“If we make our choices out of love… well, that’s being a good parent”, with Charlena Smith and Dr. Ely Weinschneider
A ‘good parent’? Oh, what a moving target that is. I mean think about that. A ‘good’ parent from decade to decade looks so different. I think a ‘good parent’ loves. Bottom line. I think love makes a good parent every time. We all make mistakes. But if we make our choices out of love… well, that’s being a good parent. Having your heart forever walk outside of your body. Making choices in their best interest — even when that choice is hard in the moment.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Charlena Smith. Charlena is the founder of Optio, a matched and Guided Accountability™ framework that empowers women to live their best, most inspired lives. Optio encourages and equips women to discover their purpose then define their goals in alignment with that purpose to see a 97% increase in successful goal completion.
A self-proclaimed workaholic in recovery, things weren’t always so clear for Charlena. After a near-death experience during pregnancy, she discovered that not dying, living a life for others, and really living the life you were born to live are very different things. She made a decision to find purposeful and fulfilling work for herself, not based on external expectations. And so, Optio was born.
Charlena lives in Baltimore, MD with her brilliant NASA husband and their two incredibly mischievous, yet simultaneously adorable, young children.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
I was born into a typical working-class family, in a pretty poor neighborhood, although I didn’t know we were a poor community until I left. Perspective is a funny thing. I truly wish every child had the opportunity to grow up like I did. We were very family centered. Family came first, second and third. I always felt supported. I always felt loved. My parents worked hard, and they loved harder. We shared a property with both sets of my grandparents at various stages of my youth. I’ve always lived on a multi-generational property. People always ask me how we do that. Honestly, I don’t know how (or why) people in the U.S. try to do all of this alone. It’s pretty common to live near or with family in so many other parts of the world. And for us — it just works. I’ve always known the love, not only of my parents and siblings, but of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone always did what they could, when they could. My mom worked two jobs to support my dad, who was also working full-time and attending night school. Then my dad buckled down to take care of my mom when she got sick. And yet, with all those responsibilities, they never missed a game. They never missed a performance. They were always there cheering me on. They all were. I had everything I needed and more. And there was never a shortage of love.
I recently heard that you need to determine 3 types of champions in your life if you want to be successful. First, you need an ‘encourager’ — someone who thinks all your ideas are the best thing since sliced bread. Your encourager is your eternal cheerleader, your very own pom-pom squad of one. Next, you need a ‘speed bump’. That’s someone who says, “That seems like a mighty fine idea, but why don’t we just pump the breaks and go over this new territory nice and slow, like?” Finally, you need the ‘rock’. The rock is the most important and the most difficult to find. Your rock loves you no matter what. If you shoot up to the sky, achieve your wildest dreams, and then somehow end up crashing and burning in a blaze of glory, your rock usually doesn’t even know it happened. They just love you for who you are. My parents are my rock. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without their unwavering love and support. I’m also pretty sure they don’t have a clue what I ‘do for a living.’ And you know what? They don’t care. Not in a bad way. They just love me if it’s Tuesday and I’m the kindergarten cafeteria volunteer or it’s Thursday and I just passed a law before Congress for equal rights. To them it’s just another day that begins in T and ends in Y that they get to love and support their daughter. How lucky am I?
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
What brought me to this SPECIFIC point in my career is quite a journey, so I’ll tell you the shortcut. In my early 20s I ‘had it all’ by nearly every definition. I was the first in my family to go away to college, and I went on to earn four undergraduate and three graduate degrees, as well as a traditional MBA. I started pursuing my PhD full time at the University of Maryland while I was also a full time professor at one of the most respected universities on the East Coast. Plus, I was the proud COO of a rapidly expanding marketing agency. And did I mention that I was also a partner in marriage with my amazing hubby and mother to two fantastic little boys under two?
All at the same time.
I’m here to tell you: that’s bananas.
And it almost killed me. I had a really horrific pregnancy and that, along with the stress of all the other positions in my life, landed me in the ICU for six months. I was read my final rights and given a 0% chance for survival. Obviously, since I’m sitting here in this interview, I didn’t die. Awesome, right? But a few months in the ICU and a ton of rehab to learn to to speak, walk, and talk again has a huge impact on a person. Especially a parent. My kids suffered a great deal in this season. I was determined that when I went back to ‘work,’ it would be with a whole new blueprint for life. I was determined to align my purpose and my family. And so, an entrepreneur and Optio were born.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
I’m gonna keep it real right now — because my schedule is constantly in flux. I mean: if you have little ones at home, you know life doesn’t always go as planned. Actually — you can almost guarantee that it won’t. Right?
But, typically, I wake up around 6:00 am. It’s taken me years to get to this place, but I practice the Miracle Morning. (Hal Elrod is a dear friend of mine and absolutely changed my parenting journey with this practice.) I also apply Optio’s Guided Accountability framework. Practice what you preach, right? First, I get still. I spend a few minutes just taking truly deep breaths and remind myself just how thankful I am for functioning lungs. Once you’ve been on life support, your level of appreciation for something as simple as breathing in and out is unfathomable. Then I drink water. So simple… but I’m telling you. If you go a few months with a tube down your throat and NOTHING to drink — that’s some next-level thirsty right there. I drink that water EVERY morning to remind myself just how truly momentous that first sip was after months being so thirsty. And I feel the gratitude flowing — into my bones — every time. Next, I reflect on my affirmations for that season — and actually say them out loud. This used to feel SO silly to me. But I decided to try it on for a month and doggone if I didn’t manifest the crap out of those affirmations. So now, I’m a sucker for including them in my daily practice. Then, I get my body moving. This is super important with post-ICU related injuries. The training never stops — and that’s just to maintain ‘normal.. It’s nothing crazy. If it’s nice out, I go for a walk. If I need to get pumped up for a big day, it’s a dance party. Then I spend at least 15 minutes reading. I love reading. LOVE it. I used to constantly read productivity books (hello, workaholic), but now I read parenting books or books on relationships. Almost losing everything puts what’s truly important into perspective. So just like they tell you on airplanes, I put my own oxygen mask on first by taking care of my mind and body, and then I put on my families’ — learning best practices to support them through each stage and season. Once my timer goes off, I journal for about 5 minutes. I wish I could say this happens seven days a week, but right about this time my little guys are waking up.
Now, this might seem counter-intuitive, but around this time I actually go back to bed. Ha. Not to sleep — but I truly LOVE to snuggle my kiddos. So, we usually snuggle up under the covers and read a story or talk about our intentions for the day. This is absolutely my favorite part of parenting, and I’m so grateful to have a career that allows for this flexibility. It allows me to connect with them in such a profound way and is incredibly grounding. It also allows them to wake up each morning gently… easing them into the day surrounded by love and support. That’s important to me.
Then it’s off to the races — I drive my kiddos to school at 7:30 and the mayhem begins. Every day as an entrepreneur looks different. But I put my nose to the grindstone and ‘do the work’ from 8am — 3pm, when I pick up my guys from school. We come home, do homework together, and play outside from about 3–5:30. This has been a great time for me to really get my body moving, because my little guys are anything but lethargic. Then we have dinner together pretty faithfully as a family at 6pm. This is our quality time to chat about what’s going on in our lives. Our highs, our lows, our failures and our wins. My hubby puts the kids to bed at 7:30, which is amazing because it gives them consistent, quality Dad time and it allows me to catch anything that fell through the cracks with work or came in after 3pm. I also delegate a lot. I stay in my lane. They say everyone has a 20% zone of genius, but they live so much of their time in the 80% they render themselves ineffective. Well… I try really hard to stay in my 20% — to spend my time doing the things only I can do. Then, once the kids are down, my husband and I try to have a ‘mini’ date from 8:30–9:30. Usually sitting on the back porch with a glass of wine, catching up on our day, and staying connected. Quality time is both of our love languages, and we’ve found that these moments to reconnect — just the two of us — are really important for our marriage.
And can I be honest for a minute? I’m asleep by 10pm. Sometimes even 9. Not gonna lie: I’ve been known to be found fast asleep at 8:30pm. Not winding down, not somewhere near bed, ASLEEP. Seriously. I turn into a pumpkin. One thing I’ve learned is to never sacrifice sleep. If I go more than two nights in a row with less than eight hours of sleep I start to feel it physically, in my body. Not to mention what it does to me mentally and emotionally. I run on sleep and snuggles. That’s a fact.
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?
Children are going to learn. No matter what you do — they’re going to absorb lessons from the world around them. So make sure YOU are the primary influencer, and make sure you have a hand in choosing who else will be around them.
I wasn’t around for about 9 months of my kids’ very early lives. When I say “I wasn’t around,” I mean I. Was. Not. Around. For any of it. I was in the ICU. We were incredibly blessed by my sister who swooped in and took my two babies in as if they were her own. She loved on them, made them feel seen and heard, and kept them in the most stable and loving environment possible. She is an absolute Angel. And yet we are still suffering the consequences of that time apart. post traumatic stress disorder, sensory processing disorder, significant speech delays… all a direct result of that lost time.
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?
Theophrastus said: “Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.”
If you want your kiddos to know their worth… Their value… Spend time with them.
When I came home and rejoined my kids, I had to make up for that lost time. We literally spent every waking moment together for more than a year. They were physically attached to me if we were out (one tied to my front and one to the back… babywearing is magical). I was the last thing they saw before their eyes closed and the first thing they saw when they woke in the morning. I had to fight hard for their trust. But it was so worth it. It birthed the relationship we have now — which is beautiful. It’s 100% based in trust, and they have the confidence to flex their own wings and soar on their own — knowing I’ll be firmly planted for them to return to. It’s beautiful to witness that growth, and worth every second I put into rebuilding the relationship.
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?
Oh, man. Quality time is where it’s at. You can spend all day with your kiddos and experience NO quality time with them. Isn’t that crazy? But that’s all they truly want/need. We don’t do expensive gifts or elaborate meals with our littles. We’ve found that spending quality time with them — one-on-one, as a tangible expression of their worth in our eyes — has a far better return on investment. Deep down your kids just want you. It’s so simple, and yet so hard to give of ourselves that freely.
I struggle in the discipline arena. It’s really hard for me to allow natural consequences to unfold. My gut reaction is to protect my children from anything that may hurt them. And although I know, logically, they need to learn these valuable lessons, that doesn’t make it any easier to stand firm. What DOES make it easier is all the love “deposits” I continue to put into my children’s emotional bank account.
Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages describes how every person — child and adult — gives and receives love in their own unique way. Each one has a “love bank,” which can be filled or depleted by you and others whom they frequently interact with. Each time you speak your child’s love language to him or her, you are making a quality “deposit” and giving them the emotional strength and security they need. Similarly, if you reprimand them or remove privileges — which are all part and parcel of any normal childhood, or learning process — you are making “withdrawals” from their account. I make sure my kiddos accounts are brimming full so when I make a ‘withdrawal’ (ie: sorry kids! You overdid screen time — The TV is unplugged for summer), I can feel good about it.
And although I haven’t gotten there yet, I hope the quality foundation I’m building with my kids now will continue onto their tween/teen years. I know, in my core, that a solid parent/child bond is a vital prerequisite for a healthy relationship through adolescence. Trust is a priceless commodity that is not easily earned and very easily broken. My kids and I have been down that path already. We don’t need to test those waters again. I hope that my unwavering commitment to our relationship NOW conveys a sense of worth and security as my kids go through the different seasons of life. And I’m confident that the sacrifices we have all made to allow for quality time with our kiddos will not go unnoticed.
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?
This used to be so, incredibly difficult for me. I felt the need to say ‘Yes’ to every opportunity and request. But then I was given the greatest gift.
Have you heard the analogy of a ‘full’ life in terms of the empty or full jar? Essentially a professor takes a mason jar and then fills it with two-inch rocks. He asks the class if the jar is full? Yes, they agree. The professor then pours a box of pebbles into the jar and they roll into the open areas between the rocks. Again, he asks if the jar is full. The students chuckle and agree that, yes, this time it is full. But the professor then begins to pour a handful of sand into the jar. The sand trickles in and fills the space between the pebbles. Full? Timid this time, the class more asks, “Yes?” Then comes the cup of water to ‘truly’ fill up the jar.
My gift? I had this jar COMPLETELY 100% emptied for me. There were no rocks. There were no pebbles. No sand or water. I was in the ICU on life support, being read my final rights. My jar was empty. I had to make a decision. I CHOSE to put ‘me’ back in that jar. I worked HARD. First at not dying. Then at the basic steps of living: learning to walk, talk, and eat again. Then I got to CHOOSE what to put back in my jar. At what speed and in what order. What an amazing gift, right? So my life at this point is incredibly intentional. And the result of living a life that is in alignment with my purpose and my values. Well — let’s just say it’s priceless.
As for 5 tips — assuming you’re not given the gift of full and total life support and a completely clean slate:
- No. Is a complete sentence. It’s OK to say “No” and just leave it at that. Someone needs you to run the bake-sale? No. Someone needs you to host a fundraiser for the PTA? No. Feel like just “No.” is a little flat? Try “No. I really need to carve out space to be present with my family.” I haven’t had anyone argue with that yet.
- Get it on the calendar. Prioritize your family. Block that time first. At the beginning of the year we schedule vacations first. The quality time we have on those trips fills us ALL up in extraordinary ways.
- Have a ‘no electronics’ rule at dinner. We have a box that everyone has to place their electronics in before we sit down to eat. No matter who comes over, their device goes in the box. The result? Amazing conversations.
- Remember this is just a season. The good, the bad, all of it. It’s just a season. So when your kiddo is being ridiculously adorable and they’re sweeter than honey: soak it up. Because it’s just a season. And when your kiddo is being really, really hard. Melting down in the middle of Target because you won’t let him buy an umbrella in June. Remember: it’s just a season. This, too, shall pass. It lets me be more present, more empathetic. Because this kid that’s melting down in front of me today is going to look a lot different tomorrow. And I want to remember all of him.
- Play games. Not video games — the old school kind: board games, card games, Yahtzee, Jenga… Seriously. Hide your laptop and your phone and initiate some family game nights. You’ll have fun, learn how your kids think, and be able to show them a thing or two along the way (and you’ll be shocked what they teach YOU).
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
A ‘good parent’? Oh, what a moving target that is. I mean think about that. A ‘good’ parent from decade to decade looks so different. I think a ‘good parent’ loves. Bottom line. I think love makes a good parent every time. We all make mistakes. But if we make our choices out of love… well, that’s being a parent. Having your heart forever walk outside of your body. Making choices in their best interest — even when that choice is hard in the moment.
As for an example? Hmm. I am no parenting expert. But here’s one choice I’m proud of, as a parent. I was incredibly sick when my boys were young. The combination of a truly terrible pregnancy, and the stress and strain of wearing too many hats landed me in the ICU for several months. I was inadvertently ripped out of my kiddo’s lives. I missed a lot of milestones. I missed a lot of moments. But more than anything, I lost my kids’ trust. When I ‘re-joined’ real life and my family, it was a lot like adoption. I had to engage in loads of parenting tactics that are typically reserved for adoptive families because of the lack of trust. Attachment parenting was one of them. I chose not to return to work right away. I chose to spend that time with my kids — getting back the time that I had missed. And I didn’t hide how hard recovery was. They were in it with me. And now we know that we can do truly hard things. As a result our bond is stronger than ever and I’m so incredibly proud of the relationship I have with each of them.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
I think we naturally dream big in our family. Their dad works every day for NASA, exploring the universe and beyond the unknown, and their mom works to bridge equality gaps and move the needle for world peace. Dreaming big isn’t our challenge. Failing? Failing was hard for both their dad and me growing up. Perfectionism runs in our blood. So we teach our kiddos to embrace failing. We want them to feel comfortable pushing the edge of the unknown. We want them to be comfortable OUTSIDE of their comfort zones. And so, we teach them that failing is the only real way to succeed. We fail frequently, we fail fast and we fail forward. We celebrate their failures and invite them into our own failures. We never pretend to be perfect or get it all right. We want them to be comfortable failing big so they can dream even bigger. And that ‘rock’ I mentioned earlier? The grounded, loving role my parents play so well for me? Well… I hope I can be that rock for them. Always. And I hope it gives them the confidence to dream even bigger than I can imagine.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
For me, personally? I define success as living in your purpose. Why are you here? Are you living that out daily? Do your calendar (where you’re spending your time) and your wallet (where you’re spending your money) align with your values (your heart)? If so, then I think you’re living the very definition of success. And the more you can live in your purpose, the more successful you are.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
Oh, my word. I am constantly consuming every resource I can get my hands on about parenting. And I’d say the best book, in any given moment, is the one that reflects my families’ stage of life — or the one we’re just about to enter into. Right now we’re at pre/early school age with our littles. ‘Education’ has been at the forefront of a great deal of our conversations as a family. My partner and I are both shining examples of the public school system. Raised by public school teachers, and walking alongside public school teachers as our peers, siblings and parents — we always assumed we’d take the public school route with our littles. But time’s are so different, and change is one of the few constants. We’ve been exploring alternative schooling — like homeschool, Unschooling, World schooling… Right now we’re really getting into the idea of the Acton Academy. If you haven’t read Courage to Grow by Laura Sandefer and you’re curious about Acton, I’d start there. Past that, the books on my nightstand right now are UnSchooling Rules, by Clark Aldrich; A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century by Oliver DeMille; and Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, by Peter Johnston. I know I’m a nerd. It’s OK. I’ve embraced it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”
This quote by Marianne Williamson has served as a lighthouse for my life. Every time I dream big, and then start to back down out of fear, I remind myself that by letting my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. The ‘light’ shines in different ways for me in different seasons. Sometimes my light looks like what others might call success and sometimes my light looks like hanging on to life by a thread, but refusing to be extinguished. No matter what the season, my light is always bright, transparent, courageous and vulnerable. Because I want to allow others to feel liberated enough to be who they were born to be, too.
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. 🙂
Guided Accountability. The process of discovering your purpose and designing your own blueprint in response to guidance and a safe space provided by an accountability partner.
It seems so simple. And it IS. Yet, it isn’t. It’s like going to the gym. Yes — you know it’s good for you and it’s the right thing to do. But sometimes showing up again and again is hard! Simple in concept — more challenging in the execution. That’s where the framework behind the movement comes in.
Let’s go back to some grade school math and science. Are you with me?
Like the mathematical term vector, Guided Accountability can be represented by an arrow, composed of both direction and magnitude. (And yes, Despicable Me Fans — I totally stole that. No shame in my Mom’ing game.) The accountable party holds the magnitude, the guide provides direction, or space for an intentional direction to be explored.
Now think back to science lab. Develop a hypothesis for the trajectory of your life. A hypothesis is used to define the relationship between two variables. Remember, a variable is any item, factor, or condition that can be controlled or changed. Can you change the passing of time? Einstein’s Relativity aside, no. (If you are reading this interview, you are probably not on a spaceship traveling near the speed of light.) For our purposes, time is constant. But how you choose to spend that time is up to you. Our quality of life is the variable. When are you going to decide that your life is a variable worth investing in?
The crazy thing is this: Guiding isn’t difficult, but we’ve been trained for years to avoid it. So you may be a little rusty, and frankly you’re probably a little uncomfortable having a conversation that looks like those that occur in the Guided Accountability space. They sometimes require space for silence (deeper thought), uncomfortable questions, and mirroring what you see — not just what you think the other person wants to hear.
Guided Accountability partners carve out time and space to intentionally define the blueprints of our lives.
If you’re starting to wonder why you can’t just carve this space out for yourself, I’d encourage you to consider that the true value of a guide is to serve as a mirror to the guided, pointing out blind spots you may not be aware of and strengths that may have gone under appreciated.
The Guided Accountability framework walks you through every step of the way. We have, literally, outlined the exact conversations you need to have for all 12 weeks of your Guided Accountability commitment. And 12 weeks is not an arbitrary or random time commitment. It’s based on a significant amount of science, data and research. As humans, when we truly push ourselves, we can get the MOST return on our investments within a 12-week cycle. Optio has structured the time and space to allow you and your partner to get the absolute most out of your time together. This pairing is about CONNECTION. And you have what it takes — inside you right now, in this very moment — to be an amazing Guided Accountability partner.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
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 .
Dr. Ely is available for speaking engagements, and can best be reached via drelyweinschneider.com.
“If we make our choices out of love… well, that’s being a good parent”, with Charlena Smith and Dr. was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.