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The Big DisconnectWhen I first undertook to review Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair’s new book, I imagined it would be the typical rant against modern technology. Titled The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, it certainly could have taken the easy route to success—which often seems to involve blaming all of society’s ills on the latest popular gadget, as though the human experience would be positively overflowing with love and sweetness and light if only we lived in a more innocent age (assuming there has ever been one). Of course, new technologies do tend to present new challenges, so Steiner-Adair could have been justified in sounding an alarmist note to ensure book sales, as social scaremongers have been known to do since even before the invention of the telephone. She could have taken such an approach. But she didn’t.

On the other hand, she didn’t ignore the challenges either. As I was pleasantly surprised to discover, The Big Disconnect  offers a fair and balanced assessment of our tech-infused culture, outlining the challenges—as well as pointing out the benefits—of digital connection, while also offering parents strategies for navigating digital dilemmas.

“A family is an ecosystem,” writes Steiner-Adair with co-author Teresa H. Barker. But even as we want this ecosystem to thrive, she says, we also realize that social media, texting, screen games, and other digital pulls can pose a risk to family well-being. “The good news,” she writes, ” is that we have everything we need to create sustainable families—loving, thriving human ecosystems. . . . It is never to late to turn a nurturing eye to family and in the process to update attitudes or patterns that aren’t working as you’d like.”

How does one go about doing this? In practical terms that include concrete, easily-implemented techniques, Steiner-Adair shows us how we can develop seven important qualities that are shared by the most resilient, sustainable families she encounters in her work as a psychologist and Harvard instructor. Essentially, she says, sustainable families:

1.  recognize the challenges posed by the pervasive presence of tech and develop a family philosophy toward its use. “The family has its own ways—tech and nontech—of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” Steiner-Adair writes.

2.  encourage play, and play together.

3.  nourish meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations, and optimism.

4.  understand the uniqueness of each person, encourage independence and individual interests, and foster their independence in the context of family.

5.  have built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, transparency. Rather than simply demanding trust, they give their children good reason to trust.

6.  have values, wisdom, a link to past and future, and some common language that they share with family and friends.

7.  provide experiences offline in which children can cultivate an inner life, solitude, and connection to nature.

The real-life examples Steiner-Adair offers as support are convincing. They vividly illustrate the costs of ignoring these seven principles; and expose just how easily kids can conflate online illusions with real life scripts when their time spent in cyberspace outdistances time spent with those who love, guide and ground them in their physical space.

Clueless about how to make it clear to your kids that you love them and want to be there for them as they navigate choppy digital waters? Steiner-Adair addresses that too. After interviewing more than a thousand children about what makes a parent approachable, she brings it all back down to the issue of trust. Just as parents hope to trust their children, children crave to trust their parents.

Even as children’s lives become more complex, writes Steiner-Adair, “They continue, much as they did from birth, to watch us closely for cues that tell them whether we are approachable. They come to understand how each parent will react. . . . They develop a keen sense about which parent to approach with what kind of situation. Who goes ballistic over a B on a test? Who takes mistakes in stride? They learn when it’s okay to interrupt a parent at work and for what reason. And they know—or believe they know—when their parents are the last people in the world to approach. This is how we earn our reputation with them as reliable and trustworthy—or not.” No one is suggesting this is a new dynamic. But there’s no question that, like so many other social dynamics, it is heightened by our digital connectivity.

These are not straightforward times. As parents, we are still finding our footing in a world that has changed dramatically since we were children. To Steiner-Adair, this means that we need to be aware that the answers to our dilemmas are nuanced: meaning that there are complexities to them. We need to “resist facile, fast-twitch answers,” she says, and grasp the understanding that “the big questions about how we use media and tech are not simple.”

This does not mean we need to abandon what she calls “old truths.” Quite the contrary. Dealing with nuance does not mean abandoning truth: and the most basic truth, when it comes to children, is that they need our attention. “Children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family,” Steiner-Adair concludes. And while we haven’t yet succeeded in applying this kind of relationship on a global scale (as she argues we desperately need to do) nevertheless, “we can deepen connections, cultivate closeness, and push pause more often to savor the gift of time and the primacy of family.”

The research citations in this compelling book are extensive and impressive, but you don’t need to be an academic to connect with Steiner-Adair’s important message. Her common sense and positive tone offer parents a generous measure of confidence that, yes—it’s possible to foster secure family relationships even in our intensely digital age; as well as to set children on the path to successfully navigating their own relationships far into the future.

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gratitude researchEveryone knows healthy relationships require effective communication, but are all communication strategies equal? Take Thumper’s well-worn advice for instance: “If you can’t say something nice don’t say nuthin’ at all.”

On the surface, the principle seems sound. But if this tactic hasn’t been working for you lately, you may find it comforting to know you’re not alone. With all due respect to Bambi’s flop-eared friend, several studies have piled up over the years suggesting that silence may not really be the best solution to communication problems.

In fact, say researchers, “avoidant” strategies (such as saying “nuthin’ at all”) actually reduce intimacy and erect barriers to resolving conflict: they are every bit as destructive to relationships as yelling and name-calling. That said, saying something nice still beats both alternativesespecially when “something nice” includes expressing gratitude.

Most of us would have no trouble understanding why expressing gratitude to our partner strengthens his or her investment in the relationship, but in 2010, researcher Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues found that it also increases the strength of our own sense of personal investment in the relationship. The simple exercise of finding as few as five things to express gratitude about each week may be the simplest and most effective first step toward bringing couples and families closer together.

What if you can find nothing to be grateful for? Is that the time to invoke the cliché and “say nothing at all?” Not so, say researchers. We need to find constructive ways to talk about the issues that bother us. Neglecting positive strategies could potentially be as detrimental to relationship quality as falling into destructive strategies, which include the use of inflammatory or emotional language, accusations, yelling or criticism.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude seems to be anti-gratitude, says Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has focused on gratitude since 1998. His 2007 book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier explored the benefits and societal barriers to making the most of this important emotion.

“Outside of happiness, gratitude’s benefits are rarely discussed these days,” he wrote. “Indeed, in contemporary American society, we’ve come to overlook, dismiss or even disparage the significance of gratitude as a virtue.” As a result, he says, “We have become entitled, resentful, ungrateful and forgetful.”

Nevertheless, the research on gratitude continues to underscore its importance. Not only are grateful couples happier in their relationships, Berkeley researchers reiterated on February 5th, but levels of gratitude felt by partners can even predict who will break up and who will still be together months down the road.

Worse, the literature suggests that people who have a hard time finding reasons for gratitude may also find themselves with impaired psychological as well as physical health.  Among its physical health benefits, gratitude strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure, says Emmons. It supports mental health by blocking negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret. There’s even evidence, he writes, that “gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.”

If your relationship is already suffering from lack of gratitude, please do yourself a huge favor and read “Love, Honor, and Thank” by researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Threthewey. And I promise you won’t regret following that up with “Why Gratitude is Good,” by Emmons himself.

Gratitude, like Thumper’s greens, is a “special treat,” fortifying our relationships with vital nutrients. A daily dose of thankfulness may not make for “long ears and great big feet,” but it protects us from attitudes that poison our communication and threaten our personal well-being. Fortunately, no matter how long we have been suffering from a gratitude deficiency, it’s never too late to add it to our family’s daily diet.

critical thinkingI’m still learning not to talk about books at cocktail parties. At this point I haven’t figured out what you are supposed to talk about at them . . . but at least it’s finally beginning to dawn on me that people don’t go to cocktail parties to have their thoughts challenged. People go to parties so they can relax and have a good time, and when people are relaxed they don’t like to think too much. There’s actually research to back that up.  I don’t mind mentioning that here since I don’t have a glass in my hand and I’m not standing around next to a plate of hors d’oeuvres.

In any case, I learn best from actual mistakes, so I try to make them as often as possible, which is why I brought up Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, while at a friend’s cocktail party in January. My close friends know that the Nobel Prize-winning researcher’s 2011 book is my latest favorite—and has been for about six months now—but at this party I managed to bring it up among five or six people who hadn’t heard me mention it yet. “I found it eye-opening,” I told them enthusiastically. “I hadn’t been aware of a few of the biases he writes about, but now I’m starting to catch them in myself at all kinds of odd moments!”

“I don’t believe in biases,” the tall, elegant blonde next to me responded immediately. This had the effect of rendering me momentarily speechless. But only for the three seconds it took to frame the first question that came to mind: “But what about all the research?” I hazarded. She didn’t believe in research either. “Well, how do you form your opinions?” I asked, truly curious.

“Experience.” she said.  She explained that she didn’t trust researchers or their studies, and that experience and good common sense were enough for her. The idea that people have biases is (in her opinion) a liberal political tool, and she has enough good common sense not to believe in them because her own experience clearly shows her she doesn’t have any. (Biases, I think she meant. Not common sense).

That’s when (after opening and closing my mouth a couple of times and probably looking a bit fish-like doing so) I mumbled something about needing to refill my drink and wandered off.

Which brings me back to my latest favorite book again.

“Many people,” says Kahneman, “are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”

He then obligingly points out some of the ways our thinking lets us down when we’re chugging along on intuition, or System 1, as he calls it. System 1, explains Kahneman, operates silently and automatically in the background, providing impressions, impulses, intuitions and instant conclusions about what we hear and see. When you’ve got that peaceful, easy feeling—like when you’re chatting about nothing in particular at a cocktail party—you know System 1 is at the helm. As long as you’re in a state of “cognitive ease,” your thinking will be fairly superficial because of the relaxed vigilance of System 2, which is the more effortful, analytic thinking mode.

Interestingly, just as cognitive ease increases a good mood, a good mood increases cognitive ease. In other words, says Kahneman, “A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”

This is because System 1 will jump to its conclusions on the basis of the relatively scanty information it is processing automatically and unless (or until) a sense of cognitive strain mobilizes System 2, the intuitive answers supplied by System 1 will hold sway. “Remember,” says Kahneman, “that System 2 is lazy and that mental effort is aversive.”

Of course, he could be making all of this up. But my personal experience and common sense are enough to tell me he’s probably right.

Hmmm. I wonder what Daniel Kahneman talks about at cocktail parties?

internet etiquetteAre there different rules for relationships in cyberspace than at home or in the workplace?

The Internet’s veneer of anonymity sometimes lulls the unwary cyberspace traveler into releasing his or her alter-ego online: that impolite, self-righteous, brutish  troll that most of us try to restrain or even to completely root out of our “real” lives.

Unfortunately it’s far too easy to forget there are human beings on the receiving end of any of our communications, especially the ones that leave our fingertips to go sailing out over the Web into the great, wide, invisible unknown. When we do forget this important point, however, we place ourselves in danger of injuring all kinds of relationships, and I don’t mean just the casual internet acquaintances.

As tempting as it may be to assume we can safely maintain one persona online and another off, the reality is that we can’t. A relationship habit formed online is sure to bleed over into our offline relationships eventually, because—as human beings—we are all creatures of habit.

Unfortunately, we really have only one reputation. Suppose a future employer—or even that gorgeous girl next door—were to Google your name one day. Could the search engine turn up some online activity that you might wish had remained unseen?

The best policy to adopt, then, is the one that says, “If I wouldn’t do this face-to-face, I shouldn’t do it online either.” Of course, there are some amongst us who aren’t sure where to draw the lines in face-to-face relationships either, so for their sake I’ve included some good sources of “netiquette” advice.

Start applying these and watch your online (and offline) relationships blossom!

The Art and Mystery of Online Etiquette by Dale Van Eck, Associate Producer Education Technology, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

There’s an Angry Fire in Cyberspace This article by Andrew Campbell examines some internet behavior to be avoided at all costs.

Netiquette by Virginia Shea. The most comprehensive etiquette guide available on the Internet.

Emily Post Etiquette: Technology  “Apply a little common sense to the use of your cool tech tools and you’ll be an etiquette superstar.”

 

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