s temper tantrums and of aggression directed by a child at an adult. I have seen a seven-year-old crying and furious, hurling sticks, nutshells, and eventually burning embers at her mother…the mother put up her arm occasionally to ward off the thrown objects but carried on her conversation nonchalantly” – I’m picturing the American mother that Dr. Kopp describes trying to carry on her phone conversation under these conditions!
And while we’re talking about culture, I did want to mention that there actually is quite a bit of research on cultural issues related to emotion regulation, although the vast majority of the literature on how emotion regulation develops is on the typical sample of white Americans with tiny proportions of people from other cultures who happen to be included, and the results are then extrapolated to all children everywhere. Then there’s a separate line of work on why African American children have deficits in emotion regulation which they do if you’re looking at a school environment that was designed for the success of middle class white children, and whose parents and preschools have been preparing them for this environment since they were born. Most of this line of research discusses these deficits among African American children, although one study said that African American parents may anticipate the more severe negative consequences their children will face for openly expressing their negative emotions compared with White children and will use socialization practices that discourage their children from expressing negative emotions. As white parents we, of course, might never have considered that African American parents need to do this, and that they are doing it so we won’t be scared of their children and call the police. So I’m just going to leave that right there, and recommend that you listen to the episodes I have coming up on white privilege over the coming months if you’d like to learn more about this.
I also want to briefly acknowledge the relationship between Emotion Regulation and Executive Function, although I have to say that the literature on exactly how these are connected is extremely confusing. Executive Function is the part of the brain that controls certain aspects of information processing, and since emotions are essentially responses to information (or stimuli) we tend to use executive functions as we regulate our emotions. We really don’t understand well the mechanisms by which emotion is controlled at the level of this information processing, but we do know that when our emotions are so intense that we become dysregulated, our executive function systems won’t work properly. As we discussed in the recent episode on Self-Reg, this is why it’s critical that students feel physically and emotionally safe at school: if they feel unsafe then their emotion regulation skills are engaged in the deep emotional center of the brain, and it is physically impossible to learn new facts or take a test.
Why is ER important?
ER is important for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that ER is a critical predictor of school success. We can debate the appropriateness of asking 4-6-year-olds (depending on the country in which you live) to sit still, ignore the next child over who is poking them with a pencil, and focus on answering the teacher’s questions – but the reality is that if your child is going to attend school, they’re going to need to do this. The research says:
- Maladaptive behaviors become more firmly entrenched from the preschool period onward;
- For children whose disruptive behaviors remain relatively high and stable during the preschool years, their behavior begins to impact other areas of child functioning like early school success (through an inability to use higher order cognitive processes like working memory, attention, and planning, and also through negatively affecting the quality of the student-teacher relationship) and peer relations;
- Difficulties with ER may also be precursors for later mental health problems, antisocial behavior, and problems with substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviors during adolescence;
- Children who have deficits in behavioral control are likely to have co-occurring academic difficulties.

What are “normal” levels of ER at various ages?
It’s pretty difficult to state what is “normal” for a given child because there is a great deal of interaction between the child’s genetic/biological capabilities and interactions with parents. There is a great deal of evidence in the literature that a successful attachment relationship often precedes successful ER. This is not to say that children who don’t have a secure attachment relationship cannot regulate their emotions, but since the child learns a great deal about ER from the parent, a secure attachment facilitates learning about ER. Researchers assess the security of attachment by looking for:
- Separation distress with peak onset commonly seen around 9 months;
- Different patterns of greeting the attached caregiver compared to other caregivers around the same period;
- “Secure base” behavior: confidently exploring when the caregiver is nearby and attentive, and retreating to the caregiver when threatened;
- “Affective sharing”: Routine, automatic sharing of pleasurable discoveries with the caregiver, likely including joint visual attention (pointing to draw attention) in Western cultures;
- Through the child’s behavior in the Strange Situation procedure, although this is harder to assess outside the lab environment.

Assuming a secure attachment relationship exists, the child is likely to pass through several stages at times that are moderated by the child’s genetics/biology and their relationship with the attached caregiver:

- As an infant, innate physiological mechanisms prevent the infant from over-stimulation or arousal – this is why infants turn away from too much stimulation, and self-soothe by sucking. The child’s temperament affects how they respond to stimuli (through individual differences in the time it takes to respond to a stimulus and in the level of response), and can in turn impact how the caregiver responds (a parent may respond differently to an easily frustrated infant to one that is not easily frustrated, which could in turn change the child’s behaviors since the child relies on the parent to regulate the child’s emotions);
- Between 9-12 months, babies become capable of goal-directed action, and can begin to comply with commands. Active guidance from caregivers begins to be relevant in the development of precursors to self-control, and coincidentally the research shows that parents’ expectations of children’s behavior shifts at this age as well. I had sort of intuited this and it’s a big reason why when I tell parents about the show I say that it’s relevant to parents of children who are moving by themselves, because it’s the age at which parents have to begin saying ‘no’ rather than just keeping dangerous things out of arm’s reach. As the child starts moving around, 69% of parents say the expect their child to stop, listen, and obey when they say ‘no.’
- The capacity for control of attention begins to emerge toward the end of the child’s first year and continues developing throughout the preschool and school years (choosing what to pay attention to is a key component of ER);
- By the end of the second year, toddlers show “deviation anxiety” when they commit or are about to commit a forbidden behavior, often involving spontaneous self-corrections mediated by language (e.g. saying “No, can’t” and getting back down from a place they were told not to be). At this age, standards are primarily driven by the child hearing the caregiver prohibit an activity (or state desired behavior); the child finds it very difficult to hold a prohibition in their mind for longer than a few minutes. It is thus simply not realistic to prohibit a behavior (even repeatedly) and expect that the child refrain from that behavior on an ongoing basis especially when it is emotionally charged (it’s something the child really wants to do, or feels compelled to do), or when the child is stressed or fatigued. It’s the adult’s job to set and maintain the standards for behavior, anticipate difficult or frustrating situations, and help a child who is losing control – while delicately also continuing to allow them to be as self-directed as possible.
- By the end of the third year, typically developing children can sometimes employ impulse control and the ability to switch between thinking about two different things to achieve their goals in new situations. They are also shifting from being more interested in the process of reaching a goal (they start painting a dinosaur and then call it a house if it ends up looking like a house), while preschoolers want to reach specific goals, which requires focused motivation. Their ability to recall an internalized representation of what appropriate behavior looks like is developing, and they are motivated to meet or exceed that standard (even if they aren’t always successful); high levels of adult direction reduce children’s motivation to succeed with tasks on their own;
- “Effortful control” develops such that by age 4 or 5 children can successfully use a rule to inhibit a dominant response. These same children are described by their parents as more skilled at focusing and shifting attention, less impulsive, and less prone to frustration. Effortful control means that a child can do something that induces distress or discomfort to obtain a desired goal (e.g. approach a dog of which they are slightly afraid because the dog has a fluffy coat they want to pet), and allows children to overcome their desire to engage in a particular behavior and behave according to certain rules or expectations;
- Executive Function emerges at some point in the late preschool or early school years, and is defined as involving the ability to make plans, control behavior, reflect on what strategies were successful and which weren’t, and an increase in independence. When the child doesn’t know how they achieved success at something they may attribute the success to powerful others or to chance; they may also develop patterns of ‘learned helplessness’ when they believe they have little control over the events that affect them. The child learns when it is necessary and appropriate to regulate their displays of emotions (e.g. ‘we are in a restaurant now and Mama will get mad if I have a tantrum so I’d better whine to let her know I want ice cream”). One study found that about half of the children with behavior problems in preschool, especially boys, continued to have problems at school age whereas half of them showed improvement. So there’s a 50-50 chance that if your child is struggling with emotion regulation at age 4 or 5 that things will get better in a couple of years, but there’s also an even chance that they won’t unless you do something differently to support your child. Researchers hypothesize that parenting interventions to help improve children’s executive function are likely to be most effective earlier, rather than later in children’s development.
- The infant’s brain has far more connections between neurons than it needs and it is the child’s experience that determines which connections are retained and which ones die off, or are ‘pruned.’ Infants who were once very flexible in terms of how they responded to stimuli become less flexible over time, and this flexibility is traded for efficiency. What the child becomes efficient at doing depends on the interactions between their environment, which is you, and their brains. The frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain, which support activities like deciding what to pay attention to, making decisions, and planning, take longer to develop than other brain functions. The brain has its highest level of neuronal connections between the ages of 12-24 months and around age 7, at which time the majority of synaptic pruning that’s going to happen occurs in this part of the brain, which means that the years up until this age help to determine which synapses are pruned, and thus how our child will respond to incidents requiring emotion regulation in the future.

Throughout this period, excessively controlling behavior by the mother was related to child non-compliance. By age 4, negative patterns of interaction between parents and children are clearly established and may be the precursors to the coercive interaction that has been implicated in the emergence of more serious problem behaviors among older children.
The period between age 2 and 4/5 can be a frustrating one for the parent as you see signs that this ER is developing and then the child may appear to ‘backslide.’ Their ability to use ER may depend on their physical and emotional state at the time: a child who is well-fed, well-rested and calm may be able to resist their sibling deliberately trying to annoy them. A child who is hungry, tired, and whose sibling has been trying to annoy them all day may well

Jan 21 2019



Rank #9: 088: Setting loving – and effective! – limits

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The way we set limits has such profound implications for our parenting: it’s the difference between parenting in a constant state of anxiety, and being truly calm and confident that you’re making the right decisions as you move through your day.

If we set ineffective limits, our child never knows where we stand.  They push and push and push because they know we will allow it, then finally we blow up because they pushed us TOO FAR and they end up in tears (or angry) and we end up angry (or in tears, or both).

But doesn’t setting limits mean being “harsh” or “punitive”?  Not at all!  When we set the right limits (by which I mean the right limits for your family), you can hold those limits effectively and the testing behavior will diminish dramatically.

The result?  More harmony at home.  Less uncertainty for you.  More confidence for your child.  Give it a try!

Other episodes mentioned in this episode

Why storytelling is so important for our children

Should we just Go Ahead and Heap Rewards on our Child?

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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re going to discuss a topic that virtually all parents find difficult at one point or another, and that’s setting and holding limits. What’s the purpose of setting limits? How do we know we’re setting one where we should be setting one? And how do we set them without getting into a big fight over something that ultimately turns out to not be that important? And can there really be cultural issues at play here? Why yes, of course! It’s parenting, after all… So we’ll look at all of these things today.
First, let’s examine our WEIRDNESS – or, how people in countries that aren’t Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic do things. The anthropological literature is replete with examples of how children’s behavior is controlled in other cultures, as well as historically in our own. Shame is one of the most common tactics used, as illustrated by this anecdote from a study of the Ngoni ethnic group in southern Africa that I think we mentioned in our episode on storytelling:
“A proverb might suddenly be dropped like a stone into a pond. The conversation rippled away into silence, and the boy or girl who had refused to share some peanuts or had been boasting began to wonder to himself: “Can that be for me? No? Yes? It is me. I am ashamed.” No one said anything but the shamed one took the first chance of slipping away to avoid further public notice. The use of proverbs [was] an effective at of making a child learn for himself and apply the lesson.”
Zinacantecan elders in Mexico critically discuss the child’s behavior while the child is present but otherwise don’t interact with the child; the child is expected to ‘overhear’ and modify their behavior. Shame is used in a variety of Asian cultures, from Bali to China to Japan to Taiwan. Parents in these cultures will tell others of the child’s misdeeds in front of the child, will ridicule, mock, and laugh at the child. Samoan children are reigned in with threats that animals will come and eat them, and the Kaoka elders on Guadalcanal warn that giants will take naughty boys and girls and carry them off to a cave, where the bodies are cooked and eaten.
Frightening Bible stories – as well as folk tales - have been used to control European children; in the 1800s children in England were taken to the gibbet to view rotting bodies hanging there while being told moral stories – and then they were whipped when they got home to make sure the lessons stuck.
And where stories, proverbs, and shame fail, corporal punishment picks up. The Mfantse in Ghana will even lightly cuff an infant for crying for no good reason, while parents in Samoa “believe in the unique efficacy of pain as a means of instruction, and the Rwala Bedu in Syria will spank small children with a stick and slash older children with a saber or dagger. Corporal punishment is most common among societies where tribal warfare and inter-village conflict are frequent, as well as where living space is at a premium and children must learn to control their emotions so as not to encroach on other people’s space. There is actually some evidence from neuroscientific research that the release of adrenaline during emotional arousal enhance memory. I plan to do an in-depth episode on spanking at some point but this research suggests why people in so many cultures around the world use physical punishment: because it helps the child to remember the event and their transgression. Perhaps the child might also learn some unintended lessons as well, though, including “I can’t really trust my parent” and “it’s OK for bigger people to hit smaller ones.” In addition, this can cause the excessive power assertion in the relationship becomes more apparent to the child than the parent’s love and caring, which may result in the child’s acting out of their hostile impulses particularly to other people who don’t have power (so siblings, for example) and possibly toward people who do have power if these people are permissive (such as permissive parents). In societies where children are actively encouraged to fight each other then acting out on violent impulses is perhaps not a bad thing, but in our society where we want our child to get on with their siblings and friends without hitting them, we can start to see how our own interactions with our child serve as role models for how our child treats others. And, as a side note, I have yet to find an anthropological study that discusses the children’s experience of being shamed or beaten or how this impacts them as adults. The studies always focus on parental practices without ever looking at what are the effect of those practice on the child.
And there’s Dr. Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which argued for the Asian parents’ much more controlling approach to child-rearing. The book was written for a Western audience, of course, but it turns out that Asian children may actually genuinely appreciate this style of parenting. Two American researchers surveyed both European American and Korean adolescents and found that the more controlling European American parents were, the less warm the children perceived the parents to be. But in Korean children the pattern was reversed – the more controlling the children rated their parents, the warmer they rated them as well. So some of the same behaviors engaged in by European mothers would be perceived by Korean children as acts of love and caring, rather than efforts to dominate and control. But that study was done in the 1980s, and in the 1990s some Chinese researchers studied second grade children in Beijing and found that parents who used more power-assertive parenting behaviors had children who were more aggressive and disruptive in the classroom, weren’t liked as well by their peers, and had lower school achievement. Parents who used a more authoritative style, so proved limits and structure but also warmth and connectedness, had children who were less disruptive in the classroom, were well-liked by their peers, and had better school achievement. A much more recent study from 2014 found that both Chinese and Canadian children preferred parental discipline that was based on warmth rather than love withdrawal, which implies that Chinese parenting approaches are rapidly becoming more westernized.
Anthropologist Dr. David Lancy notes that “the rarest strategy [for engendering compliance], favored in WEIRD society, is to “reason with” children. This may not be as effective at controlling behavior but, as a side-benefit, it does give some early preparation for being an effective negotiator. Reasoning with children accomplishes two goals. It is a way to manage children’s behavior, especially when shaping more complex skills, and it also facilitates the development of the teacher-pupil relationship.”
My aim in telling you this is not to demonstrate the superiority of WEIRD methods over those of other cultures, but to point out that parents in different cultures are preparing their children to participate in different kinds of interactions as older children and adults, and so different kinds of preparation is useful for this than for interacting in our society. Even within WEIRD cultures there is a variety in practices: all of the five sets of parents who were interviewed for one study reported using corporal punishment, with most stating that it must be accompanied by an explanation for its use (this is, of course, a small sample and is pretty typical for interview-style studies). One parent believed you should “spank with love and instruction.” Other methods used included scare tactics and intimidation, and spanking early in an effort to avoid the need for it in the future. One parent said: “I’m real conscious of making sure my cute little black son here doesn’t become one of the people they (meaning European Americans) are afraid of walking down the street (in) five more years.” Another said “I’m trying to teach her…survival techniques, like how to survive when the odds are against you.” These African American parents are thus using the tools they have to prepare their children for the kinds of societal pressures the parents have been dealing with their whole lives.
By contrast, European Americans are socializing our children to take a dominant place in the world. The way we permit them to negotiate boundaries teaches them that they can not only generate their own ideas but also challenge an adult’s initially proposed boundary. If our child misbehaves in public we might feel that both we and our child are being judged, but we know that others are not looking at us thinking we are bad parents because of our race. And we also know that in an ambiguous situation our child is likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and will be allowed to explain themselves before a decision about their guilt is made. So as we learn these methods, please do keep in mind that this set of practices has a goal that is unstated but no less powerful for being so. We should also teach our children that there are instances where while it may technically not be harmful for them to break a rule, not all children may experience the same luxury and there are times when we should not allow rule negotiation because of this unfairness. Also, please be kind to parents you see out in the world, even when their discipline styles don’t match with your own. They are likely doing the best they can with the tools they have to meet their particular parenting goals.

The research on respectful boundary setting originated in the work of Haim Ginott, an Israeli elementary school teacher who studied psychology at Columbia University. Ginott worked with troubled children at a Guidance Clinic in Jacksonville, FL where he developed his approach based on both compassion and boundary-setting. Ginott proposed that denying feelings makes the feelings more powerful, while acknowledgement of feelings allows people to heal so they can become better problem solvers. At the same time as showing respect for their children’s emotions, Ginott advised parents to be “strict” with unacceptable behavior. At the time this approach was untested, but Dr. John Gottman said in the foreword for his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child that he could “provide the first quantifiable evidence to suggest that Ginott’s ideas were essentially correct:” these ideas founded the basis of emotion coaching, which we learned about recently in the episode on emotion regulation. So Gottman saw accepting emotions but being strict with behavior as two sides of an equation, with emotion coaching being the one we already learned about, and setting limits being the other.
Also connected with Ginott’s work is self-determination theory, which proposes that all humans desire autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which is associated with better life outcomes for all people, not just children. So I’ll just briefly define each of these ideas: autonomy is the desire to feel like we control our own lives, which can be a difficult one for children who typically go through their day with every move scripted by an adult. Competence is the desire to feel a sensation of mastery over tasks and activities, which is often what children are trying to do when we’re hustling them along to the next activity or telling them to stop doing something. And relatedness is a sense of connection with others, which can suffer when much of our time is saying “Hurry up and…” or “Stop…”. What we want to tease out here is how we can set limits in a way that supports autonomy, competence, and connectedness so we achieve the benefits of self-determination, while still enabling the parent to set needed limits. We can also look to Dr. Diana Baumrind’s idea of an authoritative parent, which is a parent who is an authority (and who isn’t permissive) who makes age-appropriate demands, sets limits, and monitors children’s behavior, then the research shows that children do better when parents are “in control.” But there is a difference between being “in control” and being “controlling” – if you’re in control then you provide rules, guidelines, and limits. Controlling parents find compliance to be the most important skill their child develops, pressure their children toward specific outcomes, discourage discussions and negotiations on limits, don’t provide reasons for limits, and don’t respect children’s viewpoints. They may coerce their child into achieving a certain outcome or punish them if they don’t achieve it. But once again, this view of what are appropriate limits for children seems to be very highly focused on what are appropriate limits for white children, which is to say that Black parents might use a more controlling style of parenting not because they believe it’s the best approach for their child’s develpment, but because it’s the best approach to keep their child safe.

So we think about refreshing our approach to setting limits, the first thing to understand is when we *can* set limits. As Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE has said, we need to remember that “discipline is not a set of rigidly enforced mandates, but a process in which the child learns to become a social being,” so we shouldn’t expect things of our children that are against the nature of their developmental stage. We can’t expect a toddler not to say “no,” or not to take all the available toys out, or not to grab a toy they want from a friend. Gerber says “knowing when to give [children] freedom and when to introduce limits is…the backbone of the RIE approach.” So by introducing limits we are introducing structure, which means providing guidelines and information that children need so they can meet the parent’s request. When you provide structure you communicate your expectations by doing things like making sure your request is age-appropriate, providing a rationale for your request, providing acceptable choices, and following through as needed. So perhaps the best way to avoid having your child throws balls in the house is to store balls outside so you don’t even have to set a limit, but if your child finds a ball and makes out like they’re going to throw it, you could say “I don’t want you to throw the ball in the house because I’m worried something might get broken. You can roll it on the ground if you want to or take it outside.” If your child proceeds to throw the ball, you could say "I can see you really want to play with the ball. I don’t want anything inside to get broken. I’m going to put it outside and you can play with it out there or find something else to play with indoors.” A more controlling approach would be to see your child about to throw the ball and say “Don’t you throw that ball! If you throw it, I’m going to spank you,” which doesn’t help the child to understand why the limit has been set or have any autonomy in determining how to meet it. It makes the child feel like they’re our enemy rather than our partner, so relatedness is undermined as well.
Because at the end of the day, we don’t want to be reminding our child *forever* not to throw balls in the house, or to brush their teeth, or to tidy their rooms. We want them to take on these ideas as their own – ideally because they want to do these things for themselves, not because we are pressuring them to do the activity. This reminds me of the types of self-regulation we discussed when we talked about rewards with Alfie Kohn. When we have to reward the child for cleaning her room or punish her for not doing it, she’s externally regulated. We’re essentially doing the regulation for her by controlling or coercing her. She may have internalized the rule slightly when she engages in introjected regulation, which means the pressure and coercion are still there, but they come from inside her, so she might be thinking “I don’t want to tidy my room but my parent really wants me to do it.” She may feel guilty, anxious or uncomfortable if the room stays messy. A child who is using identified regulation has identified with or personally taken on the value of the behavior and sees it as important to their goals. She might clean her room because she recognizes that she’ll be able to find things more easily when it’s tidy. She doesn’t enjoy cleaning it, but she does it willingly. The final stage is integrated regulation, which is when the person has examined the issue and decided that it fits within their other beliefs and values. She doesn’t feel guilty if she doesn’t clean up, but she cleans up because she values having a tidy room. One of the things that prompted me to reach out to Alfie Kohn in the first place was to understand whether you can reward someone at the beginning of the process and expect them to integrate the idea later on – in other words, if I reward my daughter to get her to clean her room now, will she ultimately decide that cleaning her room fits with her own values so it becomes integrated into her ideas? Mr. Kohn was adamant that this is not going to happen, that extrinsic motivation in the form of parental control undermines the development of integrated regulation, and by extension the same happens with limits. After all, punishments and rewards are only quantitatively different; they’re both tools we use to coerce people into doing things we want them to do.
When we punish children for doing things we don’t want them to do, we are undermining their autonomy (because they don’t get to decide if they want to take on this value), as well as their competence to examine an idea and take it on as their own, as well as our relatedness when we exert our dominance. It’s in providing the rationale for a limit that the child is able to decide whether the value aligns with their own values, and internalize this (if the rationale makes sense and is within the child’s ability to understand). And when we have a relationship with a high degree of relatedness that is generally positive, our child is likely to want to emulate our behavior, which includes taking on our values.
Dr. Mark Lepper has argued that the key to supporting internalization is to exert the minimum amount of control that elicits the behavior, so the child can’t attribute their compliance

Apr 15 2019



Rank #10: 009: Do you punish your child with rewards?

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I’ve never said the words “good job” to my toddler. I was lucky – I stumbled on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards early enough that I was able to break the habit before my daughter had really done anything much that might be construed as requiring a “good job.”

I’m going to be absolutely transparent here and say that this episode draws very heavily on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, which – along with one of his other books, Unconditional Parenting, are a cornerstone of my approach to parenting. If you have time, you should absolutely buy the book and read it yourself. But assuming you don’t have the time for 300 pages of (really, very good) writing plus a hundred more of notes and references to explain why both physical and verbal rewards are just as harmful to your children as punishing them, this episode will help you to get to the crux of the issue much faster. I’ll also get into the research that Kohn draws on, as well as relevant research that’s been published since the book came out in 1993.

Kohn’s thesis is that saying “good job” is really no different than punishing your child, since rewards are essentially the same thing – stimuli designed to elicit a response.  He argues that while this approach is actually quite effective in the short term, not only is it not effective in the long term but it doesn’t mesh well with the kinds of relationships that many of us think or say we want to have with our children.


Birch, LL., Marlin, D.W., & Rotter, J. (1984). Eating as the ‘means’ activity in a contingency: Effects on young children’s food preferences. Child Development 55, 432-439. Retrieved from:

Brummelman, E., Tomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2014). On feeding those hungry for praise: Person praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology 143(1), 9-14.

Condry, J. (1977). Enemies of exploration: Self-initiated versus other-initiated learning. Personality and Social Psychology 35(7), 459-477.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine.

Eisenberger, R. & Rhoades, L. (2001). Incremental effects of reward on creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81(4), 728-741. DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.81.4.728

Gottfried, A.E., Fleming, J.S., & Gottfried, A.W. (1994). Role of parental motivational practices in children’s academic intrinsic motivation and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 86(1), 104-113.

Gray, P. (2016). Children’s natural ways of educating themselves still work: Even for the three Rs. In D.C. Geary & D.B. Berch (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (67-93). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Jeffery, R.W., Drewnowski, A., Epstein, L.H., Stunkard, A.J., Wilson, G.T., Wing, R.R., & Hill, D.R. (2000). Long-term maintenance of weight loss: Current status. Health Psychology 19(1 Suppl.), 5-16. DOI: 10.1037//0278-6133.19.1(Suppl.).5

Kazdin, A.E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Applied Behavior Analysis 15, 431-445. Full article available at:

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (Affiliate link)

Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying “Good Job!”. Retrieved from:

Pomerantz, E.M., & Kempner, S.G. (2013). Mother’s daily person and process praise: Implications for children’s theory of intelligence and motivation. Developmental Psychology 49(1), 2040-2046.

Rietzschel, E.F., Zacher, H., & Stroebe, W. (2016). A lifespan perspective on creativity and innovation at work. Work, Aging and Retirement 2(2), 105-129.

Schwartz, B. (1982). Reinforcement-induced behavioral stereotypy: How not to teach people to discover rules. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 111(1), 23-59.

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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  Today’s episode is called “Do you punish your child with rewards?”

I’ve never said the words “good job” to my toddler.  I was lucky – I stumbled on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards early enough that I was able to break the habit before my daughter had really done anything much that might be construed as requiring a “good job.”  But she started at a fairly high-quality (as far as I can tell) daycare a couple of weeks back and even though it seems like she’s been home for half of that time with hand, foot and mouth and earache she was playing with her Lego by herself over the weekend when all of a sudden she said to herself “Good job, Carys.”  The director of her daycare assures me that the teachers don’t say “good job” to the children and that she has probably picked it up from another parent or child in the room.  I know that it’s my interactions with her that will have a far greater impact on her than her interactions with her teachers, but the incident reminded me that not everyone thinks about this in the same way that I do.  So I want to take this opportunity to look at the research on how rewards may not be the foundation for the kind of relationship we want to build with our children.

I’m going to be absolutely transparent here and say that this episode draws very heavily on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, which – along with one of his other books, Unconditional Parenting, are a cornerstone of my approach to parenting.  If you have time, you should absolutely buy the book and read it yourself.  But assuming you don’t have the time for 300 pages of (really, very good) writing plus a hundred more of notes and references, this episode will help you to get to the crux of the issue as it relates to your children.  I’ll also get into the research that Kohn draws on, as well as relevant research that’s been published since the book came out in 1993.  I should say as a side note that Kohn spends quite a few words on how rewards are detrimental in a workplace environment as well and I’m going to ignore that here, so if that interests you then you should definitely go and buy the book.

Now I’d like you to close your eyes for a minute (as long as you’re not driving or operating heavy machinery) and think of some words that describe the kind of relationship you want to have with your children.  Go ahead; think for a few seconds and then I’ll tell you my words.

There are really only three words that I use to describe both my relationship with my daughter now and the one I hope we continue to have as she gets older.  The first two are “unconditional love” and the third is “respect.”  I believe that love is a necessary but insufficient ingredient in a parent-child relationship.  And respect is the missing part of that.

Did you use similar words or concepts?  Or did you use words and phrases like “conditional love” and “coersion” and “control”?

If your words were more like mine than like the others, even if they weren’t exactly the same as mine, then my thesis statement to you is that if you use the phrase “good job” when you talk to your child, then you’re aiming to create one type of relationship with your child but using tools that are more likely to create an entirely different kind of relationship.

Now I don’t want to come off all ‘preachy’ here.  I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m some kind of parenting know-it-all.  I’m not.  I just got lucky enough to read a really good book early enough in my daughter’s life for it to really make a difference for our relationship, and I want to share what I learned with you.

So, here we go.  Why do we say “good job?”  At this point it really seems to be a sort of cultural verbal tic.  It seems like the vast majority of parents in the U.S. say “good job” to their children several if not many times a day.  On the face of it we probably think we’re encouraging our children and helping them to develop skills.  But what if we dig a little deeper?  What are we trying to achieve with praise?  If you think about it, it’s a classic behaviorist approach.  The central idea in behaviorism is that we as humans don’t make choices; we just respond to stimuli. Rewards act as a positive stimulus and punishment is a negative stimulus, so we’ll do more of an action in response to a reward and less of an action in response to punishment.  If you do say “good job” to your child, think about some of the reasons that cause you to say it.  Are any of them situations when you’re trying to mold your child’s behavior?  Do you ever say “good job sharing!” or “good job putting your toys away!” or “good job listening!”?  If so, you’re trying to control your child’s behavior using rewards.  Alfie Kohn’s central thesis is that this really is *no different* than using punishment to control your child’s behavior since rewards and punishment are essentially the same thing – stimuli designed to elicit a response.  He argues that while this approach is actually quite effective in the short term, not only is it not effective in the long term but it doesn’t mesh well with the kinds of relationships that many of us think or say we want to have with our children.

First, let’s examine whether rewards are effective.  Say you want your child to clean his room and you offer M&Ms in exchange.  Will he clean his room?  Probably!  The reward worked!  But what happens when you run out of M&Ms?  Most of the behaviors we try to reward are behaviors we want the child to keep doing in the long-term.  And what happens when the rewards run out?  The behavior stops.  The child is no longer interested in cleaning his room.  Alfie Kohn cited research to support his point and a variety of more recent research rewarding everything from weight loss in adults to rewarding children for eating an undesirable food in exchange for a desirable food has no long-term efficacy at changing the target behavior (and it shouldn’t be a surprise to you if you listened to the episode 7, which was called “Help! My toddler won’t eat vegetables” that using ice cream as a reward for eating broccoli actually serves to increase the child’s dislike of broccoli).  Kohn summarizes the research using a fabulous quote from a 1977 paper by John Condry of Cornell University, and I’ll quote a bit more than Kohn does:

“All in all, the evidence described [in Condry’s paper] suggests that task-extrinsic rewards (by which he means arbitrary rewards that are the opposite of a task-intrinsic reward, which is a task that produces a reward just by virtue of completing it), when they are used to motivate activity, particularly learning, have widespread and possibly undesirable effects.  These extend to effects on the process, as well as the products, of the task activity and to the willingness of the subject to undertake the task at a later date.  It is difficult to summarize this material adequately, but in general, compared to non-reward subjects, subjects offered a task-extrinsic incentive choose easier tasks, are less efficient in using the information available to solve novel problems, and tend to be answer-oriented and more illogical in their problem-solving strategies.  They seem to work harder and produce more activity, but the activity is of a lower quality, contains more errors, and is more stereotyped and less creative than the work of comparable nonrewarded subjects working on the same problems.  Finally…subjects are less likely to return to a task they at one time considered interesting after being rewarded to do it.  The facts appear true of a wide range of subjects doing a wide range of tasks.  Attempting to account for them all is a formidable challenge.”

It’s hard to top the completeness of that quote, so I’ll only say that more recent research supports this point as well.  One study found that even though parents think that rewards are a good way to motivate children, in fact parent’s providing task-extrinsic rewards results in lower levels of intrinsic motivation to complete academic studies.

Now because I neither want to blindly follow one path without considering all the others nor blindly lead *you* down one path without considering the others I will say that when I searched the literature for “the effect of task-extrinsic rewards on children” several studies did pop up which found that people can be more creative if they are rewarded, both in terms of the amount of creative ideas they have and the quality of those ideas.   But a study that reviewed both sides of the literature summarized the findings nicely: “What appears to be important is not so much whether people are working for a reward, but rather the degree to which these rewards (and other extrinsic motivators) make people feel controlled by external factors – when this is the case, intrinsic motivation, and in turn, creative performance, indeed suffer.  So when people are rewarded for creative performance, this stimulates creative performance.  When people are rewarded for “performance” or simply for doing a task, however, creativity is not stimulated and is even likely to be inhibited.”  So I guess the question to ask yourself is how much of the time you’re offering rewards to your child you’re doing it to stimulate creative behavior.  If the answer is “most of the time” then perhaps you’re on the right track.  (And, to be clear, when I think about the times I’ve heard parents saying “good job” there’s usually no element of creativity involved in whatever the child was just doing.)  But if you’re mostly using rewards to try to increase intrinsic motivation or to increase compliance with your wishes or to increase your child’s liking for broccoli or basically anything other than increasing creativity, then perhaps not so much.

Alfie Kohn tells us four reasons why rewards fail, and I’m going to go through them each individually.  His first reason is that “Rewards Punish,” by which he means that rewards and punishment are not opposites, as we’ve been lead to believe, but that they’re actually two sides of the same coin.  If you go back to the research I just described on people’s performance decreasing on a task when those people feel controlled by the reward, and we realize that the vast majority of the time we are using rewards to control behavior and not to stimulate creativity, then Kohn argues that “it is likely that the experience will assume a punitive quality over the long run, even though obtaining the reward itself is usually pleasurable.”  Rewards also punish because children don’t always receive them.  Many parents promise a far-off treat like a visit to the circus on Sunday, and use the threatened withdrawal of that treat to induce compliance from now until Sunday.  And what is the withdrawal of the treat, even though it hasn’t been experienced yet?  A punishment.  It’s the ‘do this, get that’ situation that creates the control of people’s behavior, which is why we tell children about potential rewards beforehand rather than surprising them with the reward after the fact (which, according to research that Kohn fails to cite, is less destructive than rewards people are told about beforehand).  We all get demoralized when something we counted on doesn’t come through.  Children are no exception, and they – like we  – see the deliberate withdrawal of rewards as a punishment.

Kohn’s second reason why rewards fail is because they rupture relationships.  Where people who have comparable status try to compete for rewards, it sets up an environment of “if you succeed, I must fail.”  Hardly the type of environment that fosters teamwork.  The school where I got my first master’s degree refuses to give letter grade assignments for precisely that reason – so no student’s work can be compared to anyone else’s, or graded on a curve – when no student can be “better” than any other, the conditions are set to promote teamwork and cooperation.  But what about situations where relationships are not equal?  The parent-child relationship is not an equal one, because the parent holds most of the power.  The parent probably also wants to create the kind of safe environment where the child feels he can come and ask for help if he needs it, but if the parent is also the doler-outer of rewards, the child won’t be in a collaborative relationship.  She will be trying to get the parent to approve of what she’s doing so she can get the reward she was promised, and not only is that kind of relationship detrimental to the sort of risk taking that children need to do to learn and grow, but it’s detrimental to the relationship based on unconditional love that we say we want to have with our children.

The third reason rewards fail is because they ignore reasons.  As with all good behaviorist approaches it essentially ignores what’s happening between the ears – or even assumes that nothing is happening between the ears, because people just respond to the stimulus of the reward.  The behaviorist says that humans are nothing more than what they do.  Change what they do and you’ve dealt with the problem.  But if we are willing to say that our children do have something going on between the ears and that there might be reasons why they behave in certain ways, then why do we use an approach that ignores this?  Kohn cites a mother who wrote to him to challenge his view on behavioral manipulation who said “If I can’t punish or reward my children, what do I do when my almost three year old wanders out of her room again and again at bedtime?”. Kohn says that Behaviorist A might use consequences to deal with this: “If you’re not back in that bed by the time I count to three, young lady, you won’t be watching television for a week!”.  Behaviorist B favors rewards: “if you stay in bed until morning for the next three nights, honey, I’ll buy you that teddy bear you wanted.”  The nonbehaviorist wonders why anyone would propose a reward or punishment without seeking to understand why the child is out of bed in the first place.  Maybe she is hungry or not tired or just wants to know what’s going on downstairs.  This is not to say that the parent needs to cave to the child’s every demand – far from it.  But if all we do is offer a reward without understanding the reason why the child is doing what they’re doing, we can’t ever really fix the underlying problem.

The fourth reason rewards fail is that they discourage risk-taking.  Kohn’s principle here is that when we are working for a reward, we do exactly what is necessary to get it and no more.  Most of us must have had this experience in our school careers – we ask what material will be covered on the test so we can be sure we will study just enough to get the grade we want, and not a moment more.  I still see it in myself today – my Masters in Psychology essays are graded, and I tend to cite research that supports my point so I can get the essay done...

Oct 24 2016



Rank #11: 092: Fathers’ unique role in parenting

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This episode began out of a query that I see repeated endlessly in online parenting groups: “My child has a really strong preference for me.  They get on great with the other parent (usually the father, in a heterosexual relationship) when I’m not around, but when I’m there it’s all “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”  This is destroying my partner; how can we get through this stage?”

So that’s where I began the research on this question, and it led me down quite a rabbit hole – I’d never thought too much about whether mothers and fathers fulfill unique roles in a child’s development and while it isn’t necessarily as prescriptive as “the mother provides… and the father provides… ,” in many families these roles do occur and this helps to explain why children prefer one parent over another. (we also touch on how this plays out in families where both parents are of the same gender).

My guest for this episode is Dr. Diana Coyl-Shepheard, Professor at California State University Chico, whose research focuses on children’s social and emotional development and  relationships with their fathers.

And on the other items that are discussed in this episode:

Find more info on the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group here

Sign up for the FREE Tame Your Triggers workshop here (starts July 8th!)

Click the “Send Voicemail” button on the right >>> to record your message for the 100th episode: it can be a question, a comment, or anything else you like!

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(Introduction added after the episode was recorded and transcribed):
Before we get started with today’s episode on the unique role of fathers in children’s development, as well as why children prefer one parent over another, I wanted to let you know about three super cool things that I’m working on you. The first is about my membership group, which is called Finding Your Parenting Mojo. I don’t mention the group a lot on the show because I don’t like over-selling, but a listener who was in the group the last time I opened it to new members told me she actually didn’t know I had a membership group, so I’m going to tell you a bit more about it this time around! The group is for parents who are on board with the ideas you hear about on the podcast based in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting, but struggle to put them into practice in real life. So if you find yourself nodding along and saying yep; I agree with the whole ‘no rewards and punishments’ thing and I’m on board with working with my child to solve the problems we have, and I really want to relax a bit around my child’s eating, but on the other hand you’re thinking: but rewarding with story time is the only way I can get my child to brush their flipping teeth, and how do I even get started with working with my child to solve problems? And if I ever did relax around my child’s eating then all they would eat is goldfish and gummy bears, then the group is for you. We spend a month digging into each issue that parents face – from tantrums to figuring out your goals as a parent and for your child to getting on the same page as your partner (and knowing when it’s OK to have different approaches!)…raising healthy eaters to navigating screen time and supporting sibling relationships; we cover it all. I’ll open the group to new members in July, and it closes at the end of July and on August 1st we start digging into our first topic, which is reducing the number of tantrums you’re experiencing. The cost for the group is $39/month this time around which is locked in for as long as you’re a member - I increased the price from last time, and I may increase it again next time the group reopens. Or if you sign up before July 18th, you can pay for 10 months and get the last two months of the year free. If you’d like to learn more about joining the membership group you can do that at – the doors will open on July 1st.

So that’s the deal with the group. The second cool thing I’m working on is something to give you a taste of what it will be like to be in the group. I’ve heard a lot of parents talking about how their children’s behavior really “triggers” them, and I was going to do a podcast episode on this and then I realized that this is especially one of those topics that you can’t just listen to and expect a change to happen; but if you’re willing to do a bit of work, that you can see enormous payoffs. So I thought OK; how can I really make the greatest impact possible with this work? And I decided to put together a nine-day online workshop to walk you through it. So if you go to and sign up, staring on July 8th you’ll receive an email from me on each of the next nine week days that walks you through an aspect of this issue. In the first week we focus on where these triggers come from and it might surprise you to learn that it’s not our child’s behavior that is actually the origin of this feeling in us, but it’s things we remember, half-remember, and maybe even don’t remember from our childhoods. The more we know about those, the better we can manage these feelings when they arise in us. In the second week we look at new tools we can use to reduce the number of times we do feel triggered, and on the rarer occasions when it does still happen, to manage our reaction so we don’t blow up at our children.

Now, you might have done these kinds of online workshops or challenges before and sometimes they ask you to do really simple things and you’re thinking “but I already do that!”. This workshop will be different. Each day you will get homework that you could do in about 15 minutes, although if you find that you are feeling triggered very often you would probably make a huge amount of progress if you could spare 30 minutes a day for not every day, but some of the nine days of the workshop. And these are not always easy tasks to do – I’ll be asking you to take a hard look at some potentially pretty uncomfortable aspects of your childhood, so you may need to do this gently and carefully. I’ll be doing short live videos in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group every other day or so which you don’t have to watch, but which you may find illuminate the daily emails which I deliberately made as short and concise as possible. By the end of the workshop you should have a great deal of insight into what really causes you to feel triggered, and how you can feel triggered less often and less intensely. And we will probably have a pretty big group of parents who are working through this alongside you, who can offer support and encouragement as you work through this.

Obviously this isn’t exactly how the membership group works – we don’t do nine-day series of emails and Facebook Lives every other day; I actually send out a Guide at the beginning of the month and I answer your questions on two live group calls each month. But that format really works better once you’re already committed, and I wanted to be able to help you make real progress on a real issue you’re struggling with, so I decided the workshop was the best way to show you the kind of support you get in the group, even if the format is a bit different. So if you’d like to join the workshop, just head over to and sign up – we’ll get started on July 8th.

FINALLY, the last thing before we get to today’s episode is that you might have noticed that this is episode 92 of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which means we’re only eight episodes away from reaching 100! When I started the show two years ago I really had no idea where it was going to take me, or even how long it could last. I’m always worried that I will run out of topics to discuss but I’m happy to say that two years in I actually have a longer list of topics that I still have to find time to cover than I did when I started. As I started thinking about this, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations…if I figure that on average it takes me about 20 hours to prepare for an episode, by the time I get to 100 episodes that will have been 2,000 hours, which is 250 days, which is very slightly less than a year, which means I’ve spent just a bit less than a third of the last three years preparing podcast episodes for you! If I figure there’s an average of 15 books and peer-reviewed papers on the reference list per episode, that’s 1,500 books and papers that actually made the reference list, and since only about half of the books and papers I read actually make the reference list I’ve probably read somewhere close to 3,000 of them in three years. When I started the show I was really just putting an intention out in the world to see where it might lead, and now I see that this work is what I want to do. It has – without a doubt – made me a better parent, and I want to use tools like the membership group to support you in your parenting as well. I keep producing the podcast episodes because I know that for some of you, a free resource is enough – and I know that by the reviews that you leave me on iTunes and the emails you send me that quite a lot of you get quite a lot out of the show. So I want to do something special for the 100th episode, and I’d love to have your voice be a part of it. If you go to, you’ll see a button on the homepage that you can use to leave me a voicemail. You could tell me something you learned from the show that has made a difference for your family, or a question you have either about the research on the show or about some aspect of my life that you wish you knew more about. Depending on how many voicemails I receive I’ll put all of you or a selection of you in the 100th episode, in your own voices, and I’ll answer your questions as well. So if you want to do this, just head over to and hit the icon to record a message. You don’t need any special equipment to do it; you can just speak right into your computer’s microphone, although listeners would probably thank you if you could plug in a headset with a microphone as this will greatly improve the sound quality. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one – just the kind that comes with a smartphone is fine. So head on over to to record your message and while you’re there, sign up for the Tame Your Triggers workshop and check out the membership group as well. OK, let’s get on with today’s episode!

Jen: 01:20 It's pretty obvious when you're reading the scientific literature on parenting and child development that just as most of the research on children's development is conducted on white children and then the findings are discussed as if they're relevant to all children everywhere. Most of the research on parenting is conducted on mothers and then its applicability to fathers is either extrapolated or it's just simply ignored. So, what role do fathers play in children's development? Our fathers basically like slightly less important mothers or are there unique processes involved in the relationship between fathers and children? Here with us today to sort this out is doctor Diana Coyl-Shepherd Professor at California State University Chico. Her research focuses on mother-child and father-child attachment across the span of childhood and she's especially interested in social and emotional development and children's relationships with their fathers. Welcome Dr. Coyl-Shepherd.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 02:15 Thank you, Jen.
Jen: 02:17 All right, so let's start with, I guess it's kind of the son of the father of attachment theory. The father of Attachment Theory was John Bowlby and so you interviewed his son, Sir Richard Bowlby a few years ago. That must have been pretty exciting.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 02:32 It was very exciting. Having been a fan both professionally and personally of Attachment Theory for a long time, it was very exciting to meet the son of the author of that theory.
Jen: 02:44 Yeah. And so that interview is available for anyone to read in a journal article in early childhood development and care journal. And so I was really shocked to learn that Richard Bowlby actually didn't really talk with his father about Attachment Theory at all and only started learning about it after his father's death. And I was wondering if you could tell us about the different role that Richard Bowlby proposed for fathers and mothers and why mothers had been such a focus of research for so long?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 03:11 Certainly. Well, what Richard proposed was a model of dual attachment and in the case of heterosexual parents, they would serve complimentary roles in their children's lives. So, mothers would be that safe haven providing care and comfort when children are distressed and fathers, as he observed and other researchers have to, more often were used for secure exploration. So, it was that mothers sensitive responding to their children's distress that increases children's opportunity to turn to their fathers for support during exploration and during challenging tasks. So, what Sir Richard Bowlby explained was that, and this is again based on other people's research as well, that we're driven to explore and seek new experiences, but we need safety and a trusted companion to show us the way. And in our own research we often had children report that they felt safety from their fathers, but more often sought emotional comfort from their mothers. So, each parent can serve both functions of attachment, safety, security and reassurance as well as exploration. But among Western heterosexual couples, we tended to see that mothers and fathers specialized in these areas.
Jen: 04:24 Ah, that's fascinating. And so I'm thinking about the ways that we assess this attachment in a lab situation and typically it's using this procedure called The Strange Situation where the mother is withdrawn for certain periods of time and then we look to see how distressed the child is and whether the distress is relieved when the mother comes back. And so it doesn't seem to be that if the child doesn't come to the father to relieve distress, that they're not attached, right? Or is it possible that the way that we are conceptualizing this and the problem is with our measuring tools and not with the attachment between fathers and children.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 05:03 Exactly right. So, in The Strange Situation that measures in part mother's sensitivity to their children's distress, what it doesn't really measure is what fathers contribute to their children's attachment. And so it was really the research of the Grossmann’s and their colleagues. They did a 16-year longitudinal study, 44 families, and they compared mother's and father's contributions to their children's attachment at ages 6, 10 and 16 and at when the children were toddlers, they had developed this measure called the sensitive and challenging interactive play scale. And what they found, and it's an observational measure of the way that mothers and fathers engaged with their children during play, that father’s play sensitivity was very consistent across the four years and it was father's sensitivity that was predictive of children's internal working models of attachment at when their children were 10 and only fathers play sensitivity, not mothers was predictive of adolescents attachment representations. So, their conclusion was that mothers and fathers are doing different things to support their children's attachment security and consequently we need different ways to assess that.
Jen: 06:16 And so I'm just curious as to how this works in sort of real life with real families and whether it doesn't seem as though it's sort of a one person is one role and one person is the other role because I'm sort of the parent who's more likely to stand back and watch as my daughter is climbing up something high and just kinda ask her what's your plan to get down rather than my husband will probably be the one to shout, be careful and we'll both pillow fight with her if she asks us to. So, is it confusing to her at all that that we have this sort of dual role thing going on or not?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 06:48 I don't think so. I think children's expectations of their parents’ behavior are based on their typical interaction with that parent. So, whatever they usually experience is what they expect to experience. And so if you are engaging in exploration with your child and allowing her to take risks and your husband might be the more cautious of the two that I think she would anticipate that that's the way it goes. That when I want to explore, mom will be my companion and she'll support this. But typically, and in lots of research, fathers do this more than mothers. It’s not that mothers aren't capable of it, it's just typically fathers do it more often.
Jen: 07:24 Yeah. Okay. In an article that you and your coauthors wrote in an Introduction to a Special Issue on Fatherhood and Attachment, you said “The link between father attachment quality and children's outcomes are often less direct complicated by individual characteristics like child gender, temperament and father's working models as well as familial and cultural practices.” And that's pretty dense. Can you help us to tease that part a bit?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 07:48 Yes. There's a lot there. Well certainly, we know that there's research that supports gender differences in the way that parents interact with their children. So for example, that mothers engage with their daughters more frequently and they do more kinds of emotional and social discussion than they do with their sons and fathers more often engage with their sons and the kind of ways that they engage with their sons are activity oriented. So, that sort of supports this model that we're seeing, this idea of father’s activation relationships with their children but more with sons than daughters typically. So, there's a piece there that leads to maybe differential outcomes for children in terms of their social and emotional development based on the way and how often they interact with each parent. But also in culture. Culture plays a role as well because it's really, and this was sort of the argument that Dr. Danielle Paquette made when he developed his measure of the activation relationship of measure he called the Risky Situation is the idea that in cultures where competition is a part of that culture, then what fathers do by the way they engage with their children what he described as rough and tumble kinds of play and security and exploration, that helps children meet the demands in a society where there might be competition.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 09:07 How do they manage that competition? How do they manage relationships with others? So, more research I think is pointing to the contributions of fathers and sometimes it's sort of an additional contribution beyond what mothers are doing to support their children's social and emotional development.
Jen: 09:27 So, I had a lot of questions about that rough and tumble play and because it seems to be a really critical component of children's relationships with their fathers, can you help us understand what's the purpose of this kind of play?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 09:39 It's to expose them to new situations in...

Jun 10 2019



Rank #12: 039: What to do when your toddler says "No, I don’t wanna…!"

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It’s no secret that I do some episodes of the podcast altruistically for you, dear listeners, because I’m not facing the situation that I’m studying – or at least not yet. (Eyebrows were raised in our house when I started researching the impact of divorce on children but luckily for me I don’t need that episode…yet…)

But today’s episode is for me, and you guys are just along for the ride. Because, friends, we are in the thick of what I now know to be called “oppositional defiance,” otherwise known as “Noooo! I don’t wanna [insert activity here]”. We’ll discuss why toddlers are defiant, and lots of strategies we can use to deal with that defiance and even head it off at the pass. If your child has ever said “No!” to something you want them to do, this episode is for you!

Other episodes mentioned in this show

020: How do I get my child to do what I want them to do?

022: How to talk so little kids will listen (Author interview)


Dix, T., Stewart, A.D., Gershoff, E.T., & Day, W.T. (2007). Autonomy and children’s reactions to being controlled: Evidence that both compliance and defiance may be positive markers in early development. Child Development 78(4), 1204-1221.

Dunn, J., & Munn, P. (1986). Sibling quarrels and maternal intervention: Individual differences in understanding aggression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 583-595. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1986.tb00184.x

Eyberg, S. M., Nelson, M. M., & Boggs, S. R. (2008). Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents with disruptive behavior. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 37, 215-237. doi: 10.1080/15374410701820117

Grolnick, W.S. (2012). The relations among parental power assertion, control, and structure. Human Development 55, 57-64. DOI: 10.1159/000338533

Grusec, J. E. (2012). Socialization and the role of power assertion. Human Development, 55, 52-56. doi: 10.1159/000337963

Kaler, S. R., & Kopp, C. B. (1990). Compliance and comprehension in very young toddlers. Child Development, 61, 1997-2003. doi: 10.2307/1130853

Knowles, S.J. (2014). The effectiveness of mother’s disciplinary reasoning in response to toddler noncompliance (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Oklahoma State University. Full copy available at:

Kuczynski, L. (1984). Socialization goals and mother-child interaction: Strategies for long-term and short-term compliance. Developmental Psychology 20(6), 1061-1073.

Langer, E., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of “Placebic” Information in Interpersonal Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), 635-642.

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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  Now it’s no secret that I do some episodes of the podcast altruistically for you, dear listeners, because I’m not facing the situation that I’m studying – or at least not yet.  (Eyebrows were raised in our house when I started researching the impact of divorce on children but luckily for me I don’t need that episode…yet…)

But today’s episode is for me, and you guys are just along for the ride.  Because, friends, we are in the thick of what I now know to be called “oppositional defiance,” otherwise known as “Noooo! I don’t wanna [insert activity here]”.  There’s actually an oppositional defiant disorder that’s described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is more commonly known as the DSM-5, because it’s in its fifth revision.  And I should say that the DSM is not infallible and is susceptible to societal trends – homosexuality was defined as a mental disorder in the DSM until 1973.  But right now Oppositional Defiant Disorder is in the DSM, and it’s defined as having four of a list of eight symptoms which fall into three major buckets: 1. Angry or irritable mood, 2. Argumentative or defiant behavior, and 3. Vindictiveness.  And before you think “wait, I think I fit those characteristics some days” I should point out that it’s the persistence and frequency of these behaviors that should be used to distinguish behavior that is within normal limits from behavior that is symptomatic.  For children younger than 5 years, the behavior should occur on most days for a period of at least six months, and for children older than 5 years it should be at least once a week for at least six months.  There are additional critieria around whether the behavior is associated with distress in a particular setting or if it impacts negatively on social or educational outcomes.  I’ll put the link to the detailed critieria in the references in case you’re worried that your child might meet them, but today we’re going to talk about the non-clinical kind of oppositional defiance that can still be incredibly frustrating to deal with.

According to one group of researchers, “few periods in development are more important than when parents’ attempts to control and socialize children emerge in the second year,” so as you might expect, we’re going to need to sort through quite a bit of conflicting information.

So let’s start with why all this is important and, funnily enough, it actually goes back to the episodes we’ve done on culture – our second episode (which was the first real episode of the show, after the introductory one) was on how culture impacts our parenting and we just dived into that topic again recently with the episode on the book Generation:Me.  I’m going to read a short paragraph from a paper on compliance and defiance in early childhood: “Lay persons and researchers agree that compliance with parents is critical to child development.  Parents report that obedience is a principal childrearing objective, and researchers emphasize that compliance facilitates the development of morality, self-regulation, and a range of social competences.  When parents elicit compliance, they integrate children into interactions that help children regulate their emotions, internalize prosocial behavior, and in general coordinate their intentions and actions with the intentions and actions of others.  In contrast, noncompliance is often considered a marker for poor parent-child relationships, poor internalization of prosocial values, and increased likelihood of serious behavior problems.”  Now I was actually really surprised to see that both parents and researchers put so much emphasis on children complying with parental requests, especially since we learned in the Generation:Me episode that parents in this generation put a premium on encouraging children to think for themselves, which seems to contradict the emphasis on obedience we’re seeing here – unless, I suppose, your child learns to think for himself or herself and decides by himself (or herself) that you are right and of course they should obey you.  But researchers now understand that strong parent agency and strong child agency are not incompatible – in other words, both parties can have some control in the relationship, although who has what control and how it is asserted have be renegotiated over and over again as the child gets older.  In our culture, the child’s power assertion can be seen as having a positive role – the child not only learns how to negotiate, but also that it is possible in the first place to take initiative and oppose what the child sees as injustice.  Most of us want our children to learn that protesting what a person thinks of as unfair is fine as long as the protest itself isn’t defiant or antisocial in its character, so our challenge is to induce compliance where we need it while demonstrating that we are open to negotiation where the request is reasonable.

Part of the reason that these conflicts occur seems to be that the child reaches an age where they realize that they actually can assert their own opinion right at the same time as the parents realize that the child isn’t just a baby any more, but should start to learn about some of the social conventions that make both the family work as a unit and the child function successfully in the wider world.  So the child wants to assert their own ideas but the parents either want their child to behave in a certain way, or see that other people around the family want the child to behave in a certain way, then the stage is set for disagreements.  But I think we can agree that even if we value independent thinking there are times when we want our children to just do what we ask them to do, for goodness sake, so let’s talk about the factors involved in gaining that compliance.

The very highly regarded child psychologist Diana Baumrind described three types of relationships that parents can have with their children.  The first is a permissive relationship, where parents are reluctant to discipline and avoid dealing with their children’s problematic behavior.  It’s pretty well established at this point that an authoritative relationship between parents and children is good for kids, at least if you are white.  If you’re a regular listener you might recall having heard this term before; authoritative parents allow some give and take, provide reasons when they make demands of children, and are open to negotiation.  They provide a loving and warm relationship although they are not afraid to set limits when limits are needed.  And I say that this is the best style if you’re white because the vast majority of research on parenting styles has been done on white children with white parents, but some research shows that an authoritarian style, which is where parents have high demands but provide little in the way of feedback and nurturance and may also be coercive and make threats toward their children.  White children tend not to do well with authoritarian parents but black children actually fare better.  Authoritative parenting might still be best, but authoritarian parenting is OK.

So that said, researchers have been curious to find out whether parents that have an authoritative relationship (which, as a reminder, is the “good” kind of relationship) with their children experience more or less conflict.  Relationship theories say that when children form secure, affectionate, reciprocal relationships with their parents then they’re more likely to want to please their parents and comply with their parents’ wishes.  So if parents are warm, sensitive, and non-coercive, then children will cooperate most of the time and not be defiant very often, and this has been supported by research as well.  Now this is troubling to me, of course, because I think I’ve worked pretty hard to develop a warm, sensitive, non-coercive relationship with my daughter and she still puts up a fight when it’s time to get dressed pretty much every damn morning.

But let’s set that aside for a minute and look at another set of processes in a child’s development that are also important, and those are the emerging sense of autonomy and self-efficacy.  The researchers in this camp observe that a child doesn’t say “Noooo I don’t wanna get dressed” just because she wants to be obstinate but because she wants to be autonomous and control what happens in her life.  They think that where parents avoid exerting too much control over their children and allow the child to take the lead, the child learns that their wants and actions control events around them.

So one group of researchers decided to try to test which of these apparently contradictory theories was mostly responsible for defiant resistance.  They thought that if young children resist being controlled primarily because their relationship with their mother isn’t very good, then even when control is not an issue, “defiant” children may display negative behavior toward their mothers.  But on the other hand, if young children resist being controlled because they have a strong sense of autonomy, then when control isn’t an issue, “defiant” children may display more positive behavior toward their mothers.  They conducted an experiment where mothers and children in a lab setting were put in a room with some things like a pair of eyeglasses and a jug of water with some paper cups that needed parental supervision to use.  There were also some toys that the mother and child were to play with together, as well as some attractive toys that the child wasn’t allowed to touch, and at the end of 15 minutes playing the researcher asked the mother to get the child’s help with cleaning up.  The researchers recorded the interactions between the mothers and children and coded those to analyze them.  It turns out that the more defiance children displayed, the more they initiated positive interaction with their mothers.  So among children who initiated a lot of positive interactions, 54% were also high in defiance, and among children who didn’t initiate a lot of positive interactions, only 21% were high in defiance.  Children who smiled more at their mothers and initiated positive interactions with their mothers were significantly more likely to display both high defiance (behavior like taking more toys of the box at clean-up time) and low passive non-compliance (which is behavior like just standing by while the mothers did the cleaning up).  The researchers also timed how long it took children to initiate positive interactions and display defiant noncompliance at cleanup time, and the more quickly children initiated positive interactions, the more they displayed defiant noncompliance.

So why does this happen?  Why are positive relationships with a parent linked to more defiant behavior?  The researchers hypothesized that because sensitive mothers adapt to children’s signals, use noncoercive forms of control and allow children to control the social interaction, their children may develop strong autonomy motivation, the belief that they can control events, and expectations that their mothers will respond favorably when the children assert their needs.  And children who exhibit strong defiance may elicit something from parents that helps children to develop ways to resolve frustration and reconcile conflict – things like rules around social interactions, the fact that others have feelings and needs that should be respected, and potential actions that can be taken to cooperate with parents.  A variety of researchers think that children who are securely attached to their parents feel comfortable enough with those parents to be less compliant; it’s the ones that aren’t comfortable with their parents who are compliant because they’re afraid to be defiant.  What isn’t yet well understood is whether children benefit when parents tolerate defiant behavior or try to inhibit it, but researchers do think that while defiant behavior is a hallmark of problematic development a few years after toddler-hood, there’s no indication that defiance in toddlerhood is linked to problems later in life.

OK, so we now have some evidence that just having a toddler who is defiant doesn’t mean we’re terrible parents (perhaps we should all carry a card with the link for this episode on it that we can give to strangers who give us snarky looks when our child pitches a fit out in public.).  But what are we supposed to do when our child doesn’t do what we ask?

One set of researchers that are focused on parental interventions based on behavioral management train parents to minimize their use of disciplinary reasoning and instead respond to noncompliance with a series of increasingly forceful tactics to assert their power – things like commands, then single warnings, then time-outs.  The idea is that children eventually learn that if they’re being given a command and they refuse now, they’re going to eventually get a time-out so they might as well just obey the command now.  But the research supporting this approach is largely based on children who have behavior “problems” that the parents perceive as so severe that the children have been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or its relative conduct disorder, and it’s not at all clear to me that these approaches are suitable for children who have not been clinically diagnosed with these disorders.  Secondly, since these tactics are among the more common ones parents tend to use to gain compliance in the first place, it seems not inconceivable that the breakdown in relationship that may have occurred as a result of the parent’s frequent use of power to gain compliance might be in part responsible for the “disorder” in the first place.

Professor Wendy Grolnick has done a lot of research on a different approach; one of her major interests is on self-determination theory so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised where her results land in this arena.  Self-Determination Theory is the idea that humans have a need to feel as though they have control over their lives, and that they are competent, and that they are connected to and valued by people who are important to them.  So self-determination theorists believe that acknowledging the child’s perspectives, providing choice, displaying empathy, and engaging in joint problem solving helps to build not only a positive relationship between parent and child, but also the child’s own feelings of control, competence, and connectedness.  And if these strategies for gaining compliance sort of sound vaguely familiar to you then they should, because they are *exactly * the kinds of strategies that are described in the book How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen, which we discussed with the co-author Julie King back in episode 22 of the podcast.  So now we understand a little more clearly that the strategies Julie and her coauthor Joanna Faber describe aren’t pulled out of thin air; they’re actually grounded in research about how children develop a sense of control, competence, and connecteness.

We can look at parental authority in the light of characteristics like empathy, competence, and connectedness and try to understand what about parental authority – where it’s not forced or coercive – makes it helpful to children.  Professor Grolnick argues that when parents provide clear and consistent expectations about behavior, and predictable consequences, children understand how their actions lead to success or failure, which helps them to feel both in control and competent.  By contrast, when parents just assert power over children as a means of gaining compliance, that power isn’t connected to any need that the *child* has but rather just the *parent’s* need for the child’s compliance, so it doesn’t help the child to learn or develop.

Parents might also wonder “well, should I reward the behavior I want to see to try to get my child to do more of that and less of the behavior I don’t like?”  And Professor Grolnick’s answer would be “well you can, and if the reward is unexpected then that’s fine because the child didn’t have to do a certain thing to get the reward (which sort of defeats the point a bit).”  But rewards that are contingent on performing a particular behavior control the child but don’t...

May 22 2017



Rank #13: 034: How do I get my child to do chores?

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We have a pretty cool mini-mini-series launching today. I’ve been seeing a lot of those “chores your child could be doing” articles showing up in my social media feeds lately, and I was thinking about those as well about how children in other cultures seem to be MUCH more willing to help out with work around the house.  I’m not saying we want to train our children to be slave laborers, but why is it that children in Western cultures really don’t seem to do chores unless they’re paid to do them?

We’re going to hold off on the “getting paid” part for now, and we’ll talk about that very soon with my guest Ron Lieber, the Money columnist of the New York Times who wrote a book called The Opposite of Spoiled. But today we’re going to discuss the chores part with Andrew Coppens, who is an Assistant Professor of Education in Learning Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. If you’ve ever asked your child to do a task in the home only to have them say “No,” then get comfy and listen up, because I have a feeling that our conversation is going to surprise you and give you some new tools for your toolbox.


Coppens, A.D., & Acala, L. (2015). Supporting children’s initiative: Appreciating family contributions or paying children for chores. Advances in Child Development and Behavior 49, 91-112. DOI:

Coppens, A.D., Acala, L., Rogoff, B., & Mejia-Arauz, R. (2016). Children’s contributions in family work: Two cultural paradigms. In S. Punch, R.M. Vanderbeck, & T. Skelton (Eds.), Families, intergenerationality, and per group relations: Geographies of children and young people (Vol 5). New York, NY: Springer.

LIFE Center (2005). “The LIFE Center’s Lifelong and Lifewide Diagram.”  Retrieved from:

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Jen:                                      [00:37]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a pretty cool mini mini series launching today. I’ve been seeing a lot of those Chores Your Child Should Be Doing articles showing up in my social media feeds lately and I was thinking about those as well as some of the ethnographic research that we’ve discussed on previous episodes of the podcast where I’ve read about six year olds cooking for a group of adults who were on a trip for a week and willingly helping to care for younger siblings and cleaning up around the house without being asked and as I often do when these kinds of things come up, I started to wonder why don’t our children cook meals at age six and willingly help to care for younger siblings and clean up around the house without being asked? I’m not saying that we want to train our children to be slave laborers, but why is it that children in western cultures really don’t seem to do chores unless they’re paid to do them?

Jen:                                      [01:29]                   So we’re going to hold off on the getting paid part for now and we’ll talk about that very soon with my guest, Ron Lieber, who’s the money columnist of the New York Times and wrote a book called The Opposite of Spoiled. But today we’re going to discuss the chores part with Andrew Coppens, who is an Assistant Professor of Education and learning sciences at the University of New Hampshire. Dr Coppens’ work examines how children from a number of cultural communities learn to help collaborate and how they get motivated to learn and the everyday activities of their families and communities. He’s focused on cultural practices regarding children’s everyday family contributions. What kids think about helping out and mothers ways of getting there. Children involved. If you ever asked your child to do a task in the home, only to have them say no, then get comfy and listen up because I have a feeling that our conversation is going to surprise you and also give you some new tools for your toolbox. Welcome Dr Coppens!

Dr. Coppens:                     [02:21] Thanks. It’s really nice to speak with you.

Jen:                                      [02:22]                   All right, so let’s start by defining chores. What kind of work constitutes chores in your research?

Dr. Coppens:                     [02:29]                   So, uh, I think we make one what seems to be a critical distinction and that seems to give us a window into a lot of cultural differences regarding how voluntarily kids do chores. And that distinction is between what we refer to as family household work, which is activities like helping with cooking a meal where other people are involved and where the benefits of doing that chore are shared across a number of people and we make that distinction be doing those kinds of activities and we call self-care chores, so things regarding my stuff, so making my bed or my mess, you know, some toys that I left out and where people tend to work in self-care chores a little bit more individually. So there’s a lot of different kinds of work around the house, but those two types tend to focus on those two types, tends to be pretty instructive.

Jen:                                      [03:21]                   Okay. So it’s the idea of taking care of yourself as in things like brushing your teeth and cleaning up your own mess versus something that has some kind of contribution to how the rest of the household runs?

Dr. Coppens:                     [03:33]                   Yeah. And of course self care chores have a contribution because it’s something that, you know, maybe a parent doesn’t have to do if a child does it. But where the distinction becomes important. I think is what motivates the child to get involved, so family, household work, things like, uh, you know, other things like sweeping the kitchen versus just sweeping my room or helping out with all the laundry versus just folding my socks. The family household work is a bit more social. So it’s that sociality of family household work, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit more that seems to support kids’ voluntary engagement.

Jen:                                      [04:09]                   Okay. So you’ve alluded to my next question which is about money, which we’re only going to talk about really briefly because we will do a whole episode on that coming up in a couple of weeks. But the reason I want to talk about it is because it does seem really common in Western societies to pay children for doing chores. And I’m wondering how is this working out for parents? Because all the way back in episode seven of this podcast, we talked about how parents use some foods like vegetables as a gateway to other kinds of foods like desert and the children end up liking the vegetables less and the dessert more. And then in a subsequent episode, I think it was episode nine, we actually discussed how rewarding children with praise – but I can sort of see money as being a different kind of praise; it makes them want to do the thing right now – but as soon as the praise stops, they stopped wanting to do the thing that you praise them for. So I’m curious about how all those things that we’ve already talked about on the podcast fit together and how that is associated with the whole paying children to do chores thing and how that’s working out for parents.

Dr. Coppens:                     [05:13]                   Yeah. So this is a really interesting question. In one study that a colleague of mine, Lucy Alcala and I did a regarding basically different cultural approaches to encouraging children to get involved in chores. We ask college students about their experience with receiving allowances. So an alternative to allowances might’ve been in a indigenous heritage in Mexican-American families. And what was really common among the middle class students perspectives and backgrounds and what seems to be supported by a lot of the research is that one, I think there’s a wide range of ways that kids are rewarded or ways that kids are paid for getting involved in chores and one doesn’t really seem to emerge as a clear leader in comparison to the others. So a lot of approaches to paying kids are rewarding kids for doing chores. I think fundamentally what they do is they change the meaning of the activity for kids, um, and, and make what is potentially a multidimensional activity involving social aspects involving, Hey, I get to learn how to do this sort of cool thing that adults seem to think is important that it can in the perception of kids sort of change the activity into something that’s solely about if I do this, then I get that.

Dr. Coppens:                     [06:30]                   And I think that among many of the approaches of middle class families and not just in the US, this is throughout Mexico and other sort of European heritage communities. It’s that approach, it’s that basic contingency rooted approach, this, this quid pro quo assumption that is far more pervasive even if kids aren’t literally being paid or rewarded for chores. And so the alternative really removes some of these market principles from at least this particular child rearing practice all together. So removes this contingency frame completely from the equation, which I mean, if you grew up, you know, I grew up in the U.S. in middle class communities and, and that’s actually, that’s a hard thing to imagine even; those principles really pervade our lives.

Jen:                                      [07:12]                   And so you have studied how people in different cultures approach chores, right? So I think you looked at two different kinds of communities in Mexico. Can you tell us about those and how are they similar to and different from how Americans and people in Western cultures think about chores and children doing work around the house?

Dr. Coppens:                     [07:31]                   Yeah, sure. So maybe I’ll start with an example. So I lived and worked as a teacher in rural Nicaragua for a couple of years and so in my role as a teacher, I taught in the afternoons. So this was sort of, you know, sort of cowboy country and there were dairy farms and things like that and in the small towns and so really early five in the morning, you know, kids would come running by and knocking on my door, you know, wake up, wake up, and so, so I would go to the dairy farms and just sort of hang out and watch what was going on and, and so it was really, really struck by how kids, I guess learned and how they contributed in those contexts. And so what was most striking to me is that they weren’t asked or they weren’t required or paid to be there, but, but they woke up every morning at five and were dying to do it.

Jen:                                      [08:18]                   Which may be surprising to the average Western parent.

Dr. Coppens:                     [08:22]                   No, it was surprising. It was surprising to me in that I had those same kids in my classroom and in the afternoon and in some cases they were sort of my worst students, you know, they were just bored, you know. So, so my experience there, I, I, uh, I just became very interested in the kinds of learning and the kinds of motivation that characterize this, what we might refer to as an informal context or this sort of everyday context and how that differed from school based or maybe classroom based type. So I got really in the initiative the kids, the kids were showing in the morning and decided I wanted to go to Grad school and to learn a little bit more about that and that really built into a series of studies focused on household work in an indigenous heritage community, uh, that this is near Guadalajara and what we referred to in a cosmopolitan community, but really a middle class community with several generations of experience with formal schooling. And those studies looked at cultural differences between those two communities in how much kids were doing around the house to help. And then how voluntarily they were doing those chores. And in the indigenous heritage community, kids were both helping more extensively in a in a wide range of activities. But I was really most interested in, in the fact that they were doing that voluntarily, and in fact it seemed to be that the more voluntary contributions, the more they did, which, which again, you mentioned a sort of paradoxes, from the perspective of…

Jen:                                      [09:52]                   Might be shocking to Americans.

Dr. Coppens:                     [09:55]                   Yeah. And, and you know, since then that’s really been my focus.

Jen:                                      [09:59]                   Yeah. So let’s probe on that in a variety of different ways. As I was reading your research, one thing that occurred to me that kind of seemed to be at the heart of the difference between the views of the chores in the indigenous Mexican communities that you studied compared with the more cosmopolitan communities in Mexico and also in the U.S., was that there seemed to be two very different kinds of views of what chores are in those communities. And when I think about doing chores and potentially assigning my still toddler, but she’s, she’s going to be doing chores soon, I imagine if I think about assigning work to her, it’s, it’s just saved me from doing something to free up time for myself to do something that I need to do or even that I want to do or even so that we can free up some time for the two of us to go and do something fun together. But it seemed as though, to me at least, in the indigenous community, it was almost like there wasn’t the same distinction between work and leisure and that to some extent leisure can be had by doing chores in the company of people whose company you enjoy. Am I misinterpreting that or was that kind of what you saw?

Dr. Coppens:                     [11:05]                   No, I think that’s. I think that’s spot on. I think that’s a part of the picture and many of the indigenous heritage communities and I think one of the things that supports this, this permeability between what in many middle class communities is a relatively strict line between time for work and time for play or time for educational activities is the autonomy that’s afforded for two kids, for engaging in work. So this connotation that many of us grew up with and in many cases still have around household chores being sort of onorous and we’re looking to do them as efficiently as possible and so that they’re over with and we can move on to other more enjoyable things. I think part of the lack of enjoyment of that kind of work have the ability to make a contribution in a shared contribution with others is that our engagement in those when we were growing up wasn’t so voluntary.

Dr. Coppens:                     [11:55]                   It was maybe coerced or it was sort of this uni-dimensional thing where we just did it for pay or to avoid punishment and sort of moved on. So in, in many of the indigenous Indian indigenous heritage communities that myself and colleagues have studied in Mexico, there is this...

Apr 16 2017



Rank #14: 050: How to raise emotionally healthy boys

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“Be a man.”  “Boys don’t cry.”  “Don’t be a sissy.”

Boys hear these things all the time – from parents, from teachers, from friends and peers.  What does it do to their emotional lives when they crave close relationships but society tells them to keep emotional distance from others?

Join my guest Alan Turkus and me as we quiz Dr. Judy Chu, who lectures on this topic at Stanford and was featured in the (awesome!) documentary The Mask You Live In.

This episode is a must-listen if you’re the parent of a boy, and may even help those of you with girls to understand more about why boys and men treat girls and women the way they do.

Don’t have a boy?  Check out How To Raise A Girl With A Healthy Body Image.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chu, J. When boys become boys: Development, relationships, and masculinity.  New York, NY: NYU Press. (Affiliate link)

Maccoby, E.E. (1990). Gender and relationships: A developmental account. American Psychologist 45(4), 513-520.

Miedzian, M. (1991). Boys will be boys: Breaking the link between masculinity and violence. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Pollack, W. (1998). Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood. New York, NY: Random House.

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Jen:                                      [00:40]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Regular listeners may remember that a few weeks ago, I interviewed Dr Renee Engeln who wrote the book Beauty Sick on the topic of raising girls with a healthy body image. Even though I don’t have a son, I know a lot of you do, so in today’s episode we’re going to talk about some of the challenges associated with raising sons and how we can be better parents to sons, and specifically how fathers can be better parents to sons. So since I am not a father and don’t have a son, I figured I’d better find someone who is both of those things. So today I welcome a co-interviewer, Alan. Alan grew up in New Jersey with a comfortable middle class family whose father was physically present and not physically abusive, but who had what Alan calls embarrassing spasms of anger that came with yelling and throwing things and when he wasn’t angry, he was pretty emotionally absent, so Alan feels as though he didn’t really have a great model for this whole fathering thing, but he wants to parent his own son differently and it started to take some steps in that direction, but he isn’t really sure if it’s enough or what else he should be doing. Welcome Alan.

Alan:                                   [01:42]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:44]                   And to help Alan and I figure all this out. I’m so excited that we’re joined today by Dr Judy Chu. I first learned of her work on the documentary called The Mask You Live In, which you can rent on Amazon or on Netflix and I would highly encourage you to do that even if you’re the parent of a girl because it really helped me to understand some of the reasons why boys and men treat girls and women the way they do. Dr Chu is featured in that film and when I looked her up, I saw she’d written a book called When Boys Become Boys, which I devoured as soon as I got it, and I knew she was the right person for us to talk with. She also teaches a course on boys psychosocial development at Stanford University. Her work aims to support boys healthy resistance against societal constraints that undermine their connections to themselves and others. Welcome Dr. Chu.

Dr. Chu:                              [02:28]                   Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jen:                                      [02:31]                   So Dr. Chu. I wonder if we could just start sort of in the weeds a little bit here about your research because a lot of the studies that we cover on this show are experimental in nature and that means that some researchers take some children to the lab and maybe they do something to make them uncomfortable and then they give the children a difficult task and see how they respond and then we try and generalize that behavior out to the real world and I’m familiar with the quote from the great psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner who called this the science of behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time, but your research takes such a different approach from that. Can you just tell us a little bit about how you go about studying boys?

Dr. Chu:                              [03:11]                   Sure. Well, I guess the best way to describe my research is exploratory studies because like you at the time I hadn’t grown up as a boy and I didn’t have a son. And so in a way it was very much like anthropological research where I was going to learn from boys about what it was like for them to grow up as boys amidst, you know, a culture that has specific messages about what it means to be a real boy, quote unquote, or a real man. And I wanted to learn from the boys themselves, you know, what they’re capable of knowing and doing and relationships. So a lot of my methods really involved kind of like ethnographic observations. Just really trying to approach the boys as… I even told them that they’re my teachers because I don’t know what it’s like to be them. And so really looking to them as key informants and then kind of participating in their everyday lives at school as a participant observer.

Dr. Chu:                              [04:01]                   So watching what they were doing, but also asking them about it and kind of really centering everything around developing kind of trusting and comfortable relationships so that they would talk to me as I was, you know, obviously different. I was an adult, I was a woman and kind of letting them get to know me so that they could feel that they could tell me things or share with me or also tell me if they didn’t feel like sharing things with me, which was also a part of the process. So I really wanted to respect and honor their wishes and their levels of comfort and then following up those observations later in the year once we had established relationships with interviews that I did – conducted either one on one with the boys or the boys in groups and that just depended on their preference. I would ask them, do you want to meet with me on your own or do you want to meet with me with some of your buddies?

Dr. Chu:                              [04:45]                   And they would let me know what they preferred because I brought toys to my meeting and because they were some times more desirable character that each boy wanted to play with. That became a way of getting to meet with them one on one because they didn’t want to have to kind of negotiate who got to be which characters and whatnot. So, um, but it was really very much based on what’s called the relational approach to psychological inquiry, which really kind of tries to account for the fact that the stories people tell us or the things that they share with us about their lives really depends on how they see us and how they see our motives and really starts from a place of, you know, placing at the center of the relationship between the researcher and the participant.

Jen:                                      [05:24]                   And so how many times did you meet with the boys roughly?

Dr. Chu:                              [05:27]                   Let’s see. I studied them throughout their pre kindergarten year and then followed up in their kindergarten year. I went at least once a week for two to three hours a week. And let’s see. I probably had about 48 days that I was there. And of those 48 I probably did interviews on 36 to 38 of those days. And so I met with them quite frequently and it was kind of eventually became on-demand, so I’d show up and the boys would kind of, you know, this was much later once they felt comfortable with me, but I’d show up and they’d come and request like, can you meet with me today, can you take me today? And then I’d try to make sure I met with everyone who had asked to be met with. And then also some of the boys who are a little more shy or hesitant, I also would ask them and when they didn’t feel comfortable, I’d let them pass and then if they wanted to then we eventually met in that way. So I tried to kind of, you know, more or less meet with at least everyone who wanted to. And eventually all of the boys did meet with me several times, so, you know, a handful but some more than others.

Jen:                                      [06:24]                   So this is very different from pulling a kid into a lab and get spending them in a five minute experiment and generating a result at the end. And I know that with an experiment you can potentially reach a larger number of people. You studied a relatively smaller number of people and I’m curious about the generalizability of your results. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Chu:                              [06:43]                   Oh no, that’s a great question. Yeah, of course. I’m happy to talk about that. One of the things that kind of drove my research was that at the time, and this was in the late nineties, nineteen nineties, a lot of the literature on boys was not really talking about their relationships and the centrality of relationships in their development because relationships were kind of deemed feminine. And so it’s like, Oh, if you’re going to study relationships then you should be looking at girls because that’s what girls do. And so the boys relational capabilities and kind of their styles and all those things were very much overlooked or underestimated or just kind of neglected. Like, you know, some of the books that had been written with just say, oh well boys don’t really hardwired to talk about emotions and relationships. And so there was really this missing discourse in the literature on boys.

Dr. Chu:                              [07:29]                   So what I really wanted to do is go in and focus on the boys perspectives to learn about their experiences and the relational approach that I adopted was very much based in studies that had emerged out of questioning traditional psychological methods which kind of approached experiments or studies as kind of what they call the black box approach where you think, okay, this person is this mysterious black thoughts. And like you said earlier, you know, we can manipulate situations and kind of see how they respond and try to guess at what they think about it. But my mentor at the time at Harvard, her name is Carol Gilligan. And one of the things that came out of her work in addition to the research on girls’ relationships and girls’ development that came out of the Harvard project on girls’ development and women’s psychology was this method that really said, you know, you can ask people about their experiences.

Dr. Chu:                              [08:14]                   And if you create a context or a situation that is comfortable and familiar and trusting and inviting, people can tell you what they’re thinking, and you can trust that. And so the approach was really that the boys know something about their experience and they can tell me about it if I can create a situation that makes them able to be open and honest with me. And so yeah, in a way it’s probably seen as a little bit more of a radical approach to psychological inquiry. But in terms of the kinds of questions that I wanted to examine, it was really the most appropriate method as opposed to coming in and, you know, because one of the things that I document in my book is just how long it took, you know, several visits, maybe 10 to 15 visits before the boys started to feel comfortable with me because I was a stranger to them.

Dr. Chu:                              [09:00]                   And understandably what they wouldn’t know if they could trust me or if they even wanted to talk to me. And so really giving them time to feel like, okay, who is this person? What does she want to know is safe for me to talk to her, do I even want to talk to her? And then finally kind of realizing that, you know, because I was genuinely interested in what they had to say really coming out and sharing with me things that, you know, sometimes they would say, oh, you know, don’t tell the teachers that I told you this or, you know, don’t let the other boys know that this is happening. Because a lot of them often felt that they were the only ones kind of struggling with some of the messages and pressures that were coming into their lives. Even at the young age of four.

Jen:                                      [09:37]                   Yeah. So you answered another of my questions, which is why did you get interested in this if you didn’t even have a son yet?

Dr. Chu:                              [09:46]                   That was a really wonderful question and if I could just, I’ll try to speak very briefly about it, but I was actually brought to this study by boys themselves and it actually started with work with adolescent boys because my first year at Harvard, after I went home. I was driving around my brother and his friends, they were all 13 years old so they couldn’t drive and one of his friends kind of said to me, Oh, Harvard, you know, tell us what you’re learning there, you know, basically sarcastically like “impress us.” And I said, well, one of the things I learned about was when you know, these studies of girls and how to support girls, and he, this 13 year old boy says to me, oh, everyone’s so obsessed with girls, they’re talking about girls and how to support them and that we need to support them.

Dr. Chu:                              [10:24]                   He goes, and that’s fine with me, but nobody’s talking to boys and we have something to say too. And he goes, “I know you should study boys; you should start with me.” And so I went back to Harvard that fall, told my advisor Carol about this, and she said, you should go back and study him. Clearly he has something to say. And so when I went home for winter break, that’s what I did. I started with an interview with this 13 year old. He talked for two hours about, you know, just kind of things that were, what was going on with him, what was hard, what was easy, what was on his mind. And I actually spent the first year of my studies studying adolescent boys, but what I found was that by adolescents they had already started to kind of reconcile the discrepancy between this is the way people think boys are and this is the way I experienced myself to be and the fact that there’s a gap between those things is just the way things are and you have to accept that gap as a part of growing up.

Dr. Chu:                              [11:22]                   So that was kind of what I was seeing and hearing from adolescent boys. And so...

Nov 06 2017



Rank #15: 020: How do I get my child to do what I want them to do?

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Parenting is tough, huh?  Sometimes it feels like we spend a lot of our time asking our daughter to do things…and asking again…and finding a more creative way to ask.  We’re going to get some great advice on this next week from Julie King, co-author of the new book How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen – but for this week I want to set the stage and think about why we should bother with all of this.  Why not just force our kids to do what we want them to do?  And, is it possible to raise obedient kids who can also think for themselves?


Baldwin, A.L. (1948). Socialization and the parent-child relationship. Child Development 19, 127-136. Retrieved from:

Baumrind, D. (1978). Parental disciplinary patterns and social competence in children. Youth Society 9(3), 239-267. DOI: 10.1177/0044118X7800900302

Collins, W.A. (Ed.) (1984). Development during middle childhood: The years from six to twelve. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Full book available as a pdf at:

Crockenberg, S.C., & Litman, C. (1990). Autonomy as competence in 2-year-olds: Maternal correlates of child defiance, compliance, and self-assertion. Developmental Psychology 26(6), 961-971. DOI: 0.1037/0012-1649.26.6.961

Hare, A.L., Szwedo, D.E., Schad, M.M., & Allen, J.P. (2014). Undermining adolescent autonomy with parents and peers: The enduring implications of psychologically controlling parenting. Journal of Research on Adolesence 24(4), 739-752. DOI: 10.1111/jora.12167

Lamborn, S.D., Mounts, N.S., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S.M. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development 62, 1049-1065. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1991.tb01588.x

Lansbury, J. (2014). Setting limits with respect: What it sounds like. Retrieved from:

Kochanska, G. (1997). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: Implications for early socialization. Child Development 68(1), 94-112. 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1997.tb01928.x

Kochanska, G. (2013). Promoting toddlers’ positive social-emotional outcomes in low-income families: A play-based experimental study. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 42(5), 700-712. DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2013.782815

Kochanska, G., Kim, S., & Boldt, L.J. (2015). (Positive) power to the child: The role of children’s willing stance toward parents in developmental cascades from toddler age to early preadolescence. Developmental Psychopathology 27(4pt.1), 987-1005. DOI: 10.1017/S0954579415000644

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York: Atria.

Parpal, M., & Maccoby, E.E. (1985). Maternal responsiveness and subsequent child compliance. Child Development 56, 1326-1334.  DOI: 10.2307/1130247

Spera, C. (2005). A review of the relationship among parenting practices, parenting styles, and adolescent school achievement. Educational Psychology 17(2), 125-146. DOI: 10.1007/s10648-005-3950-1

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This episode actually grew out of an assignment for my master’s program.  I’m in the middle of a class on child psychology, which is really at the heart of the curriculum for the masters in psychology with a focus on child development.  We were presented with a case study for a child called Jeremiah whose mother was at the end of her rope in dealing with him because he basically refused to cooperate with her.  He was having problems in school as well and I was tasked with writing a guide for his mother that that would help her to address some of his challenges.

I’ve been reading two books that helped me with this assignment – the first is Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, who also wrote the book Punished by Rewards that was the basis of the episode on not saying “Good Job.”  The blurb on the back of Unconditional Parenting starts out “Most parenting guides begin with the question “How can we get kids to do what they’re told?” and then proceed to offer various techniques for controlling them. In this truly groundbreaking book, nationally respected educator Alfie Kohn begins instead by asking “What do kids need – and how can we meet those needs?” What follows from that question are ideas for working with children rather than doing things to them.”

I read Unconditional Parenting a while ago and have been looking for an excuse to delve into the research behind it so this seemed to be about as good of an offer as I was going to get.  But I have on my nightstand at the moment the provocatively-titled book “Do Parents Matter?” which is sort of like David Lancy’s book The Anthropology of Childhood that I’ve quoted many times on this show except that the authors actually lived in the communities and did a lot of the research themselves that the book cites, whereas Lancy’s book mostly cites other anthropologists’ work.  At various points in Do Parents Matter? very young children in some African and Central American cultures are described as being highly cooperative and even obedient.  They can and will sit still and quiet through long church services or car rides; they entertain their siblings rather than squabbling with them and they make valuable contributions to the running of a household.  And I started to think about how to marry these two lines of inquiry together – what is it that parents in other cultures are doing to get their kids to cooperate in learning and in life?  And are some of those things the kinds of activities that we should consider doing to get our own kids to cooperate more – or is the key really focusing on the child’s needs like Alfie Kohn suggests?

So let’s start with the research on children in other cultures.  Sarah and Robert LeVine spent two years studying how the GuSII people in Kenya take care of their infants, and compared these relationships with middle-class American mothers in Boston.  The Gusii mothers would spend a lot of time soothing their babies.  Mother and baby were in close bodily contact for much of the day, or if the mothers weren’t available then siblings were holding the baby.  The mothers responded very quickly to a distressed cry, often by offering a breast – the LeVines showed some Gusii mothers a video of an American baby crying while having his diaper changed and the mothers were shocked that anyone would let a baby cry for even a few seconds.  The Gusii infants rarely cry long enough to become aroused, and being in constant touch with another person and feeding as soon as they fuss helps to keep the baby calm.  The Gusii mothers didn’t use toys or other objects to play with their baby, and would turn the baby away from them so the baby couldn’t make eye contact if they thought the baby was getting too excited so the baby would calm down again.  The Gusii mothers want a calm infant and a compliant child because another child is probably on the way within a couple of years, since the average Gusii mother has ten children – so this continual “soothing” of the baby helps to set the stage for a toddler who prioritizes his mother’s wishes and doesn’t give her much trouble.

Shifting gears a bit to slightly older children among the Mayans of the YucaTAN, we find that children older than two are asked to do chores quickly and efficiently.  Beginning around age 6 the run errands, help older siblings with chores outside their compound, and take care of younger siblings.  Girls learn to make tortillas by watching, and by the mother’s very judicious use of direction.  I have personally watched children younger than ten in the highlands of Guatemala make tortillas – they left a bucket of corn to soak overnight and in the morning they took it up the hill to someone who had a generator and returned with the corn ground up.  They would pat the tortilla into shape, passing it from hand to hand.  I tried it myself, and they laughed at me because I couldn’t stop the dough from sticking to my hands and my tortillas were so thick they were virtually inedible.  Children in many cultures WANT to learn and they are EXPECTED to learn; they stand stock-still watching someone do a task that they’re interested in, and they learn how to do it by watching the task over and over again.  Their parents don’t have to train them or teach them to do a task; the child learns how to do it because he wants to, because what is being learned has some value – often a real contribution to the running of the household.  If an adult offers instruction it’s during the course of doing work, not as a lesson specifically set up to teach the child something.  And one set of researchers note that in learning outside of school there are virtually no failures.  Some children might take longer than others to learn certain skills but almost all children become able to collaborate and contribute fully to family and community.  Flunking isn’t really an option.

Of course, you can also take the opposite approach like Chinese parents, as these mothers combine parental authority with love – if you love your child then you want to train him for the seven Confucian learning values, which are sincerity, diligence, endurance of hardship, perseverance, concentration, respect for teachers, and humility.  Chinese parents consider the child’s school performance as part of their development as a moral person.  They criticize their children without worrying about the child’s self-esteem because self-esteem is less important than being a diligent student.

So I think the key point in all of this is that it’s possible to use a variety of methods to create a child who does exactly what he is told – you can keep him calm all the time by being in constant contact with him and not playing with him in an American sense of using toys to interact with him.  You can teach him the importance of sitting quietly and observing to take advantage of his innate capacity to learn and contribute to the family.  You can directly instruct the child on the qualities you think are important and berate them if they don’t measure up.  You can threaten to beat them or actually beat them if they don’t do what you say – there are plenty of cultures where this happens although I’ll go on the record and say that I’m against it in the kinds of Western cultures of which I’m a member.

But it seems as though the one thing you cannot do is raise a child to think for himself, to be independent, to take the initiative, to be self-confident, to think creatively, to talk from an early age – all typical goals of American parents – you can’t raise a child to be all of these things *and* obey your every word.  The two things just don’t go together.

I have yet to find information in a book or paper describing parenting practices in non-Western cultures that describes the mental health outcomes in the children who are in constant physical contact but otherwise ignored, who are berated, and who are threatened or beaten.  It’s certainly possible that not all of these lead to negative mental health outcomes in children in cultures where these practices occur, but I do wonder.  And secondly, I wonder what the relationship between the child and the parent is like when the child gets older.  If the primary goal is obedience to the parent then as long as the child is obedient then everything is probably fine from the parent’s perspective.  But I wonder how it feels from the child’s perspective.

In Western cultures we try to achieve two goals that I haven’t seen mentioned in descriptions of other cultures – we try to ensure the positive mental health of our children, and we try to build a positive relationship between the child and the parent.  And while some of the practices used in other cultures can be helpful to us – personally I plan to shift how I cook from keeping sharp knives away from my toddler to using them within her reach, but instructing her to keep her hands away so she can more closely observe how I prepare dinner every night.  But in general if we are to meet our goals for developing what we consider to be well-adjusted children who grow into well-adjusted adults who have a good relationship with us then we need two things.  Firstly, we need to redefine our expectations regarding getting a child to do what we want him to do, because an inherent part of raising a free-thinker is that they don’t always do what you want them to do.  And secondly we need a different toolkit than the people in cultures who create compliant children through keeping them calm or training them to observe or berating them.  We need to move beyond thinking about getting our children to do what we want them to do and start thinking about how we create the kind of relationship with them that makes THEM want to be in a positive working relationship with us as we go out on this journey of life.

So why don’t we just control our children? Why don’t we just tell them what we want them to do and force them to do it?  Diana Baumrind is a psychologist who described three different parenting styles.  Authoritarian parents foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by meeting and responding to their children’s needs, and exert a fairly high level of control over their children to integrate them into the family culture.  In white Western cultures, authoritarian parents are generally considered the “good” parents.  Parents who exert a lot of control but don’t balance it with meeting and responding to their children’s needs are called “Authoritative.”  (Because I always have to look it up to remember which is which I’ll restate these two – Authoritarian parents are the good ones that exert a high degree of control but are also responsive.  Authoritative parents exert a high degree of control but are not responsive).   This style of parenting is more common in the African-American community in the U.S. and while it has been shown to cause negative effects on white children, that’s not necessarily the case with African-American children.  Authoritative parenting is associated with better outcomes for African-American children, but the Authoritarian style isn’t terrible.  The Permissive parenting style is linked to a high degree of responsiveness to the child, but a low degree of control.  So the child gets what she wants, and doesn’t have to fit into the rest of the family – in fact, the family fits around her.  A fourth style was added later by some other researchers, who noticed that low responsiveness and low control are basically elements of neglectful parenting.

So, Alfie Kohn cites a number of studies that link authoritative – the bad kind – of parenting with really negative psychological outcomes, and several more have been done since that essentially find the same thing.  A really early study from way back in 1948 noticed that when parents control children and don’t allow children any kind of say in how rules are made or who does what and when, then we get a “quiet-well-behaved, non-resistant child…conformity to cultural demands is not easily obtained without robbing the child of that personal integrity which gives him a mind of his own.  Very controlling parenting obtains conformity but at the expense of personal freedom in areas which are not intended to be restricted.”

Another of the studies that Kohn cites makes a distinction that I found really helpful, and that’s the difference between self-assertion and defiance.  If a mother tells her child to pick up some toys and put them in a box, if the child say’s “No, still playing” then he is asserting himself.  But if he takes more toys out of the basket or if he throws a toy across the room, he is defying her.  So if the act is primarily geared toward resisting what the mother wants to do, then we call it “defiance.”  But if the child really does want to keep playing not just for the sake of defying the mother, then that’s assertion.  Now this is important because researchers associate self-assertion with competence in young children, but the same doesn’t hold true for defiance.  Children who say “no” more often are more likely to have a secure attachment to their parents, engage in more negotiation with their mothers, and are more developmentally advanced that other children.  Children who are defiant often hare parents who use highly power-assertive control strategies like anger, harshness, criticism, and spanking or hitting, and the mother’s use of these strategies after the child’s initial ‘no’ was more likely than other strategies to result in defiance, probably because she’s using these strategies to signal that she’s not willing to negotiate.  If the child complies at this point he does so because his mother has more power than him, and his autonomy suffers.  And asking a child “Could you pick up the toys now?” wasn’t effective at getting compliance either because the child feels like he has a choice, and he chooses not to pick up the toys.

I have to say when I started researching this episode that I didn’t realize where it was going to end up, which his pretty much directly supporting the Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, approach to parenting that I use.  I haven’t talked too much about this in the podcast because I haven’t been able to find much information to say that its strategies are supported by science – I mainly did it because it advocates for respect in the relationship between the parent and the child and that just felt very RIGHT to me.  But while there is no research out there that says “RIE parenting methods produce better children than non-RIE methods,” it’s pretty interesting to me to see strategies that RIE has taught me described in a paper on effective methods of gaining compliance.  I’ll quote from the paper: “Mothers who were effective at eliciting compliance from their children and deflecting defiance were very clear about what they wanted, but in addition to listening to their children’s objections, they also accommodated them in ways that conveyed respect for the children’s autonomy and individuality.  Often, the process of obtaining compliance was quite extended; mothers reasoned, persuaded, suggested, and adapted their requests to what they thought the child would accept.  In doing so, they encouraged competent behavior on the part of their toddler.”

If you want to hear this in action, go and check out Janet Lansbury’s podcast episode on setting limits with respect – there’s a link to it in the references for this episode.  Janet has been a RIE parent educator since 1994, and I find it really helpful to not just read the language she uses but hear her demonstrate it.  I do want to be super clear that respecting autonomy and individuality doesn’t mean being a pushover.  I think of it as believing that I have rights as a person in the parenting relationship as well, and I place primary importance on the relationship between my daughter and I, and that it’s OK for us each to have boundaries about what is and isn’t OK.  Sometimes my daughter doesn’t want to kiss me goodbye in the morning and that’s OK with me – that’s

Jan 09 2017



Rank #16: 068: Do I HAVE to pretend play with my child?

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Pretty regularly I see posts in online parenting groups saying “My child loves to pretend, and they always want me to participate.  I dare not tell anyone else, but I CAN’T STAND PRETEND PLAY.  What should I do?”

In this final (unless something else catches my interest!) episode in our extended series on play, Dr. Ansley Gilpin of the University of Alabama helps us to do a deep dive into what children learn from pretend play, and specifically what they learn from fantasy play, which is pretend play regarding things that could not happen in real life (like making popcorn on Mars).

We’ll discuss the connection between fantasy play and children’s executive function, the problems with studying fantasy play, and the thing you’ve been waiting for: do you HAVE to do fantasy play with your child if you just can’t stand it (and what to do instead!)

If you missed other episodes in this series, you might want to check them out: we started out asking “what is the value of play?”, then we looked at the benefits of outdoor play and talked with Dr. Scott Sampson about his book How to Raise a Wild Child.  We wrapped up with outdoor play by trying to understand whether we should allow our children to take more risks.


Bergen, D. (2013). Does pretend play matter? Searching for Evidence: Comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychological Bulletin 139(1), 45-48.

Buchsbaum, D., Bridgers, S., Weisberg, D.S., & Gopnik, A. (2012). The power of possibility: Causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 367. 2202-2212.

Carlson, S.M., White, R.E., & Davis-Unger, A.C. (2014). Evidence for a relation between executive function and pretense representation in preschool children. Cognitive Development 29, 1-16.

Gilpin, A.T., Brown, MM., & Pierucci, J.M. (2015). Relations between fantasy orientation and emotion regulation in preschool. Early Education and Development 26(7), 920-932.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Weisberg, D.S., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013). Embracing complexity: Rethinking the relation between play and learning: Comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychological Bulletin 139(1), 35-39.

Hoffman, J.D., & Russ, S.W. (2016). Fostering pretend play skills and creativity in elementary school school girls: A group play intervention. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 10(1), 114-125.

Krasnor, L. R., & Pepler, D. J. (1980). The study of children’s play: Some suggested future directions. In K. H. Rubin (Ed.), Children’s play: New directions for child development (pp. 85–95). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lancy, D. F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Li, J., Hestenes, L.L., & Wang, Y.C. (2016). Links between preschool children’s social skills and observed pretend play in outdoor childcare environments. Early Childhood Education Journal 44, 61-68.

Lillard, A. (2011). Mother-child fantasy play. In A. D. Pelligrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 284–295). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lillard, A.S., Lerner, M.D., Hopkins, E.J., Dore, R.A., Smith, E.D., & Palmquist, C.M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin 139(1), 1-34.

Lillard, A.S., Hopkins, E.J., Dore, R.A., Palmquist, C.M., Lerner, M.D., & Smith, E.D. (2013). Concepts, theories, methods and reasons: Why do the children (pretend) play? Reply to Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2013); Bergen (2013); and Walker and Gopnik (2013). Psychological Bulletin 139(1), 49-52.

Ma, L., & Lillard, A. (2017). The evolutionary significance of pretend play: Two-year-olds’ interpretation of behavioral cues. Learning & Behavior 45, 441-448.

Paley, V. (2009). The importance of fantasy, fairness, and friends in children’s play: An interview with Vivian Gussin Paley. American Journal of Play 2(2), 121-138.

Pierucci, J.M., O’Brien, C.T., McInnis, M.A., Gilpin, A.T., & Barber, A.B. (2014). Fantasy orientation constructs and related executive function development in preschool: Developmental benefits to executive functions by being a fantasy-oriented child. International Journal of Behavioral Development 38(1), 62-69.

Singer, D.G., & Singer, J.L. (2013). Reflections on pretend play, imagination, and child development. Interview in American Journal of Play 6(1), 1-13.

Sutton-Smith, B., & Kelly-Byrne, D. (1984). The idealization of play. In P. K. Smith (Ed.), Play in animals and humans (pp. 305–321). Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Taggart, J., Heise, M.J., & Lillard, A.S. (2018). The real thing: Preschoolers prefer actual activities to pretend ones. Developmental Science 21, e12582.

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Jen:                                      [00:38]                   Hello and welcome to today’s episode of your parenting Mojo. We’ve done a number of episodes by now in our series on the importance of play and I think this actually might be the last of them for a while. We started out by asking what is the value of play, and then we looked at the benefits of outdoor play and we talked with Dr Scott Sampson about his book, How to Raise a Wild Child. Then we wrapped up with outdoor play by trying to understand whether we should allow our children to take more risks. As we finish this whole series on play, I wanted to look at a question that comes up a lot in parenting groups that I’m in, which is: “my child loves fantasy play, but I just can’t stand it. What do I do?” So in this episode we’re going to try and get to the bottom of whether fantasy play really is important to a child’s development and what you can do if you just can’t stand it either.

Jen:                                      [01:24]                   So to help us think through these things. I’m here today with Dr Ansley Gilpin, who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama and a developmental psychologist whose research focuses on cognitive development in early childhood, so between about ages three and eight, specifically with a focus on executive functions and imagination as well as development of academic and socioemotional skills. Dr Gilpin is exploring the potential mediation effect of executive functions on school readiness intervention outcomes as well as long term intervention effects on cognitive development. Welcome Dr. Gilpin.

New Speaker:                   [01:57]                   Thank you for having me.

Jen:                                      [01:59]                   All right, so let’s start all the way at the beginning here. I wonder if you could define for us what is fantasy play.

Dr. Gilpin:                          [02:06]                   So when we talk about fantasy play in research and when I observed children doing it in their natural day to day lives I’m talking about is a type of pretend play that children tend to do on their own, which involves them pretending something that they don’t experience in everyday life. So differentiated from pretending to be a mommy or pretending to cook or pretending to go to the movies. So with fantasy play they are pretending something that they have not experienced before, like making popcorn on the moon.

Jen:                                      [02:45]                   Oh Wow. Okay. So that, that’s a very important distinction there. So pretend play is one thing and fantasy play is another thing as far as the research is concerned, then?

Dr. Gilpin:                          [02:56]                   Pretty much. Fantasy play as a type of pretend.

Jen:                                      [02:59]                   Okay. Okay Great. So there has been a fair bit of research done on the benefits of fantasy play on children’s development. And when I read in the popular press about fantasy play, I see these general assumptions that are made that fantasy play is really critical for children’s development. And I know that there was a meta-analysis done, which is a study that looks at a lot of different studies and tries to understand what’s the overall direction of the evidence and you weren’t involved in that study, but I know that you’ve commented on it and your work as well, but that method analysis examined theoretical ways that fantasy play could influence a child’s development and those kind of varied from fantasy play having a critical role to being an index rather than a promoter of development to a fantasy play. Kind of coinciding with other aspects of development but not really being that important. And I was really surprised to find in that paper that the research really doesn’t support the position that fantasy play is critical to the majority of aspects of children’s development, but the far larger problem, but most of the research has such a huge methodological problems that it’s hard to say much more than fantasy play might be linked with some aspects of children’s development. I wonder if you could kind of comment on the general status of the literature and your view of it.

Dr. Gilpin:                          [04:14]                   Yes. So this is one exciting part of this research, so with Dr Lillard she and her colleagues demonstrated was going through all of the research on pretense, pretend, play, imaginative play, fantasy, play, all those different types of play that are really very similar and looking to see whether or not there was research to show that really it was causal in facilitating development and part of the excitement is that we don’t know the answer to that yet and we don’t have a lot of support to show that it’s actually causing development to occur or that it is absolutely critical for development and it may not be; it may just be to her point related to development or it may enhance development. It may just develop at the same time as other skills. So we really don’t know. And as we improve on methodology and improve on our physiological measurements and biological measurements and our ability to observe naturalistic play and get multiple measures, that’s really going to help us be able to make those decisions. And so really as the research skill technique and equipment evolves, we will evolve with this question.

Jen:                                      [05:42]                   Okay. Yeah. And I did wonder to what extent, the way that we attempt to study pretend play is part of the reason that we’re not finding these significant effects. Because when you actually go into some of the studies that are included in that meta-analysis and you look at the methodology, you see the researchers are often going to put children in a lab and they asked them to do some kind of specific task and then they say, okay, now let’s pretend with this specific toy that I’m giving you and you have to do it in this way. And so firstly, I wonder, is it possible that researchers don’t differentiate between pretend and fantasy play in the way that you just did? And secondly, children engaging in fantasy play at home: it’s the child that says, “Mom, I’m going to make popcorn on the moon.” It’s not me that saying that. So how much of this is an artifact of the researcher telling the child how to play?

Dr. Gilpin:                          [06:29]                   Right? And so I recently got a grant from the Templeton Foundation to work on that. And so what we did is we really help define the different types of play and that’s going to be important going forward just as you said, so that we’re not combining types of play when we study and confusing them and also then how we’re measuring them. So we created a measurement that parents can report on. So as a parent myself and having interviewed literally thousands of children, they say whatever pops into their head half the time and they’re not good at giving you the last six months, what was it? What did they like to do? They tell you their favorite thing was what they did five minutes ago. That’s just part of their memory development. And so it’s really going to be very interesting as the methodology changes and improves. And that is somewhat technology and somewhat learning. Developmental Science psychology is really early science and so we’re really learning as we go and it’s really exciting.

Jen:                                      [07:32]                   Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s very strange for non-scientists like me to understand that this is relatively new landscape. If things that there aren’t better answers to a lot of these questions yet when we’ve been studying them for 20 or 30 years and in fact that’s not long enough to really fully understand them yet. Yeah. So one of the things that I thought was really cool coming out of that paper that you mentioned by Dr Lillard was published in 2013 and then you and your colleagues really took that and said, okay, well yes, we acknowledge the methodology and some of these papers isn’t great, so let’s see how we can do better. And so you’ve published a paper showing there’s a correlation between fantasy orientation and executive function and I wonder if you can tell some more about that please.

Dr. Gilpin:                          [08:17]                   Sure. So the correlational research, to be honest, doesn’t get us very far, but it’s our first stepping stone. Right? So it just says that when children participate in more fantasy play that either we can measure by directly observing the child or their parent or their teacher tells us that they are higher in fantasy play or pretend play than some of the other kids and then this particular paper that we were talking about fantasy play, so the experiences they haven’t done before. What we found was that correlated with children who had higher what we call executive functions. So those are basic cognitive skills that have something to do with your intelligence and your ability to process, so things like your ability to inhibit and your ability to pay attention and shift your attention when you need to. Your ability to engage your working or short term memory, and I’m using that right now as I try to remember the executive function…

Dr. Gilpin:                          [09:16]                   Your ability to plan and organize, which is a little bit later than the toddler years, but those are all skills that are related to how much a child participated in fantasy play. And we measured this in two ways. Both in how much they participated according to their teachers and their parents as well as how much they could show us that they could do it. So how imaginative was it really as well as their, what we call propensity towards play. So parents may have noticed, some children just really like to engage in imaginative or fantasy play and some children really don’t seem to do that very much and that seems to be an individual difference that we can measure in personality later in adulthood. And you can think about it in terms of yourself as well; whether or not you liked to go to see movies that are more imaginative, more fantastical, whether you can keep open the possibility that there might be extra-terrestrials possibly trying to be a super weirdo. Some examples here versus people who would much rather see a movie about a scientist or about mathematics.

Jen:                                      [10:36]                   So a number of points came up here. Firstly, if my husband’s listening to this interview, which he does occasionally when they published and he’s going to be laughing as he...

Jul 09 2018



Rank #17: 054: Three reasons not to say "You’re OK!"

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“I hear parents on the playground all the time saying “You’re OK!” after their child falls over. Often it does make the child stop crying…but doesn’t it invalidate the child’s feelings?”

It turns out that this question is related to a skill that psychologists call emotional regulation, and learning how to regulate emotions is one of the most important tasks of childhood.

This to-the-point episode is a trial of a shorter form of episode after listeners told me this show is “very dense.”  It’s hard to back off the density, but I can back off the length.  Let me know (via email or the Contact Me, page – not the comments on this episode because I get inundated with spam) what you think…

Other episodes referenced in this show

How parenting affects children’s development

How divorce impacts children’s development

How to scaffold children’s learning


Brookshire, B. (2013, May 8). Psychology is WEIRD: Western college students are not the best representatives of human emotion, behavior, and sexuality. Slate. Retrieved from

Duncan, L.G., Coatsworth, J.D., & Greenberg, M.T. (2009). A model of mindful parenting: Implications for parent-child relationships and prevention research. Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review 12, 255-270.

Keane, S.P., & Calkins, S.D. (2004). Predicting kindergarten peer social status from toddler and preschool problem behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 32(4), 409-423.

Kopystynska, O., Paschall, K.W., Barnett, M.A., & Curran, M.A. (2017). Patterns of interparental conflict, parenting, and children’s emotional insecurity: A person-centered approach. Journal of Family Psychology 31(7), 922-932.

Roemer, L., Williston, S.K., & Rollins, L.G. (2015). Mindfulness and emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology 3, 52-57.

Rotenberg, K.J., & Eisenberg, N. (1997). Developmental differences in the understanding of and reaction to others’ inhibition of emotional expression. Developmental Psychology 33(3), 526-537.

Sasser, T.R., Bierman, K.L., & Heinrichs, B. (2015). Executive functioning and school adjustment: The mediational role of pre-kindergarten learning-related behaviors. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30(A), 70-79.

Swain, J.E., Kim, P., & Ho, S.S. (2011). Neuroendocrinology of parental response to baby-cry. Journal of Neuroendochrinology 23(11), 1036-1041.

Trommsdorff, G. (2010). Preschool girls’ distress and mothers’ sensitivity in Japan and Germany. European Journal of Developmental Psychology 7(3), 350-370.

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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.

While I was still pregnant with my daughter, a friend showed me a video of a toddler falling down a flight of stairs.  Once he has tumbled all the way to the bottom he immediately bounces up and announces loudly for anyone who might be around: “I’m OK! I’m OK!”

At the time I thought that was pretty cool.  Who wouldn’t want a child who can roll with the tumbles of life and be fine with it?

I was working on some mental and emotional pregnancy exercises from a book at the time, one of which instructed me to write down my hopes for my yet-unborn daughter.  In the beautiful book that I made for her by hand (and that I hope to one day give to her), the third entry on my list of “My hopes for you” was “I hope you’ll be the kind of kid who gets up after a fall and says I’m OK!”

Fortunately, through studying for a Master’s in Psychology and through researching podcast episodes for you, my wishes for my daughter, as well as my skills, have evolved – but I’m still learning all the time.

Recently, one of my podcast listeners emailed me with a question:

“I hear parents on the playground all the time saying “You’re OK!” after their child falls over.  Often it does make the child stop crying…but doesn’t it invalidate the child’s feelings?”

It turns out that this question is related to a skill that psychologists call emotional regulation, and learning how to regulate emotions is one of the most important tasks of childhood. There are three major ways that children learn about emotional regulation.  The first of these is through direct teaching of emotional regulation – for example, by saying things like ‘you’re OK!.’  The second is through parental modeling of emotional regulation, and because I’ve been getting feedback from listeners saying that they LOVE my show but find the content to be very dense, we’re going to try a little experiment here and break these two topics down into two episodes.  They’re not actually going to be any less dense than my regular episodes (although I really make no apology for that), but hopefully making them shorter will help them to be a bit more digestible anyway.  I’d like you to let me know what you think about this, so do drop me a line at with any feedback.

The third way children learn about emotional regulation is the emotional climate of the family, which includes parent-child attachment, the romantic attachment of the parents, and the presence/absence of marital conflict (and how this is resolved).  We’ve covered a lot of this information in other shows already – like in our interview with Dr. Laura Froyen on how parenting affects child development, as well as in the episode related to how divorce impacts children, which contained a lot of information on how conflict affects children, and how resolving conflict productively can actually be very helpful for children to observe.  For that reason we’re not going to do a third show on this particular aspect of emotional regulation but go ahead – show affection to your partner!  Be romantic!  Your kid is watching…

So there are three critical reasons we need to support our children’s emotional regulation.  Firstly, emotional regulation directly impacts an individual’s wellbeing, because emotions have a physical impact on both children and adults.  Stress can have direct physiological effects on a person, like increasing blood pressure, it can impact behaviors related to wellbeing like alcohol and substance use and abuse, and can contribute to mental wellness or illness, for example, depression (Butler 2013).

Secondly, emotional regulation helps children to make (and keep friends) – aggressive boys and girls who fail to share and who get peers in trouble find it hard to make friends.

And finally, emotional regulation is really important for academic achievement – pre-kindergarten skills related to emotional regulation actually predict later academic skills probably because children who can sit still even when they want to fidget and ignore a taunting classmate are more likely to stay on-task with the lesson.

What I wanted to know next was “can scientists help us to understand how our actions as parents impact our children’s emotional regulation?”  It turns out that there’s no one “aha!” study that neatly addresses these issues.  But a whole slew of studies cast light on different pieces of the puzzle.

There are two key ideas behind the incongruence of saying “You’re OK” to Western children:

Firstly, emotional expression is culturally driven.  We Westerners tend to think that pretty much everyone thinks (or should think) like us.  While differences between individuals in a culture do, of course, exist, in general researchers assume that “people strive for independence, self-fulfillment, and authentic expression of emotions based on autonomy” (Trommsdorff & Heikamp 2013, p.70) – but in many Asian societies this is not a goal for raising children.

Instead, Asian parents aim to know what their child needs before the child even says it (Tromsdorff & Heikamp 2013).  Chinese children see this control as an expression of warmth and support, whereas European-American children find it stifling.

Most psychological research that makes it into journals is conducted on Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (or WEIRD)  WEIRD college students, and then researchers assume it’s applicable to all Americans, and maybe even people everywhere.  But the ‘hot’ way of studying the cultural issues behind emotionally-driven behavior is to put some Western and some Japanese people in an uncomfortable situation and see what happens – they use Japanese people because the Japanese are typically considered the paragon of the Asian interdependent cultures.

When researchers gave Japanese and German preschool girls a task that they could not possibly complete, German girls experienced distress associated with their failure for much longer than Japanese girls, whose distress quickly disappeared – to be expected in a culture where such expression is typically avoided.  The girls’ mothers were present during the experiment: German mothers expressed warmth to their daughters after the girls failed at the task, and the more sensitive the mother the more distress the girls expressed – in other words, the girls cried more, perhaps because the German mothers felt as though the girls were expressing their authentic emotions and so did not try to get the girls to stop crying.

So if we put all this together, we see that telling a child how they feel (or should feel) is a strategy that is really not well-suited to raising children in a society where autonomy and independence are prized.  We are attempting to control their experience of the world, which would help to build warmth between Chinese-American children and their parents, but which European-American children see as overly controlling.  German mothers seem to have it figured out – their children might cry more as a result, but they learn the validity of their own emotions.  It seems as though if American parents really do prize autonomy and independence, it would be a whole lot less confusing for their children if they were also a bit more tolerant of the expression of emotions that can be seen as negative, like crying.

The second reason why it’s incongruent for Westerners to tell their children “you’re OK” is that children’s emotional regulation develops as they age.

Perhaps this won’t be terribly surprising to parents: emotional regulation before age three months is thought to be driven largely by innate processes – things like turning toward pleasant stimuli like a parent’s face, and away from aversive stimuli like a loud noise.  By age one, babies know that other people can help them to regulate their emotional states, and by age two they can use specific strategies to manage their own feelings (although they aren’t always successful, which is why they have tantrums) (Calkins & Hill 2007).

The way children think about controlling emotions also changes as they get older.  Young children seem to believe that parents can actually change children’s emotions simply by saying “stop crying,” but older children and adults recognize that you don’t stop feeling something just because someone else tells you to – you just stop expressing the emotion.  As we’ll see in our next episode, this can have very negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing.

So we do need to adjust our approach as our child gets older, and we can use what psychologists call scaffolding to offer our children more support when they are younger (or hungry, or tired) and gradually withdraw that support as they get better at regulating their own emotions.  As a reminder, we did a whole episode pretty early on in the show on how to use scaffolding to increase children’s abilities.

So what should we understand from these studies?

Firstly, we socialize our children to succeed in our culture, and we should use strategies to help our children succeed in our culture (unless we might think that our culture relies just a touch too much on individualism, in which case we might want to adjust our approach slightly…).

Telling Western children “You’re OK!” when they’re clearly not flies in the face of all the other lessons we try to teach them about living their own experience and respecting their feelings.  It might stop them from crying, but it’s incredibly conflicting for them – we’re suddenly using strategies more suited to socializing in Asian cultures for no apparent reason.

Secondly, while our youngest children might think that we can change how they feel just by telling them, but eventually they figure out that we can’t, and they feel gypped.

Finally, by supporting our children as they develop their own emotional control skills (rather than just telling them they’re OK) we equip them with critical skills they need to succeed in learning and in life.

So why do we continue to tell our children they’re OK when they clearly know they’re not (and, if we’re honest, so do we)?  The only explanation I can come up with is that we really hate to hear our children cry.  We’re wired to make it stop as fast as we can, which we do by soothing our infants, and when they get old enough that we can’t easily soothe them any more we try to get them to stop using whatever means we can – even if it doesn’t benefit our children at all, and may instead impede their emotional regulation skill development.

Al well and good, I hear you say, but what should we do instead of saying “You’re OK?”

So next time your child falls at the playground, consider taking these four actions:

  1. And Watch

Don’t go running over.  Cement yourself to that park bench if necessary.

Look to see whether your child is really hurt.  If he really is, go over immediately.  If it’s more likely to be just a bump, sit tight a little longer.

  1. Set an Intention

Use this time to check in and see how you’re feeling.  Bring your full awareness to the moment and set an intention to respond with your child’s best interest in mind.  Are you anxious?  Take a breath.  Resolve to not say “You’re OK.”

  1. Act

Reassess what your child needs.  If he’s not already up and running around, walk over and sit next to him.  Say something like “Ouch – that looked like it hurt.  Do you need a hug?” (for younger children).  “Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?” (for older children).  Provide a hug (or not) accordingly.

Sit quietly until your child seems to calm himself.  When your child is ready, consider replaying the incident without judgment: “It looked like you were walking along the beam and you lost your balance.”  Empathize and acknowledge any new feelings that occur.

  1. Move on

When your child is ready, ask a question.  “Would you like to sit here with me for a bit longer or are you ready to play again?” or “Would you like to play some more or would you rather go home now?”  He may have other ideas about what he wants to do, but you may find giving him ideas to be more effective than just asking “what do you want to do now?,” which may simply elicit an “I don’t know.”

When you have time, you may find deeper reflection on this topic helpful.

  1. You may find that saying “You’re OK!” has become reflexive for you – you don’t even think about it before you say it. If this is the case, try first simply to notice when you say it – without judging yourself.  Then try to institute the pause that gives you the time you need to think and say something different.

  1. Spend some time thinking about what skills you think feel are important for your child to learn, and how you can support those through your relationship. If emotional awareness is high on the list, think about the messages you send your child when you discuss those emotions.  If you find that you frequently invalidate those emotions (e.g. “Of course you want to go to school!  You love your teacher!” or “Why wouldn’t you want to go to the party?  All your friends will be there!”) then your words may contradict your intention.  Don’t be afraid to let your child experience her own sadness, frustration, and anger, even as you support her by empathizing with her.  Your child learns more by experiencing them and dealing with them than by suppressing them because you don’t want to hear about them.

  1. Cultivate a practice of mindfulness – of being in and experiencing the present moment, which can help you to institute that all-important pause, as well as develop your own healthy emotional regulation skills. I’m working on finding someone who might be interested in talking with us about bringing a practice of mindfulness to our parenting, so stay tuned for that.

As always, the references for today’s show can be found on my website at, and please do let me know your thoughts on this shorter episode format by sending an email to

Jan 01 2018



Rank #18: 003: Did you miss the boat on teaching your toddler how to read? (Me too!)

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So did you teach your toddler to read yet? And if not, why not?

I’m just kidding, of course.

I wanted to write this episode on encouraging literacy in middle to older toddlers, but the more I researched the more I found the issues go much further back than what you do in toddlerhood.

Then I found – and read! – a 45,000 word essay by Larry Sanger, who taught his baby son to read.  I’m not kidding.  Check out the link to the video on YouTube in the references.

My two-year-old can’t read yet.  Did I miss the boat?  Would her learning outcomes have been better if I had taught her as a baby?

Is TV a good medium to teach reading and vocabulary?

What are some of the things parents of young toddlers can do to encourage reading readiness when the child is ready?

We talk about all this and more in episode 3, and there’s more to come for older toddlers in a few episodes time.


American Academy of Pediatrics (2016). Media and Children. Accessed August 19th, 2016. Retrieved from:

Carlsson-Paige, N., G. Bywater McLaughlin, and J. Wolfsheimer Almon (2015). Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose. Available online at:

Christakis, D.A. (2008). The effects of infant media usage: What do we know and what should we learn? Acta Paediatrica 98, 8-16. Full article available at:

Federal Trade Commission (2014). Defendants settle FTC charges related to “Your Baby Can Read” program. Available online at:

Gray, P. (2010). Children teach themselves to read. Blog post on Psychology Today available at:

Gray, P. (2015). Early academic training produces long-term harm. Blog post on Psychology Today available at:

Harris, J., Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2011). Lessons from the crib for the classroom: How children really learn vocabulary. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.) Handbook of early literacy research Vol. 3. (49-65). New York: Guilford.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., & Eyer, D. (2003). Einstein never used flash cards. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Status dropout rates. Available at:

Neuman, S., Kaefer, T., Pinkham, A., & Strouse, G.A. (2014). Can babies learn to read? A randomized trial of baby media. Journal of Educational Psychology 106(3), 815-830. Full article available at:

Sanger, L (2010). How and why I taught my toddler to read. Available online at:

Sanger, L. (2010). 3-year-old reading the Constitution – reading progress from age 2 to age 4. Available at:

WatchKnowLearn (2016). Reading Bear. Website available at:

Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A., & Meltzoff, A.N. (2007). Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. Journal of Pediatrics 151, 364-368.

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So is your toddler reading yet?  And if not, why not?

I’m just kidding, of course.

I will say that this episode has been the hardest one yet to research and write, just because there is *so much* information out there on the topic, which is “How to encourage literacy in preschoolers.”  Each time I thought I knew what my research question was I had to step back and consider an issue further back in the information chain.

I started by reading textbooks for teachers on how to teach children to read, including the theoretical background behind this work and how approaches have shifted over the years.  I like to start with textbooks because they tend to be rigorously researched and have lots of citations to spark my own research.

I also found – and read – a 45,000 word essay by Larry Sanger, he who co-founded Wikipedia, who successfully taught his own son to read – in the show notes for this episode on my website (at Your Parenting you can find a link to a video of his son reading a book at 2 years 5 months, and reading the Constitution at 3 years 10 months.  Sanger did this using a video called Your Baby Can Read (which is available on Amazon even though Dr. Titzer, who started the program, settled a claim with the FTC and is not allowed to use the term “Your Baby Can Read” any more because it is an unsubstantiated claim.)  Basically the child watches programs from a DVD, reads the books, and looks at the flash cards and develops an ability to “read.”

So I was actually reading these things – Larry Sanger’s essay and several books – in parallel, using one answer questions raised by the other.  It’s safe to say that the preponderance of scientific evidence does not advocate for teaching your baby to read.  Indeed, the only study I could find on the topic was one conducted to test specifically whether Your Baby Can Read works, and found that it does not.  Another study that focused on vocabulary development rather than reading found that for each hour of “educational” DVDs that babies watched, they knew on average 6-8 fewer words, although the effect did appear to be transitory and was mostly gone by age 17-24 months.  Even Peter Sanger acknowledges that plonking your child in front of a DVD isn’t really the “ideal” way to learn to read.

I should also note that Sanger has developed a free set of tools called Reading Bear, based on the ones he used to teach his son – I’ll include the link in the references for this episode.  I was amused to see, though, that “Reading Bear is aimed mainly at children learning to read at the traditional ages of 4-7….But even younger children do enjoy and get something out of Reading Bear.”  Sounds like someone has read the FTC ruling on the Your Baby Can Read set and doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of that argument to meJ

But what about Sanger’s son? He is clearly reading the Constitution in the video, if not understanding it.  Can *some* babies be taught to read?  Should they be taught to read?  As a parent of a toddler, have I missed out on something by not teaching my daughter to read?

These were the questions I set out to answer for this episode.

I think ultimately it goes back to what we as parents want for our kids, and what our kids want for themselves.  Sanger says that he aims to give his son “a deep, serious liberal arts education”, which he characterizes as having substantial knowledge about many different subjects, being able to write well, being able to read difficult texts, being comfortable with numbers (or excellent, if one is in a technical field), being able to speak a few languages, and generally having a sophisticated outlook on human life and our place in the universe.  He argues that his goal is not to get his kid to graduate by age 12 and out into the working world sooner so his son can get a big richer at the end of his longer career, it’s the opportunity to have more years to spend on learning general knowledge like literature, history, and science, before specializing and getting into a profession.

To me, it seems as though Sanger has missed a step.  He’s assuming that a liberal arts-style of education is a good goal for all kids, and I don’t believe it is.  I’m still thinking this through so my approach may change in the future, but if I had to pinpoint what I want for Carys it would be that she lives a life that she considers to be satisfying and fulfilling.  I would really love for her to have a love for learning as well, but to me that’s a secondary goal.

As a reasonably well-educated parent it would of course make *me* happy if that involved her learning a lot about some of the subjects I consider important.  *But it might not make her happy*.  She may be perfectly fulfilled as an auto mechanic who never listens to NPR.  She might become a master plumber and be the person who can finally teach me how to install a hammer arrester on an existing water line (I failed at that a couple of weekends ago).  She might want to work in an oil field, undoing all the work I’ve tried to do in my corporate career, getting companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  None of those occupations *require* a liberal arts education, although it’s possible she could get that education and still find one of those jobs fulfilling.  As a reasonably well-educated parent it might make me cringe a bit to tell people at parties that my daughter was doing one of those jobs.  But ultimately it’s *her* choice to make, not mine.  Sanger talks about how some of his happiest and most rewarding times in high school and college were when he was really learning, and he wants his child to do more of that sort of learning, and enjoy it.  But what if his son doesn’t enjoy it?  I wonder what Sanger will do then.

But Jen, I hear you thinking, what could be the harm in it?  Clearly at least one baby has learned to read using Your Baby Can Read, even if a statistically significant sample in a scientific study didn’t learn to read using that method.  Shouldn’t you and I be trying to make up for lost time?

The scientific community does seem to have some consensus around the idea that *pushing* kids to learn skills like reading before they are ready and when they don’t really want to, can have harmful effects on later learning outcomes.  A 2015 literature review called “Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose” found that many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten, yet the Common Core State Standards require them to do just that – read in kindergarten.  No research documents long-term gains from learning to read in kindergarten.  Studies have shown that early academic training can increase children’s immediate scores on specific tests that the training addresses, but these initial gains are lost within 1-3 years and may eventually be reversed.  It’s also possible that academic instruction at an early age can produce long-term harm in the realms of social and emotional development.

Just like with every other aspect of children’s development, there appears to be a wide range of “normal” development related to reading.  Some children learn to walk at nine months; some walk at 15 months.  Some children learn to read as toddlers (it’s probably safe to say that babies wouldn’t learn to read without adult intervention); some children in a Sudbury-school type model where there is no direct instruction unless the student requests it, may not learn to read until age 14 or 15.

Two other things stood out in my research: firstly, that children will learn to read when they want to read to accomplish some other goal.  Peter Gray, who writes a blog on Psychology Today, asked parents who were in alternative forms of education when and how their children learned to read.  One woman wrote that her daughter had been telling people she couldn’t read until she was about age 7.  One day the daughter wanted to eat brownies and neither the mother nor the father wanted to bake them.  A while later the daughter asked the mother to turn on the oven and find her a “9 ex 11 pan” and, later, to put the brownies in the oven.  The daughter said “Ma, I think I can read now.”  The daughter read a few books out loud to the mother until the brownies were done.

A 19 year-old blogger who had been homeschooled said that her mother would read the first Harry Potter to her and her younger sister.  But the mother was busy and if she read too long her voice would get hoarse so, being frustrated at the delay and impatient to know what happened next, the blogger picked up the book and started reading.  Clearly these children had a reason to start reading, so they did it.  Not every child can just “read,” though – some of them do need explicit instruction.

Secondly, if you’re in the U.S. and your child isn’t reading by the end of kindergarten, he or she is officially “behind” according to the Common Core standards.  And now we find ourselves with a problem: we know that some children may not be able to read until much later than kindergarten age, but if they’re not reading by the time they enter first grade they’re going to get more and more “behind” as they can’t keep up with material that’s presented in a written format.

This puts parents whose children will go into a traditional school model in a bit of a bind.  You’ll be OK following your child’s lead as long as he’s not a late bloomer (because there is some evidence that boys develop reading ability later than girls).  Perhaps that’s one factor explaining why boys drop out of high school at a higher rate of girls – from the very beginning some of them are pressured to learn things before they’re ready and that just continues to cascade throughout their school career.  I’m just speculating on that one.

So assuming you haven’t yet taught your toddler to read, what should you be doing to encourage future literacy in your child without pushing it on them?  I’ll go into much more detail on this in a future episode, but I want to leave you with some things to get you started.  I should acknowledge here that different cultures have different ways of thinking of literacy.  Some cultures prioritize things like oral stories, songs, and music.  Others prioritize the written word but mainly use print for religious purposes (like reading religious texts) or practical purposes (paying bills and writing shopping lists). One thing that anyone can do to prepare a child for reading readiness, no matter how you use literature, is talk with your child in a way that enhances their vocabulary.  So no need for flash cards or new word memorization, but you can follow six principles of word learning developed by the authors of the book Einstein Never Used Flashcards, although these specific principles are found in a journal article they wrote with one of the graduate students.  The principles are are:

  1. Frequency – children learn the words they hear the most
  2. Children learn words for things and events that interest them
  3. Interactive and responsive contexts (like conversation) are more conducive to vocabulary learning than passive contexts (like TV viewing)
  4. Create meaningful contexts – rather than offering flashcards, learn words about baking while baking. Learn colors and textures while folding laundry.
  5. Tell children the definitions of the new words. When the child points to a toaster and says “what’s that,” instead of just saying “it’s a toaster,” say “that’s a toaster.  It’s cooking your bread for your breakfast.”
  6. Use words in sentences. Children’s learning of grammar feeds off their learning vocabulary, and vice versa. They learn how to use grammar correctly when they hear adults using grammar correctly.

I want to expand a bit on point number 3 because it connects back to the Your Baby Can Read program, which is presented in a series of DVDs.  The American Academy of Pediatrics officially discourages TV viewing in the first two years of life (although only 6% of U.S. parents are even aware of these guidelines which may partly explain why 90% of parents appear to ignore this advice).  The AAP states that its guidelines are based on the detrimental effects of “excessive” media use, and because “young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”  So while Larry Sanger taught his son to read using a DVD set, he describes his process very explicitly – he always sat with his son while his son watched the DVDs and they talked about what they saw, and this interaction could have been responsible for some of Sanger’s success.  But, as Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington points out, “the fundamental research question is not *can* infants learn from a screen under ideal circumstances, including an interactive parent, but is that learning somehow superior to alternative means of advancing child development?”

Many researchers agree that reading books to children is very important, but so is surrounding children with literacy in their everyday lives.  Following a recipe together as you bake a cake counts as a “literacy activity.”  So does sorting junk mail.  And discussing road signs you see while out on a walk.

One way to figure out a path is to let your child lead, which is something I stumbled on accidentally myself.  We were waiting outside a restaurant about three months ago (so my daughter, Carys, would have been about 22 months old).  It was a seafood restaurant and there was a humorous slogan along the bottom of the window – something like “fish or cut bait.”  Carys pointed to the “F” and said “what’s that?” I said “It’s an F.”  She moved along each letter asking “what’s that?”.  Not long after that my husband was at the mall and picked up an alphabet book at a bookstore so he could get his parking validated.  Carys and I went on a backpacking trip in Wales a couple of weeks after that and she made me go through that book every single night – even though I specifically requested we read a different book.  She knew about three letters of the alphabet before we left, and now she knows about half of it.  The whole thing is led by her: we read to her when she asks; we tell her letters when she asks.  Your child may well not be asking these questions yet and *that’s OK*.  Continue reading books – vary the books, as much as your toddler will allow, anyway – test him with longer books but mix in shorter books as well.  Consider running your finger under the line of print to see if she’s interested in what the print *does* – but be ready to back off if she finds it irritating.  Follow her lead.  My next question is “now that Carys has expressed an interest in learning letters, what do I do next?” That will be the subject of an upcoming episode.

Don’t forget that you can access all the references in this podcast on – look for

Sep 12 2016



Rank #19: 004: How to encourage creativity and artistic ability in young children – Interview with Dr. Tara Callaghan

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I’m so excited to welcome my first guest on the Your Parenting Mojo podcast: Professor Tara Callaghan of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.   Professor Callaghan has spent a great number of years studying the emergence of artistic ability in young children and she shares some of her insights with us.  This is a rather longer episode than usual so here are some places you might want to skip ahead to if you have specific interest:

[3:55]: The connection between individuality and creativity, especially in Western cultures

[9:00]: What is “symbolic representation” and why is the development of symbolic representation an important milestone for young children?

[12:10]: Is it helpful for parents to ask a child “What are you drawing?”

[15:25]: When do children understand symbols?

[31:15]: What can parents do to support children’s development of symbolic representation in particular and artistic ability in general?


Brownlee, P. (2016). Magic Places. Good Egg Books: Thames, NZ (must be ordered directly from the publisher in New Zealand; see:

Callaghan, T.C., Rackozy, H., Behne, T., Moll, H, Lizkowski, U., Warneken, F., & Tomasello, (2011). Early social cognition in three cultural contexts. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 76(2), Serial Number 299.

Callaghan, T. & Corbit, J. (2015). The development of symbolic representation. In Vol. 2 (L. Liben & U. Muller, Vol. Eds.) of the 7th Edition (R. Lerner, Series Ed) of the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (pp. 250-294). New York: Wiley.

Callaghan, T., & M. Rankin (2002). Emergence of graphic symbol functioning and the question of domain specificity: A longitudinal training study. Child Development, March/April 2002, 73:2, 359-376.

Callaghan, T., P. Rochat & J. Corbit (2012). Young children’s knowledge of the representational function of pictoral symbols: Development across the preschool years in three cultures.  Journal of Cognition and Development, 13:3, 320-353. Available at:,%20ROCHAT,%20&%20CORBIT,%202012.pdf

DeLoache, J. S., (2004).  Becoming symbol-minded. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 66-70. Retrieved from:

Frith, C., & Frith, U. (2005). Theory of mind. Current Biology 15(17), R644.R645. Full article available at:

Ganea, P.A., M.A. Preissler, L. Butler, S. Carey, and J.S. DeLoache (2009). Toddlers’ referential understanding of pictures. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 104(3):283-295. Full article available at:

Golomb, C. (2003). The child’s creation of a pictoral world. London: Psychology Press.

Jolley, R.P. (2010). Children and pictures: Drawing and understanding. Wiley-Blackwell, Cichester, England.

Jolley, R. P. & S. Rose (2008). The relationship between production and comprehension of representational drawing. In Children’s understanding and production of pictures, drawings, and art (C. Milbrath & H.M. Trautner (Eds)). Boston, MA, Hogrefe Publishing.  Chapter available at:

Kellogg, R. (1970). Analyzing Children’s Art. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, CA.

Preissler, M.A., and P. Bloom. Two-year-olds use artist intention to understand drawings. Cognition 1[06:51]2-518. Full article available at:

Rochat, P. & T. Callaghan (2005). What drives symbolic development? The case of pictoral comprehension and production. In L. Namy (Ed.) Symbol use and symbolic representation. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. Chapter available at:

Winner, E. (1985). Invented worlds: The psychology of the arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

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Jen:                                      [00:35]                   Hello! This is Jen Lumanlan of Your Parenting Mojo and I’m here with episode four on Creativity and Artistic Ability in Young Children. So the question that’s lovely, what is it seems to be one of the most asked by parents of children related related to young children’s drawings, but she’ll do children even know what IT is? I’m really excited to welcome my first guest on the Your Parenting Mojo podcast today, Professor Tara Callaghan. I went to start by introducing her by telling you a little bit about how we met. So I visited Reggio Emilia Italy in April 2016 because I wanted to learn more about the approach to early childhood education that was founded in that city. And before I went, I read a book called Magic Places by Penny Brownlee, which says that a parent shouldn’t ask what a scribbling child is drawing because they’re not drawing anything, they’re just scribbling. But in contrast, the people in Reggio Emilia, I believe that the children are “fully aware of the representative process” and that’s actually a quote from one of the practitioners there after I witnessed a group of under two year olds, I think they were about 18 months who had been given in a real orange and a set of orange paints and the toddler is we’re making orange paint marks on the paper because that was the only color that was available to them.

Jen:                                      [01:45]                   And based on my reading of Magic Places, I queried whether the toddlers could possibly understand that they were being asked to represent the orange on the paper and clearly the director thought that they could. Her position was that even if the marks don’t look like an orange to us, the toddlers understand the marks as a representation of an orange. When I returned home, I started digging into the research on this topic and ultimately found a chapter that Professor Callahan authored a book called Children’s Understanding and Production of Pictures, Drawings and Art, and it was the most comprehensive, really insightful piece I’d read on that topic and she expressed a view that was quite different from what the Reggio practitioners believe. So I reached out to her and she was kind enough to actually spend quite a bit of time patiently answering my questions so I could write a very long blog post about it on my personal blog, which was actually the thing that made me realize that I should start a podcast.

Jen:                                      [02:33]                   So it’s a formally introduce her: Professor Callaghan is Professor of Psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. She’s a developmental scientist working in the fields of symbolic and pro-social development from a cultural perspective. She received her Ph.D in psychology from Brown University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University and she served as consulting editor for the journal Child Development, and she also coauthored a chapter on symbolic development in the new 2015 edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, which if you don’t happen to be familiar with, it is a pretty seminal work on the psychological development of young children. So thank you so much for joining us Dr Callaghan.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [03:11]                   Oh my pleasure, Jen. My pleasure. So, thanks for the introduction. I might add to that that I am also very interested in cultural developmental psychology and so maybe some of that will come up as we talk a little bit more today, but one of the things that I’ve been doing for about the past decade is, is looking across cultures to help understand what children know, uh, as a result of the socialization that they get from parents and others in their culture compared to what, how we are built as humans, I guess. What is our human nature?

Jen:                                      [03:54]                   Yeah. I’m actually very interested in that as well so do feel free to sprinkle that in as it comes up. Awesome. Okay. Well the first thing I wanted to ask you about is something that I hadn’t even considered until you kind of mentioned it as an offhand comment, as part of a larger discussion that we were having when we were emailing and you said that “creativity is highly valued in our society and is part of our individualistic orientation. Creativity that makes a difference in art, depends on the ability to do and see things differently and also have a command of the medium.” And it was the first part of that that, that really blew my mind. I really hadn’t considered the possibility that not all cultures value creativity equally. I just figured that if everybody had access to crayons and paper, everybody would give their child crayons and paper and we pretty much do the same thing as I do with my child. So I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about this.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [04:44]                   Yeah, I think that what, what I was focused on was, was thinking about how we define creativity in our own society and by our own, I’m talking about a kind of middle class, North American, European, Euro-centric kind of um, uh, what is typically called the Western orientation. So in the West we’re well known for valuing independence and independent thought and if you are in a society that values that, then a lot of different things including creativity, get defined in a way that meets those societal goals. And then if you’re a parent, you’re trying to, without really even being aware of this, you are instilling the cultural values in your children as you parent them. So I think in different art forms it’s maybe more or less true, but I, my observation of, of art and my experience with art in our culture is that to get ahead, you have to be different from somebody else.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [05:52]                   You have to be contributing a new perspective or a new discovery, that sort of thing. And that’s also the case in science really, that we really are pushing to individuals to contribute something that’s brand new. So when I say that it’s highly valued, I think creativity is highly valued in probably every culture, but it may be defined and what, what constitutes or how the process of creativity may be seen to be a different. Back to your issue about creativity and crayons and giving. It really comes down to what the parents’ goals are in that society. And India is not a society, it’s a multitude of societies. Canada, likewise; U.S. likewise. So when you try to think about a parent helping a child become creative, you’ve got to know what that parents’ aims are, what are their parenting goals there? And part of that, uh, those goals will be shaped by the society they find themselves in and you may find more of a, um, a goal in, in the US and Canada in counteracting the larger society goals. So you might want to do things differently than you feel the larger society may hold children back or or whatever. And so you see a lot of that kind of independence in Canada and I, and I think that’s, that’s really valuable, but probably becoming aware of your own goals, how they’re influenced by society, the society we live in and as a parent we want our children, uh, I would say to become contributing members to the society that they find themselves in and so shaping our child to fit in well with an individualist society where that’s going to bring them the most success in their lives in terms of happiness, and feeling that they are valued and making a contribution I think is probably behind a lot of the shaping or parenting practices that we do.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [08:00]                   Like how do you prepare your child if you want to foster creativity, which I think is a really great thing to do, in any individual, regardless of culture, then how do you go about that and how do you predict what your society is going to be like in, you know, when your child is becoming an adult and a launching off to make their contribution to life. And so I think keeping tabs on what’s going on in other cultures is a really good way to keep a handle on what your child’s going to need and creativity I think is a great way because the more adaptive we are to change and to new things and to seeing things from different perspectives, I think that that’s where I’d put my money – the better able we will be to adapt to whatever’s coming down the road.

Jen:                                      [08:58]                   Great. So let’s start digging a little bit into your research. Can you tell us about what symbolic representation means and why it’s important?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [09:06]                   A symbol is something that stands for something else and as a symbol can be, as you know, many forms that can be a child, a naive kind of drawing of a person, what we call the tadpole, which is a little head body with a couple of stick legs coming out of it. And sometimes, an eye, and a smile as my grandson called the mouth…

Dr. Callaghan:                   [09:30]                   Just one eye?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [09:31]                   Yeah, sometimes sometimes multiple eyes, when he really gets into that form! So that visual or very simple graphic can be a shorthand if you like, or, or an image that stands for something else. So a symbol is something that stands in for or represent something else. And representation…when you put those together, symbolic representation is really about a process that you are intentionally creating, a symbol in order to stand for something else.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [10:13]                   Now, why would humans even want to do that? Well, the ultimate goal of all symbols is to communicate with other humans. So that’s it. Symbolic representation is at the very basic foundation, it’s about communication. And I, I, I said intentionally, forming that because of the scribbles. And you talked about the book that you had read, Magic Places where she said no, these scribbles don’t mean anything. They very likely don’t. And they very likely are… Sometimes children happen upon something that looks like it and can recognize a shape; their form perception is excellent for sure. And their color perception is excellent by the time they’re two. But their cognitive ability to understand such an abstract concept as ‘stand for,’ ‘stand in for’ or ‘represent’ is not there yet. And that’s a very strict criteria.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [11:24]                   So somebody will say, well, my two year old drew something as you know, and said this is a dog. And then when I looked at it, it really looked like a dog and sure… Those kinds of perceptual similarities labeled after the fact precede genuine symbolic understanding. And it’s all part of that process of how we help children and how we scaffold them to this understanding of these very complex terms. So if a child brings you a picture and you say, what is it? Then right away...

Sep 19 2016



Rank #20: 023: Is a Montessori preschool right for my child?

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It’s that time of year: daycare and preschool tours start ramping up and parents have to try to figure out which is the right option for their child.  And many parents are overwhelmed by the options.  Montessori?  Waldorf?  Reggio Emilia?  How are they different?  Will my child be messed up if I pick the wrong one?

This episode is the first in a mini-series to help us think through the questions you might have as you explore the options that are available in your community.

Today we’re going to learn about Dr. Maria Montessori’s approach to early childhood education and what it’s like to have a child in a Montessori preschool with Mary Ellen Kordas, the President of the Board of Directors at the American Montessori Society.


Gray, P. (2011). The special value of children’s age-mixed play. American Journal of Play 3(4), 500-522. Full article available at:

Isaacs, B. (2012). Understanding the Montessori approach: Early years education in practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lillard, A.S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lillard, P.P. (1996). Montessori today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Schocken.

Louv, V. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. New York, NY: Algonquin.

Montessori, M. (1971). The Montessori Elementary Material (Trans. A. Livingston). Cambridge, MA: Robert Bentley, Inc.

Wentworth, R.A.L. (1999). Montessori for the new millennium. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Jen:                                      [00:05]                   Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called Is a Montessori Preschool Right for my child? I sort of skipped the whole preschool touring and decision making thing. It turned out we had a nanny at the time and I had planned to actually to work with her friend the somewhat long term, but she decided to work with a family with a younger child. So we found ourselves rather abruptly in need of care and I’d been doing a lot of research on the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education at the time. And we were actually lucky enough to find a daycare that had space for her on short notice. And so we just kind of went with that. But I know a lot of parents are able to plan ahead and spend a bit more time choosing between the different options that might be available to them. And so to help with that process, I wanted to do a little mini series of episodes where we learn about some of the options that might be available in your community and today we’re going to learn about Dr Maria Montessori’s approach to early childhood education and what it’s like to have a child in a Montessori Preschool with Mary Ellen Cordis. Mary Ellen is the incoming President of the Board of Directors of the American Montessori Society and has over 40 years of experience as the head of a Montessori school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as an advocacy champion of Montessori. Mary Ellen’s school was the first accredited Montessori school in the state. Welcome Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen:                        [01:43]                   Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be here.

Jen:                                      [01:45]                   Thank you. So I wonder if you could first start off and tell us a little bit about how you learned about Montessori and what about it called to you and how you went through that process of becoming a leader in the Montessori movement.

Mary Ellen:                        [01:56]                   If I’d only had you in my life, I may not have had to do all the research that I did, but this is exactly how I got involved is I had a three year old and I was looking around for what type of program I might enroll him in. Although I had come from the Midwest and preschool wasn’t that popular. People went to kindergarten and then they went to elementary school and that was pretty much how it was. So when a neighbor came around and said to me, I’m going to send Kathy, my son’s best friend, to the Montessori school. I said, what’s a Montessori school? And that began this journey. So the school had just opened. There were six children. My son was now going to be one of them and I fell in love. I found what really I thought was exactly what children needed. I was working with abused and neglected children at the time, and so I walked into a place where children were honored and respected and treated well and it just made my heart sing, so that was really my beginning.

Jen:                                      [03:02]                   Wow, that’s awesome. And so you’ve been at this for awhile now and I understand that there’s probably not one single Montessori experience, but I wonder for those of us who haven’t been to a Montessori school, can you kind of walk us through in your mind what it’s like to be in a Montessori classroom? What does the room look like? What are the children doing and how do they move through their day?

Mary Ellen:                        [03:24]                   Sure, absolutely. Because it’s what drew me when I saw them in action. So first let me tell you that there are different levels in Montessori education. So what I’m going to choose to walk you through is a three to six classroom and that’s ages three years to six years, which is typical because there’s multiple ages in Montessori classrooms. So when you first enter a classroom, I think what you’re struck by first is the beauty that has been very intentionally created in the classroom.

Mary Ellen:                        [03:56]                   The furniture is child-sized. There’s often plants or flowers on the table. The classroom is not cluttered on the walls with a lot of pictures of things. It’s usually tastefully done pictures, if they’re hung it all, are hung low enough for the children. It’s definitely designed for the children. There’s low shelves, often made of wood that surround the whole classroom and materials, that’s the usual, the working apparatus in the classroom are on those low shelves so that the children have free access to them. So what you would see in the classroom is children moving about the classroom freely, taking something off a shelf, taking it to a rug. The reason that you see rugs in the classroom is it just sort of defines a space for a child. There’s nothing magical about it, but because there’s usually 24 children or so in a classroom of mixed ages, it just helps define a space.

Mary Ellen:                        [04:53]                   So they’ll take the material that they’re going to work onto a rug. They may work alone, they may invite a friend, you may look across the room and see a teacher sitting with five or six children doing a presentation. You probably would see a table with two children or three children sitting at it, having a snack and conversing amongst themselves. It feels very peaceful and when I hear people comment on what they see, when they see a classroom for the first time, they’re struck by the calm, and yet there’s a real energy because the children are working at their own pace. They’re taking things off the shelves as they want to work on them, and so it feels peaceful, yet you can feel the energy and the spirit of the children.

Jen:                                      [05:38]                   Wow, that sounds really awesome. Is there a kind of a set structure of the day that they do certain things for certain amounts of time?

Mary Ellen:                        [05:47]                   So that’s an interesting question. So what you would often see is upon entry to a classroom, let’s assume that the class goes from nine to 12. That’s a three hour classroom. That’s very popular. You see it all over in many schools as well as full day classrooms, but say it’s a nine to 12. You’ll see the children arrive and there’ll be greeted at the door by the teacher. There’s usually two teachers in a classroom, but they would be greeted probably they would shake hands. They would say hello, just have a few words and the children would go put their things away and they usually would go right to finding something to do. Then after the gathering of the group has occurred, they would bring the children together often for a group setting so that they… It’s sort of what you think about circle time, that more traditional word that you think because community is vital to the whole process in a Montessori classroom, they build a community of children with these two adults in the classroom that’s spend often three years together because a child coming in at three would often stay with those same teachers and as they matriculate, if you will, into an older level. That would be the natural progression, but they often have the same teacher. So you’d see maybe group time, then they would go off again to do some individual work where a teacher may have a presentation for a particular number of children, not necessarily all the same age, but they might, they might be choosing all the three year old and they might be mixing it up because the goal is to work at your own level and so the day then would usually end at noon, usually transition time for young children is done in group setting. So you might have them together again at the end of the day and then the parents would come to pick them up. So there isn’t 20 minutes for math and 10 minutes for language. It very much is a flow.

Jen:                                      [07:39]                   Okay. And are they typically half day programs? Or do they do full day programs as well?

Mary Ellen:                        [07:44] They’re both I think in the current culture where so many of our families are, both parents are working and they really need a full day of the majority of programs you see now definitely are full day.

Jen:                                      [07:56]                   OK. Alright. So let’s talk a bit about certification and accreditation is, it’s not fully clear to me how this works. I think there’s a certification for Montessori teachers, but I guess probably not all teachers are certified and I think there’s an accreditation system for schools, but there are different organizations that do that accreditation. Right? Can you help us make sense of all of that and how parents judge the quality of a school that calls itself Montessori.

Mary Ellen:                        [08:20]                   Oh, now we have three questions. So yes, there’s many accrediting bodies for schools, the American Montessori Society… And please know that my underpinning is all the AMS, the American Montessori Society because that’s the thing organization to which I’m affiliated primarily so we do accreditations of schools and so we are able to send a team in and look over self studies, review the school and then you often can become an AMS accredited school. The school that was at when I was in northern California also had accreditation through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges are better known as WASC, just like many high schools, colleges, public schools. There’s also the California Association of Independent Schools; that’s another accreditation. The school I was at had all three of those and that’s pretty much that runs the gamut of what you would do. Now if you’re outside of the state, of course there would be other organizations that would accredit.

Mary Ellen:                        [09:24]                   So that’s the accreditation piece for schools. What you get when you look at an accredited school for the American Montessori Society is, you know, the standard has been met with teacher training that has, that’s checked that box, that’s a done deal. The materials are in the classroom, the school has gone through all of the standards that are set and so that does give parents comfort. Now there’s other things we’ll look at in a minute, but let me address the teacher piece of it. So there’s a credential that is given to teachers when they go through training, but it isn’t as simple as just getting trained to be a Montessori teacher. You get trained at a level. So if it’s an infant-toddler teacher or an early childhood teacher, an elementary teacher all the way through high school. So you have to be in the classroom at the level to which you were accredited where you got your credential.

Mary Ellen:                        [10:23] Teacher training programs are offered either in universities or colleges or sometimes in standalone programs. So both can can happen. The teacher training programs themselves are also accredited. The AMS teacher training programs are accredited through MACT, which is the Montessori Accreditation Council for teacher training, teacher education. So that’s another piece. Now, if I haven’t lost you totally by this time, one of your other questions that was the most insightful of all I think is the one. How do you tell when you’re in a really good school, and I say to parents who sometimes waffle in their confidence in their ability to choose the right school at that moment, they may have Ph.Ds on hanging on the wall, but they sometimes at that point worried that they aren’t going to make the right choice and I think you have to have the confidence that it sort of the gut reaction.

Mary Ellen:                        [11:23]                   You walk into an environment, you see respectful interactions between teachers and children. You see them paying attention to the children in a way that feels very respectful and of course you do want the school to meet certain standards. You want to see the children engaged in what they’re doing, not staring off into space. Although everybody does deserve the opportunity to stare off into space for a few minutes. We can’t be busy all the time. So that’s sort of I say trust your gut, you know, walk into school and see how it feels to you and then do some of the research. Definitely sit in a classroom. Definitely experience what it’s like to watch the children because it’s different. It’s very free-form. Different than when we were children. I will say me not huge and because there were a much more rigid look to schools where you went in, you didn’t speak to the teacher unless you were spoken to. You often sat in desks that fased one way in a Montessori classroom, the furniture is all over the room. Children are sitting on the floor, they’re sitting on a chair, they’re sitting in a library looking at books quietly and there’s so….there’s all kinds. So that’s, that’s really a little bit of a bird’s eye view at 30,000 feet of accreditation and credentialing and how to trust yourself.

Jen:                                      [12:41]                   Great. Thank you for that. So let’s, let’s go into some of the nitty gritty of what really makes Montessori Montessori and I know that one of the first things that I think of when I think of Montessori is the concept of work and the, the idea that there’s a correct way to use materials in it often in a progressive sequence. Can you tell us about that?

Mary Ellen:                       

Jan 30 2017