“To listen, to really listen, you have to spend time”, with Heidi Robinson and Dr. Ely Weinschneider

Research tells us that not spending time with children can lead to really bad outcomes for those kids — slower development of language, social detachment that can harm relationships throughout life, disruptive or risky behavior, poor performance in school, etc. These have lifelong consequences that are harmful for that child as a human being, and from a […]

Research tells us that not spending time with children can lead to really bad outcomes for those kids — slower development of language, social detachment that can harm relationships throughout life, disruptive or risky behavior, poor performance in school, etc. These have lifelong consequences that are harmful for that child as a human being, and from a macro perspective, have negative implications for society. The Department of Health & Human Services says that listening to your child “is one of the most basic, but most effective, ways to prevent your child from engaging in risky behavior.” To listen, to really listen, you have to spend time.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Robinson. Heidi is Chief Product Officer at Varsity Tutors since July 2016, is responsible for product management and design. Prior to joining Varsity Tutors, Heidi served as Vice President of Product & Customer Experience at Sears Home Services, Pro.com, and Nordstrom Direct. Heidi also spent 14 years at Amazon.com, where she led product management for Kindle retail and AmazonFresh, among other efforts. Heidi has a bachelor’s degree from Pacific Lutheran University and an MBA from the University of Washington. Heidi lives in Seattle with her husband, children, and their pug, Ernest.

Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up the youngest of four girls in Forks, Washington. Forks, which gained notoriety during the Twilight era, is a small town nestled in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula, which is a very wild, rural, and breathtakingly beautiful place. It’s also a temperate rainforest, so it rains a lot (the average annual rainfall in my town is 78 inches!). We grew up thinking of the beaches in the Olympic National Park as our playground; Second Beach is still my favorite place in the world. When my dad wasn’t working, he was our tour guide to the outdoors, where he taught us to appreciate and take care of the spaces we’re in.

As a child, my favorite thing in life, besides playing on the beach, was reading. I was that kid who took “book naps” instead of regular naps — if I got in trouble, my punishment was to give up my bedtime reading! My mom and grandma were also avid readers, intense Scrabble players, and grammar geeks. (My grandma entered a contest to find errors in the local paper and was so good at it that they offered her a job as proofreader!) Though it wasn’t my plan, perhaps majoring in English was predestined given this heritage!

As with many small towns, my high school graduating class was small (fewer than 100 kids). However, this was an environment I could thrive in, and I was blessed to have a good group of friends who were smart, driven, and incredibly intellectually curious. We indulged in friendly academic competition, which kept me motivated and driven.

Growing up in Forks, I was desperate to see more of the world. During my junior year, my Humanities teacher found an exchange scholarship program, co-sponsored by the Finnish government and the US Senate, for two students from the seven US states that had been most settled by Finns. The idea of having only two spots available did not stop me. I applied and somehow landed one of the spots for Washington State. That experience, and the friends I made, were life-changing. It sparked a love of travel and an ambition to do more, see more, be more than I had previously thought was possible.

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

My career has been non-linear. When I graduated from college I wanted to work in publishing and felt incredibly lucky to find a part-time role working for a small publisher in Seattle. Fortunately or unfortunately, that publishing company folded less than a year after I started working there. As I was looking for jobs, one of my soon-to-be-former colleagues told me about this upstart company, Amazon.com, that had an editorial department and was hiring. I didn’t know much about the internet or technology, but I knew about writing and grammar. So I did what the job hunt book said to do: I faxed the editor in chief my resume, then followed up with phone calls and handwritten notes. When I finally managed to get an interview, I knew, almost the moment I arrived, that it was the place for me. The energy was palpable, intoxicating. Books were stacked everywhere, there were desks in the hallways, and everyone seemed so purposeful. One of my interviews was with the managing editor at the time and I remember he couldn’t sit still — he would stand, sit on his desk, and pace back and forth while he asked me questions.I was smitten. Mercifully, they offered me a job that paid basically nothing. My desk was literally in the reception area, which I shared with another person, but I got to work with words all day. A few years in, I tumbled into program management and finally found my stride.

Working at Amazon in my formative years during the company’s formative years was the best possible education I could have had. Every day brought a new set of challenges, and even though I was bright, I was never the smartest person in the room, so I was always learning from the people around me. And I was fortunate to have good role models and mentors along the way. The drive, intensity, deep customer focus, and willingness to tackle even the most audacious goals with complete confidence — taught me that grit, a willingness to try, and conviction about the outcome you’re after can take you a long way. Over the years I worked on a number of new business problems and discovered that I:

  • like solving problems that, when solved, make life a little better for someone
  • love building things
  • enjoy the ambiguity and constant change of the growth stage company, where there’s a foundation and assets to work with, but where there’s still a lot to figure out
  • am at my best when a little scrappiness is required and deadlines are looming
  • and that I really, really love working with people I respect, trust, can learn from, and who I believe can do great things when the right ingredients are present.

Part of what I enjoy most about this stage of my career is that I can influence, in fundamental ways, how the company grows and evolves. The most important ingredient in our success is the people we choose and how well we execute together. And, like those early years at Amazon, nearly every day brings a new and often unexpected challenge.

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

The basic recipe is this: drop my daughter off at school or carpool at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m., and then head into the office and try to get some thinking and work done before meetings start. Most of my day is spent talking to people, whether in 1:1s or scheduled discussions on specific topics. This time is really important because it’s how you ensure the right work is happening, the right decisions are being made, and it’s how you both help others grow and how, as a leader, I can get leverage with my energy. I typically leave by 5:00 to pick up my daughter and get her to gymnastics practice. On a good day I’ll work or read a bit at the gym while watching the kids practice, then catch a yoga class nearby before picking my girl up again to head home for dinner. Typically we do homework together after dinner at the kitchen table, pack lunches for the next day, then head for bed. I always read for a few minutes before snuggling down to sleep.

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?

Research tells us that not spending time with children can lead to really bad outcomes for those kids — slower development of language, social detachment that can harm relationships throughout life, disruptive or risky behavior, poor performance in school, etc. These have lifelong consequences that are harmful for that child as a human being, and from a macro perspective, have negative implications for society. The Department of Health & Human Services says that listening to your child “is one of the most basic, but most effective, ways to prevent your child from engaging in risky behavior.” To listen, to really listen, you have to spend time.

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

When my daughter was born my world changed. I had an overwhelming desire to just be with her. So maybe I don’t see “making time” as something I should do out of a sense of duty so much as something I deeply need to do as a mother. As for reasons why this is important, our job as parents is to raise our kids to be healthy adults. I don’t think you can do this without showing your kids what that looks like with your own example — including when you screw up and have to recover from that. Kids need to know that their adults make mistakes, and that you can apologize when needed and recover. A lot of this time spent — and those one hundred, one-minute conversations — are about imparting your values through the decisions you make, the limits you set, where you choose to spend your time and energy, and how you show up in the world. Maybe the most important reason is that kids need to know they are seen, heard, and loved unconditionally, all the time (even in those moments when you don’t like their behavior). How can they learn to value themselves and others if they don’t know they are valued?

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 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

  • Making things together — When my daughter was little we had this container of clean recycling materials and arts and crafts stuff. We’d pull it out on rainy days and “invent” monsters and contraptions. Now our most regular “making” activity is baking together — we do something like this every few weeks. But the most memorable creative project, the one we still talk about, was an epic jellyfish Halloween costume when my daughter was in 8th grade. We spent hours on evenings and weekends over the course of a few weeks putting it all together with scrap material, unraveled bath sponges, and LCD lights. It held up so well that she used it again recently, four years later, when she attended an event at the local aquarium.
  • Driving — This will sound strange, but any parent with a middle schooler or teenager will understand. When you are in the car with your kids, you can have conversations about topics that otherwise might be hard to tackle — sex, power dynamics, bullying, politics, values. There is something about sitting side-by-side, music playing, and just talking without looking at each other that somehow makes it easier for kids (and maybe parents) to open up about what’s going on in life or to wrestle with hard questions. I heard this phrase — “one hundred one-minute conversations” — that perfectly fits car conversations.
  • Girls’ nights — We love to come home on Friday nights, put on pajamas, make protein pancakes for dinner, then curl up with a movie and paint our toes. It’s snugly, cozy time to just hang out together.
  • Shopping together at secondhand stores — My daughter listed this activity as one of her favorites that we do together. Whether we have an agenda or not, shopping at secondhand and vintage stores is a treasure hunt. We take pleasure in the search and in finding just the right thing for a bargain — prom dresses, paperback books, funky Converse.
  • Being active — We love to be active together, especially outside. Hiking probably tops the list for a together activity, which includes the bonus of driving time to the destination, but we also love kayaking, skiing, or just wandering on foot.

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?

  1. Create a routine that has non-negotiable kid time scheduled in. Guard this time carefully and try not to sacrifice it.
  2. Give yourself grace if you can’t be present for every soccer game or school play, but do be present for your kids when they want and need you there. I’ve found they’ll usually tell you what is important to them if you ask.
  3. Eat at least one meal together every week, and don’t allow cell phones or phone calls at the table.
  4. Outsource some of the chores to create more family time. This is a luxury for sure, but if you can afford to pay someone to clean the house, for example, that’s time back for you to spend with your family.
  5. Take care of you own basic needs as much as possible — sleep, exercise, healthy diet — so that when you are with your kids, your physical body and brain are at their best (or at least mostly functional).

Bonus: when you are with your kids, be fully present. Put your phone away for a while and just be.

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

This one is hard because every kid is different and a good parent for one kid might look different than a good parent for another kid. Maybe some of the non-negotiables of good parenting would be loving and believing in your kids so that they know without a doubt that they are loved; giving them appropriate limits and freedoms; sharing your values through one hundred one-minute conversations; and teaching them to be kind and curious.

One of my colleagues in the early days at Amazon told me, “never set a consequence you aren’t willing to follow through on.” When my daughter was young — maybe 6 years old — her angry response involved a lot of door slamming. After one of those episodes I told her that if she slammed her bedroom door again I was going to take it off the hinges. A few days later that door was slammed again and without saying anything, I got out the toolbox and took off the door. My daughter was stunned and eventually, all we could do was laugh. I don’t know if this makes me a good parent, but there’s no question in my mind that my daughter learned a memorable lesson that day. And she still likes me all these years later, so that’s a win.

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

“Inspire” is a lofty word. My hope is that we can point to what is possible and help our kids develop the tools and the grit to go where they want to go. More concretely, we have traveled internationally with our kids since they were very young. Part of the intent behind this has been a desire to raise kids who know in their bones that the world is BIG and fascinating, and that there are many ways to live and be that are lovely and wonderful and are nothing like the way we live in the U.S. Maybe the best example of this was the first trip abroad with my stepdaughter when she was 12. At the time she was an avowed homebody and wasn’t super keen on going to Ecuador. The first night in Quito as we sat in a restaurant watching people go by in the street, snacking on patacones she said “I want to live here.” I just about fell out of my chair. Fast forward 10 years, she’s lived abroad in Spain and Argentina and through a lot of her own hard work is just about fluent in Spanish. She’s passing on her curiosity and love of learning about the world by working in her college’s study abroad office and helping other kids find their own right adventure.

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

As a parent, success may be in hindsight. My aspiration is to raise curious kids who know how to think critically, who know how to make good decisions, who are kind, and who have at least one good friend.

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

When I first became a mom, I read parenting books and magazines voraciously, from which I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that no one has it all figured out. Every kid, every family is different. Probably the most useful books when my daughter was young were Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and Understanding Girls with ADHD by Kathleen Nadeau, Ellen Littman, and Patricia Quinn. These books helped us understand how to better parent our spirited child as well as how to help her understand her own brain and body, and later advocate for her when it was needed.

In the last few years, books like Wonder by JM Barrie and podcasts like “Hidden Brain” give us things to talk about together. One of our favorite life mottos is from Wonder, especially relevant when traveling: “Always be a little kinder than necessary.”

As for resources, at this stage it seems like a lot of the resources I consume are about helping my kids launch into the next stage — for my stepdaughter, that’s life after college, and for my daughter, it’s preparing for and getting into college. I’m not sure I could cite one set of resources, though I’ve found Veritas Prep to be a really valuable resource for students who want personalized college consulting.

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

“Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt) is probably the life lesson quote I share most often. This applies in so many situations — in friendships, in careers, even in sports. When kids are young and changing a lot, they all reach developmental milestones at different speeds, but it’s easy to get caught up in whose kid is walking or talking or reading. It’s really critical just to love and nurture your child wherever he or she is, and to savor those minutes, even when they’re hard. Most kids hit the important milestones eventually.

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. 🙂

Given the divides occurring in our country and in the larger world, it seems to me that people have become accustomed to being entrenched, convinced our own perspectives are truth, while feigning open mindedness. If I could inspire a movement, it would be about genuinely seeking diversity in perspectives, genuinely seeking to understand others with respectful curiosity about who they are, what they believe, and why.

Thank you for sharing these inspirational thoughts with us!

About the Author:

Dr. Ely Weinschneider is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist based in New Jersey. Dr. Ely specializes in adolescent and adult psychotherapy, parenting, couples therapy, geriatric therapy, and mood and anxiety disorders. He also has a strong clinical interest in Positive Psychology and Personal Growth and Achievement, and often makes that an integral focus of treatment.

An authority on how to have successful relationships, Dr. Ely has written, lectured and presented nationally to audiences of parents, couples, educators, mental health professionals, clergy, businesses, physicians and healthcare policymakers on subjects such as: effective parenting, raising emotionally intelligent children, motivation, bullying prevention and education, managing loss and grief, spirituality, relationship building, stress management, and developing healthy living habits.

Dr. Ely also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column about the importance of “being present with your children”.

When not busy with all of the above, Dr. Ely works hard at practicing what he preaches, raising his adorable brood (which includes a set of twins and a set of triplets!) together with his wife in Toms River, New Jersey.

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