Parenting Principles

Dr. Aliza Pressman’s new science-based book instructs on child and human development and here, she sits in conversation with Martha Stewart at 92NY.
Pressman and Stewart

Martha Stewart: You have helped so, so many people with seedlings and other things that you do for people. And thank you so much.

Aliza Pressman: Thank you for being here. I’m really excited for this.

MS: For me it’s terrific to be back here at 92nd Street New York Y and tonight as I said we’re talking to Dr. Aliza Pressman about her new book, The Five Principles of Parenting, just out today. She appeared on the Today show this morning, and the book on Amazon is No. 20 in the bestseller list which is amazing. Congratulations.  We’re also recording our conversation tonight to post on my podcast, the Martha Podcast on iHeart. So, I’ve known Aliza as a parent and as a parenting expert for a long time. She’s a developmental psychologist and the cofounder of Seedlings Group and the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. She hosts the popular podcast Raising Good Humans. That’s another coincidence. You and I both work at Mount Sinai. I have the Martha Stewart Center for Living for Geriatric Medicine. And you are dealing with children. 

AP: That’s right. Different age groups and the same principles.

MS: And by the way, Raising Good Humans has over 20 million downloads, and I must say this book would be very, very helpful in the Center for Living also. 

AP: Thank you. I think we can arrange that.

MS: I think we should have it there. So, welcome to my podcast. We’re here because we’re afraid that we have or will screw up our children. But Dr. Aliza Pressman is here to help all of us. So Aliza, have we screwed up our kids or are we in the process of doing so?

AP: No, we are not in the process of doing so, but we do need to take a beat and realize that it’s not as hard, the science is not as hard and complicated and precious about raising our kids. But in the process of holding on so tight and trying to make everything so perfect, we might actually be doing our kids and ourselves a disservice.

MS: Elaborate.

AP: OK. So, the science tells us there are five principles. Now obviously I’ve curated the science and it’s very robust, decades long. This is not my science. This is the science of child development and human development. So, there are five principles: relationship, reflection, regulation, rules and repair. And when you can sort of adhere to those more often than not, you really can do everything possible to not screw up your kids. And if we let ourselves have a little space to make mistakes in front of our kids, they realize that humans are making mistakes, we’re fallible. We make repairs and we move on. So a lot of this is about letting go of clinging to the [idea of] perfect parenting and recognizing that that’s actually getting in our way. 

MS: Well, from Dr. Spock, which I think I grew up on, and my mom has six kids. 

AP: I grew up on Dr. Spock.

MS: And Mom was so great. She just went for it. But she was a teacher, too. She had the essentials to struggling with an only child. That’s what I did. An only child. But now to mommy bloggers and there’s a plethora of parenting advice out there. What sets your book apart?

AP: I would say at first there are incredible researchers. There are incredible psychologists, scientists. I have wonderful colleagues. I just wanted to put them all under one roof and kind of clear away the noise. So I would say this book clears away the noise and gets down to what really matters. And then there’s a whole part of the book that’s about coming to terms with what your values are and what you care about. So, I’m not telling anybody what is important to them. That’s on every individual and every family. And then ideally the second half of the book just shows you how to put it into practice in the ways that we all kind of understand are happening from birth through adolescence. 

MS: Well, you have quite a roster of famous young mothers. I went to a party the other night for the book and every famous young mother was there at the party all relying on Dr. Aliza. I think it’s really fabulous, though, because people really do appreciate the advice you give. It’s not complicated, but it is very sensible. And how does your book really help parents rely less on parenting advice and more on common sense?

AP: I think by distilling the science and saying: Here’s what really matters. It’s five principles and that’s what’s in our control as parents. We can’t control our kids. We can’t control other people, as hard as it is to realize. But we can control ourselves. So, make sure that you control yourself in these ways. You pay attention to the relationships that you have. You reflect on your experience being parented and how that informed, maybe, how you interact in the world. And then you regulate so that you can kind of have control over your emotions in a way. Not to remove them, but just say I’m intentional about my emotions. I’m going to be able to make choices about my parenting and that are intentional and that you have rules because rules matter. We need boundaries. We need to set limits in the context of having a close relationship. And then when we screw up, do you say you’re screwing up kids? So, when we screw up, we make repairs. And it’s not that it’s like that for everything, even though of course in the book I go through all the different challenges that are pretty typical because I know that it’s hard to say how that translates in everyday moments. But I think over time ideally you’re getting fluent in this and it’s quite easy. What’s not easy is the emotional stuff that happens and the feelings that we have because we’re human. 

MS: So, in this world of such frequent divorce, separation, all kinds of stuff, I mean you’ve gone through that. You have two lovely daughters. How do you explain all of that to the kids?

AP: So, there are two things that I like to say that just remind us that the feelings themselves of hard events are not the problem. So, I like to say all feelings are welcome. All behaviors are not. So you’re allowed to have feelings including being really upset that your parents are getting divorced. The key is that you are safe to share those feelings with your parents, and that you have somebody who will just be there with you through the feelings. Not fix the feelings, not try to change the world around them so that they don’t have to go through the hard times, but kind of give them the tools, dress them for the weather that they’re experiencing. In the context of divorce, the kinds of stressors that come at us like divorce, like death, like war, like pandemics. They can be toxic. 

MS: Everything that we’re experiencing right this minute.

AP: Absolutely. Those are what can be when piled on or individually just highly stressful to the point of toxic stress. And that can over decades create health outcomes we don’t want. Mental illness and physical illness that we don’t want. But when you have one loving and supportive caregiver, and it only takes one, then you can move those stressors from being categorized as toxic to tolerable and that builds resilience. So, we want that, and that is the thing that when everybody is worried they’re screwing up, whether it’s because of divorce or because of the pandemic or because of some other issue, the question is, can I be there in a close relationship through all the things that are messy? And if you can, you’re not screwing up your kids. I mean they might end up in therapy, but that’s not a bad thing.

MS: Well, your background is in developmental psychology. What does that mean exactly?

AP: It means that I look at change over time and how we come to be who we are, which is different from, for example, clinical psychology, where you’re looking at psychopathology, kind of what’s going wrong. I’m not looking at what’s going wrong. I mean I might, but mostly I’m looking at how we did get here and what in the environment can we shift to support thriving? 

MS: So, the two kids in your family, you’re also a daughter of a divorced couple. 

AP: Sure am.

MS: And was that difficult for you?

AP: I mean I will say this research in my field there’s a saying, research is me search. So, I think it’s not a coincidence that I went into this field. I think having a colorful, wacky… I’m trying to think of the right words.

MS: You can say anything. I know your father well.

AP: It’s not you I’m worried about, but I think having those early experiences probably made me quite curious, like, how do we get to be who we are and how do we bounce back? So, my parents got divorced when I was 18 months old. I don’t remember my parents together. 

MS: Oh.

AP: I’m sure my nervous system remembers that experience of that separation, but I certainly don’t have any conscious memory of it.

MS: But was this your goal to study this all along? Through college and beyond?

AP: No, I failed Psych I in college because I didn’t understand freshman fall. This is not flattering, but I didn’t understand freshmen fall and that you had to drop a course you have to go to registration and tell them you dropped the course. 

MS: Oh, wow.

AP: So, that was not received well by my parents. And so I never looked at psychology again until after I finished college. I kind of took a range of psych courses, and when I took developmental psychology I just fell in love with this idea that we can understand who we are today by looking at our early experiences. 

MS: But you’re also certified in parent management training. What does that mean? 

AP: It’s the worst name. It’s a training program that they have at the Yale Child Study Center that is very much behavior oriented. So, you give positive feedback for behavior you want to see, and you give either no feedback or occasionally you obviously have to intervene for behaviors you don’t want to see. It’s not something that I pull out of my hat very often, but if somebody’s really struggling and their goal is compliance, like caring that your child is behaving versus maybe trying to understand the root of the behavior. If somebody says, “Look, I don’t care why it’s happening. I just want it to stop,” then I would pull that out of the hat and say, “OK, there is an option.” 

MS: Well, you’re so lucky because you started your practice in a time when universal kind of correspondence was so good. I mean we have Instagram, we have TikTok, we have just texting and emails. It makes it so much easier to communicate. So, how have you found that?

AP: There was something that happened, something combining social media, the pandemic and just probably the past blogging. All the things that have happened in the past that made communicating so easy. I think it’s a great thing; when it’s working, it brings parents together that need support. And unfortunately, the bad part of it is there’s this inundation of content and it’s not really vetted. You don’t really know who to trust or what to trust. And it’s not dissimilar to what’s going on in the news or anything else.

MS: I see. So, back to parenting itself. Why is perfect parenting the enemy of good parenting? 

AP: Now, when you say that, which I do say that in the book… 

MS: I thought I was such a good parent, but I was such a bad parent in retrospect—and I’m here for some therapy here too. This is most important for me.

AP: Let me ask you a question. 

MS: Not with the grandchildren, the grandchildren are great. 

AP: First of all, nobody cares about the kids once they have grandkids anyway.

MS: Right, fine.

AP: So, you work on that relationship and I think reflecting on what you feel like didn’t go well in your experience being parented, and then what happened in your experience as a mother will change your relationship with your grandchildren.

MS: Well, your book is so helpful actually. I do wish it had been there instead of Dr. Spock 56 years ago. It would have been a helpful book. How long did it take you to write this book?

AP: Two years.

MS: Only two years?

AP: Well, because I have so much content from the podcast and so much content from parent groups and experiences. So, it really was just like putting it all together because the whole first half of the book is really just curating the science for parents so that they don’t have to find the different places to get it.

MS: How do the new households affect parenting? I mean there are two male households. There are two female households. There’s divorced and un-divorced. There’s so many different kinds of households. Does it make it more difficult? Does it make it less difficult? At this party there was every kind of household, right? At the party you had last week.

AP: Yeah.

MS: Every kind of household. I couldn’t believe it. And all the guys were all gathered together. They all have lots of little kids running around and there’s not a woman in sight, but how does that really affect parenting? 

AP: So, we have looked at this and the key is you really only need one caregiver.


AP: It doesn’t matter what their gender is. One caregiver where you feel really loved and safe and seen and connected. Great if you have two. Great if you have more people in your life, but you need one. And when you’re missing that one, you can even seek that out as you get older in a coach or a teacher or an aunt, depending. So, really the thing that we worry about is I’m divorced. I’m a single parent. I’m a single-sex household. I’m all these different things that don’t feel traditional, but that’s not actually impacting kids. What impacts kids is the relationship and that’s the thing that we have to focus on. And we try to focus on those things. I remember I didn’t want to get divorced even though it was the right thing for our family. I thought that was not good for kids. 

MS: Right.

AP: But when you peel back the research, the problem is not the actual divorce. It’s the issues with finance. It’s issues with the co-parents not getting along and having tension, putting the kids in between. The issue isn’t the actual single-parent household.

MS: What are the most common dilemmas that you hear from parents or a parent because you probably have a lot. How many single parents do you have? A lot probably.

AP: I have fewer single parents, but I do have single parents. I will say I usually don’t have both parents contacting me. It’s usually one parent. 

MS: One parent.

AP: Yeah, and then maybe they tell the other parent and I don’t know that they deliver the message accurately. I feel like sometimes it’s just like, “That’s what Aliza said.” I think the biggest pain point for parents right now is balancing how to have a close relationship with also having boundaries and rules that are helping them be members of society. And so the discomfort in that, like seeing your child uncomfortable is really hard for people, which makes sense. It’s hard, but when we fix everything and make it easy, we don’t give them the opportunity to know that feelings that are, the challenges are survivable.

MS: And what kind of lessons can grandparents learn from your book?

AP: Well, the same lessons. That your relationship is what’s important. That when you pause and don’t just react and you really listen to what this human needs. I actually think one cool thing for grandparents is to really take the opportunity because you’re not in the same, the tension is not the same, as when you’re a parent and you’re like, it’s all on me. And so you can enjoy these children in a different kind of way. You can also say, let me get to know you. I’m not going to turn you into the person I want you to be. I’m going to get to know who you are so you can be the person you are. And because I know you obviously are a gardener, I mean who’s better at gardening? It’s not dissimilar in the sense that there are different kinds of plants. There are different kinds of flowers. They need different care. And it’s the same thing with children and their temperament. Some children need a different kind of care than others. Even just paying attention to your two different grandchildren. Did they come into the world just sort of with a different way of being and responding? Is one more sensitive than the other one? Does one get more upset easily? 

MS: Pay attention, right?

AP: Yeah.

MS: Definitely. So, the first half of your book lays out your five principles. The five R’s of parenting. It sounds like the five D’s of going public. You know, death, dementia and you know.

AP: I don’t know those.

MS: Oh, they’re terrible. They’re terrible. The five D’s. I had to write that. You have to write them in your prospectus when you’re going public. 

AP: Oh, my gosh. 

MS: Yes, it’s horrible. But let’s talk through the five R’s carefully.

AP: OK. 

MS: Relationships.

AP: Figuring out how you connect is really key, so you don’t ever think about how you best connect with the kids, the grandkids. Let’s do the grandkids.

MS: Yes, let’s do the grandchildren. The child is way gone. I’m just joking. She’s a fantastic mother and I think she follows a lot of your tenets actually. And that she wouldn’t have such amazing children if she weren’t a great mother and paid attention to these things. It reminded me that I hadn’t paid attention to those things. Yes, relationships. You have to really just distinguish what they are and pay attention to what they are.

AP: I think do you notice when you feel…

MS: We’re going to turn this into a therapy session?

AP: I know. Tell me a bit about the experience being connected. No, you don’t need to do that, but I am curious. I think it’s just something to think about. What helps you connect? What makes you feel like, “I like being here”? I feel connected.

MS: Well, giving them something that they wouldn’t get otherwise. Like the floor seats at the Kings game or the Celtics. You know I can deliver that. I can deliver that to the kid then he can invite friends to come along. Then all is well. For a moment. For a moment. Remember that grandparents and parents, too, I mean it really does help actually, but it’s not about the gifts so much. It’s about the experience of the gifts. 

AP: So, that’s one way that you find that you can kind of draw them in and laugh together and enjoy each other.

MS: Right. And that really does help. And not forcing them to do things because they don’t want to be forced. Children do not want to be forced to do things. 

AP: I mean it depends because if it’s something they should be doing like service to others, going to school, taking the dishes to the sink and putting them in the dishwasher, being kind to someone. You can still make—that’s a moment where they might not want to be. It’s not a choice. That’s one of the rules where there are a lot of things where dragging them unnecessarily doesn’t build the connection.

MS: Right.

AP: And I think being comfortable that sometimes, it’s a have-to and sometimes it’s not. And deciding that’s your values. Like I wouldn’t be able to decide what is a have for you. 

MS: Well, it’s hard to. I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to be like a grandparent. I don’t like to be pushy.

AP: A have-to.

MS: I don’t want to be a have-to. I don’t want to have to do that. 

AP: That’s actually good advice for grandparents. Maybe for grandparents the have-to is not super helpful.

MS: Reflection.

AP: So, reflection I think is a very unsung hero of these principles because it really just requires taking a breath and thinking about what you want. What your goals are. What your intentions are. And what your past experiences were. So, if there’s something in your childhood that you didn’t really make sense of, it’s going to come out in your relationships. So, reflection is hard. A lot of people just want to skip it. Do you ever do that, is what I mean?

MS: No, like what?

AP: Really thinking about how, what was your life like when you were a kid. 

MS: It was great. 

AP: And so if it was great, were you trying to replicate that experience? Were you wondering why that wasn’t happening? 

MS: It was very different being on, having six kids running around a house.

AP: Yeah, more than one.

MS: And not very much money and one child running around a house with more money. And more opportunities, more travel, more excitement. But my life was so exciting. It was so nice with six kids running around. 

AP: It was fun. 

MS: Yeah, it was more fun. More inclusive, I think, instead of exclusive. So that has to be really pointed out to parents, I think.

AP: t really does make a difference to just even think about it because it doesn’t mean, you know. But then the question is, so I have one child. How am I going to bring the inclusivity and the sense of community that I felt like I had when…

MS: Well apartment living is great. 

AP: You can find people.

MS: If you open up your doors and you have open hallways. I love that when I see that happening. I have a friend who does that and the kids are running in and out and it’s so nice. But it’s not always like that. 

AP: No. Especially now people are just much more insular and it’s less villagey. 

MS: So, reflection. What about regulation? Is that after rules?

AP: No. Before rules, you have to regulate. So a lot of people say, “How do I get my child to have self-regulation?” Self-regulation is just kind of your capacity to have intentional behaviors, intentional emotions. You’re goal oriented. You’re not just using your primitive brain and being reactive all the time. You’re not flying off the handle at the barista for messing up. Because you can take a moment and say is that going to serve me or anybody else around me? Probably not. And so if you struggle with that it’s something to work on, so that your kids can learn from borrowing your nervous system. That’s co-called regulation. But if you haven’t figured out how to regulate yourself, it’s hard for the kids to learn.

MS: Oh.

AP: It’s also highly associated with the positive outcomes that we think about. So, it’s actually more predictive than IQ of academic success.

MS: And rules.

AP: OK, rules are just an R word for boundaries and setting limits. So, the boundaries are what’s interpersonal between us and limits your behavior.

MS: And should that be done by the parents?

AP: Yeah. If it’s not done, if you’re just in a close relationship but you have no rules, it doesn’t feel safe.

MS: And repair when other things go wrong, is that what happens?

AP: Yeah. When there’s a disconnection it’s bringing you back to being connected. And that’s going to happen all the time. We’re never always connected. So just believing and showing your kids that we come back and we’re steady and sometimes we’re having a moment where we’re disconnected. But then we come back together and I think that’s one that helps us not feel like things are perfect. There’s something to that because so many things that you do have to be perfect or they just wouldn’t work as well. Well, but this is not the—relationships can’t be and so they have to be able to come back to connection. I don’t know that that would be true in a garden. I’m not sure because I have never kept plants alive or gardened or grown flowers or trees or orchards or anything.

MS: Well which leads to repair I guess. If you have trouble with that it leads to resilience. Now is resilience important?

AP: I mean I think the key is that these…I chose the five principles that are very highly linked with resilience. And resilience is like you can bounce back in the face of setbacks and adversity and you know deep stress and trauma. So, resilience is super important. It’s not something that you just have as a quality. It’s something you need to have support for. And there’s also life circumstances that make it harder. 

MS: So when a parent gets sick? 

AP: Yeah. 

MS: And so you have to have resilience. You have to put on a good face or whatever you have to do to make your children not feel uncomfortable, right.

AP: Or let them know that feeling of discomfort is OK and it makes sense. And you’ll be there to talk to them about it and hold them through it, but that you’re not trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

MS: So the hallmarks of a resilient child?

AP: There are qualities that we have, these principles are totally in our control. There are skills that we can build in our kids that are very much resilience building: gratitude, autonomy, motivation, empathy and self-regulation. Those are skills that are very much linked with resilience, bouncing back. 

MS: So, that’s a skill, not a quality. 

AP: So some people, sure. There are dandelions that are just like they came out of the womb and they are just like, I don’t need anything but a bit of sunlight, water and soil and I’m growing anywhere. But for the most part, if you’re not a dandelion, your resilience comes from building these skills and you have to exercise the muscles to get those skills. 

MS: Some kids are just so nice. I mean as a grandma I entertain the friends of my grandchildren. I try to do that on a regular basis and I find some kids to just be so great and some are not so great, but they are so pleasant and so caring and so nice to their friends. And that kind of camaraderie with their peers is so delightful. But is that just inborn or is that developed? 

AP: A lot of things are developed because you can have a temperament. You might bend a little bit more thoughtful, but usually you also have someone modeling that for you and having that expectation. Over time you get a feedback loop that it feels good because it does feel good. And so there’s a better connection. But there are some kids, of course I mean sometimes you just come out and you’re just a certain way. But for the most part we can help.

MS: Watch Fargo. Dark Side. OK, forget that. I’ve never seen such rotten children as in Fargo. Have you ever had to deal with anything that bad? 

AP: Like with children or myself?

MS: Yeah, child or I mean there’s some, a client.

AP: Typically there’s a reason behind it. Like it doesn’t just…

MS: Oh, questions from the audience. So, this is good. Typically what?

AP: So I would say typically if a child is developing, they go through phases. So sometimes you go through a rotten phase, but with loving support and with your parents believing your behavior is rotten, but you are not rotten. That’s important because you don’t want to name, you don’t want to call out and shame who a person is. You might say their behavior is unacceptable, but their core is acceptable. I think that’s the difference between kids who can realize they can do better and kids who are like, I guess I’m terrible. 

MS: So what I get from the book when having read it is the overarching goal is to really build resiliency in a human being. So those hallmarks, what are they for a resilient child? 

AP: Well I mean it’s a bounce-back ability.


AP: You know when you have a setback can you come back from it? Now that doesn’t mean you’re not going to have trouble, that it’s not going to hurt, that you’re not going to feel hard feelings. It just means that you can weather the storms.

MS: The second half of your book gives examples of how to apply the five principles to any common parenting situation. So, you talk about tempest versus crisis. 

AP: I’m just thinking we can translate any of these and use those questions. We can use any scenario. But really what I try to do is think, OK. From every parent that I’ve talked to and being a parent from birth through adolescence, what are each of the points where somebody comes to me and says this is really hard. It’s so often the same thing and it’s just finding out we are not alone. This is happening for a lot of us and there are ways to respond. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get the outcome that you are looking for in that moment. It really is a long game. I would think of this as a marathon.

MS: OK, we have questions from the audience. 


MS: Do you want to answer some of these? Dr. Aliza, when my kids test me by not putting a coat on I ignore it. But if we’ve got to go, I end up losing my temper. Any chips? Roy in Brooklyn.

AP: How old are the kids? They must be young. 

MS: They’re 6 years old and 4 years old. That’s pretty young.

AP: That’s pretty young so I think one of the things is, you can just decide. This is what my expectation is: that you’re putting on a coat. If you’re not putting your coat on and I don’t have time to argue, you can hold your coat. We’ll go outside. When you get cold you’ll put your coat on. And then that is all about our own regulation. Why is it worth getting angry about? 

MS: Why argue about that? 

AP: Right. 

MS: It’s just a coat.

AP: It’s almost like deciding what really matters and don’t waste your time arguing about the stuff that’s just annoying. 

MS: Catching the bus is more important than putting your coat on.

AP: Yes. Unless it’s, you know, going somewhere terrible. 

MS: Oh. How do you manage anger outbursts?

AP: From yourself or from the child? 

MS: I don’t know. It doesn’t say. 

AP: OK. Interestingly, it’s the same thing.

MS: Both. I heard both.

AP: OK, thank you. It’s the same. You would do the same thing. So, when there’s an anger outburst you want to regulate yourself and recognize this alarm system that we have. So, if you think about how we tell ourselves if there’s an emergency and we need to be angry, we need to fight, that’s fight, fight or freeze. That’s what a stress response is. So, if a child is having an angry outburst most likely it’s because they’re having a stress response. Something is making them feel like they are threatened. They don’t like something, something doesn’t feel good, something makes them angry. So they go into that outburst because they don’t have self-regulation yet. They don’t have that skill. And so if we as the parent can regulate ourselves, even if our child is having the outburst, then we can come toward them with what they need and they borrow our nervous system. We don’t need to meet them like a tornado and get everybody in a bigger outburst. 

MS: Right.

AP: And over time they catch that. They catch that we don’t think it’s an emergency. When they’re upset and angry and screaming, we might say if they’re older like this is untenable to me because I can’t, I don’t want to be treated like this. So, get your feelings out. Just do them elsewhere and then we’ll talk when you’re calmer because I can’t be yelled at like this. But for younger kids they really just need help regulating. And it might be as simple as putting your hand on your heart or running your hand under cold water or something that engages your parasympathetic nervous system. Because that tells your body there’s no threat. You could take a nap and that’s what you need. 

MS: When I was growing up the most popular book was Cheaper by the Dozen. Do you know what that is? 

AP: Yeah.

MS: OK, so that’s about a family that lived in Montclair, New Jersey. I grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, with six kids in my family, but in Cheaper by the Dozen, they had 12 kids in the family. So, is it better to have more kids? Less kids? One kid? What do you think is OK? As a doctor, what do you think? 

AP: It depends on your goals. One thing is just simply: Do you have the resources? And another thing is what you feel like you can manage. We don’t see differences, for example, in singleton children and multi-children when it comes to their social skills. In the long run.

MS: You don’t. 

AP: No, but in the short run you need a little help and you need to bring kids around and help for socialization purposes. But it doesn’t have an impact in the long term. You can have as many or as few kids as you want if you have the capacity. It’s much more, again, about the relationship.

MS: The question here is: What do you do after you’ve had a fight with your kid? How do you speak? How do you separate the values that you want to raise your kids with from the ones that raised you?

AP: So, that’s reflection and that’s really just making a decision about what I like to do. Bless you. I like to call on a very old trick in this field, which is a family mission statement or a family value statement. And sit down and just first write for like five minutes.

MS: So write the stage. 

AP: Write down all of the words you can think of that matter to you about what you know, what kind of values you have. And then when you see repeated things, circle them and come up with three or four that really, really matter. And just say in this household we value, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no right or wrong, but I mean there’s some wrong. But you just want to know so that you can focus your rules, your boundaries, your limits and how you make decisions around that mission statement. And then you can only do that if you have the reflection of, what did my family value? Like in my household maybe it was education, grades and what’s the third value? Education, grades and kindness. And now I’m raising my kids and I want to be joy. I’m trying not to put anything in anybody’s mind.

MS: Right.

AP: But something else. The three older ones that aren’t aligned. Then you need to figure out OK, I know what my values are. These are going to be the rules and values in my house. 

MS: How do you prepare a toddler for a second child? 

AP: Wow. OK. You wait until you’re showing or talking about a baby. Or if you’re adopting a baby you wait until you’re telling everybody and talking about it. And then you can say, very straightforward, that first relationship. So you connect with your child like, I love you. We’re very excited. Here’s some news. This is what’s happening. And lay out the plan. They don’t really understand time, so you might say something like it’s winter now and when it becomes springtime and the weather gets warmer we’re going to have a baby. And then don’t spend the rest of the time just fixated on forcing that connection. Like, this is going to be the best friend. This is going to be amazing. You sort of don’t make it the center of everything and slowly build.

MS: That’s good. Can you talk more about the social media pressure to be a perfect parent in these times.

AP: Yeah, I feel so much for parents and I’m a parent too, but I do not pressure myself to be perfect. This is like the one thing that I would say I’ve really been clinging to, which is we do our kids a disservice when we are perfect because then they don’t know that they’re allowed to not be perfect. So, I think when you see this stuff on social media you have to remind yourself that we make a choice about the same thing we’ll teach our kids. We make a choice about what we show in social media. We’re not just showing everything. And you know, unless your whole thing is to show how imperfect you are, then you’re going to put whatever best face forward seems perfect. Or maybe it’s even a parenting account that makes it feel like every moment has to be perfect and I think we all need to just embrace the fact that perfect is harmful and the imperfect is actually better. And so if you are a perfectionist and you’re like, well, I want to get this perfect, then you’d best make mistakes in front of your kids.

MS: How do you emotionally respond to a toddler throwing a temper tantrum?

AP: You can see how you really only need five principles because I’m going to stay the same thing again, which is OK. I have to regulate myself. This toddler is not being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. Everybody is safe. This is a feeling and I’m going to do what I need to remind myself of that. I’m a big hand-on-heart person because that makes me feel a little bit like a little oxytocin hit. That’s a little thing that some people do. Some people get annoyed by it. You have to know yourself. Whatever you can do to take a breath and tell yourself there is not an emergency. I don’t need to chase this toddler around to make this toddler feel better. I can just be available and let them know that I’m here through my nervous system, even if they’re screaming. And when they’re ready they come to you and they might need a hug. But you don’t need to chase the feeling and fix it by giving them the blue cup when they want it. Or changing everything around or moving your seat because they’re so upset. You can just understand that sometimes it’s very hard to be a toddler.

MS: Here’s a good one. My kids are 13 and 16. Is it too late? 

AP: Oh, my god no. I mean we’re talking about a parent. 

MS: No, it’s not too late. 

AP: No, it’s never too late. That’s the cool thing about being human. We are constantly growing and changing and it’s never too late.

MS: When it comes to punishment or consequences in negotiating the type of punishment, which is more damaging? This is a teenager problem. They write: “Example: no cellphone.”

AP: As a punishment?

MS: Then your child says how long? One week or two weeks? Negotiating one week or two weeks with it. I mean, it doesn’t work, does it?

AP: Typically punishment for the sake of punishment is not effective. You want the consequences to be logical or natural. So, if it’s natural because you’re taking the phone away because they were sending selfies that were inappropriate or they were bullying somebody it’s appropriate to say, “You’re not ready for this phone right now so I need to take it because I need to protect you developmentally. And we’ll take a break. You were misusing it and we’ll get back to it.” And that’s it. And that’s where rules are really important and if you want to talk to them about how long feels reasonable that’s OK. But don’t keep changing it. Just make a decision, Empathize with them because it stinks to have your phone taken away. And then accept that they’re going to be really mad at you and you’re going to love them anyway and you’ll get past it and repair.

MS: Any rules about when they should get a phone, when they should get an iPad? I mean schools are giving out iPads when you’re in kindergarten now. And of course they’re regulated content, but what do you do about a cellphone?

AP: I mean I would push a cellphone off as long as possible until it’s just socially really problematic. But we’re learning every year. We don’t actually have great data yet, but every time anything comes out it’s typically letting us know to take a little bit longer. And just because you have a phone doesn’t mean you can have social media. And just because you have a phone doesn’t mean that you have access to it all the time. So, parents have to also be ready to monitor the phones. I feel like maybe my child had the developmental skills but I did not have the time as a mother to focus on helping them learn to use the phone properly. So, I punted. 

MS: What do you do when your children will not listen?

AP: It all depends. First, decide what really matters to you and then when they’re not listening—first of all there’s a whole lot of this is all in the book so we won’t go too deep into it—but let’s just say if your goal is compliance like, I just want this kid to listen, then make sure that you’re very clear about the rules. That you’re not throwing a thousand things at them and that when you ask them or tell them what to do versus what not to do you’re helping them understand how to behave in the world. Not just telling them no, no, no, no all the time. And then when they do listen let them know you notice. But the other thing is if they’re not listening all the time and there’s absolutely no consequence, like no natural consequence to not listening, they don’t really have a reason to listen. If you’re like, clean the dishes or you can fill in the blank and they’re like no, and then they go do whatever they want: Why would they listen? I think they’re very smart not to listen. So, I think we have to say that we can decide what’s important to us and just say OK, until you do the dishes the things that you want to be doing are just not available. 

MS: My parents, when I wouldn’t drink milk, we had to sit there at the table until we drank our glass of milk. It was horrible. I sat there one night for six hours. And then I drank the milk because I wanted to go to bed.

AP: Because you wanted to go to bed.

MS: Yeah. 

AP: So, what did you do for six hours?

MS: I listened to the radio. The radio was on. You know we listened to some radio I guess. I have no idea what I did. But by then the milk was so horrible. It was warm, almost sour. I think my parents were good parents because they didn’t give up on something so stupid as having to drink milk. 

AP: I mean that’s another way to look at it, which is maybe for them that was super important but maybe to another parent they really don’t care about the milk. I’m not going to make it a rule. So then we’re not going to negotiate because I think a lot of times we make rules and we can’t stick to them. 

MS: I mean when you have six kids, yeah. You’re just drinking, drinking their milk and that’s pretty bad. You waste six glasses of milk. So I don’t know. I thought it was smart after I thought about it. I thought it was smart of them.

AP: Did it work?

MS: Yeah. Oh, we always drank our milk.

AP: There you go. 

MS: Always drank our milk. I do not drink milk now. 

AP: You never will. I feel like that’s very telling.

MS: What should parents keep in mind when trying to communicate with a teenager? 

AP: That we are brilliant and wise and know exactly what they’re going through. But we need to just zip it. 

MS: Zip it. 

AP: Being curious and listening is much more effective.

MS: For parents trying to break generational cycles, where do you start?

AP: Reflection.

MS: OK, so sometimes you see a family where one child seems to have some strong, confident adult and where a sibling is really struggling. What does that indicate?

AP: Temperament. I think that’s temperament?

MS: Not genetics, not environment. 

AP: Well that temperament is in a sense like it’s your DNA. But if you think about it, if I have a temperament there’s something in the research called goodness of fit. If a parent is really a good fit for one kid who just kind of came out and responds to the world in one way and it just makes more sense for that parent, then that child might get a little bit more of what they need than the child who the parent is not interested in or just doesn’t understand. 

MS: How does a parent actually become just kind to each child? I mean my mom was so kind to each of us and treated us all equally, even though we were so unequal. We could never understand how she could be so fair. But she was and it was so great. And when you think about it, it’s an amazing way to be. So, she must have been a good parent, right? 

AP: You are the only one who knows this.

MS: I guess so.

AP: I think that’s it and for us to know, to feel, to decide. It’s hard. 

MS: I think all six of us thought that she was a really great parent. The father not so much, but the mother was. 

AP: But the mother, but you only needed one. 

MS: Yeah, only one. She was the one. How nice. Now I’m understanding my youth. This is so great. How is parenting different now than it was 10 years ago? I see a lot of differences.

AP: You do?

MS: Oh, yeah.

AP: Tell me what you see.

MS: Well I just see laxity. I see parents, now two parents working instead of one parent working. Less attention. My brother, who’s a dentist, noticed that there’s a lot of tooth decay when mothers went to work. Lots more tooth decay.

AP: What?

MS: Because moms didn’t tell their kids to brush their teeth as much as they used to. 

AP: You are so bold sometimes. 

MS: It’s funny, isn’t it. 

AP: That’s a really interesting observation. It would be a really good study.

MS: I know it would but he was a dentist, so he probably has read studies about it, too. But he noticed it.

AP: So in general the research is not for or against working families.

MS: No, it shouldn’t be.

AP: If you have the resources, it can often be beneficial when both parents work. But I do think that in the last 10 years some combination of the influx of information and the almost commodification of this relationship and the optimization culture of parenting has kind of exploded. Which is why I was very hesitant to write a book because it’s hard. I want to provide information and support, but not so much that we become rigid and feel like this all has to be micromanaged, but not so little that you’re just left on your own. 

MS: Obviously from the questions we got, we need it. We need help.

AP: No, we shouldn’t be left alone for this. Long ago we used to have a whole community that was not online. It was just…

MS: No, we had our grandparents, we had our great-grandparents. We had all kinds of people around us. 

AP: And we really need that. It’s not fair to do this alone.

MS: It’s very difficult. Why should parents not be friends with their children? 

AP: Well, you could. They can be friends with you—but it cannot be reciprocal. You never want your child to take care of your emotions. You’re there to take care of their emotions. They can share their secrets with you, but it becomes a boundary issue when they’re like, I need to take care of the grown-up in my life or they won’t be OK. That doesn’t feel safe. 

MS: Remember that? And I think that’s very important advice. 

AP: Yeah, it’s hard because it’s fun. Especially as they get older.

MS: Don’t live their lives, right? Live your own life.

AP: Absolutely. 

MS: That’s very important to say. I know many people have questions. Any other questions coming through? These were very good questions.

AP: I think they were very good questions. 

MS: So if you could only give one piece of advice what would it be?

AP: I think it would be—can I give two choices.?

MS: Yeah, you can give two. 

AP: OK. I think it would be to remind ourselves that more often than not, we are the parents we want to be and that is good enough. Or all feelings are welcome. All behaviors are not. The end, I think. Or you get the whole book, which would be better. 

MS: Any other questions? Yes. 

Audience member: Do you have any other tips for nervous system regulation? 

AP: I have an entire chapter on that with lots of lists because that is a thing that I do that is annoying. There are other things that you can do. I put regulation exercises at the end of each chapter because that seems to be the thing. All of this sounds great until you’re not, so it’s also practicing every day when you’re not dysregulated. Like taking time every day to do something that exercises the muscle, which is why meditation is awesome. But most parents don’t have time or don’t feel like they have time, so I try to find micro moments. Anything that makes you have a practice of reminding yourself that you can breathe is incredibly effective. But you have to do it every day and that’s annoying. I mean, I like it and it doesn’t always work because then something gets thrown at you and you lose it. But when you practice every day, it just reminds your whole body that you’re able to turn off the alarm system. I talk about the passcode to your internal alarm system and that space when you’re walking into a house with an alarm. That beeping sound that happens before you punch in the passcode. That’s your cue—cue and clue to know that you’re about to lose it and you need to do a couple of things that will stop you from losing it so there won’t be a false alarm. And that’s why if you’ve practiced every day you get really good at it or decent at it. It’s a skill. 

MS: Any other questions? 

Audience member: Doctor, how do you feel about humor as a defense? Dealing with the trials and tribulations of a crazy-ass toddler.

AP: I think all humor, by the way, is on the list of things that regulate your nervous system. Laughing is really important. We can all feel—you couldn’t laugh and be under threat. Your body would go into fight, flight or freeze. It wouldn’t just sit and giggle. So that’s a cue and you know it lets you know I’m safe. I can laugh. And so I think it’s a great mechanism and you provide.

MS: Well, this has been so informative and I know it will help many, many people. Our podcast listeners can find The Five Principles of Parenting wherever you buy books. Thank you so much, Dr. Pressman. Dr. Aliza. Good luck with the book and good luck with your practice.