The “Good Inside” Parenting Toolkit: 5 Essential Tools for Parents

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When should you employ validation with your child? Do you take time for silliness in your family? Why does your child need boundaries?

Dr. Becky Kennedy’s book Good Inside is a parenting manual to help you make changes in your child’s behavior while building a positive relationship. Her approach stems from the principle that you and your child are good people at your core—you’re “good inside”even when you’re struggling. She shares tools to help you implement this principle.

Continue reading for five “Good Inside” parenting tools and one bonus strategy.

Kennedy’s Essential Toolkit

To help you infuse her insights from theory into day-to-day parenting, Kennedy provides some essential parenting tools: boundaries, validation, empathy, connection, playfulness, and confidence building. These “Good Inside” parenting tools are foundational to Kennedy’s concrete strategies. Here, we’ll describe them, explain why they’re important, and give examples of how to use them.

Tool #1: Connection

Kennedy’s foundational tool is to take time to connect with your child when you’re both calm (not in the middle of a meltdown). Nurturing your connection with your child is important because when your child is behaving in a way you don’t like, it often stems from your child not feeling connected to you or from your child struggling with a feeling without an adult’s support.

Building connection makes it possible to:

  • Change behavior. Kids who feel connected to their caregivers feel good about themselves because they feel loved, safe, and confident. Those positive feelings make it easier for them to engage in the behaviors you want them to show.
  • Generate goodwill. This will help your child be willing to comply with your rules and boundaries in the future.

(Shortform note: Other parenting experts offer a brain-based explanation for the importance of connection when you’re trying to shape your child’s behavior. In No-Drama Discipline, Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson argue that connection sets the stage for kids to listen and learn. When kids feel strong emotions like anger or frustration, they lose access to complex brain skills like emotional regulation and the ability to process new information. Empathic connection helps children calm down enough that they can access skills like logic, empathy, and problem-solving.)

Tool #2: Boundaries

When a child is experiencing stronger emotions than they’re able to control, it results in dysregulated behavior—challenging behavior resulting from a kid losing control of their emotional responses. This is developmentally normal. Children’s brains are more developed in their sensing than their regulating. For example, if your child is feeling antsy during lunchtime, she might run around and scream even though it’s not the right time or place to do so and despite the fact that running while eating is a choking hazard. Although children will eventually learn to close the gap between what they can feel and what they can regulate, they still need their caregivers to step in to keep them and others safe.

The way you keep everyone safe is by enforcing boundaries, which involves taking action when a child crosses a line instead of just asking them to stop. For example, the boundary you set might be “If you start running around, lunchtime is over. I will put the food away and you’ll have to wait until the next snack time to eat.” 

Asking your child to stop running makes them responsible for regulating themselves when they’re unable. Not only is this not going to make your child stop (because they can’t), it will make them feel like you’ve also lost control of the situation and that you’re unable to keep them safe from themselves. If they continue running around, you must take the action you announced, enforcing the boundary and keeping your child and everyone around them safe.

Effective Boundaries Start From Realistic Expectations

In No-Drama Discipline, parenting experts Siegel and Bryson explain that although boundaries are important, parents also need to keep brain development in mind when they set boundaries for their children.

According to Siegel and Bryson, different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions, and they develop at different times. The lower part of the brain controls basic functions, like breathing, hunger, and strong primary emotions such as fear. This part of the brain is fully developed even in young children. In contrast, the upper part of the brain controls more complex functions like empathy, impulse control, emotional regulation, and critical thinking. Unlike the lower part of the brain, the upper part is not fully developed in children; in fact, the upper brain doesn’t completely mature until around age 25.

According to Siegel and Bryson, the fact that kids’ upper brains aren’t developed yet means they’re not yet capable of higher-level executive functions. For example, a four-year-old genuinely isn’t capable of sitting quietly in church for an hour without something to distract her—she hasn’t developed impulse control (an upper brain function) yet, which means her brain hasn’t yet learned to control her urges to talk, play, and move around. Her parents should set boundaries for her, like not letting her yell in church, but also should have realistic expectations about how long she will stay within those boundaries.

Tool #3: Validation and Empathy

Validation and empathy provide a foundation from which to build your child’s emotional self-regulation. Validation means confirming that what your child is feeling is real, which helps them regulate their emotions because they receive confirmation that their experiences are legitimate even if they’re difficult. Empathy means trying to understand your child’s feelings and making space for them to experience and express those feelings. This lets your child know that they’re not alone in their feelings. 

For example, you can tell your child, “You have a lot of energy right now, and you’re feeling antsy. You’d rather run around than sit at the table, but we need to be safe while we’re eating. I felt antsy this morning at work. I had to sit at my computer but what I really wanted to do was go for a walk outside.” And when your child gets upset because you ended lunchtime, you can say, “You’re allowed to feel upset. You wish you could run around and still get to eat—I understand that. I won’t let you run around while you’re eating, but you’re allowed not to like it.” 

Validating and empathizing with your child’s experiences means you can see and hear their emotions and perspectives without trying to convince them to change how they feel or think. But it doesn’t mean you relinquish your authority. Kennedy is adamant that both realities can coexist: your perspective and your child’s. You can enforce boundaries you know are necessary to keep your child safe, and your child can be allowed to feel frustrated by them.

Emotional Intelligence Is Learned at Home

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains that family is the first place we learn about emotions and how to handle them, but some parenting styles harm children’s emotional development. Parents who ignore their children’s feelings instead of validating them, or who treat their emotions with contempt instead of empathy, lead children to believe emotions are inconveniences. On the other hand, parents who are too accepting acknowledge their children’s emotions but don’t teach them acceptable and healthy ways to deal with them. They relinquish their authority and let their children’s emotions take over situations, which denies kids the opportunity to learn healthy self-regulation.

Similar to Kennedy’s emphasis on validation and empathy, Goleman argues that parents who address emotions healthily:
• Take their kid’s feelings seriously and try to understand them
• View emotional moments as opportunities to coach their kids through what to do
• Offer up positive ways to deal with emotional reactions
• Practice these three steps in relation to their own emotional moments as well

Tool #4: Playfulness

Kennedy encourages the use of play and silliness to help your child feel safe. Being playful and making her laugh lets her know that she’s safe and she can be herself around you.

(Shortform note: The authors of The Whole-Brain Child offer tips to tailor your use of playfulness to your child’s age and developmental maturity. For example, with a very young child (ages 0-3), you might join her on the ground to play with her toys, whereas, with an older child (ages 9-12), you might invite her to join you in activities such as sports or cooking.)

Tool #5: Confidence-Building

Kennedy disagrees with the common idea that confidence—in kids and adults—is all about feeling positive about yourself. Instead, she argues that confidence is being sure about who you are even when big emotions are taking place, knowing what you feel, and trusting yourself to know what feels good and what doesn’t. The opposite of self-confidence is self-doubt, and it’s the result of having your feelings invalidated so often that you can no longer be sure that what you’re feeling is real. You can build your child’s confidence by helping her learn to tune into and trust herself, her feelings, and her capacity to deal with them. 

(Shortform note: Kennedy’s understanding of confidence as certainty about who you are and what you feel is different from traditional views of confidence which are more focused on action and accomplishment. For example, in The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue that confidence is believing so strongly that you can do something that you’re driven to actually do it. The belief stems from mastery—you know you can do something because you’ve worked hard and pushed through past difficulties and failures.)

Bonus Tool: Repair

Parenting is challenging, so, even when you know all of these tools, you’ll still make mistakes like yelling instead of projecting calm when your child is dysregulated. But, if you make an effort to repair your mistakes with your child afterward, then the memory ingrained in your child’s brain will be one of learning, growth, and connection—not of feeling alone or feeling like a bad kid. Making a habit of repairing not only gives a better ending to an unpleasant story, but it also teaches your child that, when someone makes a mistake, it’s possible and necessary to make amends.

To repair after a moment of dysregulation on your part, follow these steps:

  1. Regulate your own emotions.
  2. Reflect on what happened, remembering what your role is as a parent and what your child’s role is. Avoid falling for the idea that your child made you react in a certain way.
  3. Apologize.
  4. Share your reflections with them, retelling what happened so they know that it really happened (this keeps them from developing self-doubt) and explaining what you’ll do differently next time.
How to Regulate Your Emotions as a Parent

The first step of successful repair is to regulate your emotions—and it’s also the number one strategy to keep yourself from having to repair in the first place. By regulating your emotions during challenging moments, you minimize the odds that you’ll do or say something you’ll regret when dealing with your child. Likewise, when you do make a mistake, regulating your emotions before you reflect on your actions or offer an apology might help you avoid shifting blame onto your child, which will likely negate your attempt at repair.

The authors of The Whole-Brain Child share tips to deal with the feelings of frustration and anger that are normal parts of parenting: Check in with yourself. What sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts are you experiencing? Focus on your breathing and ask yourself these questions to distance yourself from the emotion and see the bigger picture:

• What is one thing your child did recently that made you smile or laugh?
• Can you imagine what your child will look like when she’s older?
• Despite the challenges, how do you feel about being a parent? 

Your answers to these questions can arguably be part of your reflection with your child, as well—sharing your reflections may help them see the big picture, too.
The “Good Inside” Parenting Toolkit: 5 Essential Tools for Parents

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Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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