Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.
This special episode is about you, our listeners. Join Emma, Brittney, and Conor as they discuss some of your top child-rearing questions: how to get habits and behaviors to stick, how to address distressing current events, how to get kids interested in activities and hobbies, and how to manage sibling rivalry during the elementary years. This warm, supportive conversation will help you feel seen, understood, and even better prepared to support the children in your life.
The transcript of this episode appears below.
Conor Bentley (00:01):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...
Emma Wellman (00:04):
I’m Emma Wellman.
Brittney Hansen (00:05):
And I’m Brittney Hansen.
And they’re the princiPALS.
I’m Conor Bentley, and on today’s special edition of The PrinciPALS Podcast, Emma and Brittney will be answering questions submitted by you, our listeners.
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.
Emma and Brittney, it’s so nice to be with you here in the princiPALS’ office again. And this is a very special episode because, usually on the princiPALS we tackle one topic per episode that the princiPALS’ braintrust kind of comes up with and researches, but this episode, we are going to be taking listener questions. And so there’s going to be a variety of topics covered, and we’ve got so many great questions from listeners, and some of them that we might not even be able to get to today. So if we don’t get to your question, we will be doing more listener questions episodes in the future. And just know that we did get questions that were very similar to each other, so if we don’t ask your exact question, hopefully we cover the topic in some way, because we just got so many good questions. And like I said, we combined some questions because they were on similar topics. But it’s going to be a very interesting episode and we hope that you’ll enjoy this kind of variety aspect.
And Emma and Brittney, I think we should just get right into it. Here’s our first question: I feel like we give the same reminders to our child every day: wash your hands, don’t throw the dog’s ball in the house, etc. It can get frustrating. Is this just a normal part of having a young child? And how can we help get habits and behaviors to stick without butting heads with him? Do incentives actually work?
This is a great, great question, Conor, and it really hits home as a parent of three young children. And the very short answer is: yep, totally typical and, frankly, get used to it because it’s going to go on for a while. The short answer around incentives, or disincentives as well, around Do they actually work? is: yes and no. And it sort of depends on what the outcome is that you’re looking for. If you want to change a behavior quickly in the short term, often incentives do work. If your incentive is strong enough to motivate a child, and you know what’s going to motivate your own child, well, you probably can change a behavior pretty quickly, but it’s not going to help move the needle in the long term. And it’s really unlikely to help your child build the skills that we really want to be working on as parents, as your children grow.
This reminds me of the distinction we make sometimes in school between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Is that kind of what you’re thinking about here, Brittney?
Yeah, Emma, I think that’s exactly right. It’s really about deciphering, as a parent, are we going for a quick fix here or are we looking for long-term skill building and impact for your child? What we really want is for our kids to grow capacity and understanding that their actions have an impact on others around them. And as a result, we want for them to be better equipped to make great choices about their own behavior.
The same question often comes up around disincentives or punishment. And I know that this submission did not specifically ask about punishment and disincentives, but we get it all the time as educators and people who work with children. People want to know: Should I punish my child for their bad behavior? Or, What should that look like? What should the consequence look like? And from our perspective, really, the most important and most helpful feedback a child can get [is] the natural consequences that come from their actions. So, you know, the example that the question here mentioned, one of them, was, you know, like, nagging around washing hands, and man, do I hear that one. And in our house, there are clear natural consequences if you choose not to wash your hands. Something that we do every Sunday morning in our house is make pancakes. My kids love it, all three of them. And, you know, if you don’t wash your hands, then you’re not ready to come help us stir the batter. And that is a really big incentive, especially for my five-year-old. So it’s an easy thing as a parent to say, like, “Yeah, I see you really want to come help us. As soon as your hands are clean, come on over.” And that feels very different than the nagging constantly of, “Go wash your hands, go wash your hands, go wash your hands.” So she’s learning then, in that moment, that a natural consequence of choosing not to do that handwashing is that I can’t participate in the thing that I’m really excited about.
And you don’t want to be the gross person anyway.
That’s also true, Conor.
So a few things that we can do, right, if we really want to enforce certain behaviors that are maybe going wrong or feeling like they’re not working in our household. There are some things that we can do to make sure we’re getting that feedback right. The first is that you want to share feedback with your kids in a way that is calm and level, and in a moment when they are calm and level. You want to get down on their physical level if you can. You want to be speaking in a calm, even tone, and you want to make sure they can hear the intent behind your words. So, a shout from the couch—”Close the door!”—doesn’t always work, right? But if you approach your child and you say, “I noticed you left the door open. That’s going to make it really cold in here for all of us. Do you mind going and closing it?,” that’s probably going to go further, right? And so we want to make sure that our tone is sort of right for the moment and to make that impact for the kids.
The other really important thing to do for kids is to model the behaviors that you want to see. Right? So if you want your kids to wash their hands every day, or many times a day, they should see you washing your own hands many times a day. Right? They really are watching everything. They’re noticing the people around them that they care about and the behaviors that we exhibit, and they’re going to mimic it, especially those younger kids. So modeling is a very important piece of changing behaviors in a household.
And the last thing that I would add is that you want to give a lot of specific, positive praise when you see the behaviors you want. It doesn’t have to be overly effusive: “Oh, you did such a great job washing your hands today!” It doesn’t need to be any of that. But just, like, “Hey, thanks for washing your hands.” Move on quickly. Right? But name it when you see it and the kids are going to notice.
Cool. All right, well, that was our first question. Now we have another question. This one is a little different, which is nice. Again, we’re switching it up, that’s good. This question is: How do educators address distressing current events with kids, and what tips might you have to help parents do so at home?
Yeah, this is a really important question and it seems like one that we, unfortunately, are having to grapple with really frequently these days. And so, I think it’s really important for parents to feel pretty equipped, generally speaking.
So the first thing I would say—and I just want to remind listeners that, you know, Brittney and I work with kids from three years old up through 10 or 11, so quite a lot of what we’re thinking about here is focusing on those younger ages. Obviously the approach, you know, needs to be different for middle- and high-school-aged kids. So the first thing is, if your child has not brought up this distressing current event, it’s important for you to decide whether this event is something that your child needs to know about or not. And that’ll be based on your family values. It’ll be based on the child’s age and development. It’ll be based on the community that you are a part of. But it’s okay to decide that you do not want to tell your child about a distressing current event. That’s an okay choice to make as a parent. It’s a way that we choose to protect kids sometimes.
And, in general, I would say for younger children at school, we typically do not initiate conversations around distressing current events unless they have a direct impact on our community or members of our community. And so, you know, if a war is happening somewhere that’s pretty far away and there are not families in our classrooms who are directly impacted by that war, we most frequently will not bring it up for kids who are in preschool or first grade, or even third grade, because we don’t necessarily need to introduce a bunch of topics of conversation that are not immediately relevant or sort of experiential for the kids at this time in their lives.
So the push on that that I have, Emma, and the question I have that I hear a lot from parents in our community is: is that withholding of information? Is that essentially lying to your kids, or not being honest about the world [with] them? That’s something I hear over and over: “But I want my kids to know that I’m telling them the truth about the world that they live in.”
Yep. And I really appreciate and I honor that approach. I really respect it. And as a parent, I’m also eager to tell my child true things about the world and the life we can lead in it. But I think the distinction I would make is really about truth and curation. So in my view, I think it’s really important to curate the information that young children are exposed to. We think about this with their books. We think about it with their songs. When they’re little, we even think about it with what they eat, right? Like, we are curating a whole lot of their lives. And I think this goes right along with that. We want to be thoughtful and intentional about the kinds of things that we tell kids and introduce them to.
So at the beginning I said if your child hasn’t yet brought it up, you can decide. If they do bring it up, though, and that will happen, you gotta find out first what they already know—or what they think they know. Sometimes they’ll have misinformation, right? So you gotta figure out what they know. You need to find out what they’re wondering about—like, what their questions are. And then you need to know how they feel about it. So KWF: know, wonder, feel. Those are the three pieces. And once you’ve mined that information out, then you’re going to have a better sense of, kind of, where you need to head next in terms of additional information, if there are corrections that you need to make, if you want to offer them affirmation or reassurance in terms of their feelings, if you want to get them connected with some resource or other. You’ll have a lot more information about that once you know a little bit more about what’s in their minds and hearts already. And, again, this is a place where I really encourage families to feel comfortable not giving their kids 100 percent of the information. Even if they know a little bit about a thing and they’re wondering about it, try to discern What’s the minimum I can tell this child? Especially kids who are younger than about eight or nine, and who are still in that early childhood range. What’s the minimum answer to this question? This is also a good way to support conversations around, you know, sex, drugs or alcohol, socioeconomic status, all kinds of those tricky, itchy topics that parents feel like come at us before we’re really ready. Just the next bite-sized piece is the bit you want to share, and then see how that lands. And if that’s sufficient for them, you’ll know, because their shoulders will drop, they’ll walk away, they’ll get interested in something else, and that’s enough for that conversation.
Yeah, I think the flip side of this is that we can get ourselves into a place where we overshare, and we unintentionally share more information than a child is ready to handle and ready to understand, right? Because their context is so different and their understanding of the world is so different than ours, especially for young children.
And that’s a really sticky place for a parent to be, to have unintentionally exposed their children to things that they’re not ready for.
And it’s scary and confusing for kids when that happens. And, also: that will happen. That is also part of growing up. We just want to try not to do it more times than necessary.
It seems like this could have similar implications about, like, the types of TV shows and movies that kids watch too. It’s like, what’s age appropriate for this child in their development? You’re not going to show a kid The Godfather when they’re eight years old.
That’s right. Yeah, and one other piece that I think is really important to acknowledge is just that, as grown-ups who are watching these distressing events happen, sometimes over and over, it’s really hard. It is really hard to watch these things happen for us as grown-ups because we do have that richer understanding and we’ve lived more, and so we know better, kind of, what it means. And that kind of emotionality can lead to our inadvertently sharing more than we mean to, or sort of processing with our kids in a way that will not be helpful for the child. And so I really also think it’s important to try to find a place with some other grown-up, some other way to do some processing on your own, if you notice that you need that before you enter into a conversation with your child about a current event like this, so that you’re really prepared to be focused on them and their needs.
And let’s be honest, there’s lots of stuff going on right now that we definitely are thinking a lot about, and so it’s definitely a challenging time for that.
Our third question from our listeners is: How can parents help get kids interested in activities and hobbies if they seem to find everything uninteresting?
This one to me, you know, I feel like this is probably a challenge for a lot of parents because I know, you know, even though I don’t have my own kids, I see a lot of my friends who have kids. They’re always going off to this thing or that thing, or this practice or this lesson, and, you know, so that would be challenging, knowing the volume of stuff that people send their kids off to do.
Yeah. And I think the question that was submitted, I think, was originally geared toward older students. And one of the reasons I think that is because in my experience, young kids are built to be interested in stuff. They just are curious creatures. And in fact, the risk is—just as you were kind of talking about, Conor—the risk is to overdo it with enriching after-school and weekend activities, which kids will often like. They will really like doing three sports and two instruments and underwater basket weaving when they’re four years old. Like, there’s a lot to like about all those things. And it’s probably too much if you’re doing something most days of the week, or even, you know, enough so that kids’ bedtime is disrupted, so that the family, you know, time together is disrupted because there are so many activities. If you find yourself frazzled about your young child’s extracurricular activities, that’s reason enough to take one away, and it also is probably a good indication that your child is frazzled on some level, even if it’s not perceivable.
And I would say boredom is really good for kids. You can even schedule boredom. I was talking recently with some parents of kindergartners who know that it’s important for their kids to be bored, but they just can’t seem to find the time. And I recommended that they just schedule in the time every weekend when they’re not going to enrich their child’s life at all, and we talked through some scripts, and what they’re going to say is, like, “I guess you’ll have to find something to do. Go see if you can find something to do.” And then they’re going to work really hard to just tolerate the fact that that will be distressing for their child, but it’ll be worth it. It’ll be okay.
Do you know what, in my experience, that feels awkward and uncomfortable for maybe the first three or four minutes, and before you know it, your children are being children and they’ve come up with really great play ideas that you could have never come up with, right?
And having a grand old time. And a much better time than if I planned an activity for us all to do in the front yard together. Right?
But it’s that sort of letting go for those three or four awkward minutes when the kids are really maybe upset at you for not planning their time, and then pushing through that. But then it’s pretty simple.
The one my child said recently is, “No one will ever play with me!” Which, luckily, is so patently false that it doesn’t hit my heart very hard, and so I can kind of breathe through that one and let him work through it.
I will say, as an only child I had a lot of time to play by myself and I got pretty good at it, you know? Your imagination, I think that’s how you develop an imagination, too, because you have to. There’s not someone else there giving you something to do. There’s not a sibling to play with. So you kind of have to create your own fun, which, frankly, like, I had a lot of fun as a kid coming up with stuff by myself.
Yeah, this is really what kids do best if we just give them the time and space to do it.
Yeah. And then I did want to just take a crack at addressing the question, which is kind of focused on teens. And I will acknowledge, like, I am not an expert in adolescence, certainly, but I do know things about human development across the lifespan. And I would say, in general with adolescents, the objective is to avoid setting up any kind of power struggles or alignments between the parent’s own agenda for the child, for the young person, and whatever that activity is. Because a chief developmental need for people that age is to organize their own identities as being in contrast to, or even sometimes in conflict with, their parents’ identities. Which is to say: if they know you really want them to do something, they are definitely not going to want to do it. And so the best bet is to really try to just chill out. Just chill out a little bit. Let the kids actually lead as much as you’re able to do. Not contrived leadership, but, like, real, authentic leadership. And then you coach and you guide them through this as, like—imagine that they’re a peer and you’re giving them advice about something. Right? But you don’t actually have too much skin in that game because it’s another adult person. They will perceive that level of respect and responsibility, and it’ll feel really good to them. And you may see them be more invested in certain kinds of, you know, extracurricular activities.
And I will also say that, you know, similarly, there can be quite a lot of pressure these days on adolescents to be excellent, at least in certain socioeconomic groups, to be really excellent at all of the things that they do. And I am a big proponent of doing things for the love of it, whether or not you’re any good at it. So for example, like, I sing a fair amount in my life, in front of people sometimes. I’m okay at singing—like, I’m not totally tone-deaf—but I am not a trained or excellent singer. I just really like doing it. And I think that’s okay. That’s an okay way to do a thing.
Yeah. Well, as someone who used to teach high school, I felt like I confronted this a little bit sometimes with parents and students. And one of the things that I saw a lot was, you know, teenagers into things that their parents don’t understand. You know, it’s some new thing, it’s: “Video games were not a thing when I was a kid, but my kid’s really into it and I don’t understand it.” And I think that can also be a little bit of a generational problem, where, just, parents don’t quite see what their kids are doing as valuable because it’s different than what they did, or the thing that their kid is doing is not something that was a thing when they were their age. And so I think it’s about kind of coming to terms with, kind of like you said, like, kids not being into the same things their parents are into, but also being interested in stuff that’s new or very different than anything that their parents could have ever imagined when they were their age.
That’s probably going to be more and more and more true over time with the, like, exponential growth of technology and so forth. So, yeah. Parents just don’t understand is real.
Yes. Well, hopefully we’ll help some parents understand.
And we have a fourth question that will hopefully shed some light on another subject. And this one I could not speak to because I am an only child, like I said before, but this person wanted to know about sibling rivalry, and they said: I know sibling rivalry is normal, but it feels like a lot of tips we hear are for the babyhood through preschool years. My kindergartner and third grader still have moments of intense sibling rivalry, and I wonder: What are the best kinds of strategies for supporting them and their relationship during moments of rivalry in the elementary school years?
Conor, I’m so glad someone asked a question about sibling rivalry. There is just so much here to explore. I think we could probably do a whole episode on sibling rivalry, and maybe we will. But there’s a lot to dive into, so I’ll try to be brief here today.
Sibling rivalry is certainly normal. It’s very typical and it makes good sense when we think about where it comes from, and it most certainly extends beyond the preschool years. Absolutely sibling rivalry between a kindergartner and a third grader—yes, you’re going to see it. And the reason really is quite fascinating when you dig into it and you think about where [it is] coming from. And we work really hard as parents to nurture the relationships between our own children, but it’s very natural that kids have a rivalry with their siblings, mostly because they’re competing for resources in a very real way. Those are resources like parent time and attention, things that they really need to feel secure in their attachment and their place in the family system. And those are finite resources, right? Simply put, like, my love for my children is not a finite resource. I have plenty of that. I have enough to go around to all three of them. But the time that I have to give each of them is, right? There is a limited amount of time I can give to each one of them. And I as a parent have to navigate that in a way that allows them all to feel secure in their place in our family. And that is very tricky to do. And so the result of that sort of puzzle that we all face as parents is that kids compete with one another. Right? And so they compete in ways that are maybe less prosocial and less desirable, disruptive to the family unit, and they’re all a sign that perhaps what the children need at that moment in the family is more one-on-one time, more quality time with the parents in the family.
And my experience—I don’t know if it’s representative of everyone, but I certainly think it’s not atypical—is that we see kind of waves of rivalry in our house. We’ll go through periods of many months where we don’t see it quite as much, and then it will sort of peak a little bit higher and we’ll notice what’s happening. Something has changed, and then it’s our job to sort of dig into why that is. And if we’re looking at it this way, as a signal of maybe a moment of insecurity around place in the family, then we know that we need to be really thoughtful about the time as parents that we spend with each of them as individuals. And, you know, we’ve talked in previous episodes about what quality time really looks like, but if we’re trying to mitigate rivalry in particular, you know, it looks like one-on-one. So it’s one child with one parent. Not one with two, not one with a parent with a screen, not one with one child with both parents, or one parent with two children, right? It’s one-on-one, no screens, no distraction, and it’s child-led. Right? So you as the parent are really showing that the child is the center of your attention in a very authentic way for that amount of time. And it doesn’t have to be extravagant, right? You don’t have to plan an outing with your child. Right? Sometimes that’s fun.
I had an opportunity to, you know, just this weekend we had a sleepover for one of my kids and so suddenly we weren’t outnumbered, right? So I was able to listen to what one of my kids was asking for, and he was asking to go bowling. Right? So we did that, and that was a really awesome moment to sort of help him see that he was the center of my attention in that moment. But it didn’t take going bowling, right? It could have been just 10 minutes at home where he knew that I wasn’t distracted by other things, I wasn’t distracted by either of his sisters, right? That would’ve met the same outcomes, right? So that quality time is really sort of my best strategy for mitigating sibling rivalry. There’s all sorts of other things, right, that we could dive into around this. Obviously, avoiding comparisons between your kids, especially in front of them, right? You don’t want to do that. Encouraging cooperation between them. Setting clear boundaries with them. All these things are going to help, but I really do think that quality time is the key.
We are going to have to end it there for this listener questions episode of princiPALS, but as I said at the top, we will be doing more of these in the future. So if we didn’t get to your question, or you have a question that you haven’t yet asked, hold onto it and Emma and Brittney will be excited to answer it in the future when we do another one of these, because I think this was really exciting and fun to hear about a variety of topics that our listeners are curious about. You can find all The PrinciPALS Podcast episodes at rowlandhall.org/podcast.
Thank you for tuning in today, and until next time...
I’m Emma Wellman.
And I’m Brittney Hansen.
And they’re the princiPALS.
About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School and Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 and spent three years as the Beginning School (preschool) principal before also joining the Lower School (elementary) team. Prior to Rowland Hall, Emma was a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago, and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. Emma holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.
About Brittney Hansen ’02
Brittney Hansen is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2002. She has been a Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal at Rowland Hall since 2022, and was a member of the Beginning School faculty from 2019 to 2022. Prior to Rowland Hall, Brittney interned briefly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and subsequently worked for six years at Washington University in various roles, including assistant director of residential life. Brittney holds a bachelor’s in social thought and analysis from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in education from Harvard University.
About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody Consider Our Knowledge.