Deborah Farmer Kris and "I Love You All The Time"
An interview with Deborah Farmer Kris about the science of awe, what a good school sounds like, and why it's sometimes OK to do your kids' chores for them.
Deborah Farmer Kris is a parent educator, education journalist, children’s book author, and founder of Parenthood365. She and her husband and two school-age children live in the Boston area. Listen to this episode here: Episode 6: Deborah Farmer Kris
Tell me a little bit about your work — about Parenthood365 and also the “All the Time” book series:
My background is in education — I’ve taught nearly every grade, K through 12. I was an assistant principal for a while, and I got my master’s degree in counseling psychology because I was doing so much on-the-ground triage with students and parents, and wanted to get better at it. In the midst of all that, I love writing and have done that for years, so I started in 2014 being an education journalist and correspondent for NPR’s MindShift. One of my very first pieces completely went viral about preschoolers and their emotions, and PBS Kids was just starting their parenting blog, and they invited me to be one of their first columnists.
I also work in parent education in schools, giving talks, so I finally decided during the pandemic to go full-on with my freelance work. I founded Parenthood365, basically trying to centralize resources for parents. I really view my job as being a translator of research. I read everything that comes out — all the parenting books, all the studies — and most people don't have time for that. So I try to say, ‘What’s the nugget in this book that I think could practically help parents?’
I have four books coming out that are aimed at preschoolers — the “All the Time” series includes “I Love You All The Time,” “You Have Feelings All The Time” and “You Wonder All The Time.” At the end of these books, there’s a letter to caregivers that talks about how to help kids feel loved and lovable even when you are both having a rotten day, or how to help kids name and normalize emotions. I thought if I could write a series that used the best of my research — some of the gems — and aim it toward parents of young kids, that seemed to be a good way to get at my passion of helping families thrive.
What is top of mind for you right now when you think about what’s happening for schools and parents?
One of the things that’s top of mind because I’m giving a presentation on it, is my most recent piece for the Washington Post — a piece on the emotion of awe. I feel like I’ve read a tremendous amount about stress and resilience, because honestly it’s been a really, really, really difficult time for parents. But I’m almost a little burnt out hearing about self care because we don’t self-care our way through a pandemic. It’s helpful, you’ve got to take care of yourself, but this is not a normal playbook. So I did a deep dive last fall into the research on awe. Awe is that feeling we have when we come across something that’s wonderful, unexpected and challenges our frame of reference. When you see something in nature that’s extraordinary that makes you stop and look. One example I give is remembering being a 9-year-old and my father waking me up at 2 a.m. and taking us outside to watch the meteor shower. And how small I felt in conjunction with the stars going across the sky on this beautiful desert August night.
It turns out that there’s a lot of really good research on how that increases curiosity, and makes us more altruistic. I really think that as parents we can’t just keep gritting our way through this. Grit is exhausting. Being on a high level of alert, it drains our prefrontal cortex.
More than almost any research I’ve done in the past few years, this has made the most practical difference in my family life. I’m pulling the kids out to see the sunset, to see the full moon. If I have a piece of music that really moves me, I cue it up for pickup time. I’m looking for these moments where I feel that sense of wonder that almost pulls me out of the moment. There’s beauty to look for. I just think that moving forward, we need to have good self-care, we need to be able to manage stress and be resilient, but we also need more awe and wonder in our lives.
I read that piece, and it made me reflect on how we reach for awe maybe without consciously naming it. In the early pandemic, I started going for walks with my daughter at lunchtime, and we would look for a frog in the ditch. That was our daily reach for awe. And I couldn’t put into words why it felt important, but you have just named it for me. It’s like a break — a way to get out of our heads. And some of the conversations around self-care feel a little hollow or —
Yeah, it can come across as patronizing. But the examples you just gave, I think most people have access to some way to tap into that feeling of awe, like a piece of music.
Yo-Yo Ma shares these ‘Songs of Comfort’ on Twitter — he recently posted ‘Simple Gifts’ and he sent it out as gratitude for care workers.
A friend who was a pediatrician said, ‘Why am I crying at 6 a.m. in the morning?’ I came across doctor after doctor saying, ‘I’m listening to this crying after a tough shift. I don’t have words but I have tears.’ That’s awe — that’s that feeling of, ‘I can’t quite name it but I feel something deeply that is connecting me to somebody else.’
When I interviewed Dacher Keltner, he said the most common sense of awe is actually observing the goodness of other people. And that seems to be a very actionable thing with our children, too — pointing out those moments in the day when somebody helped me. Naming it so that they’re hearing it. That’s something as parents that we can do. They’re such good anthropologists of our stress and our concerns and the news that’s on. We have to do some counter messaging about how beautiful the world is and how beautiful people can be, otherwise where’s that kind of practical optimism, that practical hope?
Tell me a little bit more about your family — you and your husband have two children?
Yes, a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old.
When you’re working, where are your kids? At school, for part of the time?
They’re at school. I’ve been able to work mostly from home these last two years — I’ve been very lucky in that way. My husband works from home, too, so when they are home we’ve been able to tag team. It’s worked, but it’s always better when they’re in school.
I always like to note that the school day is not as long as the typical work day, so that usually means there’s some things happening around the edges.
I have one child who really likes me to sit on their bed as they fall asleep, and we’ve tried many things but honestly it’s just easiest to do that. But what’s ended up being beautiful is I just take my laptop in there and write, sometimes long after this child has fallen asleep. The house is quiet, I have my inspiration sitting next to me, and so from about 9 to 10:30 is usually some of my very best writing time. Once I discovered not to fight against that, it really made life much easier. Sometimes we feel like there's certain rules, but sometimes you have to make your own rules.
What’s challenging about parenting for you at this time in your life, or what’s something that happens in your household that really pushes your buttons as a parent?
It’s very much my issue, which is that sometimes I like the day to run a certain way. It’s a sense of control versus autonomy — I want them to know, in their own heads, ‘Of course I have to practice piano’ and be autonomous about it, but then I also want it to get done. It’s this constant tug-of-war between raising them to have the autonomy around things that need to get done and build that responsibility, or me saying either I’m going to micromanage you, or I’m going to swoop in and do it myself because I can’t stand it anymore. So I often swoop in because it’s easier to do it, which I know kind of lets them know, ‘Mom will do it if I wait long enough.’ And as they get older, that ends up being an interesting tug of war of, that autonomy versus scaffolded independence. As we move them toward adulthood, at what point to do you step back? And at what point do you step back in to bring in that safety net?
I really relate to that struggle between ‘I want this thing to get done’ versus ‘I want to make space for my child to do this on her own.’ I would love to interrogate what you said, because this is something I hear a lot and something I’ve heard come out of my own mouth: the idea that it is easier if you do it yourself. Can you say more about what that means for you? And the other side of that coin — what would be hard for you about not doing it yourself?
Sometimes, when you’re tired, at the end of the day, it’s weighing what’s worth a potential conflict or not. I like the phrase from Ned Johnson’s book, “What Do You Say?,” which is, ‘I love you too much to argue with you about this.’ You prioritize the relationship over the task. So it’s this question of, when I’m tired at the end of the day or maybe they’ve had a long day, when do I push, knowing that my son may have a full-on meltdown if I ask him to practice the piano? Yet it’s one of the family expectations. So it’s that line of letting them monitor themselves, wanting to be responsible, wanting them to build good habits, but also being emotionally cognizant that every day can’t be lockstep.
I think it’s interesting that when we interrogate that, it’s not that it’s easier to do the dishes ourselves — it’s that it doesn’t always feel appropriate to hold that boundary in that moment. The cost of asking them to do it might be too high. Also for me, I think it’s sometimes acknowledging that I don’t want to deal with my child’s upset or experience her big feelings.
Or knowing that you’re not in a space to be as patient with those feelings.
That’s a much kinder way of putting it, because sometimes it just feels like, ‘I can’t deal with this right now!’
Right, but if you want to be an emotionally responsive parent, there’s times when I know it’s going to trigger me. That’s not how I want to be. There are times when I can absolutely be the calm in the storm, and there are times when it’s going to be really hard to do that.
What has helped me is telling myself a true story about what’s happening. The story doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m a terrible parent because I cleaned out her lunchbox instead of asking her to do it.’ I can say, ‘There are a lot of things going on this evening, and I chose to take care of this myself, because that’s what I prioritized.’
And also, we can share some of these stories with our kids. Last night, I brought my daughter’s clothes up to her room, and she’s deep into reading this book at bedtime. So I started to put them away, and I said ‘Look, this is your job, but I love that you’re so into this book. I have a bit of time right now, so I’m going to do this for you right now.’ So it became gratitude instead of guilt.
Compared to the household you grew up in, what’s one thing you’ve chosen to do differently as you parent your children?
I’m the youngest of five, and I had lovely parents, but emotional literacy was not something that was a strong suit in our family, and neither was it in their families of origin. So for me, I don’t think we ever really talked about emotions, but I definitely got the sense that some emotions were better than others, and anger was one that was a bad emotion. So much of my work as a parent and as a teacher and a parent educator is really starting with ‘There’s no such thing as a bad emotion.’ All emotions give us data; all of our emotions are part of our system that is designed to help us make choices, but when you start feeling bad about the fact that you feel angry or sad or lonely, then you get really stuck and it’s very easy to have a lot of shame.
When I talk with parents, I’ll say, ‘How many of you growing up were there certain emotions that were just forbidden?’ And every hand goes up.
The second book I have coming out, the impetus of that book was a moment I had with my daughter when she was 2, and she was screaming and flailing, and I picked her up and was rocking her and I said ‘I love you when you’re mad.’ And she was shocked to hear me say that. So — I was ad libbing, ‘I love you when you’re sad, I love you when you’re happy, I love you all the time.’ This became a really key moment for me as a parent, because I think I didn't always feel that. I kind of intuited that I’m less lovable unless I’m happy. So that became the mantra for my kids at night: ‘I love you all the time.’
It seems so simple, but when I talk about this with parents, I’ll say, ‘How many of you growing up were there certain emotions that were just forbidden?’ And every hand goes up. We didn’t all grow up in emotionally healthy households. I don’t blame our parents — this is generational. Our job is to do just a little bit better than our parents. When our kids get angry, we often match it. We we push them away, we meet it with anger, but if we can ride that out with them, underneath that anger is often confusion, worry, sadness, or anxiety. There’s a thing there and they don’t know how to say it, so it comes out as anger, and then we punish it. What really may be going on is something happened at school that scared them, or a friend said something that hurt their feelings. When we can help them sit with that, that’s the beginning of emotional literacy. But the minute we punish it, they get that sense of, ‘That feeling’s not OK. I can’t show that feeling.’
I’ve come to understand how much of the expected responses to child behavior that were normalized when I was growing up were designed to shield the adults from having to experience the emotions of the children around them.
Yeah, ‘come back out when you have it together.’
Yes! It’s really striking to me how much that is the foundation of a lot of the way children are reacted to, and I see ways in which that carries over in the school environment too, and I wonder if you do as well.
Oh, yeah. When you look at suspension rates, it’s disproportionately black males. How much of it is that we are bringing our own anxiety to a situation, or even our own implicit racism to a situation? But if we are able to sit with them, what’s underneath that anger that needs to be heard? Punishing the feeling just makes them feel worse.
Right, and then there’s actually some chance that the child will learn a different way of navigating whatever they were feeling.
Yes, because then you can circle back. I like what Marc Brackett says — he’s the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence — he has a great book called “Permission to Feel.” He says if you ever send a kid away, maybe for your own mental health, our job is to circle back. He says that often as adults, if we’re feeling upset, we often want space. But most children, acting out is an invitation to approach; an invitation that they need help. When we send them away, they’re just stuck in that confusion by themself. So even if we do need a break, the job is to circle back around and to come back to it.
Did you choose your child’s school, or do they go to their local neighborhood school?
They both went to their local neighborhood school but I actually moved them to a small local Montessori school last year, in part because they had an outdoor program. I am a huge public school supporter, but what I love about Montessori is that sense of following the child and allowing children to be children and allowing play. So I feel like in a time when so much has been interrupted, it’s been a real boon to have such play at school, since play is the work of childhood.
What do you think it means for a school to be a “good school”? How does that get measured or communicated in your community?
For real estate, it means test scores. For me, it’s a school that prioritizes relationships. You want to look at the relationships that teachers have with each other, with the administration, with the students. Is it a place that is actively looking at wellness and mental health, that allows flexibility for teachers to be able to meet the needs of your kids? Are they looking at the curriculum in a thoughtful way? Is the school board one that’s open and inclusive? Do the teachers feel like they’re respected? If they don’t, that trickles down into the classroom. There has to be an emphasis on relationships from the administrator on down.
If there’s been the sense of, ‘How does this benefit the child?’ — keeping the child at the center of everything — you can walk in and you can feel the joy in the hallway. The teachers know each other’s name, they know the kids’ names, there’s a sense of community. Jessica Lahey, in her book ‘The Addiction Inoculation,’ says that one of the most protective factors for adolescence is feeling connected to the school, and you can feel that when you walk down the hall.
Huge thanks to Deborah for having this rich conversation with me. You can find Deborah at Parenthood365.com, or follow her on Twitter at @dfkris or on Instagram at @parenthood365.
Thank you so much for this moment of awe and enlightenment ❤