Meet my classmate and friend Katherine Lewis (I know her as Kakki and a couple of you might know her by that name too). When we reconnected over the summer at a reunion I felt that I was talking to a true kindred spirit, but one that was smarter, more experienced, and more facile with scientific research. If I could have spent the whole weekend with Kakki, I would have, but alas, I was not the only classmate who wanted to absorb her thinking. Her most recent book describes the self-regulatory challenges our children face and provides parents evidence-based instructions for building our kids’ capacity for self-regulation. If you ever encountered Alfie Kohn’s work (Unconditional Parenting or Punished by Rewards) and thought to yourself, “Sure I get it, rewards don’t really work, but what does?”, Kakki’s book answers that question with concrete, realistic suggestions. Whether you have toddlers or teenagers, The Good News About Bad Behavior will help you become the parent you want to be. I really loved this book.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning independent journalist, author and speaker based in the Washington D.C. area. Her book, The Good News About Bad Behavior (PublicAffairs, April 2018), explains why modern kids are so undisciplined and tells the stories of innovators who are rebuilding lost self-control, resolving family conflict and changing the trajectory of young lives. Katherine is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Md.
Katherine contributes to The Atlantic, Fortune magazine, Parents, USA Today’s magazine group, the Washington Post and Working Mother magazine. Her byline has also appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, MSN Money, Money, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, and the Washington Post Magazine. Her story for Mother Jones magazine about school discipline went viral after it was published in July 2015, becoming the site’s most-viewed piece.
What led you to study discipline and children's capacity to self-regulate?
Truly, I came at this issue from a very personal perspective, as I struggled to understand my high-energy, spirited children. I didn't have a lot of exposure to children before becoming a mother, so it took me a while to learn that kids are simply more silly, chaotic and unruly than I remember from my own childhood. As I observed more children in different schools and homes across the country, I realized it wasn't just me and my household. This generation of children simply can't manage their behavior, thoughts and emotions the way previous generations could. They need more support and practice in learning self-control, emotion management, impulse control, executive function and related social and emotional skills.
What of your findings surprised you the most?
It shocked me to learn that 1 in 2 children will have a mood or behavioral disorder, or substance addiction, by age 18, according to analysis of a representative sample of more than 10,000 adolescents by the National Institutes of Health. That proved to me that this is truly an epidemic. On top of this, the rise in the suicide rate is truly scary. For kids 10 to 14 years old, the suicide rate has doubled in the last decade, and it's climbed 41 percent for teens 15 to 19 years old. These two data points tell me this isn't just a nice way to change our parenting; it's critical that we invest time and effort in making sure our children have better social-emotional skills and more resilience.
Your research shows that traditional systems of "punishment and rewards" fail our kids who need our guidance most. What works better?
I spent five years traveling the country to observe effective models of teaching self-regulation in schools and homes. I ended up writing about four evidence-based methods that are grounded in research and have proven long-term results. They all rest on the same three principles: connection, communication and capability building. By connection I mean building a strong, respectful relationship between adult and child. That foundation sets the groundwork for effective two-way communication about the problem at hand and a focus on building social and emotional skills. These three elements also align with what we know from decades of social science as well as the newest findings in neuroscience and child development about emotions, stress and resilience.
If parents want to transition away from punishment and rewards as their style of discipline, what's a good first step?
The most important step is a mental one. Change your focus from trying to make your child do what you want, and instead get curious about what's getting in your child's way. Identify what new skill or what change in the environment would help them self-regulate better. Once you change your goal, it's easier to be patient with an imperfect child. You no longer interpret their "bad" behavior as a referendum on your inadequate parenting, and instead recognize that this is our new normal. All children mess up, break rules, and learn how to do better -- if we make space for that learning. Rewards and punishments interrupt the natural learning process because they turn the focus to the powerful adult trying to be in charge of the child, and breed resentment and power struggles.
Your thoughts on helping kids take on more responsibility at home really spoke to me. So often in my house we have done things for the children (like make lunch) that they could do for themselves in order to save time. Other times, in our house at least, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve usurped tasks from the kids because I just don't like how they do them. Can you speak to this two-headed gremlin of perfection and busy-ness that many affluent parents face? What can we do to slow down and loosen up? What would you say are the benefits to families who are successful at taking it down a notch?
It's so much easier to do something than to teach a child to do it! But in the long run, our children need life skills just as much as they need academic or extracurricular skills. They need to learn to take responsibility for their own messes, for remembering their belongings, for taking care of themselves, to become decent citizens of the world who will be good future roommates and life partners. And in fact, these simple household tasks can give them a deep sense of well-being and belonging in a way that scoring the winning goal or getting the A on a test cannot. Again, parents can facilitate learning by expecting imperfection and letting kids be slow and messy. If they ask for help, you can give them advice on improving their technique. Children so often feel powerless and incapable. All around them are efficient, high-achieving, successful adults who seem to know how to do everything perfectly. We show them a path to grow into that adulthood when we let them take those first messy steps to being in charge of themselves. I've seen families transform from busy and critical to more relaxed and warm just from changing their expectations around the standards of household chores and tasks. In the long run, the benefits are more willing, helping hands around the house. As I type this, one teenager is cooking the family dinner while the other gathers wood for a cozy fire in the fireplace.
Who do you hope your research serves and where do you do your workshops? How can we learn some of your skills "IRL"?
I hope to serve parents, educators, social workers, basically anyone who wants to help this generation of children learn mental and behavioral health. I speak to schools and communities around the country, and occasionally via webinar. My speaking schedule is here: https://www.katherinerlewis.com/events/ I'm also collecting audio for a future podcast, so I'm happy to give free consultations to families that don't mind being recorded for posterity. (It's fine to be anonymous!)