Ep. 70 – Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Good News About Bad Behavior
- How childhood has changed when it comes to mental health
- Why ‘the way we were raised’ isn’t working for our kids
- The difference between an obedience approach to parenting and an apprentice approach to parenting and why is so much more effective
A recent study by the International Institute of Mental Health revealed one in two children will develop a mood or behaviour disorder or a substance addiction before the age of 18.
In this episode, journalist and parenting specialist, Katherine Reynolds Lewis explains how childhood has changed and what gives our kids the skills they need to manage their thoughts, behaviours and emotions.
Katherine Reynolds LewisKatherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist and author based in Washington D.C. Her specializations include topics of race, gender, mental health, parenting, and education.
Katherine’s award-winning book, The Good News About Bad Behavior explains why modern kids seem so undisciplined and tells stories of innovators who are rebuilding self-regulation, resolving family conflict, and changing the trajectory of young lives.
Katherine’s work has appeared in many media outlets including, The Atlantic, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. She’s appeared on CNN, NPR, and HuffPost Live, as well as many TV and radio programs nationally and internationally.
In addition to her literary acclaim, Katherine graduated from Harvard with a degree in physics. She and her partner Brian are the proud parents of three children.
Ep. 70 – Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Good News About Bad Behavior
Rachel Cram – Katherine, welcome to family360. Even though we’ve never met in person, I feel like I know you and your ‘Asian-Jewish-mid-west-family, as you describe yourself through your book, I’m feeling quite attached.
Katherine Reynold Lewis – Oh, thank you. It’s great to be here talking with you.
Rachel Cram – I feel the same, and I really appreciate your journalistic approach to this topic of Good News About Bad Behaviors, because parenting with appreciation for challenging behaviors isn’t an obvious way to think. It takes some research and curiosity, which you have in abundance. And this is the first time I’ve interviewed somebody coming at parenting from a journalistic perspective, which gives it an objectivity that worked really well for this topic.
Katherine Reynold Lewis – Oh, thank you. Well, I just wrote the kind of book that I like to read, which tends to be long-form narrative journalism, stories about people’s lives and the science behind interventions, because I’m always really interested in the why.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. How did you move from journalism to focusing on parenting? Because I know you started off as a journalist for Bloomberg and then Newhouse News in the business and financial world. Why did you transition into the parenting world?
Katherine Reynold Lewis – There was this great recession you may have heard of
Rachel Cram – 2008.
Katherine Reynold Lewis – Yes. So Newhouse closed their Washington bureau. Twenty-six of us lost our jobs. And at that point I had little bitty kids and I did not want to go back into a very intense D.C. newsroom that was really demanding hours and unpredictable hours. So I gave it a shot as an independent journalist, and I am celebrating my 14th year as an independent journalist since then. And it’s been really wonderful because I can explore more topics that are closer to my personal life and my interests. As long as I can find an editor who will buy the story, I can really write about a whole range of topics. So it is when I started freelancing that I was able to write more about parenting and education and psychology and really the problems I was trying to solve myself.
It’s such a privilege to be a journalist because you can call up the world’s experts and ask them for their time and learn about new topics and then explain it to your readers.
Rachel Cram – Which is exactly what you were able to do for this book. Which must have been so interesting, to spend hours with leading experts on child growth and development and renowned child psychologists, getting to dig into behavioral questions that are baffling to parents and educators and actually make it kind of scary to raise kids.
How I first heard of you was through one of your articles that went viral. It was an article on discipline in schools, I think. And I had read the article from the perspective of an educator at that time, but also really took it to heart as a parent. And then your name came up through Dr. Tina Bryson. We mentioned to her we were wanting to do an episode on managing challenging behaviors and she said, “Oh, you should interview Katherine Reynolds Lewis,”
And then I looked you up and I put it together with that article that I read quite a few years ago. I think it was around 2015 maybe that came out.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yeah. The article went viral and that became the seed for my book. But when I started freelancing and writing more about parenting and interviewing experts on discipline and behavioral health, it was really to try to be a better parent. And so as I was doing these interviews, I learned about new resources. And my partner, Brian, and I started taking parenting classes at the Parent Encouragement Program here in Kensington, Maryland. And just through wanting to learn and stay immersed in parent education that we felt was really, really helpful for our family, we ended up becoming leaders of parent education classes, and then I became a certified parent educator after leading enough classes and taking enough professional development. So I’m still a journalist, but I’m also a certified parent educator, and I find that it’s such a privilege to do both. I’m always moved by how much parents invest in our children, how much time we spend thinking about and researching and talking to people about what our kids need and trying out different interventions or different strategies. And it’s just such a privilege to be able to serve the parent community, both as the journalist and as a coach and parent educator.
Rachel Cram – Well, and that comes through as I read your book. I’ve heard the phrase ‘News that you can use.’ You are reporting on what you’re researching and discovering, but you also feel you feeling it and experiencing it in a way that’s so deep and important to you as well. And I think those two worked together really beautifully in a parenting book because you get the news you can use, but also the heart and the practice of you doing it in your own life, which you do very sensitively because you’re telling about your kids but in a very caring way, which I’m sure was tricky.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes, they all read the parts of the book that involved them and gave their sign off before it was published.
Rachel Cram – Okay. Well, Katherine, I like to start interviews with the question that I’ve not forewarned you of. And you can listen to it and see if you want to have a go at it. Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I’ll show you the adult.”
And often I start interviews with this question because it’s a way to get to know you in a different way than the profession that you hold. And I’m wondering, is there a story or experience from your childhood that you see as formative in the person that you are today?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – That’s a great question. Well, I was a bookworm. I loved books. And I wrote in a diary and I wrote short stories. And when I was 14, I actually thought I wanted to be a special education teacher. So when I was 14, I read all of this narrative nonfiction, the kind of books that I love to read and write, about teachers who were working with emotionally disturbed children or kids who had been through trauma or who had learning disabilities. And I just found that branch of literature so moving and engaging that I wanted to do it as a profession. And when I was 16, I had a summer job at a camp for kids with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. And it was the hardest job I have ever had in my life. I realized I was not cut out, at least who I was then, I was not cut out to be giving hands on care. It was physically and emotionally so draining. And that’s when I sort of said, okay, I’m not going to be doing this. But it is interesting to me that after years in business journalism and science writing, I’ve come back to this topic of supporting the most vulnerable and the most challenging children, because it’s been this very deep interest of mine since I was certainly a young teenager.
Rachel Cram – Oh, isn’t that interesting how it all comes around in ways that you don’t control?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Right. I do think that our deep interests as children are pretty fixed. If we’re dreamers or builders or doers or relaters, a lot of that really stays with us. So I think fundamentally, a lot of our deep interests, our personality traits are 90% baked by age seven or so.
Rachel Cram – Well that actually leads really well into the impetus for your book as a support to understanding and appreciating who our kids are, how they’re baking and then supporting their unique journeys despite behaviors that cause us concern and might make us wonder where they’ll end up. So, let’s jump into that.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Ok great.
Rachel Cram – Well, in your book, I think you’re really addressing what you call a crisis of self-regulation. And you start right in the introduction with this really concerning study. It’s a study by the U.S. International Institute of Mental Health, and it revealed that one in two children will develop a mood or behavior disorder or a substance addiction before the age of 18. That ratio really surprised me, Katherine. That means half of my children, or half of the children in my childcare programs, statistically, will struggle with their mental health before they reach adulthood.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. So when I started my research for the book, I really wanted to understand why I was seeing so much, quote unquote, misbehavior in my family and the families around me and my community in the news. And one of the central questions that I was asking is, “Is this new?” The key question all journalists ask, “Is this something real? Is this something new?”
And that study from the National Institutes of Health really convinced me that it was prevalent, that 50% of children and adolescents are dealing with something pretty significant when it comes to managing their thoughts, behavior or emotions. And I hope that that is normalizing for anyone listening, because we all do have a unique set of personality traits and needs and brain chemistry that needs to be managed and the same holds for kids, right? If you’re dealing with a child who has severe anxiety or ADHD or depression or is self-harming or addicted to or abusing substances, it is not just you, right? We’re all dealing with a lot right now. So that study really convinced me I was onto something.
Rachel Cram – My guess is that listeners, like me, will be surprised by this ratio of one out of every two kids struggling with a mood or behavior disorder, or a substance addiction before they’re 18. And a logical question that comes to mind is, could it be that these higher rates are a result of how we diagnose? Could it be that the rates have not really increased, or increased that much, but medical professionals are just diagnosing differently now?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Well, yes. And of course, that’s a question I asked as well. And I’m sure that there is some element that we are either diagnosing better or perhaps there’s some small element of putting a name on something that wouldn’t have gotten a name 20 or 30 years ago. But the two really powerful research findings that I encountered that convinced me this is real. Number one is if you look at the suicide rates in young people and children, which have doubled or tripled depending on which age category you look at in the last 10 to 15 years. And hospital admissions for self-harm. Those are not something that you diagnose or don’t diagnose. Those are real findings that are dramatically increased. You can’t overdiagnose dead bodies. It’s really stark to say it that way. But I think it’s hard to grapple with the level of mental health distress that our children and teens are in. So it’s tempting to want to say, “Oh, someone’s getting worked up over it, or they just need a label.” So I think it’s important to just look at the facts.
And then the other really interesting study I found was a Russian study of children.
Rachel Cram – This is fascinating. Yeah.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – And where a group of scientists 60 years ago looked at children in preschool and kindergarten and asked them to stand perfectly still. And they timed how long they could stand still after an adult told them to do it.
And then they timed them again, telling them, “Pretend you’re a sentry guarding a palace and you have to stand perfectly still to protect the ruling family inside.”
And they found that when children are pretending as part of a game to be a sentry, they were able to stand still much longer. And that was the aim of their research, was to show how play is so central to childhood. That when our children are deeply engaged in play and pretend, that they have much more self-control. So the finding was really aimed at that.
But when the scientist replicated that study in the modern era, they were interested in that but more interested in how things had changed in 60 years. And they found that when they compared the children standing still with an adult instruction to 60 years ago, the amount of time that they would stand still had fallen dramatically. It was, again, depending on the age of the child, a quarter to a fifth as long, and the same proportion held for when kids were standing still as part of a game. Yes, they stood still longer, but they still could not stand still as long as the kids 60 years ago.
So something in our societies, right across the ocean, across the globe has changed so that children just have less self-regulation than they did at age 4 and 5, 60 years ago.
And those two really helped me understand that this is just a reality of our modern era, the world we live in now. I think a lot of people when they’re trying on new parenting approaches or mindsets, they feel this tension with grandparents or, even betraying their own childhood that they want their kids to have similar experiences. But we’re raising kids in such a different era that it’s okay to let go of the things from the past that are not going to serve us in the present while holding on to the core values and the memories and the beauty and the joy of our own childhoods.
Rachel Cram – Which is complicated.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes.
Musical Interlude #1
For highlighted quotes from our conversation with Katherine Reynolds Lewis, you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram. Find us at family360podcast and please leave a comment or DM us. We’d love to connect with you.
Rachel Cram – I read that study in the book, the Russian study, it was very interesting. I think as a parent, my mind can go to, “Okay, well if there’s a problem, then I can fix it. I can do something different to make this not be true for my kids so that my children, when they say one of every two kids are going to have these disorders, if I do it all right, then mine, they’ll be six kids other places in the world that will have these disorders because my six kids won’t.”
I think that I quickly jumped to that hope. And so one question would be are they diagnosing differently? But then I also think as a parent you could be thinking, well, is there something that parents are doing wrong and I’m not going to be doing wrong? Are children like this now because, for example, parents are not spending enough time with their kids? Can I counteract this by just spending more time with my kids, being a really good parent? And what would you say to that?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. Well, I went into this research with that same mindset and I have learned so much, especially being in community with disability justice activists who would probably object to framing an anxiety disorder as something entirely bad, or framing them as disorders at all. And I think as parents and humans, we need to recognize that we are all a bundle of traits. Anxiety exists for a reason. It’s our brains telling us there’s something to be careful of, cautious of, fearful of. And as a human species, the people who are the most anxious, they keep our bridges and tunnels safe, right, because they’re thinking about what is the worst case scenario.
It’s important to not think of it as, oh, how do I not get that bad thing? And instead say, we’re all going to have some trait or circumstance that challenges us. And the key is not how do we avoid the worst one? As if there were some ranking of good life, best life, better life, and we’re trying to push our kids into the good life. But how do we see the child that we have and love them 100% unconditionally and accept even the challenging pieces of who they are so that they can accept themselves?
They have to love and accept themselves and we are their model for how to do that. So I struggle with this myself because there’s part of me that wants my child to have a worry-free, obstacle free life, but I know it’s impossible.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, when your saying impossible you mean, impossible to ‘fix’ or impossible to control’ our child’s environment so they don’t develop a disorder?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. It truly is impossible. First of all, parents, we have a lot of influence, but we don’t have a ton of control. So you get the kid you get. There’s a lot that happens between age 0 and age 18 that we can do to help that child have all the tools and strategies that will help them succeed to the best of their ability. And there’s a lot that is just baked in. So the more that we see it not as, “If I do this because I’m this all powerful parent, then we’ll avoid some terrible fate.”
And instead try to get to know your child. Parenting is really a relationship. It’s not a set of activities or strategies that we use. I mean, sometimes it feels like that, but ultimately we are relating to another human being and that is a lifelong journey. It doesn’t end at 18 or 25, and the more we lay the groundwork early that we are trying to understand this person, help them understand themselves so that they can figure out, “How can I best contribute my unique skills and perspective to find purpose in work, to create deep and meaningful relationships and find a way to have an impact on our world.”
That’s really the job of parenting is to help our kids figure out who they are and how they’re going to make a difference. It’s not to try to put a finger on the scale to make them somehow different than they are.
Rachel Cram – As I was digging into your book a thought came to my mind that in the 1950s and 1960s there was this power structure of ‘Dad’s’ at work. He has a boss. He does what the boss tells him to do. He comes home and tells his wife what to do, which is cringy to say out loud now. And then the mom’s the boss of the children, they do what she says and the hierarchy shuffles down.
Nowadays, a good boss is not a dictator, but someone who is collaborative. And now, a woman is not submissive to her husband in obedience but is an equal partner in the relationship.
Yet, the last part of that chain of change has been in how we relate to our children because it’s easy to fall into discipline being about obedience, about getting our kids to do what we want them to do, and that the sign of a good parent is a parent who can get their child to do what they want them to do.
And so perhaps this is a necessary part of that ongoing hierarchical change in the family and society and we need to change to a more healthy way of relating to our children.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. Amen, sister. We say at the Parent Encouragement Program, “When Dad lost control of Mom, they both lost control of the kids.”
Rachel Cram – Oh! That’s loaded. Why do you say that? Say more.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Because it’s a shorthand way of saying exactly what you just said, that women and people of color have only in the last century gained some pretense of equal rights. So it’s still relatively new that we have this notion of equality in our world. And so there has been a civil rights movement for racial justice. There has been a women’s rights movement. There’s been a gay liberation movement, disability justice movement. So it’s about time for the children to get their movement. And when you talk to children today, they see it. They are frustrated with the way that we adults have mucked up the world. And they’re ready. They’re ready to lead. So I love some of the youth leaders of today because they are really seeing everyone else had their civil rights movement. Where’s ours?
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Well, and those movements are still so moving. They haven’t settled and landed into any firm foundations. So no wonder this is hard. The women’s rights, the racial rights, the LGBTQ+ rights, I mean, they’re all still moving so much. And now we bring in children, which absolutely we should. So there’s a lot of shifting ground, in all these movements which makes it unsteady and complicated for the children and for all of us.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. And I think what you said is really the key, is for us to change our perception of what our job is as parents. It’s not to control or make our kids come out a certain way as if that were even possible. We want to help prepare them for the world.
Musical Interlude #2
If you’d like to connect further with Katherine Reynolds Lewis, or if you’d like to read a written transcript of this conversation, find links at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
Rachel Cram – So you saw this crisis of self-regulation in your own kids, in schools, in society – you read the report from the US National Institute of Mental Health – and you were curious and concerned. So, you played your celebrated journalistic card and who did you find to study and what did you discover?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – So once I had identified some of the research and science behind this rise in behavioral and mental health challenges, I just started looking for people who were trying to solve it. And as a journalist, I believe that humans learn through story. And the perfect story for me is a combination of data, research and narrative.
So I had the data and I wanted to build the narrative. So I just cast a wide net and as I was researching this and interviewing people, I pretty early on realized that I was shifting in terms of my framing of the problem itself, my framing of ‘the problem is kids are out of control.’ Which is how I started this research. ‘Kids can’t manage their behavior, thoughts or emotions. They have really high rates of mental illness. This is a problem. They’re out of control. How do we make them do what they should?’
And I realized that was the wrong question. Right. The question parents should not ask is, “How do I make my kid do what I want?”
It’s, “What is going to give them the skills that they need to manage their thoughts, behaviors and emotions.”
So as soon as my framing shifted to that, I started looking around for people who were doing this. Who out there is actually in a rigorous and intense way building the skills that kids need to manage their thoughts, behavior and emotions.
Rachel Cram – And then, after an extraordinary amount of research and question asking, you landed on four, what you call “Successful Discipline Models” And they are, I think intentionally, very diverse from each other. Very different ways of coming at self-regulation, but all have documented extraordinary results. Can you give a quick introduction to each?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Sure. So the Parent Encouragement program is one of them.
Rachel Cram – This is the program you and your partner now help facilitate in Maryland?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Right. They have tens of thousands of parents they’ve served, and they’ve been around for 30 years teaching parent education with an Adlerian psychology model. So their focus is really on helping kids be ‘can do’ as opposed to behaving or being obedient. And I started looking in education for people who were really transforming school discipline, which is a huge challenge. And school is definitely a place where most educators think of obedience. Classroom management looks like ‘kids sitting in their desks behaving.’ And that’s, again, the sign of a good teacher is you walk into their classroom and the children are behaving. There’s an expectation about what that looks like.
So one of the first people who I was really drawn to was Dr. Ross Greene, who has a model that he calls collaborative and proactive solutions, where he teaches educators and parents and sheriffs and wardens in youth facilities, how to work with children to help them identify the skills they were missing and develop them in order to behave the way that the situation demands. And so I wrote a story about him for Mother Jones magazine that went viral.
Rachel Cram – That was that was the article, I think that I read in the first place. Yeah. Can you even just tell a little bit about what he discovered? Because it was very profound. He was working with kids in very, very difficult situations.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Right. So Dr. Ross Greene, his focus is the most challenging and oppositional children. So the kid who’s knocking over a desk and fleeing the classroom or who ends up in a juvenile justice lockup because of truancy or delinquency. And he actually started in locked psychiatric wards where there was a lot of restraints. So children who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to in a psychiatric hospital may be tied down or physically restrained by the nurses and staff. And he started working in those units and bringing this new perspective that instead of the goal being to control the child, the goal was to help work with the child to identify what is getting in their way. And he was so successful in those inpatient units that the level of restraints actually dropped to zero.
Rachel Cram – Which is amazing.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Both physical and chemical restraints. So sometimes they’re giving kids sedatives or tranquilizers to try to calm them down to a level where they will behave. And because the children were part of the process of identifying what’s getting in your way, is it because we go straight from a meal into the TV room and it’s too noisy for you and you need a break? Or is it this particular other kid who sets you off and the two of you need to just keep to your own corners? And working with the kids to really tease out what was the trigger that was leading to their challenging behavior they were able to completely eliminate the use of restraints.
And then he introduced it to all of the juvenile facilities in Maine and recidivism dropped dramatically, I want to say, by 60%.
Rachel Cram – Recidivism? This is a really important term when it comes to changing behaviors. What does it mean in this situation? What does recidivism mean?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – So often when kids are released, they haven’t learned anything new. They’ve been in a facility unable to move freely for three months or two years or whatever it is. And then they go back right out and do the same thing because they haven’t learned any new skills that help them to manage themselves better, to avoid situations that are going to get them in trouble, to understand themselves. And because of his work in these facilities, recidivism dropped, the number of staff restraints dropped, the number of injuries dropped. And one of the wardens I spoke to who was so moving, he said, “I feel like I’m actually helping kids now. I’m not sore at the end of the day from physically wrestling with them. I have a relationship with them.”
So I followed Dr. Greene and some educators who were using his model in Maine and that led to my story in Mother Jones.
Rachel Cram – And it’s so worth a read for anyone who what’s to know more about Dr. Greene’s work and your journalism too Katherine. And we’ll be delighted to put a link to that along with your book on your episode page on our family360 website. Such a compelling story and so well written.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Oh, thank you. I really care about this stuff. I really feel passionate about it.
Rachel Cram – That’s awesome. That’s so good. It’s very profound. Okay. So you looked at four successful discipline models. The first one was the Parent Encouragement Program, which you became a part of. The second one was the work of Dr. Ross Greene and his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions program. What was the third one that you looked at or that resonated with you?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – So, I wanted a balance of home and school and I didn’t only want to use the one parent education program that I was part of. So Vickie Hoeffel is another parent educator who I really admire, and so I went to follow her work. So she has the ‘say-nothing-do-nothing week’ as part of her model that for a week parents should just not boss, nag, remind, beg, cajole, bargain with, all of these strategies that we use as parents to try to get our kids to do what we want. For one week, we don’t do anything.
And that’s a diagnostic week that helps us learn what our kids can do and will do. So she encourages the parents that work with her to make three categories during that week. One is the things that your child can do independently and does, and that is a list you may never interfere with again because they are independent. They’re learning those things. They may not be perfect, but they can do them and they need to practice them.
The second category is things that your child can do but won’t. So yes, they can take their ice cream bowl to the sink and put it in the dishwasher, but they don’t. And that’s that category for agreements, family agreements, family routines. How are we going to come to an agreement that this thing that you’re able to do, you are not doing and our family needs it to be done.
And then the third category is the things that your child cannot yet do. And that’s an area for training and skill growth and learning. And she says that in the do-nothing-say-nothing-week teachers can tell when do-nothing-say-nothing week has started because kids come in with mismatched clothes and forgot their lunch and the teachers love it because they recognize this is the beginning of that path to independence rather than, you know, my son is going off to college and there are some of his peers who their parents still make their lunches and buy their clothes and all of the things that we want our young adults to do themselves. If you keep doing it, they will not learn.
Rachel Cram – Right. So, this is about letting your child go to school with unbrushed hair, no jacket, without their homework, whatever unfolds in that week because they only figure out how that plays out if you let it play out. And that’s really the heart of her model. And it’s fascinating and undoubtedly scary for parents, but very effective.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Very effective. And it’s not like that one week change does everything, but it gives you a starting point to build from.
Rachel Cram – So those three so far that you’ve listed are all quite different discipline models, but effective. What was the last one?
Katherine Reyolds Lewis – So the last one, I wanted another one in schools, and I did probably,100 hours in schools observing teachers and observing professional development for educators, just trying to find something that really seemed to be aligned with this new mindset that the goal is not to get kids to obey, but to teach them self-control. And the PAX Good Behavior game was the one that I ended up focusing on because it does have this 20 year history where they can look at children who had this experience of the PAX good behavior game in first grade and then at high school graduation age, they had really powerful results that just one year of playing this game in their classroom led to statistically significant reductions in teen pregnancy, drug use, dropout, delinquency and higher rates of high school graduation, college attainment, employment. It was almost like an inoculation for behavior that if the kids at age six or seven or eight, whatever the year was, but in this study it was age six, they had this inoculation of learning how to control their impulses in the context of a game that they had these really long-standing positive impacts.
Rachel Cram – Okay. So you found these four successful discipline models, you sifted all that through and thought, “What are the consistent elements in each of these models?” And you came down to three.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. Right. And the three commonalities in all those approaches were a focus, number one, on connection as the foundation for self-regulation. Number two, communicating with a child in ways that are building self-regulation. And then three, a focus on capability building so that we see our kids as contributors to the household, to the community, to our broader world, who are building capability.
Rachel Cram – And you’ve called the combination of those three communities; connection, communication and capability building, an ‘Apprentice Approach’, as opposed to an obedience approach.
Can we break those down one by one? Can you start off with talking a little bit about connection? You say in your book, “The moment your child seems most unlovable is exactly the moment when they need connection the most.”
What does that look like as it plays out in a family?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Well, it is so powerful the way that our kid’s co-regulate with us. It’s natural that when they’re agitated, upset, yelling, frustrated, you feel it in your body. Right? We feel it when they are out of sync and when they’re dysregulated. And if we respond by getting upset ourselves, “Where is that chemistry paper?” and rushing around the house frantically, then they get even more amped up because they’re responding to our physiology.
On the other hand, if we can find our Zen, pull ourselves together, try to regulate our breathing, our heart rate, not give in to that vicious cycle of dysregulation, we are going to have a better chance of helping our kids either stay regulated or re-regulate so that they can think logically about whatever the challenge is.
If there is a meltdown or a panic attack or a tantrum, if we can stay calm, that is the most helpful thing that we can do as parents. So all the other perfect things that we potentially could do to stop it in its tracks, throw those out the window. That is not the goal. The goal is for us to stay calm so we can help our child calm down.
Over time, it looks like really seeing our kids, getting to know them, connecting with the person that they are not the person we wish they would be. So that could look like, watching far too many tiktoks that I do not find funny to try to understand the sense of humor of Generation Z. I still don’t always get it, but I want to learn. It can look like playing the umpteenth game of Candyland because your child just loves it, even though it’s boring to you because that’s what connection is for kids. It’s sharing their interests and really getting to know who they are as a person.
Rachel Cram – In those moments when our kids are dysregulated and they’re needing us the most. What have you seen tend to be the default reactions that parents go to, or that you go to. But just to highlight that for parents, because I think sometimes it’s helpful to know, ‘this is what you don’t want to do and what you do want to do is connect.’
So what are some of the more typical responses when a child is really dysregulated?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Right. It’s hard for parents to tolerate our children’s distress. And I think that’s one of the most important skills for us as parents to build, is the ability to see our child upset, dysregulated, crying, and not want to stop it. So that’s the first step is to recognize “I want to stop this,” and then to not.
So stopping it could look like dismissing, like “Stop crying. You’re fine. Why are you upset?”
It could be a punishment. It could be “Go to the timeout,” or it could be trying to solve it for them. Like, I’ll do it for you. So all of those are ways that we are trying to help our kids. But ultimately the most valuable thing we can do is to just be there with them, trying to stay calm and wait until they’re able to participate in the next step. The solution.
We often go right to solution. Whether it’s, “Stop crying, stop fighting, behave,” or, “I’ll do it for you, honey, calm down. You won’t have to do that hard thing that’s making you distressed.”
We need to prepare the child for the path rather than the path for the child, as the saying goes. We want to let our children experience what it means to be upset and to recognize that they don’t have to shove down those emotions because we’re fine with them. And when the storm passes, we’ll be there to help them pick up the pieces.
Musical interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with journalist and author, Katherine Reynolds Lewis. There’s more to come.
In our next episode, we’re returning to a 2020 conversation with Gila Golub called Life Through the Lens of Lineage with a bonus re-visit to Gila for further questions that have been building in our minds ever since we originally spoke. We’re exploring how each of us is affected by family secrets and trauma, whether we know about them or not. And how to break the cycle of their impact on further generations. Join us for this newly extended conversation.
And now, back to our conversation with Katherine Reynolds Lewis and concluding thoughts about “the good news about bad behaviors,” Recognizing them as opportunities to address and build our child’s self-regulation.
Rachel Cram – Ok, so ‘connection’ was a consistent key for building self-regulation when you analyzed these four behavioral models, as was ‘communication’.
Can you give an example of communication that nurtures self-regulation?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. So a lot of our communication with our kids is in this directing, ordering, bossing category. And the more we can find other ways to communicate, the more we’re going to help our kids build those self-regulation skills. So, you know, the child comes home from school. “I hate Emma, she’s a poopy face, she’s not coming to my birthday.”
A lot of us, I plead guilty, would say, “She’s your best friend. Of course you have to invite her to your birthday party.”
Instead of saying, “Wow, you’re upset.” Naming an emotion. Right. Helping them even just to understand what they’re feeling and then asking questions. “What happened that made you so angry or upset or frustrated?”
So we’re doing two things in that moment. We’re helping build our child’s emotional vocabulary and their own awareness of what they’re experiencing. And we’re learning more about their world. What was it that happened? And in that process of asking those questions, we can also help them reflect on, “Oh, why do you think Emma didn’t sit with you at lunch? What was she doing instead?”
“Oh, you don’t know? I wonder what she could have been doing?” And help them to broaden their own understanding of the incident. So there are so many skills in communication; reflective listening, questioning, being a non-reactive presence. As my friend Ned Johnson writes about in his book, The Self-Driven Child, there are so many things that we can do as we communicate with our kids that build those self-regulation skills.
Rachel Cram – And The Self-Driven child is a great resource for more on communication. Thank you. That’s great. So when you looked at, just a recap, when you looked at four successful models for helping children learn self-regulation, you saw that they all contained connection, they all contained communication, and I think this is helpful because parents are all going to find their own models. But I think to know that if your model includes these elements, then it’s a good model to keep considering.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Exactly. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – Ok, good. The third key was capability. And you wrote this, “Take the time and effort to ‘appreciate’ your kids’ household maintenance capabilities. Kids usually act up because they feel useless – not able to contribute to the family or the classroom – or because they lack emotional awareness and skills.”
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Yes. So that is really involving our children as capable, contributing members of the household and community. And it falls into two categories. One is those social and emotional skills that they are building and becoming more capable at frustration-tolerance, impulse-control, organization, problem-solving, all of the skills that they need to successfully ‘adult’.
And then the other piece is the actual acts in the household or in the community that are contributing. So whether it’s making their bed or helping cook a family meal or helping a neighbor with their trash cans. The ways that they can demonstrate and build capability.
Kids want to ‘do’ right from the time your child turns two and they start saying, “I do it myself.” They want to do things, be capable, contribute, build skills, and we just need to get out of their way. Don’t say “I’ll do it for you. Don’t spill.”
“Would you like to learn how to pour milk without spilling?” Help them to learn how to do all of these things that they want to do unless they hear enough times, “Let me do it for you. You’re too messy or too slow or too imperfect.”
So it’s really very natural for kids from the time they want to crawl. They just have this drive to do all those things that they see older kids and adults doing. And if we can be their guide and mentor, they’ll love to contribute to the household as well.
Rachel Cram – You have a really sweet story in your book about asking your youngest daughter Ava, about making you a turkey quesadilla. Do you remember this story? I thought it was a great sample because I can picture her as the youngest, probably not being the one that was expected to help you out in this way and how meaningful that was. Do you want to share that story?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Sure. Yeah. I was driving home from a work event and I had to change quickly and then go to an event at that school. And I knew I needed to eat because I’m one of these people who needs regular infusions of calories. So I called home and I thought I would get my son or somebody else in the household who loves to cook.
Rachel Cram – One of the older people.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Right. My husband, my son, my mom, our oldest daughter, they love cooking. But instead, Ava picked up and Ava was about 8 years old at that time, and I had just come back from watching Vickie Hoeffel and the families that work with her. Like these kids were chopping wood at age five and folding laundry at age three and I was just humiliated that my kids were not anywhere near that capable. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
And I said, “Ava, I’m running late. I won’t have time to make myself food. Would you be willing to make me a quesadilla?
And she said, “Sure. How do you make it?”
And I gave her, you know, the four-step instructions for making a microwave quesadilla and came home to find a quesadilla on a little paper plate with a folded napkin. And she had written out the four steps. She was beaming and I was so happy that I hadn’t let my idea of who she was, interfere with the person that she really could be.
Rachel Cram – Well, Katherine, I know that our time is running out. And I’m wondering if I can just spend the last few moments talking to you about changing old parenting habits. You say, “Your children are observing you every second of the day. Behave in the way you hope they will behave themselves when they are raising your grandchildren.”
That’s a daunting way to think about it. How do we want our kids to raise our grandchildren? So, how do we change poor parenting habits? How do we move away from an obedience model, which is so familiar for so many of us, into an apprenticeship model?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Well, I actually think starting right there with that 25 years into the future view, it can be very helpful because whenever we zoom out from the immediate moment that seems so fraught and we think about looking back on this in two months or ten years or 30 years, ‘what will I want to experience at this moment,’ helps us to put in perspective. It helps us to calm our own bodies and to put in perspective, this moment is only one moment, right? So we can handle it in any number of ways.
Some people are really able to just say, “Oh, this isn’t serving me. I’m going to just adopt something new.”
And then some people need the support of a parenting class or a book study or a group of people who are also going through the same experience. I find that very valuable, you know a weekly book group or a parenting class where you are reflecting in community with other people who are also trying to change.
Many successful models like Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous are around this peer support. I think that’s really helpful, to pay attention, and to keep track of your change and growth because we measure what matters. And if you’re paying attention to it and tracking it and measuring it, that will help you see when you do change.
I will also say sleep is so key to being the parent you want to be because we are all better when we are fully rested. If there’s only one thing you could do to become a better parent, I would say, get a full night’s sleep. Because the days when I’ve lost it, when I haven’t been the parent I wanted to be, are invariably the days when I am not well-rested.
So habit change is slow, it really does boil down to this process like potty training. Right. In the book, I use this analogy I.
Rachel Cram – I was just about to actually say to you can use the potty training analogy. So that’s great. This is a great way to close. How is parenting like potty training?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Well, you know, at first it’s all kind of a mess, right? You’re just like peeing all over the floor and everyone’s having a meltdown and you’re not having your best day and you go to bed crying.
Rachel Cram – You’re leaking out everywhere.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – Right. And I really want to just say I have so much empathy for parents right now. We’re in such a difficult time. I can understand people being anxious and fearful and not their best selves. And our kids need us to be our best selves. So whatever it takes, parenting is the greatest personal growth opportunity because we change when we have to and our kids need us to be the best parents that we can be.
So if you haven’t been the parent you want to be, you can start today, with one new thing that you’re going to do differently and give yourself credit for that change.
So at first, it’s a mess, you’re peeing all over the floor and then you notice and you start heading to the toilet and you’re still peeing all over the floor. But at least in the process, for example, of yelling at your child, you recognize, “Oh, I’m yelling. I did not want to do this. I said I wasn’t going to yell anymore.”
And then the next time maybe you catch yourself right before you yell, you know, you race to the bathroom and you’re on the toilet. So it’s just getting better and better at identifying what are the triggers that are about to happen, and interrupting whatever is the cycle that you want to change so that you can develop different habits. And it does take time.
Rachel Cram – We need our own self-regulation around that.
Well, Katherine, I thank you so much for your time today. I can’t think of a more down-to-earth practical example than ending with parenting is potty training.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis – I love it. Well, Rachel, thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a lovely conversation. I’ll look forward to hearing it. And thank you so much for all the care and thought and time you put into this. It’s really the most thorough podcast I’ve ever been interviewed for, so I’m really grateful.
Rachel Cram – Oh, good. Well, I really enjoyed reading your book and this conversation. I really did.
Thank you so much.
By Billy Collins
As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.
Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.
The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their partners are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are major Sillypants.