One of my all-time favorite parenting experts is the magnificently wise and compassionate psychologist and author Madeline Levine, whose books have pride of place on my shelves and are my go-to resource as a Mom of three very different children.  I recently got the opportunity to speak with Madeline by phone about her new book, TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL.  I would advise every parent and educator, indeed anyone who cares about a child’s well-being, to buy Madeline’s book and soak up her insights, advice, and reassurance.  Talking with her was even better than reading her, as she is so warm, funny, and forthright, and such a spirited and responsive conversationalist.  I’m delighted to present a transcript of our conversation for your edification and pleasure!

Anyone who comments on this post will be entered to win a free copy of TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL- I will draw the name of a commenter at random on Tuesday Feb 12th and then he or she will be mailed a copy of this amazing book!
You emphasize the importance of both supporting our children in free play and unfettered exploration and as parents taking the time to explore and play ourselves.  This struck a deep chord in me, as I am a passionate believer in the value of unstructured time for children, in the importance of helping children learn to develop their own interests and passions rather than relying on parents to entertain them, choose their interests for them, or ferry them around to an endless array of activities, and of parents nurturing themselves as well as their children.  What are some ways that parents can help their children become less dependent on parents (or screens!) for amusement and more able to cultivate their own sense of direction and purpose?  How can parents and schools help foster what you call the “protective factors that have traditionally accompanied childhood- limited performance pressure, unstructured play, encouragement to explore, and time to reflect” that are increasingly in short supply in families, in schools, and in our culture more generally? How can we encourage not only children but also parents to play?

It’s funny; I just got off the phone with someone at the Chicago Tribune about a group of parents in Glen Cove who are little by little allowing their kids the kind of freedom that is in short supply in the suburbs.  In 4th grade, the kids are first allowed to walk down the block, then around the corner, then within a 4 block area.

In general, parents have overwhelming anxiety about this: how do you know when you should let your child take the next step?  Why is there so much anxiety about this, so much uncertainty?  Well for one, the relationship among mothers and a larger family unit has changed so much.  The people who used to tell you “why don’t you let your kids take the train?”, now they’re competing with you or absent.

My best answer is: take a look at the stage right before the task or activity you’re contemplating allowing them to perform or undertake.  Ask yourself: what was the previous stage they had to have mastered, in other words, can they ride a bike?, do they come home when they’re supposed to?  If they have, that’s the green light to go to the next step.

The most common line I hear in my office from kids is: “Could you please help my mother get a hobby besides me?  No one likes to have someone breathing down their neck all the time.  Having that kind of oversight is disturbing to kids in the first place.  And also it gets in the way of kids’ exploration and creativity and confidence. We think it’s helpful, but it actually isn’t.

Of course, it’s easier in retrospect.  I had 3 boys, 2 were very athletic, and for a while, on weekends, I was going to one part of California and my husband to another to attend the games.  I would never do that again.  Knowing what I know now, I would have taken half of those mornings to have breakfast with a friend, go out with my husband, read a book.  I know what went in my life during my boys’ childhoods- it was my friendships.  I went through those years basically without friends.  And things I thought were important for my kids turned out to be of no consequence to them- whether I went to every single game or not.

When your kids are really little, of course, it’s physically hard to spend much time away from them or go out and do adult things.  But it is important to make time for ourselves, to do things we like to do.   When my children were little, my intimacy  was with my kids- there were a whole bunch of adult things that went by the wayside.

It’s become absolutely normal to spend every minute thinking about your children.  And this gives children a very narrow view of adulthood.  We ask often: why aren’t kids growing up?  Well, one reason is that we have done absolutely nothing to make adulthood attractive. They see their parents work their butts off all week long and then get up at 7:30 am on the weekends to take them to sports practice.  This is an unappealing vision.  Kids will say to me: who wants to join that party?  As parents, we’ve gotten so good at putting our own needs on hold.  I think we need to convince people again that the best insurance for your child is having a happy mother, and it’s hard to be happy and not resentful when all your time is spent attending to your kids needs.

A little story about what you just brought up- about helping adults feel comfortable playing and how if you’re not busy there’s something wrong with you.  In a talk I gave recently, I told a story about times when my husband comes home at the end of a long day and I’ll have just sat down on the sofa to read a fun magazine, I see him coming, and I’ll drop the magazine and go look like I’m doing something productive or work-related.  To my husband!

Our culture emphasizes that the best way to look is busy and the best people are the busiest.  It’s become competitive- you work 10 hours a day?  I work 12 hour days, you’ve flown 10 places this year, I’ve flown 20 places.  We put such cultural value on busyness.  We think the busiest person wins.  That’s probably not true, of course, but even if it were, the cost is too great.

In a pithy and devastating indictment both of our current educational system’s emphasis on standardized tests and its competitive fervor and of parents’ obsession with their children’s academic success, their relentless pushing of their children towards ever more dazzling accomplishments, you write “that school is “the single greatest source of stress in kids’ lives.”  How can we make school a less stressful experience while still maintaining academic rigor?  How can we help both schools and parents focus more on character and less on performance, or, to put it another way, more on goodness and less on greatness?

I was recently on a panel with a guy who was the chief engineer at NASA, and he was asked: what does NASA look for in its engineers?  His answer?  A basic solid foundation in sciences and math, the ability to conceive new ideas, innovate, communicate, and work on a team, diligence, hands-on problem solving skills, confidence, and respect.  Fascinating isn’t it?  His answer wasn’t about what school or what tier of school you have to come from, what grades you have to get.  It’s a whole bunch of character skills!

I think we get into problems when we try to “raise performance” or “increase rigor” because that kind of emphasis is out of line with child development.  It’s a given that your kid needs to know content.  None of this is about turning them loose to wander naked through the fields.  The question is: what is the best way to help them learn content and the whole skill set going forward?  We don’t know what content is going to look like in 5, 10 years.   I’m fascinated by recent research using scanning- in motion we can follow children and track them as they actually learn-, and what they’re finding is that kids learn better when they’re moving around.  We’re going to learn a lot more about development from this.  Why does play-based preschool work better than academic preschool?  Well, one reason is that 4 year olds learn through their bodies.

And let’s take homework as another example.  Research shows that after 2 ½ hours of homework in high school, and after one hour of homework in junior high school, there is no benefit.  Caveat is if the child has a learning disorder.  The big paper on this, the meta analysis, was by Harris Cooper.  Research also shows that as far as academics and cognitive development go, there is no benefit to homework in elementary school.  10 minutes per grade is ok.  So much of what they’re finding is common sense.  Kids need to play and run around!

Take my youngest son.  He’s an ordinary student, dead-center of his class, total hands-on learner.  Fast forward through a series of things that had to do with getting him into environments that actually valued hands-on learning, and he’s unrecognizable to his mother.  This was a kid who struggled struggled struggled- multiple things at play- he’s a late bloomer-kids develop at different paces- he just grew up.  The problem with homogenous classrooms is that everyone’s judged by the same narrow criteria.

Sometimes I hear from parents of kids I’ve seen 10 and 15 years ago and it’s shocking to me.  A kid I had to put out in a wilderness program is now a doctor or a lawyer.  When all is said and done, if you come from a loving and accepting family who is responsive things will turn out the best that they can.

In your book, you emphasize repeatedly that we are all average at many things.  At one point, you make a brilliant distinction: “we need to distinguish between the inherent uniqueness of our children, and the unrealistic specialness we insist on when we argue with teachers or coaches or push our children past their limits.  The former moves our children forward, the latter only hinders their progress.”  What would you say to a parent who insists that without this intervention or pushing, his or her child would “fall behind,” “get lost,” or “not fulfill his or her potential”? 

Also, I wholeheartedly agree that learning how to accept our weaknesses or challenges as well as our strengths and talents is crucial to “developing a comfortable and robust sense of self.”  How can we help children to see, understand, and be comfortable with not only their own strengths but also their own weaknesses?   How does recognizing and being honest about one’s areas of challenge help children- and all of us!- to be more productive and truly successful people?

The issue with that just fascinates me.  How do people get to be successful?  Research shows us that the most successful people work really hard, that they have qualities of persistence, resilience, determination, and flexibility.  They have to be bright, but they don’t have to be brilliant.  For example, I went to state university.  This idealization of the Ivy League is misplaced, and I think it’s a defense against the fact that here’s the reality: there’s a bell curve in terms of general intelligence, and most of our kids are going to be average, even if we’re smart ourselves.  We tend to marry people with very similar IQs- IQ is not additive – for example- 130 plus 135.  As a matter of fact it’s more likely that the kid will be a regression to the mean; it’s more likely that the child will be average.

When I give talks, I tell people what I’m good at-I am a good mom, writer, and psychologist- and then I list the things that I suck at and then list the things that I’m average at.

I think we are spending way too much time and energy correcting deficits and not enough helping strengths.  I recently met the amazing Andrew Solomon-what a rare combination of high IQ and compassion that guy has!– and I found fascinating his discussion of the deaf community- all the time spent on teaching the deaf to learn words and not going to their strengths- they weren’t able to develop.

I could not agree more that it’s “easy to romanticize childhood . . . but childhood is not easy.”  At one point in THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, I recall a moment where after a meeting with my four year old son’s teachers who lamented his inability to tie his shoes quickly and his unwillingness to participate in art projects, I think to myself:  “Kids are expected to be generalists, but grown-ups are allowed to specialize and not have to do every last kind of activity.  It is so hard to be a kid!”  How can recognizing the inherent difficulty of childhood help us to be better educators and parents?

As a student at top schools and then a professor at Yale and Vassar, I know all too well how the relentless pursuit of “the best” school leads to burn-out, a sense of emptiness, and a lack of true ownership of one’s experience.  At one point you write: “If you keep the effort bar high then good school choices make themselves reasonably clear.  For one student that might be Princeton, and for another it might be a community college.  Both of these options carry the possibility of success and neither guarantees it.”  Later, you put it more succinctly and dramatically: “College placement is about making a good match, not about winning a prize.”  For parents who see their children as exceptional and want them to win, surpass, excel, how can we help them shift their focus from winning, accomplishing, and dazzling to becoming their best, most fulfilled and content selves?

The heart of this is the absolute refusal to acknowledge one’s own ordinariness.  This has to do with the boomer generation—we were going to do great things, and being ordinary is absolutely anathema.  I came from this working class background where being ordinary was good- people helped each other out.  You want your kid to be good at a couple of things but no-one is good at everything.  The top top CEOs –research shows that out of 32 characteristics that are associated with strong leadership potential, you need 5 to be a big success.  Straight A students are a very thin narrow group of kids- it’s a tiny group of people!

Many parents would agree with your contention that schools often scant or neglect valuable components of education like music, art, dance, cooking; these parents will often sign their children up for after-school or weekend activities and classes in a well-intentioned effort to provide “enrichment.”  But how, why, and when does enrichment actually become depletion as children are pushed to and beyond their limits, exhausted and drained by what you call “over-programming” and “over-scheduling”?  How can parents decide what counts as worthy and what is just too much?  Moreover, how can we choose the “right” or “best” extras for our individual child?

If you look at a bunch of 4 year olds they’re dancing around, laughing, playing, pushing.  The energy is so good in a good K class and high school students are falling asleep!  You’ve got to ask: what happened to learning in between the exuberance of K and the exhaustion of 11th grade?  David Elkind has a helpful rule of thumb about activities for your child: you should pick one social, one physical, one artistic.

In terms of when is a kid overloaded: you look for psychosomatic symptoms in young kids and you let them lead.  Young kids need a pot, pan, spoon and a back yard to run around in.  They’re such natural scientists.  There’s just as much to be learned from that as more structured activities.  For every hour of structure, a child needs two hours of unstructured free time.  If you have a young kid in school till 3 and then sign him or her up for ANY activities after school, that is way too much structure.  People need time to craft a sense of self.  The most protective thing you can have in life is a robust internal sense of self.  One activity is more than enough.

There are only 24 hours in a day.  Cross out the amount of time kids should spend sleeping (9 hrs 15 minutes in high school, 11 hours in elementary school is ideal), and you’ve got very few hours left!  And we must remember that sleep is crucial.  We used to think fatigue was a symptom of depression and now we know it’s a major cause of depression.  I’ve just read some new research- it’s looking like chronic sleep deprivation is a primary trigger for depression.  If you don’t sleep enough, you can’t process or retain information.  The way to tell if your kids are getting enough sleep?  If they get up by themselves and they’re not tired.

Who inspires you?  These can be public figures, authors, historical figures, people from your personal life.

 The simple answer is: my family that came from Russia when they were 15 and worked laying bricks and cutting glass and didn’t know the language and lived lives of thoughtfulness and integrity.  In my heart of hearts, I liked that culture a lot better than the one I’m in now.  Now, that life was not easy.  It was really hard- my dad died young, we were on welfare.  But this culture is where I got to see that people do best when they lend a hand rather than compete with each other.  Kids do better as well.  My grandmother who had nothing used to keep the pushke- a jar that you put money in- she’d put a penny or a nickel in, and when she got enough money she’d send a washcloth to her sister in Michigan.  Her sister really needed a washcloth. This kind of thoughtfulness and generosity, emphasis on hard work and taking responsibility for one’s actions- that a great model for the way to live your life.


Levine credit Michael Schwartz


Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist with close to 30 years of experience as a clinician, consultant and educator. Her New York Times bestseller, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems.  Her new book, Teach Your Children Well,to be released July 31, 2012, outlines how our current narrow definition of success unnecessarily stresses academically talented kids and marginalizes many more whose talents and interests are less amenable to measurement. The development of skills needed to be successful in the 21st century- creativity, collaboration, innovation – are not easily developed in our competitive, fast-paced, high pressure world. Teach Your Children Well gives practical, research- based solutions to help parents return their families to healthier and saner versions of themselves.

Dr. Levine is also a co-founder of Challenge Success, a project born at the Stanford School of Education. Challenge Success believes that our increasingly competitive world has led to tremendous anxiety about our childrens’ futures and has resulted in a high pressure, myopic focus on grades, test scores and performance. This kind of pressure and narrow focus isn’t helping our kids become the resilient, capable, meaningful contributors we need in the 21st century. So every day, Challenge Success provides families and schools with the practical research-based tools they need to raise healthy, motivated kids, capable of reaching their full potential. We know that success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of the grading period.

Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has had a large clinical practice with an emphasis on child and adolescent problems and parenting issues. Currently however, she spends most of her time crisscrossing the country speaking to parents, educators, students, and business leaders. Dr. Levine has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center/ San Francisco.  For many years, Dr. Levine has been a consultant to various schools, from preschool through High School, public as well as private, throughout the country. She has been featured on television programs from the Early Show to the Lehrer report, on NPR stations such as Diane Rheems in Washington and positively reviewed in publications from Scientific American to the Washington Post. She is sought out both nationally and internationally as an expert and keynote speaker.

Dr. Levine and her husband of 35 years, Lee Schwartz, M.D. are the incredibly proud (and slightly relieved) parents of three newly minted and thriving sons.