Monthly Archives: December 2011

Contribution: How doing things for others builds kids’ resilience

Kids Save the WorldThese three weeks before the official holiday break are particularly stressful. It’s a perfect storm of cold weather, 4 p.m. sunsets (and 7:30 a.m. sunrises), school and work deadlines, end of year concerts, holiday parties, gift buying, list-making and baking. Tempers are short, emotions easily ruffled and wallets depleted.

So I figured this was a perfect time to write about one of the most overlooked of the 7 Cs of resilience: contribution. Because kids really can help make the world a better place.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “when children realize that the world is a better place because they are in it, they will take actions and make choices that improve the world. They will also develop a sense of purpose to carry them through future challenges.”

Wow. There’s a lot of juicy stuff there to think about: doing things for others, resisting self-absorption and narcissism, a deep connection to a cause or community, empathy, sensitivity, creativity, purpose. It’s so important that it’s incorporated into the last step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Step Program: to help others who are battling alcohol addiction.

These are wonderful qualities in any human being, and it’s easy to appreciate how they will improve the world around them. The brilliance of this particular aspect of resilience is that they also benefit the person who embodies them. It’s not entirely selfless to be selfless. It makes kids and adults not only better, but also stronger. More able to resist the temptations and poor choices everyone has to confront from time to time.

I’m not talking about metaphysical connections or anything spiritual here – the power of contribution is the groundedness it offers. It lets kids feel they personally have something to offer the world, to make something better in some way, however small.

So what does contribution actually look like, and how can we help our kids build it? Most people will initially think about charitable acts: collecting items for Christmas hampers to the poor, visiting the elderly, working at a soup kitchen, being a Big Brother or Big Sister to a younger child in need. These things are amazing, and certainly important to the people whom they benefit, as well as to children who learn the pleasure of giving, (as well as challenging the sense of entitlement many kids seem to carry around with them).

But these activities may only happen once in a while, or you may be looking for something closer to home. In my opinion, there are many wonderful opportunities within the family. Regular chores (for which they are not paid) help a child develop a sense of contribution to the family, even if they grumble about folding laundry, setting the dinner table or walking the dog. Helping a younger sibling with homework gives them a sense of pride, deepens family relationships, and takes some of the heat off parents.

Little kids can contribute to the family as well, though sometimes that “help” requires a bit of patience. Counting out cutlery for the dinner table. Keeping their room tidy. Feeding the family pet. Start small and build on them as they get older.

They can also plenty of ways to contribute time and energy for their schools, soccer teams, churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.

The thing about contribution is that it requires a bit of commitment. It isn’t always glamourous and it isn’t always fun. So prepare yourself for some eye-rolling and attitude. But stick it out: the pay-off is in the difference it makes, short and long term.

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.

Words matter: When “drama” is really “bullying”

British teen comicIt’s funny how the words we use work like a kind of filter for our understanding of the world. Take the word “bully,” for instance. It’s become a fully loaded term, a trigger for all that is evil in kid culture. Calling someone a bully is a big deal, a huge accusation. Even kindergarteners pick up on this inflection.

But it’s also an adult word, one that teens rarely use themselves. Researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick argue in their paper (The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics) that most middle and high school students see bullying as a grade school problem, and that they use the term “drama” instead to describe the conflicts, tensions and skirmishes of adolescence.

But words matter. Transforming the devil term “bullying” into the less powerful “drama” rhetorically restructures the seriousness of whatever has occurred. Drama, the term insists, is about the normal antics of teens. Kids will be kids. The word itself is suggestive of eye-rolling, of dismissable, precocious, possibly irreverent but ultimately harmless mischief. It is heavily gendered, though boys can also get involved in drama. Drama is what Paris Hilton does. What People Magazine reports. Drama has a kind of glittery appeal, a cool factor.

It needs to be said that not all drama is bullying. The histrionics of teenagers, the emotional outbursts, the misunderstandings that blow up into gossip-worthy fights between former BFFs – that’s all drama too. Some of it is funny, or ridiculous or just a way to get attention. And a good portion of that is teenagers trying on different quasi-adult roles, manufacturing interesting stories out of the banalities of their daily existence. With a hefty dose of celebrity culture thrown in for good measure.

And certainly not all bullying gets reduced to drama. A 15-year-old who utters anti-Semitic epithets and uses a lighter to set a classmate’s hair on fire? That’s bullying writ large and clear. Not even the most jaded 13-year-old would mistake that for drama.

The upshot of all this is that many teens don’t recognize that what they are experiencing, seeing online or doing themselves might actually be bullying. Calling it drama invalidates their experience. It overlooks the malicious intent. It discredits the hurt. It implies, in the most withering tone imaginable, “Can’t you take a joke?” when what happens isn’t funny at all.

Calling actual harassment or abuse “drama” simultaneously lets the victims save face, even as it lets the perpetrators pretend that they are doing something innocuous or clever. In an ironic twist, this rhetorical twist gives both bully a victim some intellectual distance. But for the victims, the pain is still there.

It also means, Boyd argues on her blog, Apophenia, that when teachers or guidance counsellors come in and lecture them about bullying, it has little practical impact. All those good intentions just don’t resonate. She explains:

Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. They aren’t willing to go there. And when they are, they need support immediately. Yet, few teens have the support structures
necessary to make their lives better.

Boyd and Marwick make a compelling argument to reframe the whole bullying debate. It would be a terrible shame if all the resources of time, effort and money put into anti-bullying campaigns are just missing the mark. We need to use the narratives the kids themselves are using in order to reach them.

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, the researchers wrote:

Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish.

Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teenagers feel victimized without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one of empowerment. When teenagers acknowledge that they’re being bullied, adults need to provide programs similar to those that help victims of abuse. And they must recognize that emotional recovery is a long and difficult process.

We need to work at the level of teens’ cultural narratives, explaining how some kinds of “drama” has long-lasting and serious cultural consequences. We need to work on tolerance and empathy. We need to teach them digital citizenship rather than banning Facebook and cellphones at schools. We need to get them involved in their communities and help them feel connections to others. These kinds of positive interactions may well have longer lasting consequences than the traditional anti-bullying campaigns we are using.