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Petal Modeste of Parenting for the Future: “Let them Shareyour Passions”

Let them Shareyour Passions: Include your children in activities you enjoy and plan to do anyway — walking, bird-watching, working out, reading a favorite author, etc. If I am reading a book in preparation for a podcast interview, I sometimes ask my daughter to read a few chapters and tell me the questions she would ask the author. […]

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Let them Shareyour Passions: Include your children in activities you enjoy and plan to do anyway — walking, bird-watching, working out, reading a favorite author, etc. If I am reading a book in preparation for a podcast interview, I sometimes ask my daughter to read a few chapters and tell me the questions she would ask the author.


As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Petal Modeste.

Petal Modeste is Associate Dean at Columbia Law School, overseeing Professional Advancement, Graduate Degree Programs and Executive Education. She began her legal career as a Banking and Finance lawyer at Shearman & Sterling, LLP and before joining Columbia Law School, she served as Senior Director and Strategic Advisor for Legal Recruiting at Weil, Goshala & Manges, LLP.

Petal is the creator and host of the Parenting for the Future Podcast (www.petalmodeste.com) which gives parents a new lens through which to understand the forces that shape our world as well as cutting edge parenting tools to help them raise the next generation of powerful, purposeful people.

Petal received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Secondary Education, cum laude, from Andrews University, her Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Howard University School of Law and her MBA from Columbia Business School.

She serves on the boards of several non-profits dedicated to positively impacting the lives of families and children. She is married with two daughters — one a toddler, one a teenager. She and her family live in New York City and spend significant time in Trinidad & Tobago and Belgium.


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

I was born in Trinidad and Tobago, the most southerly island of the Caribbean and one of the most richly diverse places on earth. I do not know of another country (and I have been to every continent except Antarctica!) where people of different cultures, religions and races interweave their food, music, art and world views so seamlessly and positively. I am a middle child with an older sister and younger brother. My father was a minister of religion and legal and biblical scholar and my mother is an educator who founded one of the country’s top pre-schools. I spent most of my early years there and settled in the US about 20 years ago after graduating from Howard Law School and moving to NY to work as a lawyer.

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

Two events brought me to this point in my career. Having my first daughter and the death of my father. I left law firm life when my first daughter was nearly 2 years old. I realized that I could not excel as a mom or a professional if I continued to do both so I choose to be a full-time mom. Within months of this decision, my father (with whom I was very close) passed away. His death completely upended by world, threw me into a deep depression and I found I was unable to hold on to the faith and optimism my parents had gifted me. Luckily, a mentor of mine advised Columbia Law School to reach out to me about an Assistant Dean opening and the rest is history. Although I started at the height of the economic crisis in 2009 my new role energized and reminded me of my purpose. 11 years later, I have never stopped growing as a person, parent and professional.

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

My alarm clock, aka my toddler, wakes up between 6:30 am and 7 am so that’s when I start my day. I usually say a prayer or meditate and then see to breakfast and help the kids get out of the house. Once the kids are off, I try to work out for 30–45 minutes.

By 8:45 am/9:15 am, I begin my workday. I try to break for a quick lunch at around 1 pm and although I always fantasize that I will take a walk then, I seldom can. By then 5:30 pm, I close my laptop so I can be present for evening routines with the kids — homework, family dinner (which is mandatory in my house), story time and family prayer by 8 pm (my toddler’s bedtime). Then, depending on her schedule or how many WhatsApp conversations she needs to have with her pals, I spend time with my teenager. Most evenings I get back online around 9:30 pm. If my husband is not working himself, we spend some time together and I try to be in bed by 11:30 pm. I tend to read just before bed — either a book by an author I am interviewing or hoping to interview for the podcast. I am Reading How to be an Antiracist at the moment (hope you are reading this Mr. Kendi!)

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

Children who do not spend time with, have the attention of or feel connected to their parents or adults who care for them, tend to have underdeveloped social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills. They often lack self-confidence and show an unwillingness to explore outside their comfort zone. In some studies, children who did not have nurturing parents had less growth in the hippocampus — the part of the brain associated with memories and regulating emotions. Since feeling connected to adults is key to developing resilience, children who do not spend time with their parents may also lack the ability to bounce back from failures or disappointments. In sum, a child’s physical, psychological and social development are all negatively impacted when parents do not spend time with them.

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?

One of my favorite conversations on the podcast was with Tovah Klein, who directs the Centre for Toddler Development at Barnard College. In her bestselling book, How Toddler’s Thrive, she notes that in order for the toddler brain to develop in the best way possible, a child needs security, comfort, freedom and limits.

Spending time with our children makes them feel secure, loved, and valued. As a result, they become comfortable in their own skin, in their opinions and expressions. They develop a positive self-image, confidence and are not afraid to ask questions, explore and push themselves beyond their limits. Spending time with our kids, also helps develop the values we believe are important and demonstrate in our day-to-day lives. So all facets of their lives — from academic performance, to how they form and nature relationships, to their creativity, optimism, resilience — are positively impacted by the time we spend with them.

And let me add two more notes. First, that the time we spend with our children need not be task-driven or overly structured and quality trumps quantity nearly every time. Second, if we are single parents or our jobs keep us away from home, the time our children spend with loving, trusted adults like grandparents is almost equally beneficial to them.

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?

I believe that letting kids lead in terms of deciding what we do together is key to the “quality” factor. Here are some ways I spend time with each of my daughters (all of which can be done in as much or as little time as I have available):

With my toddler:

  • Reading books of her choice
  • Playing Dress-up
  • Building puzzles or Legos
  • Playing Zing, Chess or Kids on Stage
  • Dancing to her favorite YouTube music videos
  • Building a tent with blankets on my bed and going “camping” (until the monster — my husband — destroys our tent and we have to “kill it” with our pillow weapons)

With my teenager:

  • Making silly Tik Tok videos
  • Playing Monopoly (which I try to avoid as I get creamed!)
  • Clothes shopping
  • Watching The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Sitting for her to do my make-up
  • Watching a runway show where she models my clothes and shoes (save me!)
  • Dance-off competition

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? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

  1. Schedule: Just as you’d do for any important, recurring work meeting, schedule time on your calendar to spend with each child each day or each week. It need not be several hours at a time. Signify that this “meeting” cannot be moved or changed unless in the event of an absolute emergency
  2. Let them Decide: You can make a list ahead of time with each child of all the things they like to do with you and decide with your child how much time you will spend doing that activity (based on their bedtime/schedule or your other obligations, etc.). Your child may choose to do the same thing — like build Legos — in each “meeting” with you. That’s fine. The important thing is he/she/they select the activity and that the time is about the same each day/week.
  3. Leave Distractions Elsewhere: Try to leave your phones or other devices in another room during your one-on-one time with your child. This is their time and theirs alone and the quality of the time spent is magnified when you can focus only on your child and the shared activity.
  4. Let them see you Work: If you travel, consider taking your children. I recently spent a few days in India on a work trip and took my 13-year-old. She helped out, slept or caught up on homework while I worked and in the evenings/weekends we explored a new country together. It was an unforgettable experience for both of us. You can also bring older kids to work when they have a day-off school and give them a project or let them do their own projects at the office. Just observing you at work opens up your world to them, allows them to form new impressions of you and gives them an understanding of what you are up to when you are not together.
  5. Let them Share your Passions: Include your children in activities you enjoy and plan to do anyway — walking, bird-watching, working out, reading a favorite author, etc. If I am reading a book in preparation for a podcast interview, I sometimes ask my daughter to read a few chapters and tell me the questions she would ask the author.

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

A good parent looks after herself. She never stops learning and shares what she learns with her child. She is honest and apologizes when she is wrong or makes a mistake. She lives the values she wants her child to live by. She finds opportunities to reveal the world to her child so that her child can begin to see a place for herself in the world. She surrounds herself with the people her child will admire and love and who will keep her child safe. She laughs often, hugs tight and plays with gusto. Both my parents, who were “good parents”, in their own way.

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

Ever since my older daughter could articulate what she wanted to do, I decided never to “poo-poo” over her ideas. Unless it was dangerous or completely impractical — we could not go to Belgium for dinner, Barbados for dessert and be back in time for school in NY the next morning — I ran with it. She wanted to ride horses, we did horseback riding lessons. She wanted to know how milk would taste with onions, we made an onion milkshake. And when we could not do something I would explain why — it’s a waste of money or its better to wear clothes when you leave the house even though clothes are “so hot mommy!”

As she grew older I told her something my mom told me — that if she put pictures of the things she dreamed about in a place she could always see them, then those dreams would be subconsciously reinforced and one day she would find that she was living them. So she has a huge vision board with pictures of the college she plans to attend and other aspects of the life she plans to have. She has photos of the people she loves and always wants in her life and poems and quotes that inspire her. Of course, I have snuck a couple of key affirmations onto it: “I must earn respect”, I must save more than I earn,” “I must avoid toxic people”, “Otherness” is my superpower, and of course “my mom is always right” — ok kidding.

I am doing the same thing with my toddler. The chairs in her room now have rainbow-colored seats and I have eaten soup made of carrots, tomatoes, celery, milk, cinnamon and sparkling water. No name for that yet!

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

Success to me is about the number of lives I touch in a positive way. It’s about the way I listen and respond to others — be they my children or family members, my colleagues, friends or people with whom I don’t agree. I have success when I leverage all that I am and have to lift others up and to change things (in whatever way I can) for the better.

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

We don’t have enough space on these pages to list all the books that inspire me but those listed below, along with the podcasts have really helped me to grow as a person and a parent. They have deepened my understanding of the world, humanity and my children. They have helped me take risks, and taught me how to fail forward and to be transparent with my children so they know I am human too.

Books:

  • David and Goliath by Malcom Gladwell
  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown
  • Gay Like Me by Richie Jackson
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • Growing up Mindful by Christopher Willard
  • How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah Klein
  • How to Raise Successful People by Esther Wojcicki
  • Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
  • The Code of Capital by Katarina Pastor
  • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
  • The Formula by Ronald Ferguson and Tatsha Robertson
  • The Road Less Traveled by M.Scott Peck
  • Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Podcasts

  • On Being
  • Stay Tuned with Preet
  • This American Life
  • Curious Minds
  • Hidden Brain
  • Oprah Super Soul Conversations
  • Joel Osteen
  • The Reid Out
  • Mighty Parenting
  • Grown and Flown
  • Infinite Potential
  • Motherly

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

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only extemporaneous half possession”. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My father drilled this into me from an early age. For me, It has always meant that it is essential to be authentic; that each of us is so unique because we have a special thing to do on earth that only we could do. Our job is to figure out what that is and do it!

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 believe that the lie of White supremacy which has been hard-wired into the fabric of just about every modern society, is the most destructive force in the world. So many lives have been lost or half-lived; so much pain has been caused; we have been deprived of so much greatness and advancement because we have been taught that white skin has more value than non-white skin. And other forms of “othering” and discrimination naturally flow from and are supported by the same structures that support discrimination on the basis of race.

So if I could, I would inspire a Truth in Education Movement to educate both parents and their children about the roots of our societies and why they function the way they do.

When our textbooks gloss over the horrors of slavery, the genocide of native populations or the destruction of the wealth, culture and psychological center of millions of colonized people; when we fail to teach about the intentional policies that created and still create residential segregation in countries like the US, France or Belgium; when we ignore the way our laws are applied; when we pretend that all people are treated equally when they want to start a business, buy a house, see a doctor or even enjoy a vacation; when we say nothing about the images of happiness, success or wealth in digital and print media; we reinforce the fiction that amounts of melanin make some people superior to others and therefore deserve life and the best it has to offer.

75% of the over 7.8 billion people in the world are non-white.

It is time to teach the truth to parents and to all our children who will shape the future. When our children truly understand that no facts support the notion that some people are meant to fail and others to succeed, maybe we will have a world where character and aptitudes, rather than melanin, dictate fate.

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

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