Sam Gardner Of Happypillar On How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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Echo back what your child says to you. We don’t do this often enough, and it builds up children’s self esteem to hear their words spoken back. It also pauses your own response, for a moment, before potentially building on the conversation or redirecting it, so the child can really bask in that small moment of feeling noticed.

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 Sam Gardner.

Sam Gardner is the CEO and co-founder of Happypillar, a digital therapeutic app bringing evidence-based behavioral intervention to families everywhere. When your kid has tantrums, everyone is miserable. Happypillar ends tantrums and reduces parent stress. They leverage machine learning and licensed clinical play therapists to provide parent coaching and real-time personalized feedback. When she’s not obsessively working at Happypillar, she’s hanging with her partner and their kids (ages 5 and 2), reading fiction, binging TV shows, or biking around Austin, TX.

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’ve worked in tech for over 10 years, but first and foremost, I’m a parent. Watching my own children grow up and figuring out how to best support them was definitely how I got interested in the ideas around raising well adjusted kids, supporting parents, and looking at what kinds of tools and resources would help bridge the gap for parents who want to make changes but need help. The pandemic definitely highlighted these gaps for me, both with what I saw in my own life and what I heard about from others.

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

In my personal life, I was feeling constant guilt, worry, and exhaustion about my older child. It started around when he turned 4– we were always fighting. Everything I needed from him, like to get dressed or go to bed, became negotiating and begging and pleading and eventually crying. I was yelling at him all the time. He was yelling back. He had constant temper tantrums about everything, big and small. I was losing patience with him and was increasingly unable to implement all the beautiful gentle parenting techniques I’d committed to memory from various books and Instagram influencers. It felt like we were so beyond gentle parenting.

At the end of the day, once I’d finally gotten him to sleep, I’d go down to my room and cry, because I knew there was a sweet kid up there that I hadn’t seen in weeks, and all I did was yell at him. I felt so guilty.

I saw a family therapist, and was taught about behavioral intervention, and the kind of regular therapeutic practices that would help me and my son. So we did them every day, with weekly feedback from the therapist, and it was like magic. Our relationship improved, his responses to my requests went from negotiating and arguing to a happy “ok, mom!”, we felt like we were internally unblocked and could discuss our real feelings with each other, parent and child, and get past the tantrums and the screaming fights. It was a kind of magic balm for his behavior too.

I had noticed that the intervention lent itself really well to natural language processing, a type of AI that I was familiar with thanks to my work in tech. I approached my friend, Mady Mantha, a highly respected machine learning leader and one of the top minds in NLP, and explained the technique and how it helped me. She had experienced similar parenting challenges in her own life and could immediately see how we could use technology to bring this type of intervention to struggling parents. So together, and with the help of some amazing clinical therapists, we refocused our careers on delivering Happypillar to families everywhere.

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?

I can just see it in my own relationship with my kids. I want to be the kind of parent my kids can come to for anything. When they’re this little, I want them to be able to tell me the deep inner feelings, for example that they’re afraid of going to school today, instead of throwing a tantrum about putting on a jacket. I want to be able to hold space for their real feelings, and help them process their emotions, rather than catering to explosive outbursts about things that seem unrelated.

As they grow up, I also want them to trust me as someone to try things out with. To be able to ask me strange questions and not fear judgment. To be able to call me whenever they need me.

If I’m not connected to my kids, in the deep way I want to be, I wouldn’t expect them to be able to consider me a confidant. I brought them into this world, and for as long as I can I want to be their guide in it, until they’re ready to explore on their own. After that, I hope our connection keeps us close emotionally forever. I love them so much and I always want to be close.

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

I think parents who can’t connect to their children or children who can’t connect to their parents are going to have a much harder time going through childhood and adolescence together. No part of parenting is easy, and many aspects of childhood are challenging for the child, so if the parent-child connection is weak, both parties are left without support. The connection and the love between parents and kids really serves to support both parties.

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

Definitely not. In fact, I think this generation of parents is at a huge advantage for connection. We have so many more resources made available to us, often through technology, to help develop and forge those connections. We have access to education on social media, to online villages of other parents for support, and to technological resources designed for mental health support. So the children of this generation are absolutely not less likely to feel loved or connected. I think they might feel it more.

What I do think is that this generation, both of parents and children, has been dealt a really tough hand. Parenting was completely uprooted by the pandemic, and so many support channels for parents were all but eliminated, leaving parents at their very worst when trying to show up for their kids. From a child’s perspective, our world has gotten significantly more dangerous, and something that children need for stability, routine, has been blown away by the dangers mentioned, from gun violence to epidemic illness.

But love and connection won’t suffer–parents will always love their kids, and kids will love their parents. We just need to find new ways to support these connections.

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. Echo back what your child says to you. We don’t do this often enough, and it builds up children’s self esteem to hear their words spoken back. It also pauses your own response, for a moment, before potentially building on the conversation or redirecting it, so the child can really bask in that small moment of feeling noticed.
  2. Sit down and play with your child for 5 minutes. Studies have shown that this kind of focused time and energy can serve to decrease stress levels not only for you as the parent, or even for the child, but for the entire family. You can use a tool like Happypillar to do this effectively, or you can just set a timer on your watch. But give your family the gift of those 5 minutes.
  3. Ask your child specific questions. I always assumed that asking something open ended, like “What did you do today?”, was the kindest and fairest way to start a conversation with my child about their day. I figured it gave them carte blanche to discuss whatever they needed, and I hoped they’d feel I was an open channel for them to to tell anything to. What I’ve learned is our best conversations often come after I’ve asked questions that are specific and easy to answer. I often ask “Who did you sit with at lunch?” or “Did anyone ask you an important question today?”. The types of conversations we have after starting this way almost never have to do explicitly with their lunch mate, but the answers I get are far more interesting and fun than what I used to get with “How was your day?”, which was the requisite “Fine” (and no more.)
  4. Apologize. I mess up a lot. I yell and scream and say things I wish I hadn’t. I still do it all the time and I wish I didn’t. But I make sure to always apologize. For losing my temper or saying something cruel, or even for a general bad mood. I try not to dismiss the apology with something like “Sorry but you were ____.” I own up to my bad moments, and remind them I still love them and I’m still their mom. I hope this teaches them that they, too, can mess up and get forgiveness. And I hope it shows them that my daily actions are just that: a mistake today, and I’ll try to do better tomorrow.
  5. Forgive yourself. The pain and guilt of feeling like you’re a bad parent doesn’t help your child, and doesn’t help you. Forgiving yourself so you can try again opens up pathways for you to connect with your child, and helps both of you understand the humanity of a parent.

I talk about these 5 steps I take in my video, here.

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

So many of my friends are my models for “good parents.” One friend has taught me to listen deeply to my children and hold space for their fears or discomforts, no matter how small. She is a good parent. Another friend has shown me the beauty and strength of parenting through grief. She is a good parent. Yet another friend is raising his child to be both strong and soft. He is a good parent.

I define a good parent as a parent with intention, who asks for forgiveness when they need to, and does their best. There are so many good parents in this world. I’m applauding all of you.

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

It always makes me chuckle when my kids think I have skills far outside the realm of possibility. For example, I was asked recently if I could make our herb garden grow faster. I love that my child thought I might have that ability, because they see me as someone who can provide so much to them. When I’m bringing them down to earth and helping them understand what I, a mere human, can and can’t do, I make sure to remind them of all the amazing things human beings can do. And I remind them that they, too, are capable of these amazing things. So maybe we can’t make an herb garden grow faster, but we can learn about plants, and we can water the ones we have, and we can start our own herb garden, or even one day a community garden, or pursue an education in horticulture. There are so many ways to dream big. I just keep reminding them (and myself!) to keep trying and never give up!

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

Any parent reading this is probably thinking that they’re not succeeding at raising children. I spent so much time thinking about how I was failing at it. I still sometimes come back to those thoughts. But I think that if we’re aware, if we’re paying attention, if we’re looking at what we have to work on and trying, every day, to be the kind of parents we want to be, then that is succeeding. We’re not going to knock it out of the park every day. We may be in a particular age or season that’s extra hard for us. But if we’re trying, consciously trying, to raise our children well and give them everything we can, then we are succeeding at raising children. And for those out there thinking they’re not, I see you–you’re much better than you think.

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?

I love the idea of watching media together, since it often can serve as a crutch when we all need a distraction. I don’t have the capacity to limit media in my life or for my kids, so I make sure I’m an equal participant. As far as social media, my own children are small, but I intend to be really transparent about what social media is and can be, and to stay aware of the really awesome self-expression benefits of our online communities. I have received so much benefit from my own digital literacy and my own experience with computers early in my life, and I don’t want to take that away from my kids. So being as transparent as I can about what’s out there, what’s technically possible, what’s safe, what isn’t, is what I want to do. I also want to keep building these strong connections so I can encourage my children to be as transparent and open with me as they feel they can, in the hope of keeping them as safe as possible while also allowing them to explore the way they need to to grow and learn about themselves and how they fit into the world. We’re raising digital natives, so fearing their digital involvement seems like a counterproductive step to me.

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

There are so many wonderful books, newsletters and podcasts out there. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Becky, for her strategies and her reminders that our children are “Good Inside.” I love Emily Oster’s books and newsletter; she’s taught me how to look at data critically to make my own informed decisions about how I want to parent. I also love Daniel Siegel’s books, “The Whole Brain Child” and “Parenting from the Inside Out.” His approach as a psychiatrist is enlightening and extremely thorough.

However, I didn’t see any active intervention tools I could use with my young kids, with real therapeutic exercises and feedback. We created Happypillar to fill that need. I can’t wait to see more effective and personalized resources pop up in the future!

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

I’m a big fan of the Albert Einstein quote, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” I feel like this both in my professional life and as a parent. I’m not the best parent out there, I certainly don’t have any special parenting skills, but I’m curious: about my kids and their needs, about cycle breaking, about strategies and techniques, about my own issues, about everything. At work, I’ve always felt like diminishing your ego and leaning on curiosity will bring you the most success. Both of those things are really hard, particularly for me. But whenever I’m able to put curiosity first, I learn and accomplish so much more than I ever thought possible.

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 love to inspire the 5 minute movement: inspiring people to spend 5 focused, mindful and meaningful moments with someone else in their life, every day. We don’t have time for a lot, but if the world committed to this kind of connection and focus, with our friends, partners, children, colleagues, and more, we would start to repair some of the emotional erosion the last few years have had on us all. So if you’re reading this, give someone in your life 5 focused minutes today, and see what comes of it!

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!

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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