How Do You Raise “Good Humans”? This Psychologist Has Ideas

“A problem in the field of parenting is suggesting that we need to get this right all the time.”

Raising kids these days is no easy feat. In fact, between navigating screen-time limits, deciphering TikTok dances, and explaining the world’s crises to a 10 year-old, parenthood seems tougher than ever. The pressures of parenthood get even more high-stakes when you consider a thorny question: How do you raise your kids to become good people? The definition of “good” obviously differs from family to family and culture to culture, but nearly every parent confronts the issue of wanting to succeed at parenting — to raise the kind of citizens they want to see in the world. How do you know if you’re doing it “right”?

Developmental psychologist and podcaster Aliza Pressman dissects this conundrum in her fascinating new book, The Five Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans. (And as someone who’s about to become a grandmother, the topic of parenting is definitely on my mind!) There’s no objectively “correct” way to raise kids, but Pressman has plenty of suggestions for making the experience of parenting more satisfying and enriching for both parents and kids — and for raising confident, independent children who know you have their back. But when it comes to understanding those TikTok dances, you’re on your own.

Katie Couric: Why did you decide to write this book? 

Aliza Pressman: I didn’t want to write a book initially, because of all the information already out there. You’re about to be a grandmother, so you know that there’s a pile of parenting books to read, and there’s a lot of stress. I only wanted to write a book if I could put everything under one “roof” that really matters from a science perspective — and then talk about how it applies practically to any challenge that comes up, from birth through adolescence. 

I want to backtrack for a second — you became interested in developmental psychology when you had children, didn’t you?

I became interested in parenting when I had kids, but weirdly, I started graduate school in developmental psychology weirdly before I had kids. What I was studying at first was much more the cognitive, social, emotional development of kids — not how the parenting environment impacts children or adults. But then I had kids and I was like, Wait a second, there’s so much interesting science that isn’t out there in a relatable way that also moves the needle. 

What do you mean by “so much science”?

I feel like now, because of social media, people have more access to information, which is both dangerous and beneficial. And I thought about how there’s a lot of information about what actually affects resilience, and how it impacts our day to day. And what doesn’t matter, which is equally important.

What are some of the things that do matter, when it comes to raising “good humans”?

How we define “good human” depends on our own personal values. And in the book, I suggest how you can question and come to terms with your own values, so that I’m not imposing them on you. Because that’s another problem in my field: Experts tell you what are important goals to have for your kids, instead of letting you make decisions about your own values. But I was thinking about what generates resilience. How can we bounce back in the face of adversity, stress, trauma, and the day-to-day that gets thrown at you? What’s actually in our control? Because you can’t control racial inequity and or socioeconomic status, but you can control relationships, reflection, regulation, rules, and repair. So that’s how I landed on those five principles.

First of all, it’s such a bummer, because ultimately we end up feeling shame, like, Was I helicoptering? Am I hovering? But think of it this way — when there’s a really bad thunderstorm, we teach our kids to dress so they can survive the rain. That way, they have tools and can learn how to navigate the world. But if you try to cover the sky with a canopy for your children, so there’s no shift in the weather, they have no idea how to handle it when inevitably that canopy gets lifted and the world kicks in. They don’t even know that they can survive a rainstorm. I think that’s what helicopter parenting does to us. 

But it’s confusing for parents, because scientists talk about being loving and “sensitive parenting.” So parents might wonder, If my relationship needs to be so cohesive and attuned, how can I set limits and boundaries and provide space for my child to experience the bumps in the road, and still have a good relationship? And I think that’s where things get a little wonky.

I think we’re a generation of fixers — if something’s upsetting your child, you want to fix it. But in many ways, we’re doing them such a disservice — and in some ways, we’re actually doing it for us rather than them, because of our own tolerance for pain.

That’s exactly right. That’s why I made reflection part of this book — to ask parents to reflect on the question, How much emotion can I handle coming from my child before I panic that the emotions are dangerous? But we are fixers — we see a hard feeling and we’re like, “Let me make this better,” which is so reasonable. But then the message to kids unfortunately is, “That feeling you’re having is too scary for me, the adult, to experience. So I’m gonna just give you a lollipop, or call the teacher, or get you invited to the party, or not tell you about the death,” or whatever. 

I think that’s the conundrum, and what I hope to help give fluency to is the question, “How can I honor a child’s feelings?” To make sure they know that I’m completely capable of handling whatever feelings they have, and that I’m steady enough to sit through the upset? And I think that takes practice.

How do you differentiate between a problem that needs adult intervention and a problem that a child can regulate on his or her own? You don’t want a child to be traumatized, and yet you want to build resilience. So when do you fix an issue, and when do you have a hands-off policy?

You can always have an emotional hands-on policy. Meaning, “I’m here, and all feelings are welcome, but all behaviors are not.” I say that all the time. So when it comes to light things — if your child is upset about not getting on the soccer team or not getting invited to a party — we know they can survive that. But we can be there for them while they cry, so they have somebody sitting with them while they’re sad. 

What about trying to fix things if there’s bullying — even from an adult? Teachers are humans, and they have frailties, so what if a teacher is picking on your child?

First, you want to assess how much your child is taking on, how much they’re sharing with you, and what they think they can handle. If they’re old enough to be picked on by a teacher, you can say, “I’m here for you — complain to me, vent to me. But tell me, do you think this is interfering with your schoolwork? If it is, I’ll go in and have a talk with the teacher or the principal.” Your child usually has a pretty good gauge. And if you are intervening, you’re not saying, “I’m a big-shot parent and I’m gonna get the teacher in trouble.” It’s more saying to the principal, “It seems like there’s some miscommunication happening, and I’m not sure what’s going on — from my child’s perspective, this teacher is really picking on them. From your perspective, could you observe in the classroom and see if that’s happening?” For kids, we need to be that person who can give them extra help. 

Also, is your child adapting or maladaptive? Are they dealing with sorrow or pain in a way that’s sad but totally appropriate, like a teenager crying and listening to music? That’s different than if they’re doing something that could be harmful to themself or others. Then you know that you need to intervene.

Can you be a facilitator to help a child solve their own problems? Can you put the onus on them instead of saying, “I’m calling the teacher…”

Yes, even to a 2-year-old, you can say, “Let me help you solve a problem.” It can be as simple as starting with when they’re playing with puzzles — first you wanna make sure the puzzle is age-appropriate, and if it is and they’re struggling, can you give them clues? You can say, “I wonder if you put the red piece near the red circle and see what happens…” So you’re helping them build this skill over the years. You’re saying, “I’m here to help you solve this problem.” 

For you, self-reliance must be the key to resilience.

It’s big. Having a sense of autonomy is such a key to resilience. There’s something I put in the book that I think is a good gauge — let kids do for themselves what they can already do. Guide and encourage kids to do things they can almost do. And then teach and model for children the things they can’t yet do. That gives you the gauge on when to intervene. 

If something’s out of their league because it’s emotionally or cognitively or physically not possible, then of course you’re gonna model and coach, and be there for them. If it’s something that they’ve been able to do for a long time but you don’t want them to have to do, like carry a heavy bag or whatever, then that’s where we have to do a little work on ourselves regarding how uncomfortable we can be.

I also sometimes think that our busy schedules make us take shortcuts to solving problems. I remember that as a single mom, I sometimes didn’t have the time, patience, or energy to not fix things myself.

I agree with you — I’m a single mom, and there have been times when I’m like, “It’s just faster if I do this.” To which I would say, none of that stuff matters unless you’re doing it more often than not. If sometimes you’re like, “I don’t have time for this,” that’s OK. But the majority of the time, you should be intentional and help them problem-solve and not make everything smooth sailing to make it easier for you. 

A problem in the field of parenting is suggesting that we need to get this right all the time. Nonsense. We just have to, on balance, be able to say to ourselves, I was being the parent I intended to be. And then cut yourself some slack. We can’t always say the right thing. Sometimes you’re a single mom who needs to put a kid’s shoes on so you can get out the door. That’s why “repair” is one of my five principles, because the science of repair says that we are not meant to be constantly attuned and in a beautiful dance. We’re messy and sloppy and we have discord and repair, discord and repair. Without that, we wouldn’t have the muscle memory that teaches us that all relationships have these moments. So after those single-mom moments, you have an opportunity as a leader to repair — “I’m sorry I was so rushed and snapped at you.” Reconnect and move along.

Let’s talk about the other four Rs. Can you give me a quick definition of each of them?

So the first one is “relationship.” That means attachment, connection, attunement…. It’s when we feel in sync with someone and we really know them and understand them for who they are, not for who we dream that they are. And then “reflection” is the unsung hero of the principles. Because we do a real service to ourselves and to the other people in our lives, particularly our children, when we can reflect before acting. When we can think, What was my experience being parented? How do I feel about someone having a hard feeling? When my child is disrespectful, maybe I lose my mind because I never felt respected. Mindfulness helps us with that kind of reflection. 

And then “regulation,” both self-regulation and co-regulation, is the third principle. It allows us to have intentional, emotional, cognitive, and physical control over our behavior, and it allows us to be a person who’s moving through the world without just going on autopilot. We want to be super intentional, because then we don’t have to constantly apologize for flying off the handle. So it’s better to regulate ourselves. Humans’ brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 24 — some researchers are saying up to age 30. That’s when you have full capacity to self-regulate. So before that, you need co-regulation. That means that we get to work on ourselves, and in the process, our kids kind of “catch” our nervous system. As a new baby, there’s nothing more powerful than being held by a regulated parent who’s able to soothe them just because they’re basically calm inside.

But how do you do that? Because if your child is having a temper tantrum or really misbehaving, they’re not interested in co-regulating.

They don’t need to calm down — they’re gonna tantrum. But you can change the way you respond. I have an alarm system at my house, and when you come in and it’s armed, you can hear it beeping slowly before you punch in the passcode. That’s similar to the space where you, as the adult, have time to regulate your nervous system, so you don’t go into a stress response, which would be the equivalent of the alarm going off — an emergency. 

Let’s say you’re alone with your child who’s tantruming, your best support for them is to find some passcode for yourself. Typically that’s a few deep breaths, putting your hand on your heart, or even running your hands through cold water to engage the part of your nervous system that says, “There’s no danger here.” All of those things let your body know that your child isn’t being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. Then you wait for their tantrum to end. You don’t have to fix it,  or give them something that they wanted because of it. You can give them a hug, though. 

Your co-regulating just means you’ve figured out a way to regulate your nervous system. The child isn’t in danger — I don’t need my emotional alarm to go off. Sometimes I’m annoyed because I’m a person, but if the majority of the time I can get myself to believe that they’re safe and calm, I can regulate my nervous system over time. And when a parent can self-regulate in front of their children, their children have a much greater chance of having self-regulation.

That’s so interesting. What is the fourth R?

Rules, which are not super popular these days. But what I’m referring to are boundaries and limits. So that means, as a parent, I need to know that there are certain behaviors that I’m going to expect of a child, and they’re gonna be developmentally appropriate. I’m gonna teach you how to move through the world as a functioning member of society so that you’re not thinking you own everything. And I’m gonna set clear boundaries so that there’s no confusion about our existence as two separate people — boundaries around personal space, emotional boundaries. From a kid’s perspective, that means, “OK, I know what to expect from my parent. I may not be thrilled about all of these rules, but they ultimately make me feel more safe.” Because without any rules… Take the beginning of the pandemic — for a few weeks, we were completely unstructured and spinning out and then everybody thought, I need to find some order to my and my childrens’ days, or we’re all gonna lose our minds.

One thing I’m hearing from my friends who have grandchildren is that their children are parenting very differently than they did. How do you handle the differences between parenting styles? 

Since your daughter is pregnant, in some ways that’s very lucky because you can have conversations with her and she has the comfort of saying things to you that she couldn’t say to a mother-in-law, for example. But moms complain about in-laws all the time. Part of parenting is coming to terms with the parents that you had, that your partner had, and understanding all those relationships — the good, the bad, and the ugly. But to parents, I say, stop trying to control the grandparents. The existence of a relationship between the grandparents and grandchildren, on balance, way outweighs whether or not they said the wrong compliment or made a comment that was obnoxious. Just being lucky enough to have the relationship matters so much. 

My friends complain about how rigid their children are when it comes to raising their children. And they always say, “You didn’t turn out so badly…”

The word is definitely rigid. I actually say in the book that chaos is problematic, but rigidity is also problematic. The boring thing that I wanna offer is the space between. Also, when you’re a first-time parent, you’re always a little bit more exact and rigid, ’cause you just wanna get it so perfectly right. And then you realize, after another kid or just more time in the world, that even if you could do everything right, you cannot control anybody but yourself. But it’s hard to say that to a new mother particularly. 

Also, there’s nothing that will set off a new mom more than hearing advice from a grandparent, particularly if it’s not their parent. If it’s an in-law, it’s a guaranteed fight, and then they’ll double down on rigidity, which is so unhelpful. Ultimately if you do something different than your parents or your in-laws did, there’s an underlying message like, “I don’t think you did it right.” And that’s hurtful.