I am super excited to be interviewing KJ Dell’Antonia today. KJ is the former editor of and a writer for The New York Times Motherlode blog. She was also a contributing editor to the Well Family section. Prior to that, she was a blogger and contributor to Slate. She currently lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, with her husband, four children, and many farm animals.
Hi. How are you?
KJ Dell’Antonia: Great. How are you?
Zibby: I'm good. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
KJ: No problem.
Zibby: I also want to thank you so, so much for writing your book. As a mom of four also, I am beyond grateful to have, now, a manual sorted by topic so I can refer back to it as a bible. Thank you.
KJ: Thank you. I hope it’s helpful. Doing it helped me.
Zibby: It’s absolutely helpful. You normalized so many of the things that I felt. Thank you. It was amazing. In your introduction, which I want to laminate, called “This Could Be Fun,” you open up your book with the following, you said, “I'd been a parent for close to twelve years by the time it occurred to me to ask myself if the whole thing had to suck quite as much as it seemed to most days.” You then point out that raising your kids will take about twenty years. That will be a significant chunk of your overall lifespan. You say, “I don't want to spend that time in a haze of resigned exhaustion longing to be or do something else. I am lucky to have all this. I want to like it.” That encapsulated pretty much the whole tone of the book.
I wanted to hear more about how you shifted mind-sets and how this book came to be.
KJ: There is so much in the book that is practical and things you can actually do to make immediate things better. That mind-set shift, the decision that you want this to be good, that it’s worth your time to figure out ways to make what seems like mundane tasks that are always going to be kind of vaguely sucky, but it’s worth your while to both make them better, and also to help yourself to feel better about it. I'm never going to be a morning person. It’s never going to happen. The decision to wake up and try -- honestly, I've spent forty years not trying, maybe a little less, maybe a little more -- it’s huge. That moment when the kid needs the seventeenth drink of water, and the other kid is on the floor because their math homework is too hard, and everybody needs you, and you're exhausted for whatever reason from work, to reach deep down in yourself and be like, “I'm going to help the kid with the math. I'm going to get the kid the drink. I'm going to do these things. It’s really up to me how I feel about it.”
Zibby: I love that. It’s taking all the control back in a way.
KJ: Yeah. You know you're going to. You just are. Honestly, it’s faster and easier and more pleasant to get the drink of water without a whole argument. “You just had a drink of water. You can't possibly be thirsty.” You're going to do it. You might as well just find a little last scraping of adulthood and do it.
Zibby: It’s so funny. When I read this passage, I’d just had this moment with my husband. He was like, “What do you think we’re going to do once all the kids are out of the house? What do you think life’s going to look like for us?” I was like, “I hope I'm going to be around. That's so far away. This is it.” All of a sudden it was occurring to me, this is the bulk of it. Then I opened your book and you basically said the same thing to me. I was like, “Yes!” [laughs]
KJ: This is the good stuff. This is the meat. This is the middle of the sandwich. You don't have to savor every minute. This is not one of those old-lady-in-the-grocery-store, “Time goes so fast” It’s not that. We don't have to feel like unicorns and rainbows constantly. To make that decision to make it as good as you can is really important.
Zibby: Not to be unhappy.
KJ: If you can.
Zibby: You wrote that happier parents tend to do four things well. You said, “They shift from heavier involvement to fostering independence as their children become more capable. They don't put their children's everyday needs above their own. They look for the good in day-to-day experiences. They know what's really important and what's just noise and fury.”
First, I wanted to know how you found these happy parents. How did you come up with these four variables?
KJ: That's a combination of research I did myself with a colleague, a professor at Fordham University, Matthew Weinshenker. We did a peer-reviewed research study style survey of a thousand and fifty parents that were demographically correct across the United States. Not all a thousand and fifty answered all the questions. We didn't end up with quite that many. The ones who had younger children and who were also more satisfied with their parenting, which is how academics measure happiness, they described being more involved. The ones who had the older children, described encouraging their children towards independence. By describe I mean they answered multiple choice questions for the most part. We had a few open-ended questions. That was something that we saw ourselves. It wasn’t something enormous and massive effect. It was definitely observable, this shift. They're not the same parents. It’s not like we followed them for ten years. That's the way that that worked. Not putting their kid’s everyday needs above their own, that's also from our research. We asked things like, “When you think about what's for dinner, whose needs are you considering? When you think about where you're going on vacation, whose needs are you considering?” People who were considering the needs of everybody in the family were typically also the people who were more satisfied as opposed to just focusing on the needs of the kids.
The other things, those are mostly other people's research. There's been a ton of research on general happiness and some on specific parental happiness. There's a wonderful neuropsychologist named Rick Hanson. He is the one who talks about letting the good soak in, the importance of not letting your brain dwell on the negative, which they do pretty reliably. He and another expert that I spoke to and love, Ken Ginsburg, are both very big on keeping that adult perspective. The things that we think are threats to our kids, the things that threaten our kid’s happiness, those aren’t real threats. They're not tigers. Not making a sports team is not a tiger. Not getting in the same first grade class with your best friend is not a tiger. Even that horrible bully incident, even not getting into the college you want to, those are not real threats. Having an adult perspective on them helps us keep our happiness as parents. It also really helps our kids because then they can see that life’s going to go on.
Zibby: Right. What's an example of how you took one of these things and implemented it into your life?
KJ: Just what we were talking about earlier about taking the time to soak in the good moments. We all have those moments when you feel like you're going to rip all your hair out. You're packing for a business trip the next day. It’s already eleven. You have to be up at five. Your teenager’s having hysterics over something. Another kid is upstairs playing Fortnite. You're like, “I can't!” Being able to have that little thing in the back of your head going, “I can't, but this is a healthy teenager who wants to talk to me. The kid who's playing Fortnite will get off when I ask them. I get to go on a business trip. I got a job.” It’s a little bit gratitude. I don't think of it as some big woo-woo gratitude process. It’s more noticing that we really have these lovely modern lives that are worth appreciating.
Zibby: Totally. I love that. Your book hinges on these ten mantras that you've identified for happier parents. As I was typing them out I was like, “This is how I felt in college.” I was typing it out like I was making one of my review sheets that I was going to have to go back and underline and memorize. Now I'm going to blow it up and put it on my bulletin board. Here are the ten that you outlined. I'd love to hear to which one of these you use the most.
“One: What you want now isn't always what you want later -- which I think is my favorite. Two: There is nothing wrong.
Three: People, including children, especially children, change.
Four: You don't have to go in there.
Five: If you see something, don't always say something.
Six: You do you -- that’s my other favorite.
Seven: You can be happy when your children aren’t.
Eight: Decide what to do, then do it.
Nine: You don't have to get it right every time.
Ten: Soak up the good.”
KJ: I probably think about every one of those, not necessarily in so many words, but I think about those all the time. Which one is biggest in my life varies from day to day. The one that’s really big right now is “You don't have to go in there,” which is, to me, an emotional reference. It’s a literal reference in that one of my kids used to have her tantrums in a closet. Sometimes we did have to go in there, but we didn't have to go in there in the sense of joining in her mood. It is back-to-school time. Transitions for hard for all kids. I have a couple that are really struggling with this. Three of my four, they don't want to go back to school. It’s not just like, “I don't want to go back.” It’s also that shifting to a different routine and the whole, “It’s going to be different, and yet I know what it’s going to be, but I don't know what it’s going to be.” Everybody is super emotional right now, super emotional.
To let them have their emotional moments without joining them -- they want to suck you in. They're trying. They're like, “This is the worst day ever.” They want you in there. To be like, “I get that you feel that way. I'm sorry. It must be hard to be feeling all the feels right now.” I think sometimes they want to slap me when I [indiscernible-laughter], but not to throw myself all in or respond, especially if they're pushing your buttons, making you mad, to not respond with genuine anger. Sometimes you have to get yourself up and be like, “Eat. You stop whining about it. Go,” but you don't have to go all the way to actually being mad. That’s the big one for me at the moment, otherwise I would probably be on the floor in a puddle right now.
Zibby: That's super useful. My son, last night as he's going to bed, he's like, “Wait, it’s almost school. I love the summer. I don't know that I want to go back to school. This is a great summer.” I've been mentally preparing for this transition for a while because I'm a grown-up. Kids, they're like, “Wait. This is comin’ up around the corner. I don't know about this.”
KJ: One of mine said to someone just yesterday, “Well, it’s a couple weeks.” The person was like, “Not really. I don't think it is.” He's like, “I think it’s like two or three weeks.” I was like, “I think it’s next Wednesday.”
Zibby: Exactly. It’s a week from Tuesday.
KJ: Don't you hate grown-ups -- I know we are grown-ups, and I try so hard not to make this mistake. Why do they always look at your children and go, “Are you lookin’ forward to going to back to school?” No! They don't want to talk about it at the grocery store. Similarly, if you have a kid who’s a junior in high school, which I do, they don't really want to tell you about their college search right now, in line at the checkout. They just don't. I get that's your immediate go-to, but just don't. Be like, “Hey. I noticed they have a new flavor of Hershey bar,” I don't know, anything.
Zibby: So many of the small talk questions that people ask to be polite end up causing so much stress in other people. Let's just stop the small talk. I know you're asking us these questions because you're being nice, but now you're causing a fury on my end. Buh-bye. [laughs] I get it.
In your “Mornings Are the Worst” chapter -- I wrote this article once about my crazy mornings. This guy I barely knew was like, “I read your article. I think you have to change something about your mornings.” This is some man on his way to work in a suit. I'm like, “Yes. You're right. Thank you.”
KJ: How ‘bout I get a wife? That would totally help. [laughs]
Zibby: You don't say. Your chapter was so great. You outline specific, actionable, useful suggestions not just, “Chill out and enjoy it.” You have great tips in there, basically in every chapter of your book which is why it’s so user-friendly in addition to enjoyable. You end up saying if you find something worth getting up for, it can make the mornings better. Instead of just thinking about the slog, if you have something fun or something you want to do, then it’s easier. That's how you ended up having a farm and getting your kids to work on the farm. I did not see that coming in the book, by the way. I was like, “They're doing what now?”
KJ: It’s terrible advice too. Don't go get a farm. Actually if I wrote the book today, I probably wouldn't even -- we still have a farm. Just an hour and a half ago I was fighting with one of my children over the fact that she had to do the chores this morning -- it was not pretty -- with me. The better piece of advice within that, besides don't buy a farm because it’s a stupid idea, is to find something -- like I said, I hated mornings. I really do. I don't want to get up. There's two bits. If you can find something that will help you get up -- actually now, I'm willing to get up. I run a mile every morning on a treadmill. I don't run any further than that. I do it very slowly. I don't enjoy it. I like checking it off. There are things about it that have made it so worth it to me that I actually will get up. The point is that then I'm up.
I used to get up thirty seconds before I needed to wake up children. My husband would do the same. We definitely trade off on this as well. It’s not like it’s just me. I was still grumpy. They were grumpy. Everybody was grumpy. There's that piece of it of trying to get yourself together. I really hate that advice. I don't like getting up any earlier than I have to. Finding something for which you feel like you can get up earlier, it’s helpful to you. The piece with the kids, the things that was nice when the barn chores were working really regularly is that we would be late for the barn chores, but not late for school. If there’s some way that you could block out -- you have to be done getting ready by seven, but you don't have to leave for school ‘til seven fifteen. Maybe there's something that you could watch or play. You could stop at a donut place. You could actually get a ritual donut, and you'd have to take it in the car if you're late. The key was that the thing we ended up being late for was not the school. It helped. It’s a hard one to achieve. In all honesty, it’s not working anymore. Take a marker and cross that bit off.
Zibby: [laughs] That's really funny. Let's talk about chores. You have this amazing chapter on chores, which you just adapted for The New York Times the other day, I think on Sunday, which was a great article. In it, as you're talking about kids really need to help out more around the house and how it leads to all sort of benefits long term -- if you can get your kids to start with chores even at ages three, four, five, that will lead to longer term benefits. In the chapter you wrote, “If you're clearing your eleven-year-old’s dishes after every meal, then unless your child has physical or mental special needs that require this service, you are doing it wrong, as are most of our fellow parents.” I read this and I had just finished dinner with my two eleven-year-old twins. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I'm totally doing it wrong.” She has called me out. In addition to every other useful piece of advice, now she's peering into my house and showing me what I'm doing wrong. Message received on my end, and I'm sure other parents. Tell me why I have to make the kids do chores, which by the way I've already changed since reading your book. It’s been great.
KJ: I got to reread that chapter for the audiobook. Rereading made me go, “We really got to up our game.” It’s a slippery slope. Who are we kidding? It is easier to clear the dishes yourself. It totally is. Whether your kids are four or eleven, if you do it yourself and they don't whine -- but, it’s not better for a couple of reasons. First, in terms of our own personal happiness, it really feels cruddy to be doing all the work. You probably made the meal or your spouse did or your partner did. Odds are the kids didn't, is really more my point. To also then be the one to clean up after it while they are either swanning about doing their video games or playing or Snapchatting or even just sitting there watching you, that doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel right. Even if you're having to nag them into helping, when you're doing that, you know, and I think they know, that's how it should be. Everybody is supposed to be chipping in to make these things work.
It’s important for our parental happiness that we do this. We know that it’s good. There is some research. It’s not huge. Kids who are raised in a household where they really are contributing and they are necessary feel more connected to their family. That is protective of their emotional health in a couple of ways. There's also some research that suggests -- it’s a tiny study -- that they do better later in life. We don't need research on this one. The boyfriend who comes over and gets up and helps the family of his new girlfriend clear the table is the good boyfriend. The one who kicks back and asks where the remote is is the bad boyfriend.
You don't need research to know that you want your kids to be helpful. There's that. The thing that I learned, the thing that I keep saying, the thing that is helping us the most is that there are two totally different pieces of this, that you want your kids to clear the dish or whatever or to make their bed or to do the laundry, whatever you want them to do. You want them to be the one that does it. That's important. It’d be nice if they did it without being told, if they didn't need a reminder, or if they did it without whining, or if they did it cheerfully. That's different. You can leave that totally out of the equation. Your job as a parent is just to get them to do it.
Zibby: I like that, and not be like, “Why are you whining about this so much?”
KJ: The best phrase -- it might be in the book somewhere -- the best thing I've got on that is, “You don't have to like it. You just have to do it.” I don't like it. I have learned now, almost fifty years in, that it doesn't help me to whine about it, that I just feel worse. You whine, but you still have to do it.
Zibby: I also like how you said that you shouldn't expect them to do it particularly well.
KJ: This is also true. If they're doing it poorly because they know you're going to swoop in and it’s easier for them -- a lot of the time they're too young, or they didn't get it, or they were sloppy.
Zibby: I made a deal with my son. He really wanted this toy and in exchange -- this is probably bad parenting -- I was like, “You have to do four days of laundry for the whole family.” With four kids and everybody, it’s a lot of laundry every day. He was like, “You're kidding.” I was like, “No. That’s the deal.” He's been doing the laundry all week. It’s so funny to see him approach a pile of clothes. “Again?” I'm like, “Yes.” This is the laundry. It happens every day. You can never cross it off the list. It’s one of those things. Try it. My husband was like, “I don't know about this with this guy doing the laundry,” because my shirts end up in my five-year-old’s closet. I'm like, “This is not hers. Look at this shirt.” All the clothes are dirty, but it’s the principle of it. We have to enforce the principle of the chores.
You recommend in your book that parents actually read books, magazines, newspapers, the actual hard copies so that the kids can see parents reading. Can you explain how this is really beneficial? What's your thought behind this piece of advice?
KJ: Two pieces. First of all, especially when your kids are little, if you're reading on your iPad, as far as they're concerned, you're playing Two Dots or Candy Crush. It doesn't matter. You can show them the words. To them, it’s like, “You're on an iPad and I'm not.” That's the end of it. It’s really important that we do the things that we can do offline, offline so that they can see their relative importance in our world. A lot of adults prefer the paper too. A surprising number of kids would rather read on paper. If they're seeing you do it, that's great.
The other reason -- this is huge. I don't know how long we’re even going to be able to do this, but keep subscribing to a newspaper. Keep subscribing to paper magazines. If you want to raise kids who read The New Yorker, the cartoons and the covers, those are the gateway drugs. If you want to raise kids who glance at the headlines of your local paper, the local paper’s got to be sitting there. They're not going to wander over to your computer and accidentally go to your town -- it doesn't work that way. If it’s sitting there, they really, truly will. Then you're talking about it. I don't know how long this is even going to be a possibility, but it’s actually important.
Zibby: I love paper everything. I do tend to have it around. I was so sad. I went to my local -- on 72nd and 3rd there's a place called State News. It used to be called State News. Now, it’s Modern State. I've grown up in this same neighborhood. This is pathetic. I'm forty-two years old. I have not moved more than five blocks. It’s had all the magazines from around the world. The store was the magazine emporium of the Upper East Side. They just decided to stop selling any magazines.
Zibby: Yes! I couldn't believe it. I walked in two days ago. Where all the magazines normally are, were just school supplies. I said, “Wait. Where are the magazines? What happened?” The guy said, “Because everything's online now, we’re not going to sell them anymore. It wasn’t making any sense for us.” I was so upset. I'm with you. I love hard copies of everything and magazines and everything. I'm hoping that even though everything's accessible online that people don't give up producing.
KJ: You can scatter those around. You can put some magazines that might appeal to your kid in the back seat of the car as though they were just there. Leave them in the bathroom like we all do. Leave them around. They’ll pick them up. Words, it’s hard to not read them once you know how to read. I think it makes a difference.
Zibby: Totally. I'm going to put some stuff in the car today. That was a great tip.
KJ: One of my friends used to lay books around her house as bait. It wouldn't work to say, “I think you'd really like this book.” She’d just leave it continually.
Zibby: After all this research that you've done, if you could pick the one or two things to help busy parents out there be happier who might not be able to implement everything but just maybe one or two things that they could keep front and center, what would they be?
KJ: This is boring. Find a way to get your whole family more sleep. That will get you better mornings. It will get you better afternoons. It will get you better witching hours. I’ll go straight to the interesting bit of it. The reason that most of us don't get more sleep is that we don't want to go to bed at night. It’s not that we don't want to stay in bed in the morning. Everybody would do that, but we can't. The reason we don't want to go to bed at night is because we don't get our own time ‘til all the other things are over. For parents, it’s not until everybody's in bed sometimes. You can shift that. You can try to come up with a world where everybody's getting their own time starting at seven. For kids and for teenagers, it’s like, “I had sports. Then I had homework. Then I had this. I'm not done ‘til nine.” If you're not done ‘til nine, you don't go to bed ‘til ten. It’s impossible to get that nine hours that you need if you don't go to bed ‘til ten. I don't mean adults, but teens and tweens, they need that time. That is huge. The other is the mind-set shift. Make it worth your while. Make it a priority to find a way to enjoy things.
Zibby: Awesome. KJ, thank you so much. Also, thank you, you gave us some books to give away on Instagram giveaway. Thank you so much for that and for taking all the time and for all your advice that is going to really make my life as a mom easier and better. I am truly, truly grateful from one mom to another on that one. Thank you.
KJ: You are welcome.
Zibby: Take care. Best of luck.
KJ: You too. Buh-bye.