ReThinking with Adam Grant
Bringing out the good in kids—and parents—with Becky Kennedy
February 14, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Becky Kennedy. She's a clinical psychologist and founder of Good Inside: a global parenting community. You might know her as Dr. Becky on Instagram, where her videos have helped millions of parents think differently about how they interact with their kids. She's been called the Millennial Parenting Whisperer, and even though I'm a Gen Xer, as a dad to three kids, I've found her wisdom enormously helpful.
[00:00:47] Becky Kennedy:
[00:00:47] Adam Grant:
What does it feel like to be the Millennial Parenting Whisperer?
[00:00:51] Becky Kennedy:
Oh boy. You know, it's not a title I, I think about at all, except when people, you know, kind of bring it up. You know, I guess what it, what it feels like to be able to think about parenting and relationships and to have kind of some reach in doing that and watch it resonate and hear people's stories, that feels super inspiring and I, I truly feel so honored to be part of so many parents' journeys. So that's what it feels like.
[00:01:20] Adam Grant:
Well, you've been a big part of mine as well as many, many others. How did you land on this path?
[00:01:25] Becky Kennedy:
I have always found people and kind of relationships and systems to be just endlessly fascinating. And in college, when I realized you could make a career out of getting to know people and understanding their relationships and understanding the systems they operate in, I realized that's what I wanted to do. So, after, you know my, I got my Ph.D. from Columbia in clinical psychology, I then realized in working with kids and adults, that I kind of like doing this kind of combination of both work.
That, while I was doing child work, I found myself most drawn to the parent sessions I was having and kept thinking that yes, children being in therapy can be so important, and I felt like, wow, if I can make a little bit of impact with the parents of this kid, I was seeing, well, the kid is with the parents for all the minutes of their day and are, you know, is just with me for 45 minutes in a week.
And I think I'm really drawn to impact and found that I could have a lot of impact working with parents and looking at what they were doing as kind of the leaders or CEOs of their house. And then after I graduated, I did a lot of parenting work. I ran parenting groups, and I just never ran out of energy for working with parents or thinking about these topics.
You know, I used to come home after a full day of private practice and seeing then parents maybe in some type of parent group, and I'd wanna talk to my husband all about it at like 10:00 PM, and he was always like, “Wow. That sounds really interesting, but maybe you wanna like write these thoughts down or something. You seem to have a lot to say.”
And so I did. I started writing and then one day realized, you know, I don't know if these thoughts just live on my computer, let me, you know, put them out there. It led to Instagram and then, you know, two years later, or two and a half years later, it leads to me talking to you on your amazing podcast.
[00:03:15] Adam Grant:
Well, I think when you first came on my radar, it was articulating something that I have said for years. In many conversations, you really expressed this idea that it was not the job of parents to make their children happy, and a lot of people were shocked by that, and my reaction was, “Yes.” Tell me more.”
[00:03:36] Becky Kennedy:
Yeah. There's two things that are pinging in my brain when you say that. So our job not being to make our kids happy, but it also makes me think maybe we can start with, “Well, what is a parent's job?” Because I feel like you and I have a lot of overlap here in that we both think about people, we both think about systems, and we both think about leaders, right?
Maybe I operate in the family home more, and you operate, you know, in the workplace more with those ideas. But I think we both agree that as a leader, if you don't have clarity in what your job is, you cannot do your job well. And it's actually an absurd thing to think about anyone going to their first day in the office and being told, “Hey, do your job well, but you don't have a job description.”
You'd be like, “I can't do my job well if I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing. And also I need to know what those other people are doing so I know what not to do.” And so maybe we can start there, where I think a lot about family jobs. It's often what I talk about first with parents if they see me in my private practice, ‘cause one of the reasons they're frustrated, right? It, it actually, the main reason they're frustrated, it's not because their kids aren't behaving well. They think it's because of that, but they're frustrated because they don't have clarity on what they're supposed to do in the moments when their kid is struggling.
And as soon as you have clarity, you feel better. We, we think we need to kind of watch our kids' behavior change to feel better, but we actually immediately feel better when we have clarity on our role. And so, when I think about a parent's job, I think about two main buckets of things and, and they go hand in hand. They actually work in tandem together, even though they're often described in kind of an oppositional way.
So the first part of a parent's job is boundaries, right? And that really answers a kid's question: am I safe? Right? And a boundary to me is, it's a decision we make, right? And it's a limit we set. And I think most parents, we think we setting, we're setting boundaries when we're not. So boundaries don't require a kid to do anything, right? So a boundary would be saying, “Hey, I'm not gonna let you jump on that table. It's dangerous. Oh, you're having a hard time. Okay, no problem. I'm gonna come over. And if by the time I get to you, you're not off the table, I will take you off the table.”
A boundary is not, “Get off the table. Get off the table. Get off the table”, right? Which I'm sure me and you both say to our own kids all the time, but that's not doing the job of setting boundaries. So that’s half of our job.
And the other half of our job is validation, which is really seeing your kids' emotional experience as real, even if you don't understand it, and even if it doesn't mirror your own experience. So that job always goes hand in hand with boundaries, ‘cause if anyone here listening, if your kids are like my kids, when I take them off the table, they don't say to me, “Oh, thank you for being such a sturdy leader. I'm so lucky to have you as my mom.” They cry, or they say you're the worst, or, you know, they struggle.
At which point, I can do the other part of my job, which is saying some version of, “Oh, you really wanted to jump there. I know I told you you could jump on the floor and it's not as much fun, so you're really frustrated.” That doesn't mean I'm letting them on the table. It just means I'm doing both parts of my job.
And you can see in that job description, none of that is about making my kid happy. If it was making my kid happy, I'd let them jump on the glass table, you know, or I don't know. I'd say to them, “You can't jump on the table, but you can have an ice cream sundae right now.” Or something, like, random to kind of keep them happy.
And what happens then is my kid actually kind of overpowers me as a leader. Right? And going back to, I think where our overlap is, you know, it's like if we are, we had an employee who was really struggling with, I don't know, even coming to work on time. Right? Be like, well, “You have to come to work on time, but if you do come to work in time, I don't know. I'm gonna, you know, pay for, you know, a vacation or I'm gonna give you this extra bonus.” Which maybe I wanna do, but I should do it because I want to do it, not because I have to offset my job of setting boundaries. I think the framework of “what is my job as a parent?” is, is first and foremost before we then even figure out, well, what then isn't my job.
[00:07:30] Adam Grant:
Yeah, absolutely. And you know what this makes me think about is sort of parents’ ideas of what's important for their kids and then their kids' ideas of what their parents think is important. I, I know you, you know, the Harvard study that I was so taken by, which showed that most parents in America at least say their top priority is for their kids to be caring and kind.
But if you ask their kids, most of them think that their parents put happiness first or achievement first. So, you’ve clearly established happiness is not your idea of the number one priority.
[00:08:03] Becky Kennedy:
[00:08:04] Adam Grant:
I run into a lot of parents who don't understand that I, I run into at least as many parents who think my job is to set my kids up for success. I want them to be smart and accomplished and have high status and reflect well on me. You are not that into that either. Why not?
[00:08:19] Becky Kennedy:
Well, maybe I would just define success differently, you know? Sure. I mean, I want my kids to be successful. Right? But, you know, I guess I think about so many adults and I've seen so many adults in my private practice, ‘cause actually most of my ideas for parenting and kids comes from the work I have done over the years with adults where I see the struggles they have and then kind of the patterns that got them there and wanting to, you know, kind of reverse engineer that knowledge to today's parents.
So, let's say that idea of like, I want my kid to be successful in life. Or first of all, I do think that's a really bold thing to assume that your definition of success is the same as your kid's definition of success. Right? Maybe when we say I want my kid to be successful, what I mean is I want my kid to, I don't know, go to Harvard and I want them to get their MBA from Penn and you know, and then I want them to, I don't know, have this consulting job. Right? Okay. That might be my definition of success, but maybe my kid wants to be an artist living in some foreign country, and actually, they would be fulfilled that way. Right? So I think that's number one.
Number two, and I actually think this is not unrelated to the goal of happiness, that I think one of the things that happens a lot as a parent is we look for these short-term markers of what we think will be long-term success, but often the focus on those short-term markers get in the way of long-term success.
So “I want my kid to be happy” means, “Okay, my kid didn't make the soccer team. I'll, you know, drive them right away to this other town so they can make that soccer team because the kids in that town aren't good at soccer. My kid wasn't invited to a party, so I'll have my own party for my kid because I want them to be happy.”
Well, all that's done is yes, give your kid momentary short-term happiness, but all it's done is reduced their tolerance for distress. So the next time they're disappointed with something, and let's say the stakes are higher, where it's no longer about a soccer team or a slumber party, but it's about, I don't know, let's say not getting into the college you want, your kid's like, “Where, where’s the immediate fix? Where is it? Where is it? Because all my life, I've learned that as soon as I'm disappointed, the thing that comes next in my body is immediate satisfaction and happiness. So I've learned to expect that. Where is it?” Guess what? As you get into the adult world, that thing does not exist, right?
Or, the focus short term is my kid needs to get an A. My kid needs to get an A in all their classes, and my kid, while they're under 18, depends on me for their survival. So they learn to be very, very attuned to who they need to be for me, so they can get love and affection and food and shelter. And so maybe through fear or coercion or bribery, I get them to do their homework or I get them to quote “study” to get good grades because then they get this reward that I give them.
Now my kid's outta the house, and they scan their body at age 19 for like, “What do I know about internal motivation? What do I know about what matters to me? Oh, I literally have not developed that circuit in any more sophisticated way than when I was, like, one years old, and without my mom kind of screaming over me. I don't have any study habits on my own. I don't even know what I wanna do. And now I'm at the age where I can finally rebel and define my individuality, and what better way to define my individuality than to push back finally against the thing that I know my parents have defined me as in such a limited way?” Right?
And then, you have these kids in college. I saw these kids in my private practice who literally drop out of school. It's not even to their benefit, it's just because they finally have the space to push back, and they are kind of as empty around intrinsic motivation, as you know, again, they were when they were really young.
I don't know any adult who's like, “That is success. Yes, I would love to control my child's success until age 18, and then I want them to feel empty inside.” Like that, that’s not it. So I think these short-term markers, like they're dangerous because they actually get in the way of number one, a kid defining those markers for themselves, but even being able to reach those markers as soon as our kids are out of our house.
[00:12:29] Adam Grant:
Yeah, and I, I think we live in a world that makes this extremely difficult. I remember reading this research and then talking with my wife Allison about it and saying, okay, we want to make sure that you know that the fact that we care a lot about kindness and generosity comes through. But your kids get into elementary school, and what do they report back on? The grades they got on a test, the goals they scored in the soccer game, and everything starts to revolve around achievement.
So one of the things we did, I'd love to get your reaction to this, is we said, “Okay, we want to make sure that we're communicating we want you to care about others, right? That's a core family value. So we're gonna ask once a week at the dinner table: who did you help?” Because we want them to pay attention to that.
And we got these amazing stories. And all of a sudden they started looking for opportunities to be helpful because they knew they'd have a chance to share it. And then Allison had this suggestion that at first didn't make any sense to me whatsoever. She said, “I wanna also ask them who helped them.” I'm like, “No, I wanna teach them to be givers, not takers, or even receivers.”
And she said, “No, I want them to pay attention to which kids are helpful and kind as opposed to just gravitating toward the most popular kids in school.” And it was so powerful to, you know, to see their attention shift right as our attention shifted. What do you make of, of these kinds of practices and how much of, of teaching values do you actually think revolves around what we ask about?
[00:13:53] Becky Kennedy:
I don't know why it's making me like emotional thinking about this, but I feel like the questions you ask someone tells them the road you wanna walk down with them and, and I'm actually like choking. I don't know why I'm like tearing up at that, but, um, I'll think about that later, but it's like saying like, “I wanna walk down the road of kindness,” and like, the roads we walk down show our values. It shows how we wanna spend our time.
So I actually think our questions to our kids are some of the most powerful interventions. Right? And, and for people listening, I, I, I wanna clarify something important. I ask my kids a lot of questions too, right? Things like that. “Who helped you?” or, oh, you know, “Oh, that, that's cool that you got that grade on this test. Tell me about the bonus problem that was like really hard and you didn't even know if you could get right. It seems like you tried that one anyway, right?”
Like kind of just posing questions, right? And I, I think the important thing is we ask our kids questions so they learn to ask themselves those same questions. Not so they have a profound answer. So someone listening to this is like, “Great, I'm gonna go ask my four-year-old, like, ‘who did you help today?’” And okay, if your four-year-old is like most four-year-olds, you're like, “Can I have some pretzels?” You know? And you're like, “Welp, that literally was a waste of my time.”
But it's not a waste of time. It's only a waste of time, again, if we're looking for this short-term marker of their response. But what your kid is going to really develop is, “Huh. I keep hearing that question. Who did I help today? Who did I help today?” Our voice to our kids becomes their voice to themselves, which means fast forward, your kid is now seven, right?
And they're gonna see some situation where some kid is being made fun of at the lunch table, and they're gonna hear this question, “Who did I help today?” And they're not gonna know where it came from, but it came from your repetition. And then they're gonna do something because they think that that matters.
And so, I love the idea of giving parents, like, permission to be like, ask your kids questions that they cannot answer. And when they look up at you and ask for a snack or say like, “Dad, you're being really weird today.” Just be like, “Okay, well it was on my mind, just thought I’d ask,” and know that that had impact far beyond some, like, tied-up moment. Because I've seen that so much with my own kids. I think about this with gratitude a lot. Like, we think we can teach gratitude to a kid by being like, “Say thank you for your aunt, to your aunt for getting you socks for Christmas. Even though like that's the worst gift ever, say thank you.”
You know? Like I want my kid to have gratitude. That doesn't develop gratitude. But you know, around a dinner table to be able to say something like, “How do we get this food on our table? You know? I'm just noticing we have like so many things to eat. I wonder how that happened. I wonder if other families have that variety.” I don't know. And again, like you don't even have to have your kids say, “Well actually mom, they don't because some people are food insecure.”
No, just asking that question starts to make your kid wonder about those same things, which is really a pre-condition for something like gratitude or something like kindness or empathy. These, like, higher-order processes. So yes, I love asking that question and I think that that's gonna have a profound impact on your kids. So, go Allison.
[00:17:07] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I loved it too. This conversation makes me think a little bit about one of the differences between parenting and work, which is if I think about parenting as a job, I, I have a job description and then there's gonna be a performance review. And I know there are a bunch of things I have to do in order to succeed, but I don't think there's a parenting scorecard that works that way.
I've read a bunch of research on child development that tracks with the general principle of bad being stronger than good. It is more critical to not be an abusive parent than it is to be an extra loving, loving parent. It's more important to not restrict your kids' freedom than it is to give them, you know, loads of autonomy. And that makes it really hard for me to gauge am I doing a good job. Well, I'm not doing a miserable job. I, I, I hope I'm not ruining our children. But beyond that, how do I know?
[00:17:58] Becky Kennedy:
I, I mean, I can tell you what comes to mind, but none of, none of these things are answer. There's one barometer for me that I maybe come back to, it's like, how connected do I feel to my kid? I feel like connection is, like, the most important thing, and let me be clear. Connection doesn't mean giving your kid what they want, right? But I think connection is really, really important. So, do I connect to their needs? Do I help them build skills?
What I've been playing around with a lot in my mind is just like really helping parents see their role as a coach, because I believe the single most important thing for kids to learn in life is emotion regulation skills. They are learned through absorbing them in your relationship with your caregivers. You absorb them. That's how you learn them. That's how they develop circuits in your body. And if we think about other forms of coaching, like good coaches help players through, like, really tough times, not by, you know, I don't know if someone isn't making any free throws, all of a sudden, like, you don't expect as a good coach, “Well I'm gonna, I'm gonna coach this kid and then tomorrow they're gonna start making free throws”, right?
Like you, you stay connected to them, you work on what they need and you recognize that each of your players actually needs very different things. And I think being able to like have some clarity. Again, I think that's a word that just keeps coming up at it for me. Like with my three kids, I feel best about my parenting when I feel like I have some clarity in what's going on for them and when I'm able to kind of be connected to them, spend time with them, set boundaries and, and give them what they need.
But certainly, it's not as clear cut as some specific performance review. Though, I will say, and your kids are older, and mine are getting older too. You know, I do sit down with my kids once in a while, not as often as I should. This will remind me to do it again and just say like, “What's the annoying thing I do as a parent? What's the thing that I miss most about what it's like to be 11 and what 11-year-olds really need?”
And to be clear, if my 11-year-old says, “Well, you know, I need to be on my iPad, like, a lot more than you'll let me,” that doesn't mean I'm gonna say okay. But I will say, “Okay, tell me more. Okay, let me understand that. Okay, tell me what that's like. Okay, so you go to school and kids are talking about this game that they play more than you. Ugh. Like, I actually do believe you, that that really stinks and you know, let's keep talking about it.” Right?
And I don't know. I feel like those moments, like when I go back to that, like how am I doing as a parent? Like I leave my son's room, in that instance, feeling like that mattered, like being able to like tackle something that doesn't feel good to him. Hear him out, maybe get to the bottom of it. Maybe become a little more flexible depending on what was discussed. Maybe not, I don't know. But like that those moments, like I feel like, feel like an important part of my own performance review.
[00:20:41] Adam Grant:
Yeah. It takes a lot of humility to, to ask your kids for feedback on how you can be a better parent. And I've found that, similar to when I've studied this in the workplace, sometimes they hesitate because they don't wanna hurt your feelings or get in trouble. And just like I, I've advised leaders and managers to do, I've had to just show them that I'm open to it by criticizing myself out loud and say, “Hey, you know, I was way too quick to like, to threaten a consequence as opposed to asking you to explain what your, your reasoning was. And I'm gonna try to do a better job with that next time.”
[00:21:14] Becky Kennedy:
I, I love that. Something I say too to my kids, and I think this is like such a life lesson that definitely applies in the workplace. marriage, partnerships, anywhere is, I'll say, letting someone know the things that you need more of, letting someone know even the things you're upset about in your relationship is an invitation for that relationship to get stronger because it allows me to know more things about you, and that's actually really important. I'm more invested in learning more about you and about our relationship than about things seeming perfect. So actually, you giving me this feedback is, is helpful for everyone.
[00:21:54] Adam Grant:
[00:21:54] Becky Kennedy:
[00:21:54] Adam Grant:
If you're up for it.
[00:21:56] Becky Kennedy:
[00:21:56] Adam Grant:
Looking for a word or a sentence. Rapid fire. First question. What is the worst parenting advice that's popular in our culture?
[00:22:06] Becky Kennedy:
That resisting punishments and timeouts is soft. I think it's really soft to parent from a place of desperation, which is where punishments and timeouts come from.
[00:22:15] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Okay, good. What is the one piece of parenting advice that you would give?
[00:22:22] Becky Kennedy:
The single most important thing as a parent is to get good at repair. No parents get it right all the time. We all yell, we all get triggered. We all do things we wish we didn't do. Me included. Get good at going back, taking ownership, saying sorry, and reconnecting to your kid.
[00:22:36] Adam Grant:
What have you learned from your kids about parenting?
[00:22:37] Becky Kennedy:
I've learned that every kid needs a different part of me to be, like, a lead parent. Like, in some ways my kids all need different parents, and it's required a lot of reflection, a lot of growth, a lot of struggle, a lot of therapy. Um, but it's also allowed me to, you know, learn so much about myself. So all kids really need different things, and that's not a sign you're doing something wrong. It's just a sign of their uniqueness as a human.
[00:23:00] Adam Grant:
Who are the other parenting experts that you've enjoyed following?
[00:23:03] Becky Kennedy:
I love all things internal family systems, so I just learned so much from, from Dick Schwartz. I really, really love the work of, of Myleik, even though she's not a traditional parenting expert. Of Charisse Sims. Of, um, a woman named Sumi in my study group, all of whom also talk about a lot of the kind of cultural dynamics in parenting that really need to be attended to, and that's really been a key area of learning and growth for me as well.
[00:22:32] Adam Grant:
What are your goals as a parent?
[00:22:34] Becky Kennedy:
My goal as a parent is I hope my kids, when they're adults, you know, if they, whatever they say about me, if anything, would be like, you know, “My mom, she really helped me feel comfortable in who I was. She really helped me figure out who I am and feel all in myself.”
[00:23:52] Adam Grant:
You, I guess in the past few years, you've probably gotten a lot more feedback than you ever had in the past, especially on Instagram. What's a piece of criticism that you've found helpful?
[00:24:04] Becky Kennedy:
I think it's been helpful to just, just remember that there's no one size fits all approach. Right? That these ideas, everything I put out there, and I wanna make this clear, after receiving this criticism, is meant to be considered with skepticism, to see how it resonates, and then to be combined with what you know about yourself and your family. You are the expert, and these are frameworks and ideas to consider if useful.
[00:24:28] Adam Grant:
Good. I think a lot of people are struggling right now with mental health and worrying about their kids' depression, anxiety. If I am worried about my kids' mental health. What would you suggest?
[00:24:40] Becky Kennedy:
Yep. When I think about the number of times that I looked at my, my parents, when I was a kid and saw a phone or a screen or something in between me and them, it was basically zero. And kids need connection more than anything else. So they're always attuned to anything blocking that. And if I think about the percentage of times my kids look at me and have a phone blocking my face or my connection, it's a disturbingly large percentage of the time. And I think that, you know, in this world of distraction and disconnection and harder connections with parents, that that has a lot to do with how disconnected teens feel.
So what I would say is a piece of advice is five minutes with your kid as often as possible of just time without phone. I call it PNP time with my younger kids—play no phone. I'm with them, I'm doing whatever they want. My phone is two doors away, not just one. I don't trust myself ‘cause it'll ding and I'll wander to it, and I'm just doing whatever they wanna do. And that works wonders.
[00:25:33] Adam Grant:
You have a lot of actionable practices: seeking feedback, phone two doors away, family meetings. Are there others we should be aware of?
[00:25:41] Becky Kennedy:
Yeah. The fill-up game is one of my favorite concrete representations of connection and what kids need. Right? Which, if your kids feel older, it'll feel like, “Oh, I can't do that.”
But there probably is a version of it. One of my kids was really struggling in one of, you know, one phase. I've been through many of those phases, you know, I was like, “What if I looked at all of these moments through the lens of my, my kid feels really disconnected to me, or scared of really being disconnected?”
That's not necessarily correct, but it felt useful to me and I'm invested in usefulness. So I started doing this thing called the fill-up game, where every morning I'd say, “I'm gonna fill you up with mommy.” And he was a math kind of oriented kid, but I'd say like, “What percentage are you?” and inevitably, he'd say, “I'm 5% filled up”, and I'd give him this huge hug.
I'd say, “Ooh, what about now?” 10. “Ooh, what about now?” And when I get to a hundred, or if your kid says instead, “Oh, now I'm finally up to my head”, kind of put the zinger on it and say something like, “Well, let me give you one more because it's good to go in with a little extra.” Some days can be really hard and I, I have the, I, I could cry thinking about that.
And I even did that in response to his bad behavior. Like he'd hit and I'd say, “Oh, I think you're telling me you're not filled up with mommy.” And I'd respond that way. And it completely changed the direction of, of where things were going. And so the fill-up game before you separate and go to work, before your kid goes to school, when they're in a tough stage, when you have a new baby, it's a go-to.
[00:26:58] Adam Grant:
It's so easy when, when kids misbehave to get frustrated. Right? And then get into this attack, defend, spiral.
[00:27:04] Becky Kennedy:
[00:27:04] Adam Grant:
As opposed to recognizing, “Wait, this is a signal that they're hurting, and what they actually need is love and support.”
[00:27:10] Becky Kennedy:
The fork in the road is whether I'm looking at my kid like they're a bad kid doing bad things or, like, they're a good kid having a hard time. And it's okay if your instinct is bad kid doing bad things. That doesn't mean you're a bad person. It probably means your struggles were responded to in that framework. That's all it means. And so, a big act of cycle breaking is taking a deep breath, and outside the moment, ‘cause it's hard to do it in.
Just reminding yourself: “I have a good kid having a hard time. My kid is struggling; they need my help. We're on the same team. We're on the same team.” And so many good things flow from there.
[00:27:44] Adam Grant:
Well that, that really resonates. And when you talk about cycle breaking, I can't help but think of, like we were talking about, what is the parent's job? What does it mean to be a good parent? I think one of the most important things to have on the scorecard has to be if what, whatever difficult experiences or traumatic events I went through as a child, I want to shield my kids from those as opposed to inflicting them on them.
[00:28:06] Becky Kennedy:
Yeah. When I think about trauma, right? I think we often think trauma is like the event that happened. Trauma’s the way events get processed, and things become traumatic because they're held in aloneness. That's why they weren't talked about. They were denied. You were left alone with them. Certain events have more trauma potential. But when I think about doing something differently with kids than was done for us, I would tell parents there's gonna be things that happen.
Bad things happen. Small bad things, big bad things. The thing we can really do differently is say, “I’m gonna, I'm gonna talk about it. I'm gonna believe my kid.” If we wanna make it something concrete, to me, the biggest confidence builder that you can have with your kid is using the words “I believe you”, right?
Because confidence is self-trust. It's learning to trust your signals, your body. Not to say that that dictates action. I can believe my kid wants ice cream. It doesn't mean I'm giving them ice cream, but “I believe you” is something I think all of us could have used to hear a lot more when we were kids. And it's a major act of cycle-breaking and intergenerational change to start using that more often with our own kids.
[00:29:03] Adam Grant:
Okay, so you brought up emotion regulation skills. Every parent has dealt with kids getting frustrated and then engaging in some kind of inappropriate behavior. Maybe they, they throw the tennis ball at their opponent, or they send their racket flying, or they slam it on the ground. And parents, the instinct is to tell your kids that's not okay, but then it doesn't change the behavior. What do they need to do differently?
[00:29:27] Becky Kennedy:
Let's just go to basketball. Right? And like you watch some kid taking layups, and they like never make them in, you know, and you're like, “I have high expectations. I know you're a good player. You could be an even better player. You gotta get the ball into the hoop.”
I don't know anyone who'd be like, “That's a great coaching decision.” Or definitely, if we're like, “ You can make layups better than that. Go to your room.” I feel like if I watch someone coach my kid that way, I'd be like, “My kids can get better basketball by sitting alone in their room.”
Do you think they're like Googling helpful tips for making layups when they're five years old? Like what are they doing that's gonna be useful? And what are you doing, what that's gonna be useful? if I saw a coach say, “Okay, so whenever you go up, you tend to look like this or you tend to put the ball this way. Okay, so let's get to the point where you do that and then we're gonna pause. Then we're gonna pause and we're gonna pause. Okay. You usually go there. Do you see that?” This is my limited basketball knowledge, but like, “You see the square and you see that like point in the corner. That's a magic point. If you get the ball to that point. It's going to go into the hoop. It will. Now it's gonna be hard. But knowing that is important because you tend to instead put the ball this way.” Okay, now I'm actually teaching my kid a skill. That's why I think this metaphor is important.
So, if we think about emotion regulation, my kid loses the video game, and they throw the remote control. How can my kid learn? Well, what's the core issue? We identified the core issue in basketball as they're not putting the ball in the right place. The core issue is that the frustration of losing is so much greater than their skills at managing the frustration. Anytime a feeling is bigger than the skills for the feeling, it's gonna come out in behavior every time.
And then often, we demonize the feeling—“You don't need to get so frustrated.” The feeling's not the problem. The problem is my kid doesn't have a skill to match it, so what would my kid need to do literally in that moment, and then how can I help simulate that experience and actually get to that point and practice a skill?
So for example, I might say, “Oh, when you, when you lose that Madden to your friends, like, I, I know. That’s like the worst, right? It's not just like, ‘Oh, that stinks.’ It's like, ‘Oh, what the heck? That's the worst, right?’ It’s like, I totally get that. Hmm. You know, it probably is still gonna feel that way. I wonder what you can do the next time it feels that way.”
So you're totally normalizing the feeling. In addition to saying it's not okay to throw the racket or the rope, which by the way, kids know unless they see you do that, right? We have to actually get to saying “That intense feeling is okay. We need to practice a different skill.” What could you do? So I'm just gonna make this up, but maybe I, you know, I have this great indoor ball in my house that never breaks anything.
It's like this really good thing. I'm gonna be like, “What if that was near you when you were playing Madden, and I was near you to help you the first couple times and you took it in your hands and, like, banged it down? Because it does feel good to get some of the feeling out, but it doesn't feel good to like break something. How about that? Or what if in the game when there were two minutes left,you always said to yourself, right, be like, ‘Adam, I might lose. That's gonna stink, and I can cope with it.’” It seems small, but that actually makes a huge difference to prepare yourself for the feeling. So in addition to telling a kid a behavior that isn't okay, I need to help them know and practice a skill that they didn't have. Because if we don't help our kids develop a skill, why would they behave any differently?
[00:32:40] Adam Grant:
So good. That, that is exactly the thing that I was missing. Like, and it makes so much sense as you articulate it. Like, of course, I can't just correct the behavior and expect it to change if they don't have the skill they need to change the behavior in the moment. And I should know better because when I talk about amygdala hijackings in class, I talk about how you need to develop a script for how you wanna respond the next time one of your buttons gets pushed.
[00:33:03] Becky Kennedy:
That's exactly right. I forgot who talks about, like, preloading, right? So I talk about it like, like dry runs. Or I always talk about like emotional vaccination. So your kids, I think, would really benefit from emotional vaccination in a lot of areas. So let's say it's tennis. I used to have this with one of my kids around playing games. They, whenever they lose, it would be like a disaster. And I was pretty boundaried before he'd play a game.
I'd say, “Look, I'm not playing until we do this thing. Let's just wait. One of us is gonna win and one of us is gonna lose. And like, raise your hand if you like winning better.” Right? Like kind of some humor.
Oh, oh, oh. It's funny. Raise your hand if you love to lose. Raise it. Oh, no one's raising your hand. That's interesting. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Raise your hand if it feels awful to lose when you, oh look. Me and you both. Right? So constantly de-shaming. So raise your hand if you like losing at tennis. Raise your hand if you love hitting a ball into the net when you knew you had a winner right there at you and you messed it up. Unforced error. Oh, no one. No one. Interesting. Okay. How bad will it feel? Will it feel like a little bad, feel like medium, bad or big. And maybe your kid's like, like, “I don't know. Dad, you're being annoying.” And then I'd get like, “Look, you know what's more important than your tennis game? Learning to manage your feelings about your tennis game. So actually, I'm not even gonna let you get a ball in the court until we go through this. Ready? Cool, let's go.”
Right? Like, this is not soft. This is skill-building, right? So when you hit the ball into the net, which is gonna happen, what are you gonna say to yourself, right? And then I might help my kid have a mantra.
It might be like, “Ugh, I'm frustrated and I can cope with it.” And then I take it a step further. I'd say, “Before you get on the court, this is gonna be weird, but you have to do it. Take the ball, hit into the net, do it. Do it. Yep, do it. Okay. And now say that thing, do it again. Do it again. Right.” And I'm actually coaching my kid, and probably in some ways a more important skill for their tennis game than just the strokes or their serve, or their volleys. Right?
Plus you're actually increasing the likelihood that you won't have to say to them again, “you can't hit, you can't throw your racket. You know, no iPad tonight.” In which case you're like, I'm the only person who suffers from that. Now I have to like enforce no iPad and like nobody wins.
[00:34:53] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Okay. This is good. So I, I think it's extremely powerful to involve kids in the plan, right?
[00:35:01] Becky Kennedy:
[00:35:01] Adam Grant:
Because then they, they start to take ownership over the ideas, they generated them, uh, as opposed to you kind of telling them what to do. It's a really compelling way to, to give them a chance to be in charge, right, to be in the driver's seat as opposed to feeling like they're being bossed around. And also maybe a way to give them the confidence that they can solve some of their own problems.
[00:35:19] Becky Kennedy:
[00:35:20] Adam Grant:
What about situations where kids do have the skills, but they choose not to exercise them? So I'll give you an example that we ran into recently. Turned off our kids' lights to go to sleep. An hour and a half later their lights are on, and they're reading, and full disclosure, I’m personally ambivalent about this because some of my favorite childhood memories were staying up several hours past my bedtime to finish a book that I loved. But, it was a school night, and our kids know when it's bedtime, they're supposed to go to bed, and they just didn't follow the rules, and I don't like having rules in the first place.
I read some classic research a few years ago showing that one of the differences between highly creative kids and their peers is that highly creative kids tend to be raised in households that have fewer rules.
[00:36:04] Becky Kennedy:
[00:36:04] Adam Grant:
Um, clear values, but not that many rules. We don't have that many rules. One of our rules is: we want you to get in a good night's sleep and feel well-rested and be healthy. And so when we say it's bedtime, it's bedtime. When our kids break those rules, what are we supposed to do?
[00:36:19] Becky Kennedy:
This happens a lot when we're frustrated with kids. Me too. Right? By the way, I talk a good game on your podcast, like Dr. Becky is not the parent of her own kids. That is Becky. And she also says all these things, so don’t think my kids get this, right? Because I'm also like “but they know better.” They know better. It's such an interesting thing we do. Like I know better than to be on my phone right before bed. I know better than to shut off my alarm, as opposed to, like, actually go to the gym, which is the reason I, you know, set my alarm.
I know better than to be passive-aggressive. I know better than to yell at my husband, and knowing better doesn't always translate to doing better. And the answer then isn't that we're being obstinate or I think we often interpret those situations with our kids in a very like, centering of ourselves way. They don't respect me. They don't respect me. Right.
[00:37:06] Adam Grant:
Like if I have, how dare you not follow my rules?
[00:37:06] Becky Kennedy:
Yeah, right. Like if my husband cooked dinner and was like, I knew it and I just, like, couldn't stop myself from having chocolate before. I don't think anyone thinks like, “You just must not respect your husband.”
Like what? Like I just couldn't control my urge to have chocolate. Like this isn't about him. Right? So I think, like, we should decenter ourselves and I still think the same types of interventions apply. So here's where I would go. Like I think family meetings are one of most underutilized interventions with kids.
And what do I mean by a family meeting? I would imagine you could tell me, Adam, if you suggest similar things in the workplace, because I actually say this when I'm teaching how to introduce it to kids. I would approach your kid the next day, not when the situation's hot. “Hey, you know, I'm thinking about bedtime,” and I'm like, “It's one of the very few rules we have is like bedtime means bedtime and that means lights out. But also the last few nights like we've found you reading with a light on and you know what? Like, I’m sure you have some ideas about this. I have some ideas and just like when I'm at work, when things don't go well, like we get a lot of smart minds in one room and talk it through and we always come to a good place. Let's do that.” Right?
And then like doing that and, and then there's like a little bit of a way that's helpful to run a family meeting. Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber talk a lot about this in their book How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and, and I just love it. Wanna give them credit for it, where they're like, “You actually get out a piece of paper and you write down the thoughts your kids have,” right?
Because like, if you ever imagined someone you're in an argument with like your wife or something, being like, “Adam, you seem upset about something. I wanna write down all of your points to me.” You'd be like, “We're good. Like, that's amazing. I love you.” Like all good now, right? It's just so respectful.
And then I'd say like, “Here's how I think about it. Tell me the parts about going to bed at the exact time I say that like, aren't working for you. I know you're a good kid, and I know you, like, respect me and this family. Like I know that we're on the same team. So when I found you reading the other night, there must have been something that compelled it. I'm not saying that's justification for doing it, but, but we definitely need to understand before we move forward. So tell me a little bit about that too.”
And, like, kids really feel heard. They feel of the family, they feel respected. And you know, one of, one of the things I think about human behavior more than anything else is we are all more attached to feeling seen than to any individual decision. But the opposite's true too. The more we don't feel seen and understood, the more we hold on to a specific stance or decision because it's the representation of our identity. And I think this plays out in politics, this plays out in marriages. It definitely plays out with kids. So the more your kids under—feel like, “Oh, that's why you're reading. You're really into that book.” Or, “You really want to talk about it with your teacher the next day.” Or, “You actually felt like you really weren't tired.” Uh, the more you understand that, the more your kids actually will be likely to cooperate, but maybe also you might learn something that would lead you to change your rules, not from a place of needing to quote “make your kids happy”, from, from a place of legitimately changing your mind.
[00:39:55] Adam Grant:
You know, even in any two-minute snippet of listening to you to see how valuable your wisdom is. And I'm just grateful that you're putting it out there for all of us who are muddling our way through trying to figure out how to raise adults when we don't even know if we're fully formed adults.
[00:40:09] Becky Kennedy:
Yes. Parenting and reparenting at the same time. Well, thank you for having me. Thank you for being a champion of my work. You've been such a, a powerful person for me to have in my corner, so thank you.
[00:40:17] Adam Grant:
You deserve it.
What I can't stop thinking about from this conversation is how we define success for the next generation. I know too many parents who wanna live vicariously through their kids. Of course, a lot of parents know better, but still make the mistake of assuming that their kids share their definition of success.
I love the idea of asking our kids, “How do you define success?” Because I think that's our job as a parent, right, to figure out what our kids want and then try to help support them in achieving it.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.
Our fact checker is Hana Matsudaira. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Well, you're welcome to come and correct my parenting anytime.
[00:41:28] Becky Kennedy:
Not correct. Not correct. Just add some nuance to and see if that resonates and you wanna use it. That is all. That is all.
[00:41:33] Adam Grant:
No, I wanna be corrected. I wanna get better at this.