How to Build and Implement a Parenting Strategy

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Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Dec 16, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

Every parent has held their newborn child and wondered what kind of human they will become. But according to author Jeff Nelligan, much of that child’s future personality lies within the parent’s control. In fact, it is the parent’s duty to develop a long-term strategy that will help to prepare him or her for the real world.

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today has worked in politics on Capitol Hill in various departments, including health care, as well as for members of Congress, the US Senate, and the US House of Representatives for over 25 years. Jeff Nelligan is currently an associate commissioner for global policy and strategy at the Food and Drug Administration. He’s also an author and a father of three boys, all of whom are in the military. One of his books is entitled, four lessons for my three sons, how you can raise resilient kids. Jeff Nelligan joins us today from Washington, DC. Thank you so much for being here.
Hey, thank you, Lianne, for having me. It’s a it’s a prevalent privilege. And you know, an honor, this is great.
Well, really looking forward to this chat, because one of the things that you’ve said in in one of your books is that you’ve met a lot of parents over the span of time and the different things that you do, and many of them, in your opinion, don’t seem to have a defined plan or strategy for guiding their children toward a confident and productive life. What do you mean by that?
Well, I’ll make a universal statement here, Leanne, and any parent listening probably has felt this, when you hold your baby, for the first time, hours after birth. I know that parent is thinking it because I thought it three different times, what is this child going to grow up to be? That is that’s got to be a universal statement about parenthood. And it’s not the well, he’s going to be this occupation, or he’s going to live here, it’s going to be what kind of human being us you’re going to be in a childhood, he or she, in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. And so when I start talking about strategy in my book, and it’s a good term that you brought up, it’s not about letting the culture shaped them. Or they’re the kids that they’ll ultimately meet his friends or the parents they’re around. It’s how do you the parent guide them towards being, as you just noted, confident and productive. And that, you know, bless those qualities that make them that kind of adult that you will be proud of, as you hold that four hour old baby.
Now, you have the wherewithal to develop a strategy, understand you needed a strategy, go ahead and practice a strategy, but not all parents maybe have that kind of notion, once they become new parents. And certainly, there’s so many other things as well to think about when you have a newborn. But why do you believe having that strategy in the first place is so important?
Well, the strategy is, again, going back to your first question is not allowing the culture or anything else to shape that kid, it’s the parent shaping the kid. And, you know, the strategy is you want that kid who has is instilled with those values that leads to confidence, productivity, decency, honesty, kindness, resilience, and adversity, which is one thing that any kid any adult needs, for the rest for broke throughout their lives. Conduct. And but I’ll come back to what the kid needs to strap is the strategy is that resilience. And the second part of the strategy is, you just don’t hope for those things. And you just don’t tell he or she, oh, you’ve got to be this, you’ve got to be kind and resilient, and, and humble, you’ve got to place them in situations where they develop those characteristics. And for my strategy, it was placing them always in the real world, which is right outside the front door, in which they saw the good and the bad, and the inspirational individuals in situations where they knew how to navigate or figured out how to navigate situations and that real world. And so the strategy is built on the qualities you want in the kid, and then how do you instill the qualities and that is the real world.
So what ages did you start that in your household? And can you give us some, you know, examples of how you went about doing that with each of your sons?
Sure. I started it real early. When I say early, the the eldest is probably around six years old, and the youngest was three, three and a half four. And what I did is when we went out in the real world, I would as I noted earlier, I would point out the good, the bad and the inspirational, you know, see something, say something. If you see a parent, an adult, holding a door open for a senior or engaging other shy or Aronson conversation, you pointed out and you say, you need to be like that you need to be like Mr. Pious, our neighbor, Mr. Girgaum, our neighbor, you need to be that, that person who does that, when you see the bad you pointed out to if there’s a jerk kid, you pointed out immediately a kid being rude to his parents or getting in a major league blow up with teachers or other kids, you say, you know, that kids a jackass, and you never want to be like that. And so they were constantly in the real world, you see these situations all the time in the real world, I mean, school and athletic fields, the grocery store, the hardware store, neighborhood events, community service. When I saw those, I would point them out and say, and with them have this kind of brief funny quip that kids as parents listening, know, love to repeat themselves. You know, they love that funny, brief thing, and they’ll repeat it forever. And the younger they are, the more they will repeat it. And so they saw how the world was unfolding. And they had this almost reflex attitude because they had the soundtrack in their mind, from the old man that this was good, this was bad. And this is how you should not, you know, replicate that behavior or tried to replicate that behavior.
It’s such an interesting point, because as you’re describing it, what I’m thinking about is, as parents, and as adults, we see things and props process them in adult like ways, but we don’t know how our kids are taking that in and processing it. So by actually pointing it out, you’re helping them frame and structure how they’re in taking that information, if I understand you correctly.
Correct. And, you know, I go back to the whole resilience argument about what about which the book is based. And resilience means ID the idea of driving through adversity, and not panicking, and not folding up. And so all the instances, I would show them, for example of being adversity and how to react. To give you an example of how the soundtrack plays out. My five year old son was at a mall for a birthday party, and the parents who were guiding them around all 13 of them, kids suddenly vanished and went into it. They’re totally disorganized and suddenly vanished, took 10 kids into a movie theater and left my three kids in a food court. And alone, all 355 year old kids in this massive downtown Mall. And, you know, the kids were panicked. And you can imagine this parent how panic they were and how you panic, you’d be. But my kid remembered something I always told them in pointing things out in this real world, if you see a man or a woman with a strike, running down their leg, pants leg, that means it’s a security guard or soldier. And you need to run up to that person immediately and say, Help me, while my kid says this to the other to your other five year olds, and they eventually, couple minutes later find a mall security guard, and he leads into the incompetent parents. But the idea was through the examples of all me pointing this out, every time we went out to a game or, you know, to a mall, anywhere. The kid didn’t flinch, he knew exactly what to do. Again, it’s that reflex that muscle memory. And so, like you said, if you process what you see as an adult and give it to your kids, they’ll remember.
So Jeff, how did you even know to do that? Right? Like you told us that you wanted to have a strategy when your children were born. But how did you know to do it the way that you’re describing?
You know, I was I was lucky to be raised by, you know, my parents and be in a community of people that had you know, values, as I say, that I mentioned earlier. And it was also a go back again, I didn’t want the culture to shape them. I didn’t want the schools or institution to shape them. I want it to shape them. And it comes to something that, you know, maybe a discordant for your listeners to hear, or parents. But my focus wasn’t building on or wasn’t building a relationship with my kids. It was on teaching my kids to build a relationship with the whole world, because that’s where they were going to be most of their lives. Beginning the first day they went to school, it wasn’t going to be around me. And if you’re a parent, you already have a relationship with a kid. That’s why they call it a parent. So the strategy came from that. And it was a plan because like I said, In the beginning, you’re looking at this little baby and you say what’s he going to be? And you you’re or he or she is going to be and then you think, Well, I’m the one that’s going to guide them to be who they are going to be. And it seemed pretty fundamental at the time. And it seemed to work. So throughout their childhood and adolescence all the way to where they are now, you know, they’ve always had that they’ve always had that plan. And they were able to acquire those qualities that I thought were important, and that push them along in all their schooling and everywhere else to where they are today.
So it’s interesting, your sons are now 2826 and 24. And your book came out in the last couple of years, and it’s been recently updated as well. But I wonder, those are two very different times we’re talking about, like 20 years ago, when you first became a dad. And now where we are at in terms of where the worlds aren’t internet, social media, etc, etc. Technology. So, what was your impetus for writing the book, first of all, and then through what lens? Did you try to address, the address it address these issues that we’re talking about?
You know, Lianne, that is, it’s a super observation on your part, because that’s exactly one of the reasons why I wrote the book, when they were growing up, it was just at the beginning of the whole internet exploding into the absolute Leviathan that it is today. And you know, the first iPhone 2007, the real pickup in internet and social media use in 2010. With Snapchat, you know, Facebook in 2006, early on, when they were young, I kind of thought that, hey, this is not good that kids, or anybody is staring at a screen for so often. So my kids didn’t get a phone until they were at the end of 11th grade. And they didn’t have enormous amounts of time on the computer, because they said they couldn’t, they had one hour a week of video games and had to go only be played on a weekend, which I knew they would be going to athletic events, and or being involved with other things that would preclude them looking too much at video games. So I cut them off from all of that we didn’t really have a TV. That worked very often. And that was by design. So they were spared staring at screens as they were young. And so that that was really helpful. And today, the ubiquity of screens, social media, what I call the glowing rectangle, whether it’s a tablet, phone, a laptop, a full blown computer, you know, kids today, the average teen spends eight hours and 49 minutes on their phone. That’s more time than they spent sleeping. And that’s more time and that’s exclude schoolwork. So the idea that a kid’s on, on a phone almost nine hours a day. First of all, that’s wrong. And whatever they’re getting, you know, the internet is very, it can be a filthy place, you know, I don’t have to be a period. And to say that it’s the truth. It’s also to where it’s apparent notice, where’s the parent, if a kid is set? Well, the kitten, the parent is looking at a phone, approximately total screen time for a typical adult in this country, in United States, it’s about 11 hours, and 30 minutes. So that’s that fundamental shift of people just staring at screens. And that has a numbing effect. You know, a typical kid today gets 216 different alerts on their phone, within a 24 hour period. So they’re constantly distracted. And that distraction leads to what we the current situation where we have it today, I think, also to was different when the boys were growing up than it is now, this move towards an kind of an equity culture, where everything has to be brought down to the mean, you know, and we have to, you know, close the achievement gap. And everyone has to play a quarter of a game. And I don’t think that does much for the competitive spirit that’s in any girl or boy at all on an athletic field. And I know that because I’ve spent probably 25 years on athletic fields, all over the country and in five different sports. So I have a good sense of that nature in a kid. I think the third thing is is just a parent disengagement. You know, you opened this by saying you have a strategy. Yeah, I did. It was pretty primitive, I would say maybe, but I was engaged. And I’m not sure parents are engaged now. As they were, let’s say 20 years ago before this revolution that you talked about.
So let’s pretend for a second that you became a father in the last 10 years. And you are now having to deal with a lot of what the things are that you just described, right like pain points for parents screentime, excessive device usage, all of these things, lack of sleep, etc. etc. Yeah, yeah, what way? In what ways? Would the strategy that you employed 28 or so years ago, change? Do you think? If you were a father today, with a younger child?
That’s a That’s a profound question. You know, I’ve never been asked that, I would say, and we go back to, first of all the, again, the ubiquity of screens, I wrote a book about this. There at the end of the pandemic lock downs, it was called your kids rebound from pandemic lock downs, how you can restore your family. And the, the thrust of it was the, the biggest kind of negative I saw was the increased use of screen time beginning in about April of 2020. And my solution was, and it’s in the book. And it’s what I would undertake. Today, if I did, if I was a parent of kids that age was a skirt, social media contract. Parents and the kid sitting down to say, Okay, we’ve got all these devices we’re using up all this time, here’s the contract, we’re turning off the router in the house at eight o’clock. These websites now or inaccessible to you, you will not pick up a phone, when we’re in a car or at a restaurant, your usage will be limited to an hour or two hours a day. And we will check. And there are devices now, all over the web in which you can just literally shut your kid’s phone off. So the idea was just to bring it all in, and then dad and mom have to play the game, too. They say we’re not going to be looking at these things. Whenever we’re around you, you know, we’re going to cut down our hours every day. So you start to shrink the amount of time and I gave you the numbers eight hour 4911 30 you shrink those down so that you’re getting back control of your kid. I think the second thing too, is and being a sportscaster you get this idea, the idea of athletics in a kid’s life is huge. And when I and it’s not just the athletic field, it can be, you know, the Concert Band or the marching band, it can be the theatrical stage, it can be the robotics club. But all these things and athletics, it’s rather cute, you learn, you learn that, that’s how the real world works. You practice enough and you get better. There’s adversity, every game, you win, or you lose, there’s no equity in a final score. You form this camaraderie with your team. And you have to be disciplined enough to play within the boundaries of how good you are, and then to practice and get better. So the those qualities are among all those things I mentioned earlier, the theater stage, the band, the robotics club, you know, that shared commitment to something I think that’s, that’s essential. And I think that’s parents shouldn’t need to push their kids in that direction. Because at the end of each of those is a goal. There’s an end of a season, there’s an end of a semester, there’s an end of a production. And having kids work towards that goal makes them just stronger, more resilient individuals.
Now, each of your sons are military officers. And I’m curious to know that, whether that happened, by accident or by design, based on how you’ve described your parenting approach.
Again, I’ll go back to you know, the sports analogy. From early on, I pushed him into sports. And they were just lucky, you know, fortunately, they were good. And but they were just, they’re like every kid starting out. And for every kid starting out at fours on a pretty level playing field, it’s how much you put towards it is how you get better. It’s like the smart kids in a class who get good grades, who have to continue to get good grades, or just do because they’re very good at schoolwork. And in the midst of this athletic environment. Again, they they develop those qualities that we spoke of, or, you know, they just talked about resilience in adversity, you know, hard, hard losses, great wins, the discipline of sweating it out in a weight room or running around the block, you know, 150 times or, you know, having to do Footwork Drills at 630 in the morning. All that and the leadership that’s involved in it. They were all three sport captains in high school and they all went on to play college sports. They love that camaraderie of a team and that drive towards a goal. The military is very similar. And they like being around those kinds of individuals. And they ultimately, that’s where they ended up in those kinds of leadership positions where you have to be decisive. You have to be follow through with anything. And you have to be sharp and alert and rugged. And they prove that again and again, you know, some men some tight situations, and a lot of the stuff they learned young young boys really have helped them get through those situations.
Now, another interesting aspect of your story with respect to you know, raising your three boys is that you and you and their mother, at one point parted ways. So there was a divorce involved. And I’m, you know, I wonder, understand, because a lot of families are in that position today. How did you go about navigating, raising kids through a divorce and after, while still maintaining that strategy you’ve referred to, and the parenting approach that you’ve talked about?
I’d say right now, my former wife gets 90% of the credit for how the boys turned out, you know, I get 10% for being just a major league neg. We shared the same values, we shared the same thoughts about realizing the potential. And you know, having said potential, every kid has potential to be good at one thing, every kid, rich or poor, religious or agnostic, whatever race, wherever they grow up, every kid has a potential. I’m old school that way. Because, again, when you when you talk about fatherhood, or just parenting, let’s say that I’ve been around families and kids and parents in every venue under the sun for a quarter of a century. So I’ve pretty much seen it all, as most, as many parents probably who are listening now. We had those shared values. So we were able to combine and just keep them moving forward. It was also to kids, and parents will get this really well. Kids always have to be somewhere. So you’re always driving them somewhere. It’s the school, it’s the practices, it’s events, games. And so we, you know, the time I spent around him all those all those years, it was every day, every day of the week, and when you have three sons who play sports, and who are gradually getting better and better at them to the point where as I noted earlier, the youngest kid was the first team all American, NC to a athlete. You just you, you create that bond with them. And I drop, you drop everything to make sure they get to where they need to be. And one of the stats in an op ed I did for the Washington Post, one of the stats that I mentioned is for that single kid, all the way from four year old soccer to his last game, winning the national championship and rugby, I tend to 13 167 games, that’s one kid. So and all three kids played in college, so you just travel that almost but so if the dad or the mom in a divorced couple, makes an effort that shows up. That’s the biggest thing for adults and kids just show up, you know, be there, no matter how much of a pain it is, if you drive an hour, and your, your kid never gets off the bench, you still have to show up. And that happened to me. I mean, plenty of times, or you go to a swim me after a 45 minute, you know, tornado through traffic and the kids in the water for you know, three minutes. And then you got to drive back. So it’s that showing up for your kids and again, that shared values with the other spouse.
Jeff, what would you say made you want to sit down and write four lessons for my three sons?
Oh, boy, Leanne, I’m vain. I’m totally vain. That was, you know, part of it was that the last kid left for school went to West Point. I’m just sitting out there just going now what because no more games to go to no more events. No more yucking it up on the sidelines with the other dads, you know, it’s over. And I thought well, they’ve done pretty well thus far. But knock on wood, anyone can go south, and they’ve gone south a few times in their careers. They were and the training was so good when they were younger that they got out of the they got over the obstacle or around it. So the idea was the vanity of I think, you know, some parents should should have this strategy. And the second reason and it’s what you brought up earlier regarding the pandemic in the post pandemic world was I’m concerned about this, these generations of kids, you know, mostly the younger millennials and all of Gen Z. Again, you know, the stats, the book I wrote about rebound rebound from lockdowns is has 270 sites in it to medical psychological literature natural, certain national surveys, these gent, this that cohort of people, youngest millennials, and Gen Z are not doing too well. I mean, you got 42% of kids are living at home with their parents from the ages of 18 to 26. Now tell me, there’s not something wrong with that. Or the fact that 42% of kids are working in college grads, 24 to 30, are working in jobs where you don’t even need a college degree. So they haven’t had that discipline or that ambition to get farther than doing what they’re doing, even though they have a college degree. Six, only 60% of kids who go to college, even graduate and the average is over five years now. And of course, the debt, they’re in debt, you know, they sign things that they think that you know, someone else is gonna pay for. So the idea is, this generation is lacking. In fact, the best term is a term that has kind of come into being since about 2011, is emerging adult. And emerging adult is someone that hasn’t acquired the skills, or the personal qualities to become an adult. And that is now a cemented term in child development in sociological and psychological research. That’s unbelievable. You know how much we’re in the age groups, when you move from 21 or 18? Up to 2628 30. I mean, what is a 30 year old emerging adult? Again, it’s, it’s kind of incomprehensible, and yet we’ve accepted it. So part of that was, you know, that general concern, and hey, maybe if we start early, making these kids strong, and resilient, and sharp, and rugged and alert, we can do away with the emerging adult category, because we won’t have anymore. So that’s kind of the reasons I wrote the book.
So along those lines, how would you characterize what concerns you as you look at the parenting landscape today? Is there something in particular that really observationally really strikes you?
Yeah, you know, I go back to what I’d said earlier, the job of the parent, is not to build that relationship with their kid, it’s not to be liked, it’s not to be their kids best friend, is prepare them for the real world. No one gets a free ride. And the sooner a kid hits an obstacle, the better because then you get to see how that kid can react to adversity. And somehow, someway get over it around it, and put it in the rearview mirror. Because those obstacles are going to come fast and furious every day and every year of their life as they grow up. Adults already know this, because adults hit these obstacles all the time. And it’s the idea of that parent being engaged enough to not worry about, well, Johnny and I are best friends is no can Johnny cut it in the real world where the the elbows are sharp and the edges are rough. And he’s got to make his way. And this is the easiest time to make your way. This is a very wealthy country, as is Canada. They’re the standard of living the opportunities that these kids have. You know, my dad was 15. And he was at age 15, was working in a vanadium mine a mile beneath the surface of Sierra Nevada Mountains 18 He participated in invasion of Okinawa. Now, there’s no such thing as emerging adults for a guy like that, you know, and it’s not that old, the good old days were great, because they were so harsh. It’s the good old days had some good lessons about being steadfast and strong. And if you’ve got an increasing amount of kids who are emerging adults, you know, maybe the old values are worth just revisiting.
Jeff, what would you say you’re most proud of as a dad?
You know, it’s easy to say, it’s easy to say, Oh, my three sons are just, you know, doing really well. And they’re, they’re, you know, not on top of the world. But they’re, they’re consistent in what they’re doing. I think the as a dad, the proudest thing, the best thing I think of is I’ve seen like every parent again, listening to this, I’ve seen these kids hit the wall. And again and again, and sometimes, you know, really tough and they never quit. They never gave up and sometimes the success wasn’t immediate. Maybe it took money. But they never caved. And that’s, that’s the most important thing. If they can, that they can just get up and drive forward, you know, it’s an old when I was in the army, we had an old saying just screamed at us by every drill sergeant at Fort Benning. It was assess, adapt, advance. And that means if you’re in a tight spot, you really had to think clearly, and figure out how you’re going to get yourself and your guys out of it. That’s what I think I’m most proud of that they’ve never the consistency and moving forward has never been obstructed by a momentary, you know, saga.
Finally, Jeff, what would you say gives you hope?
I’ve thought about that, since you mentioned it a while back shows like this. People that will know that there’s some kind of concerns and a problem out there and want to know, how it can be perhaps, you know, approached and solved and hope that, you know, there’s a lot of parents listening right now that are saying, wait a minute, I may need to, you know, adjust how things are going. And they may have a kid five, they may have a kid 25 or 15. So the idea of if enough people beat the drum, and are concerned about this, and I’m involved in writing blogs for different publications, and obviously the book. But the idea that this is getting attention, and that enough, parents have said enough. And you know, again, like I you know, the greatest hope and dream that the term emerging adult just goes into the dustbin of history. And that we have adults at age 18 who are ready to really take on the tough challenges, because they’re going to be you know, it’s not going to be easy street for any of these kids. Things are not appreciably getting better, both in your country and my country. There are some major headwinds. And, you know, with major headwinds approaching, you can’t have a generation laying on the couch in the basement playing Minecraft.
Jeff Neligan, author of four lessons from my three sons, how you can raise resilient kids. We really appreciate your time and your insight today. Thank you.
Thank you for having me. Lianne

Nelligan has worked in politics and on Capitol Hill, for members of Congress, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives for over 25 years. He has three sons, all of whom are now military officers in their 20s, and he has written several books, one of which is called Four Lessons From My Three Sons: How You Can Raise Resilient Kids. He spoke with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, in a video and podcast interview, from Washington, D.C.

A key question to consider upfront whether you want the culture to shape your child, or you, the parent, to shape them. If it’s the latter, then developing a parenting strategy is important  because it keeps you focused on the long game for growing the kind of humans you want your children to become. This isn’t easy.

Nelligan says, “My focus wasn’t on building a relationship with my kids. It was on teaching my kids to build a relationship with the whole world, because that’s where they were going to be [for] most of their lives.” That means exposing kids repeatedly to challenging situations that allow them to rehearse their responses. Says Nelligan, “The sooner a kid hits an obstacle, the better, because then you get to see how that kid can react to adversity… Those obstacles are going to come fast and furious every day and every year of their life as they grow up.”

A parenting strategy should also focus on developing values such as confidence, productivity, decency, honesty, kindness, and resilience. Kids do not develop these values instinctively; they must be trained.

pexels-katerina-holmes-5905861

In the interview, Nelligan expresses concern over the amount of screen time that children get these days—and how much time their parents are also on their devices, disengaged from their kids. This has a “numbing effect,” he says, and he urges families to create strict social media contracts that limit use and increase face-to-face interactions.

Nelligan believes that his own three sons’ participation in athletics contributed to them becoming military officers. “They love that camaraderie of a team and that drive toward a goal.

Book cover: Four Lessons from my Three Sons, Jeff NelliganThe military is very similar… Ultimately, that’s where they ended up—in those kinds of leadership positions where you have to be decisive, you have to follow through with anything, and you have to be sharp, and alert and rugged.”

When Castelino asks what he’s most proud of as a dad, Nelligan cites seeing his kids hit a wall and never giving up: “Consistency and moving forward has never been obstructed by a momentary saga.” Sage words for modern times.

Related links:

Jeff Nelligan

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