Lean In for Gifted Girls

I just finished reading Lean In, the much talked about book by Sheryl Sandberg. In it she makes the point that women need to put more into their careers. That while women are outpacing men in educational achievements and taking more of the entry-level jobs, men still run the world. The book is heavy on statistics that are all carefully footnoted. While women earn 60% of the masters degrees in the United States, these highly educated women steadily drop out of the workforce in the years after graduation. This is especially true of highly educated women with children. Permanently dropping out of the work force hurts women’s long-term economic stability. It curtails their independence and may even be a contributing factor in lower self-esteem and depression. While the book was directed at women, the information is perhaps more valuable for those of us raising gifted girls. How can we set them up for fuller, more fulfilling lives? Should we put more emphasis on giving them the skills they will need for life after school, rather than just focusing on their academic careers?

Girls are different from boys. They are, on average, more concerned with following rules, pleasing people, and not hurting other’s feelings. They generally mature earlier and act more responsible at a younger age than boys. This tendency to compliantly follow adult directions makes girls easier to live with (most of the time) at home and creates a more studious, “teachable” student body in our educational institutions. Throughout their education, we reward girls for their hard work and positive, conforming attitudes. However, once they enter into the work world, different criteria govern who gets promotions and power. Businesses reward innovation, ambition, and results. Aggressively pursuing opportunities leads to rewards. However, women and girls generally do not want to appear ruthlessly ambitious. They fear (consciously or subconsciously) that if they really put themselves out there, promoting themselves, networking, and striving, they will be viewed less positively and this likeability hit will hurt their careers. Research shows they are correct. Our society wants men to be decisive, driven providers and women to be communal, sensitive caregivers. Women who “act like men” are less liked and this negatively affects their career trajectory.

So what do we tell our hard-working, ambitious daughters? How do we raise them to succeed not only in school but in the work world?

I am beginning to believe we as parents and teachers must start by giving up some of the benefits we get from having nice, compliant girls. My own personal experience is that my daughter tries hard to follow both spoken and unspoken rules. She frequently makes the extra effort to please teachers, yet is very reluctant to call attention to her achievements. My sons on the other hand are naturals at self-promotion. They also take the edict that it is far better to ask for forgiveness than permission one step further by adding in the caveat that neither is necessary if you avoid getting caught or can put the proper spin on your transgression. These different approaches often have my daughter complaining that “it” isn’t fair. That the boys get to do more without getting in trouble and that they don’t put in as much work at school or at home. She has a point and we do try to monitor the boys to make sure they are putting in the same effort to get the same rewards as our daughter. After reading “Lean In” though, I’m starting to wonder if this approach will actually help her in the long run.

Yes, the boys need more monitoring and it is our job to encourage them to be more thoughtful, diligent, and hardworking. On the other hand, our daughter may need a different message. Perhaps we should stop giving girls the idea that the way to get their efforts appreciated is to level the playing field and make things more fair by complaining to the local authorities. Title IX only applies to educational institutions, not the business world. Career opportunities are not automatically equal for men and women. Absent overt discrimination, positions are open to everyone, male or female but men end up in the executive suite far more often than women. Males generally approach the world differently and this can lead to more success for them in the work world. Our daughters need to know that being good workers and nice people will not automatically give them the careers they want. In addition they need to build their self-confidence, knowledge, and social work skills. We need to raise daughters that are a bit more of a pain. Ones that follow their own passions instead of our suggestions. Ones that are more interested in being themselves than in being liked by everyone. Ones that are willing to take chances and break some rules because they understand that their worth does not depend on always being good. Ones that are comfortable taking a seat at the table because they know they have a great deal to contribute. We need to become much more accepting and tolerant of noisy girls that speak even when they are not spoken to and shout out answers without raising their hands.

Well-behaved women seldom make history — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

We must encourage our girls to follow their own interests even when it means ignoring our suggestions. We should go beyond tolerating their arguing and teach them how to become more effective in advocating their positions.

In general, girls have less professional ambition than boys. While some of this may be due to innate biological differences between boys and girls, even in our enlightened times we are still raising them differently with different messages. Boys get the message that when they grow up they will be full-time, ambitious providers. Girls get the message that while they should do well in school and start a career, it is at least equally important for them to be supportive of their boyfriends, husbands, and children. That if they are too career oriented, their family may suffer. While society sometimes questions whether a mother who takes a big promotion may be hurting her family, the same is virtually never true of fathers.

Ambitious girls are labeled as bossy instead of what they actually are, naturally driven leaders. We need to do a better job of helping our girls develop these emerging managerial skills. Instead of telling our girls to “be nice” we should teach them how to lead so that others will want to follow.

Knowledge is power and our girls need to know:

  • That on average men apply for jobs if they feel they meet 60% of the requirements while women only apply if they think they meet 100% of the requirements. Our girls need to understand that this desire to cross the T’s and dot the I’s is a false strategy designed to avoid rejection and holds women back. We should encourage our girls to put themselves out there and teach them that rejection is not the same as failure. And failure isn’t that bad anyways.
  • Effective ways for girls and women to negotiate. While women who tout their own achievements take a likeability hit compared to men who do the same, there are techniques to get around this. If women are negotiating for a higher starting salary, a raise, or other benefits, they can minimize negative blowback by “thinking personally and acting communally.” Men who fail to negotiate are viewed as weak, pushovers yet women need to provide a legitimate explanation for their negotiations. That explanation is frequently received more positively if it ties into positive societal stereotypes of women. For example, if women start negotiations by explaining that they know women often get paid less than men, in part, because men are more likely to reject initial offers and that this knowledge is why they are negotiating, the women position themselves as more communal and less selfish. Requests from women are also viewed more favorably if they say a senior person encouraged them to negotiate or that their negotiations are inspired by objective, industry standards. Until and unless society changes and starts to view aggressive women as positively as it views aggressive men, our daughters need the inside information on how effectively propel their careers forward while still appearing “appropriately” female.
  • How and why to work together. Frequently girls, especially in the middle school years, setup a social hierarchy where girls actively put other girls down to build themselves up. They are too concerned about popularity and boys and they view the social scene as a zero-sum game. This attitude too often stays with them as they enter the work world. Yet one of the most effective ways for women to advance their careers is to have their achievements and skills endorsed by others. Girls need to get in the habit of banding together and speaking positively about each other. We should coach them on how to call attention to each other’s ideas and achievements. By becoming effective promoters for each other they can learn at an early age how to make sure their accomplishments are known without appearing unseemingly “cocky” for a female.
  • That they should approach their education, networking, and initial jobs as if they will have a full and fulfilling life-long career. They should not question whether their work and career choices will fit with a later decision to have a family. When women doubt their ability to combine work and family before they even have a baby, they avoid advancements and assignments that will give them more money, power, and flexibility — items that can make a huge difference when they later need to combine work and family.
  • That there is currently a false “competition” between stay-at-home moms and career moms. The reality is that more and more women, and a few men, move back and forth between work and home, spending more time with their families when that need is greater and spending more hours on their career when it is best for them and their families. Our daughters can succeed where adult women have failed. They should grow up expecting to work together and stay connected no matter whether they are going through a period of full-time office work, full-time at-home work, or something in-between. Guilt over not being with the kids enough or not being at work enough need to stop influencing how mothers view each others’ choices. Families and careers go through phases and one or the other will, at times, demand more attention. Girls should learn the importance of supporting and helping each other, especially during transitions into or out of the work force.

Those of you who are raising boys aren’t off the hook either. Even if your home follows the statistical pattern of mom spending more hours on cleaning and childcare than dad, explain to your son that the world is changing. Teach him how to clean and cook tell him that as an adult, he will be just as responsible for the household chores as his wife. We should talk with our boys about work/life balance. “How do you plan to juggle it all?” should not just be something for girls to ponder. In fact, we can start changing the conversation today. Start ask the men you work with who have young children, “How to you do it all?”

ADHD Psychology, Co-morbidities, and Outcomes – Coursera Class Weeks 6 & 7

ADHD is complex. While defined as an executive function impairment, there are different genes, parts of the brain, brain chemicals, and behaviors involved. We know that certain drugs and behavioral interventions can relieve symptoms of ADHD, yet the medical establishment does not know what combination of interventions will promote optimal functioning in any given ADHD patient. Frequently the best course of action and medication is found through an educated trial and error method. This is stressful for both the child and the family. However, finding ways to manage and treat ADHD impairments is essential. Weeks six and seven in Pay Attention: ADHD Through the Lifespan have focused on the functional impact and complications of ADHD. It has been a bit depressing.

Disorders seen with ADHD include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), anxiety disorder, mood disorders (including bipolar disorder, persistent minor depression, and major depression), learning and language disorders, Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), autistic spectrum disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, sleep disorders, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorders.  Whew. The more sever the ADHD, the more likely it is to co-exist with one or more of the above disorders. Parental issues such as depression, low-income, and decreased interest in the child and a deviant child peer group will also increase the likelihood of a comorbid disorder.

Children with ADHD:

  • Are more likely to have learning issues:
    • Speech, language, reading, spelling, math, handwriting, and listening comprehension deficits can all present at higher than normal levels in children with ADHD.
    • Overall, drugs do not correct the learning problems that may be present with ADHD and parents should insist on additional educational help for their ADHD kids with learning issues. Medical interventions can make a child behave better in class but they do not make the child learn more. Specifically, reading, spelling and math issues do not improve with ADHD stimulants although the stimulants may improve handwriting and comprehension. Atomoxetine (Strattera) may sometimes help with reading abilities.
  • Have lower than average intelligence (possibly the result of poor executive function);
  • Are less self-sufficient.

Perhaps due to their initial ADHD-caused difficulties academically and socially, children with untreated ADHD can develop low self-esteem and a type of learned helplessness. They prematurely give up when faced with seeming difficult problems and don’t develop the ability to seek challenges, expect success, persist, and take failure in stride.

The behavioral and cognitive effects of ADHD can cause lifelong issues. 30% to 80% of children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to have symptoms in adolescence and up to 65% will have them as adults. ADHD may just look different as a child grows up. External manifestations such as high activity may decrease, yet internally, inattention and disorganization can persist. The world expects us to develop more and more executive function as we age and this expectation can create real issues for adolescents and adults with ADHD. When key executive functions such as self-regulation, sequencing behaviors, planning ability, organization, working memory, and internalized self-talk are impaired, personal relationships and careers suffer.

Adults with ADHD are more likely to:

  • Have an annual income of less than $25,000;
  • Be high school dropouts or if they do graduate from high school, they are less likely to graduate from college;
  • Be addicted to tobacco and/or use recreational drugs;
  • Be unemployed;
  • Be arrested;
  • Be divorced;
  • Have poor driving records, including revoked licenses, and vehicle crashes;
  • Have poor money management;
  • Have trouble organizing a household and raising children.

The lack of executive function that is a primary deficit in ADHD can cause secondary executive function problems, similar to the learned helplessness created in children with ADHD. These secondary EF problems may respond to coaching and training. People with ADHD can live in the moment and while they may know what to do, they have trouble with execution. Lecturing someone with ADHD or merely teaching them organizational skills is rarely successful. They know what is expected, they just don’t have the internal support to always follow through.

Instead of assuming individuals with ADHD will change their brain wiring and suddenly have organizational skills, it is more effective to “reverse engineer” and externalize executive functions. Technology is making this easier. Smart phones can give time reminders and have nagging due lists. ADHD coaches can help individuals learn how to break tasks into small steps, externalize sources of motivation, and post critical reminders at the point of performance. While drugs are an important treatment component for some people with ADHD, behavior training is essential. Natural settings should be restructured to externalize executive functions and then these accommodations must be maintained.

Given the increasingly high societal and economic cost of ADHD, it is distressing that the current sequester has cut programs for low income children. Early interventions for children with parental support is one of the most effective ways of preventing the negative comorbidities associated with ADHD. Individuals with ADHD have the greatest success when important people in their lives compassionately and willingly help them with their organizational needs. This is only possible if parents, educators, and spouses understand how to best support someone with ADHD.

Giving Gifted Kids a Kinder Mirror

The latest ad in the Dove Real Beauty campaign is getting a fair amount of press. In it, a police forensic artist draws a picture of a woman based on the woman’s description of herself (he cannot see her). Then the artist draws the same woman based on a stranger’s description of her after having met and chatted with her briefly. The images clearly show that women can be their own worse critics and that strangers can sometimes see beauty in us that we miss.

The same is true for gifted children. The wrong environment can destroy a positive self-image. Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children are especially at risk. If their teachers don’t understand their intensity and asynchronous development they may not be respected or valued in class. They may get in trouble more, feel misunderstood, and start to incorporate the negative view their teacher has of them into their self concept. While their external appearance hasn’t changed, internally they may start to feel less engaged and uglier. If they have the misfortune of being in an educational environment where their teacher is giving them neutral to negative feedback and none of their classmates get their jokes, share their interests, or even just accept them, this can lead to a downward spiral.

Giftedness is a risk factor for depression, drug use, and suicide. Gifted children can feel alone and closed off from the world when they never get a chance to be with kids like them. In most of the sketches from the Dove campaign, the women’s faces and eyes are more open and interactive in the pictures created based on the stranger’s description. Perhaps this is in part because the women faces were actually different when they were chatting with the stranger. A friendly conversation, with smiles, laughter, and eye contact can animate and positively transform anyone’s face. Perhaps this isn’t just about women’s or gifted children’s less than optimal view of themselves. Perhaps the women saw themselves as they are when they are alone, staring into a mirror and not connecting with anyone. The strangers saw them as they are when a friendly person takes the time to chat with them, engage them, and value them. Gifted children need to feel treasured in this way too.

Especially in elementary and middle school, gifted students need gifted programs not just to help them excel academically. They need gifted programs to help them form a positive self-image. Too often giftedness is narrowly defined by academic achievement or potential. The emotional piece, which can make gifted children feel more passionate than the average kid their age and hyper-aware of not quite fitting in socially, is as important. It is easier for a gifted learner to fill in missing academic pieces than to change the story they tell themselves about their place in the world, who values them, and why. If we just focus on academics, we may accidentally give gifted children the impressing that they are their achievements and nothing more. This is one of the reasons we need special programs for the highly gifted. Good programs aren’t just about academics or enrichments that could benefit any top student. Quality programs for highly gifted students take into account the whole person. They can transform a child who feels unattractive and out-of-place into a child that radiates confidence and self-acceptance.


Loving School Again

My second grader started at a new, to him, school this week. The school is an alternative, public school for gifted kids.  The school is small with a combined student body, 1st through 12th grade, of just over 100 students. It is not in our district which means in order for my kids to attend the program I get to spend 2+ hours a day driving them to and from school. This gives me time, lots of it, to ponder, “Is it worth it?”

Right now the answer is a resounding, “YES!”

Yesterday when I picked up the kids, the seven-year-old bounced with excitement and enthusiasm. He wanted to know if he would be able to work on his Rosetta Stone Spanish at home that night. He was more confident than I have seen in a long time. In fact, earlier in the day I had commented to another parent that he used used to be the most positive child but that over the last year or so he had become increasingly pessimistic.

So I asked him if he was enjoying the new school and how it compared to his old school. He was emphatic that the new school was “way” better. Now, keep in mind, his old school was no slouch. It is a very high performing, blue ribbon school in a well-funded suburban school district. The K-6 student body of 1,000 has many high performers. The building is well-maintained and the school has new technology, dedicated teachers, and highly involved parents who value education and donate their time and money to support the teachers, students, and school. We chose to live here in part because the schools are so good. Yet, our kids did not thrive in the local schools.

In the words of a second grader here is why the school for gifted kids is better than the high-quality, local school.

  1. No Bullying.
  2. Everybody is nice.
  3. You need to get work done.
  4. You get a couple of breaks.
  5. You get to have a snack whenever you want.

Taking each of the above points one at a time shows why significantly gifted kids have a better chance of thriving when they are able to enroll in full-time programs with similar kids, designed for the special needs of the population.

No Bullying. Like it or not, kids on the playground are frequently mean. Especially at a big school, like his old school. During after lunch recess there are over 100 students on the playground and only a couple of adults supervising. My son, who is small for his age, was teased constantly. He was called names and physically bullied. Because he views the world a bit differently than a regular kid, he could not navigate the huge social pecking order. Due to lack of numbers and lack of understanding, no adult had his back. He was on his own and he spent a great deal of time obsessing about how he could defend himself.

At the smaller gifted school there is a better ratio of adults to kids on the playground but that isn’t the only improvement. Being smart isn’t a social negative. The kids value intellect as much or more than athletic prowess and the hockey/soccer/football stars do not rule the playground. This allows him to be himself without automatically becoming a target.

Everybody is nice. While this may sound like a rephrasing of the first point, it goes beyond that. It is one thing to not get picked on, it is another to connect. He is having good conversations and making friends with kids of all ages. He is finding common ground and gaining confidence because the other kids accept him.

You need to get work done. This statement struck me as a bit funny. Of course he got work done in his old school as well. The new school includes a heavy component of self-directed learning and personal responsibility. I think he is starting to take more ownership of his education. He feels like his is working and learning, instead of merely following the teacher’s directions.

You get a couple of breaks. In their quest to maximize test scores, his old elementary school structured the school day to maximize seat time. Although studies do not bear this out, there is a feeling that school days need to be crammed full of academics to maximize student success. The only “break” time allowed in his old first grade classroom was recess right after lunch. The new school divides the school day into work blocks interspersed with break times. Different people need different types of breaks. Introverts may need to go read a book in a corner, extroverts may need to catch up with friends. Different days you may feel like walking outside or just playing a mindless game of solitaire. The new school allows for this. Within reason and weather permitting, students can use their break times however they wish. This leaves students feeling like they have really had a break and they then tackle the next work block with renewed focus and energy.

You get to have a snack whenever you want. This is so basic. Regular elementary schools and classrooms only allow students to eat at specific times. Many students, and especially, many significantly gifted students, have cranked up brain metabolisms. They may need a more steady stream of food, especially protein, throughout the day. If they can’t eat when their bodies and brains need nourishment, their thinking can get foggy and they lose emotional resilience. The new school recognizes that hunger and nutritional needs are not dictated by a clock. Allowing students to eat when they are hungry makes the students more aware of, and in tune with, their bodies. It also makes them more productive during work blocks.

Could some of these changes be implemented at the local school? Perhaps, although in a school with 1,000 students it is difficult to meet the needs of a small group that march to the beat of a different drummer. Full-time programs dedicated to highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students fulfill a huge need that even the best neighborhood schools fail to meet. The need to get these kids together with each other. They know they are different and can have a difficult time finding meaningful connections with regular kids in regular schools. In gifted programs they discover that they are not alone. As one student put it coming back to (the gifted) school after summer break, he is once again with “his people.”



Free and Cheap Summer Enrichment

Like many parents this summer, brochures for enrichment opportunities have filled my mailboxes, both US Mail and email. There are academic and non-academic camps and seminars, sports teams, theater, dance, and music classes. Sometimes it feels as though it is necessary to sign kids up for multiple organized enrichment activities to avoid having them fall behind peers and classmates.

This summer for a variety of reasons, we have steered clear of the organized, pricy options. Instead we are finding enrichment activities for gifted kids that are free or at least very inexpensive. Summer is half over so this is a good a time as any to list the activities we have found thus far.

There are two ways to visit museums for free in the Twin Cities this summer. First off, we are lucky to have some major museums and attractions that are always free to the public. The ones we have explored this summer are Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, the Weisman Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Hennepin County Library Museum Adventure Pass also offers free admission to local museums (and the zoo) through the end of summer.

Public Transportation
Like many suburban kids, mine rarely if ever use public transportation. This summer (once the heat wave breaks) each of the older kids will be responsible for planning a trip to and from a destination chosen by me. For example, my daughter will need to plan an expedition to the Mall of America for us. This will take us on at least one bus and one light rail train ride. She will be responsible for checking schedules, matching them up, and making sure we can make the connections both to the mall and home from the mall. The plan is to leave enough time so that if she accidentally takes us on the wrong bus or we get off the train at the wrong stop, there is time to recover before nightfall.

Cooking & Menu Planning
Given a set amount of money, say $25, each of the older kids will need to plan, shop for and cook a healthy meal for the entire family. Ideally they will do the shopping all by themselves but I’m still working out the details on this one.

I dug out my old sewing machine, gave the kids a basic lesson on how it works and bought a bunch of scrap fabric for them. We might get some simple patterns later. For now they are just experimenting with stitches and making pockets.

Exploring the local park
In the spirit of Free Range Kids, more and more we are pushing the kids to head out to bike and explore the local park.

Recently my oldest has started volunteering at a nature center, feeding and watering the critters. He loves it and is getting far more animal experience than he would taking a general nature class designed for kids his age. If your child has a strong interest in an area but is too young to officially volunteer for an organization, he or she may still be able to volunteer if you also sign on as a volunteer and your child works under your direct supervision.

Although kids can learn a great deal in officially organized activities, I feel that they learn different things or at least in a different manner when they are directly in control. Too often these days the adults are telling them what to do, where to go, and what “fun” activity will come next. By putting the kids in charge of their own enrichment activities and letting them approach them in their own way, at their own pace, I’m hoping they will build both executive function and critical thinking skills. At the very least maybe by the end of summer they will be able to cook a meal and read a bus schedule, useful knowledge no matter where life takes them.

Headed to the SENG Conference

This weekend SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) is holding their annual conference in Milwaukee. Geared toward educators, parents, gifted kids, and gifted adults, the conference is filled with seminars and activities for and about folks in the gifted world.

Although frequently we don’t think of gifted kids as vulnerable, growing up gifted can be difficult. They see the world differently from their age mates and are not always understood or appreciated by their teachers. Add in the asynchronous development which is so common and you get a population that is at risk.

According to SENG, gifted kids can face a wide range of problems including difficulty with social relationships, difficulty with studying and schoolwork, high levels of anxiety, and depression. The SENG annual conference is an effort to get information and tools for helping gifted kids out to the adults who have a direct and indirect impact on the lives of our gifted population.

One of the really cool things about the conference is their programming for gifted kids. Because being gifted, especially being very highly or profoundly gifted is rare, these smart kids can feel different and isolated in their day-to-day lives. If you are in the top 1% or 1/10th of 1%, chances are good that you don’t get much of a chance to hang out with kids like you. The SENG conference brings gifted kids together with two days of programming designed just for them.

So I get to go to seminars while my 9-year-old and my 11-year-old have fun and hopefully make connections with other gifted kids. Now I just have to decide which of the interesting sounding seminars to attend. Stay tuned.

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.




Creating Powerful Habits, part 1

As a psych major, I’ve always been interested in how our brains work. As a mom this interest has become focused on, for lack of a better description, best common practices. How can we best help our kids to grow up as secure, compassionate, effective, happy, and successful adults? How will the experiences and thoughts of our young children shape them into the types of adults they will be when they are 20? 30? 60? How much has already been pre-determined by genetics and how much can we realistically influence?

Over the weekend I started reading a fascinating book that appears to offer a relative straightforward answer to the above questions. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg was just published on February 28, 2012 and encompasses the latest research on habit formation. The bestselling book is fascinating and is getting a great deal of positive press.

According to Mr. Duhigg, scientists have been able to show that once a habit is formed, we work on autopilot conserving our energy and brain cells for more involved pursuits. They have also shown that habits never disappear. They can be covered over by new habits but the old habits remain in our brains, ready to spring into action when triggered by just the right cue. While Mr. Duhigg focuses more on the habits of individuals, organizations and societies, I find the potential for parents far more compelling.

The habit formation loop is simple: Cue -> Routine -> Reward. While it can be difficult to change our own poor habits as adults (although if you are interested, Mr. Duhigg’s site has a How to Change a Habit flowchart) creating good habits for our kids might be easier. We manipulate their worlds already. We are in charge of many of their rewards. A little bit of planning, dedication, and finesse on our parts and we can equip our kids with a solid set of ingrained actions and thought processes that will help them live happy and fulfilling lives.

The importance of actively helping our kids create positive habits is brought home by another recently published book that is in the news, The End of Illness by David B. Agus, MD. Dr. Agus, a leading oncologist, is calling for a complete change in the way we approach health. One of the items he lays out as critical to optimal, long-term health is daily routine.

If we accept that part of our parenting duties is to help our kids create habits and daily routines that will serve them well as adults, our jobs just got both more complicated and much, much more interesting. Check back to follow our progress as I go through the book and work with the kids to create powerful new habits.

Getting bumped back

Today the 7-year-old is in tears again, or is it still? Aleks and Khan Academy are bumping him back because he hasn’t fully learned the latest subjects and concepts. His angst is wearing on me. I’m learning that the most important thing I have to teach him is how to struggle. How to work when he is confused and not the confident expert.

He is bright enough that he easily understands many things effortlessly. He is used to feeling smart and in control. Feeling stupid takes a huge emotional toil on him.

I am convinced that being able to feel comfortable and be okay with the gnawing feeling of stupidity is essential for all real progress in the world, both individual progress and institutional progress. If we already know all the answers, we aren’t really moving forward. In order to move forward we must first start by understanding where our knowledge ends and our lack of knowledge (or stupidity) begins. All great mathematicians encounter difficult problems where they may not even know how to begin to solve the problem. Feeling stupid in scientific research fields is common enough that it can carry with it something called impostor syndrome where a person is unable to believe the external evidence of their own competence and accomplishments.

So how do we make it okay to feel stupid?  How do we make the feeling of stupidity something that inspires us to dig deeper for answers and solutions rather than something that makes us quit and walk away? It is our lack of self-confidence and self-esteem makes us want to quit (or cry) when we feel stupid. We don’t think we can work through the difficult problem and we don’t want to bruise our fragile egos by trying and possibly failing.

Much has been written on the importance of self-esteem in kids and how to build it. Much of it has been wrong. When I was growing up, I Am Loveable and Capable was used in both Sunday school and my public school as a way to build community and feelings of self-esteem. Even as a 4th grader I saw its stupidity. It taught that our egos are and should be damaged by the random and not so random acts of others. That our feeling of self worth can only be controlled by what happens to us, not by our own thoughts and actions.

New research is starting to show that self-esteem needs to be tempered by self-control, self-regulation, and yes, the ability to confidently keep struggling and working even when success isn’t immediate. We develop self-confidence not from avoiding failure but from learning that we are capable of surviving failure. We need to bring back scoring of pee wee soccer games and letter grades in elementary schools. We need to eliminate the stupid practice of giving all kids awards and trophies just for being on a team for an entire season. We parents need to back off and let our kids fail. When we act as helicopter parents and work with the coaches and teachers to prevent our kids from feeling the sting of failure, we give our kids the not so subtile message that we lack confidence in them. That we don’t think they can handle failure. Instead we need to let them realize that perhaps they weren’t quite as good as the other kid. That maybe they didn’t know quite as much as was expected for the class or test. And as they are feeling the let down of that failure we need to help them understand that failing isn’t the end of the world. That how they react to the failure will have a longer lasting effect than the failure itself. That they can and should work harder to do better and move through and beyond feeling stupid. Our kids need to learn that in feeling stupid and in failing they have great company.