How to Raise Happy Kids: A Conversation with Child Psychotherapist Katie HurleyJul 25, 2015
As parents, we strive to shape our children's minds, encourage their creativity, and give them the space they need to develop into well-rounded, confident adults. The Internet explodes with articles on parenting from avoiding "summer slide" to homework, free-range or attachment parenting, and so much more. While each avenue has its merits, the pure volume of information related to child development and parenting can be totally overwhelming.
Thankfully for us, child psychotherapist Katie Hurley is on a mission to raise happy, healthy children. Inspired at a young age to help children, she shares her insights with about the importance of unstructured play, how to encourage empathy, cultivate children's minds, and how to handle "mom guilt."
What drew you to the field of child psychology?
I wanted to help other kids (of all ages) find their strength and inner voices.
Believe it or not, I knew I wanted to help kids with their feelings when I was just 15 years old! A dear friend of mine went through a very hard time and I felt helpless. I remember feeling like I was watching her struggle to stay afloat and I couldn’t even throw her a life jacket. It was sad, confusing, and very overwhelming. She got the help the she needed and as I watched her find her inner strength it hit me: I wanted to help other kids (of all ages) find their strength and inner voices.
What is your stance on the popular notion of "summer slide"? Do you think it's important to give kids pop quizzes over the summer or their minds a break from structured learning and simply let them play?
Unstructured play is the work of childhood. Children learn math, science, reading, and more through open-ended, free play.
Research shows that kids can lose some of their academic gains during the summer months. Preventing the summer slide by way of workbooks, pop quizzes, endless hours of tutoring, and drilling isn’t the answer, however. Unstructured play is the work of childhood. Children learn math, science, reading, and more through open-ended, free play. Have you ever watched kids try to open a pretend restaurant or even a real lemonade stand? They use math skills, organizational skills, writing skills, and countless social interaction skills in the process! As I type this, my kids are organizing their stuffed animals into groups for a scavenger hunt. One is making signs to promote the event while the other creates lists for the hunt. They stop periodically to double check their work and make sure they’re on the same page.
We’ve been conditioned to fear the summer slide because it can happen and we want our kids to feel confident as they begin the next school year, but creating a home-based classroom to fill the summer months only increases academic pressure. There are tons of ways to keep brains active while playing and having fun.
What advice can you give to parents on how to engage their children in meaningful experiences that will help shape their minds?
I think it’s important for parents to dial down their own internal pressure during the summer. There is no such thing as the “perfect summer,” and you can’t make every single experience into an educationally significant event. Kids need downtime, and so do parents.
Kids need downtime, and so do parents.
A walk on the beach can be every bit as meaningful as a day at a museum. The other day my daughter quizzed me about the specific names of shells she collected along the shore. I was genuinely surprised by my complete lack of knowledge about shells that I have also collected for my entire life! Off we went to our public library to find a book about local shells so that we can learn more about them. Just like that, a moment of togetherness turned into an educational experience.
Prior to that, the kids asked for a book on local birds to identify the beautiful birds in our back yard. Each time they see a new bird they grab the book and read all about it.
It’s important for parents to step back and let kids lead the way sometimes. Kids spend a lot of time glued to desks learning what they are told to learn. In the summer months we have the opportunity to let them learn more about what interests them. Through play and time spent in nature, kids will continue to learn and grow during the summer.
How do you manage work/life balance? Share your tips with us.
The work/life balance is always a work in progress! I have the flexibility to work from home (and work from either coast), so I do feel spoiled in many ways. When the kids are in school, I schedule client hours and get my writing done in the mornings as much as possible.
I am a huge believer in the power of human contact, and staying glued to my phone for work updates places a strain on my family relationships. When the kids are home, the phone and all other devices are out of sight (locked in my office, in fact).
During the summer, it’s a bit of a challenge. My kids love to play for hours on end, so I can find time to work while they play together. My kids know that I need to work and we always have a period of quiet time in our house. We all need to slow down and recharge. That gives me time to tackle some work during the day, but I do tend to put in some late nights, as well. Morning Katie is not a huge fan of Night Katie right now!
The bottom line is that you can’t do everything at once. It’s impossible! In fact, research shows that “multitasking” isn’t really a thing. People actually engage in “task switching,” and task switching too quickly can lead to poor work overall. I’ve learned to establish “work mode” and “family mode.” When I’m working, I always give 100%. But when I’m with my family, they get 100% of my attention. Away messages on the phone and email help and the do not disturb function makes it easy to avoid all other contact!
It’s the quality of the time spent together that matters the most, not how many events you made it to along the way.
Last tip: Let go of the guilt. There is no perfect in parenting and there is no trophy at the end of this journey. So you missed a school concert when you thought you could be there? Take your child out for a fun date night together, ask him for every detail and soak in some quality time. It’s the quality of the time spent together that matters the most, not how many events you made it to along the way.
What is one of your most memorable moments from childhood? Why do you think it stands out and how has it helped shape you as an adult?
When I was four years old, my dad owned a wooden boat that he loved. Summers seemed to revolve around boat rides for ice cream cones and cruising around Long Island Sound. But there was one catch: I was terrified of the boat. It was loud and fast and bounced on the waves and I wanted nothing to do with it. Ever. One day during my fourth summer I made a promise, “When I’d be five, I’d be brave.” I repeated that over and over all through the winter, until my fifth summer began. Shortly before embarking on an evening ride, the first of the season, my dad pulled me aside and whispered, “It’s okay, Kate, you don’t have to ride the boat until you’re ready. I know you’re brave even if you don’t like the boat.” I was determined to make good on my promise. I got on the boat and stood side-by-side with my brother. As the boat gradually picked up speed I finally felt free. I was brave! I wasn’t afraid! My brother looked at me with the wind whipping our hair in every direction and yelled, “You’re doing it! This is going fast!” I was so proud that day.
To this day what stays with me is that my dad let me come to terms with my fears on my own timeline.... He gave me the space to find my way. He gave me permission to just be me.
To this day what stays with me is that my dad let me come to terms with my fears on my own timeline. He didn’t push. He didn’t force. He wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t ride the boat every other time. He gave me the space to find my way. He gave me permission to just be me.
I think about this moment often. All kids are different and all kids have different emotional needs. When we take the time to understand who are kids are and what they actually need, we help them thrive. When I was five, I didn’t see this experience as my parents planting the seeds of empathy, but in hindsight it’s very clear. Take the time to understand others and they will learn and grow as a result. A great life lesson, for sure.
If you have any questions for Katie, please leave them in the comments below! We'll answer them during Thursday's Twitter chat, which we hope you'll join for a great convo on the benefits of play. Find us @seedling on July 30, 2015 at 8AM PST.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and writer. Katie earned her BA in psychology and women’s studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. Katie has extensive training in Play Therapy. She worked for The Help Group, a large non-profit in Los Angeles, for seven years as a school-based therapist and a clinical director. Katie also launched her private practice, co-facilitated social skills groups, and taught parenting classes during that time. She currently practices psychotherapy in the South Bay area of Los Angeles and is a freelance writer for many online parenting publications. Her work can be found on EverydayFamily, Momtastic, mom.me, Yahoo Parenting and The Huffington Post. Katie writes for the parenting blog Practical Parenting. She splits her time between Los Angeles and the Connecticut coast with her rock and roll husband and their two happy children.
For more parenting tips, follow Katie online
Watch for Katie's Book, The Happy Kid Handbook, available on 10/20/15.