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Parenting experts

We ask the pros for advice you need Feature

Famous authors, tireless advocates, brilliant scientists, researchers, and thinkers -- the ParentMap advisory board reads like a "who's who" of the best and brightest in our region. We're honored by our association with some of the finest minds around.

Now, we've asked them to share their collective wisdom and incredible resources with you -- and they responded, by phone and email. Here's their take on what's exciting, what's working, and what still needs to be done for families in our region -- as well as the one piece of advice they want to offer YOU!

  • Laura Kastner, Ph.D., teaches at the University of Washington's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and maintains a private practice. She has co-authored two books: The Seven Year Stretch: How the Family Works Together to Grow Through Adolescence and The Launching Years: Strategies for parenting from senior year to college life.
  • Michael Gurian is a social philosopher, family therapist, corporate consultant, and The New York Times bestselling author of twenty books, including The Wonder of Boys and Nurture the Nature: Understanding and Supporting Your Child's Unique Core Personality, due out in May.
  • Judy Nelson, M.L.S., is the Youth Services Coordinator for the Pierce County Library system, and the President of the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.
  • Nanci Villareale, R.N., M.S.N., is co-director of the Center for Children with Special Needs at Seattle Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center. She holds a master's degree in nursing, and practiced as a pediatric pulmonary clinical nurse specialist for 15 years.
  • Ben Danielson, M.D., a pediatrician, is medical director of the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, which provides medical, dental and mental health services to families in central and southeast Seattle.
  • John Gottman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and co-founder, with his wife,Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., of the Gottman Institute. He is the author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting.
  • Garrison Kurtz is the former Director of Programs at the Foundation for Early Learning; he has just joined our state's new early learning public-private partnership, Thrive by Five Washington.
  • Yaffa Maritz, M.A., is the founder of the Listening Mothers, a program that encourages emotional bonding between new mothers and babies. She also sits on the board of The Foundation for Early Learning, the University of Washington's Advisory Board for the Infant Mental Health Program, and on the Board of the Washington Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

Q: What's new and exciting in your field?

Kastner: I am very excited about the research on brain development, especially during adolescence. A lot of the behavior patterns that have been attributed to raging hormones (e.g. impulsivity, emotionality, defiance of authority, risk-taking) also stem from specific changes that occur within the brain during the teen years. During this time, electrical circuitry can be re-routed instantaneously into the emotional part of the brain, so that emotional reactivity, irrational judgments and impulsive decisions are rampant.

Every parent experiences this and watches their teens make terrible decisions, fly off into tizzies and react aggressively to innocent requests. Parents need to know about this research and learn techniques of how to relate to their teen during their inevitable "hot spots" without merely punishing and moralizing, but with more coaching and emotional "training" to help their teens learn to be better decision-makers.

So many parents overestimate their powers to inculcate various traits into their child. When they fail, they judge themselves and their child, and damage can be done!

Gurian: I personally think that the new brain science information and the work on genome mapping are profoundly important to parents. It gives us a way to understand our children from the inside out. I'm hoping to help parents very practically understand their own children as individuals -- including their child's individual and intrinsic needs, strengths, vulnerabilities, and learning styles. (See Resources for Gurian's new book.)

Nelson: In the library world, probably one of the things that is most exciting is the growth of the role of libraries in working with early literacy. The American Library Association has created (and Pierce County libraries are a part of) a pilot program called "Every Child Ready to Read." It's a training program for librarians to help parents and childcare providers understand the basic skills that every young child has to have in order to be able to learn to read. (Read more about this at

Our library story times are being redesigned to incorporate these skills. It's really exciting for me because this is a big sea change for librarians -- to be able to add what you call "teaching moments" to our work. We can help parents understand the little things they can be doing to build up these skills -- it's not that hard, it doesn't cost anything, you just need to be doing things all the time, as opposed to plunking your child in front of the TV.

Danielson: In our clinic we have been focusing on the quality of care we provide to kids with chronic diseases like asthma and sickle cell disease, as well as conditions like overweight and ADHD.

Other interesting directions for our clinic include a program to better understand the needs of our foster care kids as well as kids raised by extended families; a program to enhance our preventive services for children under five; and a growth in our advocacy work which will include having a stronger voice for education, policy and social justice.

The hospital-based side of my work also has many exciting new involvements. Two examples are the creation of a new center for diversity that will champion best practices for a diverse population, and enriching the level of care provided to hospitalized children with very complex medical problems. In addition, working to mentor youth and encouraging young people to consider a career in healthcare is very important to me.

Gottman: Today, there is a real focus on fathers. We're seeing a new invigoration of dedication and interest by dads toward maintaining relationships with their infants. That's more exciting than neuroscience. I don't see the implications for parents or schools in knowing things about the brain.

And there's been a sea change in marriages. American men are saying, "I want to be a different father and a different partner." They are looking for a low-conflict, more intimate relationship with their wives.

Research shows that secret for getting fathers involved with their babies is for them to have a good relationship with the mothers.

Kurtz: We have a governor in this state who supports early learning -- and who is putting money into early learning and making it a priority. It helps to have a governor interested in thinking carefully through how she can make this state a leader in this world. She sees the way that kind of leadership is connected to education. And she sees there are very specific things we need to do in education.

We also have a strong philanthropic community. Many members of this community are now in leadership positions.

Maritz: We've found that it's important that parents become more reflective and more mindful. We call this reflective parenting. It's about parents understanding their own emotions.

A mother who's able to understand her own agenda and feelings helps determine whether her child will be secure. If the mother is secure, the child will be also. And people who are secure are better able to be intimate in relationships, deal with stress, be more resilient and adaptable, and move between dependence and independence. These are the kids who do better at school and are securely attached. We call them emotionally intelligent children. When parents become more self aware, they act reflectively, not reactively. It's a very holistic way to be.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you're facing?

Villareale: Finding the best ways to help parents, children and adolescents learn about their chronic condition, and living with and managing the chronic condition in the context of everyday life. The best methods to provide information on resources are not well established. For example, people use different sources to get information -- the Internet, their doctor, friends, support groups, the library -- and what works for one family does not work for another.

With my wife, I'm raising two teenage daughters. Probably my biggest challenge is to stay focused on what makes each of them tick. There are a lot of conflicting messages in the culture about what kids should become, and about teenagers in general. Focusing on the nature of each of my kids has been helpful. And my two kids are quite different indeed! They are who they are. I don't think either of them wants to be molded into an industrial or social trends model of a "girl" or a "woman," and my challenge as a dad is to help open up avenues of development for them that fit THEM.

Kastner: I worry about different things for what I call "low-resource" families and "high-resource" families. By resources, I mean parental income, education, support systems, and opportunities of all kinds. With low-resource families, I struggle with how to galvanize these families to make a priority of having dinners together, making their kids participate in character-building after-school activities rather than running free, partnering with schools to make sure their kids are invested there, and finding the energy to spend quality time together.

With high-resource families, I struggle with how to help these parents understand the importance of developing their children's emotional, moral and social competencies, rather than just focusing on grades and sports. The latter are important, but often privileged parents get preoccupied with creating superstars and super-performers, with the misguided notion that this is good parenting, since "it will help them get into a good college" and become successful adults. This is so sad for me, since research has shown that exclusively focusing on academics and pressuring kids about high performance results in more disconnected relationships and higher depression, anxiety and substance use in the adolescents.

Nelson: Our biggest challenge is finding ways to connect with parents. Parents don't always think to come to the library as a resource. We keep trying to reach out to them, to let them know that this is a free service and they are welcome, their children are welcome, and we have all these resources and materials.

Danielson: The simple challenge is really around promoting wellness and brighter futures for every child we possibly can. This means the big challenges are things like ensuring kids have access to healthcare, making sure that care is of the highest quality, and looking out for those at risk of falling through the cracks. This also means helping people understand the importance of prevention. Too many of our health resources these days go toward late interventions for problems for which prevention and early intervention would have saved suffering and cost.

Another big challenge is helping people appreciate the tight connection between a child's health and their education. Understanding this link is integral to helping a young person reach their fullest potential.

One more big challenge is improving our ability to understand and address the links between environmental exposures and illness. We definitely know, for example, that asthma occurs more often and more severely in poorer inner city kids but is increasing for everyone. This is clearly linked in some ways to environmental exposures. Perhaps exposures really contribute in previously under-appreciated ways to other increasing problems like autoimmune diseases or pediatric behavioral problems. We need to understand the many layers of the onion that is our impact on the environment and its impact on us.

Gottman: This nation has gone away from research, particularly research to study families. And there's been a huge reduction in funding for basic research and the basic sciences. It's all about studying psychiatric disorders such as autism or manic-depressive disorder, not families and babies. The evidence shows that there is an enormous link between longevity, families and mental health. All of that is being ignored by this administration, and it has changed everything. The United States is in a state of tremendous intellectual decline.

Kurtz: Although all this new support (from the governor) is exciting, it throws everything into question. The Foundation for Early Learning was created to coordinate early learning, coordinate funds and change belief in early learning. Now some of these issues are being taken on by other big organizations and by public and private partnerships such as Thrive by Five, which is to help enhance parent education and support, child care, preschool, and other early learning environments throughout Washington state. It's like change in anything --exciting, fun, and scary all at once.

Q: What's the one piece of advice you'd offer parents?

Villareale: (For parents of children with special needs) Start thinking early about how to involve your child in managing their chronic condition. Even as preschoolers, children can learn the name of their condition and symptoms that indicate they need some treatment. As the child grows, providing opportunities to increase their self-care abilities will improve their likelihood of being able to do self-care in the teen years. As teens, when can they begin to re-order their own medications? Make doctor appointments? When should they have time alone with their physician so they can plan with their doctor about how to care for themselves? These are things that can be discussed with your teen, and then joint decisions can be made about who will take the responsibility.

Part of a child's self esteem is built on their ability to care for themselves, to feel proud about their abilities and decisions. Negotiating responsibilities gives the child the feeling that you trust and respect their abilities. By starting with small steps, you build the child's confidence in making good decisions or failing to make good decisions when the stakes are not too high. As they grow and have had good experiences with increasing responsibility, they have the confidence to take the next step: more responsibility.

Gurian: To nurture the individual nature of each of your children -- and to do that, focus on the child's innate gifts, and focus away from social trends that don't fit. If your child isn't good at math but is good at other things, get help with the math, but put most of your energy into the strengths. If your child doesn't read yet at five years old, don't worry too much. Children are children, not industrial commodities. They develop at their own brain-pace and with their own innate gifts. If you as a parent are creating a loving home and looking into your child's eyes and glimpsing THIS child's gifts, you will most probably be nurturing a child whose nature will succeed quite well in the future.

Each boy or girl has a purpose on this earth, I believe (and "purpose" means more than one thing, of course). Keep asking yourself, "What is this child's purpose?" With this child, invent a life that fits that purpose -- not overscheduled or overstressed -- just a good fit with this child's rhythms of learning, relationship and interest.

Kastner: Put a lot of energy into being a discerning and careful decision-maker. This includes being a discerning chooser of your priorities. Along with this, one can remember the old adage, "Pick your battles." This touches on the decision of how you spend your time, money and energy.

Without a high value placed on relaxed and positive time with the family, the parent loses their intrinsic ability to build secure and warm relationships. Parents have the responsibility to socialize their child, which means a lot of guidance, discipline and correcting. However, if the relationship is not a mostly positive one, the parent loses credibility and influence. (Why comply with a perceived tyrant?) Parenting requires so much discerning! And so much clear-headedness to choose the battles!

Danielson: Kids are scientists and you are their test subjects: from the 7-month old who wants to see how many times you'll pick up the toy he drops, to the toddler studying your expression while their finger gets closer to the outlet, to the preschooler having a meltdown in the grocery store, to the adolescent putting up yet another barrier to pleasant dinner conversation. If you can appreciate this scientist's experimentations, it helps you appreciate the work they are doing and undo the behavior you don't want.

Kurtz: Parents need to focus on creating an ongoing, nurturing, communicative two-way relationship with their children from the very beginning. Read to them, play with them, get down at their level -- even before they can talk with you. There is a difference between being with your children and really being with your children. And be open to who they are.

We sometimes get caught up in management issues and forget the uniqueness of noticing our kids as individuals. It's smart for parents to establish routines and rituals with their children. For example, my daughter and I have holiday tea every year. My son and I go to the Space Needle for breakfast on summer solstice. Those rituals have developed huge meaning for us.

Gottman: Learn to talk to your kids about their emotions. We call this "emotion coaching." There's building evidence that the connection between parents and kids on an emotional level is what makes the difference in the development of children who are resilient and emotionally intelligent.

Maritz: Parents need to become more mindful and more self-reflecting. They need to know themselves -- where they are coming from and what pushes them off-balance -- before they know their kids. People get caught up in the moment and don't take time to be reflective. They should learn to move away from the moment and look at the big picture.

For example, let's say my son comes from school and says, "I don't have any friends; I don't want to go back to school." This is really scary for me because I'm very social.

If I don't become reflective, I'll act reactively. Before I respond, I should look inside and realize my first reaction was about me, not about my child. And I'm going to avoid pushing my agenda onto my son.

Nelson: Talk with your children, from the day they're born. You don't have to spend a lot of money on toys and books! Build that personal relationship from the moment your child is born, talking and singing. If you don't think you have time, read your work out loud! There's nothing more important than a parent having that relationship with their child.

Eight things our experts want parents to remember:

  1. Notice and nurture your child's individual nature.
  2. For children with special needs: Involve your child in his or her own condition.
  3. Choose your battles carefully.
  4. Talk to and with your children, from the day they're born.
  5. Allow your children to experiment and explore their world.
  6. Get down on their level to really be with your child.
  7. Talk to them about their emotions.
  8. Reflect on your own motivations before acting.



From Laura Kastner, Ph.D:

From Michael Gurian:

From Nanci Villareale:

  • The Center for Children with Special Needs maintains a Web site for parents and professionals who care for children with special needs. At, there is a wealth of information including health education (information about the chronic condition), emergency planning tools, care notebooks and how to order a care organizer, and community resource guides for most counties in the state.

From Judy Nelson:

  • Reserve a book online, and you'll get an email when it comes in. The Pierce County Library offers book lists for parents and teachers, broken down by "big concerns," like a new sibling, the death of a pet, divorce, etc.
  • Parents can borrow "baby bags"-- a collection of board books on a particular subject, along with a parenting book.
  • And don't forget to ask for help, ask for advice -- your library staff is there for a reason!

From Garrison Kurtz:

From Yaffa Maritz:

From John Gottman, Ph.D.:

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