How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Parenting: Part I

Taking the pressure off and adding a new, key parenting skill.

Talk to any mother of two or more kids and she’ll say each kid came out of the womb with a distinctive personality. One mom, Miriam Weinstein, author of Making a Difference Colleges, insisted she correctly intuited her four kids’ personalities in utero!

Aim to refine, not remold

So, wise parents try to refine not remold their kids. As with a TV, we can fine-tune its colors but can’t turn a black-and-white set into a color one. Alas, many parents try to convert their active child into a placid one, their academically apathetic kid into a studious one, their solitude-preferring child into a social one. Often, the amount of progress is outweighed by the struggle and the child’s feeling that his or her true self is bad.

Of course, modest efforts to, for example, get a child more interested in schoolwork or be a little more social are probably worth the effort. But some parents declare war on the problem, with the result being that both parent and child get badly wounded without either side gaining much territory.

You may find these approaches more helpful

Building intrinsic motivation

Your dominant approach to helping your child develop good behaviors and values should be to build intrinsic motivation, not try obtain compliance through extrinsics: rewards and punishments. Even at an early age, it’s wise to explain why you’re asking a child to do something. For example, let’s say you’d like your 4-year old to pour her own cereal. At my best, I’d say something like,

“Lea, you’re getting to be a big girl now. How’d you like to pour your own cereal?”

“No, daddy, you do it.” 

“Daddy has to help your baby brother with his breakfast and I’d like to be able to count on you.”


“Lea, I’m disappointed in you. I was hoping you’d be more grown-up and be willing to help our family.”

Then, I’d quietly pour his cereal and say to her, “Maybe tomorrow, you’ll feel more grown up. I’ll ask you again tomorrow.”

“No!!” (She starts to tantrum.)

I’d ignore it and give attention to her brother.

Of course, I’m not perfect, and in the heat of morning madness, I might not be so patient and careful with my words. But that’s what I aspire to do.

The principles embedded in that scenario:

1. No corporal punishment. The short-term compliance that corporal punishment may yield is far outweighed by the negatives: The child sees that to get what one wants, hitting is acceptable. As important, the child doesn’t get the opportunity to build intrinsic motivation. There will be many times as a child and especially as an adult, when there are no rewards and punishments. What drives good behavior in those circumstances is an intrinsic set of values. The person who believes in the primacy of responsibility, ethics, and justice, will not need a hovering police officer to motivate them.

2. The power of guilt. Perhaps it’s just that I’m the son of a Jewish mother, a demographic legendary for masterful invocation of guilt, but I believe that inducing guilt has a bad rap. Behavior change is more likely when there are both positive consequences for the desired behavior and negative ones for the undesired behavior. So a parent (or a spouse or a boss) is more likely to engender good values without need for extrinsic rewards and punishments by using all three tools: explaining the reason for wanting a certain behavior, praising when it’s done, but also gently invoking guilt when the child fails. Of course, everything has limits. I’m not suggested parents use the parody of the Jewish mother, putting her head in the oven saying, “It’s okay. Do what you want. I’ll just turn on the gas.”

Part II, which will be posted tomorrow: A time-effective approach to helping your child get a good education.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 

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