family


My mom sent me this in response to my posting the diagnostic criteria for AD/HD yesterday. She’s not a health care professional, but she did raise five boys. Since I’m the oldest I got to see her do it. I also got to benefit from her love of nature (and sending us out into it), reading to her kids, being affectionate with her kids, making nutritious food, and her skepticism of TV and traditional schooling. And many, many other things, like her faith in her kids. The first thing they told us in my class on psychopathology was that we were not to diagnose ourselves, our friends, or family, so I won’t, but I suspect that all of us (except perhaps Ben) fit the diagnostic criteria for AD/HD for periods of our young lives. She wouldn’t even feed us sugar, much less amphetamines, so it’s not like it was a close call, but thanks, Mom, for not feeding us stimulants!

Here it is:
“Be forewarned, this takes effort on the parent’s part!

“Here is my humble prescription for hyperactivity in children (who, by the way, are usually boys): First, TAKE HIM OUT OF SCHOOL!! Live in, or move to, a rural area. (Or at least make sure there is a wild area, like woods or a meadow, nearby). Each day, after he has slept as late as he wants to, feed him a highly nutritious breakfast that contains no sugar, no additives, no colorings. Just whole foods. Then, send him outside to play in nature. Make sure he gets plenty of sun exposure. Make sure he has some of these things: trees to climb, grass to lie in, rocks to scramble on, water to swim or wade in, wildlife to watch, dirt to dig in, and bushes to hide in. (Create a beautiful outdoor environment for him if your outdoor area is naturally very stark.) Make sure he has plenty of water to drink. Let him roam freely. At lunchtime have him come in for another nutritious meal of whole foods. No sugar. Only water to drink. After a cuddle and as much attention as he wants from you, send him back outside to play in nature. Let him play as long as he wants. When he wants to come back inside, he can be read to or told stories, he can play or read quietly, or he can just rest while listening to soft classical music, or take a nap. No TV. No computers. No gameboys… no screens of any kind. Nothing with headphones. Then, back outside to play until the sun goes down. Back in for another nutritious meal, and then he is put in the bathtub. He plays in the bathtub for as long as he wants (an hour or more in very warm water is good). Then, he has a bedtime routine (thorough teeth brushing and flossing- you do it if necessary- and then jammies). After that he gets read to for a LONG TIME in bed…an hour or more is good… until he is sleepy. Make sure he has plenty of hugs and cuddles and kisses and loving words as he drifts off. Follow this prescription every day until his hyperactivity is cured. By the way, this routine could be of benefit to “normal” children, as well. It works for calming and soothing and centering and bringing color to their cheeks, and a more cheerful attitude in general. And, I’d go so far as to say, adults should try it, too… to cure whatever ails them.”

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I have spent my entire adult life worried about overpopulation. What is the carrying capacity of Earth? At what point will we have a massive die-off? Will there be anything like wilderness left by the time that happens? Enough biodiversity left to adapt to climate change in a way that will be tolerable for humans? Etc etc. Just look at a chart of human population growth and it’s clear that we are in the upswing of a human version of the algae bloom/die-off.

And maybe we are, but I just listened to two Seminars for Long-Term Thinking focused on population, Stewart Brand’s “Cities and Time” and Philip Longman’s “The Depopulation Problem” and I’m thinking differently about it now. It’s looking very likely that our population has doubled for the last time, and most of the rest of our population growth is going to be in old people, not babies. People are living longer and having way fewer kids.

There are a few reasons for the radical shift in population-growth rate. First is urbanization. People are flocking to cities in massive numbers, and in the city, kids are no longer an economic asset like they are on the farm. In economic terms, if you are in the city, you are probably better off without them. Second is feminism, or at least it is a phenomenon feminists are in favor of. Women are getting educated, working, and more in control of their reproduction, so they are having fewer babies. (This is arguably another result of urbanization–if you’re on the farm, women are most economically valuable for making babies. If you are in the city and kids don’t matter so much, why not have that second income?) Third is television. Philip Longman called this phenomenon “TV taking the bandwidth out of the bedroom.” Birth rates are inversely proportional to hours of TV watched. This may be because it is urban, small families that are idealized in TV shows.

Stewart Brand’s version of the story is the more optimistic: Perhaps this means we humans have a shot at long-term survival after all. City living is greener than country living–way smaller ecological footprint per person. We still have to weather the population peak without ruining the planet as a habitat for ourselves, which will be no small feat, but at least there might be light at the end of the tunnel!

Philip Longman’s version is pretty depressing: The only population group able to withstand this small family trend are those who are highly principled, anti-materialistic, and dogmatically in favor of big families: religious fundamentalists. Liberals are a dying breed. Fundamentalist populations are burgeoning. The future looks very conservative and patriarchal. And, since we can now tell the sex of our kids before they are born, it means we will have fewer and fewer women–that is to say, more and more females will be aborted. This is already happening in China, where the sex ratio has reached 6 men for every 5 women. With women a scarce resource plus a highly patriarchal society, and the outlook for women’s freedom does not look good. On top of that are the economic problems that come along with an aging population with fewer and fewer workers to sustain it. We are about to get a small taste of that with the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Over the next 100 years that situation will be global and on a much bigger scale. The poverty and desperation that will produce will put ecological concerns on the sidelines, making Stewart’s version of the story unlikely. He advocates governments giving incentives to have kids, but says that it hasn’t worked at all in countries that have tried it.

My good friend Grace has adopted a boy from Ethiopia, Rahmiel Yared Llewellyn. I got to meet him for the first time last week. He was immediately friendly with me and we had fun throwing a bouncy-ball around. It’s just wonderful to see how much he and Grace have bonded already. They seem just right for each other.

Yared and Grace, 2/20/2010

Here’s part 5 of the stuff I learned in my undergrad in psychology that I thought should have been headlines. If you missed them, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4. As always, if you are interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll give you my sources.

If You Punish Your Kids, Use the Mildest Effective Punishment: Do the mildest thing you can that stops the behavior you don’t want. The reason is that a punishment that is harsher than necessary takes the child’s initiative for stopping the behavior out of the picture. If you say “Hey, don’t do that,” and the child responds, they come to think that they didn’t really want to do that thing anyway, since such a mild rebuke got them to stop. Psychologists call these principles “insufficient punishment” and “self-persuasion.” These are research findings, not just speculation. If you sit on and beat your child to get them to stop doing something (as suggested by Mike & Debi Pearl), they will believe something more like “That activity was so great that I’ve only stopped because of that horrible punishment.” In other words, the form of the punishment affects the identity of the child–do they behave well because they think of themselves as well-behaved, or do they behave well only because they fear punishment?

You May Want Your Kids To Be Less Blindly Obedient Than Most People: One of the most famous psychological experiments of all time found that most people risked killing someone they barely knew, given an institutional setting and an authority telling them to do it. The Nazis were mostly not evil, just obedient, like most of us.

Humans Can Be Conformist to the Point of Doubting Their Own Senses:

Each Ethical Decision You Make Affects Your Future Ethical Decisions and Your Identity: If you, say, decide to cheat on a test, you will be more likely to cheat on tests in the future, think of yourself as someone who cheats on tests, and form permissive attitudes about cheating. The opposite is true if you decide not to cheat on a test.

Complement Your Kids For the How Hard They Work, Not How Smart They Are: Getting attention for being smart tends to make kids want to appear smart, which makes them choose easier challenges and lighter competition; it’s the success that matters. Getting attention for hard work does the opposite. This means that these kids will end up smarter than the kids who got attention for being smart.

Teach Your Kids to Think About Intelligence as a Fluid Property: That is, teach them that they can become more intelligent by trying. The more they believe it, the more it will be true for them.

If Your Kids Read, Don’t Reward Them For Reading: They will be more likely to stop, if you do, because they will start to think of reading as something they do to be rewarded, not because they like it. If they don’t read, reward them for reading. This goes for other activities, too.

“I think the best function of funerals is served if it brings relatives and friends into the best possible functional contact with the harsh fact of death and with each other in this time of high emotionality. I believe that funerals were probably more effective when people died at home with the family present, and when the family and friends made the coffin and did the burial themselves. Society no longer permits this, but there are ways to bring about a reasonable level of contact with the dead body and the survivors.”

Murray Bowen, in Walsh & McGoldrick’s Living Beyond Loss: Death in the Family

My friend Grace is flying to Ethiopia today to meet her adopted son, Yared, for the first time. What a journey to make! My thoughts are with her. Last Sunday I was at her baby shower, a moving ritual arranged by our friend, Kyla. There were lots of flowers and food, but instead of presents, we each brought a story–something we loved about how our parents were with us. We told them to Grace and wrote them down for a book for her to keep. It was lovely. I cried, off and on, hearing all of those beautiful, funny, endearing stories. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Grace. Off the top of my head, I love how my parents sang a lot. My mom sang around the house, washing dishes or whatever, whatever song was in her head. I remember her singing the Oompaloompa song from the other room after we’d recently watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember thinking that she sounded so good–just right. My dad sang to us every night at bedtime. He’d come up  to me and Ely’s room after we were tucked in and sing us a few songs with his guitar. I had no idea how special that was–it was just something that happened, but it’s such a warm memory now. They were usually the same songs but I never got tired of them. One of them was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Pony Man.” That was my favorite. One was “I Been Working on the Railroad.” He also sang an odd little song I’ve never heard anywhere else that went “What do you do in a case like that?/What do you do but stamp on your hat?/And your nail file and your toothbrush/And anything else that’s helpless.” Hilarious!

But writing about my bedtime made me think of a larger story about how I was parented. My days and weeks–my life–as a kid were punctuated with so many fun, comforting rituals. Bedtime was the best. My dad’s singing was the last part of a great time. My mom read to us from a chapter book every night. I could count on it. I could anticipate it with total safety. I loved it. And yes, sometimes I cried when she was ready to stop, because I wasn’t ready for her to stop, but I also looked forward to it the next night. We brushed our teeth together in our tiny bathroom, and my dad would call out the checklist of things we might need to do before bed, “OK, pee, poop, throw up, brush your teeth, go to bed,” and then, while brushing, the dental geography, “Bottoms of the tops, tops of the bottoms….” My mom would tuck us in, and gave us our choice of a back or head scratch.

That was just bedtime. We ate all of our meals together as a family. Each kind of meal had its own ritual. My dad’s dishes all had names that he announced with triumph: “Lentissimo Magnifico!” was one of his lentil dishes. He could be counted on (and still can, now that I think of it) to remind us that broccoli were miniature trees and that beans were miniature potatoes. On Saturday mornings we baked bread and Saturday nights we ate pizza on the homemade pizza crusts. On Sunday mornings we had pancakes. Every two weeks we’d all go out to the local dairy and watch the cows get milked. My parents bought the milk before they pasteurized it. We’d sit around the living room, shaking quart jars of fresh, whole milk until it separated. We made butter from the cream and (usually chocolate, s0metimes tapioca) pudding from the whey. We had regular nights with foot rides or crazy eights or The Muppet Show. There were great wrestling matches, the brothers against my dad. We’d apparently pin him every once in a while and he’d say “Now any normal person wouldn’t be able to move right now…” and that meant we were about to get (gently) tossed around the room.

I think I was an extra-sensitive kid, so maybe I was a special case–I mean, I don’t know that this will apply to Yared–but I’m so grateful to my parents for all of the regular, predictable, fun, comforting moments. They created structure for my days, gave me things to look forward to, cushioned the blows when things didn’t go my way. They also created a culture for the family: This is what life is like for us. This is what it feels like to be a Lester. There were exciting times, too, of course.  Like ice cream once a year or so. Or Disneyland, or relatives visiting. Or the couple times that we moved. That kind of stuff made vivid memories, being so rare, but it is the predictable stuff that I feel so warmly about.

As I’m thinking about all that, too, I’m reminded of the communication theory I’ve been learning in my Couples and Family Therapy program. In it, human communication exists on two levels. One is the obvious, content level–what the words mean. The other is a higher level communication, a non-verbal assertion about the nature of the relationship. The non-verbal sets the context for all of the other communication, colors it. One thing about non-verbal communication is that there’s no negative term. You can’t say, for example, “I will not hurt you” with non-verbal behavior. All you can do is put yourself in a position where you could hurt someone, and then not do it. One book, Pragmatics of Human Communication uses the image of an animal communicating to another that it will not hurt them by taking their throat in its jaws and not biting down. It seems like being a parent (and maybe part of any relationship) is to be constantly in that position. It seems to me that love is like that. The words “I love you” do not convey love by themselves. I appreciate so much how my parents showed me their love–rather than telling me about it–in all of these little, regular, predictable ways, making me feel comfortable and cared for, giving me a safe physical and emotional space to explore myself and the world in.

Love,

Nathen

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