Jenny Schatzle

Melinda Wenner Moyer

A Science & Parenting Journalist’s Take on How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Pandemic Edition

EPISODE: 40   |    DATE: April 29, 2021

“We are collectively as parents raising the next generation of adults. We are shaping them into who they are going to become. And if we can all learn the best strategies and the most proactive ways to parent our kids so that they grow up to be compassionate and kind and to fight injustice, then we’re going to build a better world for our children.”

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Key Takeaways

  • Melinda Wenner Moyer is a Parenting & Science Journalist and most recently, author of a new book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes
  • Melinda is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national magazines and newspapers. 
  • She is a faculty member in the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. 
  • Even though Melinda has and continues to research the science on parenting, she still finds herself going back to the “old ways” of parenting sometimes with her children.
  • She believes that’s because sometimes as parents, we are so stressed and frazzled that it’s our reactive emotional brain that takes the controls.
  • Melinda was a science journalist before she was a parenting journalist.
  • She’s been a freelance writer since 2007.
  • She loves what she does because she gets to cover whatever aspect of science she finds interesting at any given moment.
  • She got into writing about parenting after becoming a parent herself. She found herself constantly looking up answers to the many questions she had about various aspects of her life as a parent.
  • She began pitching stories about parenting to the publication she regularly wrote for at the time, Slate, and they happened to be looking for a regular parenting columnist.
  • She loves using science to answer parenting questions.
  • Melinda wrote a piece for Scientific American called You Can Get Through This Dark Pandemic Winter Using Tips From Disaster Psychology. 
  • In the article, Melinda interviews both rehabilitation psychologist as well as disaster psychologists.
  • She mentions 4 of the strategies that she found particularly helpful from the article as it relates to parenting:
    • First, it’s important to acknowledge and accept your negative feelings and to realize that they don’t make you less resilient. In fact, resilient people have negative feelings but they work through them and come to some way to make things better for themselves.
    • There is even some research that suggests writing about negative feelings can have a positive effect on mental health. Melinda mentions a study done on college students who regularly journaled that noted that these students were less likely to visit the student health center for any reason.
    • Second, these psychologists said that thinking about problems not as insurmountable hurdles but instead thinking about what are the things they can do something about was helpful. It’s about focusing not on the things that are out of your control, like losing your job, and rather on things you can control, like, for example, sending out your resume or writing a budget.
    • The third takeaway was connecting with people, which seems cruel in this time where we aren’t connecting with people. But there are ways around that, like virtual gaming nights or safely socially distanced in person dates with friends.
    • The fourth takeaway from disaster psychology was to go to therapy. This helps not only to process emotions but also fills the connection bucket.
  • With regards to disciplining your children, Melinda wrote an article for The New York Times called Discipline Looks Different in a Pandemic.
  • In the article, Melinda discusses how using empathy and compassion is the key to parenting children when they are emotionally charged rather than resorting to firm discipline and yelling.
  • Melinda goes onto say that kids love routine and structure and that they pick up on their parents emotions quite easily.
  • In the pandemic, their schedules have been completely thrown off, and it can feel jarring to them, which can lead to more meltdowns and acting out.
  • Kids act out because they lack the skills to deal with these kinds of challenges.
  • The reason they don’t respond to discipline when they are acting out is because they can’t hear you. They are too emotionally charged.
  • The best thing you can do is to acknowledge them and to talk them through their feelings by naming them. For example, “you’re upset, you’re mad” etc.
  • Once they have calmed down, then you can talk to them about what they might be able to do differently next time. Trying to have that conversation with them when they are emotionally charged will not work.
  • We sometimes have these ideas that if we apply these strategies, though, that our kids won’t act out. And that’s just not the case.
  • Melinda points out that we don’t see the tantrums that don’t happen.
  • If you’re working with your child to teach them the skills on how to calm down, they’re likely not going to come to you to say, “Hey, mom or dad, I was about to lose my cool but I took two deep breaths like you told me to and I feel better now!”
  • To make your life easier as a parent, you can look for patterns in your children and try to get ahead of them. For example, Melinda talks about how her 6 year old daughter usually has a meltdown right before dinner because it’s the end of the day and she’s tired and hungry. Since it was happening every night, Melinda began to offer her an apple or some other nutritious snack about an hour before dinner in an effort to address her hangry meltdown.
  • Melinda really likes a book called The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene. 
  • You don’t necessarily have to have an explosive child in order to benefit from the book, according to Melinda.
  • The book discusses a collaborative approach to problem solving with your children, among other things.
  • The idea is to really try to understand why your child is struggling. You may have to ask the question eight different ways in order to get to an understanding of what’s happening.
  • Melinda uses the example of her daughter being upset every time she gets picked up from school. When Melinda really tried to understand where it was coming from, her daughter revealed that she didn’t like to be strapped into her car seat. Together they worked on a solution that they both felt good about.
  • When I asked Melinda what advice she had for parents when they are at their wits end and they know what they are supposed to do but cannot access it, she suggested advice from a book she loves called How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids by Carla Naumburg 
  • Carla is a clinical social worker.
  • Her advice, in brief summary, is to first recognize what triggers you. For example, it could be loud noises. So if the music is too loud and the kids are talking loud, recognize that could be a trigger and ask that the music be turned down.
  • The other recommendation that Melinda notes is to recognize the moment before you’re about to snap. That moment is about 2 seconds. When you recognize it, Carla recommends that you do literally anything else but scream at your kids. You could do a dance, run into the closet – anything that’s not screaming at your kids.
  • The strategy won’t work all the time, because you have to be tuned in. But when you’re tuned it, it works wonderfully.
  • Melinda also notes that it’s ok to make mistakes. So when you lose it with your kids, it’s a great opportunity to make amends – apologize – and to model that for your children. 
  • Melinda will often say something about being sorry that she screamed, and then she’ll enroll them in coming up with ideas on things she could do differently next time.
  • One of the themes in Melinda’s book is about failure, but using it in a good way, because we have to make mistakes in order to learn from them and get better.
  • Prior to writing her book, Melinda had been wanting to write one, but wasn’t sure what it would be about.
  • It was suggested to her that she write a book about parenting, and she initially didn’t want to for fear that it would be presumptuous and obnoxious.
  • But then in 2018, she had a change of heart after a series of political events that left her feeling angry that the people in power were acting like bullies and making racist and sexist comments. 
  • She worried because those people were models for her children and they were the antithesis of what she wanted her children to become. 
  • One night at dinner with her husband, feeling particularly deflated about the situation, she blurted out, “I should just write a book called How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes!” 
  • The aha moment happened, and the rest is history. The book comes out in July.
  • Melinda set out to find all the research associated with assholery, and to figure out what we as parents needed to do in order to inoculate our kids against those traits.
  • Melinda wanted to create a sort of handbook for parents based on science on how to raise kids who could change the world for the better.
  • The book is divided into 2 parts. 
  • Part 1 focuses on particular traits, like honesty and bullying and self esteem.
  • Part 2 focuses on particular issues that parents struggle with, like sibling rivalry.
  • One of the topics that Melinda tackles is how to talk to your kids about race. This particular chapter is geared toward white parents because Melinda believes they have the most to learn.
  • Parents of color are already having these conversations with their children regularly.
  • As it turns out, when it comes to talking about race, white parents’ instincts are actually wrong. For example, many white parents will try to be color blind, believing that that makes them accept all people. But in fact, not pointing out how we are different actually exacerbates the issue.
  • The reason is because kids actually do see race. When looking at pictures, research demonstrates that kids will spend more time looking at images of people of their own race than they will of those who are not.
  • When it comes to self esteem, one of the most important things for fostering healthy self esteem in kids is to be very careful about how much we push them to excel.
  • If we’re not careful, the message that all of this pressure to excel to all of these kids is my parents love me for what I do and what I achieve and not for who I am.

About Melinda

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and parenting journalist. She’s a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national magazines and newspapers. She is a faculty member in the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her first book, How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, will be published in July 2021. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two kids and her dog.






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