Cynthia Muchnick of The Parent Compass On How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine
Published in
15 min readJan 2


I like to echo success as the model of Challenge Success: Don’t measure success based on grades, test scores and outcomes. Redefine success as a child who can self -advocate, feels seen, understood, and appreciated, gets enough sleep, and knows that their parent focuses on the journey and not the destination and praises effort over outcome.

Parenting is challenging. We all try so hard to give our all to our children. We desperately want them to feel loved and connected. But somehow there is often a disconnect. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or that we don’t seem to speak the same language as our children, or just all of the “disconnection” that our kids are dealing with in today’s frenetic world. What are steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? As a part of our series about “How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected” we had the pleasure to interview Cindy Muchnick.

Cindy C. Muchnick, MA, is a graduate of Stanford University and has been working in education for the past 25+ years as a former Assistant Director of College Admission, high school teacher, educational consultant, and author of six education-related books and four others. Her essays have appeared on Zibby Magazine, Your Teen Magazine, College Confidential, Raising Teens Today, The Los Angeles Times, and The Mom Experience, among others. She is also an experienced and always-learning mother of three sons and a daughter, ages 24 (a high school teacher/graduate student), 22 (in college), 18 (high school senior) and 16 (high school sophomore). Cindy is an active guest on the podcast circuit and speaks professionally to parent, student, teacher, and business groups on topics such as study skills, the adolescent journey, college admission, and now the parent compass movement.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know a bit about you. Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

I was born and raised on Northern California where I lived through college. I loved being a 5th generation San Franciscan. I then bounced around the country for 5 years (NY, IL, FL, Southern CA) and raised my family for 22 years in Orange County, CA. I relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area 5 years ago. I am a mother of 4 grown kids (ages 24, 22, 18 and 16).

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

My career began in college admissions at The University of Chicago and high school teaching while pursuing a masters degree in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I always loved working in education especially with teens. I started a private college counseling business in Southern California when my kids were toddlers which I ran for almost 15 years. I helped students navigate middle and high school culminating in the college admission process. Along the way I also wrote several books on study skills, time management, how to write a college essay, how to navigate college, and ultimately my tenth and most recent book I co-authored is a parenting book entitled The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World. (;

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you explain to us why it is so important to forge a strong connection with our children?

A wise psychologist once told me, “The only thing that remains when your teen leaves home is your relationship.” (Not the awards, the accolades, the successes and failures, but the relationship!) And that is worth building, protecting and focusing them most on in these important years while we raise our kids. If we trust our kids and invest in that relationship then our kids will be more self-reliant, learn to self-advocate more effectively, feel loved and supported and nurtured, and also feel less afraid to fail and make mistakes knowing that the relationship between the parent/child is intact and strong.

In my book The Parent Compass tools for parents are provided throughout to help them adopt better parenting behavior and learn to appropriately approach the type of parenting that leads to their children’s academic success and emotional well-being. The book addresses how to help kids develop resilience, grit, and intention, and it discusses failure, technology/screen time, the importance of family dinner, study skills, and much more.

What happens when children do not have that connection, or only have a weak connection?

When the connection is inauthentic or not focused on enough kids can become withdrawn, feel lonely, and fear failure or mistakes since they feel less seen and supported. The data and research proves that finding time to share family meals leads to less drug use, teen pregnancy, less depression and anxiety in teens etc.

Do you think children in this generation are less likely to feel loved and connected? Why do you feel the way you do?

I think that social media has posed great threats to the parent/child relationship and a dependence on technology as entertainment or a babysitter. I think an imbalanced amount of their connection seems to come from a virtual world which is why it is more important than ever that we teach them to put down devices to also have real face-to-face conversations and human connections. Take a walk, jog, swim, shower, hike, play a game, do a puzzle, meditate, bake, cook, create, breathe, watch a movie, play ping pong or corn hole, converse with others, etc.

We live in a world with incessant demands for our time and attention. There is so much distraction and disconnection. Can you share with our readers 5 steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

1) Appreciate the child you have in front of you, not the one you are trying to inauthentically create. Really SEE your child and what their interests, passions, and desires are and hook into them. Be interested in what interests THEM, and ask them about it. Let them be the expert and share their passions with you, even if they’re interested are very different from your own or not what you had envisioned for them. Lock into their interests — have them teach YOU what they love and enjoy (the stock market, sports, video games, whatever it is, let them share their passions with you and be interested in them!)

2) Ask better questions. “How was school today?” or “How was your day?” are not the best questions to ask our kids and we fall into those questions by default. The often yield short replies, eye rolls or generic responses. Instead, ask BETTER questions such as:

  • How did you help somebody today?
  • Can you tell me one thing you learned today?
  • When were you the happiest/bored today?
  • What would you change about school lunch?
  • What was one thing you read/learned at school today?
  • If today had a theme song, what would it be?
  • If you were a teacher what class would you teach?
  • If you were an inventor — what would you invent, and why?
  • Who in your class seems lonely?
  • What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our world today?
  • What do you struggle with on a day-to-day basis?
  • What have you always wanted to try?
  • If you had to live in another country for a year, where would that be?
  • If people were asked how you treat them, what do you think they’d say?

3) Be a better listener:

  • Practice good posture, leaning in while spoken to.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Use confirmation expressions, like “Mmm Hmmm,” while nodding your head in agreement to demonstrate that you are connecting. “Tell me more.”
  • Parrot back or paraphrase some of the things she is telling you. This will help your teen feel authentically heard.
  • Silence is okay. Sometimes a pause allows your teen to better formulate his thoughts and words. Don’t feel the urge to finish his sentences or choose his words for him.
  • Resist the urge to fix and problem solve. Sometimes all your teen needs is the space to talk to someone she trusts and de-escalate the situation. Often just speaking the words to someone with whom she feels safe is enough to diffuse and lighten her load. Just listen.
  • Pick a good time and location. Don’t be afraid to have chats while lying on your teen’s bed, enjoying a snack or meal with him in the kitchen, or hanging out on the family couch. My family has a puzzle table where in-progress puzzles are always on display. This location can facilitate some great conversations between you and your teen

4) Enjoy time together. Make memories. Build relationships through shared experiences. Make time for engaging family activities that all enjoy. Ask your kids for suggestions, too: puzzles, ping ping/corn hole games, family activity of painting a canvas or art at a ceramics studio, try escape rooms, pickle ball, watching shows/sports, family walks/hikes, movie nights with popcorn, camping (in the back yard or away), baking/cooking together, taking turns choosing the activities, etc.

5) Find time for family meals. Even if it’s just part of the family, one parent and one child. They can be breakfast lunch or dinner and maybe one group one on the weekends so you can connect and engage. Use Table Topics cards or Rose/Thorn as ice breakers to get everyone engaged. Try to limit tech use at the table. A family meal for me and my daughter has occurred even in the back seat of the car with take out food eaten between extracurricular activities! Find and make the time to share food and conversation together. Or bake and cook together, too!

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

Praise effort over outcome; take the long view; don’t obsess over college or career futures. During the course of the parenting journey, you will likely have to sacrifice or put aside parental dreams in place of understanding your child as an individual in his or her journey. It’s going to be hard. In today’s future-thinking landscape, with many parents exhibiting early anxiety and forcibly paving the way for their kids’ college careers, we have lost sight of the journey and instead focused too much on the destination. We implore parents to tweak their thinking in this way: rather than worrying about what their teen is not, instead celebrate the student that he is and accept that he will end up at a college and with a future that suits who he uniquely is.

Here is a story from our book about a student my co-author worked with:

Quinn’s experience allows us to witness good parenting at work. A water polo player for most of her life, Quinn and her family had always assumed that her athletic skill coupled with her stellar grades would make her admissible to some of the most highly selective schools in the country — and she nearly was. But as her junior year ended, Quinn did some deep soul searching. One particular day, she sat across my desk from me in tears. Quinn was inconsolable as she confessed to me that she wanted to quit water polo. As Quinn and I unpacked her thoughts, I learned of the incredible stress that had resulted from juggling her rigorous course load with her practices, tournaments, extra conditioning, and team commitments. While Quinn knew unequivocally that she no longer wanted to play water polo, no matter the impact it had on college admission, Quinn’s biggest concern was disappointing her coach, her teammates, and her parents. But she agreed to let her parents in on her plan during the coming week: she was going to quit. To her surprise, her parents had noticed the effect that water polo had on her mental health. While they, too, understood that this would impact her college admission process, they decided to focus instead on supporting their daughter and her wellbeing. Quinn’s parents saw how much their daughter had thought through this decision and recognized what a painful one it was to make. They heard her. Quinn, now in college, went on to attend what her parents describe as the “best possible school for her.” Quitting water polo meant uncovering new interests. Her parents use one happy word to describe her: “thriving.” (Reprinted from The Parent Compass.)

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

Supporting our kids interests, whatever they may be, makes them feel seen, heard, loved, and appreciated. For example, many of my students are interested in the arts. Whether playing a solo instrument or in a band or orchestra, participating in theater crew, tech, or as an actor, dancer, painter, photographer, sculptor, or singer (or any other form imaginable), supporting teens who have passions in the arts can be therapeutic, relaxing, and soothing, as they open up and exercise other parts of their brains in creative ways. Reading and writing music, interpreting dance moves, or blocking theater scenes can challenge a student’s critical thinking and analytical skills. Parents, whether you think the arts are a worthwhile way to spend time or not, if your teen derives pleasure pursuing any of the arts, your job in practicing good behavior is to encourage, facilitate, and share in their interest — even if it is just by asking questions, attending performances and presentations, or playing chauffeur. And another bonus to exercising the right brain is that it fosters the “skills that will help promote and create a smarter and more productive adult better suited for the future.

How would you define “success” when it comes to raising children?

I like to echo success as the model of Challenge Success: Don’t measure success based on grades, test scores and outcomes. Redefine success as a child who can self -advocate, feels seen, understood, and appreciated, gets enough sleep, and knows that their parent focuses on the journey and not the destination and praises effort over outcome.

I remind parents that their personal academic goals for their child should not be set in terms of her particular grades or GPA. Their child’s success should be determined by whether or not she works to her personal potential; it should be measured by the effort she puts in — whether or not she likes the subject or the — and in the curiosity she displays. Teens should find their own personal best and work up to that. And a parent’s job? Model grit, humor in the face of challenge, and resilience; encourage effort over outcome. And remember: a “B” for one student may be a great achievement, while a “B” for another might be evidence that she is not trying hard enough. Know your teen and support and encourage her to work at her personal best.

This is a huge topic in itself, but it would be worthwhile to touch upon it here. What are some ideal social media and digital habits that you think parents should teach to their children?

This is a HUGE topic and entire books are written on it. Here are some highlights from The Parent Compass that our book talks about in our technology chapter.

  • Consider creating a family tech contract and revisit and revise it often
  • Join the “Wait until 8th” movement and resist giving your child a smart phone until 8th grade.
  • Take tech “shabbats” (via Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6) or breaks from technology such as smaller tech days off or tech diets
  • Leave tech away from the dinner table (or have clear boundaries about tech at the table in your home)
  • Remove tech (ALL tech, Ipads, computers, phones and apple watches) from the bedroom at night and invest in an old school alarm clock to wake up your kids
  • Model good tech behavior as a parent — think before you post and ask permission from your kids to post things about your kids starting as soon as they can comprehend what that means.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?


  • The Parent Footprint with Dr. Dan Peters — interesting guests hosted by a well-respected and thorough psychologist professional
  • Connecting with Dr. Kim Swales — All theme relating to connecting better in all of our relationship
  • The Puberty Podcast (With Vanessa Bennett and Cara Natterson) — a mom and a pediatrician break down all of the nuts and bolts you need including the most embarrassing and sensitive topics to destigmatize all conversations around all things puberty.
  • Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, Dr. Lisa D’Amour provides timely topical advice with practical, tangible tips for parents of kids of all ages


  • Challenge Success (Organization), Denise Pope, PhD
  • Christine Carter — The Greater Good Science Center (UC Berkeley)
  • Wait Until 8th for all things cell phone
  • Common Sense Media Organization
  • @TalkWithZach Instagram and website destigmatizes all conversations around teen mental health run by teens for teens


  • Tina Payne Bryson The Whole Brain Child
  • Lisa D’Amour Untangled and Under Pressure,
  • Melinda Moyer How To Raise Kids who Aren’t A**holes
  • Carol Dweck Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
  • Angela Duckworth Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Adolescence is a period of rapid changes. Between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, a parent can age as much as twenty years.”

– quote on my refrigerator growing up, Anonymous

I never knew what it meant as a kid seeing it on my fridge every day, but when I became a parent of tweens and teens it started to make sense. We need to keep our sense of humor through parenting, find and build a village of like-minded parents, and love our kids fiercely but also give them the space to fail, make mistakes, self-advocate and become individuals who can live, survive and navigate in a world outside the walls of our homes.

I also love these two quotes: (also mentioned this in an above question)

A wise psychologist once told me, “The only thing that remains when your teen leaves home is your relationship.” (Not the awards, the accolades, the successes and failures, but the relationship!) And that is worth building, protecting and focusing them most on in these important years while we raise our kids.

And also our book quotes a mentor who says, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” If parents can repeat this mantra over and over and practice and believe it then we will also have better connection with our kids during the college application years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d try to inspire The Parent Compass Movement. Following a parent compass is a call to action for parents — to check themselves, to check their fellow parents, to take an honest look at why they behave the way they do when it comes to their child’s academics, and to make changes so that today’s tween and teen generation can learn grit and resilience and can contribute meaningfully in their gifted or even not-so-gifted areas. The goal of checking your compass is to help parents modify their behavior and, in turn, their mindset. It is an antidote to overparenting. It is to help one parent with intention. It is to hold parents accountable so that they do not fall prey to parenting peer pressure, college rankings, and media hype about colleges. I believe that kids respond best to parents who inherently trust them — in their day-to-day activities and also in their decision-making skills — and I extend that principle to what feels right for the college process.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!



Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.