Aliza Pressman, THE 5 PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans

Aliza Pressman, THE 5 PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans

Zibby speaks to psychologist, podcaster, and her friend (!!), Dr. Aliza Pressman, about THE 5 PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING, a powerful, data-backed parenting guide that is brimming with warmth and wisdom. Aliza elaborates on the five essential principles she distilled from decades of research (relationship, reflection, regulation, rules, and repair), emphasizing the importance of self-compassion and letting go of being the perfect parent. She provides fascinating insights into the science behind effective parenting and then shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Aliza. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The 5 Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans. Congrats.

Aliza Pressman: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s so cool that you’ve written a book. For those listening, Aliza and I have known each other for quite some time, originally through our friend Eva Hayman, who I adore. I remember meeting you at some wedding or something and her telling me how much everybody loved you so much in college. I was like, who is this girl? That was so long ago. Then you were the SeedlingsGroup person who had all the answers when I was struggling with small children and didn’t know what I was doing with myself.

Aliza: I didn’t either.

Zibby: It’s just so exciting. Then the Mount Sinai parenting group. We can go back to all this stuff. Now to have you write a book, it’s just so cool.

Aliza: Thank you. I know. It’s true. I was thinking more Mount Sinai. It’s been a really long time if I’m going all the way back. I never would have written a book. In fact, I definitely was like, I’m not adding more to people’s plate with another parenting book. Then I thought I could do one that could hopefully whittle it down to be everything under one roof and maybe turn down some of the noise that’s out there.

Zibby: Definitely had to write a parenting book. I’m so glad you finally did. Let’s back up. First of all, tell everybody about this book and when you decided to write a book, how you structured it into these five principles. I love how you used your own voice and your own anecdotes throughout. That was great. You never know, sometimes it could be just purely reported. Now I know that you failed Intro Psych, so that’s great to know.

Aliza: You know what? I think that’s out of the final draft.

Zibby: Oh, no, is it?

Aliza: It doesn’t matter. I’m not ashamed. I mean, I’m not proud. I took it out of the intro because somebody said to me, you know, when you’re starting this book and you’re a parent and you’re really, really busy, they don’t need your whole entire story of how you got here, so shorten it a bit. I was like, okay.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I loved it. Oh, no, I love that part. Who knew you had to cancel your eight AM class? I thought it was hilarious.

Aliza: You’re totally right. That is the two sentences that I took out. That’s so funny.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, great. Anyway, sorry about that.

Aliza: Zibby has a different copy.

Zibby: Sorry about that. Now you all know that, in fact — .

Aliza: It’s true, I failed Psych 1. I was at Dartmouth. It was not my proudest moment. Then I definitely did not know I was going to go into this field, or I probably would have made a different decision.

Zibby: I also didn’t know that you used to be really into theater.

Aliza: Yeah, I know. That was how the structuring of this book — I say this all the time. Actually, at Mount Sinai, I think everybody is more on the sporty side in our group, but I only know theater analogies. We learned to work with each other. I’m always using theater things. In this book, the second half of the book I called From Page to Stage, which is meaningless to anyone who doesn’t care about theater. For me, translating the work into your everyday parenting felt like, what else could you call it but From Page to Stage?

Zibby: Back up. Give us the two-sentence, where did you grow up? Did you grow up in LA or New York? Then you got into theater. Then you fell into this when you were looking into drama therapy programs. Give us a little more color on that because you have become such a revered expert, particularly among everybody with kids who are now, I would say, ten to twenty. Every person in New York City knows who you are. You are the person. How did that all happen? Then let’s lead that into some of the big takeaways from your book.

Aliza: I actually grew up in Rockville, Maryland, until high school. In high school, I moved to New York. I was in Rockville. Born in Ohio. Our parents are both from Dayton, right?

Zibby: Yes, of course. Yes, yes, yes.

Aliza: Anyway, I lived in New York for high school. Then I came back to New York after college. I was doing theater. When I was doing theater, it just wasn’t as meaningful to me. I wasn’t finding the meaning I was looking for. The luxury that I had after college was to find meaning, which I recognize is a ridiculous thing to say now. I was twenty-two. I was like, I really need to find more meaning in what I’m doing. I did theater for a while. In doing so, I did start doing some volunteer work, which led me to this strange path to developmental psychology because I went to NYU to find out about a theater — it was a drama therapy program. I learned that you could do both of the things that I thought were interesting, think about how humans come to be who they are and how to support them and also do theater. I was like, this is amazing. Life works in funny ways. It was a weird time of year. I think it was January, so maybe applications were already closed, but I could take the foundational courses that I would need anyway. I took what I felt like was speed dating in this field of psychology. I took all the different branches of psychology. When I took developmental psychology and learned about attachment, I was like, this is so cool. It was so dorky. Even weirder that I didn’t have kids yet, but I was like, this is fascinating. How humans connect with their caregivers and how they grow into unfolding people, that, to me, was so fascinating. In retrospect, it was a very strange love to find in my twenties when I had no children.

Zibby: You fell in love with it. Then you started practicing. When did you end up starting SeedlingsGroup? How did that all come about?

Aliza: I was in graduate school at Columbia. I was pregnant. Another one of my friends who had finished the program at Columbia — she was a professor at NYU. Maybe she was a post-doc at the time. She and I would talk to each other about everything that we would read and hear and make sense of it based on the research. We felt a real comradery over being able to understand what the research was saying and translate it. We also felt like it was really strange that there were not necessarily aligned voices on the playground. They were saying things that were kind of misinterpreting the research. We thought it would be really cool to start parent groups — they were really mothers’ groups for the most part — where we could do both of those things, have the playground conversation, but have the science as the foundation. That’s how we started SeedlingsGroup. Then life just grows. You sort of do what feels like is needed. Also, sometime during that period, at some point, there were people that felt like that was something that should be applied in health-care settings, just the idea that we can actually integrate parenting and child development into the experience of every human that goes near a hospital. Since ninety-five percent of kids are going to be in the hospital throughout those first few years, and certainly, I think it’s even higher a percentage born in hospitals, it just felt like another place to grow this work of giving parents support. There you go.

Zibby: Wow. In the book, you talk about how to raise great kids, great humans, but also great parents, how you can become a great parent yourself.

Aliza: I just say good. The bar is lower.

Zibby: Okay, fine. Good. Sorry. Raising good parents. How do you become a good parent?

Aliza: I wanted to call the book Raising Good Parents, but that got nixed because the publishers thought it would be unclear. I was like, no, I think if you’re a parent, you know what that means. It’s not really anything about controlling the kids or anything to do with the kids. It’s really supporting us and helping us figure out what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, how we’re responding. Though I couldn’t call it that, I did have a chapter called Raising Good Parents for that reason where I just wanted to lay out that a lot of this isn’t really about our kids. It’s just the way into having mothers in particular care about themselves because no one who has kids, really, that I know, is like, you know what, forget the kids, I’m just going to focus on me. It’s so hard to do that. If you find out that there are certain things that feel like focusing on you but are actually benefiting your kids, it’s just a little bit more motivating. Really, the five principles could be applied to any situation, adults or kids. Again, I just framed it in parenting because that seems to be what captures us.

What I wanted to do was think about all the research that has been — we’ve been looking at this for decades. It’s been replicated. It’s across cultures and across communities. It’s not trendy. I just didn’t want to bring any of that into it. What do we know for sure? There’s a lot we don’t know for sure, but what do we know for sure actually moves the needle that we can learn and that is in our control? Those were the criteria that I wanted. Otherwise, it feels like, what am I going to do about that? Thank you so much. I do mention temperament, of course, which you can’t do anything about. I do mention pretty deeply, figuring out our own values. The science of the five principles are relationship, reflection, regulation, rules, and repair. Those are really what we know we have control over, we can do something about, we can get better at. It is a pathway to resilience for both parents and kids.

Zibby: Talk a little more about regulation. I feel like this is something that, it requires more prefrontal cortex development, a little bit, and that parents and kids alike can struggle with, perhaps people I know, like myself. Give us some tips from that section. For those who have trouble regulating things like sleep or food or attention or all of that, where is the hope?

Aliza: The hope is our brains are so plastic. We really do get to grow and change. It’s certainly easier to wire than to rewire. It’s easier to focus on regulating yourself as the adult so that you can best support the developing regulation of your child, but we’re going to fail at it many times. Probably, at least one of us today will lose it at some point. That’s totally fine. That’s where we have repair. Regulation is really the intentional control over your behavior, your emotions, your attention. All of the things that you mentioned fall under that category. When you practice regulating yourself, which you really can only get A game at as a fully developed person — if your prefrontal cortex doesn’t develop until you’re between eighteen and almost thirty, then of course, the place that houses the capacity to self-regulate is not as developed for the younger kids. They’re not going to do as good of a job. They need to sort of borrow our regulation.

That’s called coregulation. It’s a huge part of parenting. It’s really hard to do because one of the most dysregulating things to have in a parent’s life is a dysregulated child. A kid who is completely spun out can set us off. If I can sell you the idea that while that’s happening, if you can remind yourself, even do the hack of putting your hand on your heart or hand on belly or something, whatever gives you a little bit more soothing in your nervous system, and you can say to yourself, feelings aren’t dangerous — my child is safe, so I can regulate myself. I don’t even need to talk to them right now. I can just focus on getting myself regulated. It gives them the message that what they’re experiencing is not an emergency. Not because it doesn’t feel bad, but just that you the parent aren’t like, oh, my god, we have to fix this uncomfortable feeling right this second.

I know for me, if I look back in my life, and even today probably, if I call my parents and cry, I can really set them off because they really don’t like when I have a hard feeling. Who does? Nobody does. The particular parents that I have at the particular era that I was raised, with the particular culture that I’m in — I have Jewish parents. They don’t want their daughter upset, so they will do things to make the upset go away. The message over the years is being upset is dangerous. It shouldn’t happen. Let’s fix it. They are the best. I love them. This is not about them. Just to try to personalize it, I think if we can tell ourselves feelings aren’t dangerous — I can be here while you’re experiencing a range of emotions. I can regulate myself because the only reason to be dysregulated is if there’s an emergency and I have to set the alarm off. If there isn’t an emergency, which there is not for feelings, I can just be here. That gives you, the child, the chance to recognize that there is a safe nervous system that’s functioning in the room and also that it’s not scary to feel big feelings.

Zibby: I’m just soaking this in for myself. I’m like, okay, this is great. Thank you.

Aliza: Listen, we all get dysregulated. We have to know what things set us off. I think it’s really funny when you look at partners, and you think, how come they did not care at all about whatever? Maybe one child says something in a flippant way or one child is freaking out because somebody was mean to them at school or whatever it is. You can see one person hearing the same story doesn’t have the same system set off. That’s when you go back to your, oh, right, because this isn’t a thing for you. I don’t love the word trigger, but for the purposes here, this is not a trigger for you. You can coregulate because you’re not worried about it. Whereas I’m here like, oh, my god, this reminds me of the time… It was so horrible. I don’t want my kid to experience that, or whatever it is. I think it’s interesting just to see that different people respond to that sense of “there is an emergency” to different things.

Zibby: I love it. In the book, you really tackle the whole childhood span all the way through hormonal changes and differences, a fabulous Q&A section and all of that. What was it like for you to write this book? How did you decide to structure it the way you did? How did you know what to put in, what to leave out? Did you enjoy writing a book?

Aliza: I enjoyed the process much more than I enjoy this part of telling people to get the book. The solitude of just sitting down and thinking about what really matters in my field and what really matters as a mother and all of the things, that was fun. I am lucky enough to have — I had a lot of content already. I had to figure out what I felt like was under one roof for a parent who’s like, I just need to grab this. I need to look up this one thing, and then I don’t want to look at this again for a year, or whatever. I wanted to structure it so that you could kind of say either, I really am curious about the science, or I really just want to go to this one topic or one age. I felt like I wanted there to be fluency so that it wasn’t like you have to memorize scripts or learn about everything under the sun. I wanted to choose something that you could replicate from birth through adolescence, the same thing over and over again, responding in the same way, just developmentally shifted for your child’s age and for your own personality. In order to do that, I really wanted to have a framework that was manageable, like five principles. Then I wanted to think about, okay, what are all of the pain points that come up over the years? What do I hear constantly by age? That was kind of how I did it.

Zibby: I like it. Do you ever find it hard — when you watch people in the act of parenting and see disaster moments, do you want to go say, actually, this is the way you might want to handle this? I’m just going to say…

Aliza: No. Occasionally, I think, I really feel like it would be so neat if we lived in a world where that would come across in a helpful way, but since I know it would just make a person feel so ashamed and so annoyed, I don’t say anything.

Zibby: Do you feel this extra layer of trying to be the perfect parent since you know all this stuff?

Aliza: No, I actually feel — my kids will make fun of me all the time for this. They want to have a bloopers reel of me and all the crappy parenting I do. I believe in my bones what I say, and the research, which is, good enough is good enough, and if anything, that perfection is the enemy of good parenting. When I make mistakes, I genuinely believe it’s part of growth. It’s part of my kids knowing that we are not perfect. We are not asking our kids to be perfect. The goal is not possible, and so they can let go of it before — especially because I have two daughters, they’re at higher risk for that kind of thing, and so I would say I am more gentle with myself and more self-compassionate. I know that a lot of stuff doesn’t matter, and so I don’t fixate on it. There are some people that might be horrified because I’m like, that doesn’t really matter, so I’m not doing it. It’s more like I’m gentle on myself because I really believe that the science allows for that space, and I need it. I love my kids so much. I have grown as a parent and a person the more I evolve as a parent and a person. I look back at things from when they were younger and feel very cringy, but I do forgive myself in a way that I think the science supports and helps me with.

I don’t have that sense of, I have to have this perfect, and my kids have to be perfect because I am setting an example. In fact, on a number of occasions, my kids, more when they were little — when I used to have groups at home, I remember once, my daughter was like, “Mom, I opened the door for all of the people in your group because I bumped into them downstairs, and I knew that they needed to see that I was nice.” I was like, oh, my god, that’s so awful. I really have tried to stress to them, who you are is not related to my work. I’m not getting fired because you have a misstep. I say that to them all the time because that is a much bigger worry for me. Not that my parenting is going to have mistakes because it just does, and I accept that, literally, constantly. For me, the only liability is I can look outside myself, watch myself making a mistake, and watch myself make the conscious decision to just keep making it. I don’t love that. Sometimes that’s too much information where you can just be like, wow, if I were in graduate school — I used to code videotape interactions between mothers and children.

Zibby: I did too. I did that too, yes.

Aliza: As I grew up as a parent, I was like, man, if I were coding this moment, it would not be a great score. That bothers me less than when my kids think that somehow, anything about their development needs to be different because of my job. Then I feel like, oh, my god, what have I done to you? That’s why I didn’t talk about high schoolers in this book, because I didn’t want anything to go beyond where my kids are right now.

Zibby: Interesting. To wrap up, what advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Aliza: Ugh. That was such a terrible sound.

Zibby: That was a huge eye roll on Aliza’s part, by the way, at that question. Eye roll plus sigh. We can skip the question.

Aliza: No. It’s funny, I don’t think of myself as an author.

Zibby: But now you are.

Aliza: I think of myself as a developmental psychologist who wrote something, which is so weird because you’re right. I guess now I’m an author. I haven’t really heard or thought about it in that way. I guess I have to think about it. That’s really interesting. It’s just not a way I identify myself. It’s so new. I’m a little giddy at hearing it.

Zibby: You should. It’s exciting. It’s very exciting.

Aliza: I don’t have groundbreaking advice because I’m still kind of absorbing the idea that this is something that I do.

Zibby: I guess the advice is give yourself time and permission to celebrate your own accomplishments along the way. There you go.

Aliza: There you go.

Zibby: Aliza, congratulations. The book is great. I just know it’s going to fly off the shelves. Everyone’s going to get this book, The 5 Principles of Parenting. Great for all ages. Thank you so much.

Aliza: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: This was a delight. Thanks.

Aliza: You’re a delight. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Bye.

Aliza: Bye.

THE 5 PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans by Aliza Pressman

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