On a recent episode of How To!, Charles Duhigg brought a listener’s (and his own) parenting anxieties to Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the New York Times bestselling author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. They talked about how many parents overprotect, overindulge, and overschedule their kids—and how they can learn to chill out. Some highlights of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, are below.
Be a fellow traveler, not a helicopter.
Wendy Mogel: If we solve every small problem for our kids, we see the pattern that we’re now seeing in college students, who are attached by an electronic tether to their parents and asking them questions like “Mom, could you take a look at this apple? I’m just going to turn on FaceTime so you can see it. Should I eat this part over here, or is that not a good part to eat?”
Charles Duhigg: I want to be a fellow traveler with my kids, but I have all this advice! I have 44 years of good advice.
Mogel: Not for 2019, Charles, you don’t. We want to learn from them and then take all our life experience and blend it with their knowledge of this moment. And that’s how we make our decisions.
You’re probably more worried than your kids are.
Duhigg: I have an 11-year-old named Ollie, and this summer he went to this camp where they fight with foam swords and they’re assigned to groups based on Greek mythology. It’s Brooklyn. But when I dropped him off each morning, I would get worried because he didn’t seem like he was socializing enough with the other kids. Some of the kids are playing swords with each other, and Ollie goes and sits on the wall. And I want to go over and be like, “No, no. Ollie, go play with those kids. They want to be friends with you. You should go be friends with them.” What should I do?
Mogel: You sound so sad, and slightly hopeless, and you felt much worse than Ollie feels when he’s watching them.
Duhigg: I’m actually the problem. It’s not that Ollie doesn’t want to go play with the other kids. It’s that he has a father who keeps on hectoring him.
Mogel: We all do this. Every single one of us does this every day as parents because it’s all trial and error. Some kids are slower to warm—they just need time to rev up and figure out how to join the group. But you just have this little snapshot, and so in your eyes, he is the lonely, lost boy who will never get to engage in swordplay. And at the end of the day, you want a little reassurance so that you can sleep through the night. “OK. Ollie, did you do any swordplay? Did you play with anybody, or did you sit by yourself the whole entire day, and actually were there tears?”
Duhigg: No, you’re right. That’s what I do. I’m the worst.
Mogel: Does he not want to go to camp?
Duhigg: No. He loves camp.
Mogel: Yes. Just write that on a note and put it in your pocket.
Don’t try to solve nonexistent problems.
Mogel: Three-quarters of the parents who come to see me are not coming about problems. They’re coming with anticipatory anxiety. “What if this is the wrong school? What if he doesn’t make friends? What if he doesn’t have a good teacher?” And then they’ll ask the children if they like their teacher. I say never, never ask your child that because someday we want them to learn how to get along with difficult people. They’re going to have an unenlightened, uninspired boss one day. This is good for them. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for them. So if kids are having trouble making friends, what the parents can say is “Wow” or “Tell me more,” and let them speak without interrupting with advice or guidance or recommendations until they make a statement with a question mark at the end.
Duhigg: Instead of solving the problem, you just give them an opportunity to suggest new alternatives for themselves.
Mogel: And you don’t do it in an annoying shrinky-like voice. You don’t say, “Hmm,” or put your finger on your chin. You’re engaged, but you’re treating them as though you have confidence that they have the tools somewhere inside to solve this. And you can say to them, “Have you ever been in a situation like this before? What did you do? How did it turn out? What are you thinking of trying? What’s your next step? What’s your plan?”
Duhigg: Like I actually want to know what the answer is, not that I have an answer in mind and I’m waiting for them to guess it. I am actually curious—how are they going to solve this?
Mogel: You are curious, respectful, and calm. What I see so often is escalation of anxiety until the parent is at the point where they drunk-text the principal or the head of the school.
Use this trick to get kids to talk about their days.
Duhigg: Those pointed questions we ask, oftentimes without understanding it, sometimes become interrogations—as you put it, that we are interviewing for pain. We’re asking questions like “Was Jimmy mean to you again today? Did you like your lunch?” Our natural instinct as parents, because we’re caring, is to try and find these moments when our kids aren’t happy and try and help them solve it. But oftentimes our kids are just exhausted.
Mogel: Our job as parents and educators of certainly girls, but especially right now young boys, is to be enchanted with their enchantment. … When you pick your kid up at school, put down your device and say, “I thought about you today when I saw anything that they talk to you about,” if you came across something that connects their passion and their great store of information that they just treasure with your day, so that they know—these emotionally sensitive creatures—that you hold them in mind when you’re not together. It means so much to them. And it’s really a magic trick. It really works.
Let your kid experience stress.
Mogel: A surprising, sort of paradoxical way to do this comes from the brilliant research of a Norwegian child development specialist named Ellen Sandseter. Her premise is that without exposure to danger, children will be more fearful. She lists specific things that children need in order to become appropriately daring, confident, and resilient: to be at great heights from which they could fall and harm themselves, to be near bodies of water where they could drown, to be near fire, to travel at great speed. And this is the tricky one for all of us: wayfinding.
Duhigg: But there’s a right way and a wrong way to stress your kid, and we have to be mindful of the difference.
Mogel: There are signs to look for: a child who’s been previously dry at night who starts wetting, lots of complaints about tummy aches and headaches, loss of pleasure in activities that were previously very satisfying to the child, loss of exuberance. Then you can consider that your child has too much stress. If you’re not seeing those things, then we accept that it’s exactly like the way you build muscle—you have to stress the muscle, and actually tear it slightly, for it to become stronger.
To listen to the entire episode, including Duhigg’s interview with parents of an introverted kid, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.