How to Thrive in Raising Children & Why you Should Avoid (Some) Traditional Parenting Advices

Bogusia & Alex Gierus are a thirty-something couple with four boys and two dogs who maintain two very active websites: their family blog, perfectingparenthood.com and their online teacher website, nucleuslearning.com. Both are regularly updated with incredibly interesting information (& often controversial) pertaining to children, education, and growing up in general.

Busy as they are with various online and offline projects, Bogusia & Alex still manage to spend time having fun with their family. They currently live in the Montreal suburbs, raising their family to be trilingual. They have spent a lot of time in their life reading about child development and implementing strategies that not only make sense to them but that have proven to work. Their time spent sharing her thoughts online has helped others as they struggle through one of life’s toughest challenges: raising children.

For me, It is absolutely amazing how they can still have time to keep themselves current, share their ideas on a blog and website, start a few real estate projects, invest in technological companies, design mobile apps, as well as maintain a home and have time for themselves.

Bogusia & Alex are truly Perfect parents, or better yet Super-parents!

Learn how do they do it.

Q:  Tell us a little bit about how perfectingparenthood.com came about.  It seems to chronicle your adventures as a family.  What is the premise of the website?  It seems both you and your wife post on your blog.  Do you take turns or does one of you get on more often than the other?

Alex:  First of all, we both think your blog is awesome.  Your beliefs and writing on achievement, limiting beliefs, fear, motivation, and all the other topics you write about are spot on.  Thanks for interviewing us!

Perfecting Parenthood came about as a place for Dad to blog because Mom already had a successful blog called Nucleus Learning.  Nucleus Learning is an education oriented site to serve up Mom's insights as a mother and educator (Mom is a professional teacher of high school mathematics and science as well as a Master of Educational Psychology) and also a launching pad for her educational puzzle passions.  Perfecting Parenthood was a chance for Dad to showcase some "experiments" and results from parenting the four boys.  To be honest, it is still finding it's legs.  As Dad got into it he discovered the world of mommy and, less often, daddy blogs which are usually chronicles, support circles, or venues to practice writing.

I really think that parenting, especially research, is being misunderstood and misapplied even by the scientists who produce it.  I'm a computer scientist, which is a discipine about disecting and interpreting problems, then formalizing ways to solve them.  I've learned to automatically see something and mentally chop it apart into useful concepts and then putting them back together.  I see human behaviour in the same way, which is not really how I think many psychologists or armchair parenting experts see human behaviour.  I'm also an MBA with ten years of senior financial experience in a Fortune 500 company.  Again, making money with employees involves understanding how they can be used for a purpose.  It is a combination of analysis and soft skills.  What do the people need to do to make things work in real life, when money is on the line, but what do they also need as people with their own interests, motivations, problems, and so on.  Getting the most out of others helps them get the most out of themselves.

Q:  You refer to yourselves as Perfect Dad and Perfect Mom.  Where did you come up with these terms?

Alex: It's just the name of the site, Perfecting Parenthood.  I wanted to remain anonymous at first since I thought I might be writing controversial stuff; which I did a couple of times.  I didn't want people to know private things about my kids or my neighbours.

Q: You have a strong belief that parents are the largest influence on how a child “turns out” in his or her life.  How did you come to that conclusion?

Alex:  You need it to stay sane.  There are people who believe that nearly everything is genetic; influential intelligent people like Stephen Pinker who wrote the well-known Blank Slate, are demoralizing to me.  It's clear that parents and environment do have a lot to do with how a child turns out.  There are teaching methods, for example, that are more or less effective than others.  I know it's bad form to compare children to dogs, but you can see dogs of some owners are out of control while other dogs are in control.  Dogs are not nearly as adaptable as humans yet you can see that just a little bit of effort can create a dog who is trustworthy and in control, able to be taken out.  Same with humans.  A relatively little bit of effort can have a large impact on a child's life.

That said, I think it is really important to remember that parents don't have as large an influence as they might hope.  They have a few short years before kids go to school and find friends and spend more time away from the parents than with the parents.  Influence really shifts away from the parents quickly.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the biggest influence on children is things that parents actually can’t change.  Their characters and beliefs are “downloaded” for the most part.  An obese parent is likely to raise an obese child, for example:  Even if the parent talks about eating right the practices of the parent are the ones that will stick.  Same with capability, creativity, how kids spend their time, what if fun, etc.  These are often called genetic, and they are heavily influence by genetics, but they are also hugely influenced by the people around the child.  If there is no TV in the house because parents fill their time with other things then I guarantee that the child will read or play more than when there is a TV constantly on because the parents watch a lot of TV.

Raising good children is more about purifying and improving the parents than the kids.

Q: You are both Polish, raising your children in a French-speaking region of Canada.  Your children are on their way to being trilingual with English as their third language.  What are the values of being raised with more than one language?

Alex: The Polish is mainly an identity thing, with the extended family on both sides being Polish-speaking, so it's very natural for the children to learn Polish and they have many chances to practice.  Similarly with French, we live in a bilingual country and we lived in a French speaking province so it is natural and useful to have that language.

Languages in general open the mind.  French and Polish are very different from English and have different biases and judgements. If you know more than one language it becomes obvious that a lot of axioms are just assumptions.  At the very least, people learn that they have a history.  Terms like barbeque, cul-de-sac, scout, and others, all of a sudden they actually mean something.  It increases creativity and the basis for problem solving.

Bogusia: My dad always said that a thief can take away everything except for what you learn.  Teaching a child a language is one of those gifts that cannot be stolen.  Learning different languages also lets the child, and than adult, communicate with more people, understand more things, become more useful in society.  My father also said that we should always learn the languages of our enemies so that we understand what they are saying, and that we can be one step ahead of the game.  Being in Poland, the enemies were Russians and Germans.  Living in Canada, this doesn’t really apply, but learning many languages is really an advantage, at least for that reason.

When in comes to Polish, not many people speak it where we live, so it’s our own secret language, between the kids and I.  When we’re out shopping, I don’t feel constricted by norms of society... we can talk about anything and we are in our own little world: I don’t feel like anybody is invading our privacy by listening in.  

When it comes to French, there are so many more jobs open in Canada to people with the ability to speak and write in French.  My kids might not appreciate the extra hassle now, but in the future they’ll always have this extra skill for free, without effort whatsoever.  In fact, my kids don’t realize now what a challenge it is to learn an extra language.  My kids like to learn French, it’s part of their school day, it doesn’t feel like any extra work at all.  When we lived in Quebec, language was a huge barrier for a lot of people.  I was lucky I could teach in an English school, but if I wasn’t a teacher, I don’t think I could have found a job if I didn’t know French... including working at McDonald’s.  Even in English Canada, government jobs go to people that know French, politicians are made fun of if they don’t speak French.  

Q: Bogusia, you are a teacher by trade with an Educational Psychology degree.  How are education and psychology related?

Bogusia:  My first passion was math and physics.  When I was young I thought I would be a scientist or researcher.  But when I got to my undergrad physics degree, and had a few summer jobs doing “physics” I realized that I cannot do physics for the rest of my life, that my passion is gone, that I need more contact with people.  I might have rushed to that decision, basing it on a few summer jobs, but I had nothing else to go on.  So then, searching for a job with more human contact, I decided to become a teacher.  Initially I didn’t take teaching too seriously, as it seemed to come naturally to me.  But after a while, I started noticing that some students learn differently than others, that some students responded extremely well to what I was doing in the classroom and others couldn’t care less.  I started realizing that teaching had to be catered to the individual.  I also started becoming more interested in how we learn.  Then I had children and had a first hand look at the development of the mind in my kids, how they learn, how they interact.  All this was increasingly fascinating to me... and so after about 8 years of teaching I went back to school to get a degree in Educational Psychology.  You see, I thnk Education and Psychology go hand in hand.  How can we know how to teach without understanding the mind, how we learn, the emotions of the student, motivation, etc.?  My degree is actually in the Learning Sciences.  This, I think, describes what I am passionate about... learning.  But these learning sciences include many different disciplines: psychology, education, neuroscience, computer science, complexity theory, etc.

Alex:  I’ll chime in as well, as an armchair psychologist and semi-pro teacher.  I teach Aikido, my children, coach youth technology clubs and run competitions, and so on.  I also study psychology.  For me, it’s eye opening how much psychology matters in all aspects of life.  People are very easy to manipulate.  Marketers and salespeople are pros at getting people to want something, affecting people’s happiness, people’s motivations.  It isn’t that hard, but you need to be skilled.  Psychology for education is similar.  Teachers can affect the learner’s motivations, their views of the world and their place within it.  Teachers aren’t going for simple and singular tasks like convincing someone to buy one more fast food meal per week, they are going for the vague and complex goal of improving people.  That’s tough and it’s pretty easy to mess up in areas, or do it slowly, or to have no impact whatsoever.  Psychology is important for everyone to have a basic grasp of.

Q:  Bogusia, you run Nucleus Learning, an online company that provides learning materials, home-schooling materials, and educational ideas for parents and teachers.  Tell us a little bit about how Nucleus Learning was born?

Bogusia:   Back in 2006 I developed a math puzzle called Hexa-Trex.  I put it out in a few games magazines and some local newspapers, but I wanted to give it to the world.  This is when I decided to put up a website to publicize my puzzles.  Publicizing my Hexa-Trex puzzles was the purpose of my website was initially, but I wanted to make it more than just the puzzles.  I decided that I would post my old tests, my old lesson plans, my educational resources also.  I thought it could be a centre for more teachers, but I soon realized that many teachers like to share their resources on their own websites, so that plan fell through.  However, after a while I realized that I could post more thoughtful discussions about education and anything related to learning.  This is how it began.

Q:  On Nucleus Learning, you provide readers with many articles and information ranging in topic from language development to complex math problems and from social/emotional development to travel tips.  How do you come up with ideas to write about for both your blog and website?  What inspires you?

Bogusia:  Nucleus learning is a way of linking everything I’m interested in together.  Everybody seems to think that my blog is very eclectic, but I see everything on it very much linked together.  I am a teacher and because of this, educational resources and educational blog posts are a given.  But that’s not all I’m interested in... I love puzzles for example, especially math puzzles.  So anything math related or puzzle related goes on my website.  And of course I don’t think of these things as separate: I think learning by playing is very powerful, so in my mind, doing puzzles is the same as learning / educating.  Travel is also another way of learning.  Then of course the developmental posts / articles are very closely related to education, except based more on my kids and not my students.  Everything on my website is something I thought about, and decided to share it externally.  I try not to put on it too many specific / personal details, as those are not interesting to everybody.  I like to talk more about the concepts, things that others can respond to, others out in the world can read and relate to as well, without necessarily knowing my family.

As I said before, my passion is learning, and my website reflects that and everything on it is in some way related to learning.  Hence the name: Nucleus Learning (the centre of learning).    

Q:  Guest posters contribute content to Nucleus Learning, such as blog posts and lesson plans.  What criteria do you use to screen the blog posts and lesson plans?

Bogusia:  People usually contact me to see if they can post on my website.  I accept, as long as the content is related to the general theme of learning.  I’m pretty open to what they write, because I realize that everybody has their own views on learning - I can’t just go with what my beliefs are.  However sometimes I get posts that are blatantly advertisements / spam.  So I have to get rid of those posts.  Ultimately I have the final say of whatever is on my website, although sometimes I fall behind... I usually try to clean up my website content once every few weeks.  

Q:  On Nucleus Learning you analyzed Asian vs. Western education and noticed the difference in expectations, schooling, and rigor, what are some lessons you’ve learned from the Asian systems that you want to make sure you instill in your children?

Bogusia: I’m not sure if I want to make sure I instill in my children any of the Asian system.  What is the purpose of education?  I always have this debate with myself or with Alex (my husband).  Is it so they can pass some test in school?  Why do we bother educating our kids?  What is the purpose of school?  Maybe kids in China can solve very difficult and complex math problems, but what do they have to show from it when they grow up?  What does Chinese society have better compared to Western society?  I was talking to a friend that just got back from Korea.  The children there go to school Monday to Saturday, morning to night.  I don’t know if this is healthy for kids... don’t they need some freedom to become creative, to actually expand our human knowledge, not just duplicate it on a test?  Of course I’m not completely happy with the education system in Canada, otherwise I wouldn’t supplement as much as I do.  But I don’t think the Chinese or Koreans have the right method either.

Q:  You believe that play is important for children.  What led you to embrace this concept and try to live by it for your own children?

Alex:  I am a child at heart and I also believe that happiness is pretty important.  So I play a lot with my children.  We invent lots of games and I use play to build rich imaginations and expand physical or mental abilities.  My wife believes in unstructured play without adult involvement, but I think that adults should be allowed to play with their kids too!  I definitely think it's important to let kids lead the play a lot of the time.

Bogusia:  I think play is the most important thing that children and adults can do.  This is not only my own belief, but there are numerous studies that show that play, for any age group, is one of the most beneficial things a person can do: for learning, for mental growth / awareness, for health, for happiness, etc.  I am a complete advocate of PLAY.

Q: What are three things you’ve learned about life from your own boys?

Alex:  Number one for me is the understanding that everyone has their own point of view.  Things that I find unimportant my kids find very important.  A little blueberry is important enough for my baby to cry over and, when he gets it, it’s the best thing in the world.  Similarly, problems are way different for kids.  A killer problem for a small child is finding their way out of a store for example, or filling a bowl of cereal.  At the same time, kids don't care about mortgage payments or home maintenance.

Bogusia:  1.  Our boys love to plan and dream of the future.  I forgot how fun and important this is.  2.  Kids are not machines, and however hard I try to push them in one direction, they might not go that way, and might even try to oppose me.  Humans are complex systems so its very easy to change a child’s life just with one wrong / right move.  3.  Go with your instinct.  There were so many times when I didn’t know what to do in a given situation, so I learned to trust my instinct.  There is no right or wrong when it comes to raising children, no rule book, so I really have to rely on instinct a lot.

Q:  Alex, on one of your blog posts, you claim that you can train your child to be gifted.  How do you define giftedness?  What would you say to someone that says giftedness is innate and not trained?

Alex:  I don't define giftedness because I don't believe it really exists.  Perhaps at some extreme level where it's more of a handicap than a gift, but your basic "high intelligence" I don't believe should be labelled with a word like "gifted".  My wife and I disagree a little on this though.

Everyone is at different levels of awareness and complexity of thought.  They are also at different levels of motivation, curiosity, perseverance, tolerance for failure, views on their ultimate potential.  These are given to children by their parents when they are young and then the child runs with it.  If you think your child can be highly intelligent then she probably can.  Studies have been done on this kind of self-full-filing prophecy where simply believing that kids are smarter than they are actually makes them smarter over time; not by magic but by the way the child is treated and expected to perform.

Every child is gifted and that’s real.  Nobody ever achieves their full potential so placing limits by calling someone gifted or not is a real tragedy.

Bogusia:  I taught in a gifted school and some students at the school were bright and some were gifted.  I could tell the difference.  The difference wasn’t in their grades or their understanding of the material.  It was more in their emotional state, their behaviour, their actions in a social setting.  I don’t think the term “gifted” is understood properly.  Yes, gifted students are extremely bright, most of the time, but that doesn’t necessarily lead them to stardom in the future.  Gifted students are mentally far ahead of their peers, but bright students can get there, and I think that’s what Alex is getting at.  But I don’t think all bright students are gifted.  For me gifted is more of a disability actually.  Gifted children have unbalanced brains: they are cognitively extremely well developed, but at the same time, they are very emotional (and have a hard time controlling their emotions), very sensitive, very much children.  I think we shouldn’t use the term “gifted” and bright interchangeably.  “Gifted” should be reserved for the children that need the special attention or else they’ll underachieve, or have depression, or other problems.  Bright students will survive school no matter what - if they stay in the regular program, if they are challenged or not, if they do what they like or if they have others push their interests on them.  And I disagree with Alex here... I think there is definitely some genetics or biology involved in a “gifted” child.  But I do agree with Alex in that any child can become a bright child... it’s all about the raising strategy, involvement of the parents, environment and opportunities for the child  when they are growing up.    

Q:  How would you describe the parenting style you implement?

Alex:  Lenient and demanding at the same time.  I believe in giving the child as many choices as possible, but holding them responsible for outcomes.  They get to pick what they do most of the time as long as they are making decent choices that let them grow.  My aim is to create an independent child as early as possible.

Q:  In your opinion, what are the three most important nuggets for first-time parents to remember about parenting?

Alex:
1)  Don't change your lifestyle too much.  Kids are not fragile, and they're not a huge burden.  You can still go shopping, to the hairdresser, travelling, camping, eating out at restaurants, and whatever other things make you happy.  Just take the kid with you.  

2)  The second is to not miss out on the child.  Adults have a lot of activities going on and kids can seem ... in the way.  You’ll regret it if you miss your kids growing up.

3)  Finally, learn how to be creative and happy from the child; kids are masters are creating joy out of very little.

Bogusia:  I agree with Alex.  We talk about this a lot.  I’ll come with three more.

1)  Include your kids in your life.  Make sure you show them what it means to live, not just the fun stuff, but the boring mundane life.  Take them grocery shopping, show them how to do laundry and cleaning up after themselves, if you’re doing a building project get them to help you.  If you’re doing your taxes make them read the numbers out for you.  Kids need to understand what real life is about.

2)  Life is too busy to clean constantly.  People make a mess all the time.  Make them clean up after themselves, but don’t freak out about it too much.  Spend time doing other things than cleaning up after your kids.

3)  Be supportive and loving.  Acceptance is one of the most important emotions that the child can feel.  No matter what the child does make sure they feel accepted and loved unconditionally.

Q:  As parents of four, what is the one thing that surprised you about raising children in general?  What is are the joys and woes of raising boys?

Alex:  I was surprised by how quickly they grow up.  They are capable of so much even from early ages, and it’s a joy to be with them..  As far as woes, there aren’t that many yet.  When the kids show character defects like lying or laziness, that’s the biggest issue for me.

Bogusia: I was always a tomboy when I was growing up.  I didn’t like girly things at all, so I think I’m lucky that we just had boys.  I don’t think I would know what to do if my girl was “girly”, but our boys are sometimes girly and dress up in tutus.  Our boys are very rowdy and they love to play with each other.  Of course, every next child I wanted a girl, but I don’t regret that we just have boys - it worked out really well for us.  We love every single one.

Q:  Currently, you have two children in school.  Are you very involved when it comes to your boys?  Where do you draw the line and make sure you don’t cross the line with teachers, especially since Mom is an educator herself?

Alex:  I'm not involved day-to-day in their schooling, but I do take a big interest.  I ask my children every day about what they did, and if I get the sense that they aren't getting good outcomes from school then I step in.  Against the advice of my relatives and friends I got my son skipped out of second grade into third.  I think teachers are service providers and they shouldn't be offended if I make inquiries or requests.  

Bogusia:  Since I’m a teacher, I know how annoying it can be if the parent is constantly on the teacher’s back.  When we go to parent teacher interviews, I can read between the lines.  So it is important to let the teacher be a teacher, and not interfere with her daily routine, etc.  But on the other hand, my children are the most important things in my life, so if I think my child is not benefiting from the instruction, I will make sure to either point it out to the teacher, or supplement with my own in-home teaching, or in radical cases, change the teacher / school.  

Q: You have engaged your boys in many Perfect Activities.  Where do you get ideas for these activities?  Where do you get your inspiration and motivation to create not mediocre, but perfect, activities for your children?

Alex:  I just think of things that I would love to do.  I want to make movies, learn magic, build robots, go mountain climbing, be an actor, all that kind of stuff.  When it's time to do sometime, we just think big and try to bite of as much fun as we can chew.

Bogusia:  Sometimes it’s hard to please everybody... we have four boys ranging from 1 to 8.  What the 8 year old would enjoy is usually not the same as the 1 year old.  So we have to make sure we’re fair on choosing what we do, so that some of the time each one of us (not just the kids, but adults also) is happy and satisfied.  Some days we let a specific child / adult choose what everybody does.  Nothing is off limits, as long as it’s doable and doesn’t interfere with prior engagements.  This system works out well, and serves a secondary purpose of letting our children practice decision making.

Q: As if you weren’t busy enough, in addition to maintaining a blog and a business website, you also help find real estate for the family’s investment business.  You must be super organized and not need to sleep much.  Where do you find time to do all this and still be healthy?

Alex:  To be honest we don't.  We have to pick and choose.  We have other partners that we engage with for some of the business stuff, and other things we just let slide sometimes.  You'll see on the blogs that there are certainly dry times as other projects took the fore.

Bogusia:  It’s hard to keep everything going.  I find that I usually prioritize, with kids usually taking the foreground.  But I always try to do something extra, so that my kids see that they are not the centre of the universe, that there are other things in life than just their life, their play.  Our kids need to see this, and thus they’ll have a better understanding of the world.  But I think the key to doing so many things is that we enjoy all of the things we do.  Some people like to watch TV, read books, go for a jog.  Although we enjoy those things too, we also like to invest, to write on our blog, to spend time with our kids, equally as much.  And so, when I have some spare time, instead of sitting down to read a book, I might go to my computer and write a blog about something interesting I was thinking about that same day.  

Q:  Both of you seem busy all the time with jobs and many hobbies such as real estate investing, day-trading, investing in start-ups, running marathons and building computers.  Do the two of you ever have quiet time or see each other?  What does a typical day or week look like in your family?

Alex:  No, we don't have quiet time.  But we don't need it.  We love to spend time with each other and don't waste time thinking about what else we might be doing apart from the greater family.  That's a sure way to unhappiness.  Most days are pretty flexible.  We have dinner together, do something with the family like a bike ride or park visit or play a game.  We also try to do one thing towards our goals each day.  We're together every day.

Bogusia:  I try to make sure that the week is full of “free” time for the kids.  I don’t want them to have evenings packed with organized sports, extracurricular activities, etc.  I want my children to have time to play, have friends, become friends with each other, have time to figure out what they’re interested in, have time to read, time to explore, time to imagine.

Q:  What are some things you make sure you do with your husband to assure consistency when it comes to raising four boys?
Alex:  We talk about things usually.  We're pretty open, and we're ok with disagreeing a bit.

Bogusia:  Most of the time, we are very similar in our views on parenting, but sometimes it’s hard to be on the same page.  In those cases, we always make sure to discuss with one another each other’s point of view, and we come to a conclusion.  I, for one, love these discussions, and look forward to talking about our children, how to raise them better, what we  should decide as a family.  I look forward to sharing my point of view, but also listening to Alex, and seeing where he’s coming from.  It’s a very natural process, and usually we both come out with a better understanding what is right for our children.

Q: Your family’s net worth has grown tremendously over the last ten years.  How did you get to where you are now?

Alex:  Small steps.  We are not afraid of risk and we know that moving forward will always get you closer, so we try to get closer every day and we try to build up skills or assets that pay dividends later.  We both read a lot of books for example, and we meet with other business minded friends, so we enrich ourselves that way.  I wrote about our financial history, but the essence is to simply involve ourselves in ventures.  The stock market, real estate, businesses.

Bogusia: Ten years ago we read a book called Rich Dad Poor Dad.  This book inspired us to make a 10 year plan to be independent within ten years, or before we turned forty.  We began to think of investing in a different way.  We build a spreadsheet to plan for ten years to make the amont of passive income that would allow us to do this, each year.  We are on track, plus or minus.  I think this plan is what allowed to be where we are.

Q:  Where do you see your family in five years?  What’s waiting around the next corner for the family?

Alex:  We hope and plan to retire when we're 40.  That's in about two years for me.  By retire, I mean be independent of a job.  Certainly we'll be working full time on enjoying our family and pursuing our ventures.  We could probably do this now.  Maybe we should!

Right now I’m an investor in a mobile telephone services company that’s growing at nearly 10% per month, an oil rig and service provider company that’s taking off, and a fibre-optic technology company that I hope can be acquired soon.  We are doing a real-estate infill redevelopment with some partners, and have a few web projects on the go plus a queue of other projects.  We obviously believe in the shotgun approach.  If a couple of these hit then we’ll be set up.  I the meantime, it’s hard to find time to write about parenting!

Bogusia:  In the next few weeks, I am releasing an app for iPhone / iPad of my Hexa-Trex puzzles.  I’m very excited, as this is my first app.  In five years I hope that our family will continue our creative projects, working together, along with our children.  Hopefully our websites will be still up and running and we will have developed a few more apps, a few more educational resources.  I would love for our kids to help us with our endeavors, but maybe they’ll be still too young, we’ll see.

Thank You

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Bogusia & Alex Gierus are bloggers, educators, and online business owners. Visit their family blog, www.perfectingparenthood.com and their online teacher website, www.nucleuslearning.com. You can also find them on twitter @perfectingparen or facebook at fb.com/PerfectingParenthood

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