We’ve all felt feelings of irritation, shame, embarrassment, or frustration in our parenting journeys. In her new book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, award winning journalist, Katherine Lewis, shares what she learned through years of interviewing parents, teachers, and kids to learn what works and what doesn’t work from the top parenting, classroom management, rehabilitation, and brain science experts. Her discoveries about the modern state about bad behavior are fascinating and not meant to shame. Instead this book provides much needed insight for parents trying to navigate tricky behavioral situations to work with their children towards better solutions that include responsibility within limits.
After reading her book, I had the opportunity to ask Katherine some questions about her game-changing strategies for discipline and I’m pleased to share the interview with you.
The Good News About Bad Behavior: Interview with Author Katherine Lewis
Leticia Barr- In your book, you say that children have fundamentally changed. Can you share your thoughts on how this has happened? Is this why parenting is harder?
Katherine Lewis– Children are less able to sit still, control their impulses and emotions, cooperate with adults and follow instructions. I heard this over and over in my interviews with parents, educators and psychologists, in the five years I spent reporting this book. It also shows up in the statistics on anxiety, depression and ADHD. The National Institutes of Health reports that 1 in 2 kids will have a mood or behavioral disorder or a substance addiction by age 18.
It’s impossible to concretely prove why this happened, but my research suggests three very powerful changes in our society that coincide with the time over which children have lost this ability to self-regulate. One, the decline in unstructured play and independent play times. Children used to roam neighborhoods in mixed-age packs, in which they would learn social skills, cooperation and even develop skills like abstract thought. Now, they’re supervised almost all the time, with an adult intervening to be sure they’re safe and conflict free. They don’t get as much chance to take small risks, solve their own problems, and enjoy the feeling of competence that comes with autonomy.
Second, the growth of media and technology, which turns our focus from our intrinsic desires and interests to those external forces and motivations. Kids are looking to reality TV and YouTube stars to figure out what their goals should be, instead of seeking to understand what truly fills them with purpose. Third, kids are unemployed. They don’t have after school jobs — or even household jobs — because they’re so busy doing high-level homework, travel sports, intense music and arts. All those pursuits are wonderful, but they can’t fill you with a sense of belonging the way that fixing dinner for your family can.
This change in kids is definitely one reason parenting is harder now. But I also think we make it harder than it needs to be by putting pressure on ourselves to be perfect, to always have high-achieving well-behaved children, to feel that their performance is a reflection on our parenting abilities. If we could parent from a place of courage and confidence, instead of a place of fear, we would enjoy it more and our kids would feel less pressure. They’d be less likely to develop mental illness and, frankly, be happier. I try hard to avoid people who judge my parenting harshly and instead surround myself with friends who are compassionate, accepting and share my values around children and family.
Leticia- We’ve been asking “How do we get our kids to do what we want?” for a long time but in The Good News About Bad Behavior, you propose that the right question to ask is “Why can’t the kids do what we want?” Can you explain this a bit more?
Katherine- No child wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Today, I’m going to disappoint my parents and teachers!” Our children want to please us. They want to belong in the family. But if they don’t have the skills to do what’s needed, or they’re not finding healthy ways to belong, they act out or express their frustration in unhealthy ways. When we see a child not doing what they’re supposed to, if we get curious and investigate, we’ll usually find that there’s something getting in the way of doing what they’re supposed to do. Especially if you start young, with household chores and predictable routines, children will cooperate when they are ABLE to succeed. We also have to make sure we’re taking lots of opportunities to connect with children, first, before we start trying to correct their behavior.
Leticia- So many times we model the kinds of discipline styles our parents used that involves cracking down on behavior. If this undermines self discipline, how do we change our discipline strategies from what we know in order to produce capable, confident adults?
Katherine– This is such a huge challenge for me, personally, and many of the parents I interviewed. For me, it’s been an incremental series of changes, which started with me taking more time to respond instead of reacting to a child’s behavior. So instead of jumping right in with my angry punishment or desperate pleading to do the right thing, I gather myself and respond in a more calm and intentional way. I’ve seen how much better the results are when I’m patient and collaborative, instead of trying to be the boss. Other parents prefer the “rip the bandaid off” approach and they simply drop all their bad habits, and see how much their children are able to do on their own, without nagging, prodding, threatening or bribing. That gives a fresh start from which to build new habits.
Leticia- Talk to me about the digital age we’re living in. In Chapter 2 of The Good News About Bad Behavior, An Epidemic of Misbehavior you follow a family in Texas, observing teen girls using social media. I was fascinated by your observations and the things the girls said about passive social uses, actively keeping up with Snapchat streaks, and social comparisons. Based on your observations, do you feel that the digital age we’re living in detrimental to our kids’ behavior?
Katherine- I do think the digital age presents unique challenges. There’s powerful research showing that for adults and children alike, social media and always-on technology contributes to distraction, attention problems, depression, anxiety and narcissism. The more we use technology intentionally, the better. For instance, when I pick up my smartphone, I try to say: “I’m going to check the time of the movie” or “I’m going to spend 10 minutes posting to Facebook.” That way, I’m more aware of my behavior and I use it less mindlessly. And as you say, if we can use social media to post or to connect with friends, rather than passively scrolling, research suggests it’s less damaging to mental health.
That said, our children are digital natives, so we can’t try to stay completely ahead of them in controlling and blocking technology. They’ll just sneak around, through Finsta (Fake Instagram) accounts and the like. We do need to have healthy limits that are negotiated with our children, so that technology is used as part of a healthy balance of activities. We should have an ongoing conversation with our children about technology use and the risks and benefits, so they also start to use it intentionally and mindfully.
Leticia- What can parents of teens do, knowing that interactions on social media is a huge part of our kids’ social lives? Is it too late for them to embrace the play that you describe as being so important for self regulation?
Katherine– It is NEVER too late! Even teenagers can be silly and goofy and physical, whether joking around or playing a game like ping pong or basketball. They love hugs and roughhousing, even though they may not admit it. Keep offering hugs and cuddles, and look for activities that let you interact without screens, even something as simple as a walk around the block or a trip to the coffee shop together. It’s fine to play video games or watch TV together, too, just in balance with other activities.
Leticia- How has the experience of writing this book changed the way you parent your own 3 daughters?
Writing a book about parenting keeps you very honest about the way you want to raise your children! I have gotten better at letting things go, stepping back and allowing my children to make their own mistakes, knowing that it’s the only way they can truly learn. I also have had my resolve strengthened to ignore my impulses toward competitive parenting, and instead focus on their character and our relationship.
Leticia- What is one thing that you think all parents can do tonight at home with their kids to create connections, build community, and encourage capability?
Ask your kids what’s one thing they’ve been wanting to learn that you can teach them. Then do it together. Maybe they want to weed the lawn with you, or cook a fancy meal, or take apart a household appliance. My youngest daughter loves to organize the silverware drawer and even color coordinated the crayons. Often kids will be drawn to a slightly dangerous task, with a flame or sharp knife. Follow their interests and you may be surprised how much fun you have together doing something really simple.
I received an advance copy of The Good News About Bad Behavior for the purposes of this interview but no compensation was received. Amazon affiliate links are included in this post.