“Certainly the research is abundantly clear: contact with engaged, loving adults is key to child development, across every domain” with Matt Wallaert and Chaya Weiner

Certainly the research is abundantly clear: contact with engaged, loving adults is key to child development, across every domain. Humans are social creatures and from language acquisition to emotional development, the single best thing we can do for kids is make sure they are embedded in a network of supportive adults. It is the best […]

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Certainly the research is abundantly clear: contact with engaged, loving adults is key to child development, across every domain. Humans are social creatures and from language acquisition to emotional development, the single best thing we can do for kids is make sure they are embedded in a network of supportive adults. It is the best predictor of resilience and almost every other healthy outcome you can think of.

I had the pleasure to interview Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health and coparent to an almost four-year-old named Bear. For over fifteen years, Matt Wallaert has been applying behavioral science to practical problems, from startup exits to the Fortune 500. He’s given hundreds of talks on the science of behavior change at the UN, SXSW, and beyond, and is the author of Start at the End, which details how anyone can build products and programs that change behavior by making behavior their outcome and science their process. His side projects consistently focus on the unrepresented, like GetRaised.com, which has helped underpaid women ask for and earn over $3.1B in salary increases.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in rural Oregon in a pretty classic family for the 80s: one brother, two working parents without a college education but with strong work ethic, dogs and cats and plenty of space to run around. But I think families are a lot more than a formula. I have really amazing parents. From a very early age, they gave my brother and I lots of autonomy (and lots of support). For example, Oregon is a ballot measure state. At age 6, I was encouraged to understand the measures, to have my own opinions about them, and to discuss those opinions as an equal. Who does that?!? And it wasn’t in an Elon Musk, drilled at the kitchen table way…it was just a normal part of our lives. My father referred to my mother as smarter than him. He told my brother and I that we were his chance to make the world better. We got threatened with spankings but I think it actually happened about five times in my entire life. They let me leave home at 15 and do to two years at an international school in Hong Kong when I won a scholarship.

When I got older, I realized that the experience I had wasn’t the norm but it seemed that way at the time and that was actually part of the magic.

It wasn’t always easy. I remember my parents worrying about money. My brother and I fought at times, as brothers do. I struggled with an eating disorder in high school. But even in that, my family was great — they never pushed me to do anything I couldn’t do, just quietly worked with me until I was able to make my way out of it. My parents are some of the most constant, supportive people I know.

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

I’ve never been a career planner: I tackle what is right in front of me and then every couple years, I look up and figure out what is next. I got recruited heavily into PhD programs, ended up at Cornell and bounced after a year — I wanted to apply social psychology to create change in the world, not just crank out research. Landed in a startup called Thrive as the Head of Product, in a time when startups weren’t nearly as sexy as they are today; it is amazing to me that young people now self-identify as wanting to be entrepreneurs, without any idea of what that means or what problem they want to solve. We had a solid exit to LendingTree, I worked through the earnout as their Behavioral Scientist, then founded another startup. Went to Microsoft as their first Behavioral Scientist, got married, got pregnant, thought we were staying in Seattle.

Then a few months into the pregnancy, Stef decided she needed to be back in NYC. She was a lifelong New Yorker before moving out to Seattle with me and felt like that was where she wanted to be to have Bear. So I told Microsoft I was leaving, they moved me over to Ventures to keep me around, and we moved back. Didn’t love the gig, wanted to spend more time with Bear, so after I came back from parental leave, let the know I was going to start looking around. Settled on becoming an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Goodwill (a job I still want to do someday) and then had dinner with a friend. I don’t think he was trying to recruit me, but he was one of the cofounders of Clover Health and by the end of the meal, we had decided it might make sense for me to join as the Chief Behavioral Officer. I’ve been there ever since.

Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?

It varies, as do most execs, I think. I have sort of an unusual situation. Stef and I split up when Bear was one. We remain legally married (so she can be on my insurance and we don’t have to split up custody of Bear) but haven’t been romantically involved in years and live separately.

Because we want to give Bear a stable environment, he stays permanently at Stef’s and I rent an apartment a block away, where I live four days a week. The other three days, I sleep on Stef’s couch so that I can take Bear in the morning and she can sleep in. I’m there Tuesday evening and overnight, and from Saturday morning through Monday morning.

What that generally means is that I work like crazy four nights a week, on both Clover and all my other side projects, and then am entirely focused on Bear when I’m not working. I work from home on Tuesday (as does my whole team) so that I can walk over and grab him exactly at 5, which gives us a solid three and a half hours before he goes to bed. Otherwise I’m in the office or on the road, trying to help Clover grow or giving talks about my new book Start At The End.

Let’s 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 flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?

Certainly the research is abundantly clear: contact with engaged, loving adults is key to child development, across every domain. Humans are social creatures and from language acquisition to emotional development, the single best thing we can do for kids is make sure they are embedded in a network of supportive adults. It is the best predictor of resilience and almost every other healthy outcome you can think of.

That isn’t to say every kid is going to seek out adult contact — some want to spend time doing their own thing and that’s great too. But even if they prefer some time to themselves, your availability is still key: they need to know that you’re available whenever they decide they are ready.

On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?

I think this is ultimately the same. Not spending time with your kids isn’t actively negative; it won’t “make” them bad. But it certainly won’t set them up to be their best selves. It is easy for parents to feel like they’re letting their kids down and I just don’t think that is the case: do what you can, when you can, in a way that is best for both of you.

According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

“Spending time” is always one of those incredibly vague notions. If I’m reading my book and my son is reading his, is that spending time? What if we’re not talking but just watching the clouds (yes, both I and Bear still think this is fun; cell phones have to compete with natural phenomena)? When I think about the time I spend with Bear, I try to be aware of a couple of specific things to boost quality.

First, is he sailing the ship? Our relationship is certainly a voyage and I try to make sure that as much as possible, we’re doing what he wants to do, following his whim in an open sea with fair weather and full sail. I may prompt him with potential activities but ultimately he’s making the choices and that’s an important part of quality time for me.

Second, am I creating space? Sometimes you have tickets to something specific or are rushing to a playdate and you want to keep on track. But as much as possible, I try to make sure I am creating space for his curiosity, his “distraction”, and his interest. Bear is very, very close with Stef and so when it is the three of us, she is typically his focus. So when we do just Dad and Bear time, I take a lot of joy in just wandering; he’s a very imaginative kid and can happily fill all the space I can create.

Finally, am I helping him reflect? Bear doesn’t really need me to entertain him; he’s got his own rich mental life. So I try to focus on helping him metacognate (I realize I’m sounding sort of insane here, but this is really how I try to think about it). Can I ask him questions about how something makes him feel or why he thinks what he does? Can I invite him further into his own interests and into mine? Where can I help him play out his zone of proximal development?

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?

One simple thing that I’m surprised more people don’t do is two phones. I have a work phone and a personal phone, and on weekends, the rule is that my work phone stays in my bag if Bear is awake. That can be a little harder on Tuesday night — we’re an international company, so it is a little tough to totally unplug at 5pm EST exactly — but that sort of leads to Tip 2, which is involving Bear in my worklife.

Bear has been to my office more than once. We bring a bag of candy, he walks around and hands it out to everyone, and gets a chance to say hi and see the team and the space. It is hard to exactly describe what I do in a way that makes sense for an almost four-year-old but he knows in general terms what both Stef and I do when we’re away from him. When I travel to give talks, I try to show him video clips of me on stage and let him know what I did and who I talk to. When I do have to take a Tuesday night conference call, he joins me and I explain what it is we are talking about and what decisions we’re making.

I think there is a false dichotomy where somehow quality time has come to mean just you and your kids and anything else isn’t quality. My first book, Start At The End, recently came out and Bear came to the launch party. He refers to is as his book (because it is dedicated to him) and was very proud to tell everyone about it. That’s quality time — its being a full participant in my life and making sure I’m a full participant in his. When we bubble our kids, segregate them from the reality of the rest of our lives, we do them a huge disservice.

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

To me, a good parent aligns their interests with those of their kids. Not everyone has schedule flexibility or financial resources. But everyone can go into the situation they are in and say “what is best for us?” Us. Not just the parent, not just the kid, but the dyad. Because that is what keeps them both happy and healthy and able to be present together.

Like giving talks. It would be really easy to just stop traveling and spend all my time with Bear and to think that was being a good parent. But I also want to model for Bear a life that is full and rich and balanced. When he’s old enough, I want to bring him with me. Good parenting is integrative when it is in the best interests of you both.

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

I actually try not to do that. Bear is going to get plenty of messages in his life about how to be big; I’d rather tell him that it is alright to be himself, big or small. For most my adult life, my mother has been telling me how I’d be a great nurse. And I’m like “Mom, I’ve sold companies, published a book…it probably isn’t going to happen.” But it is actually a really great message. My parents always remind me that it is OK to not be “Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioral Officer, author of Start at the End, blah blah blah”. I could move back to Oregon and be a nurse and they would still love me. They never judged me when Stef and I split up, never said an ill word or called it a failure when I left grad school. Whatever I wanted for myself, that was what they wanted for me. And that’s what I want for Bear. Not “dream big” but “be yourself.”

How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?

I don’t think I masterfully straddle both worlds. I was a pretty shitty husband and that was certainly complicated by my work, although I made all my own choices and work isn’t an excuse. But I think, and hopefully Stef would agree, that I’m a good coparent and friend to her and a great dad to Bear. My daily definition of success changes because it isn’t some big macro thing you get to, it is just the minute-to-minute process of doing what you can.

Bear really wanted to have a playdate with the Easter Bunny, so I got a giant Easter Bunny pajama/costume/thing and surprised him. That was successful. But sometimes success is just not yelling when he’s driving you crazy. Those are both versions of successful and so I try not to think in terms of how to be successful but just how to be good in the moment.

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

I try really, really hard not to consume too much about parenting. I talk to Stef a lot, because she gets to see me first hand with Bear and can give me good feedback, and I try to talk to Bear about what he would like from me. Not enough people do that: kids are amazingly good at giving feedback, especially when it comes to you and them.

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

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” To me, work worth doing is work in service of others. And no matter what else is going on in my life, I’ve found that if I just focus on fighting for others, I can come through whole and growing and just keep moving on. That’s why I involve Bear so much in my work; I can’t wait to show him what service really means.

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. 🙂

Right now, for me, it is behavioral science. Showing people that behavior change is something we can consciously create and that all of us are equipped with the tools to be behavioral scientists. That’s why I wrote a damn book! Because it will always be easier to turn a profit destroying lives than it will be to make money enriching them, so the natural balance of capitalism will always be to the negative unless we consciously make it otherwise. If we want to do well by doing good, we need to learn to embrace our ability to design for behavior change and I truly believe that is how we fight for better.

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

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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