Practical challenge: How we put JoAnn Deak’s wisdom to work in our family

After last week’s post on the extremely engaging JoAnn Deak lecture, my friend Dana emailed me. Great post, she said, but can you tell me how it has practically changed the way you parent your kids?

Dana doesn’t mince words. She likes her information clear, concise and practical. I respect that.

So what follows is an outline of some of the things I did after hearing Dr. Deak talk about the connection between brains, biology and parenting.

First thing I did was explain Dr. Deak’s main points to my kids. They need to understand that the brain structure responsible for their executive functions isn’t fully developed, which is why their dad and I need to help guide them through adolescence. They need to know about their “mistake filter” (anterior cingulate cortex) and their emotional response to stress (amygdala), just like they know about losing their baby teeth or the changes of puberty. So now, when they moan about my insistence that they switch off their iPads and do their homework instead, they roll their eyes and grumble about the developing pre-frontal cortex.

In fact, Dr. Deak told a good story about taking her 13-year-old daughter (who had already developed the body of an 18-year-old woman) shopping for a bathing suit. When her daughter picked a small bikini, her mom balked, aware that a 13-year-old in a revealing bathing suit may provoke reactions from boys and men that she was not yet old enough to handle on her own. Now she could have talked about the ways her 13-year-old was inappropriately sexually objectifying herself. She could have talked about the racy messages she was sending to others about her personality and reputation. She could have forbidden the bathing suit on the grounds that it was immoral and inappropriate. But none of that would have been terribly effective, and would have just resulted in the particular kinds of hurt feelings and frustrations mothers and teen daughters can provoke in each other. She also knew that her daughter didn’t have a lot of self-confidence yet, but was proud of her newly developed body.

So instead she talked about the developing brains of teenage boys, who though normally her friends, when faced with her newly curvaceous body might forget about the sensitive 13-year-old mind inside and treat her differently. In ways that might be confusing and upsetting. Her daughter, used to these biological explanations, relented and agreed to wear a cover-up over the bikini.

Potential disaster averted.

JoAnn Deak’s lecture also gave me new impetus for something we always believed – the whole “Hug Your Monster” idea. Anything that frightens our kids or they find difficult — but which we all agree is meaningful — becomes something we really have to work on and push through. This is true for girls and boys. My husband has always pushed them with hiking, snowshoeing, physical stuff; he really feels they learn something by pushing slightly beyond their comfort zone. Turns out he was right about that. It’s equally true with French verbs or speaking in public or raising your hand in class.

Dr. Deak’s lecture also reminded me about things I already knew about girls, but hadn’t really thought about it in a while — that they should be encouraged to play with blocks, Lego, building models at every opportunity. It helps them develop the spatial awareness they will need later on for math. This is of course true for boys as well, but most girls have to work harder to develop the part of the brain responsible for spatial awareness.  Our older girls spent many happy hours laying with our huge set of wooden blocks, but our youngest less so. In a cleaning frenzy a couple of years ago I banished all toys from our family room to the play room, where they are mostly ignored. I dug those toys out of the basement and put them in her room where she will see them and play with them more.

I taught them about these things, so they understand why we push them to do stuff that’s hard or scary. Also explain the whole judgment evolution thing to them. She told a great story about her 12-year-old daughter (already fully developed) who wanted to wear a tiny bikini to a pool party with the football team; because her daughter understood these basics about brain biology, she says she was able to reason with her about why she objected to that.

The lecture helped me understand our youngest daughter better, and how we can best guide her. She seems to be one the 20% of girls who react less with fear and more with aggression, as described by Deak. This child  had always kind of puzzled me because she is so different from her more typical sisters, and so different from me. When a kid in her pre-kindergarten hit her (way back when), she slugged him back! I remember being kind of worried, but also mostly relieved that she could advocate for herself so effectively.

The challenge with her (as with most boys) is to get her to slow down her impulsive go-go-go reactions to things, getting her to articulate what she is doing and why, so that she approaches risky things more reasonably (for example, going to the teacher when a kid hits her, instead of just reacting impulsively and hitting him back). She is very precocious verbally (and also very intelligent/manipulative socially) so she responds well to this, but it takes practice to get her to control her more aggressive and highly emotional response to stress. Her natural risk-taking and sensation-seeking impulses may take her to some pretty cool places in her lifetime, but we also need to guide her to make intelligent, healthy and measured choices rather than impulsive ones.

Things are different with my more typical older daughters. Recently, I took the liberty of contacting one of their teachers. One of them was having issues in her English language arts class, usually her highest mark. Her teacher had contacted me to discuss her conundrum: the Minister of Education here in Québec requires language teachers to allocate 30% to verbal participation. My daughter is very shy with that teacher and never puts up her hand. The teacher was at a loss, because while the rest of her mark was excellent, her hands are tied on this 30%.

After listening to JoAnn Deak (who says teachers in girls’ schools should never rely on mistake-averse students to raise their hands in class), I called the teacher and said “Don’t wait for her to put up her hand; call on her in class.” My daughter agreed that although she would be a bit shy when called upon, she would nevertheless Puttingalways respond (also kind of hugging her monster).  I wish all our kids’ problems were this easily solved!

Finally, I also vowed  to nag all my kids less about details. Apparently all the haranguing makes no difference in the end, and it just sours our relationship. Turns out this is one of the hardest things for me to change, but I’m working on it. I’m also trying to alter the way (and frequency) with which I praise them. There’s a great chapter on this in Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege, about which I keep meaning to blog.

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