One of the dangers in families is that we tend to approach things with the glass half-empty. We often want our children to be MORE motivated or MORE focused, or for them to try HARDER. What could be more disheartening than somebody approaching you and constantly undervaluing what you are doing. Imagine if a friend was always seeing you in that light. We need to take a pause and not assume the worst with our children. 

What I have learned about the human nervous system and the brain is that these subtle communications are very important. 

For example, I was taking my son to camp who already had quite a busy summer, having been away twice on his own and been to various camps. He had said he was tired but we got up anyway, left the house, and we were on the subway together. He wasn’t protesting nor asking to go home. I could just tell that he was tired. Then just before we got to the entrance, I turned to him and asked if he wanted to go home instead. All of a sudden, he perked up. There was an immediate shift in him. His whole demeanor changed and he started telling stories.

For a moment there, it felt like it was a burden having paid for the camp, packed all his snacks for the day, and gotten all the way there. But at some point, once it sat long enough with me, I knew that the higher value there had nothing to do with the wasted time packing his bag or that we had gone all the way to the camp. The highest value was for me to be able to come to my senses and listen to his subtle communications. 

Today, I loosely focus on parenting. But more than that, I’d like us to zero in and look at the process of repair. There is a hierarchy in parenting that is very different from the horizontality that exists in adult loving relationships. In adult loving relationships, there’s an equality there of taking care of each other. But when it comes to children, that shifts dramatically. 

As parents, there are times when we feel disappointed if our children are not fitting the vision we have for them. There’s this sense of disorientation when our child doesn’t live up to how we have imagined them and what we have cultivated for many years. That’s out of love, of course, all of our energies supporting our children’s likes and dislikes and encouraging them to do things is because we want them to succeed. But we also need to allow the burgeoning of the child’s personality and desires. If there isn’t any discretion between the parents’ frustration and disappointments versus the prerogative of the child, that’s where things can get really messy. 

Ultimately, we want to create that space for our children to become who they want to be, and not what we think they should be. We don’t want our children to betray themselves in the service of others. Instead, we have to instill a soft, delicate, responsive, flexible relationship with the child’s instincts.

Show Highlights:

  • The concept of optimal frustration
  • Donald Winnicott’s notion of the false self
  • The hierarchy in parenting and what the work of parenting really is
  • Why the movie Inside Out is an oversimplification and why that’s important
  • Why we tend to act in more primitive ways
  • What the phrase “somebody has your back” implies
  • The concept of the “shit sandwich”
  • What it means to be narcissistically attached to a child

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Mitchell Smolkin is a sought-after clinician, speaker, and author. For media and interview requests please contact his publicist Randy Phipps at For all other inquiries, please send mail to

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