Alumni Story – Michael Popkin (M.Ed. ’75, Ph.D. ’80)

Posted On November 22, 2013
Categories Alumni Stories Tags

As a father of two, a longtime family therapist and founder of Active Parenting Publishers – an Atlanta-based company that develops web-based and online educational tools for moms and dads – Michael “Doc Pop” Popkin (M.Ed. ’75, Ph.D. ’80) knows full well that parenting isn’t easy. But it took an appearance as an expert on “The Montel Williams Show” several years ago to make him realize that some intensely challenging kids are literally driving their parents crazy.

As a part of a three-part series called “Kids: They Don’t Come with Instructions,” the shows producers had videotaped children interacting with their parents at home and then brought the families into the studio, where Popkin and other experts reviewed the footage and offered advice.

“This one child couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4, but he was having the most intense tantrum I’d ever seen – it had gone on about an hour and a half,” Popkin recalls. “His father was actually a SWAT team member in Seattle, and he was just totally defeated by this little 4-year-old. He didn’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Witnessing that father’s sense of utter helplessness firsthand convinced Popkin to turn an idea he’d been kicking around for nearly 30 years into a how-to manual for disparate families, “Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their Spirits” (Fireside, 2007). In the book, Popkin talks about the five characteristics of “spirited” children – they tend to be curious, adventurous, powerful and sensitive. But he also points out that those same traits, which can prove to be so problematic for parents, are also the qualities that promote success later in life as spirited children move into adulthood.

The idea, Popkin explains, is for parents to help spirited children channel their talents and energies, not suppress them. Parents might try to “break” their child of problem behaviors and get a well-behaved, compliant child as a result. But in doing that, Popkin warns, they might also miss out on the positive aspects of their child’s personality.

“You don’t want to squelch your child, break their will and beat all those traits out of them,” he adds. “But you do want to train them. If you can tame those traits so they work for the child, socially and with others, then that’s going to be a huge advantage for them later on. If you remember, the famous Seabiscuit was a spirited horse that was out of control and in danger of being put to sleep. But an owner rescued him and a spirited jockey helped tame him, and he became a champion.”

Popkin stresses that parents shouldn’t try to tame a spirited child alone – they need to work with other adults within the community. That might mean consulting teachers or professional counselors, trying to interest the child in sports, or even introducing the idea of a spiritual education, he said.

Today, Popkin’s own “problem” child serves as a living, breathing example of the book’s philosophy at work. His son, once spirited as a preschooler, has blossomed into a dynamic high school junior who channels his persistence and sense of adventure into a fitting hobby – stand-up comedy.

“When he was 3 and 4 years old, he’d have these back-arching, head-throwing tantrums that would last for a long time. He’d never take no for an answer,” Popkin recalls. “He eventually became ‘tamed’ – but he still has his wonderful sense of humor and energy and enthusiasm.”

Looking back on his professional career, Popkin credits his time at Georgia State – particularly the support he received from his mentor, counseling and psychological services professor Ken Matheny – for giving him both the knowledge and confidence to take a chance on something he believed in. Launched as a start-up venture in Marietta, Ga., in 1983, Popkin’s Active Parenting Publishers has since grown into a global business, distributing products to schools, hospitals, social services organizations, churches and corporations throughout the U.S. as well as in Canada, Japan, Korea and Sweden.

“So much of what you learn in the graduate program at Georgia State happens between the classes from professors like Ken Matheny who give you extra time and truly encourage and support your interests,” he says. “His encouragement was the reason I stayed at Georgia State and decided to go for it.”

This article was published in the Summer 2008 issue of Milestones Magazine, a publication of the College of Education & Human Development.