Grandma’s Rules on Cool Parenting

Grandma’s Rules on Cool Parenting

Grandma’s Rules on Cool Parenting

Tips on how to become a more effective parent based on the book, Parenting from the Heart: Raising Resilient and Successful Smart Kids

As I pen this piece, children’s mental health is, sadly, in a crisis. Both in the USA and globally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one in five children have a mental disorder. Most mental health authorities contend that recent pandemic-related stressors, the impact of global warming, international conflicts, growing economic disparities and widespread poverty, and political and social unrest have all amplified the challenges that kids face today.

A great many children and youth today suffer from social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that don’t necessarily qualify as mental disorders – we therapists call these “subclinical” problems. They aren’t mental health disorders in the true sense of the definition. But these behaviors, nonetheless, can be distressful for the child and certainly unsettling and worrisome for the parents. And they undoubtedly compromise a child’s success trajectory and future well-being.

One of my favorite opinion writers, David Brooks, recently authored a piece in the New York Times titled, “America is Falling Apart at the Seams.” In this provocative essay, Mr. Brooks pointed out that all kinds of bad behaviors are now on the rise. As two examples, he cites a Wall Street Journal report that schools are witnessing an increase in both minor incidents and more serious issues, such as fights and gun possession, violent bullying, and a rising drug epidemic that just keeps getting worse. He concludes his essay by suggesting that some kind of social, spiritual, or moral virus may be at the core of what’s driving the selfish, amoral, disrespectful, rude, and self-centered behaviors seen in America and worldwide (Brooks, 2022). Brooks concludes his cheeky essay by suggesting that our nation may have stumbled into a dangerous period of narcissism.

With this backdrop in mind, I recently authored a book for parents on how to raise kind, compassionate, resilient, optimistic, and successful kids. The challenge in writing this book was to keep it based on facts and science, not trendy opinion or pop psychology. And to keep it upbeat and easy-to-absorb, but also authoritative and accessible. This proved to be harder than I initially anticipated, since my 40-plus year career has been working as a university professor, academic clinician, and applied researcher, not a popular science writer! My editor at Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group was aware of the frequent parenting workshops that I have led over the years, and my reputation as a trusted ‘parent whisperer’ – and had every confidence that I could pull off the challenge!

My editor was particularly interested in my writing a practical, hands-on book for parents on what I call strengths of the heart – a triple package of social-emotional “super traits.” The three super-traits in my model are emotional intelligence, character strengths, and social skills. My 40+ years of clinical experience, research conducted in my labs at Duke University and Florida State University, and considerable research by others, strongly support the belief that these three super traits make a real difference in the lives of kids. And they can be rather easily taught by parents (Pfeiffer, 2001, 2003, 2013, 2017). Emotional intelligence is essentially a person’s ability to perceive or “read,” understand, manage, and handle emotions and emotionally charged situations. Character strengths are universally respected and worthy virtues, including humility, spirituality, forgiveness, kindness, honesty, and bravery. And social skills are those “soft skills” that lubricate how well we communicate with others. Social skills help build and maintain peer and adult-child relationships. Examples of social skills include effective communication with others, conflict resolution skills, active listening, relationship management, coping with disappointments and rejection, taking turns, speaking kindly, and keeping your cool.

I maintain that these three super traits might well be the ideal ointment, prescription, or salve to mitigate the narcissism and social, spiritual, and moral virus that David Brooks was warning us about in his provocative essay (Pfeiffer, 2023; Pfeiffer & Blankenship, 2017; Post, 2022). Almost all of the many families that I coach – both here in the USA and internationally, love the simple, unpretentious ideas on raising resilient and successful kids found in Parenting from the Heart.

I spent much of 2021 and 2022 getting my ideas together, researching the countless articles and book chapters written on these three super traits – emotional intelligence, character strengths, and social skills, and reviewing my notes from hundreds of parent coaching sessions and workshops that I have led. And then this past year I rolled-up-my-sleeves and started writing the book! The book was recently published by Routledge, titled, Parenting from the Heart: Raising Resilient and Successful Smart Kids.

The book is intentionally brief (120 pages), inexpensive (less than $20. USD), and easy-to-read. The book’s main thesis is that when parents help their kids develop savvy and age-appropriate social skills, strong emotional intelligence, and keen character strengths, then good things start to happen! The kids are much more likely to stay out-of-trouble and actually make smart decisions, get along well with others, feel good about themselves, and cope well with adversity and challenges. I have found that kids with well-developed strengths of the heart are kind, caring, resilient, well-liked, compassionate, self-sufficient, optimistic, and successful.

Parenting from the Heart: Raising Resilient and Successful Smart Kids tells the very personal story of how I came to the idea of linking these three super traits, back in 1998 when I was Executive Director of Duke University’s precollegiate gifted program, Duke TIP. The pocketbook provides parents with concrete, explicit, and easy-to-follow advice on how to encourage emotional intelligence, character strengths, and social skills in the home.

In this piece, I don’t talk about the three super traits or how to teach kids to become proficient in them. I encourage the reader to pick up a copy of the book and read it! The advice is right there in the book. I share in this piece for The Creativity Post essentially the preamble or overture to teaching kids emotional intelligence, social skills, and character strengths. I call these Grandma’s Rules. They are ten uncomplicated yet important techniques, skills, beliefs, and guidelines to help parents become more calm, self-assured, confident role models for their kids. So that parents become more effective coaches and teachers of strengths of the heart! Over the years, in working with hundreds of parents, I have come to respect how Grandma’s Rules are essential for parents to learn and practice if they hope to become effective “co-therapists” in teaching their kids emotional intelligence, social skills, and character strengths. What is gratifying is that Grandma’s Rules are supported by scientific research and considerable anecdotal clinical evidence! They are tried-and-proven principles that make parenting easier, more effective, and enjoyable (Borba, 2021; Kennedy-Moore, 2019). Space only permits me to go into some detail about two of Grandma’s Rules. Read my new book to become a “Zen Master” on all ten! Okay, the Grandma’s Rules for all parents are:

  • Model Good Behavior

  • Change Harmful Patterns

  • Be More in the Present

  • Reduce the Level of Stress in Your Life

  • Learn Self-Compassion and Self-Kindness

  • Learn How to Keep Your Cool

  • Remember to try to Let the Little Things Go

  • Identify and Then Disarm Your Triggers

  • Create a Peaceful Home Life

  • Embrace Self-Care: Eat Healthy, Get Enough Sleep, and Exercise Regularly

Grandma's Rule #1: Model Good Behavior

This first core rule or axiom is so obvious that it almost goes without saying in my work coaching parents. But it is important to remind the reader, as I always remind parents in my coaching practice, that kids are keen observers of others’ behavior. Kids’ radar is set before birth to observe and pick up the many messages that they observe in their world. It’s as basic as that. My grandma preached to my brother and me, growing up in the Bronx, New York, that kids learn what they see others do, not necessarily what they are told or preached to is the right thing to do. And grandma was spot-on correct!

Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon observational learning. It is a form of social learning that starts at a very young age – among infants and toddlers! There is a ton of research in the behavioral and neurosciences supporting observational learning. In my book, in fact, I explain how empathy and compassion are related to observational learning neuro-physiologically vis-à- vis mirror neurons. Suffice to say that kids are keen observers of important and influential adults – their parents, grandparents, and teachers, for example. And they are acute observers of influential kids in their social world, including both well-behaving children and misbehaving bullies! Kids continually learn through imitating what they observe and are exposed to. What is extremely important to remember is that kids are also keen observers of undesirable and inappropriate behaviors. Kids learn and imitate bad behavior just as easily as they learn good behavior through observational learning. The child who observes their parent acting impulsively, punitively, uncontrollably angrily, or threatening, sarcastic, or disgusted is learning disagreeable and unattractive behavior. It’s as simple as that.

On the other hand, the parent who models examples of considerate and courteous behaviors, agreeable and helpful behaviors, behaviors such as gratitude, kindness, and sharing, can expect that their child will imitate these well-mannered behaviors. Social scientists call these prosocial behaviors. This first Grandma’s Rule is a simple, important, and powerful principle for parents to live by because it establishes the default interactive style of kids in their first few years of life. It is, in my opinion, a basic and core belief about how to interact in front of our kids! Grandma’s rule reminds us, “never forget that kids watch and learn from how we adults behave!”

Grandma's Rule #2: Be More in the Present

The second Grandma’s Rule that I’ll briefly talk about is “living in the present,” a trendy pop psychology slogan. But what exactly does this catchphrase mean? And does living in the moment really make a difference in the quality of one’s life? And in how effectively you parent and are able to teach strengths of the heart? The slogan to live in the moment, keep our focus on the here- and-now, in fact, has a long history and a solid scientific basis. Really. The well-known humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced us to his wildly popular ideas about fulfilling our innate human needs and the importance of self-actualization. Maslow argued that the ability to be in the present moment is a critically important aspect of mental wellness and self-actualization (Maslow, 1943).

Being in the present means being fully engaging with your environment, body, thinking, feelings, and emotions as they are unfolding in the moment with intention but without judgment or opinion. It is mindfulness practice incorporated into one’s lifestyle. Mindfulness is actually an ancient concept, derived from Buddhist contemplative practice, meaning “presence of mind” (Kabat-Zinn, 2018). Parents don’t find it difficult to learn and master, and one can become proficient in a few weeks of guided practice. The challenge is paying close attention to the present moment – for example, becoming acutely aware of your breathing, and each breath that you take. At the same time, you need to let go of all judgments (for example, not labeling any thoughts or feelings as good or bad). In fact, breathing meditation is a common mindfulness practice that I teach parents.

When you are in this state of being fully in the present moment, you give your complete attention to what’s happening in the here-and-now. You can see how this psychological state makes for a more engaged, attentive parent. This isn’t rocket science! Being in the moment, you no longer are the parent at your child’s youth soccer, volleyball, or t-ball game, dance practice or violin recital who is repeatedly checking your iPhone for text messages, thinking about tomorrow’s sales’ meeting or an upcoming dinner party.

Another way of thinking about mindfulness is that it is the self-regulation of our attention, while adopting an attitude of curiosity, openness to experience, and acceptance. It requires us to let go of our ingrained, automatic, and ruminative thinking. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that can be rather easily cultivated by getting in touch with the present moment. The main goal is to create greater awareness of the “here and now.”

There are clear connections between a state of mindfulness and physical and psychological well- being. Practicing focused awareness and mindfulness helps reduce stress and anxiety and improves overall quality of life. There actually is neurobiological evidence for the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is associated with amygdala deactivation – decreasing negative emotions and enhancing emotional stability (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Parents that I coach and have introduced mindfulness training to report huge benefits. Especially parents in high stress jobs and find it difficult to relax or let go when they leave their work. Their kids report that their parents become more authentic, dependable, genuine, and engaging. A perfect recipe for the
parents teaching their kids strengths of the heart!

In my book, I write about activities that I’ve successfully used in my coaching work to help parents be more in the present include. Here is a short list of a few:
• Checking in with Your Body
• Scheduling Time to Worry
• The Raisin Exercise
• Breathing Exercises
• Creating a Daily Routine that Includes Time to Relax
• Creating and then Reciting a Personal Mantra
• Reducing Screen Time
• Gratitude Journaling

Learning to model good behavior and be more in the present are two Grandma’s Rules that make a real difference in parents becoming more calm, authentic, and better-adjusted adults. And more effective in teaching strengths of the heart to their kids! With practice and guidance, you can master all ten Grandma’s Rules. In addition to reading my book, there are excellent videos on YouTube and other social media on ways to learn all of Grandma’s Rules. The core theme of this piece is that you must learn to take care of yourself as an adult if you hope to be a successful parent.


Borba, M. (2021). Thrivers: The surprising reasons why some kids struggle and others shine. NY: Penguin Random House.

Brooks, D. (January 13, 2022). America is falling apart at the seams. The New York Times Opinion Section A, p. 18. (

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. A. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018). Mediation is not what you think. New York: Hyperion.

Kennedy-Moore, E. (2019). Kid confidence: Help your child make friends, build resilience, and develop real self-esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Pubs.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Post, G. (2022). The gifted parenting journey. Goshen, KY: Gifted Unlimited.

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Pfeiffer, S. I. (2003). Psychological considerations in raising a healthy gifted child. In P. Olszewski-Kubilius, L. Limburg-Weber, & S. I. Pfeiffer (Eds.), Early gifts: Recognizing and nurturing children’s talents (pp. 173-185). Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2013). Lessons learned from working with high-ability students. Gifted Education International, 29, 86-97.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2017). Success in the classroom and in life: Focusing on strengths of the head and strengths of the heart. Gifted Education International, 33, 95-101.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (January 27, 2023). Raising resilient, well-adjusted, and successful smart kids. The Creativity Post

Pfeiffer, S. I. (August, 2023). Parenting from the heart: Raising resilient and successful smart kids. NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Pfeiffer, S. I., & Blankenship, A. P. (2017). Lessons learned from working with highly gifted and creative kids. Psychology and Education, 54, 24-32.

Pfeiffer, S. I., & Jarosewich, T. (2023). The Gifted Rating Scales -2. Ontario, Canada: MHS Publishers.

About the Author

Steven Pfeiffer is a popular speaker, consultant, and recognized authority on the mental health challenges unique to high ability kids. His clients fondly refer to him as the “shrink-parent whisperer.” Dr. Pfeiffer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University, where he served as Director of Clinical Training. Prior, he was a Professor at Duke University and Executive Director of Duke’s precollegiate gifted program, Duke TIP. Earlier in his career, he served as Director of the Devereux Institute of Clinical Training and Research, a nationwide behavioral health organization with headquarters in Villanova, PA. Dr. Pfeiffer also served as an officer and clinical psychologist in the US Navy Medical Service Corps. He is author of over 200 monographs, book chapters, and journal articles, and twelve books. His newest trade book, written for parents and published by Routledge, is titled, Parenting from the Heart: How to Raise Resilient and Successful Smart Kids.

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