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289: Spinach in the Spaghetti Sauce (Maybe You Don’t Really Need a Parenting Class)

When people find out I’m a parenting coach, they’ll often say they should probably take a parenting class. Now, you know I believe in the value of coaching. But there are lots of everyday opportunities to connect with our kids and teach them how to navigate the world. Stories you read together for fun can be a great source of wisdom if you just know what to look for and reinforce. I call this the “spinach in the spaghetti sauce” method of teaching kids life lessons, and I’ve got a fun example to show you just how effective it can be. 

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How books and stories can help us guide our kids, even when they’re not intentionally teaching lessons.
  • Why we parents put so much pressure on ourselves to teach kids all the lessons, when they’re learning so much from the behavior we model.
  • How to appreciate and activate the educational tools we already have at our disposal.

And much more! 

As always, thanks for listening. Head over to Facebook, where you can join my free group Mastermind Parenting Community. We post tips and tools and do pop-up Live conversations where I do extra teaching and coaching to support you in helping your strong-willed children so that they can FEEL better and DO better. If you enjoyed this episode and think that others could benefit from listening, please share it!

About Randi Rubenstein

Randi Rubenstein helps parents with a strong-willed kiddo become a happier family and enjoy the simple things again like bike rides and beach vacays.

She’s the founder of Mastermind Parenting, host of the Mastermind Parenting podcast, and author of The Parent Gap. Randi works with parents across the U.S.

At Mastermind Parenting, we believe every human deserves to have a family that gets along.

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[00:00:00] Randi Rubenstein: My name is Randi Rubenstein, and welcome to the Mastermind Parenting Podcast. At Mastermind Parenting, we’re on a mission to support strong-willed kids and the families that love them. 

Hello, hello, hello. How is everyone this week? I had an idea for an episode that you might find surprising. I want to talk about this thing that many people have said to me over the years when they, you know, meet me or they find out what I do. Quite often they’ll say, Oh, I should take a parenting class. And I don’t know, I didn’t 100 percent know how to respond. To say that I teach parenting classes always sort of felt weird. Because coaching is different than teaching a parenting class. 

I haven’t even really like thought about it until recently, because I’ve been feeling sort of nostalgic because my youngest son is a senior in high school and he’s graduating. And well, it’s probably been over the last year or so. I’ve been revisiting books from my childhood, books that I read them when they were kids and most of our books we gave away, but my, especially Avery, she was very attached to her childhood books. And so we went through and we kept like her favorites. 

And some of her favorites. I mean, they’re not like, fancy books. It’s like, the cheap books that you find, like, the $3.99 books that you find like at Barnes and Noble or whatever back in the day. 

Yes. That’s a guilty thing that I’ve done, I did when my kids were little, they thought Barnes and Noble was the library. We’d literally go to Barnes and Noble. I just, we didn’t have a great library near us. I was lazy. I didn’t travel. We went to Barnes and Noble quite often in their PJs when they were like needing the next book in a series, we were super indulgent like that, whatever. Judge me, judge me for it. 

So anyway, we kept some of their favorite books, and I’ve been rereading them, um, like a handful of Berenstain Bears books, If You Give a Pig a Pancake. I loved that book. And then I came across this book and it’s called Bootsy Barker Bites. It’s by Barbara Botner. I don’t think this is a famous book. It was just a random book that my kids ended up liking and we read it many times. 

And as I’ve been rereading these books, it’s made me realize how much I learned from these books. Not realizing that I was learning things from these books but I’m like, huh, I teach this concept. So I like to call stories that teach things, I call them spinach in the spaghetti sauce lessons because maybe you’re like me and you read like I don’t know, Jerry Seinfeld’s wife’s book years ago that talked about sneaking spinach in the spaghetti sauce or wherever you could. 

And it’s like, I was like, Oh, that’s brilliant. And I would chop up a ton of spinach and my kids would be like, what’s the green stuff? Seasoning. It’s just seasoning. It’s delicious, isn’t it? Seasoning. You know, if I gave them a plate of spinach, they were never eating it, but I could put as much spinach as I wanted to in the spaghetti sauce.

And so it made me realize, for thousands and thousands of years, human beings have learned through stories. So I think I now have an answer when someone says, Oh, I should take a parenting class. I want to say, should you really like, should you? Or, maybe just utilize the tools that you already have. 

Clip 01 In

[00:04:13] Randi Rubenstein: If you’re already the kind of parent that reads to your kids, maybe you don’t read to your kids all day long. I didn’t, but you read one or two books at night. I just want you to know there are so many spinach and the spaghetti sauce lessons in these stories and it is how we are designed to learn.

And so maybe we need to take it off our plate that we have to do one more thing. We need to learn all these concepts. Perhaps it’s just about paying attention to the things that you’re already learning and even thinking a little bit deeper about them and not from a place of then needing to have a big conversation about it with your kids, but an understanding that you don’t have to feel anxious. That your kids aren’t learning all the things. 

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[00:05:08] Randi Rubenstein: Because if I say, why do you need to take a parenting class? A lot of times people will say, well, I, you know, because sometimes my kids don’t listen to me. That’s usually a main issue that people, I think many parents have is like, how do you get them to listen? How can I get them to listen the first time? I just want them to listen. 

And if I were coaching you and I said, well, why? Why do they need to listen? Ultimately, you’re going to get to, well, I, I need them to listen so I can teach them things. Isn’t that what being a parent is all about? 

What kind of things? Like, being kind to their siblings. I need to teach them to be kind to their siblings. I need to teach them to pick up after themselves. I need to teach them responsibility. I need to teach them how to be a good person, right? I need to teach them all these things. 

And I’m like, what if you’re already teaching them those things? By just modeling those things, what if you’re already teaching them those things by reading stories to them. And not numbing out when you’re reading the stories, like reading the stories, paying attention and maybe even quizzing yourself to think a little more deeply about it so that you can bring up these stories at, you know, I mean this book, the reason I pulled this book, this Berenstain Bears, the Berenstain Bears Get The Gimmies.

I I can’t tell you how many times we referred to this book. We’d be at Target or wherever and my kids would be like, Oh, can I have, and I’d be like, and so we had a sound. It was, cause in the book they call it the galloping greedy gimmick gimmies, the galloping greedy gimmies. I guess that’s a tongue twister, apparently for me.

and so my kids would start with the badgering and I just go, [CLIP CLOP SOUND] Which, you know, it was my lame imitation of a horse galloping. And all I did was make that noise. And when I made that noise, they knew what I was talking about. I didn’t have to like lecture them. I didn’t have to get in a fight with them. It was, I just utilize this tool. I utilize this tool. 

And so I, I want to talk about utilizing the tools that we already have and then having an anchor so that when your kids, you know, when you’re all of a sudden starting to feel panicked that your kids showing up, they’re not being cooperative. They’re not listening to you. They’re not being responsible. They’re not picking their shoes up. There’s a bath towel now on the ground again, they’re being mean to their siblings. I mean, chances are you already have a whole repertoire of books of stories that you could refer to. Okay? 

So I was thinking, why don’t we learn a thing from a book? Just so I can I can show you sort of what I’m talking about and how, many deeper concepts are within the stories that you’re already reading your kids. Okay? 

And I’m not talking about the obvious stories about be a kinder person. Like my daughter said this to me recently, we were talking about something and she’s like, yeah, like children’s stories should not have like obvious psychological terms. Like that’s for the parent. That’s not going to engage the kids. So, and I said, well, I call it spinach in the spaghetti sauce lessons, which when I told her, she was like, what does that mean? And when I told her and I go seasoning, it’s just seasoning. She started dying, laughing because apparently that’s what I said a million times.

So yeah, so like this is a, I love this book because it’s such a good example. Bootsy Barker Bites. And there’s a picture on the front of like, obviously a pretty. bratty little girl and she’s showing her teeth. So this doesn’t seem like the kind of book that you’re going to read to your kids, and teach them 

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[00:09:31] Randi Rubenstein: how to be a good friend, how to be a kind person, how to have better boundaries, how to be more assertive, how not to let people walk all over you. What do you do when you’re faced with a classmate that’s not so nice, right? 

We want to teach kids about all those things. And quite often we try to teach them all those things, but we use adult language and we’re not using stories and we’re not meeting them where they are and we’re boring the shit out of them and they’re not learning a damn thing, right?

And then they’re getting annoyed with us because they can tell that we have some agenda and they’re just kids and they just want to play. 

Clip2 out?

[00:10:12] Randi Rubenstein: So I want to I want to kind of pick this book apart and show you what I’m talking about. 

Okay, Bootsy Barker bites My mother and Bootsy Barker’s mother are best friends. When Mrs. Barker comes to visit she always brings chocolate doughnuts fresh strawberries and Bootsy. 

Okay, so here, very beginning, she’s setting it up. How many of us can relate? You’ve got a really close friend, you’ve got a close mom friend, maybe it’s a friend from college you’re visiting, and like, what’s the dream? Oh, our kids are going to play, they’re going to be best friends. We can visit, we can catch up, the kids will play, it’ll be perfect. So, many of us know, you know what this beginning setup is all about because we’ve lived it, right? 

And so this whole book is from the child’s perspective, which I love. Like the mom she’s just like barely a character in it. This is all from the kids perspective. Remember, kids are egocentric. they don’t want to hear necessarily what the adults have to say. They want to learn from another kid. They want to learn through another kid’s story. So I think this book does this beautifully.

So she says, first we have a tea party. Then my mother tells Bootsy and me to play in my room. 

Right? How often? Like the moms are probably like, Hey, you want to get high? Hey girls, why don’t y’all go play in the room? 

So then she says, I try to get Bootsy interested in my book about turtles, but Bootsy hates turtles. And they, they show the little girl who lives there. She’s covering her ears, running away and Bootsy. is having a complete meltdown and just like, tearing up her book. 

you’re a turtle, howls Bootsy. And I’m a turtle eating dinosaur. So they show Bootsy’s now bullying the little girl. My mother calls, play nicely girls. Bootsy yells, we are, I can’t yell anything. So here’s this little girl, just getting completely terrorized, by this, you know, the mom’s friend’s daughter. 

It’s time for the Barkers to go home. We’ll be back tomorrow, says Mrs. Barker cheerfully. I tell my mother I don’t like playing with Bootsy Barker. My mother tells me I have to learn to get along with all kinds of people.

Mm hmm. Yep. I’ve been there. I’m like, yeah, it’s fine. You know? It’s fine. You can play for an hour. You’ll be okay. Right. 

I go to bed and dream that Mrs. Barker moves far away and takes Bootsy with her. But Mrs. Barker and Bootsy never go anywhere except the park, the grocery store. Now they show Bootsy at the grocery store terrorizing a baby in a cart, and our house. 

It’s so nice you girls can be friends, says Mrs. Barker, as Bootsy leads me to my room. I let Bootsy look at my pet salamander, Charlene. But Bootsy hates salamanders. You’re a salamander, screams Bootsy, and I’m a salamander eating dinosaur. Terrorizing. Terrorizing this girl. 

Mrs. Barker knocks on the bedroom door. It’s time for Bootsy to go home. Tomorrow, says Bootsy, you get to be a worm. And before she leaves, she’s holding her down on the ground. Terrorizing her. 

 That night I dreamed that Bootsy accidentally falls off the edge of the world. I try to save her, but it’s too late. Okay, so here she’s literally, she’s dreaming that this terrorizer dies.

Okay, this is a book my kids loved. Kids are smart. Just because they’re enjoying a story where, another little kid that’s a total terrorizer that’s getting away with it, which I promise you every one of your kids has experienced, or maybe even they’ve been the terrorizer, and they’re like, just make this kid go away. Doesn’t mean we’re teaching kids to be murderers. We don’t, no. 

And she says, but she goes, I tried to save her, but it’s too late. And then they show, the illustrator shows the little girl like going to sleep with a smile on her face. Okay. Again, not going to grow up to be a murderer. We all need to settle down with taking things a little bit too seriously and a little too literally.

In the morning, my mother says she has a wonderful surprise. Bootsy will be staying overnight at our house while her parents are in Chicago. Okay. So the mom just announces it and then the illustrator shows the little girl like with the look of fear on her face like this is the worst news I’ve ever had.

I picture Charlene and me being rushed to the hospital with dinosaur bites. When my mother asked me what Bootsy and I would like for snacks, I can’t stand it anymore. Bootsy Barker is a dinosaur, I shout and she’s planning to eat me alive. My mother looks surprised. Sweetheart, she says, tell Bootsy, you don’t want to play that game. I go to my room to think it over. 

Now her mom says, tell Bootsy, you don’t want to play that game, right? She doesn’t go into a whole long lecture. She just gives her a tiny bit of coaching. And she basically teaches her daughter in that line, how to have a boundary. Boundaries are I statements, Bootsy, I don’t want to play that game. In that sentence, she’s teaching her daughter assertiveness, clarity, and how to say what your boundary is. I don’t want to play that game. Okay. 

The little girl, she’s not happy. She crosses her arms, right? Because she really wants her mom probably to say, okay, she’s not coming over. But the mom doesn’t let her off the hook. She just says, I believe in you. Tell her, I don’t want to play that game. She’s not going to fix it. She empowers her. 

Charlene and I spend the morning inventing a new game. See, so now the little girl is preparing. She’s like, okay, if I don’t want to play that game, then I better have a new game at the ready, right? So she’s getting ready. She’s figuring it out. She’s a little kid figuring it out. She doesn’t have her mommy fixing it all. She’s in her room trying to come up with strategy, trying to come up with a plan. 

Charlene and I spend the morning inventing a new game. The doorbell rings. It’s the Barkers dropping off Bootsy the Dinosaur. Hello, little worm, says Bootsy. I stand up and look Bootsy in the eye. Pardon me, Bootsy, I’m not a worm. I’m a paleontologist. Do you know what they do? They hunt for dinosaur bones. Would you like to play? 

And then they show Bootsy running away and the little girl standing up, standing in her power. As a paleontologist, she’s got a bone and a shovel in her hand. 

Bootsy runs out the front door. She wants to go with her parents. Mrs. Barker says Bootsy will have more fun if she stays at our house. I bet Mrs. Barker doesn’t want Bootsy going with her. She’s trying to offload her cause yeah, little Bootsy is a little bit of a terrorist, huh? 

Bootsy throws a tantrum on the sidewalk. So Bootsy’s parents take Bootsy to Chicago, which means I don’t have to wish Bootsy takes a rocket to outer space. Although if she does, it’s fine with me. 

So many spinach and spaghetti sauce lessons there. And lots of it is not PC. It’s not teaching about kindness. It’s not teaching necessarily about empathy. It’s not using any of these psychological terms, right? Meant for adults. It’s just speaking to a kid in kid language.

Guess what? Sometimes you’re going to be put in a situation with another kid that tries to boss you around, maybe even tries to terrorize you. And guess what? You’re going to have to figure this out. 

Although you can, and I hope you do, let an adult know what you’re going through. And then that adult can offer some coaching, right? And empower you, rather than swooping in to solve and fix and make everything just so perfect.

Look, I’m a recovering fixer who quite often relapses. But if we swoop in every single time our kid is terrorized by another kid, then they’re reliant on us to constantly swoop in and try and protect them. And there’s going to be lots of times where we won’t be there and they’re not going to have the skills. 

And so in this story, right, in this very sort of un PC story, it’s not saying why Bootsy is such a little terrorist. obviously Bootsy is a strong willed kid. Obviously Bootsy’s mom doesn’t listen to Mastermind Parenting or, you know, or learn what’s really going on with Bootsy. Bootsy has been catered to, Bootsy is walking around the world, obviously very dysregulated and taking out that on other people. 

But what, you know, I thought this was such a good story for our other kids, right? The kids who are not our strong willed children. I think that’s why Avery loved this book so much. Because it was from her point of view. You know, she was the one quite often getting terrorized. And I think she learned a lot from this. 

I mean, I remember when she started learning how, when Alec was terrorizing her, instead of saying, Alec, she started using other skills and other tools rather than trying to get somebody else to make him stop, right? She got resourceful and she had to think outside the box. 

And sometimes she did need some coaching. I remember at one point she was probably in fifth or sixth grade. She started what she called speaking Alec-ese. So he’d say something kind of rude to her and then she would translate it. 

Like she’d be telling a story about something and he’d say, I don’t know, he’d insult her or something. And she’d go, I know you’re worried that I’m showing up and saying things that other people are going to make fun of me because you’re really protective. Don’t worry. I’m not. I’m just talking to y’all about it because you’re my family.

You know, she would say things like that and it would incense him. And also, he didn’t really have a response to it. Because she, what she was doing in all those moments was basically applying what we call positive intent. Like saying like, you just said something nasty to me, but I actually know that it comes from being a protective big brother and you’re worried that I seem like silly girl and that somebody is going to bully me for, you know, saying things like that, but don’t worry. I’m only talking to my family about that stuff. I’m not talking to my peers about that. You know, she didn’t say those words, but that’s basically what she was saying. 

And once she applied positive intent, which is essentially saying, yeah, you just kind of screwed up, but I know you’re not a screw up. I know you’re a good person inside. Eventually, he just sort of stopped insulting her because it didn’t work. It didn’t get a rise out of her anymore. She sort of always had a response and then she applied positive intent. 

How did she learn how to apply positive intent? Did I ever sit down with her and say, this is the concept of positive intent? No, she learned it through stories. She became resourceful. She, she learned it from probably hearing me talk to him in this way, you know? 

And so they learn through stories. They learn from real life examples. They learn by what we model. And I think that, when we start to really teach through story, which really means that we don’t have to teach. We’re just reading these stories and we’re thinking a little more deeply about these stories and then we’re referencing these stories. 

So then when you have a kid, you know, Bootsy Barker Bites, if you have a kid that is terrorizing your other kid and you’re like, who let Bootsy in? Does somebody need to be a paleontologist around here? And that’s it. And all of a sudden it’s like that snaps your kids into realizing it. 

So Do you know how powerful it is to learn through story? Like that’s how it takes root. That’s how it takes root. Your kids are never listening when you lecture them. They’re never listening to the concepts that you just learned, that you’re trying to teach them, but they, they will learn through stories. They will learn through stories. By your example. 

There’s something basic that I think is missing right now when it comes to parenting. I think that it’s become the norm to think that we need to, you know, read book after book after book and like, like we’re designed to live connected to our pack members. We’re designed to get along. We’re designed to be in these relationships that feel cooperative and playful Right? We’re designed to enjoy each other. 

And I, I sort of feel like the reason why that’s not happening. It’s like we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. 

Clip 3 In?

[00:25:01] Randi Rubenstein: We’ve put so much pressure on ourselves that, Oh, I really should take a parenting class. Maybe the answer is no, you shouldn’t. No, you shouldn’t. Just read a book with your kids and think what is this book? Like what are the spinach in the spaghetti sauce lessons in this story? Hmm. what are the main concepts of this story? 

Not so that you need to pick it apart and take the fun out of it, but just for you to reference because now you have an actual tool and the next time your kid is behaving in a Bootsy Barker way or your other kid is dealing with a Bootsy Barker situation and not knowing how to have a boundary, not knowing how to assert themselves, you have a reference point, right?

Clip3 Out?

[00:25:58] Randi Rubenstein: Maybe it’s just, it needs to be even more simple, right? Maybe we’ve just been over complicating it and putting extra pressure on ourselves when frankly, like we’ve got enough pressure on us, right? 

Clip 04 In

[00:26:16] Randi Rubenstein: Parenting was never supposed to be just mostly one adult taking care of multiple children, doing all the things, teaching them all the things. It was supposed to be like this beautiful generational union and everyone was involved. We were supposed to be packs that were bigger than four and that’s not the way most of us live in our Western world. 

So I want to say let’s do whatever we can to take a little bit of that pressure off and to utilize the tools that are already here at our fingertips that we’re already using. Let’s just use them even better. 

Clip 04 Out

[00:26:57] Randi Rubenstein: So that’s what I’ve got for you this week and, bye. Have a great week.

Thanks for listening today, guys. I hope you picked up some tips, tools, maybe some baby steps for creating more balance and boundaries in your life. And I just wanted to let you know, if you want to continue moving the needle forward in creating this for yourself, having a happier household, I want you to go to my website and check out We have three beginning programs, and if you need some accountability and more support then please look for the one that would be a good fit for you.

And, as always, we’re on all the social channels under Mastermind Parenting, on Instagram it’s mastermind_parenting. And, you know, periodically I do pop up on different Instagram lives, Facebook lives where I give you teaching and coaching and I love engaging with you live to help you help your strong-willed kids so that they can feel better, because when they feel better they do better, and I love, love, love getting to know you guys. 

So thanks for listening. If you like this podcast, please don’t forget to subscribe, rate and review. Super, super appreciative.

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