Dear Dr. Levine, it is a great pleasure to have this real conversation with you, in the #EpicTalk series, on the paginadepsihologie.ro platform. I would like to start by thanking you for Teach Your Children Well, a book I consider a great guide, and very well motivated, scientifically and practically, about what really matters when we talk about raising and teaching our children so that they can build authentic success.
Gáspár: Starting with your newly translated book, I would ask you to tell us, in a few words, how would you describe success in general, and how is it different than authentic success?
Madeline Levine: I think that we’ve become accustomed to thinking about success in material terms. And in terms that are easily measurable. For mom and dad, it’s the job, the salary and the position. For kids, it’s grades and acceptances to well-known highly competitive schools. I want to be really clear that there are many good things about performing well in school or the workplace. Performing in ways that are generally acknowledged to mean success. But every one of us, who have a bit of life under our belts, know that a successful life takes much more that high prestige. One has to be able to navigate through challenge. To find work and relationships that are meaningful. To have a sense of purpose. To tolerate disappointment and emerge stronger. These are just a few of the things that need to be cultivated and are part of feeling authentically successful. A life that feels purposeless, regardless of money or status, can never feel authentically successful. Because, in fact, it isn’t.
Gáspár: In the marketing campaign of the new translated book, we have invited many Romanian public figures (journalists, professors, ministers, psychologists and authors) to tell us how they see success, and we’ve realized that success needs the development of a strong and authentic identity, just as you tell us in your book. My question is – What can parents do to help their children cultivate a healthy identity and reach their best version? Of course, there are many answers in the book, but we think some clues would help tickle our readers’ appetite.
Madeline Levine: I’ve always thought that our children are „born twice“. Not literally of course. But there is first the child of our imagination. The child we hope to have, with the talents we value. When we’re pregnant we spend quite a bit of time with this imaginary child. And then our real child is born. That child may look and act something like we have imagined or he or she may be nothing like we imagined. The blessing of being a parent is that every child is unique and at the same time depends on you to help navigate the world, to feel secure in the world and to grow into a person who is capable and kind and authentic.
The ability to let go of our fantasy children and fully embrace the child in front of us, is the surest way to raise healthy children. It depends, at least in part, on our being open and curious. I have three (grown) sons. They were quite different from each other and for me, that was part of the joy. I got to see the world through different eyes. Logical, creative and practical eyes.
The science of epigenetics can help us here. Epigenetics is the intersection of genetics and environment. Children are not born with the same capacities, skills and talents. But all of these can be cultivated by a warm and supportive environment. My creative son did not become a lawyer like my other two sons and that’s the way it was meant to be. In America, in basketball, players are said to „go to their right“. That means to go to their strong side. I think we need to understand that each child is unique and when encouraged to find his or her particular gifts and strengths, that we end up with kids who are comfortable in their skins.
As parents we need to be open to the wide diversity of children. It’s a terrific opportunity for us to learn more, listen more and be better parents.
Gáspár: I really appreciated the honesty with which you acknowledge that not all children are academically excellent, and that there is, in fact, no need for that because there are many other skills that can determine success in the 20stcentury. Which is why I would like to ask you – How can a parent make the switch from focusing exclusively on grades to a broader perspective over success and especially to encouraging their child to chose their proper path?
Madeline Levine: Well first, you can’t do this only for the sake of your child. You have to understand that the most important way to influence your child is through your own life. Every parent is aware of the restrictions imposed by only focusing on a few measures of success. So, I think, we need to understand that our children cannot make up for whatever we’ve lacked or aspired to. This is internal work for the parent. And it’s not easy. My husband is a surgeon and I think I always wanted one of my sons to follow this route. Not only because I think it’s a noble profession, but equally because I was born at a time when few women were accepted into medical school. So, if that was the desire of one of my kids, I would have gone to work promoting it. But as my oldest son once said, „Yeah mom. I’d like to be a doctor but I can’t stand the sight of blood.“ If that was all, maybe he could have changed direction. But it wasn’t what he wanted and I learned that he was not responsible for what I felt I had missed in life. Our children never are.
So, to help your child chose a proper path, I’d suggest that you expose your kids to lots of opportunities. Without overscheduling them. That you follow their lead on what is interesting and that they see you being curious about learning and growing.
Gáspár: As a psychotherapist, I am a huge supporter of relationships and I strongly believe that the quality and duration of our lives depends on the quality of our relationships, but I came to believe that success is also dependent on that. What do you think that are the most important pillars of a healthy parent-child relationship and how much time and energy should parents invest in their interactions with their children?
Madeline Levine: Ah, a trick question [laughing]. If you have an infant, you invest practically everything you have in that infant. It’s a matter of life and death. So, it demands total involvement. The amount of time you spend with your 18 years old is entirely different. You’ve moved from being a life saver to largely being an interested observer. Children develop, but so do their parents. And it is a constant dance of knowing where your child is in their development and adjusting your parenting involvement appropriately. So, it depends on age, but it also depends on the type of child you have. One child thrives on parental involvement and another feels deprived of autonomy. No one knows your child as well as you do. You have to be open to change and welcome growth as it occurs. We all feel a bit nostalgic as our kids need us less. Well, on second thought, many of us feel nostalgic, others feel liberated. This is exactly the point and the reason to underscore how there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. Every child is different with different strengths, talents and deficits. Ditto their parents!
As far as important pillars of healthy parent-child relationships, I think respect is particularly important. While there are all kinds of ups and downs over the course of parenting, it is critical not to rupture your relationship with your child. So, let me be clear here. Consequences, time-outs, rules, structure are not examples of rupture. Of course, discipline is a critical part of parenting (actually, if parenting has two axis- one is support and the other is discipline) and telling your child that he hit his baby sister and you’re disappointed in his behavior and he has to take a time out for five minutes is completely appropriate. But telling him that he’s a „bad“ child and that you can’t understand how he could be so stupid as to hit a baby risks rupturing your relationship with him. Why? Because you’ve disrespected his psychological space and have called into question his dignity as a human. When this is done repeatedly, children come to believe that they are somehow „bad“ and that they are unlovable. This starts a deformed trajectory as they grow. No matter what your kid does, no matter how disappointed you are, let them know that they are loved.
Gáspár: In Teach Your Children Well you also talk about Imposter’s Syndrome. I have to admit, I have rarely met a patient in my practice who doesn’t have this syndrome – How does a child or a teenager come to think about themselves that they’re imposters?
Madeline Levine: Both children and teenagers are well aware of what makes them „good“ and valuable. That could be grades, or popularity, or athleticism. Or any one of a number of things that the family and the community value. Andre Agassi, one of the world’s greatest tennis players felt like an imposter. He actually hated tennis „with a deep and dark passion“. But because he was so talented and was so pushed by his father, he endured a career that never felt authentic to him. Your child may work overtime to please you, or to please his or her peer group, and still feel like an imposter. Kids who, from the outside, look like superior and involved students, often call themselves „robo-students“. We are all motivated by a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. But for kids who derive all their satisfactions from external sources (easy to do if you’re particularly talented in sone way) things often feel unreal or not aligned with their inner selves. For example, I recently saw a talented young chess player whose parents assumed he’d want to go to chess camp. In fact, he didn’t. He wanted to „play“ around like the rest of his ten-year-old friends. His parents, and his teachers provided him with a lot of external support for going to chess camp. But he knew it wasn’t a good fit. With a bit of coaching he was able to explain to his parents that he wasn’t ready to be a „full-time“ chess kid and that when he checked in on himself, he just wanted to play around during the summer. Fortunately, his parents came on board, allowing him to make the authentic choice.
Gáspár: Speaking of teenagers, clearly these are challenging times for the whole families, and there are many parents who are horrified about what would come next – Why is it that for some families adolescence is troubling, but for others not? My clinical experience tells me it’s not necessary that adolescence is difficult and that there are many parents and teenagers who get over these years `well enough`.
Madeline Levine: Ah teenagers! Extraordinary creatures who are capable of trying the patience of the best among us. It is critical to remember what neuroscience has rather recently discovered. And that is the teenage brain is nowhere near complete. It depends heavily on peers. Can’t make a good assessment of risk. Lacks executive function. Is still at the mercy of strong and sometimes uncontrollable emotions. So, will there be turbulence? Of course. And it’s our capacity to withstand some turbulence, some uncertainty and some drama that determines how well we tolerate our teenage kids.
That is half of the equation, the other half is, of course, our teenager. Just as babies have easily observable different temperaments- easy, difficult, slow-to-warm up – so do teenagers come with different temperaments. Temperament tends to be pretty consistent throughout life. There are kids who make it through adolescence with relatively little distress. My oldest, easy son, punched a door once when he was fifteen and we left the hole there for years to remind him and his brothers that sometimes things go sideways in adolescence and it’s not the end of the world. It became a good-natured family story. But there are kids who run into trouble, do antisocial things and never seem to find their footing. So obviously, families who have to manage troubled kids are going to have a much harder time.
I find it useful for parents to think back about their own adolescence. The uncertainty, the excitement, the experimentation. Neuroscience has found that we remember things from our adolescence with more feeling and vividness than any other time in life. Also remember that adolescence gives way to young adulthood and you are likely to miss some of the amazing color and intensity of your teenager.
Gáspár: Of all the parents who have already read the book, many have told me that they found the parts with „Things to do“ and „Things not to do“ very useful. What kind of messages do you have from readers all around the world, and what do you think are the highlights of your book?
Madeline Levine: This book has been translated into multiple languages, so I’ve had the opportunity to hear from folks in many different parts of the world. The overwhelming response has been something close to „Thank you for saying what I fee“. I think that most people are aware that making childhood into a pressure cooker of performance is unhealthy. Most parents remember their own childhoods with far less parental oversight and less persistent high expectations. They remember playing in the neighborhood and having more freedom than they allow their own children (in spite of the fact that crime is actually down). They also worry about being „a fish out of water“. Of behaving in ways that are out of synch with their community. Teach Your Children Well has given them a research- based analysis of why their gut instincts have been accurate.
I think the most important contribution of my book has been to allow parents to think about and act upon a far broader notion of what constitutes a successful life. Reliance on a narrow metrically-based evaluation of kids pressures academically talented kids and ignores the potential contributions of kids whose talents are less amenable to measurement. It is unacceptable to write off such a large group of young people.
Gáspár: Undoubtedly, starting from March 2020, humanity is challenged, and our perspective about what matters in life could change. What do you think that are the effects this pandemic will have over children and parenting?
Madeline Levine: We have come through a period of remarkable challenge. There has been tragedy and triumph. Kids and parents have been at home for extended periods of time. Financial stability has been lost or threatened for many families. The impact of the pandemic will last for years. Dr. Fauci warns that a second pandemic, one of mental health issues, is waiting in the wings. I would agree with him.
There are families that did well under difficult circumstances and those that struggled mightily. But I’d like to concentrate on some of the opportunities that the pandemic presented. Parents and kids spent more time together. And while there were many difficult moments, there were also many moments of increased closeness and understanding. I think many of us had the opportunity to slow down a bit and think about what kind of reset we’d like to have in our lives. For example, I was used to traveling on a monthly basis. That was satisfying in many ways but there was also a significant cost to my relationships. So, I think for myself and for many others, the value or relationships has been highlighted. We only had each other, albeit at a distance through this difficult time. I’m hoping that we see a reset. On parenting. On a broken education system. On a greater commitment to our friends and our communities.
I think it’s important for kids and adults to think about their narrative regarding the pandemic. This will go down in history books and I like the exercise of writing out the story you’d like to remember and to tell in many years from now. What was it like for you? What was the worst part? What was the best? What did you learn? I think we’re all entitled to own the bravery that was demanded during the pandemic and let future generations know that adversity, even all -consuming adversity can be managed.
Gáspár: If we were to end this interview with one single message that you wish many parents would hear from a psychologists and international parenting expert, what would that message be?
Madeline Levine: Every child is unique. Take the time to deeply get to know your children. Make them feel safe, secure, soothed and seen. We simply don’t know how much impact our parenting has on our children’ development. But we do know that it matters, and besides, it’s the only thing we have control over. Do not neglect your own development. Nothing matters more than your own equilibrium, curiosity and mental health.