Closeup Rachel Wigglesworth

Rachel Wigglesworth, once a wildlife biologist, turned her research skills toward another passion: childhood development and parenting.

The recent college admission scandal brings up many thoughts on today’s parenting challenges. This column is the fourth in a biweekly, four-part series that explores our deep love for our kids, anxieties we may have about their future and how we can help our kids grow into thriving adults.

In her book “The Straight Talk on Parenting,” author and parent educator Vicki Hoefle reminds us that while we are living with children we are raising adults. It is easy for us to be caught up in the daily routines we have with our kids, especially the parts that are challenging and messy. There are times we can be so focused on the unwanted behaviors and inflamed emotions that we lose sight of what is really important.

Despite the daily joys and challenges of raising toddlers through teens, one of our main goals is to raise adults who can thrive in the world when they leave our homes.

When our kids are acting out — whether in their toddler tantrum or teenage demand for independence — we feel like we have to do something in that moment. Something to stop the behavior, teach a lesson or show who’s boss. We get caught in the emotional storm.

Often in these situations both parents and kids are in our “downstairs brain,” as Dr. Dan Siegel calls it. This is when the limbic system, where we have our fight-or-flight response, has taken over and we can’t think clearly. When we are in this part of the brain we are not able to access our “upstairs brain,” or prefrontal cortex, where logical thinking occurs. We can’t think about what is truly important in these moments.

What is truly important? Before you read on, take a minute to answer this question. What is truly important to you in raising your children? I mean it. Pause here and think.

Do your thoughts go to the immediate challenges you are working on or to your child’s long-term development? Do your thoughts have to do with the kind of relationship you have with your kids now — and in the future? Are you thinking about their character strengths and their happiness and health, or that they grow into adults who … ?

Often when we are caught up in a challenging interaction with our kids we forget our end goal: that we are raising an adult. Sometimes it feels like responding to our kids in a way that aligns with this goal isn’t possible. But it actually is, if we can calm ourselves and get out of our emotional brain first.

This may be hard to swallow, but as Hoefle points out, we don’t have to always respond immediately during the challenge. If we aren’t able to respond respectfully and in a way that moves us toward our goal, sometimes the best response is to excuse ourselves and take a breather. Most of us, adults and kids alike, can’t respond wisely when we are caught up in our downstairs brain. The breather allows us to calm down, get into our upstairs brain, and think about a productive response.

I think two of the most important jobs we have in raising our kids is to love and accept them for who they are, and teach them the skills they need when they leave our homes. We can’t effectively teach when we are in the reactive part of our brain, and our kids can’t learn when their brains are in the same place.

How does this relate to the college admissions scandal? In my past articles in this series I wrote about how easily we slip into doing for our kids what they can do for themselves such as, in the extreme, paying exorbitant amounts of money to bribe our kids’ way into college.

Think about the skills our kids need to have if they are going to successfully launch from our homes: self care — hygiene, timeliness, mental and physical health, knowing their own preferences and desires, identity formation, developing character strengths, regulating emotions; home care — cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, paying bills; navigating the social world — developing and maintaining relationships, dealing with conflict or rejection; and attaining financial independence — getting a job, managing a budget.

I’m sure we could add to this list.

I don’t mean to overwhelm. Rather, I want to talk about some ideas to help our kids gain these skills while they are still in our homes.

Instead of doing things for our kids, in her book “How to Raise an Adult” Julie Lythcott-Haims outlines four steps to teach our kids skills: 1) we do the task for our kids, 2) we do it with them, 3) we watch them do it, 4) they do it completely independently. We can’t expect our kids to know how to do something they’ve never experienced. We need to first teach skills and then step back and give our kids the reins.

At a young age our kids are capable and interested in doing things around the house that we don’t let them because it will be too messy, it won’t be done well, it will take too much time. Yet allowing our kids to learn home and self-care skills at an early age helps them feel capable, allows them to get to know themselves and boosts their confidence and self-esteem.

There are several great guides on what our kids may be capable of doing at various ages. For example, with guidance, a 2-year-old can help unload the dishwasher, and 12-year-old can call to make their own doctor’s appointment.

Together with your kids decide what responsibilities they can start taking care of. Teach them the skills. Allow for mistakes. Don’t rescue. Be encouraging, always. Be OK with failure and disappointment. Allow for natural consequences to be the teacher.

In this four-part series based on ideas inspired by the recent college admissions scandal I’ve talked a lot about the “whys” behind what we do for our kids and the outcomes this doing can have. Stay tuned for my next column on the “hows,” the practical ideas and examples of what we can do instead.

Rachel Wigglesworth has a master’s degree in parent and family education. She offers classes, coaching and customized groups to parents and caregivers of children and teens at Email her at or find her on Facebook.

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