Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide

Book Review-Treating the Tough Adolescent

Not that counseling is ever an easy job, but some times are harder than others. Sure, you can help find folks find their calling or cope with death and divorce. You can handle the couple who are struggling to hold their marriage together. A good counselor can even help parents learn how to parent with authority and love. However, what happens when the children aren’t easy to get along with? What happens when they’re adolescent – and they’re tough? That’s where Treating the Tough Adolescent is.

Dr. Scott Sells wrote the book as a guide to help professionals know what to do in the uncharted territory of the difficult child. I’ve already reviewed his consumer/parent facing work, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love. While there is substantial overlap between these two titles, the different audiences mean there is still more to glean from Treating the Tough Adolescent.

Before I get there, I need to remind you dear reader, I’m not a professional counselor. I’m a parent and volunteer who continues to seek to make the road easier for parents who are struggling with their teenagers, either because the teens are in trouble themselves, or because they’re trying to take over the family.

Family Systems

Every family operates together as a system. Sometimes the influences that one member of the family has on another are very large, and other times, not so much. However, families operate in relationship to one another. They’re like planets orbiting in a solar system with two (or more) stars. As one person moves and changes, so do the others. Everyone in a family system reacts to the gravitational pull of the other members of the system.

Family systems are particularly important when considering the impacts of a tough adolescent, because they were created somehow. It’s interesting to consider what the root causes are that created the tough adolescent in the first place. Was it dad’s addiction? Was it the mother’s mental illness? While there’s no point in assigning blame, looking for the root cause can sometimes melt the ice-cold heart of the struggling adolescent, whose only way of changing the system is to become “tough.”

No matter who or what caused the hurt, the teenager – and everyone in the family – must take responsibility for healing themselves. If the root cause hasn’t worked itself out and still lingers or is still a painful secret, then somewhere during the treatment of the adolescent, it will become necessary to address that root cause making it hard to recover.

Inversion of Control

One of the common dynamics that Sells identifies is that the adolescent has grabbed the reigns and is running the family. While this may seem impossible, it is the case all too often. Mom and dad may decide which house and which car, but the teenager controls the schedule and the emotional tenor of the house. They’re pulling the puppet strings of the parents, who feel powerless to resist the pull of their troubled and tough teen.

One of the continuous themes is the reestablishment of parental authority over the adolescent. This comes in two basic forms. The first form is obvious – that is, to take control back from the adolescent and control more aspects of the home. The second form is subtler and more subversively influences the system. By the time that an adolescent has been labeled as “tough” or “troubled,” it’s likely that they’ve already engaged other professionals, who left the parents less powerful than when they started. This, too, must be corrected.

When Helping Hurts

When you reach out for help in an out-of-control situation, you expect to find competent help that will help you put your problems behind you. However, as I’ve brought up a few times, clinical psychology isn’t always doing its best work. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering what Works in Therapy, and The Cult of Personality Testing for more on some of the challenges in the profession.) The result of the engagement of external parties, whether it’s professional counselors, church, community, or law enforcement, wasn’t that the problem was stopped. Though for some, perhaps even many, these resources are able to halt the progression towards being a tough adolescent, in other cases, it isn’t enough.

It’s scary. Instead of worrying about the temper tantrums of a two year old, you’re worrying about oppositional defiance disorder and what harm the adolescent may inflict on themselves or on others. It’s no wonder that parents are desperate to get the help they need.

However, too often, the deferral to a professional causes the parent to lose ground in the eyes of the adolescent, because they are able to manipulate the professional into backing parents off from their stance, or the adolescent recognizes that the parent or parents aren’t able to manage them without help. If they can separate the parent from the help, they can win. It’s these cases where “helping” creates greater issues down the road.

This isn’t to say that parents shouldn’t seek help – they should. They should interview the helper and ensure they’re on the same page as the parents. If they can’t support the parents – both in their growth and in their ability to regain control – then they’re not the right fit.

Enforcing Rules

Anyone who has had an adolescent – tough or not – knows that they’re really good at bending the rules, negotiating, and trying to “pull one over” on mom and dad. It’s a part of the way that things are supposed to be. Adolescents are supposed to try to see what they can get away with – to test their boundaries – and parents are supposed to be there to help them be aware that the boundaries still exist.

Many times, tough teenagers didn’t have parents who could maintain these rules and enforce them. The cause – whether it’s a struggling marriage, a personal problem, or financial difficulties – is immaterial. The results are the same. Adolescents don’t know where the rules are. Without a clear definition of the rules and the consequences, there is no roadmap for how to behave, and testing the boundaries gets wilder and wilder.

Sells recommends a written contract with an adolescent so that they’re clear on what the rules are, how they’ll be interpreted, and what the consequences for violation are. His process includes a troubleshooting step specifically designed to help locate the loopholes that adolescents will undoubtedly attempt to try to wiggle through.

Marshmallow Malfunction

Walter Mischel tortured children with the thought of a marshmallow in the middle of the table. They were told to wait until the researcher returned without eating the marshmallow, and they’d be rewarded with two marshmallows. A pretty good return on the sweet tooth investment of a pre-kindergarten child. Some took the bait and ate the marshmallow before the researcher returned. Others didn’t. Those that ate it just couldn’t fight the feeling. They couldn’t muster the willpower. (See Willpower for more.) That’s not the interesting bit. Self-control is hard to come by whether you are two, ten, or fifty. The interesting part was the follow up. Those children who got two marshmallows were better off in life.

Tough adolescents are described as living the hedonistic life. They live for today and not for tomorrow. They can’t wait for tomorrow if they want it today.

Relapse and Follow Up

One important point that Dr. Sells is able to reinforce is that even if tough adolescents can be brought back into control – and their behaviors kept to acceptable social norms for a while – there is a high probability of relapse. That is, the old behaviors will not want to be extinguished quickly. They may come up once in a while to see if the environment has changed and whether they can stick around. The recurrence of old, undesirable behaviors isn’t an indication of failure. It’s a normal situation, even if it’s not one that is welcomed.

Because of the potential for relapse (or the expectation of relapse), Sells recommends follow up to make sure that the hard-fought new interactions stick.

Consequences

Sells’ work is more prescriptive than most books. He provides many excellent ideas for consequences that are both unexpected and potentially quite effective. There are bathroom lock-ins for those children who run away. For those who are absent or tardy at school, Sells provides a model for the parent attending school with the child. These creative consequences work, because they strike at the heart of the things that are important to the adolescent.

If your tough adolescent is important to you – or to one of your clients – perhaps the answer is to read Treating the Tough Adolescent.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Book Review-How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Anyone who has a teenager knows that they speak a different language. In fact, they often seem like they’re a different species all together. They don’t seem to act like their younger versions of themselves – and you wonder how they’ll survive to be older with the coping strategies they’re using. However, these same teenagers were once precious babies. So how is it that the transformation happened, and how do you develop some rapport so that you can keep the lines of communication open to this alien race? That’s the question that How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk seeks to answer.

In the Cards

Before I get into the meat of the book, I need to pause and say that Terri and I believe in conversation. We believe in hard conversations (see Crucial Conversations). We believe in happy conversations. One of the things that she saw was parents (or guardians) and children in a hospital not talking to one another. That’s why we created the Kin-to-Kid Connection Child Safety Cards. It was our way of encouraging conversations by creating opportunities to play games together. We moved from there to trying to help prevent kids from ending up in the hospital in the first place; however, the genesis was the need for conversations between parents and kids.

Plethora of Poor Responses

We’ve all had a bad day and tried to share with a friend, only to be shutdown or rejected. At least to us, their response felt like a rejection. They didn’t seem to want to accept our world as our world. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.) There are, according to How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, eight different categories of responses, seven of which are bad:

  • Denial of Feelings – Essentially, you don’t or shouldn’t feel what you feel. The response leaves you deflated and feeling that even your feelings are wrong. (Hint: feelings aren’t wrong, only actions can be.)
  • Philosophical Response – “Life can be like that.” The empty response does nothing to connect with the other person and trivializes their having brought it up.
  • Advice – “You know what I think you should do?” can turn people off. They may have been coming only to connect, and advice attempts to solve their problem. Even for those seeking a resolution, a simple answer can seem trite or like they’re stupid for not thinking about the solution. (See Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus for more on empathetic listening vs. problem solving.)
  • [Judgmental] Questions – “Why did you do that?” While questions can be a valuable tool for validating and improving understanding, they can also be a weapon of shame and judgement. (See Parent Effectiveness Training and Motivational Interviewing for ways to effectively use questions and His Needs, Her Needs for disrespectful judgement.) The book describes these as only questions, but the examples are all examples of judgmental questions.
  • Defense of the Other Person – It’s as if the person you’re talking to, the person you shared with, instantly starts taking the other person’s side of the story. They say that they can’t identify with you – but rather identify with the other person in your story. Here, they’ve actively rejected your bid for connection and instead have seemingly gone to side with the other person. (See The Science of Trust for more on bids for connection.)
  • Pity – “Oh you poor thing.” No one wants to be pitied. People want connection and understanding, not pity. By pitying someone, you’re saying that they’re somehow less than you are.
  • Amateur Psychoanalysis – This is a sleight of hand trick. The response encourages the person to question their feelings – but by suggesting that they might be projecting their feelings about one person onto another. The problem is the response can lead the person sharing to feel as if they’ve been tricked.
  • An Empathetic Response – The response creates a connection and says, “I understand this about you.” Even if the response isn’t exactly correct, the person seeking connection will typically correct and adjust the understanding. Out of the eight types of responses, this is the only one that builds connection and affirms the relationship.

In a book about talking to your children, why is understanding these eight responses so important? In our parent-child, relationship the one-up/one-down power differential is appropriate and necessary, but it also creates the tendency to use more forceful approaches in conversations. It takes more work to ensure that we are not just directing our children but are trying to connect with them as well. Too often we fall into a quick and convenient trap that we’re in a hurry and don’t have time to really talk things through with our children, and that can lead to challenges.

Teaching About Feelings

Certainly, parents are expected to educate their children. They’re expected to help them be prepared to enter kindergarten and help them learn in school. The explicit knowledge they gain through their childhood is designed to give them the foundation for study in their chosen career. However, there’s more to teaching and learning than multiplication tables. There are many things that require tacit knowledge – having experienced something – rather than just having learned it. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.)

Understanding oneself is perhaps the greatest gift that any parent can help their child to achieving. (See Beyond Boundaries for more on what an integrated self-image is.) Developing this integrated image is, in part, recognizing our internal incongruencies – our good and evil natures that are both within us. In part, an integrated self-image is an awareness and acceptance of our feelings. Here, the book suggests four things:

  1. Listen with Full Attention – In our hectic world, it’s too easy to be watching TV or playing on our phones while listening. This sends a subtle message that what the person is talking about isn’t worth our whole attention – and by extension, neither are they.
  2. Acknowledge Their Feelings in a Word – While sharing, we as humans use a great deal of resources to measure the response of the person we’re sharing with. Simple, one-word responses (or utterances) helps the other person understand that we’re still “with them.” (See Mindreading for more on how we assess other people’s mental state.)
  3. Give Their Feelings a Name – I’ve purchased a collection of literally tens of thousands of feeling words. It’s a rich collection of every word in the English language used to describe how someone feels. However, all too frequently, we settle for the fast food version of feeling words: happy, sad, or angry. By giving feelings names, a person can start to identify when they feel the same – or similar – feelings the next time.
  4. Give Them Their Wishes in Fantasy – It’s hard to believe that just the idea of having something you want can fulfil the need. However, because of the Zeigarnik effect, incomplete thoughts are held more strongly. (See The Science of Trust for more on the Zeigarnik effect.) By allowing people the opportunity to fully experience their wish – only as a fantasy – you relieve the pressure to maintain that thought.

Though we all seek validation in many ways, there is probably no greater area where we seek validation than in our feelings. When someone is sharing their feelings, they’ve being vulnerable and are trying to connect. When we validate those feelings, we create a deeper connection.

Understanding, Accepting, and Agreeing

An important aspect of any part of relating to your children is to help them understand the difference between understanding, accepting, and agreeing. This distinction isn’t hard for me, but for many of our children, it has been. Understanding is awareness of the other person’s perspective and values and how they came to them. Accepting is acknowledging the other person’s point of view is OK – at least for them. Agreement is agreeing with those perspectives and values.

Children wrongly assume – wrongly – that you must agree with each other. What is needed and required is understanding, not necessarily agreement. When you have understanding and can accept the other person’s point of view, you can talk through conflicts and reach resolutions.

Accepting the world as it is – and understanding that we can’t change other people – makes interactions easier, because there are fewer attempts at coercive control. (See Choice Theory and Compelled to Control for more on control.)

Play

A multi-purpose tool in the toolbox of talking and listening is play. Play is a necessary evolutionary tool for teaching important life skills. (See Play for more.) Humor and jokes create important social connections. (See Inside Jokes for more.) Play – or humor – can lighten the mood and remove the tone of seriousness that can sometimes pervade a conversation. This can often serve as a lubricant to make difficult conversations easier. (See Crucial Conversations for more on difficult conversations.)

Creating Separation and Autonomy

Job #1 for every parent is to help their children to be independent. The job is to encourage their autonomy and, ultimately, help them to separate from the parent. (See Drive for more on the power and necessity of autonomy.) While this may be painful to some people, it’s a necessary part of life – just like dying is a part of life. We don’t have to like death, but we do have to accept that it’s a part of the package. Here the book suggests six strategies:

  1. Let children make choices – Rather than saying you must do X then Y, you offer the choice between X or Y first. This may seem like giving the child power, but in truth, they’re still going to do everything, it’s just a matter of order.
  2. Show respect for a child’s struggle – As parents, we have the curse of knowledge; we already know the answers. However, children need the struggle to be able to learn. (See The Art of Explanation for the curse of knowledge and How We Learn for necessary difficulty – i.e. the need to struggle.)
  3. Don’t ask too many questions – By asking too many questions, we disrupt and minimize the learning process and can negatively impact emotion. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on too many questions.)
  4. Don’t rush to answer questions – Feedback is a curious thing in education. Feedback is nearly essential for learning. Feedback that occurs too fast prevents learning. Learning to give feedback and answer questions when necessary (and not before) is a powerful tool for helping children learn.
  5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home – Knowing how to find answers and work through problems is key. If every answer comes from the fount of mom or dad, they’ll never learn how to learn on their own.
  6. Don’t take away hope – I firmly believe that hope is the most powerful thing in the universe. Without hope, there’s no reason to try. You have learned helplessness. Hope is the engine that allows us to continue forward (see The Psychology of Hope for more).

Whether we’re talking about a child that we’re trying to help grow or the person who has an unhealthy attachment to us, these are good techniques to create separation.

Parents and Kids or Person to Person

In the end, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is as much about how any two people should relate as it is about parents and children. It’s solid practical advice for the things to do in your relationship with your children to help put them on positive footing for life. So won’t you learn How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk?

Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager

Book Review-Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love

Parents pour so much time and energy into their children. They become the focus of their lives. From an evolutionary sense, it makes sense to have humans wired to take care of their children. It increases survival of the species. It might even explain the crazy cat lady who has 27 cats – and no children. Imagine the pain of a parent who has an out-of-control teenager. A child that you’ve poured resources in time, money, and emotion into for thirteen or more years who is out of control. This is the situation that sits square in the sights of Dr. Scott Sells’ work, Parenting Your Out of Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love.

Out-of-Control

A key component of the title is the aspect of “out-of-control.” A key reality is that, over time, we must trade our control of our children for influence. We can put them in a play pen they can’t get out of when they’re young. It’s harder to keep control of them as they age. However, here Sells means something slightly different. He’s speaking of teenagers who struggle to fit into social norms, obey parents, and “make it” in life.

He’s talking about children where something has gone wrong in the development process, and something needs to be done to correct their course of action. This is a troubling situation. Judith Rich Harris speaks of the limitation of a parent’s ability to influence a child in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike. She holds out little hope for any parent’s ability to substantially shape their children’s path once the genetics have been set. While there are books designed with general parenting advice, they’re targeted towards those children who fall in the normal range. Parent Effectiveness Training and The Available Parent are both designed to tune up a parent’s skills when there’s a child with challenges – not necessarily one that is out of control. Similarly, Saving Our Sons and Raising a Modern-Day Knight are about how to raise boys with a greater connection and greater purpose.

Sells is dealing with different animal.

What Works When What Normally Works Doesn’t

Sells’ work started with teens for whom regular counseling solutions weren’t working. He studied eighty-two teens over a four-year period to develop a professional book, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide. He was looking to find a way to help save children who needed something they weren’t getting.

Love and Limits

Like “normal” children, even out-of-control teenagers need both love and limits. It cannot be one without the other. Both ingredients are essential to the healthy development of a teenager. In today’s “friend first” culture of parenting, we often neglect the limits that are necessary for teens to learn the hard life lessons.

Conversely, in overly authoritarian environments without love, children struggle to understand that the world is really a helpful place and can become bitter and negative.

Sells recognizes that out-of-control teens need limits, but also recognizes that this can’t be done without love as well.

Seven Reasons for Teen Misbehavior

Sells believes there are seven top reasons for teen misbehavior:

  • Unclear Rules – You can hardly expect a teen to follow the rules if they honestly can’t understand them.
  • Not Keeping Up with Your Teens Thinking – Parents need to be one step ahead, but often fall behind the teen’s thinking.
  • Button Pushing – Teens and parents spend time pushing one another’s buttons so that nothing productive happens.
  • Teenager Drunk with Power – Teenagers find new freedom and power, and they get addicted to the experience.
  • The Pleasure Principle – Teenagers believe that if it feels right, it must be right, without the understanding of the long-term consequences.
  • Peer Power – The peers of the teen are guiding them in the wrong direction. (It is here that No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption are focused.)
  • Misuse of Outside Forces – Outside forces are used instead of parents taking positive control of their children. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more on why parents may not handle things themselves.)

Authority Confusion

As Sells is quick to point out, if you’re unwilling or unable to take charge, one of five things will happen; however, two of these are causes, and three are results. The causes are:

  1. Spousal Fighting – Disagreements with your spouse, ex-spouse, or significant other will freeze or stall your efforts to take control of the situation
  2. Button Pushing – Button-pushing and constant conflict will drain all the nurturance and softness from the relationship.

The results are:

  1. Teen in Charge – In the absence of someone else being in charge, they’ll take on the role.
  2. Transfer of Parental Authority – Outside forces like hospitals, group homes, etc. will be called upon to take on the parenting role, with varying degrees of reliance on the outside forces decisions and not the parents decision.
  3. Family of Peers – The teen’s family of peers will take on the role of shaping and “parenting” your teen.

The Teenager’s Seven Aces

Sells believes that there are seven aces that teens attempt to play with parents to get their way. They are:

  • Running away
  • Disrespect
  • Ditching school
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Threats or acts of violence
  • Threats of suicide
  • Alcohol or drug abuse

These aces are designed to cause the parent to back down and allow the teenager to retain their control. (You can learn more about the dynamics of control from Compelled to Control.)

It’s Getting Worse

One of the fears of a parent dealing with an out-of-control teen is that it’s getting worse. In a strange twist, it might get worse before it goes away. Behaviors are sometimes stronger before they’re extinguished. Here are the seven signs that Sells believes means it’s getting worse:

  1. A lack of remorse for any hurtful acts on others
  2. Blaming others for their problems
  3. Persistent lying
  4. Repeated acts of drunkenness or use of drugs
  5. Repeated fighting
  6. Repeated suspension from school
  7. Inability to hold a job

Experimentation

Sells is quick to point out that it’s possible to overreact to singular cases of experimentation that are normal teenage behavior. Note that it’s normal – but not necessarily desirable – teenage behavior. Teenagers often experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Sells does suggest that it may be helpful to share your experimentation with your teen – though I personally disagree with this perspective.

I believe that sharing stories about your experimentation can be helpful – but only in so much as they can establish some common ground. I believe it’s very easy for unskilled parents to go too far and share more information than is useful. They move from building common ground to establishing that, no matter what the teen does, it won’t be as bad as what the parents did during their experimentation. Also, it creates another potential opportunity for a teenager to use this information against the parent during a button-pushing competition.

So normal teenage experimentation is something to be met with understanding and conversations, not grounding for the rest of their lives.

Getting Clear and Getting Concrete

There are two major factors that allow out-of-control teens to operate. The first is the lack of clarity in what is expected of the teenager. The lack of clarity makes it hard for the teen to understand what to expect. The other issue is that the rules change. The parent doesn’t consistently enforce the consequences. This can be due to the parent forgetting the consequence that was associated with a behavior, a lack of willpower to follow through, or a lack of a practical way to implement the consequence.

Consider for a moment the idea that the teen would be denied access to their electronics. If they’re a latch key kid – coming home before their parents – how would you possibly prevent them from being on their phone or computer? There are answers to this, but they may be out of reach for some parents. Having an IT background means that I can snipe individual children’s devices off the network here and establish acceptable use times – but that may be beyond the technical capabilities of some parents. If you can’t enforce the consequence – if it moves – then it shouldn’t be a consequence. Teens will learn that consequences aren’t really consequences. They’re just a starting point for negotiation.

Both tendencies, to be unclear and to move consequences, are why Sells recommends having a written contract with your teen. Things should be as clear as possible – and there should be a sense of definitiveness about what the consequences are.

It’s important to realize that consequences really need to be harder on your teenager than they are on you. If you can’t sustain the consequence, then the teen will just wait you out – and know that they can do it again.

Trouble in Paradise

A teen’s behavior is just a part of the family system. It happens that teens act out as a result of unresolved issues in the family system that have nothing to do with the child. It might be parents that don’t get along – whether married or divorced. Attempting to get control of a teenager when the family system itself is broken doesn’t work.

(Sidebar: This was part of the reason that Terri and I worked with parents of troubled teens while others worked with the teens. You can see more about this in the Kin-to-Kid series of posts.)

Crucial Conversation Skills

It’s obvious that, when things aren’t going well, conversation skills are essential to try to improve understanding and reduce negative emotions. Sells spends a lot of time walking parents through the skills to navigate these crucial conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for complete coverage on crucial conversation skills.)

In practice, the skills needed to navigate the turbulent waters of a conversation with an out-of-control teen may take more than any parent could reasonably be asked to develop. I’ve written about communication, conversation, and dialogue repeatedly, and I’m still out-matched with some of the conversations that we enter with our teenagers. (See Dialogue and Conversational Intelligence as starting point for more resources on effectively communicating.)

One specific skill that Sells shares is the use of the words he calls “reflectors.” These are words and phrases like nevertheless, regardless, that is the rule, or no exception. These are reflectors, because they get the conversation back to the issue at hand. For instance, if you told your son to sit up for a conversation, he might say that he’s tired. “Nevertheless, that is the rule,” can help him to recognize that his being tired doesn’t change the rule. (This presumes that this was a known rule.)

Parenting is Hard Work

At the end of the day, parenting is hard work. Whether your children are two or in their twenties, parenting isn’t for the faint of heart. Having a difficult teenager makes it even harder. Sells shares some inventive and interesting strategies to help your teen understand that you mean business and that they must listen to you.

If you don’t have an out-of-control teenager yet, I’d still recommend that you pick up Parenting Your Out of Control Teenager, because it can help you be prepared when your child decides to test the waters. Maybe you can stop the process before it starts.

No Two Alike

Book Review-No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

“Why am I me?” is an important – and unanswered – question that George Dyson asked his father, Freeman Dyson, at age 8. It’s at the heart of Judith Rich Harris’ work in No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. It’s the essence of the tension between our desire to be like others and our need to have status amongst our peers. I’ve read and reviewed Harris’ previous work, The Nurture Assumption (written in 1998), so in many ways her work here builds on her theories, which I’ve previously studied. No Two Alike is a dozen years old as I write this, having been published in 2006. However, many of the observations that she makes and the research she cites still isn’t widely known by parents.

The Consistency Fallacy

We believe that human behavior is a fixed constant. We believe after meeting a person that their behavior is the same whether hanging out with their friends on a Saturday night or in the second row at church on Sunday morning. However, nothing could be further from the truth. (See How to Be Yourself for more on this example.) Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. (See more in my review of Moral Disengagement.) In The Lucifer Effect, we learned, through the Stanford prison experiment, just how powerful the effect of environment can be. We learned how people can behave one way in one environment and completely differently in another.

Johnathan Haidt explains how our behaviors are driven by a rider, an elephant, and a path. Our behaviors are rationally, emotionally, and environmentally based. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) It would seem silly to believe that people behave consistently when there are so many levels to the way that we make decisions, most of which aren’t available to our consciousness.

Maybe we’re fooled by the belief that others are consistent, because we know how hard it is to change our own behaviors. (See Change or Die and Willpower.) Whatever the reason, we believe that we’ll behave consistently across time and circumstances despite the evidence to the contrary.

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

One of the challenges of our human brains is that we stop questioning things when we forget where we learned them. One of the reasons for the extensive notes I take – and the extensive effort I put into writing these blogs – is to preserve the knowledge of where I found things. Over the years, I’ve found a few errors in citations. It was defective steel in the Brooklyn Bridge that required additional winding – not the Golden Gate Bridge, as was reported in one source. Nor does “Indiana” mean a headman and advisor to the king in Zulu – as was reported in Dialogue. (This turned out to be a simple transcription error.)

The problem is that people assumed that the environment made a difference, that parents made a difference, that bad kids were the responsibility of parents, and that they deserved some blame for their children not turning out to be model citizens. That assumption is something that Harris challenges.

More Alike

With at least 50% of the genetics between them and a home environment that is completely the same, one would expect siblings to turn out substantially more alike than they do. Anyone with two or a few children quickly realizes that they’re not the same. But the question is why? If 50% of our makeup is hereditary, then what is the other 50% made of? Surely it must be the environment – but The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike both systemically eliminate many of the theories for why people are different.

Birth order – perhaps because of the popularity of the book Born to Rebel – is given considerable time as a potential actor in the play of differing personalities, but its effects are tiny – if they exist at all. Otherwise, the environment that siblings are raised in seems to be relatively identical.

Microenvironments and Mutations

Identical twins are – at least genetically – identical at the time of their separation. It’s one egg and sperm that separates into two people. However, sometimes genetic differences – very small differences – occur due to random mutations. These random mutations can make very small changes in twins, which can sometimes drive them apart.

We know that some genes are environmentally triggered. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers speaks of Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD) – and how these aren’t generically triggered per se. Rather, they are genetic responses to environmental stressors. Two twins sitting side by side – or quite literally attached to one another, as in conjoined twins – may still experience life, just slightly differently, and those slight differences may make all the difference.

Imagine a peg board like the one in the TV show The Price is Right. The Plinko board allows for a token to be dropped at the top, and the token bounces its way down through the pegs to its final resting place. Small differences can cause a token to go left or right at each peg. This is also known as the Butterfly Effect, after the 1972 article by Edward Lorenz titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The short is that, in a chaotic system like weather, we have no hope of capturing enough data to predict everything.

The same seems true of how our children’s personalities will develop. There are so many factors that we’ll never be able to accurately predict – or effectively shape – our children’s personalities. Each child lives in their own microenvironment, one unique just to them.

I vividly remember the day my son discovered that there were people who would steal. We were at the Indianapolis Zoo, and my wife and I had split up so I could look for something for my brother and his Fiancée’s wedding. She had our son and a wagon that we brought for him to ride in. She called me on the radios we bought to ask if I had taken the wagon. She had left it outside an exhibit. When she came back it was not to be found. I was already outside putting the gift in the car and began looking through the parking lot to see if I could find the person who had taken the wagon. Soon after, they joined me, and I eventually found the person who had taken the wagon and positively identified it, because my jacket was still in it. That was the day that my son learned about theft.

I couldn’t have shaped those events. I couldn’t have decided when he learned of theft. I had to respond to it when it came. The microenvironment of his life taught him a lesson that day – whether I was ready for it or not.

Academic Investigation

Rich is an interesting person, sitting outside the traditional academic world and focused on integrating disciplines instead of advancing a single discipline. Instead of being an expert in sociology or neurology, she artfully weaves the findings from each into a tapestry of ideas that point the way towards explanations for why children raised in the same household turn out so differently.

She’s like the chief detective in a murder-mystery book, who looks for the inconsistencies in one story and for other ways to understand or explain what is happening. This is exciting for me, because it resonates with my desire to connect thoughts from disparate disciplines and connect them or point out inconsistencies.

Amateurs

Often the term “amateurs” is used as a derogatory term by established elite, who believe that amateurs aren’t capable of the kind of progress that professionals – and particularly academic professionals – are. However, used as a pejorative term, it’s a weak one. Just months before this post, Smithsonian magazine posted “Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?” It shares a few of the recent discoveries that amateurs participated in – and expectations that more discoveries will come from amateurs.

Amateurs hold a special place. They’re not bound by the assumptions of the profession. They don’t have to do things the same way that everyone else does them. They’re free to innovate and find their own way. (See The Medici Effect and Diffusion of Innovations.)

Consider that the research says that most therapies – whether talk-based or pharmacological – don’t work. They have marginal, if any, improvement for the patients. What does matter is a relationship – called therapeutic alliance – though it’s not clear that your bartender couldn’t give you that. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Warning Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health.)

In fact, much of the entire field of psychology rests on pillars of salt. The psychological tests that many use have been repeatedly debunked but continue to be used in settings where their accuracy doesn’t approach any level of reliability. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

European Orphanages

For the most part, it seems that if you do a reasonable job with raising your children and don’t veer off course beyond the boundaries of what society expects, children are not permanently harmed by their childhoods, no matter what the psychologist of the week wants to make them believe. It’s easier to make someone believe that their unhappiness is their parents’ fault than it is to get someone to face the fact that they’re responsible for their own lives.

However, there are some cases – particularly, cases where children were deprived of stable social relationships – that do have lasting impacts. Orphanages in Eastern Europe denied children access to loving relationships and provided them with only the necessities of life. As a result, some of the adults rescued from this environment showed a host of psychological issues.

I had the opportunity to meet one such adult who had been in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. After several years with loving parents from the United States, she was overly friendly with the men she would meet – and several took advantage of that friendliness. She’s still seeking to heal the wounds left with her from her time in the orphanage. She’s still trying to learn how to be an adult and understand her intrinsic value.

Most children who are raised don’t have the social deficits that these children have and will grow up with personalities that, while not always pleasant for the parents, are in a normal range.

Children Teaching Children

Often parents today worry whether they’re spending enough time with their children. They’re concerned that they aren’t enriching their lives enough. However, Harris points out that, in most traditional societies, parents don’t interact with children much. Instead, children are raised by older children. A child is separated from their mother’s warm embrace at the time of the next child – typically after three or four years of age. After that, the older children of the group would look after the younger children.

Depending upon the size of the group, it may stay together or split along age lines, and eventually on age and gender lines. Smaller groups have one large group of children, and larger groups have age-specific groups. The self-categorization that happens in the children causes them to sort into groupings that are the most like them when the groups get large enough.

Self-Categorization

There are many words that could be used to describe me. Father. Son. Brother. Entrepreneur. Developer. Technologist. Pilot. The list goes on and on. No word fully expresses all my personality, but each can describe a facet of it. More importantly, I can switch between which facet of my personality I identify with as easy as crossing a room. All adults and children do this as well. One moment they identify with some aspect of themselves or a group to which they belong – and they can quickly change to another identification.

This is important, because each of the categorizations leads to a different set of behaviors. As a father, I take on an authoritarian (or authoritative) stance, helping my children to realize that I’m not their peer. As a son, I take an opposite attitude. The category that I leave myself in the most frequently begins to have dominance in how I behave and how others perceive me.

Bad Fit Stereotypes

Harris explains that she’s no good at fitting into stereotypes. I’m proud to say that I’m no good at it either. Use the developer stereotype, and you’ll find yourself thinking of someone who is so shy, they stare at people’s shoes when others talk to them. Use the entrepreneur stereotype, and you’ll expect me to hurl myself down mountains and surf the big waves in Hawaii. No matter what stereotype you attempt to use… I just don’t fit in.

Accepting this fact, that I don’t fit in, has taken many years. Children are – quite rightfully – disturbed by the lack of “fitting in,” which, in some sense, means fitting in with stereotypes.

Battle of Three Systems

Harris explains her theory that there are three different systems in operation in the human brain at the same time. There’s the relationship system that works to maintain favorable relationships with people. The second system is the socialization system that makes people want to fit in with a group. The third, and latest to develop system, is the status system that makes humans want to be better than one’s rivals. The status system gets much of its input from the mind reading systems in the brain – which, though functional at age four, needs some time to get good at its job. (See Mindreading.)

The personality we see from our children is the result of this epic battle. At one level, they want to make close friends, except when that means they don’t fit into a group – however they chose to define that group. More challenging, however, is how someone can be both a member of the group and above it in status at the same time.

As people move from group identification, where stereotypes live, to individual relationships, different mental processing systems are in use. As a result, Al Campanis can believe that Jackie Robinson is a great player and at the same time believe that blacks shouldn’t be managers. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this example.)

Parental Influence

At the end of the day, do or don’t parents have impact on their children? They clearly have impact on their children, but most of it is indirect. The people that they move their child near and the groups that are formed by children dramatically influence a child’s personality and “lot in life.” Between random events and microenvironments, it’s impossible to really shape a child’s personality.

However, the good news is that this lets parents off the hook. They don’t have to be ashamed if their child doesn’t turn out perfect. They can – and should – still do what they can to support their children just like our ancestors did. However, we need not worry that we’re “doing parenting right,” because there is no one recipe when there are No Two Alike.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Book Review-The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do – Candidates and Effects

In the previous post, I addressed the foundation of The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris’ challenge to the assumption that how we nurture our children has an impact on their outcomes in life. She has broken the causal arrow from a parent’s nurturing to the child’s outcome. In this post, we walk through some of the candidates for why children turn out so differently and settle on Harris’ idea that it’s the peers that drive children’s growth – and why we can’t do anything about that.

Birth Order

The easiest first guess for how children with similar genetics end up so different is their birth order. That is, the first born is in a different world developmentally than the second, the third, and so on. It’s the difference between the first born – who doesn’t have to share the parent’s attention – and the second – who must contend with an incumbent. However, a careful review of the data by Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin concludes that there are no lasting, extrafamilial effects of birth order.

The research that said there was a birth order impact used only parental or self-reported questionnaire. When additional research was done, and teachers were asked to rate children’s personalities, the effects of birth order disappeared. It seems that the roles (or the perceptions of roles) that the child played in the family supported the idea of a birth order personality, but the independent assessment of personality didn’t find any patterns. This leads us back to the work of Kurt Lewin and others that personality – or at least behavior – is situationally dependent. How we behave at home isn’t necessarily how we’ll behave in public.

Situational Personality

Kurt Lewin has a formula for behavior. He says that behavior – what we actually do – is a function of both person and environment. In other words, the situation (the environment) has an unpredictably strong influence on what we do. We really are different people drinking with pals on a Saturday night than we are in church on Sunday morning.

When you couple differences in behavior and an awareness of the environmental impact, it’s easy to see how fundamental attribution error might lead us to trouble. Fundamental attribution error is our tendency to see a person’s behavior as fixed and unchanging despite changes in the environment. So, we’ll reach the wrong conclusion about people – and keep it even as the situations change.

Research proves that children behave differently in different situations – whether that behavior is moral or not. The structure of the environment has more impact – good or bad – than we would like to believe. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on the impact of the environment.)

Generalization of Learning

It’s necessary to side-step out of the world of psychology and personality and into the world of learning and teaching. One of the key roles of the parent in the modern society, and behind the nurture assumption, is the idea that the parent is a teacher. Certainly, it’s true that parents teach their children, but there is more to learning than meets the eye.

In learning, particularly adult learning, there’s a great deal of discussion about the facilitation of what is called “far transfer.” That is, how the learning applies outside the context that it was done in – mostly the classroom. Expressed in the context of The Nurture Assumption, the word that Harris uses is the “generalization” of learning. Will something that you teach your children at home be applied to other situations as well? The answer is, disappointingly, that it’s not likely. This is true of all learning – not just those important moral lessons that parents seek to teach their children at home.

Babies, it seems, are very poor at generalizing their learning. Take a mobile with red things hanging from it and allow them to move it by moving their foot, and they’ll reapply the learning that they can control the mobile with their foot. Change the things hanging from the mobile to blue and the baby must relearn the behavior. Move the crib to the living room while keeping the color of the mobile, and the same thing happens: they’re forced to relearn that they can control the mobile with their foot. The good news from the learning world is we know that the more similar the experiences with the same results, the greater the chance that someone will generalize the learning.

Just Showing Up

Woody Allen said that “showing up is 80% of life.” Strangely, Marcia Bates discovered through her research that as much as 80% of what we know comes from passive, undirected learning – that is, just being aware of our environment. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about Marcia’s work and structuring information. Ambient Findability is another good work about making information easier to experience.) It’s great that we learn even when no one is trying to teach us – either ourselves or others. The bad news is that it’s not possible to really control everything that a child experiences. As a result, we have no idea how they’ll process and learn from the world that they’re experiencing. They may make something big of something small – and completely miss those “big teaching moments” that parents so look forward to (or not).

Outside of Bounds

Interestingly, there seems to be a set of normative bounds for child-rearing, inside of which there may be little impact on how the children turn out, and an out-of-bounds category that can – but won’t necessarily – cause lasting harm. The tragic fact is that some children are abused by the very people that evolution designed to protect them. Some of those children appear to have long-term scars and burdens inflicted by those experiences – beyond what can be explained genetically. (Mainly because the studies use adopted or foster children.)

So it is possible to have a lasting impact as a parent or caregiver – unfortunately in the wrong direction. On the other side of the equation, the evidence is less compelling. Any advantage that a child has by growing up in a home full of books and classical music fades as the child grows into adulthood. It appears that no amount of “baby genius” programs, resources, or materials will turn your child into an amazing intellect when they’re an adult. This is one of the many factors that were tested for lasting impact and for which no meaningful correlation could be found.

Groups and Gangs

Harris’ theory is that we don’t pass along culture and personality from parent to child, but instead we pass these things from group to group. Children obtain their definition in no small part due to the groups of children that they associate with. Parents have often lamented about the kids that their kids are hanging out with. “Hanging out with the wrong crowd” is a common defense for parents whose children have found their way down the “wrong” path.

Groups are a way that children identify themselves. Whether they establish a name for the group or they just identify with the concept of the people that they’re hanging out with, groups have a powerful impact on people. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I described the impact of affinity groups – or identity groups – on adults. Obviously, feeling like you’re a part of a group when you know everyone makes sense. However, that pull is effective, even when you don’t know the rest of the people in the group. I don’t know everyone in the Microsoft MVP program, but I’ll have a certain level of affinity with them should they ask me for something. They belong to the same group, even if I don’t know them personally.

These same powerful forces work on our children. They pick up a positive effect for the group – and from the group – through their self-identification. When the effect is positive, we call it a “group.” When the effect is negative, we use the pejorative term “gang.” It’s the pull of “the gang” that is at the heart of peer pressure.

Peer Pressure

I remember Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. It was targeted at helping teenagers avoid drugs. (For more on the War on Drugs, see Chasing the Scream.) The basic premise was that just saying no when someone offers you drugs is all you need to do. After all, to start an addiction, someone has to offer to let you try it. If you just say no at that point, you can stop the addiction before it starts. It’s not that simplistic. It’s true that there is that moment of truth when you’ll be offered something. However, by that time, you’re likely to want to be a part of the group enough that you won’t want to say no. No matter how many lectures you’ve heard from your parents. No matter of how many of those “this is your brain on drugs” public service announcements you’ve seen. You simply want to be a part of the group.

I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t teach their children to avoid harmful things, including cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Rather, I’m saying that peer pressure isn’t about the first time your child is offered drugs. Peer pressure is about their internal desires to be a part of their peer group and what capacity they have to be different than their peers.

For me, I had a defining boundary (see Beyond Boundaries and Boundaries for more) that I would not do drugs. It wasn’t like I wasn’t offered any. It helps that I wasn’t in any groups that drugs were a part of their defining characteristics. By setting my defining boundary as not trying them, it made it easy. (See The Success Principles for Canfield’s perspective – 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)

Majority Rules

One of the interesting things in group formation is the development of the cultural norms. If you mix equal parts of Type A and Type B, what will the group coalesce around? Of course, A, B, and “something else” are all options. Group dynamics and formation are a major area of research as organizations seek to define their culture and build collaboration inside their ranks. (See Collaboration and Collaborative Intelligence for more on collaboration and Theory U, Organizational Traps, Reinventing Organizations, and The Advantage for more on forming healthy organizational cultures.) Despite the interest in developing the right kind of culture in organizations and an attempt to guide the future, there is little agreement on how to shape the culture. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations speaks of factors that facilitate innovation adoption – rather than a formula for achieving success.

The upshot of this is that trying to determine how a group of teenagers will find their way is near impossibility. While you can move to good neighborhoods, you can’t really control who your teenagers are “running with” or the standards that the group holds. The problem with majority rules is that you don’t know what idea is in the majority until it’s tested, and by then it’s too late.

Self-Identification

In a discussion of groups, it’s important to realize that there isn’t one group that anyone feels like they’re a part of. They might situationally be focused on one group, because they’re with other members; but when they attend the next party, they may identify with a totally different group – with different behavioral norms. Children can identify as child, teenager, boy, girl, nerd, jock, or any combination of these. The change in identification between these can be as quick as walking into the next room.

The reality is that our self-identification is fluid and influenced by our environment. This fluidity and transition is one of the reasons that each of us can live in our own microenvironment. We don’t experience the world like the person sitting next to us. Because we transition our identity into different groups during a conversation – and because our perspective is slightly different – we’ll experience the environment slightly different than every other person.

This microenvironment view is one of the explanations for how children who are raised in the same neighborhood and home don’t end up identical. They are – in effect – in their own environment.

Parent-Child Effects

Parents are targeted as the cause of the microenvironments that children inhabit and therefore their differences. The claim is that parents treat their children differently – and they do. However, as Harris points out, it’s because each child is different and needs different parenting. She speaks about how mothers used to be vilified for not spending enough time connecting with their autistic children, thereby causing the illness. We now know that this isn’t the case; the parent is responding to the child’s inability to connect and adapting their behavior.

This is a child-to-parent effect. The child causes a behavior difference in the parent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be bad for a parent to fail to adapt their responses to their child. However, it isn’t an intuitive response. The assumption is that the parent shapes the behavior of the child. Rarely do we consider how children shape us. We worry about whether we’re raising children well – and at the same time worry that we’re worrying enough. We’re concerned that we’re investing enough into our children. We fear that our working, our divorce, or other distractions (including other kids) are depriving our children of what they need. (You can see other impacts of children with our own baggage in The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable.)

Working, Death, and Divorce

Many mothers (and fathers) have been concerned about the impact that their working has on their children. Traditional societies (hunter-gather societies) may have had mother-infant bonding all the time from age 0-4 – but after that, very little parental time was spent with the children. In Britain, it was common to send kids off to boarding schools – with obviously very little parental environment. Robert Putnam concludes in Our Kids that there has been little change in the overall time spent with kids after mothers started working.

Another concern has been about the increase in the divorce rate and the impact it has on children. Neither Harris nor Putnam believe this to be a significant factor. Harris, in fact, goes further to acknowledge that, in traditional societies, death of mothers due to mortality during childbirth or fathers due to wars and accidents was as much or greater than the number of children without parents today. While we bemoan the number of children living in single-family homes, over the long history of civilization, the rate seems to fluctuate but is generally moving in a positive direction with children receiving the benefits of two parents more frequently than not.

We’ve moved away from the tight communities that we used to have and the idea that children belong to the community and have a more parental focus than in the past; so there may be a greater need for the parent to support children – but, overall, things are no worse for children than they used to be.

Sidebar: Public Figures

One of the interesting aspects that raised its head but wasn’t directly related to the core topic is the awareness of the public vs. private perception of “celebrities.” Margaret Mead is well-known for her quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only things that ever has.” The use of this quote elevates Margaret Mead. She’s a luminary. She speaks with authority. Except that, when you read the works of others, you find her work tended to be filled with biases. She found what she expected to find. Some degree of this is normal for all researchers; however, Harris points a few places where the tendency rather high. Ekman, in his book Nonverbal Messages, points out similar concerns with Mead’s work.

Another figure who is featured in The Nurture Assumption – but indirectly – is Albert Bandura. Bandura is famous for his research on television violence. Harris debunks the myth that television violence causes violence – no matter what the Bobo doll says. (In truth, the research was on observing an adult attack the Bobo doll, not about children watching it on a TV.) In my review of Moral Disengagement, I shared that I didn’t agree with Bandura’s cases. It seems like my concerns about how he makes some of his cases are consistent with others’ concerns.

Circuitous Routes

Harris admits that, of her two children, one took a more or less straight path, and the other took a much more circuitous route. (That’s a parent’s way of saying that they were worried for their children for a long time.) In my – admittedly incomplete – experience with children, I can say that I understand the circuitous route. Some of our children know their path and follow it. Some don’t know their path, but work diligently to move forward to be ready when their path is revealed. Others drift, not yet sure of where they want to latch on or that they even want to walk forward.

The reality is that I can only support and nurture without any control of the outcomes. The outcome of our children isn’t ours to control – it’s theirs. I am not willing to give up on nurturing. Not because of The Nurture Assumption or because I believe that I can control the outcome of their life. Ultimately, it’s because it’s the person I want to be. Whether you make The Nurture Assumption or not is up to you – just be the person you want to be.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Book Review-The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do – The Basics

When you look at another family (probably on Facebook) and think “they’ve got it together,” do you think that they “come from good stock,” or are you impressed with the matriarch and patriarch’s ability to nurture their children? Would it surprise you to know that the ability to change our children through nurturance is a widely-held but frequently disproved assumption? In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris, with a bit of help from Steven Pinker, explores the impact that parents can have on their children – or not.

This review is broken into two parts, the first that speaks of the assumption and the basics, and the second that speaks of the candidates and the effects.

The Grandma from New Jersey

It was Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate (see my review on the basics and the implications), that pointed me to The Nurture Assumption. Pinker spends a great deal of time in the book trying to explain how humans are formed and how we become ourselves. He describes the flap that happened when Harris published an article and her book. They called her the “grandmother from New Jersey.” This was a true statement intended to prejudice people against her.

To me, however, it was a statement of conviction. Without a university affiliation and “only” a master’s degree, Harris published a controversial article in a peer-reviewed journal. People wanted to know about this mysterious woman who came from outside academia to challenge their beliefs. What they found was surprising and disconcerting. She was a citizen scientist. She was a scholar who dedicated her scholarship across disciplines. She sought for truth no matter where it led her. (See Antifragile, Saving Our Sons and Bold for more on citizen scientists.)

As a mother and grandmother, Harris had a particularly practical point of view on the process of rearing children; she had done it. She had the battle scars to prove it. So, while writing a textbook on child development, she came across a crisis. Suddenly, the answers that were being taught – including in the textbooks that she had authored – no longer made sense. The research didn’t seem, to her, to say what the authors claimed. She saw that some of the research was hopelessly flawed. There was no way to say that the claims being made were valid, because the structure didn’t support the conclusions.

What do you do when your beliefs come crashing down on you? If you’re this grandmother from New Jersey, you dig in and dig out.

Setting the Stage

As was discussed at length in The Blank Slate, roughly 50% of our “selves” comes from our genes. There may be 10% of what we become that comes from what we typically think of as environment, and the remainder is unexplainable using the typical definition of “environment.” In the context of a parent rearing children, this is disappointing news. After the roll of the genetic dice, there’s very little we can point to that has a real impact on the outcomes and personalities for our children.

This doesn’t stop advice-givers from telling parents what they should and should not do to help raise healthy “well adjusted” children. In fact, I’ve reviewed a few of these books, including Parent Effectiveness Training, Saving Our Sons, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, Stepparenting, The Gift of Failure, How Children Succeed, Helping Children Succeed and The Available Parent. This doesn’t include those books that include advice for parents as a sideline to their main message. Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly caries the subtitle of “How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” The Cult of Personality Testing carries the subtitle of “How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.” Clearly, there is a lot of advice out there.

The market for writing the instruction manual that parents never get when they have a child is big business. There is always someone that has a different take. Some of those takes are misguided or discovered to have their own challenges that show up later. Dr. Benjamin Spock is reported to have lamented about the outcomes of the advice he gave parents in his book Baby and Child Care as a more elderly and wiser man.

Human Development and the Art of Mindreading

There is a lot we have learned about human development. As was discussed at length in Mindreading, the human ability to read the intentions of others – to do mind reading – is a skill that is nearly unique to humans. (Harris points out that dogs can read human intention to some degree.) We have the ability – by age 3 or 4 – to understand that not everyone knows the same things. Further, we realize that the object of communication is to interact with other people and their understanding of the world. Sometimes that’s conveying our intent, and other times it’s inquiring on the intent of others.

The problem is that, as much as we know through careful study of the fundamentals of our mind’s functioning and research on development, there’s still a great deal we don’t really know. There aren’t simple easy answers on how to “best” raise a child – much less multiple children.

Guilt and Shame

One could easily ask the question, what’s the harm in the advice that causes parents to seek better ways to care for their children? Certainly, that is a positive position. Parents are more attentive to the practices they use, and they’re more conscious of how they impact their children. However, what are the negative impacts? There are some that describe Millennials as self-absorbed and under-developed due to the “helicopter parenting” that Generation X used to protect their children. (See more about my thoughts on this in my review of America’s Generations.)

However, the more insidious harm comes to the parents themselves when their children aren’t perfect. If they’re children aren’t perfect, then they must have done something wrong. If you assume that you ultimately have the power to nurture children, then you must feel some guilt that you didn’t. In the assumption that you can nurture your child into anything that you or they want to be is the problem of believing you’re at fault for not nurturing your child to success.

The problem is that, for all the advice-givers, none of them has the 12-step program to your child’s success and happiness – at least not one that everyone agrees upon. Scholars have been working on research to lead us towards this goal, and they’re no closer to understanding what factors in the environment of a child are the important factors to help them live a fully-fulfilled life. In fact, it’s hard to define exactly what it is that we really want for our children outside the context of our culture.

Culture

What few realize is that what we believe about parenting is very culturally driven. Should children sleep alone or with their mothers? It turns out that the perspective is driven by culture. If you’re in a traditional society, a baby is rarely away from its mother. Some traditional societies would consider the idea of a baby sleeping separately to be cruel.

It’s important that I add a quick sidebar here. There are many tragic deaths where a parent (both mothers and fathers) accidentally smother a baby while sleeping with them. While I accept that traditional societies don’t believe that children should be left alone to sleep, I’d still encourage that they be left in their own bassinet (or crib) with no items in them. I can’t imagine the horror of having to live knowing that you accidentally suffocated your precious child to death.

Harris shares that she and her peer group of mothers didn’t believe in children in the parents’ beds, they believed in bedtimes, and that “an occasional smack, administered at the right time and in the right spirit, might do a kid a bit of good.” She’s quick to point out that she’s not condoning beating children, just that an occasional correction might be warranted. For Harris and her group, these are the norms. There are groups who don’t believe in bedtimes, or that physical punishment isn’t acceptable. There are some who, despite the evidence of unnecessary deaths, believe it’s OK for children – even babies – to sleep in the parent’s bed.

Should a child be physically corrected? Most societies, and most of America, believe that the right correction at the right time is helpful. There’s some research that supports this notion. However, there are other perspectives as well. In fact, there’s a correlation between physical punishment and poorer outcomes for children. However, things aren’t as they seem. To understand that, we first must understand at least one way to categorize parental behavior.

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

The year is 1967, and Diana Baumrind has defined three contrasting styles of parenting. They’re named authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Harris finds these labels too confusing, as do I, and calls them simply too hard, too soft, and just right.

The authoritarian parents dominate their children – they’re presumably too hard on their children. The permissive let their children dominate them – they’re presumably too soft on their children. The authoritative parent is firm but flexible and interacts with their children in ways that the children feel heard but still understand the power structure.

The correlation between parents using a too-hard approach on their children having greater problems with those children exists – but only if you select the right data. It’s true that, in lower income homes of generic American and European descent, the too-hard parents tend to have more unruly children. The problem occurs if you include Asian parents in this mixture. Their style would be considered too hard – but their children are frequently model students and citizens. Their too-hard parenting style is what their culture expects, and their children seem to be no worse for the pattern.

Much of the research that is designed to show that too-hard parenting is bad for children falls victim to our old nemesis – the confusion of correlation and causation.

Correlation and Causation

One of the persistent issues in science, research, and life is confusing correlation and causation. It seems to come up time and time again. (The last time was in Antifragile.) The problem is that we see some level of statistically-significant correlation, and we assume that the correlation is real – and that one of the variables causes the other. Time and time again, this mistake is made in research – and outside of the confines of peer-reviewed research. Yet we continue to miss it. We continue to miss that we potentially leap to the wrong conclusions in our desire to understand and dominate our world.

Much of Harris’ work in The Nurture Assumption is working through dozens of faulty studies and explaining what must be done to ensure that the results are reliable – and indicative. For a finding to be useful for parenting children, there must not just be a correlation between two factors. We must know first that it’s not a spurious correlation (one expected by random chance) and second which – if either – of the two correlated factors is causal to the other. While this would seem to be an easy proposition, it’s far from it.

Environment and Nurture

Before proceeding, we must address one confusion that exists. That confusion is lumping all the environmental factors that can influence someone into the emotionally-loaded word of “nurture.” Nurturance is about taking care of someone, as a parent does to a child. However, once we clear the correlations in behavior due to genes, we must move to a more emotionally neutral word of “environment.” Nurture would imply a limited scope of the things that a parent does to further their child’s development, but much of what happens to a child happens beyond the direct control of a parent.

We must realize that the world that a child lives in is much broader than just a set of parents. It includes siblings, extended families, communities, and the nations in which they live. Even if we can find the causes of personality differences, they may not be caused by parents at all. They may be a result of the environment that children are in.

Robert Putnam did a study of children and their communities in his book Our Kids. He seems to disagree with Harris about the degree to which parents matter in a child’s life – however, he does offer support, in that he believes that there’s a great deal of richness in the environment that matters beyond the parents themselves.

The Studies

It’s important to explore for a moment the kinds of studies that sociologists and psychologists use to tease out which environmental factors are important to improving a child’s success in life. The favorite choice is identical twins. They’re the favorite, because the genetic factors can be held constant. Identical twins are – at least from a genetic standpoint – identical. So whatever makes them different must be based on something else – something environmental, something experiential, and perhaps a bit of the random zigs and zags of development. These studies find identical twins raised in different homes and measure their differences.

Another favorite of researchers is adoptive families. The similarities at the end of the day can’t be assumed to be genetic, because the genetics are different. The similarities must be driven by the environment in which the children were raised.

Of course, regular families are important too, since a family with very many kids is bound to produce some radically different individuals. It becomes interesting, because roughly half of their behavior should be driven by genetics, but the children turn out to be so different. I can attest to this in the six of seven children that share the same genetics. They’re very different people despite the similarity of genetics. The question to be answered is what makes them so different? Is it something as simple as birth order?

Who and What?

If parenting has less of an influence on a child than we have first thought, then where do we look to for answers? Now that I’ve covered the basics, part 2 of my review will discuss some candidates for why children may turn out differently.

Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys

Book Review-Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys

Raising all kids today is hard. Since I’ve only attempted to raise kids in today’s environment, I can’t comment about whether it’s harder or easier than previous generations. I can say that the grandparents I talk to tell me that they believe it’s harder. It’s for that reason that every parenting program, resource, and book is a welcome tool to better understand, cope, and succeed in the critical task of parenting. Michael Gurian’s book Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys is one tool.

Gurian plays the conclusions fast and loose, sometimes making leaps that would make Superman afraid of heights. Occasionally, he reaches conclusions directly in contrast with intense research. Despite these challenges, he does have important messages to send, messages that should help all parents understand more about the children they care so much for.

Dominant Gender Paradigm

The starting point for much of Gurian’s perspective is his belief that we, as a society, see men as the dominant gender. We believe that men unfairly earn more than women. We believe that women are denied opportunities that they should get because of their gender. These perspectives echo feelings of racial minorities in the past and today.

In my experience with friends and colleagues, I’m aware that they (both women and minorities) are discriminated against. In technology, where I’ve spent most of my career, women report being undervalued, overlooked, and, worse yet, harassed. I can tell you that the discrimination, both with women and minorities, is real, because I’ve heard the stories – and, in some cases, I’ve been a firsthand witness to it happening.

However, I’ve also seen the reverse happen. I’ve seen groups of people who hire only from within their group. In Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, I learned how different societies value in-family and in-group members to the exclusion of others, and how it negatively impacts their overall economic growth in the long term and limits their ability to grow individual organizations. The needle on the gauge goes both ways. Sometimes the dominant group is excluded too – not as much as minorities or women – but it happens.

The question isn’t whether it happens in either direction. The question is what to do about it. The question is whether employment quotas worked to eliminate the discrimination for minorities. The question is also what is happening that we’re not even aware of. Are we unfairly discriminating against our boys because of the belief that they’ll one day become men?

By the Numbers

If you look at the numbers, men make more than women. However, that’s not the whole story. American boys and men commit suicide at four times the rate of girls and women – despite what we might believe about girls being more emotional and therefore more susceptible to commiting suicide. Boys also account for two-thirds of the Ds and Fs issued in school. (Glasser argues there should be no Fs in Schools Without Failure.) Boys are also four times as likely to be suspended or expelled.

Certainly, there are biases that need to be eliminated. There are inequalities that we need to address; however, it’s not like they’re one-sided. If I gave you these numbers without identifying the gender, you might rightfully claim that there’s a crisis and something must be done. However, because the victims are boys, the concern is ignored.

In most parts of the world, girls are doing better than boys on most health and psychological indicators. Gurin is not advocating that we stop helping girls. He’s advocating that we start helping boys.

In a World Without Fathers

Our Kids speaks to the challenges of kids without fathers active in their lives. At the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, fewer fathers are present. They’re simply missing. As a result, children are being raised by mothers – if they’re being raised by anyone at all. The father’s influence, which might be rough on the edges, is exactly the kind of tumbling that is needed to take the corners and sharp edges off of boys who need a struggle to grow.

It was E.O. Wilson, a biologist, who said, “I have been blessed by brilliant enemies.” This is not to say that fathers are enemies of their boys – far from it. Rather I’m saying that the need for refinement exists in all of us, but particularly in our boys. Fathers are strong sparring partners that allow boys to grow.

Boys will be Boys

To someone with both boys and girls, I can tell you with assurance that they’re different. I recognize that this is not a revolutionary statement for most of you – but I can say with conviction that they are different. However, I can also say that each individual boy and each individual girl are different. Yes, gender does play a role in what children need; however, individual differences exist as well.

Gurian asserts that boys need the rough and tumble life, that life is dangerous for boys and that our overparenting, called “helicopter parenting,” has robbed our children, and particularly our boys, of the growth that they need. By eliminating all possible threats to our boys, we’ve deprived them of the need to overcome.

I’m reminded of the category Balan from the Dyirbal language – the language of the aboriginal people of Australia – that includes fire, women, and dangerous things (which I discovered through Ambient Findability). Boys need to learn about these things with just the right amount of safety.

Growing Up Boys

What happens when boys grow up, but they don’t mature? Are they overgrown man children? Perhaps a man in this case becomes just a tall boy. Aging is assured. Maturing is not. When we deprive our children of stress, challenge, and conflict by depriving them of nothing else, we’ve done them the greatest disservice of all. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, while cautioning against the downside of chronic stress, extolls the value of short-term stressors. We need stress in our lives to help us mature. We need stress to make us better.

Women Need Powerful Men

There’s an unfortunate reality that reports of men raping and dominating women have become commonplace. This is unfortunate, in part, because not all the reports are true. It’s more unfortunate because some of them are. Reports of rape – both accurate and inaccurate are thankfully the exception and not the rule. Most men are no longer overgrown man children.

Women don’t need men to lord over them. They don’t need to be victims. For them to express their life, they need to know that they’re equal partners in life. It’s too easy for any of us, including women and men, to move into victimhood and take up permanent residence. (A good place to start on victimhood is Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting.)

Women don’t need men who are carbon copies of themselves, they need men with character, who are powerful in their ability to support and grow with the women that they care about.

Family Rings

Gurian speaks of three families: the nuclear, the extended, and the community. Robert Putnam speaks of the decline of this social capital in Bowling Alone and the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids. Our social fabric is straining to stay intact. Our mobile world has moved us farther from our extended families and has transplanted us from one community to another several times during the course of our lives. The structure that we have to help raise our children is different than it was.

I can remember being told to go out and have fun. Others I know have told me that their parents told them to go out until the street lights turn on – and then to return for dinner. Children didn’t have cell phones or even wrist watches. There was a natural order to things that we’ve disrupted. Ironically, the fact that we’re more connected makes us more distant. (See Alone Together for how technology is changing our relationships.)

Today, parents who allow their children to walk to the park unsupervised are considered criminals, because they put their children at undue risk. They’re considered neglectful for not walking down the block. The ways that used to work to raise children are no longer trusted. Strangely, the actual number of crimes against children isn’t appreciably increasing; however, our awareness and hysteria about it is.

Providing nuclear family support for the growth of our children (and specifically boys) has become more and more challenging. No longer do we have regular contact with our extended families, and as we pick up that role, we’re also warier of our communities.

Processing and Ruminating

It’s no secret that, stereotypically, men and women process thoughts and emotions differently. What isn’t well known or understood is that the way that boys process information is less about rumination and more about processing for completion. Women turn over ideas like a dryer, continuously tumbling them until they’re dry and then occasionally running them on an anti-wrinkle cycle. Men, on the other hand, process information, decisions, etc., for completion.

Instead of the idea being stuck in an endless anti-wrinkle cycle of being turned over, they’re processed and done. This can free a man’s mind from the tyranny of reconsideration. Processing allows freedom, where rumination is enslaving.

Citizen Science

Gurian encourages everyone to perform what he calls “citizen science.” That is, he’s encouraging experimentation and testing of hypotheses. I consider the idea that you would explore and test your world something to applaud but the idea of calling it “citizen science” deplorable. The problem is in our human nature. We’ve got confirmation bias that tells us we’ll find what we’re looking for. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on biases.)

By applying citizen science without controls and observation, we’re quite likely to reach the wrong conclusion. In the end, I believe some of the gravest errors that Gurian makes are because he’s performed citizen science on too small of sample sizes and his confirmation bias has gotten the better of him.

I do, however, invite you to try your own citizen science and look with a careful eye at Saving Our Sons – you’ll likely find some things you agree with and some that you don’t.

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Book Review-The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Failure is a gift? Well, yes. In The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, we are indoctrinated into the world of raising children and how we must sometimes allow failure to happen. We must accept that our children aren’t perfect and can’t be perfect any more than we are. Failure is a gift when it allows us to discover our perseverance. It’s a gift when it helps our children learn their ability to overcome the frustrations in their life. It’s a gift when it allows us to accept ourselves and our children as who they are.

Intrinsic Motivation

We believe we understand motivation. We’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’ve learned about carrots and sticks – or rewards and punishments. We’ve heard about how huge bonuses have motivated people to work under insane conditions to crush a goal and win the day. The problem is that much of what we know about motivation is just wrong. It does work – to a point – for those people whose lives are filled with meaningless repetitive tasks. It doesn’t work with what Richard Florida calls “the creative class” of workers. These are workers whose jobs are non-routine. They require heuristics and creativity to work. (Richard Florida is quoted in Theory U.)

Much of this awareness of how motivation does and doesn’t work was covered in Drive, which The Gift of Failure references. The more that we provide external motivators, the more that we destroy any internal, intrinsic drive that was in the person. It’s not that external motivation doesn’t work long-term, it’s that it breaks the engine for long-term motivation for the kinds of situations that we are facing in the world today.

Intrinsic motivation is essential to long term success. Carol Dweck describes in Mindset how we can see ourselves as fixed and unchanging, or we can see ourselves with the ability to grow through our hard work. We have a huge capacity for adaptation and growth but that growth is fueled through the intrinsic motivation to try and fail. When intrinsic motivation is gone, so is our desire to grow.

Ericsson explained in Peak that it takes purposeful practice to become the top of our game in any chosen arena. Flow is the vehicle through which we can achieve peak performance and that comes through the balance of our skills and the challenges at hand. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more.) If we’re not willing to stretch a little (4%) to become a bit better, we never will. The major roadblock on the road to success in life is the fear of failure.

Fear of Failure

In Rising Strong (my review has two parts: Part 1 and Part 2), Brené Brown asks the question, “What would you do even if you knew you would fail?” This question demonstrates the power that the fear of failure has over our lives. It has the power to stop us in our tracks. It has the power to prevent us from moving forward or even trying. In Find Your Courage, the true reason for the fear of failure is exposed.

The real reason that we fear failure is because we confuse failing at something and failure as a person. We have somehow attached a performance-based view of love and our value to our lives and can’t afford to take the risk of failing at something because we might be labeled a failure. (See The Road Less Traveled for more on performance-based love.) So pervasive is this illusion that the book we’re discussing is titled The Gift of Failure – not The Gift of “Failing”.

The Search for Significance explains that parental love is not supposed to be conditional. It’s not supposed to be performance-based. By getting caught in this trap of performance-based love, we’re making our children believe that their worth is only defined by what they can do. So, what happens when they can’t do anything valuable?

This is not to say that we should praise them even when they don’t do anything valuable. Rather, it’s saying that love is unconditional. They’ll be supported. As Dweck points out in Mindset we shouldn’t be constantly praising them – particularly for innate abilities. We should praise them for their hard work and celebrate their failures as much as their successes.

A Brief History of Childhood

It’s impossible for us to fully understand childhood and parenting as it was a hundred years or more ago. We, incorrectly, assume that the views on children and parenting have been stable; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Even with echoes of sayings like, “children should be seen and not heard,” we can’t quite believe that the way we’re trying to raise our children today isn’t the same as it used to be. Even with our parents quietly voicing their concerns with the hectic schedules that we keep for our kids, including their extracurricular activities and all the work towards college preparation, we somehow don’t believe that childhood and parenting were different.

It’s hard to remember that, in early colonial times, parents could expect to lose one of ten children, and that in many places the mortality rate was many times that. It’s hard to imagine that outbreaks of smallpox could wipe out 20% of the population in a few short years. The focus wasn’t on emotional well-being, competing for the top rung schools or jobs. This was a fight for literal survival.

As things progressed, the need for focus on survival faded, and names of children began to diverge from being names from their family, including aunts and uncles but mostly moms and dads and grandparents. Parent mortality was still high and one of your two parents – perhaps the one you were named after – would be gone by the time a child was of marriable age.

Children were working, too. One-sixth of the children between ten and fifteen were employed. Children were useful because they could squeeze into tight places that adults could not. Gradually, we shifted the laws to prevent child labor and created laws to require childhood education. We swung from expendable tools to help the family survive to children who could lift themselves up and perhaps reach back to help their family if they made it.

Permissive Parents

As we moved into the 1940s, the change in parenting “rules” prompted several books on how to parent. Instead of parenting being a thing that just happened, it became something that you needed coaching and professionals to help you with. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, became a roaring success, and everyone wanted to follow his leadership on how to raise safe, well-adjusted children. He stated, “We need idealistic children.” His style was very permissive. The style was sometimes labeled as neglectful.

His advice spawned a whole generation of individualistic children who didn’t learn the same lessons of working for the common good that their parents had learned. (See America’s Generations for generational differences.) Later in his life he expressed some regret for not providing more guidance towards working together for the common good. (This is recorded in Finding Flow.)

Through Spock’s advice, the balance of power changed. Instead of the parents being the authority to be respected, they became the servants for their children. Instead of children recognizing that they are alive only because their parents decided to create them – and therefore there should be some reverence – they became ways for parents to relive their lives and potentially relive it in a different way. If only they could get their children to accept that the parents’ view of life was the right one.

Enmeshment

The psychological condition of enmeshment is when a person can’t see where they end and another person begins. This is particularly common with parents who struggle to maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their children. With parents restructuring their lives in the service of their children, it’s little wonder why they might need to feel some greater sense of ownership – not just responsibility – for the outcomes that the children are achieving.

When Johnny wins the 400-meter dash, Dad can feel proud not just of Johnny but of himself. When Suzi becomes the county fair pageant queen, mom can finally feel vindicated at her loss from twenty-some years prior, when she lost to someone who has become an archrival (at least in her head). Instead of the sense of pride that their children are succeeding, they personally feel like they’re succeeding.

In Emotional Awareness, the Dali Lama speaks of how Buddhists regard pride as a negative (or afflictive) emotion, but makes a distinction that there is a pride in others that is non-afflictive. He makes mention that Yiddish is the only language he is aware of that has a word – naches – that distinguishes the feeling of pride for someone else without personal attachment. This is, per the Dali Lama, a good thing. Of course, the Christian tradition regards pride as the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins.

The problem is that when you’re living your life partially or totally enmeshed the boundaries between you and your children don’t exist. You look at each thing that the child does as something that you’ve done, and instead of being proud of what someone else has accomplished, you are proud of yourself. Instead of feeling warm-heartedness for them, you find some level of external validation that you’re a good mom or dad – and that you’re a good person, all at the same time.

Life on Life’s Terms

One of the phrases from the serenity prayer is “Taking this world as it is, not as I would have it.” That is the heart of living life on life’s terms. We can’t change the circumstances of our world. We can’t prevent the fact that we’ll all fail – and yet not be failures. We cannot deny the essential realities of life without diminishing our lives. We must live life on life’s terms – not ours – if we want to be happy.

This means that we need to be adaptable. We need to be able to accept our failures and redirect into a healthy response of growth. By attempting to deny our failures and to ignore the consequences, we are attempting to live life on our terms – and in the end, that never works.

Failure is Always an Option

When Dr. Glaser wrote Schools Without Failure, he wasn’t saying that no one should fail. He was trying to prevent the systematic disengagement of students through external labeling and a fixed mindset. He wasn’t saying that children couldn’t and shouldn’t fail. He was saying that students shouldn’t be labeled as failures. He was encouraging us to find more delicate ways of allowing children to fail. The end result was the development of grit. (See Grit for more.)

Being Strict

Holding kids accountable is no fun. It’s no fun to have to be the “bad guy” (or girl) and keep the kids from electronics or a game or something else. It’s not fun to apply the consequences that were clearly communicated when they’ve stepped outside of the lines. The Gift of Failure admits that kids don’t always build the closest bonds with parents who are “strict” and hold kids accountable, but at the same time acknowledges that some of the best parents are those who find a way to be strict and loving at the same time.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says, “I believe that understanding the connection between boundaries, accountability, acceptance, and compassion has made me a kinder person.” She goes on to say that her mind was blown when she realized that the most boundary-conscious people that she met were the most compassionate. In short, the way to cultivate compassion is to recognize where the boundaries are. The better parents understand how to hold their children accountable while maintaining acceptance of them. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Finding Failure

Heading out on a journey to find failure may seem like a bad plan. After all, failure will find you. However, setting your course towards failure means that you’re striving, trying, working, challenging yourself, and ultimately developing intrinsic motivation. By setting your course towards failure, you can ensure that you won’t ignore it, minimize it, or give it more credence that it’s worth. Failure is truly a gift, because it allows you to grow, so long as you don’t believe that you’re a failure because you have failed. If you’re still looking for a way to walk through the nuance of failing without being a failure, perhaps you need The Gift of Failure.

Hoover Dam

The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable

No one really wants to be held accountable if you get right down to it. I’m not saying that we don’t hold ourselves accountable or that we don’t want to hold others accountable – I’m saying that we don’t like having to be accountable. (A corollary to this is that we all want control but we don’t want to be controlled, as I mentioned in my review of Compelled to Control.) However, we know that we need to learn the discipline to hold ourselves accountable and to teach this accountability to our children. Despite this need, too many parents fail to hold their children accountable, and in doing so they create struggles for their children down the road.

I want to walk through a model for why parents don’t hold their children accountable and what the long-term impacts of that are.

Why Accountability?

Before getting into the systems and factors that drive the desire for a lack of accountability, it’s appropriate to consider why we care. Why does it matter that people are held accountable? As it turns out, it matters because without it we can’t maintain stable social relationships. Societies are built on trust. (See my review of Trust for the economic impacts of trust, and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on trust and its relational impacts in general.)

Accountability is applying consequences when someone doesn’t meet a commitment. The consequences for failing to meet a commitment can be as simple as disapproval or can involve much more tangible losses. Few people would argue that, if someone were to break the terms of a legal contract, they should be held accountable to address the losses of the other party. But how far does this expectation extend?

When a friend promises to you they’ll be there and they aren’t, do you discuss it with them? If they just say they’ll commit to being there, do you discuss it? A promise is a stronger commitment than just committing to being there. Comments like “I’ll try” or “I think I’ll make it” are weaker statements that don’t rise to the level of commitment; therefore, there’s no need to hold someone accountable to a comment.

If accountability is applying consequences only when there is a commitment, the easy answer is to not make commitments. Unfortunately, there are many implied commitments that happen in the course of interacting with other people. Children have an implied commitment from their parents that they will be taken care of at least until 18, and frequently beyond that. Barbers have an implicit agreement that they’ll deliver a reasonable haircut for the money you pay them. There’s a commitment that the barber will meet processional standards.

Social Commitments

Whether we like it or not, we’re social creatures. We exist in relationship to others. When we’re not connected to others, it causes serious health issues (see Emotional Intelligence for more on the 1987 Science article). The size of our social networks is related to the size of the neocortex, as Robin Dunbar pointed out – and humans have a large neocortex. (See my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more.) Our ability to influence others is strongly connected to our social connection with them. (See Influencer and Diffusion of Innovations for more.)

As inherently social creatures, our commitments to one another are interwoven in the fabric of our relationships with each other. We build trust by making commitments, and it’s these commitments that we must – unfortunately – be held accountable to. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more on how building trust is accomplished.)

By holding ourselves and our children accountable to our explicit personal and implicit social commitments, we can develop the skills that will help our children be effective in this world.

Parental Distraction

One of my favorite stories about holding children accountable revolves around a trip on a subway: a father and his young children get on the train and the children quickly begin playing games and being loud, to the frustration of the other passengers. The man seems completely oblivious to the havoc that his children are creating on the train. One of the other passengers, who had become quite frustrated with the man’s failure to hold his children accountable, approaches him in anger, and asks the father why he doesn’t do something about his children’s behavior. The response was a stuttering, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. We just came from my wife’s funeral and I just didn’t realize.” In a moment, the frustration and anger melts away and is replaced with heartfelt compassion.

This story poignantly demonstrates that there are times when a parent might be so distracted by their own inner world that they’re simply incapable of noticing the impact that their children are having on other people. The implied social commitment of not allowing your children to disturb other adults is relaxed not due to malice or incompetence but instead because of an inner struggle.

While there are certainly cases where we might not accept the distractions as reasonable, few people would find fault with the father who has just lost his wife. However, many people would find fault with a father who was lost in Facebook or his phone while his children ran amuck.

Unfortunately, parents are all too often involved in their own lives in ways that make it difficult for them to see and understand how their children aren’t meeting the societal norms and should be held accountable.

Parental Time

Our generations are growing up with a greater awareness of their rights and entitlements and less of what Tom Brokaw recognized in “the greatest generation” as commitment to each other and society. (See America’s Generations for more on generational differences.) Parents have traded the quantity of the time they have with their children for the supposed quality time – which all too often isn’t quality at all. It’s just the few minutes that the parents spare for their children.

Certainly there’s a need to rest and recharge. With seven children, it’s impossible to be focused on all of them at every moment. However, there is balance between the entitlement that a parent should be able to have alone time and the need to be present and persistent as a parent. Some time to oneself and with one’s spouse is important, but too much of it looks a lot like shirking duties as a parent.

Parental Friendship

Sometimes the barrier to holding children accountable isn’t a lack of awareness or attention to them, but rather a lack of conviction to the parenting process. Parenting children is hard work. I’ve never found anyone who’s willing to argue this point. Everyone knows that it’s a difficult, tiring, and often thankless job. If you do your job as a parent well, you have no guarantees that your child will actually like you – or that you will like them.

Too many parents seek a friend in their child above being a parent. They’ll happily fulfill the duties of parent as they understand them until it conflicts with the ability of the child to be their friend. It’s hard to tell children no if the result is that you won’t be liked. It’s hard to enforce consequences for their actions – to hold them accountable – because it will necessarily mean negative feelings.

All too often, these parents aren’t complete inside. They’ve got holes in their soul where they’re missing friendship from other adults or are trying to get to a relationship they never had with their parents. Often in this mess there’s a confusion between liking someone and respecting them.

They never respected nor liked their parents, and rather than hoping that their children will respect them as a parent, they settle for being liked, and in the process, prevent the hope that children will respect them. We only respect people who can make the right choices, even when those choices are hard.

Parental Strength

Sometimes those hard choices are simply too hard for a parent to make. Their internal perspective and position doesn’t allow them to feel strong enough to make the tough calls. Sometimes this is a physical perspective: they fear what will happen if their child strikes out at them physically; but more frequently it’s the strength of conviction that they must be a parent first.

Perhaps it’s the lie that our children need our friendship more than they need us as a parent. After all, teenage suicide is on the rise, isn’t it? Unfortunately, teenage suicide rates are alarming. However, is the cause of these suicides because their parents held them accountable, or are there other causes? Sometimes, it’s the belief that there’s nothing wrong with not holding our children accountable. In other words, what’s the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, the worst that can happen is that our children learn that they can get away with anything and their ethical base is eroded.

Vulnerable Child Syndrome

Another variant of why parents won’t hold their children accountable is described as the “vulnerable child syndrome”. (The name comes research conducted by Green and Solnit.) Consider a child who has a kind of cancer that has a reasonably high incidence of mortality within the next five years. How hard is it to get a child to meet a commitment – particularly an unpleasant one like brushing their teeth if you know that they’re likely to die soon? How powerful is the pull at the parent’s heart strings to let the child not do what they’ve been asked to do?

How much does it really matter anyway? In this case, it does matter. There’s a change in the infection risk based on whether they’re brushing their teeth or not, but even knowing the increased risk for infection won’t be enough to escape the grips of heart strings when your child is suffering and you can’t make it stop, so you sure don’t want to add to it.

Similar situations happen when a child loses a parent. No one wants to hold the children accountable because they feel sorry for them. How terrible it must be to lose a parent – we can’t make them eat their vegetables. It’s as if the relatives believe that they can compensate for the loss of a parent by offering them no vegetables and a desert at every meal.

While this is well-intended, it misses the fundamental need of children to have structure and control around them. (See Parent Effectiveness Training for a complete discussion on appropriate control of children.)

Parental Guilt and Shame

Perhaps the most unsettling reason why parents don’t hold their children accountable is because of their own guilt and shame. (See Daring Greatly for a discussion of the differences.) Parents are ashamed of something they’ve done, and as a result they’re unwilling or unable to hold their children accountable. Often after a divorce (for more on divorce see my review of Divorce: Causes and Consequences), parents will have trouble holding their children accountable, because they feel guilty about the divorce. They believe they’re to blame for the divorce; so how could they hold their child accountable for acting out when they’re really the one to blame?

The reason why this is so unsettling is because it easily leads to a negative feedback loop. As the parent feels more guilt and shame because of their initial issues, which get added to as the children become unmanageable, they feel more guilt and shame, making it more difficult to hold the children accountable and further perpetuating the cycle.

Outcomes for Children

If someone told you that a test involving a marshmallow administered to young children could be an effective predictor of success in life you might be inclined to laugh. However, the famous “marshmallow test” run by Walter Mischel did just that. (The test is widely covered in Mischel’s own book and in books like Willpower.) The ability to delay gratification and wait for two marshmallows instead of eating the one in front of them has proven to be an effective predictor of many things, including success, later in life. How can such a simple test provide such insights?

One answer is that it measures the ability for a child to delay gratification, and which is necessary for many other situations in life, where the better you are at delaying gratification the more successful you’ll be.

Take a moment to think about social skills – the kind of skills you develop when you’re held accountable to your commitments. This is one small sliver of the broader concept of emotional intelligence: the ability to form relationships with others and connect with them. Emotional intelligence, too, has been identified as a predictor of success in life – more so than IQ.

While there have been no focused, hard-science research on holding children accountable that I’m aware of, the supporting skills and the presumptions of what you’ll teach children by holding them accountable have been shown to indicate greater success in life.

If, then, you choose to not hold your children accountable, you’re more likely to stifle their chances in life – and no one wants that, do they?

Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Book Review-Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Reading a child rearing book originally written in the late 60s and published in 1970 seems like a departure from my reading list. I don’t typically read child rearing books for good reason. I disagree with quite a bit of what is written. Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, is no exception. However, there’s an important reason for reading it. The reason is because his discussions of active listening underpin motivational interviewing. (For more see my review of Motivational Interviewing.) Though I had been exposed to active listening – as most folks have – I wanted to know more about its roots and to understand it more.

The best lesson from Parent Effectiveness Training for me was that I can deeply respect some views and insights of someone and vehemently disagree with some of their other views. I’ve mentioned some minor disagreements in previous reviews (For instance, see Daring Greatly) but here I’ll share strong feelings for the insight that Dr. Gordon has and my concerns about where I think incorrect conclusions have been reached.

Spock

I start not with Dr. Gordon’s beliefs, but with the recognition that the grandfather of parenting books is Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book Baby and Child Care has been the classic handbook of parenting for over 65 years. However, Finding Flow reports that he expressed some concerns that training children to be unfettered individualists may have had unforeseen negative consequences. Spock encouraged parents to allow children to grow at their own pace. However, we’ve seen that public programs like Sesame Street can have substantial positive impacts by helping particularly under-resourced children learn and grow more quickly and reliably – beyond their own pace. (See “G” is for Growing for more about Sesame Street‘s approach and impact.)

Personally, I feel like we’re seeing a wave of entitlement in our children that represents a threat to our culture and productivity. (See America’s Generations for more about the shifts in generational values.) I remain concerned with the need to balance perspectives instead of accepting one single truth. I don’t believe that any author or professional has the answer for every situation. Some have answers that are applicable to more situations than others.

United Fronts

Very early on, Dr. Gordon criticizes the idea that parents should “always be together in their feelings, presenting a united parental front to their children.” He says about it, “this is nonsense.” On this point, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Gordon. I believe that the consistency of getting the same answers from either parent is important to minimize confusion in the mind of the child. (Later, he strongly encourages parental consistency.) I think that the error is in the word “always.” I think the importance is to strive to be on the same page.

This demonstrates to children that the parents work together to reach a consensus approach. I can say from my own marriage and my own children that this isn’t easy, but it is something that the children appreciate. They know that my wife and I generally present a united front about things. What they don’t know is that sometimes I don’t agree with our position. However, I always accept and support it.

Understanding the need of accepting shared decisions and supporting them is something I learned from Dr. Gottman’s work. Dr. Gottman criticizes the suggestion that couples should use active listening when communicating with each other, because it requires a high degree of skill that most couples don’t possess. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s research and perspectives.) Gottman has a very high success rate of predicting the stability of a marriage based on a few minutes of observation of arguments. He’s intimately acquainted with disagreements in couples and the resolutions. I’ve never read in his works that parents shouldn’t attempt to reach consensus because it’s too hard – his work seems to travel in the opposite direction.

Dr. Gordon and Dr. Gottman together may highlight the one key about presenting a united front that may invalidate the technique. The ability to separate agreement with acceptance isn’t a skill that everyone has. If you can’t accept the united front without necessarily agreeing completely, then don’t try to pull it off. The children will see this as a lack of integrity, and rather than demonstrating consistency, it will cause them to focus on the discrepancy they are seeing but can’t explain.

Ultimately, presenting the united front delivers consistency in the short term and teaches the need to reach consensus and develop acceptance in the absence of agreement – these are all critical social skills that our children need, despite Gordon’s belief that it’s “nonsense”. He has a similar discord with the idea that you can accept the child but not their behaviors.

Accept the Child Not the Behavior

Cloud and Townsend made popular the idea of boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. They identified the need to separate ourselves from things that are not ourselves and to protect ourselves. They defined boundaries as being either “temporary protective” boundaries or “defining” boundaries. Temporary protective boundaries exist to protect ourselves for a time. In Dr. Gordon’s language, he speaks of the impact that one person’s behaviors has on another, and discussing the impacts so that the other person knows how they’re impacting you. This is letting others know what your temporary boundaries are and why you have them.

Here, Dr. Gordon is concerned with the parents’ authenticity. He believes that this idea “prevents parents from being real.” Here, I think that Dr. Gordon has missed the idea of compassion or love. Agape love – love for all – and philos love – love for our group or family – can exist even when we’re not accepting (or allowing) another person’s behaviors. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about accepting and allowing.) I believe the ability to prioritize your compassion and love for your children above your need to accept their behaviors is an advanced skill that Dr. Gordon may have not seen frequently (or at all) in his work.

I firmly believe that you can love the child and accept them as a person while expecting (and requiring) different behaviors from them. I say this with caution out of fear that I’ll be misunderstood. I’m not saying that you should kick your child out if they develop an addiction. I’m suggesting that you come to them in love to support them as people while preventing the impact of the behaviors from impacting you.

The Need for Privacy

Dr. Gordon believes that checking up on children demonstrates a non-acceptance of children, which he finds to be harmful. He believes that children have the right to privacy. Here, I disagree because of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian proverbs “doveryai, no proveryai”: that is, “trust, but verify.” In our house, children’s privacy is not a right, but an earned privilege. That is, if they demonstrate their trustworthiness, we offer them trust that they’re utilizing the resources that we provide appropriately. When they violate our trust, or signal to us that they are hiding something, and the privilege of privacy is temporarily rescinded.

In practical terms, we almost never intrude into the lives of our children. We have applied internet monitoring software on their devices to prevent access to inappropriate internet sites. We reserve the right to look at their phones at any time to review what they’ve been looking at or the conversations they’re having with their girlfriends and boyfriends – but we almost never do.

I don’t believe this is about acceptance of them as a person but is about what is an isn’t acceptable uses of the resources that we provide. So here, too, I believe that Gordon’s view isn’t sufficiently nuanced to identify the core concept that is the concern – acceptance of the person. Instead, he uses one situation that can be handled inappropriately and can convey a lack of acceptance, but one that doesn’t necessarily have to.

At this moment one of our children has his hair dyed blue. My wife dyed his hair for him. We accept his need to define his individuality and accept him, though neither of us are interested in turning our own hair blue.

Impact on Us

One area of confusion is when parents believe that their children’s expressions of themselves will become judgements on how good – or poor – they are as parents. They believe that the way the child behaves reflects on the parent’s ability to parent. In some cases, as in the case of the preacher’s kids (PKs), there are certain stresses that exist that don’t exist for most folks. I know several friends who grew up as PKs, and they talk about how they had to learn at a very young age to assess how others might view their behaviors.

In my observation, the larger the family is, the less that the parents see the behaviors of any one of their children as their failings as a parent. Typically, the question becomes, what did we do wrong with this one, and isn’t generalized to being bad parents. However, with nuclear family sizes decreasing, there’s an increasing tendency to see the decisions and failures of children as a reflection on the parents.

Some parents take the opposite view and seek to live their lives vicariously through their children. If they never made it as a track star, they’re going to make sure that their son is. If they weren’t the beauty queen, they’re going to make sure that their daughter is. These are the parents who are at the greatest risk of feeling the impact of their children. They’re accepting responsibility for the good things in their children’s life and blurring the child’s individuality with theirs.

There are three fundamental truths about how our children’s behavior impacts us that we would do well to consider:

  1. Failure isn’t an option, it’s essential and necessary for growth. (See Raise your Line for more.)
  2. We are not our children. They have their own individual lives outside of us. We can neither take credit for their successes nor their faults. (See The Available Parent for more.)
  3. The world is probabilistic. There are no one right set of things to help our children grow up as contributing citizens. We can only influence the outcomes. We can’t control them. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of the world.)

In the end, we can recognize that the child is a separate person full of their own faults and foibles – just like us – but those faults and foibles aren’t the result of our actions or inactions as parents.

Separating the Person and the Action or Belief

When I teach people conflict resolution skills I often teach the clear distinction between the person – who is inherently valuable because they are human – and the action or behavior that they’re exhibiting, which may or may not be something you agree with or even find acceptable. This separates the value the person has from the perspective on what they’re doing.

People can – and sometimes should – rightly disagree with other humans. However, the disagreement should be about the action or belief, and not about the value of the other person. I can disagree with Dr. Gordon about some of his views while at the same time respect him as a person. I can even disagree with some of his beliefs while agreeing with others. I’ve separated the person and the value of the person from how I value the idea. This is all too often missing in conflicts, whether they occur between business people or within a family.

Our ego uses defensive routines to defend us against external threats. (See Change or Die for more on our ego and its defenses, and Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together – Defensive Routines for more on our defensive routines.) However, in many people, this defensive response happens even when the person we’re conversing with isn’t attacking us but is instead is disagreeing with our idea. (See How Children Succeed for more on HPA Axis issues which lead to more active defenses.)

We can observe that our children have dirty dishes in their rooms. That’s an observation and verifiable fact. To say that they’re a slob because they have dirty dishes in their room is a judgement about their character – and a disrespectful one at that. In our conversations with our children, it’s important to distinguish between the behaviors and how we see the child.

Problem Ownership

Key to Dr. Gordon’s approach is the development of an expectation on the part of the child that the problem – whatever it is – is the child’s problem. The parent is there to help, but the child is expected to participate in the problem-solving process. The solutions don’t “come down from on high.” Instead they’re the result of a collaboration between the parent and the child.

Ultimately, the parent wants the child to own their own problems. Eventually, the child will be here on this planet and the parents will be gone. While the parent can be a source of support, they cannot be the one with all the answers. (See Our Kids for more about the support that parents can provide.) To manage the long-term results for our children, we must teach them to accept ownership of their problems. We do that through the process of active listening (and facilitated problem solving).

Active Listening

Active listening starts with an attitude. It’s an attitude of interest in the child and their world. While children may not be experts on many things, they are the undisputed experts of their inner world. (What Glassier calls “quality” world in Choice Theory.) When they choose to share their world with parents, they are doing so because they believe the benefits and the trust in the parents exceed the perceived risks. The parents need to accept that the child is bringing something to the table as it relates to the solution to whatever problem they have. They also have to accept that sometimes the “problem” is simply the need to process their world by “talking it out.”

With the belief that the child is bringing something valuable, it’s easier to see that your role is simply to support through acceptance of the child and a desire to be helpful to them. The key here is that the parent isn’t assuming ownership of the problem. They’re in the supporting role.

Sometimes maintaining the perception of the supporting role is very hard – at least for me. Sometimes the problems that my children present are so obvious to me that I just want to tell them the answer and move on. However, I know that this is far too often detrimental to trust, because it signals them that I don’t trust them to take care of their own issues.

It’s much harder to reflect what they’re saying and gently guide them towards a greater awareness of the challenges they’re facing and the resources they need to solve the problem. It takes more time, but it helps them to develop the skill of solving problems on their own. I’ve literally heard our children repeat back their processing on topics we’ve not discussed and recognize the ownership that they took in the problem. With that level of ownership, they didn’t need to come ask for help processing. (Though they did want validation that they had done good work processing it themselves.)

Active listening starts with reflecting back what the child has said. The more advanced active listening attempts to decode the meaning behind the message and reflects that message back to the child, so that it’s apparent to the child that they’re understood not just for the content of their message but the meaning – and typically the feelings – behind it.

One of the greatest fears that children and adults share is whether they are understood and accepted. Often the concern for acceptance is focused around their feelings. They believe that they shouldn’t have the feelings that they do, or that somehow their feelings are wrong or bad.

Feelings are Friendly

It’s important for everyone to understand that feelings aren’t good or bad. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Ekman discussed afflictive and non-afflictive emotions. In the end, however, there was an awareness that the emotions that people feel aren’t afflictive or non-afflictive in the moment that they’re felt. They’re afflictive if they are retained for an inappropriate amount of time. Thus, all emotions – all feelings – are acceptable at least in the short term. The important point isn’t that you have a feeling. It’s what you do with the feeling that matters. All feelings are acceptable – and non-afflictive, at least in the short term – but not all behaviors are acceptable.

We are all concerned about how others will view our feelings and emotions, when in reality there’s little need to be concerned whether our feelings are appropriate or not.

Three Methods

Dr. Gordon sees that there are three methods of parenting:

  1. Parent Wins – This authoritative approach has the child always losing and the parent always getting their needs met, sometimes at the expense of the child.
  2. Child Wins – This permissive approach has the child always winning and getting their needs met at the expense of others.
  3. Win-Win – This approach seeks compromise and to understand the deeper needs to create solutions that meet everyone’s true needs instead of just their expressed needs.

Gordon’s assertion is that parents should be using method 3 – Win-Win – and this makes rational sense. While he acknowledges that there may be times – such as the child running in front of a car where method 1 (Parent Wins) is necessary – he explains that this generally means the method 3 conversation that should have happened before the incident didn’t.

He also acknowledges that children raised in method 2 homes find it difficult to adapt at school, because most schools use method 1. (For more about how to run schools differently see Schools Without Failure.) Further, he acknowledges that sometimes raising creative, independent children happens with method 2 homes, but sometimes at the expense of the parents actually liking their children.

I’m all for finding ways to negotiate and find solutions where everyone wins at times, but I think it goes too far to say it should always be used. Sometimes there is just insufficient time to work through the details of negotiation and listening to get to a win-win situation. Unfortunately, there are limits to our time which requires an approach that has quicker results. You can’t use method 1 every time, but using it sometimes makes sense.

And we’re back full-circle to Spock and the reality that we need to encourage our children to be individuals. We need to encourage and support their expression of themselves both in voice and in action – while simultaneously creating an understanding of the world they will live in, where they will have bosses and they will be told how things are going to be from time to time. The objective with Parent Effectiveness Training should be to help expose children to the most advantageous environment – which for me means a blend of Method 1 and Method 3. It’s absolutely worth reading – as long as you’re willing to evaluate what to keep, what to discard, and what to incorporate in part.