Many of you are not parents, or working with kids directly, nor in the world of neuro/psych, yet we all have our own folk psychology, our very strong beliefs about how and why people act the way they do. Since I study the brain and have the privilege of raising a child, I want to share some thoughts and insights I have had over the years with you and would love interesting discussion.
First, the known fact that being a parent is hard work, that many of you (and most child-free) people are frightened of, is not because kids are small vessels of mayhem that require constant attention, energy, and devotion, but because YOU have to finally do all the hard work of truly knowing what your needs are and meeting them so that you have the emotional fortitude to stay present and attuned to your child (as well as to your mate, to your friends, etc). This requires coming to grips with your own faults, emotional triggers and ghosts of the past, lest you imprint them on your own children and perpetuate the cycle. it turns out that children are, in fact, our greatest and most demanding teachers! it is very easy to pass through an entire lifetime without truly confronting our personal limits, emotional or otherwise, convinced that performance and contribution in whatever small niche of the world we believe to be valuable is enough for a life's work. But knowing thyself, in order to be at peace with
oneself and to control oneself and then expanding this to include others in a deep and intimate way and help them through the process, is the root of a life's work.
Let's begin with a starting 'principle', if you will, which is that a child 6 years and younger does not truly have an identity separate from their caregivers, they do not truly have a consciousness, a running dialogue with their 'autobiography' that they update, independent from their context that they are subjected to by their caregivers. They are merely downloading experience and learning from it, in a rather unsupervised learning system sort of way.
So Sol, my son, still co-sleeps with me at 3.5yrs, and I have no immediate plans to kick him out of the bed into his own, until he desires that independence himself. I do not employ true punishment ever, but neither do I believe in gold stars, charts and other reward systems. There is this style of parenting that is all about emotional attunement and connection called attachment parenting and it is something that has not been practiced much in the past several hundred years of parenting. In general, OUR CULTURE GROSSLY UNDERVALUES CHILDREARING, which is really child education-mentoring-neural sculpting, and it begins at birth. We (by we I mean all adults, not just the two biological parents that led to the child) are responsible for setting up the neural systems that will regulate the person for the rest of their life, affecting their behaviors, social relationships, ability to learn, remember and pursue goals, and not just the random collection of facts we deem necessary to imbue into them in traditional educational schooling.
In fact, since I bring up the terms education and learning, I want you all to think of the one or two people in your life that you felt you learned the most from (they could be a teacher or not). What we would see, if we could poll all of your responses, would be that it is not the educational style, philosophy, method, content, that mattered, but the individual emotional connection that you had to that individual that made them such an effective teacher-mentor.
Now back to parenting (aka brain-sculpting):
Absolutely nothing gets people (particularly non-parent friends) more fired up than the non-punishment approach to parenting. People often respond to this choice with confusion and indignation. Perhaps they have visions of me duck-taped to the couch while my toddler watches movies all night and throws twinkies at my head. Sometimes their defensive response is along the vein of: "well my parents parented me in such-and-such a way and i turned out fine". The point is that you had to OVERCOME their bad parenting, and if you turned out fine, it is IN SPITE OF this detrimental parenting style, not because of it. Most people, though, begin their argument that "kids need discipline, structure and limits." Well, of course they need limits. My son, in particular, desperately needs structure and limits, and our days together are pretty much defined by them. I just don't use punishment to enforce those limits. To "discipline" a child without absolute reverence for context makes the discipline irrelevant at best and traumatic at worst. Children who fear judgment, guilt and shame from their primary caregivers will likely grow to unconsciously view the world as unsafe and unable to be open to kinds of vulnerability it takes to be in other healthy, intimate relationships. It is not the INTENTION of our words and actions that has the impact - it's the INTERPRETATION the child makes!
So what do I do when my kid misbehaves? Take a Valium and give him a pat on the head? Not at all. I try to shift my focus from his behavior to the needs underlying it. My son is only 3, so there's still a fair amount of guesswork involved in this process. Sometimes I'm better at it than others. But I attempt to meet those needs with love and empathy. I also attempt to help him identify his feelings by putting words to them. Now, meeting his needs doesn't translate into giving him whatever he wants. Sometimes it just translates into me getting down on the floor with him and connecting with him while he has a
tantrum. The point is what kind of values I want to teach him and what kind of person I want him to become. I might be able to sit him in a time-out or yell at him or spank him or take away his favorite toy or otherwise coerce him out of this completely annoying behavior, but in exchange for this compliance, I've lost an opportunity to connect with my child. Instead I will have taught him that it's okay to wield your power to get what you want, that essentially the biggest one in any given interaction wins. Which doesn't increase his emotional intelligence or give him any tools to deal with the fact that it is incredibly frustrating to not get what you want in life. The other reason I don't punish him is that it doesn't work in the long term.
Punishment may get results in the short term, especially when they are younger and smaller and weaker, but it ultimately undermines your relationship with your child and hurts their self-esteem, which will only fuel the fires of misbehavior. When our children receive constant judgment from us, subtle or not so, they soon wall us out of what they are feeling. So hurt are they that their only defense is to create a wall. This, of course, infuriates us. We believe they "don't care." We feel invalidated as parents. Little do we realize that they are simply tired of living in shame. I believe that treating my son with respect and empathy will in turn teach him to be empathetic and respectful, which are traits that I value far above mere obedience. I
want a child that is a student of life, not just academics, one with the ability to have a feeling without fear, to laugh instantly, to
imagine constantly, to play incessantly, to fight for his own voice to be heard in the din of parental (or authoritative) ignorance, and to look in the mirror and love what he sees.
I'd say that the three other most important things I have learned are:
1) Never underestimate the use of comedy (instead of logic) to shift a situation and transform negativity into RELIEF!
I have watched my 3yr old go from stress-screams to uncontrollable giggles after a spontaneous fake-fall or other physical comedy. Now attuned and connected through laughter, he released his constant and uncontrollable urge to have ___.
2) Children like to be invited to experience life. Phrasing interactions in ways that sound like you appreciate their cooperation,
or even their insight/problem-solving, or re-direct attention to the excitement, joy and potential that a different activity could provide always works.
3) When words don't work, you can regulate their emotion by holding them close, letting your calm breathing and calm heartbeat soothe them back from their emotional short-circuit state, back to a state where they can hear and listen again.
Lastly, I'd like to note that everything I've stated for children mostly works for adults too. Many of us are so emotionally tattered
from our own childhood, that often these simple and often non-verbal techniques of emotionally connecting and validating the other, are useful and powerful in any human relationship.
Now that I've shared my personal perspective, I am going to begin my more scientific approach to this topic of childrearing and brainsculpting, since it was pointed out to me that my 'I'm a mom, let me tell you how it is' approach would not invite good discussion, because no one is going to tell a parent that their parenting is bad or wrong to their face.
So a recent paper provides the first strong evidence for a concrete effect of early life adversity (poor social connection, emotional attachment, etc) and a physical outcome, shortened telomeres in one's chromosomes, which then leads to many other problems later in life, like psychological disorders, cardiovascular disease, immunologic disorders. Telomeres are stretches of non-coding DNA at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with each cell division. In adults, shorter telomeres have previously been associated with aging, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline, as well as oxidative and psychological stress. Recent research suggests that adults with adverse experiences as kids tended to have shorter telomeres than controls, but until this study, no studies have looked at more immediate impacts of childhood deprivation.
Charles Nelson of Children's Hospital, Boston, and colleagues randomly assigned children 6-30 months of age living in institutional orphanages in Bucharest, Romania (Bucharest Early Intervention Project) into 2 groups, half placed into foster care and half remained in the institutions, where they receive less attention, social attachment and live a more regimented lifestyle. The researchers then measured the length of the kids' telomeres when they were between 6 and 10 years old using a cheek swab. They found the institutional group had significantly shorter telomeres than those children that had been taken into foster care, and that in both groups, telomere length correlated with total time spent in institutional care before the age of 54 months. How exactly early life adversity affects telomere length is unknown, but the brain undergoes alot of epigenetic patterning that will affect gene regulation over the remaining lifespan of the child, including the genes that control telomere length. Study size was larger than any done previously, 48 instituionalized children and 52 in foster care, although still smaller than I would like.
To tie this to yet another vein of research, there is evidence that oxidative stress influences personality traits in animals (and by extension, humans). So greenfinches display meaningful and consistent individual differences in behavior as well as differences in their levels of oxidative stress, which could be linked to variations in their metabolism, stress hormones, and lifespan. Researchers measured each bird's boldness, finding that the most timid birds took as long as 30min to approach a new colored food and also had high levels of an oxidative stress marker (malondialdehyde) in their blood. Bolder birds that investigated the new item in just a few seconds had lower levels of the marker. However, a test of curiosity, measured by
interest in a new toy, had different results. Birds with most extreme reactions (most/least curious) have the same amount of malondioldehyde, while birds with intermediate reactions had much higher levels. So even for birds, there are complex behavioral approaches to information/food gathering, that relates between the physiology of the individual and their survival in the wild.
Then there is a whole slew of literature on the epigenetic status, genotype and transcriptional state of the brain leading to robust individual differences in stress response, stress resilience, stress vulnerability, novelty (sensation)-seeking, harm avoidance, fear aversion, reward sensitivity, learning and so on. I will be fleshing out this neuroscience in more detail in coming weeks.
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