Parenting on Empty: Advice from Author, Educator and Alumna Betsy Brown Braun

Knowing how to meet children’s needs can be challenging even on the best of days. Supporting children through a worldwide pandemic is humbling on a whole new scale. Enter Betsy Brown Braun (’60), child development and behavior specialist, whose reassuring and down-to-earth advice provides guidance for families in both ordinary and unprecedented times.

An experienced educator and mom of triplets (Jessica, Benjamin and Lucas are also UCLA Lab School alumni, class of 1990), Braun has shared her expertise in numerous publications, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report and Parenting, and on her popular parenting website and blog.

Braun spoke with UCLA Lab School families, teachers and staff during an evening devoted to “Parenting on Empty: Q&A with Betsy Brown Braun,” a virtual workshop hosted by the school’s Family School Alliance (FSA).

First thing to know? “There is no roadmap” for these times, said Braun. “This is hard as a parent. I want you to know it’s hard for your kids, too.”

The territory we’re in—parents, educators, children—is what Braun refers to as “lousy local conditions.” That’s where “the environment sabotages a child’s ability to be his or her best self,” she said.

Adults are also experiencing lousy local conditions, Braun noted. “It’s important to take care of yourself and do whatever brings you a degree of calm and peace, whether it’s 20 minutes of meditation, taking a walk, reading a trashy magazine. Take care of yourself so you can be a better parent.”

But what about an increase in children acting out? Isn’t it cause for alarm?

“You shouldn’t be surprised if you’re experiencing icky behavior,” Braun said. “From 4th grade down, children may be showing signs of regressive behavior, such as sleepless nights or even pants wetting. For middle schoolers it might be in the form of back talk or defiance. “It’s not that you’re being a terrible parent,” she noted. “Regressive behavior is one of the ways children act out. It’s how they check in to say, ‘Are you still my mom?’”

What can help?

“Kids thrive in predictability. If you haven’t figured out a schedule, it’s time to do that,” she advised. And make sure your child has both responsibilities and privileges.

“There are only four things you owe your child: a roof over their heads, food and clothing, education, and medical attention,” she noted. “Everything else is a privilege.” Responsibilities can include talking to adults respectfully, doing the vacuuming, or handling Zoom time in a mindful way. They will be different for each family. If kids don’t take care of their responsibilities, they don’t get their privileges.

What about all the time children are spending on screens?

“Don’t feel guilty about screen time right now,” Braun said. “Crazy times call for crazy measures. What we’re doing right now is not forever. But you do need to have some limits and boundaries.”

Especially for working parents and single parents, it’s ok to set your child up in front of the television, for example, to keep your child safe while you take a shower, she said. Parents who are having to choose between their jobs and their children need to know that “kids are going to be fine when it comes to their academic learning. They will catch up, if necessary. And it is important to support their social-emotional wellbeing.”

To balance, figure out things your kids can do to take a break, especially things that can be done outside. “Create an obstacle course. Go on a scavenger hunt. Go for a walk and find the house that has red shutters,” she suggested. If your children are reluctant to get the outside time they need, you might need to tell them that as much time as they have outside, that will be extra time they can have on screen.

What about as restrictions are lifted and things open up? How do we frame that for children if we aren’t ready to move out into the world just yet?

“Kids need to have explained to them that just because officials say it’s ok to go out, doesn’t mean it is right for your family,” said Braun. She likened the situation to walking on a frozen pond. You have to go very slowly, take one step and then another, just as you would if you were walking on ice. If children complain that it’s not fair because other kids are getting to do more than they are, you can remind them that “fair does not mean equal. It’s about doing what’s right for each child at the time,” she noted.

“If your child is the opposite and feeling fearful, it’s hard to find the things you can say to make it better,” Braun added. “Don’t push kids at this time. It’s too complicated and delicate,” she said. Reassure them by letting them know you would never ask them to do something that would put them in danger.

It’s also important for parents to be honest with children about their own feelings. “It’s ok to say, ‘I’m so tired of this,’” Braun noted. “Telling children when you’re in a bad mood gives them permission to be in a bad mood. Then you can model for them what to do, how to deal with it.“

For children struggling with skills they need to work on, parents can bring out photos or videos of when the children were younger and remind them of the things that were hard that they had to learn.

“It takes time and practice, but the things that were work become pleasure as they get easier,” she said. “Self-esteem comes mainly from when a person works hard on something and it leads to accomplishment. When you think of yourself as someone who has agency and competence you will be willing to take chances and stretch yourself to learn.”

For more on Braun’s advice and information about supporting children and families, visit the resources below.

Website and Blog:

Parenting in a Pandemic

Facebook and Twitter:


And, of course, her books:

Just Tell me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins)

You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- to 12-year-old Child (HarperCollins)