Archive

Tag Archives: parenting

teaching kids generosityToday’s guest post comes to us from family and non-profit advocates Jennifer L. Jacobson and Gretchen Barry. At a time of year when the message of “getting” comes across loudly and clearly to children, what can parents do to foster a more constructive mind set?

While raising kids has never been easy, it can be one of the most rewarding things that some people do–especially when children grow up to be productive, contributing members to society, and that includes knowing how to give back and enrich the communities in which they live. When should children start participating in the giving process? As early as possible. Even if they’re still toddlers; observing charitable acts that happen regularly and eventually understanding them, will leave a big impression. Learning how to give and developing that skill set is a lifelong journey. Giving is more than a task; it’s a mindset. A way of life, a way of looking at the world and asking, how can I help? How can I make connections between needs and time and resources? How can I bring awareness to specific needs and evoke action? 

1. Ask Your Kids How They Would Like to Help. 

If giving to a cause is new to your household, involve your kids as early as possible; tell them that your family has the chance to give back. Then, engage them in a conversation about the types of causes they may feel strongly about and ways they think they can help. This could involve helping families, working to save open spaces, caring for nature or a community garden, helping to save an endangered species, or helping those in need. Once you’ve identified key topics that your family is interested in, (make a list, as this helps visualize everything), start researching specific local organizations (add them to the list). Food kitchens Pet shelters and animal rescues Nature conservation efforts Fundraising for various activities for low-income kids, like camp Zoos, museums, and aquariums Schools and local libraries (these days, even they need as much help as they can get) Visitation of patients in hospitals Visitation of the elderly in nursing homes 

2. Make a Game Plan. 

Get creative about how your family can help the organization(s) you choose. Bake sales are traditional, but there are other ways to help. Talk it through with your family, map it out, and post the results somewhere in the home that is highly visible. Gamify it to some degree with tasks that turn into goals that turn into accomplishment, that result in stickers. 

3. Quick Tasks and Ideas That Can Make a Big Difference 

• Clear the clutter. Every 6 to 12 months, have a household closet cleaning day (that includes the toy chest, and maybe even the garage). Get everyone in the family to help. 

• Make a donate box. Put it out where your kids can add to it. Donate often, even if it’s small. 

• Make Detours to Giving. When shopping, make a trip down the canned foods isle. Ask your kids to pick a can of food to put in your donate box at home. 

• Find ways to raise money for donations. Hold a yard sale and give all or a portion of it to a selected charity. Do the same with a bake sale, an art sale, etc. Involve our kids at all stages. 

• Associate getting with giving. For birthdays and holidays, aside from their other gifts, give your kids a hand-written gift “certificate of giving” with a specified amount of money that they can gift to their favorite charity. Take your child to the charity to donate that money in person if you can. For non-local organizations, write a check, and have your child include a letter. 

• Volunteer time in your local community. From public gardens that need weeding, to historic buildings that need painting, or food banks that need help, find something age-appropriate that can engage your family. 

4. Growing the Mindset 

• Tell stories. There are lots of real-life stories about kids or groups of kids who have found creative ways to give back. Encourage empathy. Share appropriate stories of struggle. Ask kids; what would you do in this situation? How would you want people to help you? 

• Walk them through the cycle. If your kids are very young, say, “We’re going to give this can of food/winter coat/gift to ______. (Then explain the results.) “It will give them something to eat/keep them warm this winter/help them __________.” 

• Explain why you are doing it and what you’re looking for. “We don’t need to store all this stuff, when someone else could really use it.” Or, “I bet there is a kid out there who would really enjoy playing with that toy. I know you used to love it but how about if you pass it along to someone else, so they can enjoy it as much as you have?” Keep the focus on the people in need and your child’s ability to share an experience through an item. Establishing an impermanent relationship to “things” can help kids better understand the important of relationships over acquiring goods. 

• Develop a language of giving in your household. Find creative opportunities to incorporate it into regular conversation. Nothing is permanent, everything is in the process of change. We are stewards of the planet and the things we think we own, and we have the responsibility to help those in need when we have abundance. If ever there is a time when we are without, we hope that others will think of us and help us. Teaching children about the struggles of others not only develops a lifelong giving mindset, it also helps children understand how their words and actions impact those around them—a lesson that bears repeating. 

 __________________________________

See also:

Certain Parenting Tactics Could Lead to Materialistic Attitudes in Adulthood

COLUMBIA, MO; December 16, 2014—With the holiday season in full swing, many parents may be tempted to give children all the toys and gadgets they ask for or use the expectation of gifts to manage children’s behavior. Now, a new study from the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that parents who overuse material goods as part of their parenting strategy may be setting children up for difficulties later in adulthood.
(Full story . . . )

Advertisements

To Give A FlowerA dear friend of mine (we’ll call her Lizzy) is the single mom of two daughters. Lizzy spends her days working at our school, and her evenings and weekends engaged in activities aimed at enriching the lives of her children—and often those of their friends as well. I admire her for a number of her stellar qualities, including both her ability to remain calm under pressure, and her ever-present sense of consideration for others. She is not easily harried or disturbed, and she would hate to be rude or hurtful to anyone. This is why I was astonished that someone could make her the focus of what I like to call a “parking-lot judgment.” You know, those occasional “helpful” comments from strangers we sometimes encounter in a public place (such as a grocery store) who seem to feel entitled to make snap judgments from visible aspects of our behavior (or that of our children) and even sometimes apparently feel superior enough to share these judgments.

But someone did, and Lizzy (very understandably) was moved to vent to those good friends who are allowed onto her Facebook wall:

Dear Old Lady at the Trader Joe’s Entrance,

You don’t know me, or my family. Unless you actually listened to the phone conversation I was having with my 14-year-old, you wouldn’t know that she’d called from sports practice needing help with her diabetes. Your comment that I should ‘take my private conversation elsewhere’ doesn’t help. If you’d taken the time to notice, I was walking out of the store without groceries, which meant I’d abandoned my cart, leaving the store to be able to concentrate on my daughter’s question. You don’t know what her blood sugar was, her level of activity, or how she was physically feeling. You don’t know what her blood sugar was at 3 am, or 4 am, or what supplies she has in her backpack at practice to help her deal. You don’t know how grateful I am that my daughter is thoughtful and responsible about her medical condition, and how happy I am that she will call me for back up when she needs it.

So while you have feelings about etiquette and modern technology, consider that there are issues at play that you know nothing about when you throw your zinger to a stranger. Consider that you are rattling a mother who is operating on little sleep, and is troubleshooting a relentless, unfair, and endlessly complicated medical issue with her brave, wonderful daughter who doesn’t deserve this monster of a disease.

Peace, Old Lady. Be nice.

Meanwhile, far away in another galaxy—or at least, another Trader Joe’s parking lot—an entirely different transaction was underway. You can read details in Lauren Casper’s post titled*, “To the Trader Joe’s Employee Who Noticed My Family in the Parking Lot.” It may be sufficient to say here that Lauren found herself in a similar position to Lizzy in that she was also the potential brunt of a variety of interpretations of her behavior (or that of her children). The main differences, perhaps, were that she and her child were dealing with autism, and her distress was perhaps more readily apparent than Lizzy’s.

In Lauren’s case, as she fled TJ’s with her husband, one screaming child, and another in tow—certain that judgments about her maternal failures were erupting in the minds of many of those around her (and she was probably right)—a TJ’s employee followed her out to the car and presented her with a bouquet of flowers accompanied by extremely encouraging words that made her day.

What made the difference between Lizzy’s and Lauren’s experiences? The luck of the draw, we could say. In each case, the circumstances might have been much different depending on which of the onlookers chose to speak and which chose not to. (Probably in both cases there were bystanders who could have encouraged as well as those who could have gone “judgy**.”)

But an important lesson we can come away with as we leave the parking lot is embodied in something radio legend and personal development guru Earl Nightingale once said: “When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

Well, that’s a little scary. But think about it. Go back to Lizzy’s example. How do you feel about the older lady who berated a struggling mom for the imagined offense of having a private phone conversation in public?  Now think about the TJ’s employee who handed flowers to a struggling mom dealing with a screaming child? Which responder showed themselves to be more mature? How true are Nightingale’s words to you? How likely are you to engage in parking-lot judgments from now on?

And one last question. If these principles apply to strangers, how much more to family members and friends?

___________________________________________

*People are “entitled” to opinions, etc. Posts, movies and books are “titled.”

**Judgy IS in the dictionary. Or at least, the “Urban” one.

Young father helping her daughter with her school project at homMy almost-17-year-old daughter is in China on a school trip, which prompted me to search out some of the week’s news from that country. Unfortunately, one of the first stories to cross my screen was a tragic piece that could have happened anywhere, and demonstrates how confused the public is about how to respond to problem behavior in children. A great deal of the confusion seems to center on punishment—not only on how to use it, but how to define it.

As the reporter relates the story, a security worker known as Mr. Zhang, tried to punish his daughter for academic cheating, but accidentally killed her in the process. This was not the first time the young girl had cheated in school. According to the reporter, Zhang explained that he had beaten his 11-year-old daughter because she had copied a classmate’s homework “again.” On finding out, her father was furious and “dragged her to the bicycle shed to beat her” on the evening of May 19th. Zhang says he “hung her up with a rope,” beat her legs with another rope for a short time, and left the bike shed. When he returned half an hour later, his daughter was near death. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after being brought in to the hospital. The father, “contrary to much speculation,” says the news report, loved his daughter and “spoiled her from time to time.” No specifics were offered to describe what he had done to spoil her, but perhaps we are meant to believe that the beating would not have been necessary had it not been for the spoiling. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Zhang prostrate on the floor, weeping over his daughter’s death.

In a strange way, I am sorry for the father. I’m sorry he was never taught more effective ways of dealing with problem behavior. But I’m much sorrier for his 11-year-old daughter. Tragic examples like these illustrate why it is so important for parents to understand how behavior change works and to consider constructive interventions and strategies as a replacement for “default technologies,” however embedded they may be in a culture. Default technologies are the “tried and survived” behavior-change tactics that worked enough of the time that they provided reinforcement for our parents (and for us) and now we believe they are the “best” ways of changing behavior. Keep in mind that we survive many things that aren’t necessarily the “best” options at our disposal. Yes, maybe you survived the era of no seatbelts . . . but many others didn’t. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean we should go back to the days when they weren’t required. Survival doesn’t prove efficacy, contrary to popular Facebook memes. People survived the Holocaust, for instance. What are we to make of that?

When we become dependent on default technologies, we become rusty at using more creative ones like reinforcement—a strategy that is surprisingly effective and doesn’t leave us open, as parents, to taking things dangerously far.This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place. It certainly can work, approached in the right way. But what is punishment? And how is it best used?

In its most precise sense, punishment is something that decreases the future frequency of a behavior. Positive punishment means “adding something,” while negative punishment means “taking something away.” For instance, if you walk carelessly into a dark room and stub your toe, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Stubbing your toe has decreased the future frequency of walking into a dark room without turning on a light—and it’s “positive punishment” because it has added a stimulus: the stubbed toe. On the other hand, when you get a speeding ticket, you have to pay money. You lose something that you like. That’s “negative” punishment (the math kind of negative), because something has been taken away (money), and you’re going to think long and hard about speeding again. On the other hand, if you don’t blink at writing a $300 check to city hall, a ticket might not decrease your behavior. If it doesn’t, the consequence intended as a punishment is not a punisher. Rather, something else is reinforcing the behavior (probably the consequence of getting to your destination faster) and the intervention has no effect.

To avoid repetitive, ineffective attempts at punishment, it’s important for parents to clearly understand what is reinforcing the behavior we don’t want to see. Until we know how the behavior is “helping” our child, any attempt to change it is unlikely to succeed. Another key principle is that we can’t simply teach a child what not to do . . . we also have to teach him or her what to do as a replacement. Punishment works best if you are reinforcing alternate (positive) behaviors at the same time. This is a principle well demonstrated by research.

Using a child’s cheating as an example of a behavior we want to change, the first order of business would be to determine what is reinforcing the cheating behavior. If it’s simply avoidance of work, why doesn’t the child just skip the assignment? More likely, the child also wants to avoid her father’s displeasure at the bad grades that would certainly result from neglecting her homework. By copying a friend’s homework, she avoids her parent’s displeasure (because she gets a good grade on the assignment) but she also avoids doing the work. Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of doing the work. Either way . . . certain consequences have been avoided. Unless, of course, her father finds out.

When he does find out, one way a parent in this position could apply positive punishment (in other words, add something to decrease future cheating), would be to require the girl to do the homework assignment over again each time she copied her classmate’s work. If one of her goals is to avoid work, this is a potentially valid punisher. But remember that punishment works best when paired with reinforcement for an alternate behavior. What alternate behavior would a parent want in this case? Well . . . they would want their daughter to do her homework without copying from a friend. One way to reinforce that would be for a parent to be present while she did the work. The parent could then monitor her progress while also being available to answer any questions she may have and offer social support as she works.

Does this seem like a “reward”? Think again. It’s positive reinforcement, which is rather different. Having a supportive parent in the room to answer questions is reinforcing the current behavior of doing the homework herself . . . not the already past behavior of copying her classmate’s homework. This kind of immediate reinforcement is especially important at the beginning stages of behavior change. But, of course, if the child receives good grades as a result of her parent’s help, the preferred behavior is going to be even further reinforced by her accomplishment, as well as by her parent’s approval.

A bonus side-effect of using a constructive behavior-change approach is that the child is more likely to trust the parent’s future responsiveness and less likely to resort to lying, sneaking around, or other problem behaviors often employed in the aim of circumventing physically painful punishments. It’s a natural, human reflex to want to avoid pain. Of course, that doesn’t make lying or cheating right. Simply “natural,” like a parent’s tendency to go further than necessary when caught up in the throes of emotion.

Why is it so tempting for parents to rely on risky default technologies when it comes to addressing children’s behavior? One reason is that we receive automatic reinforcement for using them, because they seem to work in the short term, and the short-term consequence is what we associate most strongly with our action. We may be aware of the fact that there are long-term side effects to some types of punishment—such as the potential to stir up strong, destructive emotional responses in the learner. And we may be aware of the danger in modeling undesirable behavior ourselves. But it’s not always easy to see that we have other, more effective options.

Yet we do. And it’s well worth adding some of them to our parenting repertoire.

_______________________________

SEE ALSO:

Bye-Bye Boot Camp: Positive Parenting for Challenging Kids

April 1, 2014—Having children is not a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, so it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be a bit defensive about our parenting style. This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?
(Full story . . . )

_______________________________

MOM PSYCH RECOMMENDS:

You Just Broke Your Child, Congratulations

To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

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.

You’re never too young to be a teacher. At least, that’s Mary Gordon‘s philosophy.

The founder of a program called “Roots of Empathy,” which brings babies into classrooms to teach children in grades K through 8, Gordon is an internationally recognized educator, social entrepreneur and parenting expert who has established empathy-based educational programs that are now public policy in Canada while also having been implemented around the world.  Her Roots of Empathy program has proven particularly instrumental in bringing about dramatic changes in student behavior, helping them build core competencies that can generalize to the home environment as well as to the community.

Why bring babies into the classroom? “Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers because babies love without borders or definition,” Gordon writes in her book about the program. “To the baby every child in the class is a new experience and she is ready to engage with all of them. In her worldview there are no popular children and no nasty children. What the baby does see, over and over again, are the children who are unhappy or troubled, and she usually reaches out to them. Children who have felt alienated or excluded are drawn into a circle of inclusion through the empathic contact made by the baby.”

Empathy, of course, is fundamental to solving the world’s most serious issues; and without the ability to extend it, there is no such thing as moral identity.

Gordon points to some of the bloodstains on the pages of human history, such as the Holocaust, to ask why some people were passive—or even active—participants, while others risked their lives to help victims and bring about change. “The difference lies in our capacity for empathy, our ability to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others,” she concludes. “If we cannot see the other person as human like us, we will not be able to identify with him. If we cannot put ourselves in his place, we will not recognize his experiences and feel what he feels. This failure of empathy at best leads to complicity and apathy; at worst, it leads to cruelty and violence.”

We like to think that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again. And perhaps it won’t if the next generation grows up understanding how to see others through a baby’s eyes.

——

Further Reading:

Take an Empathy Pill and Call Me in the Morning

attachment fatheringAs May begins and Mother’s Day approaches, the American brain is primed to think of all things Mom and Motherhood. And so it is that the New York Times finds it opportune to ask, “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism? In particular, has the trend of ‘attachment parenting’ been bad for working moms?”  Weighing in on the debate are experts and authors across the parenting spectrum, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik (Beyond the Sling) to Pamela Druckerman, whose discovery of wisdom in the parenting approach of the French inspired her to write Bringing up Bébé.

Rest assured, you will not often trip over ideological debates on Mom Psych.The focus here is on research rather than opinion; and debates tend to be opinion on steroids. But any excuse to bring up a good study will serve, and the NYT debate does open the door to a few interesting bits of research.

My favorite bit  has to do with how our brains work in debate mode. Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman would tell you that your political preferences go a long way toward determining what arguments you’re willing to buy into. Not necessarily because you’ve weighed the issues, but because your brain is good at jumping to emotional conclusions about what it likes or doesn’t like— pretty much at first sight. Fortunately, if you can be persuaded to consider the evidence, it’s just possible you might override the initial emotional response. But, says Kahneman, the brain’s analytical mode (what he calls System 2) is “more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions—an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs.” The brain, Kahneman explains, does not really like to examine where its beliefs come from or whether that source is reliable. It only wants to preserve them at all costs.

One of our unconscious but brilliant strategies for preserving them is to argue with “straw men” instead of the real opinions of other people. We unwittingly remold our opponent’s perspective into the most extreme version possible so it will be easier to knock down without requiring too much thought. After all, it takes effort to get inside another person’s head and accurately make sense of the contents, so we do what comes naturally: We make something up. You may have a straw-man habit  if people regularly interrupt you with, “That’s not what I’m saying.” We may even make up the entire premise on which our straw argument stands. These tendencies can clearly be seen in the NYT attachment parenting debate, and if we are honest with ourselves as we read through it, we may notice them in our own reactions too.

The first thing that may bother you is the debate question itself. It seems extreme to suggest that feminism has been destroyed, and the idea that attachment parenting might be responsible reflects a misunderstanding of the parenting style. As PhD in Parenting blogger Annie Urban points out, “It’s About Parenting, Not ‘Mothering.” Urban takes on French author Elisabeth Badinter’s assertion that this form of parenting enslaves women, and notes that there are enough responsibilities associated with childcare to keep men and women equally busy if dads will man up. Badinter says that in her country, at least, they don’t. Well, wise up, French dads, there’s a whole slew of research that says if they are lucky enough to have two parents, kids need both of them. That means dads too. You can say “I’ll do the cooking and you do the laundry,” but you can’t say “I’ll do the gardening and you do the kids.” Children are full-fledged family members who need to be emotionally connected to both parents equally. And connection is only possible when there is involvement.

As the debate continues, a veritable army of straw soldiers floods the battlefield. Attachment parenting is portrayed as a rigid system requiring mothers and children to spend all their time together” leaving none of the wise, French-parenting “distance” that would enable children to build “autonomy and resilience.” Of course, there certainly may be some in the attachment parenting fringe who can be described in these terms, but practiced with balance it is not about mothers and children spending all their time together. Nor is it about rigid co-sleeping rules, ignoring tantrums, extreme dietary restrictions, or any of the other straw man erected by those who don’t understand its basis. In fact, there is so much room for individual style within the attachment parenting “movement” (if it is to be so-called) that its families are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. What ties them together is one fundamental aim: to create a strong emotional bond that will encourage the development of children’s autonomy and capacity for resilience.

This is where the next bit of research comes in to clarify how children develop these important characteristics. We’ll go to the original source and you may be surprised  that it won’t be pediatrician William Sears, who perhaps deserves the credit for establishing “attachment parenting” as a movement.  It’s true he did lay down a long list of recommendations for achieving attachment, but Sears was merely interpreting the research, albeit through his own useful observations as a pediatrician. Attachment research actually began with psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has since been taken over by neuroscientists, who have expanded on the initial theory. What the research shows is that the areas of the brain that support autonomy and resilience are sculpted and strengthened by emotional attunement with caretakers. It isn’t distance that performs this miracle. It’s connection. Sure, children need age-appropriate practice in exercising autonomy and resilience. But they need a secure base of connection to work from.

Of course, every good parent aims for this connection (which may make everyone an attachment parent to some degree). But another funny thing about the human brain is that it loves simple categorizations and it also loves the tangible chemical high it gets from being able to categorize itself as “capable” and everyone else as “incapable.” And so we classify as wackos all feminists, tiger moms, wise French parents, and attachment adherents and refuse to see ourselves in any of them. Whereas if we could see them—as well as ourselves—without polarized lenses, we just might be surprised to find that we have much more in common than we might think.

%d bloggers like this: