How To Stress Your Kid the Right Way

Listen to this episode

S1: If we run in and say oh he squirted you in the face and I’m so sorry that happened and what can we do so that will never happen again. Walter it’s never going to have any fun and none of the boys are going to want to hang out with him. What else are you supposed to do with squirt guns squirted in the sink.

S2: Welcome to how too. I’m Charles doing. Each week we talk to listeners who are trying to figure out how to solve one of life’s problems like how to survive a pandemic or how to decide to have a baby. And then we do some research and we track down an expert and we get their advice to see if it helps.


S3: This week we’re talking to some parents who’ve already decided to have a kid. And in fact he’s five years old but they want to know more about how to raise him right. USA. Hi Walter. Hi. Walter is a little shy and he’s just starting kindergarten. He lives in Portland Oregon with his parents Bob and Jill and they’re grappling with a question that a lot of parents spend hours agonizing over how do we raise kids to be resilient.

S4: Is there a right way to stress Walter to let him struggle and fail so that eventually he’ll know how to deal with problems on his own.

S5: You know once once you can provide safety and food and shelter and all that kind of stuff you know it’s all about that balance between making your kid happy now and making your kids successful in the future. And so that that’s kind of why I reached out to you is just to figure out when’s the right time to step in and when’s the right time to struggle.


S6: Yeah especially with him going into you kindergarten and preschool we got a bunch of the feedback as far as well you know he’s a little hesitant and you know doesn’t necessarily want to try and you think you’re doing a good job of of challenging him right now of letting him kind of struggle on his own or do you feel like you’re stepping in too much.

S5: I don’t know. You know some days I feel like I’ll do a good job of that. Some days I feel like I’m being too much of the SnowPlow Parent.

S7: Bob and Jill spent a lot of time thinking about how they can help Walter succeed as he as he gets older which is obviously great but it’s also a sign of how much the times have changed because odds are good that you as a parent yourself you’re way more worried about your kids than say your parents were worried about you when you were a kid. Every generation of Americans surpassed the loss until now. So we look ahead at the future and we’re very concerned for our children. This is Dr. Wendy mobile. Parents are having children at older ages than their parents did. Parents feel their own mortality. There are so many reasons that we feel it’s a little bit of a zero sum game for them.


S8: It’s a scarcity economy and we better get him ready and armor them with a thick layer of skills plus a lot of daily happiness all day long every day plus they need to learn how to clean their rooms.

S9: I turn to Dr. model because she’s spent the last few decades researching how to raise kids the right way but both as a mom herself and a practicing child psychologist.


S10: And she’s written these books about what she’s discovered including one called the blessing of a skinned knee.

S11: So my mission is the promotion of self-reliance and exuberance in children and particularly in young boys.

S12: So before you write the books what are you seeing that makes you think there’s even a need for this.


S11: What I was seeing is over protection overindulgence over scheduling and parents who were afraid of and afraid for their children. So the parents would wish for their children to be superb students very well behaved really popular athletic and good looking and in student government from birth. I feel like you’re describing what I want from. You because we’ve all drank the Kool-Aid. I had a dad Charles in one of my audiences say to me I fought with the pediatrician over my son’s Apgar score and I won and I just thought really what did you win.

S12: Well and let me ask you because you have your own children while you’re doing this practice and you’re kind of seeing this like Did you recognize any of this in yourself.


S11: Oh all of it completely. I wrote all three of these books to talk myself into doing the things I was guiding my patients to do.

S1: So what we want to do is to be fellow travelers but if we solve every small problem for them we see the pattern that we’re now seeing 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 face time so you can see it should I eat this part over here or is that not good party.


S12: Okay. So let me let me ask you this though if I have a five year old or if I have my eight year old male 11 year old and I want to be a fellow traveler with them but I do have all this advice right.


S13: I mean I have great advice. I have 44 years of good advice in my narrow any 19. Charles you don’t. So yes and no. 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.

S14: Okay. So I’m going to be totally honest here. I reached out to Dr. Miguel to help Walter’s parents but also because I have so many anxieties about my own parenting. And so I asked Dr. McGill about this situation involving one of my own kids. I have an 11 year old named Ollie and this last summer he went to this camp where they did like fight with foam swords and they’re assigned to groups based on Greek mythology. You know. It’s Brooklyn. But so 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. So they’re all like some of the kids I like playing swords with each other and all he goes and he sits on the sits on the wall.


S15: And I want to go over and be like you know all I could play with those kids. They want to be friends with you you shouldn’t be friends with them. First of all none of that is true. So what to.

S14: How do I know that he’s going to have more fun if he goes plays for those kids.


S1: Oh I wish you could hear your tone right this second. You sounded so sad and slightly helpless and you felt much worse than all only feels when he’s watching them.

S12: I’m actually the problem. It’s not that all he doesn’t want to go play with the other kids it’s that he has a father who keeps on pestering him.


S1: 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 again 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 then at the end of the day you want a little reassurance so that you can sleep through the night. Okay.

S13: Ali did you do any swordplay. Did you play with anybody or did you sit by yourself. No entire day right. That’s what I would in here. I’m the worst. Does he not want to go to camp. No he loves camp.


S16: Yes. Just write that on a note and put it in your pocket.

S17: When we come back Wendy Gives notes to Walter’s parents Bob and Jill and we’ll talk about a harrowing moment in young Walter’s life involving a squirt gun. That’s all after the break.

S18: We go back downstairs U.S.A. goodbye.

S12: Hey Walter can I can I ask you one more question before you leave. Are you Are you excited to start kindergarten next week OK you need to step here and say something nice for an interview.


S18: Go yes or no. All right. Thanks but.

S12: And you guys moved Walter to a new school for kindergarten so. So it sounds like you wanted him to have the best education possible. Yeah. And how are you feeling about it.


S19: Well I’m I’m a little bit nervous about it really. But mostly he wants to ride the bus the first day.

S5: So you know I’m just worried about him riding the bus and getting there and then freaking out and you know he can be a pretty shy kid when he’s he’s not comfortable and him not being able to tell people what’s going on.

S19: So that’s that’s where I’m nervous.

S12: Yeah. No I think that’s totally natural. So let me tell you. Let me tell you what Wendy said.

S1: She said 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. And I say never never ask your child that because some day we want them to learn how to get along with difficult people and they’re going to have an unenlightened uninspired bus one day. This is good for them. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for them. So if Walter is having trouble making friends what the parents can say is wow. Or tell me more and let Walter speak without interrupting with advice or guidance or recommendations until he makes a statement with a question mark at the end huh.


S12: Instead of solving the problem you just kind of give them an opportunity to suggest new alternatives for themselves and you don’t do it in an annoying shrinky like voice.

S1: OK. So you don’t say. Or you know put your finger on your chin throw you in gauged 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.

S12: Look I actually want to know what the answer is like not not that I have an answer in mind and I’m waiting for them to guess it. I’m actually curious like how are they going to solve this.

S1: You were curious respectful and calm. Yeah because 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.

S14: But I think hopefully both I and Bob and Jill can stay away from drunk texting.

S15: Yes. And the other piece I would say to Walter’s parents is get him to school on time or early pick him up on time. And to say to him Walter I thought about you today when. And then fill in the blank instead of. OK. How was school today. And it was better than yesterday or a little bit.

S14: This is actually one of my favorite pieces of advice from Wendy about how to get your kid to talk about their day at school because and I’m guessing you are just like me getting my kids to tell me what they do each day is like getting someone to reveal state secrets. They just won’t tell me.


S4: And of course when I ask what they did and they say nothing or I don’t know or they didn’t do anything today it just makes me makes it crazy right now I want to really know what they did today. And Bob and Jill they said Walter is exactly the same way oh yeah he he’s he’s an introvert.

S20: And by the end of the day he’s tired and he’s useless he’s not ready to talk till bedtime basically.

S6: Part of the problem is we had Walter and I had such a long commute home you know with traffic it was 45 minutes on a good day. And so we would have a lot of conversation. So by the time his dad got home. He was like I already talked to somebody I’m done. But I definitely have to pull different information out and this is kind of a little some of that silly. Well you know tell me about your favorite thing today. I didn’t have any favorites. Oh OK. You had no favorites. So let’s see. You didn’t like going outside of the playground. Well no I liked that. OK. Would you do on the playground. Nothing. Are you sure you didn’t go down the slide. Not at all. Oh well I did that. OK. Well what did you do after the slide. Usually you know you have to ask so many of those questions. I have to remember to keep them very open ended but pointed. If that makes sense.

S12: So it’s interesting that you mention that because that’s one of the things that I I discussed with Wendy. And she actually had these two pieces of advice that were kind of interesting and I’m I’m wondering what you guys think about them. The first one that she said is you know those questions that we ask oftentimes without understanding it. You said you know I ask pointed questions that for kids those pointed questions they sometimes become sort of almost interrogations as when you put it that we are interviewing for pain without without intending to and without even realizing it that we’re asking questions about like you know was was Jimmy was he mean to you again today. Did you. Did you like your lunch or you know that we we 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 that oftentimes our kids are just exhausted.


S11: And I was I was in a bookstore and a mother was complaining that her son was only interested in fortnight videogames nothing else nothing else. And I said nothing. And she said Well yeah one other thing. And I said What is that. And she said the Revolutionary War. And I said Oh really. What does he know about the Revolutionary War.

S1: And she said muzzle loading flint lock muskets because they have a bayonet attached. And I said to her our job as parents and educators of certainly girls but especially right now young boys is to be enchanted with their enchantment. And I said to her did you know about muzzle loading flintlock muskets with bayonets attached before you met him. And she sort of a bash Ridley looked at me and said No I didn’t. And I said when you pick him up at school put down your device and what you can say is I thought about you today when I saw anything that they talk to you about.

S16: If you came across something that had to do with the Revolutionary War. Anything 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.

S12: Oh my gosh when I see that tonight I’m literally going to mean so much to them.

S13: And it’s really a magic trick. It really works.

S14: So like what would that be for Walter if you said Hey Walter I thought of you today because I saw fill in the blank like what’s the blank for Walter it’s Scooby Doo or Captain Underpants at the.


S21: Yeah yeah. That’s cool.

S22: But I really like the thought of letting them be the expert. Yeah. That kind of resonates with me.

S3: So let me move on to a slightly different topic. So one of the things that that Wendy told me about his issue was talking about these these practices for stressing our kids the right way.

S1: A surprising sort of paradoxical way to do this comes from the brilliant research of a Norwegian child development specialist named Ellen Sam Seder. Her seminal paper is called the Anti Phobic effects of thrilling experience and her premise is that without exposure to danger children will be more fearful. And she lists specific things that children need in order to become appropriately daring confident and resilient and they are 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. She mentions a way finding so I grew up in New York City. I don’t know where you grew up but I imagine you were allowed Charles to make your way on your own. Maybe from school to home. Did you walk home from school.

S12: Yeah. Yeah I grew up in Albuquerque New Mexico and I would walk to school and home from school every day. And was it enjoyable to do that. No. Me and my brother would fight the entire time. It was terrible. Oh good.

S1: Thank you so much. That’s the one piece of sand setters research that I left out learning how to manage aggression. Interesting. She says it’s very important for children to experience aggression and learn how to handle it.


S12: What’s the most dangerous thing that you’ve let Walter do.

S5: Oh that’s a good question. He’s not a daring kid. We’ll just put it put it that way. He you know looks at things and sticks his toes in the water and is very cautious about doing things so he will he’ll probably put the brakes on stuff more than we will.

S12: A lot of times you worry about that a little bit what Bob’s concerned about is that they aren’t letting Walter deal with hard things on his own that that they’re protecting him too much parenting him too much. And it came to a head recently at a family reunion they went to when there was this squirt gun battle.

S23: Yeah so. Well you know he had a squirt gun and he sort of somebody and he ended up getting squirted back. You know I was talking to him and I was a little tough. I was like it’s gonna toughen up a little bit.

S24: You didn’t go over super well with Jill or with Walter for that matter. Yeah. To add a few details to that. There are a couple of boys that are much more you know it’s kind of rough and tumble and was kind of that environment. And his grandpa had basically taken a water bottle. And like you know through it. So you know the water covered Walt so that that’s how he got Webb. And so I think he was really shocked because he wasn’t expecting that from his grandpa. And then of course he soaked. I mean he was full lined in tears. You know the whole nine yards. So we just kind of went off to the side a little bit and he just snuggled on my lap and cried for a while.


S25: That sounds like exactly the right thing to do. Your kids upset and so you you picked them up and you comfort them but here’s what Wendy had to say.

S8: If we run in and say oh he squirted you in the face and I’m so sorry that happened and what can we do so that will never happen again. Walter is never going to have any fun and none of the boys are going to want to hang out with him. So this was beautiful cause and effect this was again reality as a wonderful teacher. What else are you supposed to do with squirt guns squirted in the sink.

S12: That being said it is it is hard though right. Like what. Like when you’re talking to your kid and they’re telling you that they’re unhappy or when you see your five year old crying. Yeah you do want to comfort them.

S1: And I’m very much a proponent of starting with empathy. So you say ouch or you say wow or you say oh with love and tenderness in your voice and then you wait.

S12: But where do you draw the line between where you’re supposed to comfort and where you’re supposed to let them sort of develop some grit. So

S1: it depends on the age of the child their natural temperament but they really need to test their mettle. If parents function as 24 hour customer service representatives and emotional support animals it reinforces in them turning to their parent with every complaint and piece of misery instead of overcoming an obstacle and triumph and delight.

S26: What do you guys think about that makes sense. Not very good at it.

S6: No I think it’s a good a good response. I’m as far as letting them pick how they are going to respond a little bit instead of trying to gear that response for them.


S12: But Wendy also says that there’s a right way and a wrong way to stress your kid. And we have to be mindful of the difference.

S1: So there are signs to look for and it is a child who’s been previously dry at night who starts wedding lots of complaints about tummy aches and headaches loss of pleasure in activities that were previously very satisfying to the child loss of exuberance. That’s what we started with. 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 distressed the muscle and actually tear it slightly for it to become stronger.

S12: But helping our kids build that muscle can be really tiring right for both kids and for their parents which is why Wendy has this final piece of advice.

S1: I interviewed school students all over the country and I asked them for advice for their parents. Every single group said Could you please just tell our parents to take a chill pill could you tell them to relax.

S27: There is a lyric. Let me just sit right here. OK. So it’s John Lee Hooker and it’s. This is the lyric. One night I was lying down I heard Mama and Papa talking I heard papa say to Mama. Let that boy boogie woogie let that boy boogie woogie. Because it’s in him and it’s got to come out. This is true for boys and girls. They need to boogie woogie and their parents do too.

S3: And that is directly related to stress. I love it. We need to be boogie woogie parents. My next big thing about it tonight.


S24: I think it’s a great idea. I’d love to be able to relax more and I do try here and there but usually it comes with a cost. You know if we are gone all weekend doing something fun then it means that the entire next week you still have to work. You still have to do meal planning. You still have to do the laundry. You know it just piles up in different ways.

S14: And it’s really easy to feel like this advice is basically like blaming us for being parents right. It’s kind of like OK I’ll put that on my list of things to worry about.

S21: Exactly. You know it makes sense. It’s probably what most parents need to hear. I’ve been really short episode for you. To chill out.

S28: Thank you to Bob and Jill and to their son Walter for speaking with us and good luck in kindergarten Walter and thank you to Dr. Wendy mogul for all for useful advice.

S12: Wendy has some great books including her latest which is called voice lessons for parents what to say how to say it and when to listen.

S29: And as an aside Wendy’s trick about how to get your kids to tell you about their day. I tried it. It totally works. Just be ready to talk about swords for the rest of the night which is actually kind of wonderful. If you want to receive updates on how to we have got a monthly newsletter that you can sign up for. Or if you have a problem that needs solving. We can help with that too. Just send us a note at how to at Slate dot com.

S28: Also if you like what you heard today please give us a rating and a review in Apple podcasts that helps people find the show and then therefore we can hopefully help more people and it’s a virtuous circle. Thanks so much. How tos executive producer is Derek John Merritt. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Special thanks to Evan Gandy Stephen cologne and Asha solution. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.