Betsy Brown Braun has become known as a parenting guru to the Hollywood elite and beyond. In fact, this child development specialist and mother of 30-year-old triplets earned her credibility serving as site director of Stephen S. Wise Temple’s preschool and founding director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s early childhood center, as well as teaching her own parenting classes. On Nov. 16, she’ll discuss her new how-to tome, “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents” (HarperCollins, $15.95), on “The Today Show” at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Library.
Jewish Journal: U.S. News & World Report dubbed your book a ‘handy parent cheat sheet ... when the kids whine, say this. When they throw food, say that.’ How did you come up with the premise?
Betsy Brown Braun: I’d met so many parents who are talented career people, but can be humbled to their knees by a 4-year-old. They’d say, ‘Betsy, what do I say? What do I do? Help!’—so I offer actual scripts that can be a starting point for parents.
JJ: One of your suggestions for dealing with a child who won’t come to the dinner table is to tell him that unless he comes ‘right now,’ he won’t be having dinner—ouch! That won’t go over well with my relatives who are children of Holocaust survivors.
BBB: That’s why I offer several approaches to the same behavior. Your choice may be to say, ‘If you don’t come to the table immediately, you’re going to be eating alone in the kitchen, or eating later, away from the family.’
JJ: Food can be a very loaded issue for parents. That’s like the definition of the Jewish mother.
BBB: I think the Jewish mother thing is a stereotype, but parents do freak out about picky eaters—and it’s no coincidence that picky eating often comes at the age when children are learning to assert themselves. It’s, ‘I’m not going to eat even that delicious chocolate éclair because it feels much better to say, “No.”’ The best thing to get a child to eat is to stop talking about it. Sit down at the table and talk about squirrels, because when it crosses the line to a control issue, you’re going to have trouble.
JJ: What differences do you see in ways parents raise their kids now as opposed to when you were raising your triplets?
BBB: I see people tackling parenting in the same way that they would a career—they read every book and end up micromanaging everything. You would plotz—parents come to me and say, ‘Just tell me what’s the best nursery school that will get him into the best elementary school that will get him into the best college’—and the rest is obvious.
JJ: But if you’re not doing those kinds of things, you can feel like you’re a not-good-enough mommy.
BBB: Parents need to develop what I call a ‘Teflon coating,’ meaning: don’t absorb what your friends are doing. Just because your friend is putting her 18-month-old in a soccer skills class doesn’t mean it’s right for you. How about just playing in the dirt or throwing rocks?
Then there is the danger of giving your child too much.
I teach a class called ‘Affluenza: The Perils of Overprivilege,’ which I’ve changed to ‘Gimme, Gimme Gimme’ in light of the economic downturn—but it’s not so much about ‘stuff’ as about how we interact with our kids. Parents need to build lessons that help children learn how to tolerate frustration, disappointment and to delay gratification, and in doing so, cultivate gratitude and the importance of longing.
JJ: What’s one key thing you recommend for dealing with difficult issues, such as death and divorce?
BBB: Forget euphemisms. I think parents don’t keep in mind that children take things very literally, so when you say Grandpa’s in a better place, they’re like, ‘Well, where? I wanna go see him,’ and ‘why did he leave me to go there?’
JJ: When a client is powerful in Hollywood, is it a role reversal for you to be telling them what to do?
BBB: I’m careful. I don’t say, ‘You’ve got to do this. I say, ‘I think such-and-such will really help.’ For example, the head of a major agency once came to me because one of his children was having separation issues. I knew that a breakthrough was going to come when the dad drove the child to school, because kids have a harder time separating sometimes from mommy than from daddy. So I said, ‘You have to drive your son to school every day for three weeks, and he said, ‘I can’t do that!’ And I said, ‘Here’s the deal. You can do this or that, but this is liable to work and that isn’t.’ So he drove the kid.