Parenting for the Zombie Apocalypse

School is cancelled for the third time this trimester due to extreme cold. Today’s bonus time with the kids has given me an opportunity to reflect on how my parenting philosophy and style has evolved over the last decade. When the kids were little, I sweated the small stuff. I wanted to make sure they felt special and were on time, prepared, and neatly dressed for the carefully selected enrichment activities that filled our weeks.

Now, I’m just focused on trying to prepare them for the upcoming zombie apocalypse or adulthood. Whichever comes first, I figure we are covered either way. To that end, I’m trying to impart in them self-sufficiency, resilience, and guile. As we go through our days, weeks, and years, I am trying to mentally move beyond the day-to-day and as challenges arise, figure out what they can learn from the challenge that will help them to ultimately survive the zombie apocalypse (the ZA), or again, thrive in adulthood.

To that end, here are some parenting guidelines:

  • Acknowledge and appreciate birthdays, don’t try to make them special. In the upcoming ZA, no one is going to have the time or resources to give them an amazing birthday celebration every year. They will be happier in the long run if they don’t expect to be wow’d on their birthday.
  • Authority and rules matter. If you are going to break them, consider it carefully and be prepared to take the heat and defend your actions. Chain of command, expectations, and rules will keep their group alive during the ZA (or again, in the work world). Any deviation from these must be carefully weighed because there will be consequences. During the ZA, helicopter parenting will not save them from their poor choices.
  • Everyone needs to understand nutrition, be able to politely eat food they hate, and be able to cook. Our kitchen is not a restaurant. If they don’t like what is for dinner, they are to keep it to themselves. I gave them cookbooks for Christmas, if they want to eat food they like, they should learn to cook. Who know what food will be available during the ZA or if they might need to impress a boss or international client over some kind of disgusting meal. Being able to eat food you hate without visibly gagging is a life skill.
  • Everyone does their own laundry. Don’t have clothes you need for school or the presentation? Too bad, you know how those machines work. This is the easy to teach, just stop doing their laundry and watch them rise to the challenge. Again, a life skill that granted, will probably be more important if the ZA does not actually come to pass.
  • Learn how to fail. Today’s parents frequently skip over teaching the kids how to fail. They instead focus on preventing failures or rescuing kids from their failures. Many kids never learn how to fail. They need to know how to handle a failure, work through it, learn lessons from it, and move on. Kids need experience with failure and how to survive it to know they are capable of handling the inevitable setbacks during the ZA, and/or adulthood.
  • Friends matter. Taking the time to make and nurture good friendships is as important as doing well in school. When you are MaGyvering the creative attack on the zombie’s stronghold, you will need your friends to watch your back. Friends are also essential for celebrating life’s victories and mourning life’s loses. Being there for a friend is one of the great joys in life.

Know that the assignment due tomorrow that hasn’t been started, the messed up piece during the recital, the “A” in science, and the “F” in history are not important. What is important is what is learned from those successes and challenges. Learning to make the most of opportunities presented, make your own opportunities, and move forward, even in the face of failure, is what matters. Successes and disappointments all create emotional, intellectual, and physical responses. When parenting for the zombie apocalypse, take the long-range view that you are shaping responses, building habits which will guide them in the future. Today doesn’t matter.

Oh and fire, everyone should know how to build a fire.

Crime, Punishment, and the Gifted Child

One aspect of gifted parenting that I’m sure we are getting wrong as much as we are getting right is disciple and consequences. Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children operate at levels high above what is typical for their age in both their performance, and their ability to analyze situations. They also can be exceptionally volatile, extremely sensitive (especially if they are low on fuel or sleep), and typically they have asynchronous development.

From a parenting perspective this means that an older elementary school child may expect to be treated as an adult (or at least like the much older students who are his or her intellectual peers), may feel the deep moral injustices of the world (especially his or her world), may be able to negotiate and argue on the level of an average adult, and yet still throws temper tantrums that would put the average two-year-old to shame.

One of our chief jobs as parents is to prepare our children emotionally, intellectually, and morally to thrive in the world as adults. We need to guide them in learning good habits and help them understand that negative behaviors have unpleasant consequences. We also need them to realize that these consequences aren’t the end of the world. That throughout life, they will, at times, screw up and they will have to face the music. They need to learn to bounce back. Resilience and maintaining a positive attitude, despite things not working out the way you had hoped, are important for both career success and overall happiness.

Children who never have to deal with consequences for their actions, miss out on learning how to move forward after a setback. This is one of the tragedies of helicopter parenting. When we swoop in to save our kids, we cheat them out of learning how to survive and thrive in a world which is not always supportive and forgiving.

On the other end of the spectrum, if they feel a punishment is too severe, they can enter into an over-stressed catastrophizing mode where not only do they not learn the behavioral lesson you are trying to teach, they may fight more, shut down, or become depressed.

The tricky part from the parenting perspective is how to gauge what is an appropriate consequence for a highly sensitive child who is misbehaving. Especially if that child has intellectual ability and emotional control with a multi-year developmental difference. Do you punish them as you would a 3-year-old who exhibits the same behavior or like the 22-year-old who can understand the societal and moral reasons why their behavior is inappropriate?

As parents we rarely get it right. We vacillate from consequences that are so minor the kids fail to learn and change their future behavior to consequences that unexpectedly cause an over-the-top, crippling, emotional reaction. When either one of these happen we, as parents, have to learn and adjust. Consequences that were too weak are increased on the next infraction. Consequences that were too sever demand that we spend extra time working with our children — talking with them, one-on-one to help them put the consequences in context and develop resilience so they can move on. We sometimes need to help them understand that although their superior debating abilities will not make their parents change their minds (at least not most of the time), tomorrow is another day.


Elementary School Cooperation, Pressure, and Harvard Cheating

On Friday the news broke that Harvard University is investigating what may be the largest student cheating scandal in its history. 125 students in a course titled “Introduction to Congress” are suspected of cheating on the take-home final exam. All jokes aside about it being sadly funny that a course about Congress was one which inspired cheating, how did we get here? How did students who are some of our nation’s best and brightest, students who will go on to lead in businesses, academics, and government, either cheat intentionally or fail miserably at understanding the basic social contract behind a final course exam?

The fact that the students collaborated on the exam and that their answers were similar is not under dispute. The students are defending their shared exam work, stating that they felt the professor and teaching assistants encouraged cooperation and collaboration, or tolerated it, or at least did not explicitly state it was against the rules. Some have even said they will sue Harvard if they are punished.

The defense the students are putting forth is that the course was represented to them (apparently by the professor and some other students) as an easy “A”. These students went into the class feeling as though attending lectures and doing the reading was optional. There were take-home assignments and exams during the course that did allow some collaboration. Then they got the final exam. Some felt the final was confusing with trick questions and at least one term that had not been obviously defined in class or in the readings. Students being questioned about cheating chatted about the exam specifics with each other and went to teaching assistants for guidance on how to answer the questions. Given the perceived unfairness of having to work hard for a grade in an “easy” class, deal with ambiguous questions, and think on their own, many students just chose to work together. No word yet on how the other 154 students in the course managed to complete their exam without outside help.

Students are claiming that the exam instructions were confusing and didn’t explicitly ban collaboration. This is a disingenuous argument. If the instructions were confusing, they should have clarified the instructions, not worked together on the answers. The exam instructions, as posted by the Boston Globe, explicitly state that the students may not discuss the exam. An open book, open note, and open Internet exam is not the same thing as a “discuss with your neighbor and write down your combined best answer” exam. Perhaps the students have never had true, in-class, proctored, open-book exams so they don’t understand what that means? Harvard has moved away from traditional in-class exams.

Clearly this extreme form of cheating does not suddenly emerge out of  a vacuum. Harvard graduates have, from time-to-time, spoken out about the culture of cheating occurs when kids used to success and under pressure to achieve high GPAs, start feeling like they might fail. This need to bend ethics and the truth to win is evident elsewhere in society from politics to the Libor interest rate scandal.

Yet the uptick of both cheating and rationalizing that cheating represented in the current Harvard scandal is something new. It is one thing to cheat, it is another to blatantly do so in mass numbers, threatening to sue a university if you are punished. To me this is the sad but natural progression of two trends that are taking over our school systems, starting at the elementary level.

The first trend is the growing worship of shared, group work over individual effort. Many, if not most, elementary school classrooms have desks arranged in collaborative workgroup “pods” rather than in straight lines, facing the teacher. In these pods the students face each other. This increases peer interaction (and distraction), minimizes the authority and role of the teacher in the classroom, and gives burgeoning bullies more opportunities to pick on classmates without getting caught. Teachers arrange their rooms this way to make it easier for students to work together. While everyone agrees that we want our future workforce to be excellent at getting along with each other and working together, is a heavy emphasis on group projects in school the right way to achieve that goal? Actual research shows that individuals perform better than groups.  People in groups tend to be lazy, letting others do more work than themselves. Rather than fostering more ideas, groups tend to create a type of groupthink where individual ideas are suppressed and peer pressure rules. The work and creativity of introverts especially suffers when they are forced to work in groups. By emphasizing group work so early in school we are de-emphasising individual effort and ability. We are encouraging the type of thinking that can lead to students at an Ivy League university seeing nothing wrong with a group effort on a final exam. We are short-changing our kids and their future employers by teaching them that there is no difference between an individual knowing the correct answer and that individual’s peer group knowing the correct answer. We are systematically reducing the numbers and quality of thoughts and ideas in our world just when we need an increase of creativity to find solutions to our 21st Century problems.

The second trend is more obvious and just as disturbing. It is the win at all costs, my child must be the best, of the best, of the best or he/she will be a failure, parenting style. When parents coach their kids to make sure they gain entry to gifted programs and call teachers to complain about test scores, their kids notice. Kids are learning that resources and success are limited and the stakes are so high it is permissible to bend the rules. The idea that your life will be irreparably ruined if you fail a course, in college or even K-12 is widespread. Parents, and therefore their kids, do not seem to believe that America is the land of limitless opportunity anymore. Instead everything matters, everything is life or death, and grades matter more than what you have actually learned. Our school system has created an environment where everyone is accountable, as judged by graduation rates and test scores, not by knowledge. Colleges used to hold the line on true academics, but they too are under pressure to turn out students with high GPAs and amazing resumes, regardless of actual learning. Grade inflation is rampant and frequently it isn’t until the stellar, always above average students gets into the workforce that the gaps in their ability and knowledge are obvious.

Getting into “the right” college isn’t as important and learning how to think and write. Statistics that show the amazing success of graduates of top universities fail to acknowledge that the smart, talented students accepted into those institutions will be successful no matter where they go to school. Parents all need to take a deep breath, stop worrying about the future and start teaching that integrity and hard work will be as important in the future as they were in the past.

The Value of Exclusive Gifted Programs

I’ve spent much of this summer reading parenting books. I’ve been trying to figure out how we got to our current state of over-the-top parental involvement in children’s lives at the same time our general education system is failing. Why isn’t parental concern translating into increased investments in our children, our schools, and our future?

One of the realizations I’m coming to is that unlike the American educational reforms inspired by Sputnik, this time around the emphasis is not on how to improve the education of all *our* kids, the parental pressure is on how to make sure *my* kids have every possible advantage. Instead of working to improve all public schools, we pass laws that give parents the freedom to dump their local school for magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools, and even private schools, paid for with public tax dollar vouchers. When each family can customize their child’s education, they have less of a need to work within the system to fix problems. They also work to cherry pick programs they feel are prestigious and desirable, making sure their own children get coveted spaces in AP classes, honors classes, and even gifted programs.

Gifted programs are now viewed (and taught) not as classes for students that are truly gifted but instead as enriched curriculum with superior instruction that is beneficial to all students. Wendy S. Grolnick, PhD and Kathy Seal in their 2008 book, Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids, state:

Often created to keep middle-class students in public schools, gifted and talented programs offer a high-quality curriculum enriched by field trips, art and drama offerings, and special projects. They frequently provide superior pedagogy, emphasizing hands-on and creative learning experiences.

Dr. Grolnick and Ms. Seal then go on to discuss groups that are working to make sure gifted and talented programs are open to all students and urge parents find out about the gifted programs in their local school district. They tell parents to work to change the admissions requirements if their children do not qualify because learning about these programs is “crucial for helping your child navigate the increasingly complex journey from preschool to college graduation.” Nice scare tactic there. Just for the record there is also a section titled, “The False Danger of “Overinvolvement”: You Can’t Be Too Involved.” A statement they support with evidence from child development studies done primarily in the 1990s before the advent of helicopter parenting.

We see how much parent involvement has changed when we compare the above to the 1964 classic on parenting, Children: the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. with Vicki Soltz, R. N. (recommended to us by Dr. Ruf of Educational Options). Throughout Children: the Challenge, Dr. Dreikurs urges parents to refrain from overprotection and let their kids work out their own battles. He says that parents should not involve themselves in making sure homework or practicing gets done, and instead should mind their own business because, “We cannot protect our children from life.” My favorite story is about a mother who does the right thing in letting her 7-year-old bike to the store on the busy street, alone, because she needs to stop being so overprotective.

Back when Dr. Dreikurs wrote Children: the Challenge, there was an assumption that the public schools did a decent job and students and teachers could work together to make sure students received a quality education. We no longer trust the public schools and there is a fear that if students stay in regular classrooms they may miss out on something critical to their future success. Gifted and talented programs are treated as one more notch in the college resume belt, similar to AP and honors classes. They should not be.

Well-designed programs for academically gifted students are not just regular classes taught in greater depth and at a faster pace. Yes, as in honors courses, critical and independent thinking is emphasized but a good gifted program also addresses the special needs of gifted students.

Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students may need a different teaching style that works with their high energy and overexcitabiliities. A gifted classroom may seem chaotic with kids intensely moving, arguing, and even crying. They may easily get frustrated because the ideas in their heads move so quickly or are so deep, they just can’t complete an assignment that would be easy for a more normal kid. They may have mini emotional breakdowns because they feel an intense need to contribute to the world and can’t figure out how to mesh that need with their day-to-day lives. Gifted students may suffer from existential depression at a very young age and may need an environment where they can feel understood and less alone. The fact that they are capable of reading, writing, doing math, or understanding complex concepts at younger than average ages is not the only difference between gifted children and regular children.

Truly gifted kids may be the ones disrupting the regular classroom. Having programs targeted to and reserved for gifted students allows teachers to focus on the different needs of the different student groups. Sharing a classroom with gifted students, especially ones on the extreme end of the bell curve, does not necessarily benefit the more regular kids. Gifted students do not just acquire knowledge faster than regular students, they process information differently. Exceptionally gifted kids may find it difficult to answer questions that average and moderately gifted kids find simple. The more gifted the child, the increased possibilities they see and while they may intuitively understand complex issues, their need for extreme precision may paralyze them. The best way to present material for gifted students may not be the best way for regular students. All students benefit when educational material is introduced in a way that best fits their own, personal learning style. Gifted students process information differently, not better or worse, just differently. Acknowledging this difference is not the same as saying one child is better than another. Assuming that every hardworking, smart student that does well in AP and honors classes also needs the special services of a gifted program does our entire educational system a disservice.

Kids Don’t “Play” Youth Sports

It you are a parent of elementary school kids as I am, you probably have logged more than a few hours on the sidelines of your child’s baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, or other sport. This is part of being a good parent in the US these days — showing up at the games, supporting the team. Participation in youth sports has been steadily growing over the last 20 years. As more kids have joined teams, more parents have been actively participating on the sidelines.

Next time you are at one of your child’s games do an experiment for me, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the game. Don’t worry, your kid and his or her team will be just fine if you aren’t actively watching the action for a few minutes. Just listen.

I tried this last night at my young son’s soccer game and heard an ongoing chorus of “Get in there!” “Attack the ball!” “Heads up!” “_____ Get Back!”  “Blue, Spread Out!”  “Talk to Each Other”  “_____ Pass to ______, He’s Open!”  “Defense!  Come On Defense!”  “Good Try!  Good Try!”  It was positive, constant, and all the voices were adults. This is a first and second grade soccer team. While there are some stand-out players, most of the kids are just learning the game. Technically, the adults aren’t even supposed to keep score. Parents and coaches work together to make sure playing on the team is a positive, educational experience.

We should not confuse this with play. Kids on organized youth teams do not “play” in the traditional child’s play manner. They exercise, they learn rules from adults, they are told where to go and what to do. They are taught to support their team and be good spectators when on the sidelines.

Now close your eyes and remember a time that your kids were truly playing, without any adult direction or interference. Chances are, especially if there was a decent group of kids with mixed ages (a rarity these days), you remember kids creating and perhaps arguing about a set of rules that defined a game that few adults would want to play. You may even remember kids getting bumped and bruised and the group pulling back and re-evaluating (arguing) over how to make the game more fair. You probably also remember an excess of noise. Screaming, laughing, and yelling at each other are all part and parcel of child play.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if at the same time participation in youth sports has been increasing, old-fashioned playground play, without adults present has all but disappeared. Why should we care that adult-run games are taking over child-directed games and play? Kids learn distinctly different things from play than they do from sports. They learn how to create rules and how to modify them when they aren’t working. They have to deal directly with conflicts and learn how to work through them on their own. Generally, kid directly play is much more active with more kids moving at a given time. Kid directed play makes kids highly motivated to pay attention and stay on top of things so that they don’t let their friends down or fail in other ways. This need to pay attention may be critical for proper brain development. There is even evidence that free-form, rough and tumble, kid-directed play can even reduce ADHD.

Last night on the sidelines, my son and one of his teammates kept dropping back, kicking an extra ball between them and even doing some fake karate moves at one another. The drive to play was strong and they were giving their bodies and brains  what they needed. They weren’t however being good team members and before long the coach had them stop, sit down, and watch the game.

Personal Responsibility

Regular readers will know that I’m pushing the kids this summer to develop some new, powerful, personal habits. This push has dovetailed nicely with my increasing awareness that like many US children, mine are not contributing much to the ongoing running and maintenance of the household and are failing to become self-reliant.

Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, suggests that the current generation of US children are perhaps the most dependent and indulged in the history of the world. This topic fascinates and worries me on both a personal level and a societal level. How effective will our kids be in their 20s, 30s and beyond? Will they be the capable, thinking adults that our country will need to get through the 21st Century? While we are striving hard to provide our children with an easy and worry-free childhood, we are bequeathing them a world with crumbling infrastructure, global warming, economic issues, and food pressures that will be anything but cushy. Our kids need to be ready to take on the adult challenges of their generation.

Well, first steps first. This summer in our house the kids are taking care of themselves, their rooms, and some of the basics around the house.  Each of them has personal, daily chores and there are also daily and weekly family chores. They are not being paid for the chores. They do not receive allowances. I am trying to get the idea across that money does not magically appear because they made their beds or did the dishes. That isn’t the way the real world works. The work that must be done to keep a household running is not work that they, or anyone else in the house, gets paid to do. I am also not assigning the family chores — allowing them the opportunity to step up and do what needs to be done without being told. When they have done a family chore they get to sign their name on the chart. (Anyone whose name does not appear with enough frequency will have consequences.)

So far, with reminders from me, most things are getting done. Hopefully by the end of summer they will be more proactive.





Attachment parenting and helicopter parenting

The latest Time Magazine story on attachment parenting is creating some buzz probably due to the controversial and a bit disturbing picture they chose for the cover. The article gives a brief overview of attachment parenting and its major founder, Dr. William Sears.

Most of the time, including in the Time article, when people talk about attachment parenting they focus on how mothers parent infants and toddlers. The principles of attachment parenting are that parents, and especially mothers, should interact with their infants and children positively, consistently, and lovingly at all times of the day and night. Attachment parenting pushes breastfeeding and co-sleeping and having the parents (again, usually the mother) available to feed, sooth and comfort the infant 24×7 as required by the infant. While lip service is given to striving for a balance in personal and family life, the clear message is that once a woman becomes a mother, her life needs to revolve around her baby with the baby calling all the shots. Attachment parenting preaches that if the mother does not respond instantly to her baby’s cries for attention and food, the baby may become damaged and have difficulty forming meaningful and loving relationships later in life.

As the infant grows into a toddler, attachment parenting continues to stress that interactions with the child only be positive. If the child is misbehaving, parents are to distract, redirect and strive to understand what the child is trying to communicate with their negative behavior. Parents are to work out solutions with their children instead of punishing the bad behavior. Parents are not to impose their will on children.

What happens then when the infant and toddler raised in a positivity infused bubble goes out into the real world?  The world does not automatically re-arrange itself around each precious child. Like it or not, expectations will exist for the kids to behave even when they are upset. They may have negative consequences for bad behavior. Rules will be created and enforced without the child being consulted. After such a cushy, positive experience for the first few years of life, the child will be in for a rude awakening.

What is the devoted attachment parent to do to protect the child? My guess is that the attachment parents become helicopter parents. If the infant is damaged permanently by being allowed to “cry it out” after the parents have diligently tried everything else (food, diaper change, a cuddle) and need a break, then obviously the elementary school kid will be irreparably harmed if they can’t acquire enough Easter eggs during a hunt and the college student will not survive if their parent doesn’t step in to chat with their professors about their papers and test scores.

Of course on the surface this is ridiculous. Humans have thrived for generations with children being raised with clear expectations and enough freedom to succeed and fail on their own. The science on attachment parenting is at best a hodgepodge of research combining the rather obvious negative effects of extreme neglect with some studies on parent-child bonding in late elementary school and middle school. Attachment parenting is not the only way to create a parent-child bond and the attachment parenting proponents seem are sensationalizing research and preying on parental guilt.

The ideas of attachment parenting have become ubiquitous in parenting literature since Dr. Sear’s, The Baby Book was first published in 1992. Over the last 20 years there has been a growing social experiment with attachment parenting. Now the first wave of children raised by mothers and fathers practicing this extreme version of parental nurturing are in college and the work force and the picture is no longer quite so positive.

There is growing evidence that children of overly involved parents suffer from insecurity, a lack of independence, anxiety, depression, poor problem-solving skills, low confidence, and poor self-esteem. These are the young workers that can’t think on their own and need enthusiastic praise all the time, even for minor efforts. Since they have never been allowed to discover they can survive failure, they are terrified of it. Scared of disappointing themselves and others they are unable to embrace their lives as independent adults. It is time to start acknowledging the possible negative effects of attachment and helicopter parenting and bring expectations, consequences, and balance back into our family lives.