April 2010

Armure du coeur

An interesting German study was recently published that found the “pain matrix”: a location in the brain that registers emotional pain and memories of pain.

The psychologists in the study had 16 subjects read pain-related words while imagining situations that corresponded to each word. They were then asked to repeat the exercise, but were distracted by a brain-teaser as they read the words. During the experiments, participants had their brains scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI).

The experimenters found that when people heard or read words such as “plaguing,” “tormenting,” and “grueling,” the section of the brain that retains memories of painful experiences was triggered. Not exactly rocket science, but so far, so interesting.

What was advertised, however, was something far more profound–and questionable. The marketing department of the study reported that painful words are just as traumatic as physical pain–essentially suggesting that the brain does not distinguish between physical and emotional pain.

But does this suggest that name-calling produces the same kind of pain as a kick in the shin, a punch in the gut, or being choked? This is an important question, given the attention that media are playing to the issue of bullying in our schools.

There is no doubt that name-calling can be destructive; children who bully with their words should be held accountable just as surely as children who bully with their fists. Believe me, in my world, bullies would much rather face a firing squad than deal with the consequences I would dream up for them. However, part of the solution to this form of bullying must be helping victims of verbal bullying build their immunity to this nonsense.

Being called names like “retard,” “fag,” “loser,” “Mama’s boy,” and other derogatory terms can hurt. But they don’t have to. Children can’t stop a kick in the gut from hurting, but they can learn how to filter verbal assaults in ways that prevent pain.

One of the things that allows verbal bullying its effect is that the child values what the bully thinks. Think of it, what do I care if some stranger comes up to me and says that I’m retarded? But if a colleague or family member said it, it would hurt. Why? Because I care what my family and colleagues think of me; I couldn’t care less what strangers think.

Children can be taught to distinguish this way. What family and teachers and best friends think matters. What bullies think does not matter. In fact, the opinion of a bully means nothing because bullies are morally and intellectually inferior.

This should become the mantra: WHAT BULLIES SAY MEANS NOTHING. If adults and the majority of children unite in this, the victims of verbal bullying can minimize the pain and can actually mean it when they say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

I Was Spanked as a Child but Somehow Didn’t Become an Axe Murderer!!!

I’m going to start this post by stating that I am NOT a fan of spanking. In fact, I hate spanking. I hated spanking my kids (each of them on two occasions). I don’t believe it is an effective disciplinary tool. It certainly never teaches a child new, better behaviors.

However, I feel compelled to support spanking as a tool because of how maligned it has become and how inaccurately it has recently been portrayed in the media. To read some of the current stories and studies out there, you would think that children who are spanked are at best all going to bully their peers or future spouse and at worst are at high risk for becoming axe murderers.

This is nonsense and I’m not tolerating it.

Spanking a child necessarily involves infliction of a painful stimulus—unless Mom and Dad are too wimpy to do it with sufficient force. Believe me, this is a problem with some parents; it feels somewhat strange to inform a parent that “you’re not spanking him hard enough.” If painful stimulus were enough to traumatize a child, then we have really wimpy, hypersensitive children who need to grow a set. In that case, get your kid away from bicycles, sandboxes, swimming pools, and anything remotely dangerous. Y’know, anything fun…

If the supposed problem with spanking is that the painful stimulus comes from the person who is supposed to help and love the child, then all doctors and nurses who give children a series of shots and other painful procedures should be thrown in jail, or at least reported to the Department of Child and Family Services. Ask any kid if he’d rather have a spanking or a shot; my money is on “Spanking, please!!!”

As I have said a thousand times, a child is not traumatized by the painful stimulus of a few swats on their butt. Kids are far more resilient than that.

What IS traumatizing is the parental rage and out of control behavior that sometimes accompanies spanking. That is what no study has examined and what no study would dare examine. But this is why those studies are worthless at best and harmful at worst, because many parents can use spanking quite effectively as it should be used: not as a primary discipline tool, but as a back-up, as a method to establish other, more effective methods (such as time out).

Let me use a little analogy. If police beat you with their baton or shot you every time you were pulled over for speeding, that would be overkill, right? That’s what spanking is for abusive, out-of-control parents. Those police officers should be stripped of their weapons; those parents should not spank. However, one of the reasons we pull over for a police officer and why most sane people don’t raise a ruckus when pulled over is BECAUSE the officer has a baton and a gun. A healthy level of fear teaches most people not to mess with police officers. When it comes to cool guns we can totally buy bulk ammo online and it’s easier to have more fun now.

Spanking, used appropriately and sparingly, offers parents the ability to establish the boundaries in the parent-child relationship which allows the parent to use other methods of discipline quite effectively and 99% of the time.

Let’s not decide to eat raw steak just because some crazy chefs tend to burn their steaks. Rather, let’s learn how to cook them properly.

All this hostility…and guess what? I don’t want to spank my kids! Instead, it has me hungry…

Shocking the Brain is Bad..Duh…

A fascinating study offers evidence that shocking the brain with electricity is not a good thing. Duh…

I can’t wait to hear how biopsychiatrists rationalize this one.

Researchers surmised that soldiers who experienced the trauma of bombing had high levels of electricity produced in their brain. In turn, this electricity damaged the brain in a number of ways.

The brain damage that researchers found meet the criteria for Traumatic Brain Injury, which results in gross cognitive dysfunction, including memory loss, apathy, and a host of other abnormal functions. Learn what needs to be done when it comes to the legalities and what one must do before filing a claim.

This is EXACTLY what happens with Electroconvulsive Therapy (aka, ECT, Shock “Therapy”, Electroshock Treatment). Proponents of ECT have consistently denied this manifestly obvious fact, for reasons that only common sense can surmise.

They would have us believe that shocking the brain with electricity is terribly harmful when it occurs on the battlefield, but if it is done by people in lab coats to heavily sedated patients, then it is helpful. I’m not buying it.

ECT is barbaric, useless, and one of the more damaging “treatments” that psychiatry has perpetrated on the human race in its long and illustrious history.

Get Dirty with Junior

I’m convinced that children need to garden. Yes, they need to get their hands dirty with a shovel, trowel, rake, or just their bare hands.

First, it is excellent exercise. Digging in the dirt, looking for worms, amending soil with compost, coffee grinds, and other things is hard work! My son, who normally has an inexhaustible amount of energy, helped me create a new garden bed this weekend; he was in charge of chopping up clumps of top soil into smaller chunks. He was thoroughly pooped after a couple hours. Truth be told, so was I.

Second, it offers great opportunity to learn about how food is grown. You can teach some basic biological principles about the plant world–how plants need good soil, water, and sunlight.

Third, kids love to produce something that they will eat. A bonus is that they will have to learn patience, since most crops take weeks to grow to fruition.

Finally, children need to discover the connection between the food they consume and its source. Sure, they know that they get food from the supermarket; but where does that come from?

Wendell Berry writes that modern humans have become too disconnected from their food source and that this produces a strange and unbecoming sense of entitlement and ignorance. I agree.

Here are a couple games that parents can play with their children while at the dinner table:

1. Which Food Group? Name a food–especially the foods that are on the child’s plate–and see who can name which food group the food is from. In case you’ve forgotten, there’s meat, dairy, vegetable, fruit, grain, and fat (oil, butter). And no, beer is not a food group.

2. Where Does This Come From? After they name the group, then ask where the food originated. Did it grow in a garden? Was it raised in a barn? These questions will help your child see the connection between the mound of food on the plate and the people who produced the food, as well as how God provides for all of the different types of food that you enjoy. You might be surprised to witness your child appreciating animals and farms a bit more. Then you can head to the Internet or library and investigate with them how crops are harvested, animals are raised, and how certain foods get to the grocery store.

Get your child connected to the food he or she eats. Start with a little garden, however small. It’s a glorious teaching tool.

“Do you have a receipt for this boy?”

Anyone whose heart isn’t torn by the story of a mother who adopted a Russian child only to return him there should see a cardiac surgeon. The story is incredibly complex; I suggest that before we pass judgment, we all take a deep breath and determine to think cautiously.

Most importantly, the public does not know all the facts surrounding this case.

First, we do not know how honest Russian adoption authorities were regarding the boy’s history and emotional state. The adoptive mom could have been duped into adopting a child who had far more profound emotional problems than was made known to her. Not that this would excuse her choices, but it would certainly put them into perspective.

Second, we do not know the extent or what types of treatment the mom sought for the problems she encountered with him. Reportedly, the boy was a holy terror—violent, grossly defiant, disrespectful, out of control, supremely disruptive, and unresponsive to her attempts to discipline him. We have heard she sought counsel from a mental health professional. That could have been one phone consultation or months of intensive parent training. If it was the latter, perhaps she tried everything and it didn’t work. Perhaps she tried nothing. Perhaps the child was drugged with psychiatric drugs that made him worse. Perhaps the mom valiantly attempted to solve the problems all by herself, with no support from family members. We simply do not know…yet.

Third, it is unclear how severe the problems really were. One report suggested that in the mom’s follow-up dialogue with the adoption agency, there were nothing but glowing reports about the boy. That seems odd. Another report suggested that the mom was attempting to adopt a second foreign child. Again, this is odd, presupposing that the first child was out of control and intolerable.

There are legal issues here. Can a parent return a child whom he or she has adopted? What does U.S. law say? What does international law say? Can the parent annul the adoption if he or she has gone through a series of steps to prove that everything has been done to help the child and other family members peacefully exist in their home? What if the parent hasn’t taken those steps?

Of course, the more important issue here is moral. First, we must presuppose that there are objective, universal moral laws that do not depend on our whims. All parents—biological or adoptive—swear an implicit, solemn oath to care for their child. For biological parents, this oath is often accidental; for adoptive parents, the vows of parenthood are far more explicit and purposeful. They also are made over time, with several opportunities to reverse course.

Once that child belongs to the parent, however, both are stuck with each other. There can be no turning back. There must be no turning back. I don’t care how devilish a child is; no parent should break the parent-child bond by giving up that child.

There were several options for this mother to make things better. If she indeed exhausted all of them, then I can empathize with her plight. But I cannot justify her giving up on him.

I often joke with parents that if you haven’t at one time fantasized about selling your child on eBay or imagined tossing them out on the street, you haven’t parented; you’ve simply babysat. All parents reach the end of their rope at some point. This is where it is crucial to have a team of support people—friends, grandparents, teachers, coaches, mental health professionals—to give more rope. Parents desperately need that. Their children desperately need them to have it. And if you’re a mother who’s considering adoption as one of your abortion alternatives, make sure that you make the proper arrangements with a legitimate agency.

Again With the Spanking…

The anti-spanking crusaders are at it again. Another study—this one included a nice large sample of 2,500 participants—showed that those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were more likely to be aggressive by age 5.

Supposedly, the study controlled for other factors that might lead to aggression at age 5:
“Led by Catherine Taylor, the Tulane study was the first to control simultaneously for variables that are most likely to confound the association between spanking and later aggressive behavior. The researchers accounted for factors such as acts of neglect by the mother, violence or aggression between the parents, maternal stress and depression, the mother’s use of alcohol and drugs, and even whether the mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child.”
But the study misses several crucial confounding variables!
First, how was the child spanked? Was it in a rageful manner? That is the most important factor in discipline—whatever method the parent uses (spanking, yelling, time out, taking privileges), calm, self-controlled parenting fosters calm, self-controlled behavior in children. Many parents who spank do so in a violent, rageful manner. THIS is what creates a violent child, not the spanking.
Second, did the spanking parents also yell and scream and otherwise verbally abuse the child? A child can avoid spanking but still get the parent’s rage; sometimes violent words are enough to induce violent fantasies and urges in a child.
Third, did the parent also “rage out” on other siblings? So child #1 doesn’t get spanked, but witnesses Mom or Dad raging at a sibling. This isn’t healthy either.
Fourth, was the child spanked by just one parent, both parents, other adults, other siblings, etc.?
Fifth, did the parent use spanking for all disciplinary measures or were Time Out and other methods also used? This is key. I would agree wholeheartedly with the anti-spanking camp that spanking should not be the primary method of discipline. It can lose its effectiveness over time, never teaches new patterns of behavior, often only frightens a child into compliance, and holds some risk.
However, a parent who calmly spanks a child after explaining why the child is being spanked and does so only to create a foundation for other primary methods of discipline (such as Time Out) is never going to develop a pattern of violence in the child. Never.
The American Academy of Pediatrics admits that spanking can stop a child from misbehaving in the short-term. Exactly. During that initial short-term period, parents should transition to Time Out to train their child to obey and respect others. Many children respond to self-controlled, reasonable spanking with an adjustment in their attitude toward parents.
Should children live in abject fear of their parents? Heck no. Should there be a modicum of fear, such that induces the child to respect the parent and submit to his or her authority? Absolutely. Spanking achieves this, if done properly. Then Time Outs and other methods can do their work.
In the end, this study has little benefit to the scientific debate. It does, however, help the anti-spanking zealots’ crusade.

Give a Poop and They’ll Take a Crap…

I was raised by sailors. Well, not actually. To be more accurate, I was raised in a home where there was quite a bit of salty language. Cussing was standard fare for the adults. Naturally, when I was older, I incorporated my native language and “dialect”.

As I grew into adulthood, I decided this was not appropriate—that I wanted to use less coarse language. I determined to clean up my mouth (be patient with me; I’m still working on it).

When my wife and I started having children, we agreed that we would train our children to use respectful, mature language. We united in believing that appropriate language fosters a respectful attitude and produces gentlemanly and lady-like behavior. So we have tried very hard not to curse or use otherwise inappropriate language in our children’s presence.

Now that our children are all school-age, we recognize the need to eradicate potty talk from their vocabulary. Oh, how fun it is for them to experiment with words, discovering which are appropriate and which aren’t! Recall George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. We have The Seven Words You Can’t Say at the Dinner Table.

What we have learned is that if we have a high threshold for what is inappropriate, they will push that limit. Hard. Of course, we don’t allow our children to say the BIG ONES. But for a while, we thought it was cute when they joked about “poop” (I know some of you see how foolish this is). We quickly learned that this is not the ideal training method. If you allow the minor ones, they will use them. All the time.

The new rule in our home is absolutely no potty talk, no gross talk, and no inappropriate words while family is together. So our children may not discuss boogers, barf, or pee-pee at the dinner table; they may not make poop or butt jokes, get away with “wiener” or any other pseudonym for private parts. All of it is off-limits at the dinner table and during family time. If they want to talk about that stuff when they are on their own, they can have at it.

It is important for children to have permission to ask you in private about words. Any words. Our kids have complete amnesty when inquiring about a new word or phrase they may have heard on the playground. They know they have permission to say the word in order for us to judge whether it is appropriate or not (and whether we should strangle the child who introduced it to our little cherub). After this, they are expected to use the word appropriately (or not at all).

Remember, it is your job to train your child. It is a good idea to decide early on with your spouse the limit on “free speech” that is appropriate in your benevolent dictatorship. Communicate this limit with your child and enforce it as early as possible. Don’t tolerate any testing of your limits or you will have a little George Carlin salting up your home.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

To praise or not to praise…should there even be a question? Well, yes. It’s not that simple.

Many of you have heard of a movement afoot insisting that praising children is not a good thing. Forget millennia of experience and common sense showing that positive reinforcement—external positive reinforcement—is by far the best way to train all living creatures.

The science is sound. Behavioral scientists have conclusively shown that animals will increase those behaviors that are reinforced. Behaviors that are not reinforced either stagnate or will extinguish altogether.

If you are offered a significant enough reinforcer (reward), you will perform any behavior. For example, if I offered you a penny to pick your nose in public, you probably wouldn’t do it (unless, perhaps, you knew it would go viral on YouTube). If I offered you fifty bucks, you might consider it. If I offered to pay your child’s college education, you’d be tickling your brain in half a second.

Most younger children are not reinforced by money, just as most adults are not reinforced primarily by praise. As much as I love what I do, I wouldn’t do it for long if all I received was praise. But children are reinforced primarily by social reinforcers. Sure, TV and candy are powerful reinforcers, but I hope I don’t need to convince you that your child should not be trained with Smarties and Teletubbies.

The most important social reinforcers for children are: attention and affection. Attention need not necessarily be in the form of praise; children are reinforced by simply being noticed. “I see you are brushing your teeth properly” is almost as powerful as “Good job brushing your teeth properly!”

What’s the difference? One points out to the child with little emotion that their efforts are noticed. The child feels good to be noticed and looks inward for a sense of accomplishment; the reward is, in a way, self-delivered. The other uses external pride and relational closeness as a reward—in essence, an extrinsic reward.

Both are important. We don’t want our children to behave only because we are proud of them. They need to learn how to be proud of themselves. But here is the crucial difference.

Children learn much faster when motivated by both external and internal rewards. We reinforce them for learning new tasks—for succeeding in new challenges. Do I praise my 10-year-old for brushing her teeth properly? No. But I do praise her for mastering a challenging a multi-step math problem or crafting a superb metaphor. I don’t rob her of her internal pride by offering her my pride. She can enjoy both and be reinforced by both. This is how the real world works. We are reinforced by both internal and external rewards.

In summary, children benefit greatly from all forms of positive reinforcement. Social positive reinforcement—attention and affection—are the most powerful and appropriate tools and should be part of a balanced, varied repertoire of training. Praise is a fairly intense form of attention.

Praise your child when attempting and mastering novel challenges. Use affection liberally. For particularly difficult challenges, there is almost no such thing as too much praise. Once the child has mastered a challenge, frequent praise becomes unnecessary and less potent, so it can be toned down and offered much more infrequently until the child has over-learned the task or skill. Don’t praise your eight-year-old for mastering her alphabet (unless it has been a particularly intense challenge), but do praise your three-year-old!

Remember to vary the forms of reinforcement. We don’t want our children to have external praise as the only motivator. We want our children to be increasingly motivated by a balance of reinforcers, including internal pride, external praise, affection, fun, and a host of other things.