Dr. Aliza Pressman’s new book has an ambitious title. It’s called “The 5 Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans.” Raising good humans using five principles? I’m happy if my kids put their laundry in the hamper.
Thankfully, the book itself is refreshing and non-scolding — a comprehensive yet accessible departure from so much parenting content out there. Pressman is a developmental psychologist, co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center in New York City, and she hosts the Raising Good Humans podcast, discussing everything from vaping to the upsides of anxiety. I highly recommend it.
So, how do we raise good humans in a world that feels not-good a lot of the time? I’m writing this right after a mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine. News from the Middle East is terrifying. Closer to home, my son’s middle school is discussing suicide this week, dovetailing with Bullying Prevention Month. A few days ago, 33 states including Massachusetts sued Meta Platforms, which runs Facebook and Instagram, for harming young people’s mental health and contributing to the youth mental health crisis by knowingly designing features that addict kids to its platforms. If I can’t stop scrolling long enough to watch “The Morning Show,” what hope does my 7th-grader have?
Pressman’s book comes out in January, but she gave me a preview of her five principles — relationships, reflection, regulation, rules, and repair — at a critical time.
I don’t think anybody sets out to raise a jerk, but then your kids go to school — and who knows what’s going on when you’re not watching them? I’m pretty sure that my middle-schooler isn’t ever actively mean. I do wonder if he knows how to stand up for other kids. That’s murkier.
An urgent part of adolescence is to get it wrong — and then knowing that, if you made a mistake, the world doesn’t end, and that your parents don’t hate you, and that your friends forgive you. It’s part of the process of figuring out who you are and what it feels like in your body to make somebody feel bad or to be quiet when you see somebody being harmed. It’s about having developmentally appropriate expectations. As a developmental psychologist, I try to look at change over time, and growth. This makes it a lot easier to forgive yourself and your kids when you look at it as a trajectory.
Absolutely true: As a parent, you think: “My kid did something wrong, and that means I, as a parent, messed up.” My son recently did something dumb on Snapchat. He and his buddy took a screenshot of someone’s crush and texted it to friends. And I thought: Maybe I’m not talking to him enough about social media hygiene. And then it’s like: Wait: What kind of kid do I even have?
Exactly that. It is not only OK to make mistakes, but it’s a necessary part of development that we don’t get to skip over.
But you’re going: What did I do as a mother? Why am I such a bad parent? How could this have happened? And then you write the story of the future. If this happened, am I going to have a predator?
So what do we do? You have a relationship with your child. You know who they are. Acknowledge: “What just happened was not OK, but I also love you, and I know something must’ve been going on for you. I want to figure out what that was.”
Once you allow them to unclench their hand and see that you still love them and that they’re not a bad kid, then you can have real conversations.
The next principle is reflection. Ask yourself: What is this making me feel? What is this bringing up in me? Is it reminding me of when I was disrespected as a young girl? Is it making me imagine that my child is going to be a future crappy boy, while you’re trying to raise a good boy — but he’s disrespecting girls? Are you thinking: “Oh, God, what have I done?” All that stuff is reflection.
Once you’ve taken the space to reflect, you can self-regulate. Make an intentional decision about how to respond to your child. In doing that, they’ll realize: “I’m allowed to be a growing person. This isn’t scary because my parents can handle it.”
The next principle is rules. You still have to say: “Hey. I might not have gone over these rules with you before, and I might be upset right now because I expected you to magically know them. But it’s a rule that you can’t behave like you did. I understand that you might not have understood that. How does this make you feel?”
That’s information. A pit in your stomach means you just screwed up, and you don’t like how it feels to have screwed up. Or, if your child actually got a great kick out of it, then you could say: “We have to really figure out how to help you learn empathy. We’re going to double down on empathy.” And this is OK: It’s a developing skill.
And then you make repairs if you screamed at him, or if he hurt someone with his behavior. If you just jump in with: “You did something horrible,” you put your child in the position of defending themselves, instead of in the position of thinking: “How can I do right by this person now? How can I make a repair?” And that takes so much courage. When you feel safe to make mistakes, you also feel safe to make repairs with another person.
What if your kid is repetitively doing bad things? What if you actually sense a pattern of dangerous behavior?
First of all, I think you give yourself a moment to feel pretty proud for being able to see that. Because one of the challenges, especially with bullying, is that a lot of parents whose kids are doing the harm either value that exact behavior because it’s powerful or they are just unwilling to see it. I think it’s worth pausing and saying: “I have a wonderful child who is acting unacceptably. How do we get back on track?”
The hard part is dealing with the fact that there are natural, logical consequences that have to be implemented in order to get your kid back on track. To do that, you’re probably going to upset them. And it’s hard, especially at this age where you’re so desperate to want to connect. It’s hard for them to be disappointed, and it’s hard to watch them be mad at you, but you have to take a look at who they’re hanging out with, how they’re spending their time, even looking at their [online] algorithms. You say to them: “My job is to get you back on track and figure out what’s going wrong, because on this path, you are causing harm to other people and that’s no good for you or the other person.”
Do you believe in taking their phone? How often do you monitor it?
I think that it’s going to be different for every parent-child dyad. If your child is pretty self-regulated and things are going well, you probably don’t have to check their phone very often. Every month, you can scroll through and just say, “I’m doing a check. I’m not lying about it.”
Whereas, if you’ve got a kid who’s doing harm, and certainly if it was through using screens, then you can say: “It makes sense to me that we’re taking a break from this right now because this was the device where the harm was done. You are not responsible enough right now to use this device in a way that’s safe for others and yourself. So we’re taking a break. I know that’s going to make you upset. I know it keeps you feeling stunted around your friends, and I’m going to work with you to get you back to being ready for it.”
You have to be able to sit in the discomfort of your child being disregulated when they have a rule that’s for their own good.
I feel like a lot of parenting information is fear-based, right? If you don’t do this, then that could happen. Can you talk a little bit about how to parent in a way that isn’t anxiety-driven?
I think self-compassion and compassion for your kids is probably the antidote to that. And I think the other antidote is having your parenting north star: What’s my mission? What do I care about? And going back to: This is not big-picture important. I’m getting stuck in the fear-based nonsense that’s out there.
I feel like we’ve pathologized parenting. We want to put everything into categories. I don’t blame parents! I actually think it’s my field that has probably done this a little bit. The problem that I want to solve [with my book] is to stop being afraid.
Interview has been edited and condensed.