Podcast

If you are feeling stressed and burnt out with the constant pressure to always be stimulating, educating and entertaining your child, you’re not going to want to miss this episode!

Joining me this week is Lizzie Assa. Lizzie is a parenting strategist and play expert, mom of three, and the founder of The Workspace for Children. We’ll discuss the strategies she put in place with her own children based off her experience as a classroom teacher that helped her find balance, the benefits of open ended and independent play, how to make children an active participant in the household, and concrete steps you can take today to create a successful play environment and routine with your own kids.

Lizzie (00:00:00):

You know, when your kids start playing independently and you like tiptoe backwards, like you’re just like tiptoe out of the room and you’re like, I might get three minutes. Like how good that feels. Well, like, imagine if you could like schedule that in and like, you know, that’s gonna happen.

Dr. Sarah (00:00:19):

Do your child’s tantrums leave you walking on eggshells, avoiding setting limits and terrified of those judgmental grocery store glares. My new free guide is all about strengthening your child’s ability to self-regulate, so over time they’ll be able to manage their big feelings and those meltdown moments will get less and less. I’ll teach you the psychology of how to rewire your child’s brain and create new neural pathways through five fun and simple emotion regulation building games that you can incorporate into their everyday play, when your child’s brain is most receptive to learning. Go to drsarahbren.com/resources to download this free guide and watch as tantrums start to fade.

Dr. Sarah (00:01:05):

One of the things I love most about this podcast is when I get to have conversations with people who I have been a fan of for years, and that is certainly the case with my next guest. Lizzie Assa is a parenting strategist, a play expert, a mom of three, and the founder of The Workspace For Children. I have personally used her play strategies with my own kids, and I am a huge fan of her message of empowering parents with actionable steps, towards raising creative, independent children, all while building in a break to meet their own needs. Amazing, right? In this episode, we’re going to talk about the incredible advantages of independent play and offer parents guidance for specific steps that they can take to facilitate their child’s growth and development through play in their own home.

Dr. Sarah (00:01:54):

Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.

Dr. Sarah (00:02:27):

Hi, I’m so excited to welcome to the podcast today someone who I’m a huge fan of, and I’m so excited that she’s here. Lizzie Assa from TheWorkspace For Children is here with us and we are gonna get into an awesome conversation. I can’t wait. So thank you so much for being here.

Lizzie (00:02:43):

Thank you for having me. I can’t wait to talk to you.

Dr. Sarah (00:02:46):

Yeah, can you, so I’ve been a long time, like follower of the work that you do for those of you guys who don’t know The Workspace For Children is this incredible Instagram account. But like it’s so much more than that. It’s this really amazing blog and it’s, the stuff that you put out like I have used in my family with my two kids, since I’ve, since I knew who you were. So I’m very grateful for the, for the stuff that you do for parents and for kids. But can you talk a little bit about, you know, how you found this path because it’s, it’s very special and different.

Lizzie (00:03:22):

Sure. I would love to, you know, there’s something interesting that most people don’t know about The Workspace, which maybe you do if you go back far enough, but The Workspace For Children actually started as an in-home play and art studio in my basement. When my youngest had just turned one so I am a former early childhood person. I taught in the classroom in some of the best schools in New York city. After getting my master’s in New York. And I loved teaching, I loved being in the classroom. In fact, I still really miss it and think that one day, I’m going to turn this all in and just go back to the classroom. But after I had my own kids and I was a stay-at-home mom, I loved being a stay-at-home mom. And I know the narrative often is that it’s so, you know, people don’t like it, it’s boring. You’re constantly like changing diapers and doing all these things. But I actually, unlike most of my friends, I really liked being home with the kids, not to say there weren’t a lot of really hard parts, but I was someone who really felt good about it. But over the years, we really couldn’t afford to be a one income family. And so that’s how the original workspace formed. And that’s where we got the name, because it was an actual physical workspace and people came and it was children and caregivers. And we would do really open ended play and process art and just kind of talk about parenting and play. And I would really model for the grownups of these children, how to step back and observe how your child plays and what you can learn from that play to inform your parenting or your caregiving.

Dr. Sarah (00:05:11):

Yes.

Lizzie (00:05:11):

And it was amazing. I loved it. But I burnt out on that super fast, cuz I also like then all of a sudden was like a stay-at-home mom and a business owner and doing the same stuff with my kids, with other people’s kids. And it was like not good. So I did a little consulting and then I came, I still couldn’t figure it out, but all along I was Instagramming what we were doing in the workspace, which then when I closed the workspace, I was Instagramming what I was doing with my own kids at home. Then I started to really talk to my other friends and I was like, gosh, there really is this disconnect. I’m the only one of my friends who really likes being a stay at home mom. And what like, where, why is this happening? Right. Like I have so much in common with my friends. Like why is there this one thing that it’s like, so it feels so hard for everyone. And I think there’s certain things that I’m doing in my parenting. That’s making it not feel that hard for me. And I realized that I was using the background that I had in early childhood education to build in rhythms and routines in my own house that were ensuring that I had time back for myself every day. So I did not have the same level of burnout. I think that most of my friends had. And so little by little, I started putting that out into the world. I started writing my blog. I started sharing really simple activities and not crafts, but really true, like play and open-ended art activities. And the purpose was not to create some beautiful thing to show off. The purpose was for kids to be engaged independently while mom or dad or caregiver could step back and like call their friend or like take a shower or, you know, any of those things. Because I realized that was really, that was the issue for most of my friends. They had no time to themselves ever.

Dr. Sarah (00:07:07):

No. Cause I think parents are, there is this like, I don’t know where it comes from exactly. If it’s a societal or like intergenerational transmission of this messaging. Like it’s our job as parents to stimulate and educate and fill our child’s mind with all the things.

New Speaker (00:07:24):

Entertain.

Dr. Sarah (00:07:26):

And entertain and like that they are these empty vessels that we must fill at all times we must be filling. And I couldn’t disagree with that any more strongly. Like I very much believe the opposite is true. Like our kids come into this world with every possible interest and every possible attention span and creative, like possibility already there. And we could sit back and just, you know, we, we facilitate an environment that’s conducive to exploring and creativity, problem solving and all that stuff. But like we don’t have to do a whole lot more than that.

Lizzie (00:08:04):

And so that’s exactly it. So I realized that as a classroom teacher of, you know, 20 three and four year olds, I had to build in things for the kids in that classroom to be independent. Right. Cuz how else could you take care of 20 four year olds? And I, you know, things like having the water container down low. So not every kid was asking me for a drink of water. And properly teaching them how to use the, you know, how to pour water, you know, just like those little, teeny tiny things. Or like when you walk into a good early childhood program, the hooks for hanging up their clothes are down low. They can get their own smocks, you know, all those things. So taking that kind of thinking into my own home and using what I learned as an early childhood professional and bringing those things like really simple things into my house, ended up with me having all this time back to meet my own needs. And that in turn made me really love being with my kids.

Dr. Sarah (00:08:57):

Yeah. Yeah. Ugh. And like the thing that I like, I’m curious, could we, I wanna ask you a little bit about open-ended play and process art. Cause I actually think, you know, there’s something really important there that people, and it’s kinda like what we were talking about before of like, you know, the difference between a closed ended play project or art project and an open one or a process-oriented one like, and what the value is from, you know, not just from like what they can create creatively, but the self development that occurs and the cognitive development and the resilience building that occurs when you are doing that kind of play and art. Can you talk a little bit about that? Cause I think it’s really interesting.

Lizzie (00:09:39):

I’d love to. So, you know, when we, I think when parents think about art with kids or even I think a lot of teachers, when they think about art with kids, they think about a closed craft, right? A simple set of directions and something that is gonna turn out. Basically everyone just gonna look the same maybe with like a little bit, you know, and the idea of it is to follow directions and come up with a prescribed end goal. For me, art is something different and it’s open-ended art, which means I’m gonna give like a set of materials to four different kids and it’s gonna come out completely different. And that doesn’t mean it’s a free for all. There are still rules about how and where we use the materials and things like that. But the difference is, I’m not saying put the two eyes here and the two arms here and the legs here, and this is what you’re gonna make. And it’s good if it looks like mine. So yes. And I think what people forget and get really frustrated with, especially parents when they’re trying to do a craft with their kids, is that like, it’s not fun and it’s not fun because you’re trying to force your kid to like, there’s a learning curve. Like when they come to a craft, like say you set up a craft for your kids, like for Christmas or for the holidays. And you’re like, oh, we’re gonna make these snowmen and you know, whatever. And your kids are all excited and they come to it. Well, there’s a learning curve there. So like they have to first like, know how to sit down at the table and then they have to, you know, do all the directions that you’re telling them to do. And then you’re nervous about them spilling the glitter. And then they’re excited about, you know, there’s all these pieces that that’s not fun for them. They’d rather just go watch TV because it’s not relaxing. It’s not coming from inside of them. Right. They’re following your instructions, which they’ve probably been doing all day at school.

Dr. Sarah (00:11:25):

Yeah. And the final product may not even make them feel so great cuz they’re looking at this beautiful snowman that you’re telling them to make. And they’re like, mine doesn’t look like that, Ugh, I guess I’m not so good at this.

Lizzie (00:11:37):

And so when you offer like up, so just regular open ended art materials, the same ones over and over your kid has the opportunity to master that material. And our kids are always growing and developing. So they’re gonna bring something different to that material. Each time they come, they’re gonna work out what’s happening in their life, in their mind, or even with their own like fine motor or any of the skills like that they are working on. They’re gonna bring that to the art, the art materials, if they have that opportunity. But I think with a craft, it kind of sets everyone and up for failure and there’s room for crafts, don’t get me wrong, but I’m talking about on the regular, it sets parents up for failure. It’s like that. Are we having fun yet type thing, you know, as opposed to, when you put out the same materials over and over your kids learn your rules, they learn what’s acceptable and what’s not. So like that takes the stress out of it for a parent, they learn how to clean up. If they do make a mess, you know, instead of putting something new with new rules every single time.

Dr. Sarah (00:12:42):

Yeah. And that repetition, that mastery builds confidence because when a kid sits down at the table and it sees all these familiar materials, they, they have this internal like experience of like, okay, I know what I’m doing here. And that’s a very good feeling and that’s confidence building. And also this idea of like, I think when it comes to resilience, what I think is helpful for, you know, I often will tell parents when, you know, I’m a psychologist. My focus is on like mental health and you know, personality development and resilience building most of the time. And so I’ll tell parents, like I say this all the time, but like, instead of telling a kid that’s so beautiful or, oh my God, I love that. You know, but asking questions instead. Instead of praising the art, asking questions like and open, I think open-ended and process art is so much more conducive to these kinds of open-ended questions. Like, oh, what made you put that there? Because if you are giving a kid a caterpillar to copy, you know, why they put that there because they put that there because you told them to put that there. And it’s just, it’s, it’s conversational. Now you can ask them about their inner thoughts and how they decided something. And that’s really good for kids to be able to have that opportunity to talk about that stuff.

Lizzie (00:14:04):

And it gives them the opportunity to come to it and say like, oh, I have such a good idea. And to start to work that out on their own, you know, like, I don’t think kids have a lot of opportunities to have such a good idea that like came deeply from them and then work that through. There’s not a lot of opportunity for that in their daily life. So when you have, when you carve out time for play and process art, you’re giving them that opportunity and you can do it in ways that is like, makes your life easier. You’re not setting out, like you’re not buying new materials every week or this craft kit or this activity and downloading it and doing all the things. You’re just putting out the stuff that they’re used to and they’re gonna bring themselves to it.

Dr. Sarah (00:14:48):

Yeah. And that’s easy again for you as the parent. And like, you can also do the things that you are more drawn to. Right. Like I know that I don’t mind paint mess. I am like super happy to throw a tarp on the playroom floor and let the kids get super messy and paint everywhere. And if they get it all over their body, which they definitely do, my kids are four and two. So like the paint is, they’re covered in paint by the end of it. And like, that’s fine. I know personally that that doesn’t bother me. I give them a piggyback right up to the bathtub and we just shower off, like whatever. But I can’t stand glitter. Like it gives me nightmares.

Lizzie (00:15:26):

I actually can’t stand it either.

Dr. Sarah (00:15:28):

It doesn’t come out of anything. And you find it like in your hair. I just, I hate glitter. Like there’s no glitter allowed in my house, but they can paint. Glue, there’s glue everywhere. Like there’s glue accessible to them on their art table. Like, I don’t mind it. They love to glue stuff. Like I’ve got these little containers of like beads and random cut up things. And, and I got a lot of these ideas from you, frankly. Like I love, and that’s how I started kind of following the work that you were doing was the, you were doing all those open-ended play prompts and art prompts that I loved. And I was like this so speaks to me. But then, you know, I really, what really helped me kind of feel like, like this is like a very soul aligned human being with me, is the stuff you put out about parenting. And about like the mental health, maternal mental health piece that I think maybe you don’t put it in those terms, but the things that you talk about, speak to that so strongly. And I like, I’m curious how, you know, how you, you were talking about how you were realizing, like, I, I was finding joy in this and I was trying to figure out how to communicate that. But like, I feel like you have this sort of anti perfectionist parenting sort of content that you talk about. And can you talk more about that and like where at comes from?

Lizzie (00:16:54):

Sure. I mean, I think number one, for me, how my kids played really informed who I became as a parent. And what I mean by that is that they, you know, I sure I designed the environment or the playroom in a way that they could go in there and be independent and play. Right. But that meant that they would walk in there. And instead of walking into like a huge pile of toys, there was very few toys in there. And so they could walk in and get started without me, which means I could step back and do what I wanted to do. And so that in turn meant that like, I wasn’t constantly like, oh, what? You know, every time someone, like, I think we’re all on this level of like, feeling so reactive because we’re constantly being needed. But this gave me the opportunity to be able to do that. You know, when your kids start playing independently and you like tiptoe backwards, you’re just like tiptoe outta the room. And you’re like, I might get three minutes. Like how good that feels. Well, like, imagine if you could like schedule that in and like, you know, that’s gonna happen. Imagine how that would transform your life and your own mental health. And moms don’t usually have that opportunity.

Dr. Sarah (00:18:12):

And how would you suggest parents can start to set that up? Because I’m sure there are a lot of people who are listening to this that are like, oh, I missed that vote and there’s no going back now. Like my kids are on dependent on me.

Lizzie (00:18:26):

You can always start where you are. You like right where you are. Whether you are a kid is 18 months or 10 years old. And especially, you know, a lot of people with kids that are older, like, well, it’s too late. You know, you can really sit down with your kid and say, Hey, I was just listening to this podcast. I got this really great idea. Let’s try this together. I wanna try something to start over. Let’s go in on this. Like, and you, especially with older kids, you can be like, Hey, I want to be nicer and more fun. And that means I need to take care of myself. So like, let’s figure this out together. I think I’ve always prescribed to the school of thought that like, kids are humans first. I don’t, I never talked to my kids like they were babies or like, it just they’re kids with needs just like you’re a mom with needs. And like, when everyone’s needs are met, everything is better for everyone. Is it perfect? No. Like, are you still gonna yell? Yes. But it’s like, you know, you start to realize also how capable your kids really are. And that’s when you can also be like, Hey, I can take a shower actually. Or like, I can actually close the door and make this phone call. And like, even if they don’t like it, I can still do it. You know, you just start to grow. The more you practice, the more confident you become and the bigger changes you see. It’s like with anything, you know, but it also is just such a profound impact on your kids and how they see themselves. And then it’s just like this really good cycle that’s happening.

Dr. Sarah (00:20:06):

Yeah. And I think it teaches them a lot too about self care and how whole we all are. Like when you model, I think when you model for your kid, you know, I have a need right now. Like I need a break right now. I’m going to sit and drink my coffee right now. Or I’m gonna read the newspaper right now, or I need to make a phone call right now. Or I wanna go to the bathroom or shower, whatever, when we model that and not like…

Lizzie (00:20:33):

And not ask permission. I think people often say, I’m gonna drink my coffee now, okay? You know, instead of that, I might say to myself, gosh, you know, tomorrow morning it’s gonna be super busy. So I know that I am gonna want like a few minutes to read the newspaper and drink my coffee. So when we come down, I’m gonna give the kids breakfast. And then they’re gonna go in the playroom where I’ve literally set up like the blocks they already had on their shelf. But I just added their paw patrol figures or whatever it is just to like entice them a little bit. And then I’m gonna say to them, Hey, today’s gonna be really busy. And mommy meets this time so that I can feel good. I wanna feel good and have fun with you. And I need to do this first. You can choose to go play with the blocks that I set up, or you can sit on the floor and read a book and also know that your kid might sit on the floor and be like, but no, but no. And you can still say, I’m still choosing this. This is really important. And you’re okay. I mean, I want you to think about like, when you have a kid in the classroom, I mean, imagine your own kids, when you go to like your preschool parent teacher conference and they’re like, they hang up their coat and they cut open their snack with, you know, all these things. And you’re like, wait, what, my kid doesn’t do that at home. You know, it’s about those expectations. And it’s also about like, the teacher’s busy. So like, they’re gonna say, Hey, I need you to wait a minute. You can wait and I can help you, or you can try to do it yourself. So it’s really about bringing those kind of tactics into your home. That just set you up to have more independent kids, which in turn gives you back time to fill your own needs and also allows your kids to see themselves as such capable, competent members of society. Like people in a community who can actually help and have impact.

Dr. Sarah (00:22:23):

Yes. Because their sense of self is directly internalized from what we reflect back to them. So if we, and we can reflect verbally something back to them, but completely undermine it with our actions, like, we can be like, you can do this, but I’m gonna also do all this for you real quick. So you’re saying you could do this, but then your actions are kind of undermining your confidence in your kid’s ability to really do this. And so that also gets internalized. Like, mommy doesn’t really think I could do this. Cuz she does it for me all the time. And I like it when she does it for me. So I’m gonna keep asking her to do it for me. And I’m gonna start to believe that, like, I really can’t do this by myself. Whereas if you can say to your child, this is hard. And I wonder how you’re gonna figure out how to open that. I’m here. I can, I can start a little bit or I can help you.

Lizzie (00:23:07):

To be fair though, you know, that takes a amount of bandwidth to be able to do that. Right. So like for even I’m just gonna like call out my own family. I have three kids by the time I got to my third kid, like my bandwidth was not as, you know, wide. And so she definitely like has a different reaction to like, you know, with my older two who are closer in age, I literally would like wake them up earlier so that we could have a longer time. So in the, before school so that they could put on their own snow pants and they could walk to the bus, you know, like all these things. But by the time I had my third, well, I had like other things happening in my life. Like the big two had to be at school or, you know, any of those things. And I can see that reflected in, I mean, don’t get me wrong. She’s a firecracker. She’s amazing. But I just wanna call out that, like, you know, being able to sit with your kid and saying like, and waiting, like that takes a certain amount of bandwidth that I think, especially now a lot of parents don’t havev. And so, you know, to your point before people thinking it’s too late, it’s also like, it’s not an all or nothing thing. Like you can pick like just one or two things that you do have bandwidth for, and start there. Like, you don’t have to start doing that with everything in your life, right? Like if you know, your family’s gonna rush every morning and like, that’s just not gonna work for you then, like, that’s fine. You do what works for your family. And just remember, you know, maybe when they’re getting ready for bed, they’re going to dress themselves and you’re gonna work on like showering skills. You know, you have to do what works in your family or it’s never happening.

Dr. Sarah (00:24:41):

Right. And I think this, that is a perfect illustration of one of the things that I think you are articulate so beautifully is, you know, it doesn’t have to be exactly a certain way for it to work. And you have to keep in mind how you feel as the parent in what you wanna give and put into it and invest in it. So like, yeah, if you wanna help your child build independent skills, but the mornings are stressful, then it’s okay for you to do everything for your kid in the mornings. And then set aside time later, when you have more bandwidth to what, to what you’re saying, like to practice some skill. But that’s honoring the fact that like, we don’t have to be on as that perfect parent teaching our kids all of these independent skills all the time. Like they’re gonna learn them. We don’t have to be this ever present, calm, doting, selfless martyr-y parent all the time.

Lizzie (00:25:40):

For sure. And I think also, I mean, I value authenticity and honesty, you know, in my parenting. Like I yell sometimes I, I, if I’m mad, my kids know I’m mad. I’m never gonna be that person. That’s like, honey, mommy, doesn’t like that. Cuz like that’s not life. Right. And that, I don’t know. Like I feel like that just there’s so much pressure on moms to be like you said, like doting and kind and gentle. And like that’s not really like who I am as a person. And I think my kids are allowed to, you know, see me as who I am as a person the same way as I strive to see them and meet them where they are as people as developing people.

Dr. Sarah (00:26:24):

And I think showing up in that authentic way and owning your feelings and modeling how you meet your needs and how you take up space in the family as a human being in the family, as the parent. That’s very valuable to your kids. Like, and I yell at my kids too sometimes. And like I always say to parents, like it’s not really whether or not we never yell at our kids. It’s can we, can we apologize when we yell? Can we own that? We lost our cool for a minute. Can we repair?

Lizzie (00:26:55):

Right. And then later, you don’t even have to do that right now. Like it’s so okay. To come back later and be like, oops, like because it’s modeling that for your kids too.

Dr. Sarah (00:27:06):

Yeah. In fact, I almost think modeling, I always talk about like the debrief. Like I say, come back when it’s cold. Like not when it’s hot, like apologizing in the heat of the moment, it doesn’t really do anything like for us cuz we’re still hot and our kid is feeling that heat and it’s like, okay, now I’m just saying the thing I’m supposed to say after I yell versus in a cool, calm, connected moment when we’re like, maybe we’re reading a story at bedtime and we’re feeling good. That’s a time when I might say, you know what? When we are trying to get out the door this morning. I really lost my cool and I yelled and you know what, I’m sorry that I did that. I bet you, that didn’t feel good. And I was feeling frustrated and, and I I’m gonna work on finding a different way to like communicate that to you. Or like maybe I need to build in more time in my morning. So I’m not feeling so frustrated, but I’m sorry. Right. So we can, and but that’s always, I think better later.

Lizzie (00:27:57):

Yeah. I agree, I agree. And I think it also models, you know, I have this really interesting, I have a tween and a teen as well as an eight year old. And my middle texted me from school the other day and said I failed my Spanish test. I’m so upset. And at lunch, all my friends kept saying, how come you’re not acting happy? And I texted her back and I was like, you’re allowed to be unhappy. You, it’s not your job to be happy for other people. You’re upset about your Spanish test. And you’re allowed to be upset about your Spanish test. Yeah. Just know that, you know, and I feel like that when you are a parent who sometimes gets mad or you know, any of those things, like you’re really living that truth.

Dr. Sarah (00:28:44):

Yeah. And I feel like you could have been so compelled in that moment and understandably to have been like, fixing for her. Like, okay, but let, it’s just a small Spanish test. It’s gonna be okay. Like it’s not a big deal. Like let’s try. And, but you’d be doing the exact same thing. Her friends at the lunch table would be doing is trying to make her feel happy when she was feeling upset.

Lizzie (00:29:02):

Right. Cuz like that would be more comfortable for them and for me. And they’re used to seeing her as this really happy go lucky kid. But it’s so important for her, for me to instill in her that like it’s not her job to be happy for other people. It’s her job to be happy for her when she’s happy.

Dr. Sarah (00:29:23):

That’s super powerful. And I think that even just the whole idea of independent play and saying, Hey guys, you’re gonna go play in the playroom right now. And I’m gonna go take a shower and being sort of unapologetic and not even like, not even unapologetic, but not a secret. It’s not a secret. Like I’m not setting you up with this like playscape to play with. And then I’m gonna go in secret, go take care of my needs. It’s very much this transparent, honest, we all are in agreement that this time is for all of us, you get to play, I’m gonna take a shower and we all have needs and we all meet them and they’re all have weights.

Lizzie (00:29:59):

Yes. And to call it out, you know. I’m lucky now one thing that’s been great for us in the pandemic is that my husband went from working really long hours away from the house to now he works from home. And ironically, now I work in an office outside of the house because I couldn’t concentrate. But anyway, so in the mornings, you know, I usually am down with the kids and then I’ll usually, once my husband comes down, I go up and get myself ready. And I say to them like, I’m going to get myself ready. I don’t want anyone to disturb me. I’m gonna be listening to my podcast. So like, does anyone need to ask me anything right now? Cause like, now’s time after this, you can leave me a note. I’m closed. And without fail, my youngest will always come up to tell me well to daddy did this and I did this and, you know, but can I just do this? And I always will say to her, like, I’m gonna close the door now to help you remember that, like, this is my time. Daddy’s a grown up too. You might not like the way he does it. You know? And does she like it? No. And I’ve been doing it for a really long time. She still comes up and asks me. But I am so sure that like I need this time to get ready. I have given her all that I have already. I just spent an hour with her filling her bucket. Like it’s okay for her to wish that I would do more. And for me to not do it

Dr. Sarah (00:31:15):

Right. This idea that we could disappoint our kids and that they can have distress. And that’s actually not a betrayal as a parent to your sacred role as their like person. Right. You can be this warm, loving, connected parent who has needs, who prioritizes their needs over our children’s wants in that moment. And that’s not, you’re not betraying your kid. You’re actually showing them what it’s like to take care of yourself. And that’s, I think it’s internalized by our kids when they get older and they say, I’m gonna close the door because I need a moment. Like we’ve done our job. Like it’s, you’re playing a longer game.

Lizzie (00:31:59):

And I think you can also say to yourself, like, even when you have toddlers, like is my child safe? You know, are their needs met? You know, their basic needs met, then it’s okay for them to be uncomfortable or unhappy with my choice right now. Like, because the thing is, is like, you cannot be connected to your kids if you’re not connected to yourself. And you can’t be connect yourself if you are constantly like, go, go, go, go, go, give, give, give, give, give crash, do it all again. It just, you’re not going to, you’re gonna be like frazzled and unhappy.

Dr. Sarah (00:32:35):

Yeah. I mean, it’s a recipe for burnout and I think more now than ever before, I think parents are just, they’re doing more parenting than I think they’ve ever had to do before in ways that under such incredible stress beyond parenting, like there’s just, I think parents are uniquely stressed out and burnt out right now. And I’m like, thinking, I’m wondering if there are people listening to this right now being like, I need to change something. Like I need to do something different. Like where like where could they start? Like where, I’m trying to think of like, if you are like super burnt out, you’re, you’re having a hard time feeling like any joy in the parenting stuff right now. Like what’s one thing you could do today to start?

Lizzie (00:33:23):

Look at your environment, whether it is a tiny apartment or a huge house glance around your apartment from your kids’ eyes, what can you do right now for five minutes set a time or for five minutes? What can you do right now to front load success for later? Whether that’s throwing a few snacks in a snack bin and putting it on a low shelf, whether it’s, you know, putting an empty laundry basket downstairs. So it’ll be easy for your kid to go around and pick everything up for you. You know, think about ways you can use the environment as you know, as they say in education as the third teacher. But think about ways you can use your environment as another set of hands.

Dr. Sarah (00:34:05):

Oh, that’s very good. I love that. I just realized that I have a hamper on my main floor, like down, our laundry is in the basement and I have a hamper right by the staircase door for that very reason. I didn’t really think of it. It was for me. Cause I was like, I don’t wanna have to keep going up and down the stairs. But like if there’s a hamper in our hallway on the, and I like that is my third set of hands sometimes. And my kids love to throw things in it. Like they like to help out and don’t underestimate how much our kids actually like really like to have jobs to do.

Lizzie (00:34:40):

Because I mean a place where they can see instant gratification of their impact, you know? So like if you give them an easy job, but one that actually matters, like it has to be a job that actually matters. I think like, I think a lot of times like people like give their kids like a fluff job that is like an extra, just to give them a job. You know, but give them a job that actually matters like feeding the dog or, you know, or picking up the clothes or sweeping. They can see the wild of dirt that they pushed together. Right. They can see the results of what they just did and that’s gonna feed them to wanna do it more.

Dr. Sarah (00:35:19):

Yeah. And I’m curious like this is, I wasn’t even thinking about asking this, but it makes me wonder, like, what is your takes? I get the sense that your kids are relatively collaborative in the home. And like I’m working on that with my kids, but they’re very little, but like chores and allowance and rewards versus getting it to feel more intrinsic. Like what would you think would be helpful in that respect?

Lizzie (00:35:43):

I mean, I always, especially when my kids, when my kids were younger and I was home with them, my husband was like literally out of the house all the time, either working or studying for his CFA. And so I, I’m not kidding. I like would look at the three of them even when they were really little and I’d be like, guys, we’re a team. And like I, and I really looked at it as a team. It wasn’t like a thing that was like, you know, it was like, if you do this and you do this, then we’re gonna get to leave sooner and have more time at the park. And if you don’t, that’s fine too, but I still have to do it and means you’re just gonna be waiting. You choose, you know, things that are motivating to them are like, if you get up in the morning and you get ready and you do all the things you need to do, guess what we can run around outside before we go to the bus stop. If you don’t, we can’t. And that’s fine too, you know, but like getting on their level and thinking of like the things that really motivate them. You know, part of what I talk to and teach parents when they’re setting up an independent play routine in their home is really learning who your child is. So like what motivates them? How do they, how do they take criticism? What’s like the best, you know, what kind of even like physical movements, do they make big or small? Because those things teach you sort of how to set up the environment to best suit their needs because that is gonna pay you back as a parent tenfold.

Dr. Sarah (00:37:07):

Yes. I remember that actually. So I took your play course. It was during the, you know, the lockdown and I was like, I need to hone some skills here. And I remember actually really loving the thing about it, where you had us write about each of our kids and what they, how they move through the world and how they think and how, what they, how they solve problems. And that was really helpful to me in thinking like my, at the time I was doing it, my daughter was like 11 months old and my son was like, had just turned three or something like that. But they, they were already showing really different interests in the way that they move their bodies. And my daughter was a climber and my son, I always joke that my son, there’s like movers and there are talkers at birth. Babies are either movers or talkers. And if they’re movers, they get their needs met by moving. So they don’t need to talk as much. And that comes online, but it comes online later and if they’re talkers, they can get all their needs met by like using vocalizations. And so they don’t have to learn how to move any cuz they bring you to them, you know? And they all hit those gross motor, they all hit those developmental milestones, but at different stages. And so I joke that my son was a talker and my daughter was a mover because she would climb on everything. She was climbing the ladder of our play set before she could walk. Like she just would climb anything.

Lizzie (00:38:26):

My middle was like that. My middle was climbing out of that crib at 11 months.

Dr. Sarah (00:38:30):

Ugh. It’s terrifying. Like my daughter, that play set has shortened my life just cause the anxiety I have just watching. Cause she would get up there and then she couldn’t, she could barely crawl. And I was like, how are you gonna get down? So anyway, but but my son like would still, and he liked to do things that were like more intricate and he wanted to just kind of like, he could explore one thing for a very long time. Whereas my daughter was like, we had a Pickler triangle and like, it was all about like how do we get her to have space to move her body? And that was her play. And like, so it was just very helpful to think about, you know, I think there’s this illusion parents have and Instagram doesn’t help that like play, it looks beautiful and if you’d come up with this beautiful play prompt, your kids will play for hours. And it’s like, no, they might play for three minutes and that might be independent play and that’s fantastic. And like, that’s a great, like what are realistic developmental expectations?

Lizzie (00:39:27):

Well, I think the difference though also is, is two things. One, like you were saying for your daughter, if you had, you know, she was a mover, so you set up a space for her where she could move. So you’re gonna get so much more independent play out of her because she can do what meets her needs over and over and over. Right. But if you had put her with the same setup that you put for your son, which was maybe like a few small figures and toys, like she would smash those and throw them and be done and look at you. And be like, now what?

Dr. Sarah (00:39:55):

Yep.

Lizzie (00:39:55):

You know, so it’s really about, I think two things, one knowing who your child is and setting up an environment that meets their needs. And that does not mean you need like fancy toys or a large space or any of those things. It means the difference between using tiny colored pencils and little mini erasers or big fat, heavy crayons, you know. Or little tiny wooden peg people or big, heavy blocks, you know, that’s the difference. And then also giving them repeated and repeated and repeated experience with those same materials with your same. So three things, because then also your expectation. And so I think like you can start at three minutes and build, but you’re really gonna follow your child’s leads, but all kids can do it. It’s just a matter of not giving up on them.

Dr. Sarah (00:40:48):

Oh yeah. I love that. That’s so true. It’s cuz it’s us that it’s us that loses the interest and this and the sort of perseverance, not them.

Lizzie (00:40:57):

And it’s really hard work. I mean, especially, you know, if you have kids who are used to being entertained and they are used to you coming every time they call like dropping what you’re doing and getting right there, of course that’s gonna take more time for both you and your child to learn this new way. Doesn’t mean they can’t do it, but it means like you’re gonna have to stick with it. You can’t give up. It’s like any really important thing in life. Right. I mean consistency.

Dr. Sarah (00:41:27):

Yeah. And I think the consistency and the perseverance and like the sticking to it, I think we have to recognize that that’s like a parental sticking to it. Like I think sometimes parents mistakenly say my kid won’t stick with it. And it’s like, Hmm…

Lizzie (00:41:43):

Who’s in charge.

Dr. Sarah (00:41:43):

Maybe we’re not creating an environment where we’re sticking with it longer than they are, you know? Like we have to keep going and be compassionate.

Lizzie (00:41:50):

And you have to keep observing and studying and like really thinking about who they are as a person. What’s working? Concentrate on, what’s working, not, what’s not working. You know, concentrate on the things for those three minutes that they are into and go all in on that.

Dr. Sarah (00:42:08):

Right? Yes. Like I, one day put some glue out and I was a little nervous. How’s this gonna go? We’re gonna have like a glue everywhere. But like they loved it so much that I just kept putting glue out. Like literally, like there’s just an activity. Like there’s not, again, it’s not a product oriented thing. Like I have these little, little plastic doors full of like loose bits and a bunch of glue bottles that permanently live on a table and a stack of construction paper. And most days they just pull out some paper and they put glue everywhere and then they glue random stuff to it and like they’re done and it takes them 30 minutes and they love it. And it’s, that’s it. I don’t even need to keep it. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not gonna have 50,000 pieces of glue paper, but that’s not the point.

Lizzie (00:42:52):

Then it was about the experience, not the product. And those 30 minutes that you just spent doing what you wanted to do and over time, your kids know how to keep the glue on the tray. So the cleanup is a snap.

Dr. Sarah (00:43:04):

Yeah. There’s no, they really actually surprised me. They never made a mess with it. Like they just, and so I think trusting your kids too, like give them the material, give them access. Like I try to make the art supplies, just, you know, to a reasonable degree accessible to them without me there so that they can…

Lizzie (00:43:25):

And you know, and also like remembering that, like if you hate paint, don’t give your kids paint. Give them a paint stick, you know, and let them paint at school, let them paint at their after school activity. If that’s not gonna feel good to you, like it’s your house and you don’t have to do it just even if you see that on Pinterest, that does not mean you have to do that.

Dr. Sarah (00:43:46):

Yeah. Yeah. And I, that’s another thing like this comes up a lot on the podcast cuz I am a mom who is on Instagram and it drives me, just personally, it makes me a little bonkers. And like, you know, we’re talking about this idea of like, how do we, yes, we wanna support our child’s healthy development and we wanna give them all these wonderful enriching opportunities to like have open ended play and do these sort of self building things. But we have to balance that with this mindset of like protecting our own space and our own needs and having, and taking up space in the family as a parent. And you know, when you’re looking at Instagram or Pinterest or whatever, and you’re seeing all of this like perfectionism parenting that I think is so everywhere and it’s, it’s it’s mind numbing sometimes or really activating sometimes like, yeah. What would you say to parents who are like getting stuck on the things and not feeling good about it?

Lizzie (00:44:52):

I mean, I can tell you, like I personally have struggled with perfectionism so much in my life. I think it’s like ingrained in who I am. And for me, like I’ve done so much work on myself to let go of it. And in a lot of ways, also, even in my own parenting, because, you know, I came to this with a master’s in early childhood education and classroom experience. And you know, I thought, I remember being so humbled by my oldest being born because I thought like he was gonna come out and I was just gonna like magically be this amazing mom, because this was the thing I’d been waiting for my whole life. And I studied child development and like he came out and I was a like (gasp) you know, like what, like, I dunno what, I dunno what’s happening. And so, you know, that was really humbling for me, but I feel like it was a really good way to answer parenting because I realized like perfectionist parenting doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. And so I just think, I feel every time I see, you know, a parent who on the internet, or I guess in real life who feels like, you know, their kid is starting to have a tantrum in a restaurant and they’re like, honey, honey, we don’t, you know, and they’re looking around, like to see how the other parents are judging them. Like, I just wanna like go over and hold, like hug them and be like, it’s okay for you to say, like to set a hard limit here. Like this behavior is not acceptable. No one, everyone else here is gonna be relieved. If you do that, like let’s lower the bar. And you know, the more we lower the bar for ourselves, I think the more authentic our parenting becomes. And then it’s like, it’s real. You’re like having a real relationship with your real kids. And you’re also, you know, for me, when I find myself falling into that trap, I just remember, like, I don’t want my kids to struggle with perfectionism. And so like, I need to model the messy moments. Like, you know, the ones where like, if you have a tantrum on the street and again, this is like a really privileged place to be. That’s a whole other thing. But like, if you’re gonna have a tantrum on the street, you’re gonna have a tantrum on the street. And like, people are gonna see and that’s okay. Cuz like people have tantrums like, or like if you’re gonna cry in the mall because you have raging hormones, like you’re gonna cry in the mall. Like people cry and they cry in the mall and like, that’s okay. You know?

Dr. Sarah (00:47:26):

And I’m not gonna like dance around and try to turn it off for you because I’m terrified of your feelings. I’m not going to get mad at you and tell you to, you know, shut it down because it’s not appropriate behavior. Like it’s about holding space in that middle of like, this is happening and I’m here. I’m not gonna change my mind that maybe is what’s puts you in this state of distress. I’m upset, but I can empathize with it. And I’m not gonna tell you to turn it off.

Lizzie (00:47:52):

Right.

Dr. Sarah (00:47:52):

But here we are.

Lizzie (00:47:54):

Right, right. Because I think, I mean, I know that a lot of parents just feel that pressure to just not live out loud, you know, like to let their kids like to parent out loud, you know, they wait until they’ve left the playground and they’re in the closed car and then they explode and like that’s way worse than, you know, dealing with a meltdown in public or even, gosh, you know, forbid that you yell at your child in public, you know, that’s more real and I think less scary for kids than being one way in front of people. And then another way behind closed doors. That I think is what’s scary about this perfectionist parenting movement.

Dr. Sarah (00:48:43):

Right. And I think how we yell at our kids has a different flavor. Right?

Lizzie (00:48:47):

Completely!

Dr. Sarah (00:48:47):

If you are yelling at your kids because you being authentically frustrated and you’ve lost your cool, and then it just happens cuz we’re real human beings with real feelings. And we have a relationship in our family where we have real feelings and we know this is part of our relationship in our life cuz we always own it. Versus I’m holding this in. I’m holding this in. I’m giving you a look, I’m grating my teeth. I’m not saying what I wanna be. So because I think that I can’t, I’m trying to get you to not have the tantrum. I’m trying, trying, trying. And then I like unleashed this fury because I’m so pent up. Then that’s where like scary mom comes out and that’s different. Very different than, oh I’m so, I’m really getting frustrated right now. You know what? I need to take a minute. I’m gonna take a breath. I’m gonna walk away. Hold on. I’ll be back.

Lizzie (00:49:40):

Yeah. Big difference between that and like going off the rails and like, right. But I think when you don’t have the first one of being able to say, I’m really like, I will often say and did, even as my kids were little, like, do I sound annoyed right now? Because I am, you know. Or like, does my face start look like it’s starting to feel angry? That’s because I’m starting to feel angry. You know, instead of holding that in and then all a sudden, your like this different person, like that’s not that’s you know, so…

Dr. Sarah (00:50:14):

Right. Yes. I think parents are sort of caught sometimes in between these extremes. Like on the one hand we believe we’re supposed to be this gentle, patient, ever loving, ever calm sort of stoic parent that’s always co-regulating with our child. And like right. Sure. Okay. That’s we do wanna co-regulate with our kids. We do wanna stay regulated. That’s the goal, but not in spite of our own feelings. Like we don’t wanna push our feelings down in the service of co-regulation. We wanna be mindful of our kid’s dysregulation and their nervous system so that we can help them stay. You know, we can share our calm, but if we’re not calm, we also can recognize that we’re not calm. It’s then I think the repression and suppression of that, that leads to this like kind of unpredictable, explosive parent syndrome that it’s not helpful either.

Lizzie (00:51:05):

And I think like, you know, to add to that also is like, I think people, you know, there’s this, this notion of like permissive parenting where you’re like, my kids are running around, but I read on Instagram that you’re supposed to let your kids move and you’re supposed to like, you know, and, but really like it’s striving you crazy. Like I, a hundred percent will recommend like it is so, okay. They’d be like, Hey guys, knock it off. If you wanna run like that, go outside or go in the basement and do it on a mattress. But in here is not gonna work for me because I really think like, you know, saying like also like you’re a grownup, it’s your house it’s, you know, like you need to feel good in it.

Dr. Sarah (00:51:46):

Yes. Yes. And I think this is one of the tricky things about the social media world and the Instagram world is like, you see all these like sort of scripts or these sort of like ideals and like, okay. Yes, sure. Maybe those are helpful. Or even ideals to aspire to, but they have to be in a context, right? Like I might have the goal of saying very calmly to my child, Hey, you know what? I don’t want you to do this because it’s gonna, you know, because of this. But if I’m not feeling calm in the moment and I just need to communicate to my child, we are not running in the house. It’s not safe. I’m not gonna let you do that. You can be firm and warm at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive. Yes. And I think parents sometimes are like, there’s so many “rules” that parents think they’re supposed to follow to like optimize child development. But it’s like, but only in the context that you are the authority and you are setting the boundary and this is the boundary you’ve chosen and you can stand by it in the face of your child’s protest, disappointment, distress, like it’s okay.

Lizzie (00:52:54):

And that is to me, like if I could have one thing, if people followed me and they only learned one thing for me, it would be that like setting those limits is the most loving thing you can do. Not only for your kids, but for yourself and like your whole family structure, your whole family unit, you know, having those boundaries and limits in place will only serve to make everyone feel safe and loved.

Dr. Sarah (00:53:21):

Yes. Perfect. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Lizzie (00:53:26):

Yeah.

Dr. Sarah (00:53:27):

So if people are like, yes to all of this, like how can they learn more about the work that you’re doing? How can they like get interested in all this open ended play and this anti perfectionist parenting gems that you share?

Lizzie (00:53:41):

Sure. so I’m always on Instagram @theworkspaceforchildren. And then on my website is where you can find blog posts. So if you like what you see on Instagram or you like, you know what you heard here, you can always go over to the blog and just read more about it. And I also offer online courses. And if you’re not sure if those are for you, I also have some digital resource, just if you wanna dip your toe in.

Dr. Sarah (00:54:07):

Yeah. You just released a Big Kid Play Plan, which I’m like, yes. So I don’t have big kids, but I work with so many parents who do, and I’m going to be recommending it because I actually, this is a total side note that has very nothing to do with like, you know, what you’re promoting, but I think it’s actually very aligned, which is that I actually, and I’m curious what you think about this too. I find I work with a lot of teens and parents of like slightly older kids and I’m like feeling like there’s a big correlation in the work that I do with kids who are depressed specifically depressed, but also depressed and anxious and having difficulty with peers and social stuff that there’s usually a lack of play in their life. Like I can usually trace that back that there is that I, I do believe as a psychologist that play and having play be important in a child’s life kind of from the beginning. But it, like you said, no time is too late, but like just talking to a mom today about her 18 year old son who I have been seeing since he was 16. And I was like, I’m concerned at the degree to which he’s not playing as much as I would like to see him play. And play at 18 doesn’t look like play at seven? It might look like sports or art or building something, you know, but I wanna see that in kids because I think it is very much a predictor of mental health and sort of resilience and emotional wellness in life. And so I think the fact that you have something like a Big Kid Play Plan, or that, you know, these really interesting prompts for getting older kids to feel kind of maybe reconnect with play in their lives in a way that’s like age appropriate and motivating for them. And like aligned with their age.

Lizzie (00:55:48):

Yes, cause I think, around like six or seven kids are like, they outgrow their toys. They’re suddenly like super over scheduled and they kind of lose touch with like what to do when you have downtime, you know, that’s not scrolling or, you know, whatever it is. And so that was really like the motivation for that. And like, to me play, especially in early childhood is like meditation for kids. I mean, it is when they’re most in touch with who they are, like their most inner thoughts come out their most important inner world. Right. And so if we can just continue that through, you know, to be grownups, you know, that’s everything.

Dr. Sarah (00:56:30):

Right. I mean, my, even my adult patients, I’m like, well, let’s do a little audit. Where do you play? What is a playful outlet in your life? And most of the people I’m working with don’t have them. Yeah. And that’s one of the first things that we address, because I think that healthy people play throughout their whole life. And it’s actually incredibly important and we should be putting as much emphasis on our children’s play and the space and time we dedicate for their play and the priorities and importance we put on that just as, as we put on like piano or language or sports or, you know, all these extracurriculars, they’re good and they’re important and I’m all in favor of them, but I don’t think that they should be, that play should be just as important and time for play should be just as important and scheduled in, in the same way that you make space for swim lessons or tutoring.

Lizzie (00:57:24):

Yes. And, you know, I speak from experience with now having older kids. Is that there is so much pressure to not have an empty day in their schedule and to not, you know, and when I say to like my friends, oh no, you know, no, like why can’t so and so play on Wednesday. And I’m like, cuz we’ve been really busy and that’s the day like everyone’s coming home after school and just like hanging out just our family, you know? Like they’re like what? You know, and again, I’m in a really privileged position to do that. I work for myself. My husband works for home. Not everyone can do that. But carving out that space and I mean, even though if you all, you know, you both work or whatever, it’s like saying for one hour on Tuesday night, you know, we’re all gonna play a board game or do whatever it is. Like it doesn’t have to be a whole afternoon.

Dr. Sarah (00:58:12):

It’s not always about adding things in. It’s about not saying yes to everything else. And saying like, we’re not gonna have five play dates this week. We’re gonna have one play date this week. And then maybe three afternoons where we do something at home, just us. And that that’s, I think it’s also about not just what are we giving our kids, but what are we saying no to, and like being okay with that.

Lizzie (00:58:34):

Yes. And like just carving that time to decompress, to like get like away from simulation. Especially now, I just feel like everyone’s online all the time for school, for work, for everything, you know, like making sure that there’s that carved out time of like not sensory overload, the opposite of sensory overload. What is that play? Yeah.

Dr. Sarah (00:58:56):

Yes. Exactly. You know, open ended, process based play would be the opposite of sensory overload. And I think that we need more of that and grownups too. It’s okay for you to sit there and play with your kids too. And not because you’re doing something that you don’t wanna do, but like a lot of times I’ll just be like, do my own. I’ll just start building some magnatiles. I love magnatiles I discovered. I’m like obsessed with, I’ll bring ’em on trips and I’ll be like, I’m playing with magnet tiles right now because it’s just relaxing for me. It’s like doodling or something. It’s, that’s my play. I like it. It relaxes me. And and then I’m not telling my kids how to play. I’m just doing my own thing. But anyway, I think that you’re, the play plans are awesome that you do. And I think that people will find a lot of value in that. And thank you. Thank you so much for being here. And yes, I appreciate it very much.

Lizzie (00:59:45):

That was a great conversation. Thank you for having me.

Dr. Sarah (00:59:53):There is so much incredible learning that can be done through play. This is when children’s frontal lobes are online and they’re capable of reasoning, problem solving and acquiring new information. And that’s exactly why I’ve created a guide that teaches you how to incorporate emotion regulation building games into your child’s play, all while their brain is the most receptive to forming neural pathways that’s gonna help this knowledge actually stick. In my free guide, Reduced Tantrums Before They Even Begin, I equip you with an understanding of what happens in your child’s brain and body when they have a tantrum. So you’re able to most effectively help them. And I give you five fun and simple games that strengthen their emotion regulation ability so they can eventually prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place. Go to drsarahbren.com/resources to download this free guide. That’s drsarahbren.com/resources. Until next week, don’t be a stranger.


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44. Fostering independent play and a love of learning with Lizzie Assa

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