Zibby Owens: I'm delighted to be interviewing Amanda Salzhauer, MSW, today at Berry & Co Bookstore. She is the coauthor, along with Dale Atkins, PhD, of The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children, Everyday Ideas for Raising Kids Who Care. Amanda is a social worker who’s worked in both clinics and private practice. She has a master’s in social work and currently lives in Riverdale with her three children where she's actively involved in the community. Dale, by the way, has authored seven books and is a frequent sought-after guest speaker and TV expert. She's the one who cowrote the book with Amanda. Amanda currently maintains a private practice in New York and Connecticut.
Welcome, Amanda, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Amanda Salzhauer: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Of course. Thanks to everybody at Berry & Co Bookstore in Sag Harbor today. Thanks again to Taylor Rose Berry for hosting. It’s so much fun. [applause] Thanks. Here's a short bio for people who don't know about Amanda who, by the way, cowrote this book with her aunt, Dr. Dale Atkins. Amanda has her MSW. She's the coauthor of The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children, Everyday Ideas for Raising Kids Who Care. Amanda is a social worker who has worked in both clinics and private practice. She has a master’s degree in social work from NYU and is a graduate of Dartmouth. She currently lives in Riverdale, New York, with her three children where she is actively involved in her community. I won't read much about Dale. Dale, her aunt, is a licensed psychologist with forty-plus years of experience as a relationship expert who focuses on families, wellness, managing stress, and living a balanced, meaningful life. Dale is the author of seven other books and has contributed to many publications and is such a sought-after guest speaker that she is on The Today Show right now. That is why she is not here. I said to Amanda, “Abandon this event. Go on The Today Show.” She was nice enough to still come.
Amanda: I don't know that they really wanted me. I think they wanted Dale. [laughs] That's okay.
Zibby: I don't know. I would've snuck on there if I were you. Anyway, welcome.
Amanda: Thank you.
Zibby: Can you please tell everyone what your book, The Kindness Advantage, is about? What inspired you to write it?
Amanda: Like most projects, it was quite a journey. Dale and I started writing the book about six years ago. At that time, Dale had been giving a lot of talks about raising charitable children. When we started the project, that was our focus, how to encourage parents and grandparents to raise charitable and compassionate children. One of the first things we did was interview people who we knew, or knew of, who we viewed as extremely charitable. What we found is that a lot of these people had common characteristics. They were very accepting of other people. They were really committed to things that were important to them. They had tremendous empathy for others. Since we saw so many of those traits coming up over and over again, we thought maybe there's a shift in focus here. We took the ten most common characteristics that we saw and made those into what we call our ten fundamentals of kindness. We shift it a little bit to help, through the book, give parents and grandparents the skills and tools to raise kids who are kind, who are empathic towards others, and who are connected in the world.
Zibby: What I thought was so great about your book -- there are lots of books that try to teach certain skills. This was such a hands-on book. You have all the theory and philosophy behind everything. Then you have, “Here is what you can do on Tuesday.” It’s very actionable. As a mom of four, it’s super helpful to have things that you can actually go do. Thank you for that.
Amanda: You're welcome. Thank you for noticing that. That was really an important piece of it for us too. I have, as you said, three kids. Dale has two grown kids and six grandchildren. Having experience being in practice, the goal is to give people something concrete to do and not just talk about the philosophy.
Zibby: Right, excellent. I wish you were my therapist. Maybe I’ll be coming to see you from now on. I'm kidding.
Amanda: [laughs] We’ll talk after.
Zibby: Okay. Why is kindness even important? Why should we care about being kind?
Amanda: There's so many reasons. First of all, it’s a way for us to connect with other people. Being kind gives us the space to be aware of what's going on for another person, what they might need, and through our actions, to connect with them. In addition, there are physiological reasons that kindness is important. I don't know if anybody's heard of this phenomenon called the helper’s high. If we do something kind for another person, it releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals. It makes us feel good. It makes us want to do more acts of kindness for other people. Interestingly, if you even observe an act of kindness, you get that benefit as well. The idea that through acts of kindness we can all change our brain chemistry is pretty phenomenal. There are so many reasons kindness is important. Those are the top ones, in my opinion.
Zibby: One of the things that I took away from the book for my own kids for the importance of kindness is that you say kids should track kind acts. At my kids’ school, they have a wall where you can write down the good deeds. They read it out, the good news of the week and everything. It’s so great because then they're aware all week, what am I doing that's kind? They can write it down. I tried to do this once in my own house. It lasted for two little Post-its. What are some good ways to track acts of kindness? Bringing kids’ attention, as you said, is so key to the whole thing.
Amanda: Totally. There are a lot of different ways. I really do like tracking it. So many of us as parents have either read about in other parenting books or through our pediatricians have been given tools to do behavior modification charts. If you think of it in the same vein, this is a behavior modification chart. If you have little kids, let them decorate a chart. Put it up on the refrigerator or the bulletin board, wherever you do things. Either you record the acts of kindness yourself or say to them, “Hey, I noticed you saw the dog’s bowl was empty and you filled it with water. That was really kind,” and put something up on the chart. That's a terrific way.
The other thing that's really important for us as parents is to catch our kids being kind. It’s not something we want to be jamming down their throats. They're going to buck against that a little bit. If you noticed something, bring it up. Tell them. The other thing that I think is really helpful is look in your world for other kindness role models. Who do you see who’s doing acts of kindness? Whether it’s the crossing guard outside of school in the morning who always greets you by name and says, “Good morning,” say, “You know what? Even if I'm in a crummy mood walking you to school, when I see Jane and she says, ‘Good Morning, Zibby. How are you today?’ it makes me feel good.” That's an act of kindness. That's a way for us to bring our kids’ attention to kindnesses in the world around them.
Zibby: Modeling, too, is super important. I know you mentioned it, being kind yourself.
Amanda: Modeling is incredibly important. There's been a lot of research about how to raise kids who are charitable, compassionate. A couple of the things that have come out in the research is that it’s really important to model kindness yourself. Interestingly, it’s more important to talk about, as a parent, what you do, whether you volunteer in something structured, in something less structured, what you do and why you do it and what you get out of it, so that your kids understand. “It may look like I'm buried in paper and envelopes, but what I'm doing, actually, is stuffing invitations for the school benefit. That's something that I can do on my own time when I come home from work. It’s really important to me that other families are engaged in school and help support your school. That's why I'm doing it.” Having a running narrative with your child about what you do in the world, what acts of kindness, what volunteerism, and why you do it and what you get out of it.
Zibby: What if you just have a kid who's kind of an asshole? What happens? What if they're born that way? What if they don't listen? What if they are not responding to your modeling or they have other more negative influences, perhaps, in the world that they pay more attention to? What then?
Amanda: That's a great question. One of the things that we have to keep in mind, particularly as parents, is that none of us is our ideal parent all the time. Our kids are not going to be the kids we want them to be all the time. There's a difference between your kid’s being a real jerk on the playground and your kid really has some sort of pathology where their entire being is difficult or unkind all the time. That's a really important distinction. That said, there are always going to be moments when our kids are assholes. Sorry, dear.
Zibby: Not my kids. [laughter]
Amanda: Not my kids. Being open to the fact that it’s not a reflection on us as parents -- sometimes, parents get very defensive. If your kid is accused of doing something, it’s like, that can't be. That's my perfect child. No kid is perfect. No parent is perfect. There are a few different things you can do. The first is try to understand what's going on for your kid. That gets back to this idea of empathy. Empathy is so important in parenting. If you pick up your kid’s phone, if you have an older kid, and you see they sent a really nasty text to somebody or commented something unkind on someone else's Instagram or whatever it might be, try to understand why they may have done that. It may start with a simple question. “Hey, I saw what you posted. What's up with that? What's going on?” Try to understand. Is it that they got a bad grade on a test and as soon as they came out of the classroom, that was the first thing they saw and that's where they were venting it? Is it because this kid was at Great Adventure? You know your kid’s been wanting to go to Great Adventure all summer. They were just angry. That’s how they lashed out. Try to connect with your child and understand what might be motivating that behavior. Then you can remind them, “That's not what we do in our family. Let's think about another way you might have been able to deal with that situation.” Try to help coach them through some other ideas as well.
Zibby: What about the idea of pointing out unkind behavior? Should you ignore it? Should you say, “Look at this in the news. That was terrible that that person did this”? What can we learn from that? Should we go to the negatives? Should we spend more time emphasizing the positives?
Amanda: They're both important. I would say spend more time emphasizing the positive. I do think it’s important when you see things, whether it’s in the newspaper or in your day-to-day life, to point out to your kid, “How do you think you would've felt if you were on the receiving end of that behavior? Can you think of another way that he or she could've expressed that?” One of the things that's really difficult for people sometimes is the notion that you can be assertive and strong and also be kind. There are ways to, even if you disagree with somebody, get your point across, but do it in a way that's respectful. That's an important part of kindness.
Zibby: That's true, very true. What are some more essential takeaways? You said that movies and TV are actually a great resource for teaching kids about kindness. It doesn't have to be in your real life. It can be watching any kind of show, even Paw Patrol or whatever you're doing with your kids and using that. Tell me more things like that in addition to the TV angle.
Amanda: The TV and movie angle’s a great angle. Given what your focus is, reading is another really important way to do that. So many of us, especially if we have older kids, don't think about reading together with our kids. It’s very different to sit snuggled up in bed with your three-year-old and flip the pages of a picture book. As your kids get older, you can still read together, whether it’s reading a book that your kid’s reading for pleasure or reading for school. My daughter, who’s in college, will send me her course syllabi. I’ll pick one or two things that look interesting and read that as well. That gives us a framework to have conversations about, whether it’s kindness or other difficult topics. That's another great way to initiate conversation about kindness. Since so many kids are so engaged in social media, that's another really useful way to talk about kindness. You can DM your kid something that you see on somebody else's Instagram account. “Wow, isn't that amazing? Look at this kid. They're doing a fundraiser because they heard about another child that doesn't have enough money to get school supplies,” and share that way as well.
Zibby: I'm reading an upcoming guest for the podcast. His name is Rex Ogle. He wrote a middle-grade fiction book called Free Lunch about his experience growing up. It’s written in a more fictional style, but it actually was based on his life. I've been reading it. I was like, “You guys, we should read this together. We’re interviewing him when we’re in LA.” They're learning so much. They're like, “Wait, people --” I can't even say. This is embarrassing. We’re very lucky in our lives. We don't have to worry about getting dinner on the table. I point that out, but it’s been very different for them to read this one person’s story than have me say, “You're so lucky.”
Amanda: It resonates in a totally different way.
Zibby: It was so great, you put a whole list of recommended books in your book, which not everybody does. That was really great.
Amanda: Good. The other thing is there's so much research that's come out in the last decade or so about how reading literary fiction impacts empathy. What you're saying is research based. There's evidence to support that exact experience your kids are having.
Zibby: There's so many things to try to weave into the daily life of making kids into better people.
Amanda: It’s so hard.
Zibby: I'm like, I'm going to keep doing that too. Do you think kids need big acts? Some parents say, “Every couple years, I take my kids to Africa and show them blah, blah, blah.”
Amanda: What we really focus on in the book is twofold. It’s primarily these everyday acts of kindness. Each one of us has an opportunity to be kind countless times during the course of a day, whether it’s walking down the street in Sag Harbor, walking down the street in New York City, saying hello to somebody who's holding the door for you. If you see somebody in the supermarket struggling to reach something on a high shelf, offer to help. Those are acts of kindness that help our kids and us create habits of kindness. Don't get me wrong, if your kid is incredibly passionate about saving the elephants and that's where they're leading and you end up taking them to Africa to see them and support them, that's a totally different story. I think that we don't have to think about these grand acts. Sometimes we get bogged down in the idea that we do. I don't think that's what it’s about. It’s each individual person taking the opportunities they see to notice acts of kindness, if there's an opportunity to be kind, to do it, and making the world a better place that way.
Zibby: Tell me more about writing this book. I know you said it took six years and it came from this place. How did you and your aunt actually do this? Take me through the whole thing, even as you changed it. Where do you like to write? Had you written more before this? Did you like writing?
Amanda: It was a really interesting process. Forget the fact that I'm writing with another human being. This is a human being who has been my mentor and role model my whole life. Dale and I have always been very close. She's been my professional role model as a psychologist. It was fascinating. I also feel so blessed that she's gone through this process so many times before. She really led the way. Logistically, we often sat side by side in front of the computer in her office. I would drive up to Connecticut in the morning. We'd sit at the computer together and write together. We literally wrote every word of this, ninety percent, physically together. Then when we got more adept at Google Docs, we could be on the phone both looking at the same screen. One of the things that was most challenging though, in one of the earlier iterations of the book, it was very much divided, a section for parents and a section for kids. Dale was the voice of the parents. I was the kid voice. That was helpful because our voices are somewhat different. Coming to a place, once we changed the structure of the book, where we both felt comfortable with the voice was something that really took a while to get to in terms of the writing process. That was a challenge.
Zibby: Would you want to do another book on your own? Would you collaborate again? Was it an overall positive?
Amanda: It was overall a wonderful experience.
Zibby: Dale, don't listen.
Amanda: Shh. [laughter] Overall, it was a fabulous experience. Since we finished the book, we've written quite a few articles together. The process has become much more streamlined and much more comfortable. One of the things that we’re thinking about is doing a companion for the book that would be a kindness curriculum for schools. We've done a lot of talks at schools. That's one of the things that the teachers and administrators seem to be interested in. I could see us potentially doing that. We’re not sure yet. I would not have considered myself a writer before this process. I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy writing that I didn't realize. I've always been a reader, but I never thought of myself as a writer.
Zibby: They say that's the most important thing for writing, is reading a lot. What do you like to read, what types of books usually?
Amanda: I will read anything, honestly. My primary love is fiction. I also really enjoy reading YA books. I read a very interesting book recently called Sadie.
Zibby: I have a Sadie.
Amanda: Do you have a Sadie? Really interesting book. I loved the structure. The chapters alternated. It was alternating perspectives. One was the teenager who's the protagonist on her journey. The alternating chapters were the transcript of a podcast that was written about the protagonist and her sister, both of whom disappear. It was fascinating because it was so unlike anything I'd ever read.
Zibby: When do you find time to read?
Amanda: I always read at night before bed, even if it’s one page and then I'm out. Like so many suburban moms, I also have my audiobook for the car because I spend a ton of time driving around. Then usually, I have a book in my bag. Even if I have five minutes, I'm waiting for an appointment, waiting to pick up a kid, I’ll take out a book and read then.
Zibby: I have this new thing with Libro.fm. They're an audiobook company. They can actually split the proceeds from audiobooks with independent bookstores. You can pick your bookstore, or they’ll pick it.
Amanda: I've heard about this.
Zibby: Now all the books that are on my podcast are on playlists with them. Isn't that cool?
Amanda: That's great. That's really cool.
Zibby: If anybody is interested, Libro.fm.com/playlists. I thought it was really neat.
Amanda: That's amazing.
Zibby: Enough of that. What is coming next for you? You're doing mostly private practice now?
Amanda: I actually recently closed my private practice.
Zibby: Scratch that.
Amanda: Scratch that. In the vein of understanding how to be kind to yourself, which is something we didn't talk about which is really important especially as parents, I love what I do, but I've found at this moment in my life, there wasn't enough of me to go around. I had to make that decision. I've been doing a lot of writing, a lot of talks, as I mentioned, a lot of talks at schools, churches, synagogues, all kinds of community groups. Dale and I will probably continue to do some writing in this kindness vein together.
Zibby: That's great, pretty awesome. It’s so nice that you're dedicating your life to helping the world be full of kinder acts and people. That's amazing what you're doing, really.
Amanda: Thank you.
Zibby: It’s true. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors out there?
Amanda: Write. That's the basic advice. One of the things that I discovered is that you just have to sit down and do it and not be judgmental. If you sit and try to write and edit, and write and edit, for me at least, I found that was very disheartening. If I just let myself sit and write for an hour and then went back the next day to look at it and assess, I was able to get a lot more out on the page. Everything you write is not going to be fabulous. That's okay. It’s, again, creating the habit and making a process for yourself.
Zibby: Thank you so much coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Amanda: Thank you so much for having me. This is such a treat.
Zibby: Thanks again to Berry & Co Bookstore in Sag Harbor. Thanks to everybody for coming.
Amanda: Thank you.