Friday, December 24, 2010

The Values of Useless Gifts. Part I: Why Bother at All?

At this time of year, thoughts and deeds naturally turn to gift giving, and I realize I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. Too many to condense into one post unless I subjected you all to a totally bizarre mish mash…So I’ll cut to the chase: gift giving can sometimes feel like a fundamentally frustrating enterprise. You go out, you make a lot of effort to buy things for people who all too often don’t like them. This is hard. After all the trouble, the recipient doesn’t like or doesn’t need your gift—or not really. I was confronted with this drama not so long ago when looking for a present for a friend. At my stage in life, most presents for my friends aren’t really *necessary*--almost no one expects them. I found something that I really liked—but was a more than I had intended to spend. So I got to thinking...Would she really like it? Would she appreciate the sacrifice that purchasing it for her entailed for me? Maybe she wouldn’t like it. Maybe I should forget the whole thing. Maybe I should just forget the whole thing and buy something for myself.....

That’s where I stopped. Too often, we make gift giving all about ourselves. About the recognition and respect we want others to give us because we bought them something great. But it can’t be just about that.( I am not a big fan of the concept of gift giving as a form of tipping or financial exchange, while I recognize the importance and relevance of those in certain cases.) Giving a gift also sends a message to myself: I value my relationship with this person enough that I am going to buy something that requires a sacrifice on my end. A sacrifice of my time, energy, and money. That sacrifice may not be ‘worth it’ in terms of the gratification I’ll get by seeing their appreciation. But it’s worth it in principle for myself—to remind me that I love people enough to sacrifice for them, even when they’re not always grateful.

I often think of the famous “Gift of the Magi” story by O.Henry, where a poor couple each have one treasure in the world: the husband his watch, and the wife, her beautiful long hair. The husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife, while the wife cuts off her hair and sells it to buy a chain for his watch. The story ironic, but not tragic—which makes all the difference. You could look at the situation as a terrible waste: neither of them gets anything for their pains. But that’s not true—both of them see that the other was willing to part with what most precious. That most precious thing was still less precious than the other person.

Isn’t that something worth remembering on the day before Christmas?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Can You Really Succeed if You’re Young for Your Year? Outliers of Various Kinds….

Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers is a great book, and its author has a quirky sort of genius. A number of Gladwell’s points have peculiar relevance for parents and parenting—peculiar because Gladwell doesn’t talk about parents and kids much at all directly. I’ll start with the most obvious: Gladwell’s piece on the fact that the vast majority of players on Canadian National Hockey Team have birthdays in the first quarter of the year. This is, in essence, because hockey is a very important and competitive sport in Canada; it requires (unlike basketball) the use of a space that’s not easy to come by (skating rink); and the cut off age is January 1. The basic argument is that what starts out as a minor developmental advantage due to age ends up getting magnified every year: the slightly better kids get a lot more attention, thus making them better players, which makes them more likely to be selected the next year…and so on.

Some of these realities are hockey-specific, but not all of them. School districts with Talented and Gifted Programs select in a somewhat similar way (rarely do kids get second chances to play in, say, middle school). This often motivates people to hold a child back who’s on “the cusp” --or even just at the young end of his grade. This is especially the case with boys. A friend living in (very affluent) Westchester County, NY, told me that she’s facing pressure to hold back her son whose birthday is in the middle of the school year. The pressure is from other parents, since so many are keeping their kids at home for an extra year to give them an edge. I faced all this myself when dealing with my oldest daughter. She has a late birthday, as does her sister two years her junior. I didn’t like the idea of my girls being one year apart in school when they were two years apart in everything else. So for me, deciding for one was like deciding for both. In my search to figure out what was best for her I was amazed by the total lack of explanation. Every time I talked to someone about it, they told me to hold her back. But they could never give me a single good reason! As I often said to people, if we say it’s better for every child to stay back in these cases, the problem is the curriculum!

But Gladwell would probably be keeping his son back. And I see where he’s coming from: there are distinct advantages to being a big fish in a small pond. But I wonder if, in our pursuit of success that we can measure, we’re missing other factors. My sister in law has two brothers who were both young for their school year, both of whom went on to be real leaders in their time at the Naval Academy. The disadvantages of being young seemed to have worked to their favor in some way (something which Gladwell recognizes in fascinating detail elsewhere in Outliers.

There is a former student of mine who is a great counter example—I’ll call him “K.” K is the youngest of his family’s four sons. K is a bit on the young side, and his mother was undecided about what to do with him. She had a friend with a son whose birthday was close to K’s, and she decided that whatever her friend did her son, she’d do as well. The friend’s mom had her son start school; and so K did,too. K would seem like a prime candidate for bitterness over all this: he was a serious competitive swimmer in high school, and he (arguably, anyway) missed out on getting recruited as a result of his age. He probably could have gotten into a better college than the one where I teach (which is good, but not Ivy League material)—with all the advantages that represents—if he had been a grade behind.

But K isn’t bitter. Once he started college, he stopped swimming—and freed up a whole lot of time! An Electrical Engineering major, he’s about to graduate, and is poised to get a very good job in a time where jobs are scarce. And he doesn’t miss swimming at all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

How do YOU measure intelligence? (The “Tin-foil Standard” is my choice.)

So we all know there are kinds of intelligence. There is the traditional IQ test, but of course, everyone keeps talking about alternate measures of these things, since IQ alone doesn’t seem to be a big predictor of success and other relevant factors. I was reminded of this particularly recently as I was reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers (more on that to come!). Gladwell talks a lot about the discrepancy between IQ and success and has some very interesting things to say on the topic which I’ll come back to. But, in thinking about these things, it seems to me that there are a number of things to look for:

a) Interpersonal intelligence (“emotional” intelligence and so forth).

b) Creative intelligence (ability to use things for unexpected purposes).

c) Patience and work ethic (ability and willingness to take the time and care to do something right).

d) Intuition (a sensitivity to subtle things in the environment, whether that’s people or things) that allows for insights that others miss.

All these things are all important, and helping ourselves and our children develop our capacities in all these directions seems like a very worthy goal for parents. But sometimes, too, we want to have a sense of what kind of raw material we’re working with. When it comes to sheer, instinctive genius, I like to focus on the (seasonally appropriate) “tin foil standard.” It only works with very small children, but it clearly shows when there is greatness to come. The basic premises are these:

a) All children like candy

b) Many forms of candy come in tin foil

So….the smarter the child, the younger and more readily s/he recognizes that tin foil is something to be sought after and prized and, eventually consumed (though, hopefully, AFTER the removal of the foil itself). So what if tin foil is pretty and shiny and babies always try to eat things? If your baby tries to suck on a piece of tin foil at a very young age, s/he clearly has genius potential.

So: What’s the youngest age at which you’ve seen a kid go for a Twix bar? Or what’s your gold standard for intelligence? (Inquiring Mom wants to know…..)

Is this one precocious? Not sure yet.....

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finally, the Validation I've Been Waiting For!

One of the things that has always been clear—and funny-- to me is how we all tend to seek new items that reflect the opinions we already hold. So, I seem to remember the article that reports stronger immune systems in households that clean less frequently much better than the article noting how frequent, serious, handwashing helps prevent the majority of colds. But the sweetest moment of personal validation came recently, as I was searching the internet for pictures of haircuts. Now, before I get to the punch-line, I will note a couple of important things for the unfamiliar:

1) I have three daughters (my son’s the baby)

2) People seems to take a perverse pleasure in making irritating comments to mothers of daughters. Stuff like, “Just wait til she’s a teenager!” is frequently heard as someone peers over the side of a stroller or crib. There’s also the standard, “Uh-oh, that’s going to be expensive!” The most direct approach is taken by many, “Girls are so much harder to raise than boys.” And there is also the seemingly well-intentioned comment, which is particularly irritating to my husband (since it’s addressed to him), “She’ll have you wrapped around her finger.” (Just like her mom, haha).

So, now, I reveal my family’s recent moment of glory (forget about my doubts about “Science”).
Studies have shown it: ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE DAUGHTERS. I’ll say it again, in another way, in case it wasn't clear from the caps: Highly attractive people have a MORE than 50% chance of conceiving daughters. Scientists speculate yadda yadda. You get the drift. Validation.

Never mind the fine print—despite my new short haircut, I am feeling über attractive. Hope you are, too!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Crime, Punishment, and "Natural" Consequences

I’ve read a number of parenting articles, books, and so forth that recommend “natural” consequences for children’s misbehavior whenever possible. Advocates suggest that it’s best for children to understand that their failings have real consequences—not just punishments made up by their parents. Your job as a parent is, thus, to avoid “inventing” consequences, and allow your child to learn (reasonably) from what happens naturally when she makes a mistake or chooses unwisely. So…if your child insists that she doesn’t want t o wear a coat outside, go ahead and let her go out without it. She’ll learn when she gets cold, the idea goes. It makes a lot of sense to me in general. The more a child becomes aware that her actions change outcomes, the more likely she is to adjust her behavior when she discovers that it results in an unpleasant reality. If a behavior is truly dangerous (i.e. crossing a street without looking), then you should—ahem, naturally—intervene. But otherwise, try to allow natural consequences to take effect. Wherever possible, disciplinary measures should be natural. So if your child breaks a window, rather than sentencing him to his room for a week, he should try to earn money to pay for it; try to apologize to the people whose property he damaged, etc.

But…(See--it’s not only our children who raise objections!)

The difficulty I have is in fully understanding and applying this theory to complex, everyday reality. I will allow my kids not to wear a jacket if they don’t want to—though I will generally warn them that I think it’s a bad idea, since it may get chillier later in the day. Likewise, if they take excessive (but not insane) risks on the playground, I’ll let them. But often, letting nature take its course is a complex arena—and one that always entails rather significant intervention from yours truly.

Take the other day. My eldest child (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty), came home without her reading anthology. An anthology which, among other things, includes a glossary in the back. She had to write the definitions of a series of words. But, sans glossary, that was a bit tricky to do. Undaunted for once, I reminded said child that she had a dictionary she could use. She got it right out and started looking. Only, she doesn’t know how to use a dictionary, and I had forgotten how many steps there are to using one. Fortunately, there were only about 5 words, but they took what seemed like a lifetime, after reviewing alphabetical order, the use of guide words at the top of the page and so forth. While this may be encouraging her to understand the natural consequences of her actions, it seemed to place more of the burden on me than many other scenarios. This is fine if it’s actually helpful to her in the long run, but it reminds me of how complicated it is to understand what “natural” is—let alone what it means in practice (a theme which is frighteningly close to my dissertation topic….)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fear and Trembling Part II: Facing My Own Fears, Provoked By a Hit and Run

The question of fear and how to face it is really a big one; I wish I could have a franker and more frequent conversations about such things with people. Earlier this year, I checked out a book from the library (Free Range Kids) written by a mother who had gotten herself called “the worst mother in the world”  for having allowed her (8 year old?) son to take  public transportation (including the subway) from midtown Manhattan back to his house alone.  She herself had found her action unspectacular (in either the good or bad sense); when local media got hold of it however, she was asked to appear on TV and won herself the title  (in some circles, anyway) of the “Worst Mother in the World” title. I am not personally committed to the specifics of what she allowed her son to do. While I doubt I would do the same with any of my kids, I believe that a good parent usually has a better sense of what a child’s ready for than an outside observer ever could. Which is why we need to watch our kids and respond to them as individuals…

One of the great difficulties of being a parent is, of course, OUR fear. We need to help our kids face fears, but first of all, we ourselves need to face a tremendous host of fears. Fears that our kids inspire in us. I was very discouraged after the birth of my first child by just how very afraid I felt most of the time. The possibility of harm was always lurking.  Back then, physical harm was foremost in my mind, but a friend—whose daughter recently turned 14—assures me that the fear he faces now with her is no less real, palpable, or serious.

I believe him. As I look towards the years when my children will face a host of challenging situations, I want to be ready to face my own fear and theirs. Earlier this year, I was deeply provoked by a hit-and-run accident that occurred outside a local high school. I thought, naturally, of the tragic deaths of a couple of young people who met their death unexpectedly. But I also thought of the terrified young girl who was behind the wheel when she accidentally hit two acquaintances. What kind of courage it requires to face that kind of reality! It got me thinking—what kind of education could you give your children to enable them to handle that kind of situation? First of all, you need to teach them not to run away from mistakes. Since then, I’ve been on a kind of mission to make sure my kids don’t walk away when they hurt someone; that they stay and help. It’s an amazingly hard thing to do: when my kids hurt someone, their guilt often makes them defensive, and they pull away from the person they’ve damaged (even if we’re talking a minor scrape that was *really* an accident!).  I’m hoping—and praying—that  some of this stays with them in the long run. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fear and Trembling….and Parenting Through It….

So lately my former student/blog commentator/texter extraordinaire Don Miller has been responding like crazy to one of my posts. But really, he’s not responding: he’s addressing a whole new topic, and one that deserves some attention: bullying, and our attempts to eliminate it. But in his posts and private emails to me, he’s getting at a much larger set of issues: the role that parents have in protecting their children from outside menaces. This takes many forms, but personal harassment is certainly one of them. Don’s questions—about whether we take things too far in trying to protect our children from harm—get at a central problem that we as parents face: what does it mean to protect our children? Can it be taken too far?

I have read a number of articles that suggest that we definitely do take our protection too far, and that it has a number of dire consequences for our kids. Back in 2004 I read—and passed on—an article by Hana Estroff Marano that was published in Psychology Today, “A Nation of Wimps.” Marano’s claim is that our over-protective parenting was producing a nation of spineless children. I have given this article to many of my students, who understand where she’s coming from: many of them are the victims of excessive parenting (at the hands of kind and very-well-intentioned mothers and fathers). So there is a problem, or a potential one. At the same time, every parent wants to protect children. What to do?

As strange as it may seems, I believe that what we parents and teachers need most is to protect and love our children more—not less. Come again? Yes; we need to understand that part of protecting our children is trying to equip them thoroughly with what they need to go through life, not just trying to keep them from getting hurt but helping them work through the hurt, trusting that there is something good at the other end of that pain. We will not keep them from the many faces of pain; the real question is how we can help them deal with suffering. What I want most for my children is to help them face their fears courageously and intelligently; and if I spend too much trying to keep them from fear or hurt, I limit their ability to grow in courage and intelligence. At the same time, I want them to know they’re not alone is confronting reality; I want them to know that I am there for them in the ways that I can help. If I try to avoid all pain, I limit my ability to teach them some of the life lessons they need most. When my almost-five year old daughter Veronica decided to go off the diving board recently, I told her I would be watching her and would be ready to meet her when she got off. But she had to face her own fear as she jumped off (and the terror on her face right before she hit the water was priceless); she did and I was proud—and I made her do it again and again so that she could get comfortable with that fear….It’s just the beginning of my own journey, trying to figure out how to face my own fears better and help them more (suggestions welcome!).

Ultimately, as a person of faith, I trust that reality is a good thing—and I don’t want to spare my kids their impact with it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You’re Building a Life’s Legacy of Love: Think of that at 3 in the morning.

I recently received a card for the birth of our son. On the front it reads, “Children are a gift from God.” When you open it, it continues, “Remember that at 3 in the morning!” Waking up to feed, care for, and console small children is not most parents’ idea of a good time. And yet, we do it. Not all of us, perhaps, but many of us, much of the time. It seems like one of those things we just “do”; often grumbling about it before or afterwards, but rousing ourselves nevertheless. I was recently re-reading a chapter of The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik. I first discovered Gopnik’s work after the birth of my first child, and I am indebted to her for giving me a sense of the importance of seemingly minor infant and child behaviors. While babies are quite ridiculously cute, I am not someone naturally ecstatic about focusing my entire life on caring for them. Gopnik’s explanations of the things going on inside children; their reasoning process, even as infants, made a whole host of (previously uninteresting) behaviors suddenly compelling to me.

The chapter I was re-reading is called “Learning to Love” and in it, Gopnik shows how infants develop expectations about love based on what they experience with their caregivers. In particular, she looks at studies that show a) how infants and caregivers (especially parents) connect, especially looking at types of parental reactions to children; b) how these infants learn to make predictions about the ways caregivers interact with them and other children, and c) how children and grownups come to expect other people to behave like their parents.

To explain some key concepts in Gopnik’s words, “The internal working models of attachment, like other theories, are based on the evidence babies have about the people around them. Mothers who respond quickly to babies’ signals—who return to babies after they leave and comfort babies when they are unhappy—are more likely to have “secure” babies. Mothers who don’t react with comfort when babies are distressed are more likely to have avoidant babies. Mothers who express a great deal of distress themselves are more likely to have anxious babies.” So…when mothers respond quickly to their children, their babies tend to develop “secure” attachments; when they don’t, they tend towards “insecure” attachments.

Gopnik then tells of some clever experiments in which children are shown little (baby) balls accompanied by larger (mother) balls. At a certain point, the baby starts to cry, and the mother ball either moves towards or away from the baby ball in response to that cry. Babies look at things longer when they depart from their usual expectations, and so researchers have been able to tell what babies expect by noticing what they watch longer and with greater curiosity. Insecure babies look longer at the mom ball who moves towards the baby ball—they’re surprised by her. Secure babies, on the other hand, watch the big ball who moves away from the little one, since that’s not usual in their experience.

While a lot can happen from infancy to adulthood, there are further studies (too varied and complex to get into here) that show that the expectations formed in infancy tend to endure. While we are not determined by our childhoods, we naturally tend to imagine that we will be loved in the future if we’ve been loved in the past. And if we haven’t been loved in the past, we tend to think it’s unlikely in the future.

So when you wake up at 3 in the morning to respond to your baby’s cries, you’re building a legacy of secure attachment for her: making her know that she is loved now, and will be forever.

Friday, July 9, 2010

You are what you read?

Back when I was just a wee thing, and my mom was expecting my sister (2 years, 8 months my junior), my parents talked to me about the upcoming, potentially devastating, impact of acquiring a sibling. “I may be jealous” I said (apparently). “Why?” my parents asked. “I read it in a book” was my reply. I was not so precocious as to be reading at that age—but I’m sure someone read me a book about what it was like to have a new baby in the house. It’s a great and simple example of life imitating fiction. We all tend to imitate the stories that read, hear, or watch.

Several of the studies in NurtureShock suggest this in a dramatic way. In “The Sibling Effect,” one bright young boy comments to his mom “..[It’s] just not cool to like a little sister”—something little Ethan seems to have learned from some books. In fact, one researcher on sibling relationships who had given people books and videos to help kids get along, reported parental complaints almost immediately. While the stories given to the families ended on a good note, the bulk of the tales involved a lot of negative interactions. The researcher (Kramer) noted, “From these books, the kids were learning novel ways to be mean to their younger siblings they’d never considered.”

It’s just the tip of the iceberg; the chapter “Plays Well with Others,” (which addresses social interactions and violence among children today) noted another surprising effect: kids who watched shows like Arthur and other educational programming (PBS-type), the more relationally aggressive they were—more aggressive than the group watching Star Wars and Power Rangers in their free time. “What?” you say. Here’s why: “Data from a team at Ithaca College confirms… there is a stunning amount of relational and verbal aggression in kids’ television.” Kids model some of the relational situations they see--which include a lot of negative interaction and socially aggressive behavior.

But there’s a bright side, too! The most interesting example to my mind of the life-imitating-fiction phenomenon was in the chapter “Why Kids Lie.” Most of the chapter addresses the frequency, early onset, and extent of kids’ lying. There aren’t a lot of encouraging signs, though it’s clear that honesty is a valuable lesson to teach, above and beyond simply “not lying.” Getting kids not to lie is often very, very difficult. One thing researchers tried was reading kids stories before asking them questions they thought they would want to lie about. There were two stories: The Boy Who Cried Wolf and George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Contrary to all expectations, the kids who heard the Washington story lied a lot less than the kids who heard the Boy Who Cried Wolf tale. Why?

I’m not going to tell for now…you can just figure it out on your own. I’m running my own little reading experiment!

Monday, June 21, 2010

How to Get Over an Old Flame and Other Strategies of My Former Life Strangely Applicable to My Mommy Reality (aka Crowding Out)

Like I posted previously, there are a lot of things in NurtureShock that got me thinking.One of the chapters I have thought about the most is the one on siblings and why they get along…or not. One of the things that struck me was that the smart money seems to be on the researcher who is focusing on getting kids to have more positive experiences together—not the ones worrying about breaking up their fights and teaching them how to finesse their diplomatic relations. It brings me to one of my general observations of romantic breakups and moving on: it’s hard to get over a guy until there is someone else in the picture. It need not be someone truly feasible…but someone at least to set your sights on. I am shockingly bad at getting rid of old habits, not eating and anything else that smacks of deprivation. But I think my approach may be rooted in some sound principles: it makes a lot more sense to focus on increasing the positive than eliminating the negative. When dieting, I favor consuming large numbers of baby carrots. Sure, they have a lot of sugar in them, but they are *really* good for you. And if you’re full of baby carrots, you’re a lot less likely to eat that whole cheesecake.

So I’m trying to use my insights from the world of food and boys as broadly as possible to see how far I can push it. Now that all my kids are home for the summer, I’m trying my hand on them. Part of it is a question of memory: helping them remember and review the good that’s gone before so that they can (I hope) repeat it more often in the future. I’m not working so much at eliminating the negative as increasing the positive. So, today, when someone actually requested something politely with the right tone of voice, I had her repeat it--several times, to my rapturous oohs and ahhs. When the kids fight, I’m reminding them of all the kind things they’ve done for each other lately. When they fight again (as long as blood isn’t involved), I’m telling them to see if they can come up with a solution in the hopes that they’ll see how they can work together to have more fun, rather than getting stymied every time they disagree.

So far, I think it works. Sometimes. Which in my book, counts as success.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are the Suburbs Really the Root of All Evil?

So there I was, minding my own business, reading our local rag (the Philly Inquirer) at the gym when Aggravation had to strike. An article on the front page of the Health & Science section was called “A Plague on the Young”—just the kind of thing that sparks my jets. The byline reads “A rash of public suicides has left scientists, parents, and school officials searching for answers. Apparently, however, some of the experts involved have figured it all out. To wit: “Shain [Benjamin Shain, previously named in the article who is the head of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Northshore Health System in Evantson, Ill.] blames the advent of the suburbs for the 300 percent increase in suicides between 1950 and 1990. Cities and rural areas had a support system. “But the suburbs, with their white picket fences and only your immediate family at close hand, brought a sense of isolation, a forerunner of suicide.”

OK, so, um, kids are killing themselves because they feel isolated because they live in the suburbs? I definitely see the reasonableness of a connection between feeling isolated/lonely and feelings of desperation, but isn’t there a lot else involved? How ‘bout blaming things on, say, the Internet or the cell phone, which have made it possible to feel ‘connected’ while having none of the normal physical contact that characterizes healthy human relationships? There is a disturbing trend I see around me, especially among intellectuals (especially easy for the childless among them) to see the ‘burbs as a symbol of all that is wrong with the world. The over -simplification of the conversation is absolutely maddening to me. What are we actually talking about when we say “suburbs”? What counts--and doesn't? Are we talking about population density? About the mix (or lack) of commercial and residential property? Or about a type of community, diverse or otherwise?I bring this up especially as Shain is contrasting the 'burbs to both urban and rural environments, obviously very different from one another in many respects, both in the 50s and now.

The whole classification is confusing and vague. I grew up in what is arguably the most urban environment in the U.S.: downtown Manhattan. I had relatives who lived in the “city” of Indianapolis and the “city” of Washington D.C. I put city in quotes because their neighborhoods didn’t feel urban at all to my mind. There were no tall buildings, people had yards, and everyone drove most of the time (my own family didn’t own a car until I was 13 or so). And until I moved to Philadelphia, I thought people liked cities because they could avoid other people more easily; far from seeing cities as community-oriented locales, I saw cities as anonymous areas where people could go out at night without seeing people they already knew and who could choose to say hello to their neighbors or not (the elevator I took up and down from my family’s apartment was not always a very friendly place—our building-mates ran the gamut). And I have lived and visited in suburban areas that resemble cities in their population density and lifestyle in many regards.

When it comes to happiness, I know that I want my children to feel connected to a community; that is something essential for us. I still have a lot of questions about what kind of social environments are best; I imagine many people do. But if we want the conversation to be productive, we need to be a lot clearer about what we’re talking about when we distinguish cities from suburbs. All cities—like all suburbs, towns, and countrysides—are not created equal.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Like a Lullaby to My Ears: For Happier, Smarter, *and* Thinner Kids, Add Sleep

Whenever I go to the pediatrician's, I pick up all the random handouts they have for parents. Aside from reading all their magazines (and sometimes leaving with them), this is one of my knee-jerk habits. I figure if they have a handout, it’s ‘cause so many parents have asked the same question they figured they needed to. There was a good one, too, titled “Effects of Family Meals, Sleeping and Screen Time on Obesity in Preschoolers”. Basically, the office had synthesized info from the March 2010 issue of Pediatrics' article, “Household Routines and Obesity in U.S. Preschool-Aged Children.” There were three household routines: “regularly eating family meals, getting adequate sleep, and limiting screen-viewing time” that were linked to lowered risk of obesity among children.

Now, this comes close to home for me. My older daughters are in the high end the BMI spectrum, despite pretty good eating habits and bodies that look solid rather than chubby, so I am on the lookout for Good Habits. I am a firm believer in family meals for a whole litany of reasons, both personal and general (I have seen links between family meals and a retinue of desirable consequences, including academic performance); I try to enforce TV limitations strictly (though I don’t eliminate it altogether and we’re in a culture where even limits are hard with screens everywhere you turn). But I love the sleep thing, especially—who’d a thunk it? Getting sleep helps you not be fat? How…affirming! It also taps into the second great chapter of NurtureShock, where the authors document a whole host of amazing (and somewhat disturbing) effects of our children’s loss of sleep. That chapter notes how throughout the country, children get an hour less of sleep than they did a generation ago. The same period has seen tremendous increases in child obesity. While physical activity is important and helpful to children, sleep is also key in keeping their bodies in balance. Children who get more sleep are thinner, as well as happier and smarter. Dr Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is particularly useful reading if you’re wondering about that happier thing).

Sleep appears to be hugely important for a whole host of important brain functions, including some that we’re only becoming aware of now. There are regulatory and memory functions that depend on sleep for their completion. Sleep is essential to processing things learned during the day, for example. So “getting a good night’s sleep before a test” is surprisingly sound advice (if only I had realized that in college...)
It’s giving me even more incentive to make sure my kids get some sleep. Maybe with time, I can figure out how to work that out for myself as well….

Monday, May 3, 2010

Could Machiavelli Be Right?

I read Machiavelli’s The Prince as an undergraduate and then again as a grad student; I have taught it a number of times as a part of a college curriculum. While I think Machiavelli is pretty clever, and it’s a great read for tons of reasons (how many manuals do you know that have a place in a liberal-arts program 500 years later?), I have a lot of issues with Machiavelli’s approach. Now most people (a bit boringly, in my troublesome viewpoint) complain about the man’s immorality. But my issues are, firstly, practical. Because Machiavelli is pitching himself as someone who tells brutal truths (he’s an *exceptional* salesman), we buy it. But how well do his prescriptions work? He is hugely inconsistent. Like when he goes on about the value of being feared without being hated. Which is all very well and good—but it’s not always so easy to do so. As a parent, actually, it’s a *bit* easier (though more for my husband than for me), since your kids are much more willing to love you than your average person. But, as I used to point out to my students, it’s not so easy for me to make myself feared by them...without also being despised.

I admit, though, that Machiavelli resonates with many of my smarter students. And there are places where he demonstrates real psychological acuity. One of the most famous bits of his is the whole discussion of whether it’s better to be loved or feared as a prince. It’s often misquoted or misunderstood, but essentially (while BOTH is his preference), Machiavelli concludes that it’s safer to be feared. I have to say that it often troubles me to see how most people are much more motivated by fear than anything. Tell your kids that you have some great stickers if they just manage to sleep the whole night in their own beds and they might do it. Tell them they will lose dessert if they don’t and, miraculously, they don’t leave their room. What a sad fact, thought I. Fear is simply more fundamental to human nature than (positive) desire. How unfortunate.

But recently I’ve found another way to think about it. I’ve read a couple of things lately (The Paradox of Choice and Sway among them), which address loss-aversion on various levels. Essentially, most people will go to great lengths not to lose something they already have. Those lengths are often disproportionate to the actual value we would normally ascribe to that object. While loss aversion isn’t a great thing for a lot of reasons, it does suggest an upside to our fear: we recognize that what we *already* have is tremendously valuable. We naturally hold most dear what is already ours. There is something both profoundly true, and profoundly beautiful to this. With all our competitiveness and envy and what have you, what we value most is what we already have; and we will go to ridiculous lengths to preserve it. So, somewhat ironically, our fear can point to a great source of gratitude. Recognizing that we’re afraid of losing shows us just how very fortunate we are, and how much we have to be grateful for. Our fear reminds us how lucky we are.

So yeah, I guess Machiavelli was right. Sort of.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

School Districts v. School Excellence

Having grown up in an urban area, not known for its public schools (though there were some famously good ones), I was never exposed much to the concern with school districts that is familiar to most people. When we decided that we needed to move out of our home in Center City Philadelphia (aka downtown Philly), there were no obvious geographical specifications. All of our family on both sides live in other states; we had friends in every direction; and work and commute related factors were important, but not decisive. Since we’re crazy, we looked at a LOT of houses-- we must have seen about 130 houses in person during our quest; we’d regularly see 10 houses in one day (with two kids in two), and we looked at a wide range of suburban areas outside Philly. One of the things that often came up—with brokers, friends, and others-- was “what a great school district” a given house was in—and this was true for a bunch of places.

Now, I am a total sucker for educational concerns, and I care about the formation my children get from their earliest years, but after a while I started wondering—what does a great school district mean, exactly? Back when we were looking at houses, I did a little investigating into this…and now I’m trying to re-discover the criteria, but it’s not so easy to find out exactly what factors go into determining the coveted designation of a “great school district.” I have some questions (as usual) about what the label tells us and how useful it is. My husband grew up in a school district that is considered one of the best in New York State; he went to public schools K-12. While he thinks of himself as having received a fine education, there is nothing about it that particularly impressed him (I went to Catholic school K-12, so I can’t comment here). When we were looking at houses, my husband considered the school district issue primarily from a financial angle, as an indicator of house value. Basically, he explained, a good school district generally helps keep home values more stable. Highly-ranked school districts suggest that the area is in a decent socio-economic situation. Fair enough: I can see why realtors selling houses would talk about school districts to all buyers if that’s the case.

But what about the schools themselves? From what I’ve been able to figure out, the rankings indicate things like the percentage of children who are considered advanced for their grade level and the percentage of kids who are proficient—all judged by standardized tests. Standardized tests can be useful in their way, but many people—especially educators—are wary of them. It looks like the offerings of AP courses and other high level courses factor into the designation. But what does this really tell us? It seems much more likely to tell us about the neighborhood: how much money the parents have, and whether the parents are invested in the kids and are pushing them to succeed. There tend to be higher expectations on kids from affluent families: parents and others are more likely to think that their kids need to be educated through college and to make that possible from the get-go. Most parents who really care about education and can afford it get tutoring or other special help for their children; they help them to do well in the subjects that don’t come naturally to them. And it’s useful—especially but not only when figuring out where to live--to know what the community is like; is it supportive, and so forth. But the topic of “school district” sounds like it’s about the schools…when I’m not convinced it is. Seems to me, if you want to know about the schools, you need to visit them. What should you look for? There’s the rub!

Class size is a pretty obvious one—but doesn’t always tell you as much as you might think (Montessori classrooms, which I respect tremendously, tend to have a pretty big group of kids, yet run marvelously IMO). So what tells you that something is a great school? What *are* the measures?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are You Sure You Want That? Choices, Strategies, and Happiness...

I just finished reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (if you’re wondering when this supposedly-busy mom reads things like this, it’s at the gym, while on the bike--go figure). Schwartz teaches Psychology at Swarthmore College, and has a lot of great insights. The basic thesis of the book is that, for most people in our society today, choice is everywhere. And while choices have brought us many benefits, many of us are overwhelmed with choices an awful lot of the time. As a result of our overwhelmed-ness with choice, we have more difficulty making decisions (often feeling paralyzed when we have to choose); feel less confident and happy with the decisions we do make; and are generally less able to focus on the things that matter most to us (since we're so busy figuring out small things). He also speculates about the rates of depression in our society being related to (ironically) the amount of choice that people have. I find most of his points persuasive and compelling, and he makes some practical suggestions for breaking out of the habits that modern consumer culture tends to encourage in us.

One of the issues involved is how we approach the choices we make. Essentially, there are two types of people when it comes to choosing things: Satisficers and Maximizers (terms first coined by Herbert Simon in the 50’s). Satisficers approach purchases, etc., by looking to see if a given thing satisfies a set of criteria. Once they find something that does meet those criteria, they purchase (or decide). Maximizers, on the other hand, are always searching for "the best"-—with the inevitable problem of figuring out what that is. The more options that surface, the more possibilities (real or imagined) emerge, and the more difficult it is to choose. When maximizers do choose, the options they didn’t go for tend to stay in their minds, torturing them with imagined better-case-scenarios. Satisficers regularly report higher levels of satisfaction, and have an easier time dealing with decisions in their lives. Most people are a mix of strategies, but tend to lean more towards one strategy or the other. Schwartz suggests that the plethora of choices available to us tends to push us into habits of maximizing that are not helpful to anybody in the long run. At the end of the book, he incorporates some strategies for learning to satisfice more often, and for making easier, more happy-making decisions. He points out that it’s important for maximizers to realize that satisficing *is* maximizing, in that satisficing will make you a happier person with more time for the things, and people, you love.

The paradigms he introduces have a huge array of applications, but I kept thinking as I read the book how much it applies in my life. Funnily, I don’t have a problem satisficing when it comes to many of the big things (getting married, children, etc.) but I can become overwhelmed with choices about what to have for dinner or what shoes to buy my kids. When it comes to our children’s upbringing, too, there is an unbelievable pressure to maximize, which may explain a lot of the insanity out there. Just talking to a friend today, we discussed how the decision about whether, where, and when to send your child to pre-school can seem like a life or death decision. I suspect that we all need to take a big dose of sanity pills: we need to clarify for ourselves what the criteria that NEED to be met really are, and stop sweating the small stuff that goes into unhealthy (and crazy-making) maximizing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Whom Can You Trust?

I’m generally not a worrying kind of mom. An inquiring one, but not one naturally prone to sleepless nights wondering whether my kids will be abducted or get irreversible brain damage from lead poisoning. But I don’t want to be naïve, either—I know people like me often underestimate real dangers that are out there. So, after one-too-many sane mothers expressed concern over the potential link between vaccines and autism and my first son was born (boys having a much higher likelihood of autism); my ears started to prick up on the issue. I recalled an issue of Cookie where they did an interview with a mother who was also a pediatrician—Cara Natterson, MD. Dr. Natterson authored a book called Dangerous or Safe, where she goes through the research on a whole host of issues—basically, dangers that your children may be exposed to in everyday life. She hits up all the big ones I know: plastics (and the PVC connection), vaccines (linked to autism), milk (possibly connected to various problems; dietary and other) and so on.…there are chapters devoted to a wide range of potential dangers.

Natterson sets the book up very nicely: for each chapter, she explains the issue at hand and why there is cause for concern; she then details the research, concluding with her assessment both as a doctor, and as a mother: she explains what she herself has done with her kids. Her discussion is thorough; her writing style is familiar and clear; her conclusions seem reasonable. And yet, I found myself curiously dissatisfied after reading the chapters that most interested me. It reminds me of one of my father’s dictums: that if you want to judge an encyclopedia, you need to read an entry addressing something you know something about--since you’ll be a lot more critical and able to appraise the value of what is presented in that section. At the end of the chapter dealing with the Autism-Vaccine link, Natterson notes that she had her own children vaccinated on the regular schedule, but that she “held her breath” each time they got their shots, given some of the stories she had heard. While it’s honest and direct, this is not confidence inspiring to me, as a newly-anxious mother.

Ultimately, it seems like the problem with a lot of these mom-worry issues is that you’re not sure whom to trust. And in a world where we’re not sure we trust our own childen’s doctors, why should I be sure I can trust someone else’s--even if she's also a mom? Ultimately, her book seems to be in a Catch-22 type of situation: we desperately need a book like this for the same reason we aren’t ready to accept the conclusions someone else has drawn for us.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Short Term Self Esteem, Long-Term Failure

Studies suggest that kids who are told they’re smart end up being slackers and grade grubbers….

Well, it’s not quite that bad. But NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman) leads off with a great piece. In fact, I have a feeling I’m going to be coming back to NurtureShock a lot, here and elsewhere. It’s just the kind of book I love: written with a certain contrarian spirit (dispelling myths about parenting), but without an obnoxious vibe, the authors raise a lot of practical applications from contemporary research –and there are even more that you can think about on your own. “The Inverse Power of Praise”--the title of the first chapter-- documents in intelligent detail some of the consequences of telling kids they’re great a little too often. One of the reasons the authors focused on this issue is that it’s such a conspicuous part of most loving parents’ approach to their kids: tell ‘em early, and tell ‘em often, how great they are. But there is a dark underbelly to affirming your child in the usual sense. Telling a child she’s smart causes problems, because she doesn’t know how or why she’s smart, and so when her abilities fail her, she thinks she’s a failure.

Basically, the more parents and teachers encourage a child’s self esteem on the basis of innate talent and the less they focus on work, the more afraid the kids become of taking risks, the more focused they are on rank, and the more debilitating they find failure. ”Smart” kids learn not to persevere when they’re told they’re bright all the time; when they meet challenges, they cave. Kids who were praised for effort did statistically better on a difficult test given to them after an easy test; kids praised for ability, on the other hand, declined in performance. Essentially, when you tell kids that they did well because they’re just smart, they don’t know how to account for their ability; failure and success then becomes things beyond their control: something that happens to them, not something they can-and should—really work at.

Praise itself is not bad, but if you want it to be useful, it’s better to be specific—and focus on areas where a child can make a clear effort; it’s a bad idea to tell a kid repeatedly how smart he is without making a specific note of the skills that he has developed and what he can work on more.

Bronson, a father himself, discusses his efforts to put his research into practice at the end of the chapter. He notes how difficult it was for him to do so and suggests that it’s because praising our kids is part of the way, in today’s culture, that parents express unconditional love. It’s a great insight, and says a lot about the way we respond to our children. It’s interesting, too, to think about things where we want to instill a sense of identity rather than progress. For example, I’ve been telling my girls since they were little that they’re beautiful. That is something I want them to think they don’t need to work at…But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for studies suggesting the contrary!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Blue-Eyed Parents ≠ Brown-Eyed Kids and Other Lies They Taught Me….

Way back when I was in 3rd grade or so, I got really interested in genetics. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I remember taking out several books over the summer to find out how heredity worked. I ended up contemplating (seriously) whether both my grandmothers had been unfaithful to their husbands. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t think so—not so much because I couldn’t possibly believe it of them (which embarrasses me somewhat now, since they were good women)—but because the timing seemed all off. Why did I come to this conclusion? Well, you see, all my grandparents had blue eyes. But both my mother and one of my father’s brothers had eyes that were decidedly brown. Blue eyes were recessive; brown eyes dominant. So blue eyed-parents weren’t supposed to have brown-eyed kids. But both the brown-eyed children were middle children. And I thought (rightly or wrongly) that any marital infidelity would have been more likely later on in the marriage. I wondered about the whole recessive-dominant thing since then.

Modern science over the past few years has supported my appraisal of my grandmothers' virtue. See, for example:

While these studies are not brand new, they're still news for most people. Essentially, eye color is a good bit more complicated than we used to think. While dominant and recessive genes come into play, there is more than one gene involved, and scientists are still uncovering how they work.

Fast forward to today. I have an infant son. And, since Caucasian babies are born with blue eyes, it’s hard to know what he’ll end up with. Looking into the matter has reminded me of how amazingly misunderstood the issue of eye color is. Dr. Sears, a man with many years of baby observing (whatever you think of his approach), says the following in The Baby Book: “When in doubt, I look at the parents. If both parents have brown eyes, guess brown (75 percent chance of being right); if one has brown eyes, still guess brown (fifty percent right); if both blue, guess blue (but baby may still turn out brown-eyed).” Sounds deceptively simple…’til you get to that last sentence.

Recently, I was speaking to a friend who is finishing up medical school with a specialty in pediatric genetic diseases. I told her I’d be really interested in a book on genetics for the layperson. So much has happened in the field in the past decades that I would love something to give me the big picture without the misinformation I got back in 3rd grade. When I explained the origin of my interest and the eye color problem, she looked genuinely surprised to hear that I saw the recessive-dominant model for eye color as wrong. When you think about it, it shouldn’t really be all that surprising, since the standard model doesn’t even take other colors (hazel, green, etc.) into consideration.

I knew those scientists would come around sooner or later...

Oh, and it looks like my baby will have his daddy's baby blues...