Dr. Alex Russell Shares Parenting Expertise

There is no such thing as the “perfect parent” — not even clinical psychologist Dr. Alex Russell considers himself one. But he did learn a crucial lesson in parenting from his own father. In his last year of high school, Dr. Russell was sent home from camp by his music teacher (“the most important person in my life”) for throwing a party without permission. His father’s response was uniquely effective: “I know you know better, son.” “If he had gotten in my face making me feel guilty, I guarantee you I would've responded with attitude,” says Dr. Russell. “That’s not minding, it's controlling, and it causes us to lose the connection with our children.”

Dr. Russell shared his expertise at a Parent Education Event on November 29. Over the course of an hour, he introduced concepts such as adaptive anxiety, the minding moment, non-catastrophic, painful failure, and flow state, and how these factor into raising well-adjusted, balanced children.

When Anxiety is Good

Anxiety disorders are on the rise and they're incredibly painful. But anxiety itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it's an absolutely essential, valuable human emotion. “Anxiety gets a lot of air time these days, and none of it is positive,” says Russell. “You’re not trying to raise children without anxiety, you’re trying to raise children with adaptive anxiety.” Anxiety is the anticipation of something that would be fearful if it were to happen. Russell distinguishes adaptive anxiety as the ability to anticipate what can happen and to act upon this instinct to achieve success. 

The “Minding Moment”

When a child conquers the jungle gym for the first time and turns to his parent in excitement, a  parent responds with delight and pride: “Look at you!” Dr. Russell explains the significance of this moment: “The way you see him is the way he sees himself. So when you see him as capable, he sees himself as capable.” This is the minding moment, when the child’s sense of self is confirmed.

As children age, the minding moment becomes even more important. It is a parent’s way to express empathy, mirror a milder version of the distress a child may be experiencing and validate who the child is and how he is feeling. 

Non-Catastrophic, Painful Failure

Children learn from failure. When we allow our children to experience non-catastrophic, painful failure, we allow them to grow. “Failure helps him master the moment. It builds resiliency. That's what helps him get back out there.” Dr. Russell points out that now is not the time for parents to teach, but to shift this responsibility to the child to learn.

Many modern parents believe — unconsciously or consciously — that their child can’t handle failure. And since our children see themselves through their parents’ eyes, they too will believe they can’t handle it. But when you allow your child to experience failure, he learns to be self-sufficient. It also shows that you believe in him.

Another obstacle occurs when parents over-identify with their child’s success. “We put our resources, our energy, our concern into them,” says Dr. Russell. “We need them to succeed, not just for them, but if we’re being honest, for us, too.”

The “Flow State”

When a person is deeply engaged and enriched by an activity, they’re said to be in a state of flow. “The activity itself is meaningful,” says Dr. Russell. “Doing it gives a sense of mastery, satisfaction, competence, meaning, and purpose. We all need flow in our lives.” 

One of the key ingredients in flow is anxiety. The more anxiety and the more skill it takes to meet that challenge, the deeper the flow. If a child is not allowed to experience anxiety, they will not be able to achieve a state of flow.

Tips For Strengthening the Parent-School Alliance

It’s critical to reinforce the importance of a student’s agency in his own education. “After tonight’s talk some of you may decide, ‘Okay, we're gonna turn the academic responsibilities over to our son.’ And you’ll make an alliance with the teacher, and you’ll say to your son, ‘We know you’ve got this. We're turning it over to you now.’ If you're anxious about it, keep talking with that teacher. She'll keep you in the loop so that he can experience, if necessary, some non-catastrophic failure. And when you believe in your son’s abilities, he’ll believe in them, too.”

Russell suggests that parents follow three steps for strengthening the parent-school alliance: 

Step #1: Begin with a message of appreciation and trust in the teacher. “Remember that he's in really good hands,” he says. “You need to create an alliance among village elders.” 

Step #2: Share with the teacher what you're doing at home, that you're now trying to respect your son’s autonomy. Any teacher will understand that your son balks when you try to manage him. 

Step #3: Give the teacher the authority to “lower the boom” and provide your son with consequences for his behaviour. “When you leave your children with their troubles, you give them a chance to take responsibility for themselves.”