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Dad Draws On Maori Roots To Raise 3 Resilient Sons. Step 1: Send Them On A Milk Run

Jeff Nelligan (center left) stands with his three sons in December 2019.
Jeff Nelligan
Jeff Nelligan (center left) stands with his three sons in December 2019.

When it comes to raising resilient children, Jeff Nelligan knows more than a thing or two.

He has three sons, dripping with hustle and composure. One of them is a senior at West Point, another graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and the third from Williams College, where he played lacrosse. "I've raised three bad*****," Nelligan says bluntly (as he does often). "I hate to say it that way, but these kids have the ability to get over adversity, and that's resilience."

Nelligan himself comes from a long line of resilient women. "My great-grandmother is Maori," he says. She left New Zealand when she was 14 by herself.

After she got on her two feet, he says, she ran a restaurant in Los Angeles. "Her daughter — my grandmother — was born almost 100% deaf. She was confident, and she made it through adversity. That's our family's storyline. We don't take things too hard. We let things roll off the back, so to speak," says Nelligan, who writes about Maori affairs and has a law degree from Georgetown University.

When Nelligan became a dad himself, he wanted to pass these qualities onto his three sons. "Success follows resilient, confident kids," he says. But when he looked around at other parents in the D.C. suburbs where he lived, he often saw the opposite: The dominant way of child rearing taught kids to be self-absorbed and distracted and "to fold like $3 suitcase when the heat is on," says Nelligan, who's a public affairs executive at the Food and Drug Administration. "Many parents here just were not doing the task."

So Nelligan decided to break out on his own. Taking inspiration from his Maori heritage, he developed a framework to teach his sons four qualities: courteousness, confidence, "grinding" resilience and "realistic" ambition. "The way my grandmother did things – the way she parented — just floated down to my mom and then to me, my sister and my brother," he says. "A lot of this approach is really stuff I saw my mom do."

Nelligan describes this method in his 2019 self-published book, Four Lessons From My Three Sons: How You Can Raise Resilient Kids. "My sons' mother [who is divorced from Nelligan] is owed a huge amount of credit for how our sons turned out, but this book is about the approach I used," he says.

I talked to Nelligan about what erodes resilience in children, what to do about phones and screens, and what parts of his book have sparked angry responses from readers.

Interview highlights

In the book, you talk about teaching kids to bounce back after adversity by intentionally creating opportunities for children to encounter obstacles – real-life obstacles – that they have to overcome without a parent's help. Or sometimes they even fail a few times before solving the problem. Can you explain a little about these experiences and how you go about creating them for your kids?

Starting when my boys were about 6 or 7, I would play the "change-the-five" game. We'd be in the mall, and I'd take three fives out of my wallet and hand one to each son. Then I'd say, "Here's the game, guys. Each of you is going to go into a store and get five dollars change for this. There's no time limit on it. But you got to walk away from me, and do it alone. And I'm not going to see you until you come back with that dough." I would keep an eye on them, especially the youngest one. Sometimes they would strike out in the first store or two. Then they would go back and try again.

I would also have them run into the 7-Eleven and pick up items for me. Again, I'd say something like, "Dad wants these five things, go in and get them." The first time, of course, they don't want to do it and are like, "Well, Dad ... " So I say, "No 'well' about it. Here's the money, memorize what I told you and go get them." You know, I don't care if you're 6, just do it. The kid is only 6 years old, and he's dealing with a cashier and with other people in line. He's doing things that adults only do.

By playing these types of games over and over again, kids become confident and responsible. And that responsibility bleeds over into every aspect of their life, including their academics and athletics.

Do phones and screens prevent kids from developing this type of resiliency and confidence?

There's nothing more individualistic than someone staring at a screen. That is the ultimate act of selfishness in life. It narrows kids' perspectives

I think phones and screens wear down all the four themes – personal conduct, confidence, resiliency and ambition. So limiting screens is so key. Breaking that addiction is key.

So how do you do that?

Parents will ask me this question and I say, "Take the phone away," and parents will say, "Oh, I can't do that." Well, you just lost the battle right there. So the No. 1 thing to keep in mind is that you're the parent, and they're kids.

In our house, each kid got an hour of screen time each weekend. One hour. That's it. They also didn't get a phone until 11th grade.

Parents will tell me that their kids have to use the computer for school, and so it's hard to control screen time. I say, "No it's not. You just tell the child, 'You're done with your school work. Give me the computer.' " There's no negotiation. There's never negotiation between a parent and a kid. You're the adult, you know what's best. That way may sound harsh, but that's the way it works.

Can you explain a little bit about how you taught your boys to be courteous? How did you teach them not to be self-absorbed but rather to pay attention to the world around them and jump in to help when needed?

The best shot at guiding them — and sometimes getting under their skin — was during those times when my sons and I were out in the world together, like at a restaurant, a store or a sports game. I would use these settings of everyday life to illustrate good conduct and bad conduct. I identified situations and people that would provide the boys practical and moral instruction on how they should behave. For example, one time we were in a crowded department store, and I needed to buy a blazer. So I told the boys, "Watch Dad. Watch how I maneuver among all these adults." And, of course, they became completely interested, because they wondered, "What the heck is the old man going to do now?"

Then, by watching me, they got a sense of the right way to interact with adults – and how to get the information you need.

I also pointed out parents that I thought, "Man, he's got it going on!" These were parents who had absolute confidence, affability and ease. They had a commanding presence. They were graceful. And I would say to my boys, "You need to be more like him, like Mr. Gergar or you Mr. Pikus. Watch them when you're around them." Then I would explain, "Your old man doesn't own the franchise on how to act." So it wasn't just always about "watch Dad." It was about guys doing it right.

And then I would also point out the jerks – the guys not doing it right. I would say, "Never be like that guy, never be like that parent." If you point out the jerks enough times, kids get the message hard and fast.

Then to help your kids remember these moments – and these lessons – you would find little sayings or mottoes, right? Like "Don't ever end up like that jackass." These sayings were important for teaching them, right?

Yes, I would frame the situation with a whimsical pronouncement, abrupt and offbeat, to capture the essence of the lesson. These sayings, as my sons instantly began calling them, were short, funny and built to be remembered. Another one was, "Just get the ball to Louie." That's the perspective of being in a group of people and knowing how you need to act. What your role is. Knowing how and where you fit in.

So if one of your sons wasn't behaving properly, you could remind him of one of the sayings?

Having these sayings was better than hectoring them. It was better than saying, "You've got to do it this way or that way." The sayings made teaching these lessons fun, almost comical. That got the boys to buy in quickly to the idea and gave the lesson staying power. Then I would repeat the saying over and over again whenever the situation happened [for example, when one of the boys wasn't being courteous]. And then the lesson — of what is good and what is bad behavior — became almost muscle memory in their minds.

One of the strengths of your book is your perspective as a Maori-heritage American. The second strength is your honesty. Together, these qualities allow you to challenge a lot of ingrained thinking about parenting, especially in middle-to-upper-class communities in the U.S. But some of that honesty has gotten you in a bit of hot water. In particular, as your boys became teenagers, one of them tells you he wants to be a teacher. You make it clear in the book how much you value teachers.

My son's mom was a teacher, my mom was a teacher, my dad was a teacher. My brother still is a teacher. OK, I think it's the toughest job in America. Teachers are a great class of individuals. My life has been totally transformed by teachers. So have my sons' lives.

But you write that you weren't excited about your son wanting to become a teacher. You responded by driving the boys into a less-prestigious neighborhood and telling them that this is where they might live if they make a teachers' salary – which is also a statement about how our culture values teachers as well.

The fact is, teachers aren't often paid well. That was my point, and it's the financial aspect of it. If he had said I want to be an archaeologist, I would have done the same thing.

So I didn't mean to take aim at teachers on that portion of it. I was trying to explain to them the consequence of choosing a career in which your earning power is lower. I was taking aim at that idea. When you're a kid in 10th grade, you don't know those consequences.

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Corrected: June 19, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Jeff Nelligan became a father in the early 2000s. His oldest child was born in the mid-1990s.
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.