The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Book Review-The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Failure is a gift? Well, yes. In The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, we are indoctrinated into the world of raising children and how we must sometimes allow failure to happen. We must accept that our children aren’t perfect and can’t be perfect any more than we are. Failure is a gift when it allows us to discover our perseverance. It’s a gift when it helps our children learn their ability to overcome the frustrations in their life. It’s a gift when it allows us to accept ourselves and our children as who they are.

Intrinsic Motivation

We believe we understand motivation. We’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’ve learned about carrots and sticks – or rewards and punishments. We’ve heard about how huge bonuses have motivated people to work under insane conditions to crush a goal and win the day. The problem is that much of what we know about motivation is just wrong. It does work – to a point – for those people whose lives are filled with meaningless repetitive tasks. It doesn’t work with what Richard Florida calls “the creative class” of workers. These are workers whose jobs are non-routine. They require heuristics and creativity to work. (Richard Florida is quoted in Theory U.)

Much of this awareness of how motivation does and doesn’t work was covered in Drive, which The Gift of Failure references. The more that we provide external motivators, the more that we destroy any internal, intrinsic drive that was in the person. It’s not that external motivation doesn’t work long-term, it’s that it breaks the engine for long-term motivation for the kinds of situations that we are facing in the world today.

Intrinsic motivation is essential to long term success. Carol Dweck describes in Mindset how we can see ourselves as fixed and unchanging, or we can see ourselves with the ability to grow through our hard work. We have a huge capacity for adaptation and growth but that growth is fueled through the intrinsic motivation to try and fail. When intrinsic motivation is gone, so is our desire to grow.

Ericsson explained in Peak that it takes purposeful practice to become the top of our game in any chosen arena. Flow is the vehicle through which we can achieve peak performance and that comes through the balance of our skills and the challenges at hand. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more.) If we’re not willing to stretch a little (4%) to become a bit better, we never will. The major roadblock on the road to success in life is the fear of failure.

Fear of Failure

In Rising Strong (my review has two parts: Part 1 and Part 2), Brené Brown asks the question, “What would you do even if you knew you would fail?” This question demonstrates the power that the fear of failure has over our lives. It has the power to stop us in our tracks. It has the power to prevent us from moving forward or even trying. In Find Your Courage, the true reason for the fear of failure is exposed.

The real reason that we fear failure is because we confuse failing at something and failure as a person. We have somehow attached a performance-based view of love and our value to our lives and can’t afford to take the risk of failing at something because we might be labeled a failure. (See The Road Less Traveled for more on performance-based love.) So pervasive is this illusion that the book we’re discussing is titled The Gift of Failure – not The Gift of “Failing”.

The Search for Significance explains that parental love is not supposed to be conditional. It’s not supposed to be performance-based. By getting caught in this trap of performance-based love, we’re making our children believe that their worth is only defined by what they can do. So, what happens when they can’t do anything valuable?

This is not to say that we should praise them even when they don’t do anything valuable. Rather, it’s saying that love is unconditional. They’ll be supported. As Dweck points out in Mindset we shouldn’t be constantly praising them – particularly for innate abilities. We should praise them for their hard work and celebrate their failures as much as their successes.

A Brief History of Childhood

It’s impossible for us to fully understand childhood and parenting as it was a hundred years or more ago. We, incorrectly, assume that the views on children and parenting have been stable; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Even with echoes of sayings like, “children should be seen and not heard,” we can’t quite believe that the way we’re trying to raise our children today isn’t the same as it used to be. Even with our parents quietly voicing their concerns with the hectic schedules that we keep for our kids, including their extracurricular activities and all the work towards college preparation, we somehow don’t believe that childhood and parenting were different.

It’s hard to remember that, in early colonial times, parents could expect to lose one of ten children, and that in many places the mortality rate was many times that. It’s hard to imagine that outbreaks of smallpox could wipe out 20% of the population in a few short years. The focus wasn’t on emotional well-being, competing for the top rung schools or jobs. This was a fight for literal survival.

As things progressed, the need for focus on survival faded, and names of children began to diverge from being names from their family, including aunts and uncles but mostly moms and dads and grandparents. Parent mortality was still high and one of your two parents – perhaps the one you were named after – would be gone by the time a child was of marriable age.

Children were working, too. One-sixth of the children between ten and fifteen were employed. Children were useful because they could squeeze into tight places that adults could not. Gradually, we shifted the laws to prevent child labor and created laws to require childhood education. We swung from expendable tools to help the family survive to children who could lift themselves up and perhaps reach back to help their family if they made it.

Permissive Parents

As we moved into the 1940s, the change in parenting “rules” prompted several books on how to parent. Instead of parenting being a thing that just happened, it became something that you needed coaching and professionals to help you with. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, became a roaring success, and everyone wanted to follow his leadership on how to raise safe, well-adjusted children. He stated, “We need idealistic children.” His style was very permissive. The style was sometimes labeled as neglectful.

His advice spawned a whole generation of individualistic children who didn’t learn the same lessons of working for the common good that their parents had learned. (See America’s Generations for generational differences.) Later in his life he expressed some regret for not providing more guidance towards working together for the common good. (This is recorded in Finding Flow.)

Through Spock’s advice, the balance of power changed. Instead of the parents being the authority to be respected, they became the servants for their children. Instead of children recognizing that they are alive only because their parents decided to create them – and therefore there should be some reverence – they became ways for parents to relive their lives and potentially relive it in a different way. If only they could get their children to accept that the parents’ view of life was the right one.

Enmeshment

The psychological condition of enmeshment is when a person can’t see where they end and another person begins. This is particularly common with parents who struggle to maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their children. With parents restructuring their lives in the service of their children, it’s little wonder why they might need to feel some greater sense of ownership – not just responsibility – for the outcomes that the children are achieving.

When Johnny wins the 400-meter dash, Dad can feel proud not just of Johnny but of himself. When Suzi becomes the county fair pageant queen, mom can finally feel vindicated at her loss from twenty-some years prior, when she lost to someone who has become an archrival (at least in her head). Instead of the sense of pride that their children are succeeding, they personally feel like they’re succeeding.

In Emotional Awareness, the Dali Lama speaks of how Buddhists regard pride as a negative (or afflictive) emotion, but makes a distinction that there is a pride in others that is non-afflictive. He makes mention that Yiddish is the only language he is aware of that has a word – naches – that distinguishes the feeling of pride for someone else without personal attachment. This is, per the Dali Lama, a good thing. Of course, the Christian tradition regards pride as the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins.

The problem is that when you’re living your life partially or totally enmeshed the boundaries between you and your children don’t exist. You look at each thing that the child does as something that you’ve done, and instead of being proud of what someone else has accomplished, you are proud of yourself. Instead of feeling warm-heartedness for them, you find some level of external validation that you’re a good mom or dad – and that you’re a good person, all at the same time.

Life on Life’s Terms

One of the phrases from the serenity prayer is “Taking this world as it is, not as I would have it.” That is the heart of living life on life’s terms. We can’t change the circumstances of our world. We can’t prevent the fact that we’ll all fail – and yet not be failures. We cannot deny the essential realities of life without diminishing our lives. We must live life on life’s terms – not ours – if we want to be happy.

This means that we need to be adaptable. We need to be able to accept our failures and redirect into a healthy response of growth. By attempting to deny our failures and to ignore the consequences, we are attempting to live life on our terms – and in the end, that never works.

Failure is Always an Option

When Dr. Glaser wrote Schools Without Failure, he wasn’t saying that no one should fail. He was trying to prevent the systematic disengagement of students through external labeling and a fixed mindset. He wasn’t saying that children couldn’t and shouldn’t fail. He was saying that students shouldn’t be labeled as failures. He was encouraging us to find more delicate ways of allowing children to fail. The end result was the development of grit. (See Grit for more.)

Being Strict

Holding kids accountable is no fun. It’s no fun to have to be the “bad guy” (or girl) and keep the kids from electronics or a game or something else. It’s not fun to apply the consequences that were clearly communicated when they’ve stepped outside of the lines. The Gift of Failure admits that kids don’t always build the closest bonds with parents who are “strict” and hold kids accountable, but at the same time acknowledges that some of the best parents are those who find a way to be strict and loving at the same time.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says, “I believe that understanding the connection between boundaries, accountability, acceptance, and compassion has made me a kinder person.” She goes on to say that her mind was blown when she realized that the most boundary-conscious people that she met were the most compassionate. In short, the way to cultivate compassion is to recognize where the boundaries are. The better parents understand how to hold their children accountable while maintaining acceptance of them. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Finding Failure

Heading out on a journey to find failure may seem like a bad plan. After all, failure will find you. However, setting your course towards failure means that you’re striving, trying, working, challenging yourself, and ultimately developing intrinsic motivation. By setting your course towards failure, you can ensure that you won’t ignore it, minimize it, or give it more credence that it’s worth. Failure is truly a gift, because it allows you to grow, so long as you don’t believe that you’re a failure because you have failed. If you’re still looking for a way to walk through the nuance of failing without being a failure, perhaps you need The Gift of Failure.

Hoover Dam

The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable

No one really wants to be held accountable if you get right down to it. I’m not saying that we don’t hold ourselves accountable or that we don’t want to hold others accountable – I’m saying that we don’t like having to be accountable. (A corollary to this is that we all want control but we don’t want to be controlled, as I mentioned in my review of Compelled to Control.) However, we know that we need to learn the discipline to hold ourselves accountable and to teach this accountability to our children. Despite this need, too many parents fail to hold their children accountable, and in doing so they create struggles for their children down the road.

I want to walk through a model for why parents don’t hold their children accountable and what the long-term impacts of that are.

Why Accountability?

Before getting into the systems and factors that drive the desire for a lack of accountability, it’s appropriate to consider why we care. Why does it matter that people are held accountable? As it turns out, it matters because without it we can’t maintain stable social relationships. Societies are built on trust. (See my review of Trust for the economic impacts of trust, and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on trust and its relational impacts in general.)

Accountability is applying consequences when someone doesn’t meet a commitment. The consequences for failing to meet a commitment can be as simple as disapproval or can involve much more tangible losses. Few people would argue that, if someone were to break the terms of a legal contract, they should be held accountable to address the losses of the other party. But how far does this expectation extend?

When a friend promises to you they’ll be there and they aren’t, do you discuss it with them? If they just say they’ll commit to being there, do you discuss it? A promise is a stronger commitment than just committing to being there. Comments like “I’ll try” or “I think I’ll make it” are weaker statements that don’t rise to the level of commitment; therefore, there’s no need to hold someone accountable to a comment.

If accountability is applying consequences only when there is a commitment, the easy answer is to not make commitments. Unfortunately, there are many implied commitments that happen in the course of interacting with other people. Children have an implied commitment from their parents that they will be taken care of at least until 18, and frequently beyond that. Barbers have an implicit agreement that they’ll deliver a reasonable haircut for the money you pay them. There’s a commitment that the barber will meet processional standards.

Social Commitments

Whether we like it or not, we’re social creatures. We exist in relationship to others. When we’re not connected to others, it causes serious health issues (see Emotional Intelligence for more on the 1987 Science article). The size of our social networks is related to the size of the neocortex, as Robin Dunbar pointed out – and humans have a large neocortex. (See my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more.) Our ability to influence others is strongly connected to our social connection with them. (See Influencer and Diffusion of Innovations for more.)

As inherently social creatures, our commitments to one another are interwoven in the fabric of our relationships with each other. We build trust by making commitments, and it’s these commitments that we must – unfortunately – be held accountable to. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more on how building trust is accomplished.)

By holding ourselves and our children accountable to our explicit personal and implicit social commitments, we can develop the skills that will help our children be effective in this world.

Parental Distraction

One of my favorite stories about holding children accountable revolves around a trip on a subway: a father and his young children get on the train and the children quickly begin playing games and being loud, to the frustration of the other passengers. The man seems completely oblivious to the havoc that his children are creating on the train. One of the other passengers, who had become quite frustrated with the man’s failure to hold his children accountable, approaches him in anger, and asks the father why he doesn’t do something about his children’s behavior. The response was a stuttering, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. We just came from my wife’s funeral and I just didn’t realize.” In a moment, the frustration and anger melts away and is replaced with heartfelt compassion.

This story poignantly demonstrates that there are times when a parent might be so distracted by their own inner world that they’re simply incapable of noticing the impact that their children are having on other people. The implied social commitment of not allowing your children to disturb other adults is relaxed not due to malice or incompetence but instead because of an inner struggle.

While there are certainly cases where we might not accept the distractions as reasonable, few people would find fault with the father who has just lost his wife. However, many people would find fault with a father who was lost in Facebook or his phone while his children ran amuck.

Unfortunately, parents are all too often involved in their own lives in ways that make it difficult for them to see and understand how their children aren’t meeting the societal norms and should be held accountable.

Parental Time

Our generations are growing up with a greater awareness of their rights and entitlements and less of what Tom Brokaw recognized in “the greatest generation” as commitment to each other and society. (See America’s Generations for more on generational differences.) Parents have traded the quantity of the time they have with their children for the supposed quality time – which all too often isn’t quality at all. It’s just the few minutes that the parents spare for their children.

Certainly there’s a need to rest and recharge. With seven children, it’s impossible to be focused on all of them at every moment. However, there is balance between the entitlement that a parent should be able to have alone time and the need to be present and persistent as a parent. Some time to oneself and with one’s spouse is important, but too much of it looks a lot like shirking duties as a parent.

Parental Friendship

Sometimes the barrier to holding children accountable isn’t a lack of awareness or attention to them, but rather a lack of conviction to the parenting process. Parenting children is hard work. I’ve never found anyone who’s willing to argue this point. Everyone knows that it’s a difficult, tiring, and often thankless job. If you do your job as a parent well, you have no guarantees that your child will actually like you – or that you will like them.

Too many parents seek a friend in their child above being a parent. They’ll happily fulfill the duties of parent as they understand them until it conflicts with the ability of the child to be their friend. It’s hard to tell children no if the result is that you won’t be liked. It’s hard to enforce consequences for their actions – to hold them accountable – because it will necessarily mean negative feelings.

All too often, these parents aren’t complete inside. They’ve got holes in their soul where they’re missing friendship from other adults or are trying to get to a relationship they never had with their parents. Often in this mess there’s a confusion between liking someone and respecting them.

They never respected nor liked their parents, and rather than hoping that their children will respect them as a parent, they settle for being liked, and in the process, prevent the hope that children will respect them. We only respect people who can make the right choices, even when those choices are hard.

Parental Strength

Sometimes those hard choices are simply too hard for a parent to make. Their internal perspective and position doesn’t allow them to feel strong enough to make the tough calls. Sometimes this is a physical perspective: they fear what will happen if their child strikes out at them physically; but more frequently it’s the strength of conviction that they must be a parent first.

Perhaps it’s the lie that our children need our friendship more than they need us as a parent. After all, teenage suicide is on the rise, isn’t it? Unfortunately, teenage suicide rates are alarming. However, is the cause of these suicides because their parents held them accountable, or are there other causes? Sometimes, it’s the belief that there’s nothing wrong with not holding our children accountable. In other words, what’s the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, the worst that can happen is that our children learn that they can get away with anything and their ethical base is eroded.

Vulnerable Child Syndrome

Another variant of why parents won’t hold their children accountable is described as the “vulnerable child syndrome”. (The name comes research conducted by Green and Solnit.) Consider a child who has a kind of cancer that has a reasonably high incidence of mortality within the next five years. How hard is it to get a child to meet a commitment – particularly an unpleasant one like brushing their teeth if you know that they’re likely to die soon? How powerful is the pull at the parent’s heart strings to let the child not do what they’ve been asked to do?

How much does it really matter anyway? In this case, it does matter. There’s a change in the infection risk based on whether they’re brushing their teeth or not, but even knowing the increased risk for infection won’t be enough to escape the grips of heart strings when your child is suffering and you can’t make it stop, so you sure don’t want to add to it.

Similar situations happen when a child loses a parent. No one wants to hold the children accountable because they feel sorry for them. How terrible it must be to lose a parent – we can’t make them eat their vegetables. It’s as if the relatives believe that they can compensate for the loss of a parent by offering them no vegetables and a desert at every meal.

While this is well-intended, it misses the fundamental need of children to have structure and control around them. (See Parent Effectiveness Training for a complete discussion on appropriate control of children.)

Parental Guilt and Shame

Perhaps the most unsettling reason why parents don’t hold their children accountable is because of their own guilt and shame. (See Daring Greatly for a discussion of the differences.) Parents are ashamed of something they’ve done, and as a result they’re unwilling or unable to hold their children accountable. Often after a divorce (for more on divorce see my review of Divorce: Causes and Consequences), parents will have trouble holding their children accountable, because they feel guilty about the divorce. They believe they’re to blame for the divorce; so how could they hold their child accountable for acting out when they’re really the one to blame?

The reason why this is so unsettling is because it easily leads to a negative feedback loop. As the parent feels more guilt and shame because of their initial issues, which get added to as the children become unmanageable, they feel more guilt and shame, making it more difficult to hold the children accountable and further perpetuating the cycle.

Outcomes for Children

If someone told you that a test involving a marshmallow administered to young children could be an effective predictor of success in life you might be inclined to laugh. However, the famous “marshmallow test” run by Walter Mischel did just that. (The test is widely covered in Mischel’s own book and in books like Willpower.) The ability to delay gratification and wait for two marshmallows instead of eating the one in front of them has proven to be an effective predictor of many things, including success, later in life. How can such a simple test provide such insights?

One answer is that it measures the ability for a child to delay gratification, and which is necessary for many other situations in life, where the better you are at delaying gratification the more successful you’ll be.

Take a moment to think about social skills – the kind of skills you develop when you’re held accountable to your commitments. This is one small sliver of the broader concept of emotional intelligence: the ability to form relationships with others and connect with them. Emotional intelligence, too, has been identified as a predictor of success in life – more so than IQ.

While there have been no focused, hard-science research on holding children accountable that I’m aware of, the supporting skills and the presumptions of what you’ll teach children by holding them accountable have been shown to indicate greater success in life.

If, then, you choose to not hold your children accountable, you’re more likely to stifle their chances in life – and no one wants that, do they?

Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Book Review-Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Reading a child rearing book originally written in the late 60s and published in 1970 seems like a departure from my reading list. I don’t typically read child rearing books for good reason. I disagree with quite a bit of what is written. Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, is no exception. However, there’s an important reason for reading it. The reason is because his discussions of active listening underpin motivational interviewing. (For more see my review of Motivational Interviewing.) Though I had been exposed to active listening – as most folks have – I wanted to know more about its roots and to understand it more.

The best lesson from Parent Effectiveness Training for me was that I can deeply respect some views and insights of someone and vehemently disagree with some of their other views. I’ve mentioned some minor disagreements in previous reviews (For instance, see Daring Greatly) but here I’ll share strong feelings for the insight that Dr. Gordon has and my concerns about where I think incorrect conclusions have been reached.

Spock

I start not with Dr. Gordon’s beliefs, but with the recognition that the grandfather of parenting books is Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book Baby and Child Care has been the classic handbook of parenting for over 65 years. However, Finding Flow reports that he expressed some concerns that training children to be unfettered individualists may have had unforeseen negative consequences. Spock encouraged parents to allow children to grow at their own pace. However, we’ve seen that public programs like Sesame Street can have substantial positive impacts by helping particularly under-resourced children learn and grow more quickly and reliably – beyond their own pace. (See “G” is for Growing for more about Sesame Street‘s approach and impact.)

Personally, I feel like we’re seeing a wave of entitlement in our children that represents a threat to our culture and productivity. (See America’s Generations for more about the shifts in generational values.) I remain concerned with the need to balance perspectives instead of accepting one single truth. I don’t believe that any author or professional has the answer for every situation. Some have answers that are applicable to more situations than others.

United Fronts

Very early on, Dr. Gordon criticizes the idea that parents should “always be together in their feelings, presenting a united parental front to their children.” He says about it, “this is nonsense.” On this point, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Gordon. I believe that the consistency of getting the same answers from either parent is important to minimize confusion in the mind of the child. (Later, he strongly encourages parental consistency.) I think that the error is in the word “always.” I think the importance is to strive to be on the same page.

This demonstrates to children that the parents work together to reach a consensus approach. I can say from my own marriage and my own children that this isn’t easy, but it is something that the children appreciate. They know that my wife and I generally present a united front about things. What they don’t know is that sometimes I don’t agree with our position. However, I always accept and support it.

Understanding the need of accepting shared decisions and supporting them is something I learned from Dr. Gottman’s work. Dr. Gottman criticizes the suggestion that couples should use active listening when communicating with each other, because it requires a high degree of skill that most couples don’t possess. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s research and perspectives.) Gottman has a very high success rate of predicting the stability of a marriage based on a few minutes of observation of arguments. He’s intimately acquainted with disagreements in couples and the resolutions. I’ve never read in his works that parents shouldn’t attempt to reach consensus because it’s too hard – his work seems to travel in the opposite direction.

Dr. Gordon and Dr. Gottman together may highlight the one key about presenting a united front that may invalidate the technique. The ability to separate agreement with acceptance isn’t a skill that everyone has. If you can’t accept the united front without necessarily agreeing completely, then don’t try to pull it off. The children will see this as a lack of integrity, and rather than demonstrating consistency, it will cause them to focus on the discrepancy they are seeing but can’t explain.

Ultimately, presenting the united front delivers consistency in the short term and teaches the need to reach consensus and develop acceptance in the absence of agreement – these are all critical social skills that our children need, despite Gordon’s belief that it’s “nonsense”. He has a similar discord with the idea that you can accept the child but not their behaviors.

Accept the Child Not the Behavior

Cloud and Townsend made popular the idea of boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. They identified the need to separate ourselves from things that are not ourselves and to protect ourselves. They defined boundaries as being either “temporary protective” boundaries or “defining” boundaries. Temporary protective boundaries exist to protect ourselves for a time. In Dr. Gordon’s language, he speaks of the impact that one person’s behaviors has on another, and discussing the impacts so that the other person knows how they’re impacting you. This is letting others know what your temporary boundaries are and why you have them.

Here, Dr. Gordon is concerned with the parents’ authenticity. He believes that this idea “prevents parents from being real.” Here, I think that Dr. Gordon has missed the idea of compassion or love. Agape love – love for all – and philos love – love for our group or family – can exist even when we’re not accepting (or allowing) another person’s behaviors. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about accepting and allowing.) I believe the ability to prioritize your compassion and love for your children above your need to accept their behaviors is an advanced skill that Dr. Gordon may have not seen frequently (or at all) in his work.

I firmly believe that you can love the child and accept them as a person while expecting (and requiring) different behaviors from them. I say this with caution out of fear that I’ll be misunderstood. I’m not saying that you should kick your child out if they develop an addiction. I’m suggesting that you come to them in love to support them as people while preventing the impact of the behaviors from impacting you.

The Need for Privacy

Dr. Gordon believes that checking up on children demonstrates a non-acceptance of children, which he finds to be harmful. He believes that children have the right to privacy. Here, I disagree because of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian proverbs “doveryai, no proveryai”: that is, “trust, but verify.” In our house, children’s privacy is not a right, but an earned privilege. That is, if they demonstrate their trustworthiness, we offer them trust that they’re utilizing the resources that we provide appropriately. When they violate our trust, or signal to us that they are hiding something, and the privilege of privacy is temporarily rescinded.

In practical terms, we almost never intrude into the lives of our children. We have applied internet monitoring software on their devices to prevent access to inappropriate internet sites. We reserve the right to look at their phones at any time to review what they’ve been looking at or the conversations they’re having with their girlfriends and boyfriends – but we almost never do.

I don’t believe this is about acceptance of them as a person but is about what is an isn’t acceptable uses of the resources that we provide. So here, too, I believe that Gordon’s view isn’t sufficiently nuanced to identify the core concept that is the concern – acceptance of the person. Instead, he uses one situation that can be handled inappropriately and can convey a lack of acceptance, but one that doesn’t necessarily have to.

At this moment one of our children has his hair dyed blue. My wife dyed his hair for him. We accept his need to define his individuality and accept him, though neither of us are interested in turning our own hair blue.

Impact on Us

One area of confusion is when parents believe that their children’s expressions of themselves will become judgements on how good – or poor – they are as parents. They believe that the way the child behaves reflects on the parent’s ability to parent. In some cases, as in the case of the preacher’s kids (PKs), there are certain stresses that exist that don’t exist for most folks. I know several friends who grew up as PKs, and they talk about how they had to learn at a very young age to assess how others might view their behaviors.

In my observation, the larger the family is, the less that the parents see the behaviors of any one of their children as their failings as a parent. Typically, the question becomes, what did we do wrong with this one, and isn’t generalized to being bad parents. However, with nuclear family sizes decreasing, there’s an increasing tendency to see the decisions and failures of children as a reflection on the parents.

Some parents take the opposite view and seek to live their lives vicariously through their children. If they never made it as a track star, they’re going to make sure that their son is. If they weren’t the beauty queen, they’re going to make sure that their daughter is. These are the parents who are at the greatest risk of feeling the impact of their children. They’re accepting responsibility for the good things in their children’s life and blurring the child’s individuality with theirs.

There are three fundamental truths about how our children’s behavior impacts us that we would do well to consider:

  1. Failure isn’t an option, it’s essential and necessary for growth. (See Raise your Line for more.)
  2. We are not our children. They have their own individual lives outside of us. We can neither take credit for their successes nor their faults. (See The Available Parent for more.)
  3. The world is probabilistic. There are no one right set of things to help our children grow up as contributing citizens. We can only influence the outcomes. We can’t control them. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of the world.)

In the end, we can recognize that the child is a separate person full of their own faults and foibles – just like us – but those faults and foibles aren’t the result of our actions or inactions as parents.

Separating the Person and the Action or Belief

When I teach people conflict resolution skills I often teach the clear distinction between the person – who is inherently valuable because they are human – and the action or behavior that they’re exhibiting, which may or may not be something you agree with or even find acceptable. This separates the value the person has from the perspective on what they’re doing.

People can – and sometimes should – rightly disagree with other humans. However, the disagreement should be about the action or belief, and not about the value of the other person. I can disagree with Dr. Gordon about some of his views while at the same time respect him as a person. I can even disagree with some of his beliefs while agreeing with others. I’ve separated the person and the value of the person from how I value the idea. This is all too often missing in conflicts, whether they occur between business people or within a family.

Our ego uses defensive routines to defend us against external threats. (See Change or Die for more on our ego and its defenses, and Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together – Defensive Routines for more on our defensive routines.) However, in many people, this defensive response happens even when the person we’re conversing with isn’t attacking us but is instead is disagreeing with our idea. (See How Children Succeed for more on HPA Axis issues which lead to more active defenses.)

We can observe that our children have dirty dishes in their rooms. That’s an observation and verifiable fact. To say that they’re a slob because they have dirty dishes in their room is a judgement about their character – and a disrespectful one at that. In our conversations with our children, it’s important to distinguish between the behaviors and how we see the child.

Problem Ownership

Key to Dr. Gordon’s approach is the development of an expectation on the part of the child that the problem – whatever it is – is the child’s problem. The parent is there to help, but the child is expected to participate in the problem-solving process. The solutions don’t “come down from on high.” Instead they’re the result of a collaboration between the parent and the child.

Ultimately, the parent wants the child to own their own problems. Eventually, the child will be here on this planet and the parents will be gone. While the parent can be a source of support, they cannot be the one with all the answers. (See Our Kids for more about the support that parents can provide.) To manage the long-term results for our children, we must teach them to accept ownership of their problems. We do that through the process of active listening (and facilitated problem solving).

Active Listening

Active listening starts with an attitude. It’s an attitude of interest in the child and their world. While children may not be experts on many things, they are the undisputed experts of their inner world. (What Glassier calls “quality” world in Choice Theory.) When they choose to share their world with parents, they are doing so because they believe the benefits and the trust in the parents exceed the perceived risks. The parents need to accept that the child is bringing something to the table as it relates to the solution to whatever problem they have. They also have to accept that sometimes the “problem” is simply the need to process their world by “talking it out.”

With the belief that the child is bringing something valuable, it’s easier to see that your role is simply to support through acceptance of the child and a desire to be helpful to them. The key here is that the parent isn’t assuming ownership of the problem. They’re in the supporting role.

Sometimes maintaining the perception of the supporting role is very hard – at least for me. Sometimes the problems that my children present are so obvious to me that I just want to tell them the answer and move on. However, I know that this is far too often detrimental to trust, because it signals them that I don’t trust them to take care of their own issues.

It’s much harder to reflect what they’re saying and gently guide them towards a greater awareness of the challenges they’re facing and the resources they need to solve the problem. It takes more time, but it helps them to develop the skill of solving problems on their own. I’ve literally heard our children repeat back their processing on topics we’ve not discussed and recognize the ownership that they took in the problem. With that level of ownership, they didn’t need to come ask for help processing. (Though they did want validation that they had done good work processing it themselves.)

Active listening starts with reflecting back what the child has said. The more advanced active listening attempts to decode the meaning behind the message and reflects that message back to the child, so that it’s apparent to the child that they’re understood not just for the content of their message but the meaning – and typically the feelings – behind it.

One of the greatest fears that children and adults share is whether they are understood and accepted. Often the concern for acceptance is focused around their feelings. They believe that they shouldn’t have the feelings that they do, or that somehow their feelings are wrong or bad.

Feelings are Friendly

It’s important for everyone to understand that feelings aren’t good or bad. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Ekman discussed afflictive and non-afflictive emotions. In the end, however, there was an awareness that the emotions that people feel aren’t afflictive or non-afflictive in the moment that they’re felt. They’re afflictive if they are retained for an inappropriate amount of time. Thus, all emotions – all feelings – are acceptable at least in the short term. The important point isn’t that you have a feeling. It’s what you do with the feeling that matters. All feelings are acceptable – and non-afflictive, at least in the short term – but not all behaviors are acceptable.

We are all concerned about how others will view our feelings and emotions, when in reality there’s little need to be concerned whether our feelings are appropriate or not.

Three Methods

Dr. Gordon sees that there are three methods of parenting:

  1. Parent Wins – This authoritative approach has the child always losing and the parent always getting their needs met, sometimes at the expense of the child.
  2. Child Wins – This permissive approach has the child always winning and getting their needs met at the expense of others.
  3. Win-Win – This approach seeks compromise and to understand the deeper needs to create solutions that meet everyone’s true needs instead of just their expressed needs.

Gordon’s assertion is that parents should be using method 3 – Win-Win – and this makes rational sense. While he acknowledges that there may be times – such as the child running in front of a car where method 1 (Parent Wins) is necessary – he explains that this generally means the method 3 conversation that should have happened before the incident didn’t.

He also acknowledges that children raised in method 2 homes find it difficult to adapt at school, because most schools use method 1. (For more about how to run schools differently see Schools Without Failure.) Further, he acknowledges that sometimes raising creative, independent children happens with method 2 homes, but sometimes at the expense of the parents actually liking their children.

I’m all for finding ways to negotiate and find solutions where everyone wins at times, but I think it goes too far to say it should always be used. Sometimes there is just insufficient time to work through the details of negotiation and listening to get to a win-win situation. Unfortunately, there are limits to our time which requires an approach that has quicker results. You can’t use method 1 every time, but using it sometimes makes sense.

And we’re back full-circle to Spock and the reality that we need to encourage our children to be individuals. We need to encourage and support their expression of themselves both in voice and in action – while simultaneously creating an understanding of the world they will live in, where they will have bosses and they will be told how things are going to be from time to time. The objective with Parent Effectiveness Training should be to help expose children to the most advantageous environment – which for me means a blend of Method 1 and Method 3. It’s absolutely worth reading – as long as you’re willing to evaluate what to keep, what to discard, and what to incorporate in part.

Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father's Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood

Book Review-Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood

It’s been several weeks now since I got to attend a knighting ceremony. The queen wasn’t present and I wasn’t in a castle. It was my friend who was knighting his son. This ceremony and symbolic act of recognizing him as a man I would find out later from a book Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood. I was curious what else the book had to say about raising boys, so I started reading and learning about knighthood.

The Meaning of Knights

We’ve all heard stories of knights in the middle ages. They wear shiny plate armor and ride in on a white horse. They joust and play games, they rescue damsels in distress, and they slay dragons. Wait, perhaps I slipped out of history and into mythology and lore somewhere along the way. That’s one of the interesting things about knights. They move from being a real figure in history into a mythical legend.

That seems to be in no small part because of the code of conduct they lived by – the honor that they carried so close to their hearts. Knights learned how to uphold a set of moral ideals that most of the people of the time couldn’t aspire to. As a result, knights eventually became nobility. Like the lords they served, they were set apart.

As a result, knights are the superheroes of the middle ages.

Of Pages and Squires

How does one become a knight? You start as a page. At this stage, you’re instructed on the basics of becoming a knight – not just the mechanics of weapons, but also the chivalric code of honor that a knight is expected to uphold. In this entry level position, you’re trained by squires – until you are promoted into that rank.

Squires continued their training with knights – or, more accurately, one specific knight – who refined the mechanics of weapons and clarified what it meant to uphold the code of honor. In a classic apprentice, journeyman, and master approach, pages became squires and squires became knights. (For more about the apprentice, journeyman, master progression, see my post.)

The moment that a squire became a knight was a big deal – it was a ceremony.

Ceremony

Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our love of ceremony. Teenagers are skipping their graduation because they don’t want to “waste their time.” We treat life transitions as if they’re just something that happen. We don’t demark them with a feast or banquet or ceremony. In our hurry up, get it done and move on to the next thing world, we’re not interested in recognizing others for their hard work.

When you don’t have a clear ceremony to recognize the achievement, how does one know when they’ve achieved a goal? Sure, a piece of paper is nice and it appeals to your logical side, but where is the emotion of accomplishing the goal? Where’s the pride? Even the Buddhists, who are widely regarded as not having an interest in attachment or pride, acknowledge that pride isn’t all bad. (See Emotional Awareness
for more on the views on pride.)

Young men and boys today rightly struggle to when know they become a man. Is it when they learn to drive? Turn 18? Turn 21? Get married? Have sex? The problem with trying to help boys and young men know when they’re a man is that there’s no one defining event that truly turns a boy into a man. There are multiple different yard sticks to be measured on. The challenge is how do you know which yardstick to use?

The Meaning of a Father

It’s no secret that children need their parents – both their father and their mother – and that there’s a large number of social issues that come from fathers being absent. (See Our Kids for more on the importance of fathers.) A son not knowing when he becomes a man isn’t the biggest issue. The biggest issue is a son not knowing what it’s like to be a man. The biggest problem is that our sons don’t know what the code is that they’re to live by. The example that a father sets can serve as a guidepost or a lighthouse as to what they should do themselves.

There are a set of values – unique to each father to some extent – which need to be passed down to our sons so that they can know what their personal code of honor should be. I’ve softened this from the single view of one code of honor because of my awareness that we’re all different and have different values. (See The Normal Personality and Who am I? for more.)

Code of Conduct

Despite the need to apply our own “coat of arms” to the process of developing an honorable code in our children, Raising a Modern-Day Knight offers these suggestions for the foundation:

  • Loyalty “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
  • Servant-leadership “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).
  • Kindness “What is desirable in a man is his kindness” (Proverbs 19:22).
  • Humility “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
  • Purity “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12).
  • Honesty “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).
  • Self-discipline “Have nothing to do with worldly fables. … On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
  • Excellence “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
  • Integrity “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9).
  • Perseverance “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).

This seems like a good place for us to start.

The Fellowship of Knights

Ultimately, it’s more than a father or a code of conduct that helps a boy become a man. A father has the potential to be the largest influence on a boy in his journey to manhood, and the code of conduct that he sets forth will be the foundation for how the son forms his own values; but the influence of the outside world and particularly the other noble men in his life shouldn’t be understated.

I’m thankful for the powerful friends I have who can also help my sons learn how they need to conduct themselves. I don’t mean powerful in terms of money or prestige. I mean powerful in the sense that they have a strong sense of the men that they want to be. I appreciate their friendship with me and by extension their watchful eye over my sons.

While we no longer live in villages where everyone could support the growth and development of our children, it still takes a village to raise a child. It’s just that today’s village is much more virtual. The days when all the neighbors knew where the children were and were watching over all of them are gone. We’re locked inside our own little worlds so it’s not the same, but the need for other powerful men in the lives of our son remains. (See Bowling Alone for being locked away in our own little worlds.)

Recognizing the Need

Fathers: our sons need us. Even when they push us away. Even when they tell us we’re a bad father. Even when they tell us that they don’t like us. They’re still listening and watching. Keep up the fight. Call in reinforcements if you need to, but don’t give up on your sons. If you recognize the need perhaps it’s time to decide how to create your own ceremony, so that you can go through the process of Raising a Modern-Day Knight.

The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tweens

Book Review-The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tweens

If you want to get into a real conversation with someone, talk to them about their teenage children. Move past the pleasantries of “they’re fine”. Leap over their accomplishments. Dwell for a bit on how the parent struggles with what their child is doing, what lessons they’re learning, or how their relationship is. I guarantee that this conversation is the most real conversation that a parent will have in a day. I’ve never met a parent that isn’t concerned for their child. (Thank God!) Most of the time as parents we’re wandering in the dark trying to figure out how to not mess our children up too much.

I’m by no means an expert on how to raise teenagers, but a few years ago I got the opportunity to get a crash course on it as I gained six additional children (three of which were teenagers at the time) in one fell swoop. For all seven of my children, I want to be available and appropriately supporting. I want to be what John Duffy calls the “available” parent in his book The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tween.

Defining Availability

What Duffy calls availability, I might call connectedness. In a world where electronics are the king and being connected has more to do with Internet service than relationships, I can see why availability might be a differentiating term. However, for me it’s all about having a connection, a relationship, with your teenager – no matter how hard this can be at times. Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, wrote a foreword and said, “Staying in touch is the essence of what Dr. Duffy means by availability.”

Friends, Parents, or Both

One of the ongoing debates about parenting is whether you should be friends with your children. Actually, it’s not a debate. Everyone agrees. You have to be a parent. You should be a friend. The questions arise when you have to make the decision between whether to be a friend in the situation or whether to be a parent. (See Who Am I? for different value systems in conflict.)

Duffy gets it right. You have to be a parent first. You have to fulfill your responsibilities to be a parent before you’re a friend. Of course, this is easier said than done when you fear that your child will come to hate you – as you may secretly feel about your own parents.

Handling the Hate

I expect my children will tell me they hate me. I expect that they’ll tell me I’m a bad, awful parent. I do this because it makes it easier when they do tell me these things. Knowing that it’s natural for children to have moments when they don’t like that I’m doing my job as a parent makes it easier when they lash out at me – and I know they will. When I don’t react when they try to explain their hatred for me, I steal the power that was there to disrupt the conversation.

The truth is that we are all frustrated with our parents when they discipline us. The bible says, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2) and, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24) While some people attempt to take this literally, it’s more of a figurative statement about understanding how to establish boundaries with our children and to instruct them in the ways of right and wrong. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Nowhere in this does anyone say the child will like it or love you for it – but they’ll respect you for it, and that’s a good place to start.

What’s My Fear

Too many parents are afraid of what other parents will think. Too many parents believe that their children are a direct reflection on them. If I didn’t raise my child to be a rock star, an all start athlete, or a four-star general then I’m not a good parent and I have to be a good parent – like my parents before me. Without granting innocence, parents do the best they can to raise their children in a sea of influences they can’t control. That is the world isn’t an excuse for how children turn out but it is a factor that parents can’t control. How the children turn out isn’t a statement of their value as parents or as people.

One of the techniques I used with my son when he was younger and he was being disobedient was I forced him to sit on the floor and calm down before we’d proceed. One day he was disobedient in church and I sat him on the floor “right in front of God and everybody.” Many of the parents walking by appeared appalled that I’d make my son sit on the floor at church. However, it was effective. I didn’t have a problem with him being disobedient for long.

Too often parents are wrapped up in their own fears of inadequacy, and those get projected into their relationships with their children, and the result is an ugly distorted version of reality. Some of these fears aren’t fears about the children at all, but are instead fears that they’ll never become what they hoped they would become. It’s the death of their life’s hope. (See more about hope in The Psychology of Hope.)

My Life 2.0

It was a spring morning in a high-rise office building in New York. I was there to help implement an ecommerce system. It was a short engagement designed to get the client through some tough spots. I was sitting in one of the manager’s offices at lunch and he shared with me that his daughter was playing soccer. When I asked him about her interest in soccer, he responded that she was playing soccer. It turns out, he had narrowly missed a soccer scholarship to his prized university and was bitter about it. As a result, he was going to live his life out vicariously through his daughter. He had already decided that she’d love soccer. She’d go to the college that he didn’t get to go to. She was going to be his opportunity to capture the things that he missed. (See Peak for what can happen when parents push their children too hard into something they’re not passionate about.)

Too many parents treat their children like this. Junior is going to accomplish what I didn’t. Susie will be the beauty pageant queen that mom couldn’t be because her family couldn’t afford the dresses. Instead of living their lives, they’re stealing their child’s life from them.

Holding Environments

There’s a single reference in the book to a holding environment. There’s a single reference to a set of words that have great meaning for me. My friend Paul Culmsee wrote about it in The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices by quoting Ron Heifetz, “A holding environment gives the parties involved a protected space in which they can develop the behaviors necessary to adapt to the specific situation and environment they are in.” A holding environment is a safe space. It’s a safe space to fail. (See Play for the need to be safe to learn.)

This is what we need to do as parents for our adolescent children. We need to create a space which is safe to fail. We need to create a place where it’s ok for us to be disappointed. They need to be able to try and fail. They need to be able to make mistakes, run into parked cars, and learn from them.

Scoop them Up

The way that Terri and I’ve come to discuss how we approach the mistakes that our children make is that we come and scoop them up. We don’t pick them up. We don’t dust them off and ignore what happened. We scoop them up. We lift them up. While there are consequences for falling, they’re not too large, and they never mean that we’re going to abandon them. In fact, if there’s one consistent message that we have is that we’ll always love them – even if we don’t always agree with their choices.

Here, I think there’s a caution. If you completely eliminate the consequences of the action, you risk depriving your child’s ability to learn from the incident. We’re not talking about interfering with the natural consequences of their decisions. Instead we’re talking about how do we demonstrate our love for them while accepting their need to feel the pain of the consequences?

Taking Risks

We need our children to take risks. We need them to stretch. (See Peak for more about peak performers’ need for stretch, and Flow for more about how to get to the highest-performing states you need challenge.) There’s an appropriate concern on Duffy’s part about parents who are “always there for their children” – who don’t allow their children to feel some pain, and therefore they never learn.

Circus performers learn their performances with a net. They know the net is there to catch them. This allows them to take risks and learn new routines. By the same token, they learn not to depend on the net if they don’t have to. Nets can fail. (Just like parents can fail.) They learn that they use the net to learn, but the net may not be there for the actual performance. They need to use the net to learn, not keep the net around forever. It would be ridiculous to see an adult riding around town on their bike with the training wheels still attached.

This is the very real concern about children today – that parents aren’t ever willing to let them scrape their knee by taking risks.

“He Makes Me So Angry”

One of the things that makes me smile a wry little smile is to hear someone say to me, “He makes me so angry!” I shouldn’t smile but I do. I realize that no one has power over another. No one can make me angry. I can choose to be angry in response to their behavior, but they don’t MAKE me be angry. (See Choice Theory for more on the choices that we make.) If we unpack this, in Buddhist thinking, anger is disappointment directed. (I first heard about this through Destructive Emotions.) It’s our choice to be disappointed in someone or something. It’s about the expectation that we’ve created. It’s not about the other person at all.

All too often parents are focused on what the behavior of their teenager is doing to them. While there are certainly situations where the child’s behavior causes direct financial impacts and impacts on your time, however, they shouldn’t be causing your feelings. If your child has this power of controlling the emotions of others, including you, perhaps you should consider signing them up to be one of the X-Men.

Put On Your Own Mask Before Helping Others

During the safety briefing in an airplane, you’ll hear about the oxygen masks and invariably a statement that says, “Put your own mask on before helping others.” This is good practical advice. If you’re spending all your time helping others before putting on your own mask, you may black out before you get your mask on. Caring for teenagers is like this. You have to focus on your own emotional health and how you’re doing before you can help your teenager.

Many parents are focused on helping their child be better without first accepting that they need to work on themselves. Realizing that there are things about your well-being and emotional health that aren’t right is hard. Our ego seeks to defend itself. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and its Defenses.) It’s hard to admit that we’re not perfect. It’s hard to admit that we’ve got flaws and bruises and hurts. However, we all do have them. We’re all imperfect.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the problems of our children. It’s too easy to see the ways in which they can improve. It’s too easy to see their problems and not see our own. That’s a mistake. Not that you should give them a free pass because you have your own issues, but that you should acknowledge and accept your part in any of the communications problems that you’re having with them and work on it. Admittedly, your part in communications problems with teenagers may be small, but if you look hard enough you can typically find some.

Emotional Bank Account

In your bank account, you typically try to deposit more money than you withdraw. This leaves you some reserve – and it keeps the banks happier. However, somehow we don’t think about our relationships in the same way. We don’t consider that we need to put in positive investments to be able to extract withdrawals.

The kinds of things that represent deposits vary by person (as Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages points out). Deposits are things which create positive affinity. It’s the kind of interactions that John Gottman recognizes are essential to intimate relationships, as he discusses in The Science of Trust. These deposits create a balance that you can draw from during tough times.

When you criticize, condemn, or complain, you’re making a withdrawal. You’re making yourself feel better at the expense of the person that you’re speaking with. That isn’t to say that every difficult conversation has to be a negative. You can go through Crucial Conversations (as they are called by Patterson and Grenny) with a greater admiration and respect, but that takes skill.

What Kind of Example

Paul Tough, in How Children Succeed, highlights the powerful influence that emotional intelligence and delayed gratification create for children, and how their success is substantially better predicted by these factors than by their intelligence quotient. Duffy agrees that these are key factors in the development of a child. The interesting question is how you teach these skills. The answer, it seems, may be observation. Children – even adolescents – learn substantially more from their parents than they sometimes let on. They learn their values from our values.

They’re also quick to point out where we’re being inconsistent in what we’re doing from one moment to the next, or how our words and our actions don’t appear to match up to them. (Sometimes our actions do – and sometimes they don’t – match our words.) The best way that we can teach our children is to model the behaviors that we want to see from them.

If we want our children to be available to us, perhaps we have to model to them how to be The Available Parent first.

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

Book Review-Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

Compared to the average joe I read a lot. Books that I read (all non-fiction) tend to fall into one of two broad categories. They’re either helping you understand a problem, or they’re providing a recipe – a set of questions, actions, and behaviors that you can do to get the results that you want. When I read (and reviewed) How Children Succeed a few years ago, it definitely fell into the former category. There were great points, however, there was very little guidance. Paul Tough followed up on that book with Helping Children Succeed, which tilts the scale much more into the direction of a how-to book without completely forgoing his sense of necessity about knowing why things work.

In my heart, I want to help everyone realize their dreams. I want to help every child become a happy, healthy, well-functioning adult. While I accept that I can’t help everyone be successful, I’m always on the lookout for ideas and materials that can help more people be successful. Helping Children Succeed is another tool in that toolbox – ideas and techniques that lead to more success.

Children and Poverty

Tough’s work is focused around younger children – effectively birth through elementary school grades – and how their situations impact them. He’s keenly aware of the impact that poverty has on children, both directly and indirectly. Understanding the societal changes that have occurred, such as the fact that over 50% of children in America were classified as living in homes with “low income” in 2013, is just a part of the broader tapestry of the changes that have made it more critical that we identify the barriers in children’s way and we teach them how to navigate those barriers. Robert Putnam, in his book Our Kids, carefully mapped out the differences in child rearing between affluent and non-affluent families, and concluded that the issue with poverty isn’t just the lack of financial resources, though that plays a part, but is instead about the time that parents have to spend with their children.

The answers that Tough found for compensating for these deficiencies are a set of programs that are designed to supplement or supplant the parental involvement if they don’t have the capacity to support the growth of their children. Just like Sesame Street was designed to help bridge the learning gap in the 70s between higher and lower income kids entering schools, the programs that Tough found are designed to reduce the gap in non-cognitive skills to help children succeed better. (See “G” is for Growing for more on Sesame Street’s goals, methods, and impacts.)

Non-cognitive skills are the kind of skills that others might call non-academic. They’re the grit or perseverance when obstacles come up. It’s the emotional intelligence to understand oneself and those around you. (See Emotional Intelligence
for more on emotional intelligence.)

The starting place for these programs was changing the environment in which the children lived.

What Determines Success in Life?

Before we dig into how to help children succeed, it’s necessary to pause and talk about what constitutes success in life. While this is a topic in itself, there are some tenets that we can subscribe to that will allow us to guide children to success.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that what’s important for one person (or child) isn’t important for another. (See Who am I? and The Normal Personality for more on classifying what’s important.) Certainly it would be a tragedy if we defined success solely as high-income. However, there’s a certain amount of income that allows you the freedom to enjoy life and to pursue other interests. Nearly every hobby requires some level of finances to support it. Every act of philanthropy is a gift of time or money or both, and therefore requires a stable base.

So, while success is often measured on earning potential, that isn’t because that’s the end game, but rather because it’s a predictive marker, and a way to ensure that some of the negative reinforcing loops that constrain people to poverty are eliminated with a moderate income.

Second, however we define it for someone, success should move society forward as a whole. That is, it should be helpful to their neighbors, their children, their community, and their world. It’s one thing to want to be a free spirit, but it’s another to live off of the toils and gifts of others.

Third, while most of us, myself included, want people to be happy, happiness is a difficult thing to quantify. There’s certainly a difference between hedonistic happiness (happiness for the moment) and value-based, or philanthropic-based happiness which is more enduring. (See Hardwiring Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness for more on the different kinds of happiness and how we struggle to know what will make us happy.)

Because it’s difficult to define the specific end goals for every person, and they themselves won’t always be able to define what their goals are or how to be happy, we have to put some stake in the ground. One thing that we can define as not-success in a general sense is academic achievement. Measurements like Intelligence Quotient (IQ), which predict academic achievement but don’t seem to correlate with success in life, won’t be helpful.

Success is the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that lead to a healthy self and a contribution to others, but that requires a healthy environment.

Behavior as a Function of Person and Environment

Kurt Lewin said that behavior (what people do) is a function of both the person (their core makeup) and their environment (what’s provided for them and expected from them.) What Kurt didn’t point out is that, over the long term, either of these factors will influence the other. In the context of our children, this means that the environments that we create are critical to shaping our children.

When we create loving environments, where it’s safe to try and fail to later succeed, we create in children a willingness to live out their curiosity. (See Rising Strong [Part 1] and Changes that Heal, and Creative Confidence to learn more about making it safe to fail and the importance.)

It turns out that the biggest influencer of personal development from an environment is stress. As Tough discussed in How Children Succeed, early and repeated stress can turn up the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and cause children’s “fight or flight” response to almost always be on – thus preventing rational thought. The result of frequent or high stress is to suppress the higher-order executive functions of the brain.

It’s these higher-order functions that allow children to develop persistence and grit, to delay gratification, and to develop the skills that are the most important to success in life. (See Willpower for more on delayed gratification.)

Environment as Relationships

So what do I mean when I say “environment”? Am I talking about plains vs. desert? Apartment vs. home? As it turns out, the answer is neither. Environment isn’t where you live, it’s the relationships that you have with other people. Are they responsive to you? Do you perceive them as safe? How do they nurture your development?

Certainly children in low-income situations have physical safety issues to be concerned with. I don’t want to minimize this or the negative impact that it has on their development; however, that is a factor that’s hard to address directly. How do you address the physical safety issues for every child? It’s easier to address the one-on-one relationships with adults that children have, and their ability to relate positively with those adults in their lives. Many of the programs that Tough discusses are focused on introducing relationships into the children’s lives that are positive and nurturing.

While these relationships are great, the interesting question is when the relationships need to occur in order to counteract the effects of the lack of positive experiences that children are getting.

Scaling Relationships

One of the challenges which Tough aptly points out is that, in our technologically-driven world, we have a tendency to try a bunch of things, and then take the one that is the most successful and scale it up. While this in theory is the right answer, when the programs are built upon the relationships that the program workers have with the program children, this can be difficult to do.

Scaling up programs that work aligns very well to the recommendations for marketing and sales and life in general. It just makes sense to take the small-scale pilots and use what works and shut down the rest. However, much of what works in these programs may be non-program specific effects. That is, the program may work not because of the specific approach or methodology being attempted, but rather due to things that are unique to the workers. In research terms, these are factors that aren’t considered as a part of the program for testing, but have a potentially large impact. This is why researchers replicate others’ studies. They are attempting to see if what the person thought were the active effects were enough to produce the results when tried in another environment.

Replicating research is one thing, but doing moderated scale-up of seemingly effective programs isn’t as easy – or successful – as it seems. Often, even very successful programs may not know exactly why they work. For instance, looking at the adult side of the world, take a look at the Delancey street program for individuals convicted of a crime. (Note that I’m being careful not to label them as criminals since the effects of labeling are particularly toxic.) The stories of the program told in the books Influencer and Change or Die are relatively different. Who knows what are the necessary, essential factors for making the program work? Maybe someone does, but getting to that answer is difficult for every program.

Shutting Down Fear of Failure

There’s one thing that’s certain. If you don’t try, you won’t fail. Then again, you won’t thrive either. The problem that gets set up in the minds of children (and adults) is that they can’t be punished for failure if they don’t try to do anything. The unspoken rule becomes, don’t do anything so that you’re not punished. However, this is a limiting mindset. (See Mindset for more on limiting beliefs.) It creates walls and barriers between people and what they can be.

Shutting down because of the fear of failure shows up everywhere in innovation and creativity. (See Creative Confidence for more on the impact of fear.) As we in the United States as a nation are relying more on our ability to innovate and create new and interesting solutions to challenges, the fuel that we need to use is creativity. That fuel is siphoned off by our fear. Flow, the highly productive state of engagement, specifically shuts down the inner critic, thereby enabling greater creativity and better problem solving. (See The Rise of Superman for more on flow and its ability to shut down the inner critic.)

High Expectations

Self-fulfilling prophecies can be good things when they’re high expectations. It turns out that children who have high – but obtainable – expectations set for them will rise to the occasion; where children who are perceived to be inferior won’t even do the level of work that they’ve already demonstrated that they’re comfortable doing. The impact of this is that you should set expectations with children as high as possible without destroying their belief (or hope) that they’re able to meet them.

Setting the right tension between the student’s skills and the challenge can get them into flow (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more). Flow is the high performance mental state that can help them achieve their goals.

Dunbar and Groups of Fifteen

As I mentioned in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving, Robin Dunbar came into some folks’ consciousness through The Tipping Point, but most folks only know the idea of a maximum number of stable social relationships for humans is around 150. What is interesting as you dig in deeper are the rings of connection that Dunbar explained, including the circle of the “close fifteen”. These are the folks who you are close enough to that their loss will hurt substantially.

In terms of creating programs to help children succeed, this has an important implication. The implication is that the upper end bound to a “small group” is fifteen people. Recapping Dunbar’s work we have the inner five – these are the folks whose lives you’re entangled with. The next ring out is the close fifteen and beyond that the interesting 50.

In an attempt to develop close social relationships, you have a group with a maximum of about five – of which many of the slots are already taken – fifteen, or your relationship lands in the category of “interesting” – a relationship that you monitor and manage, but one which doesn’t have substantial swing in your relationships. If you want to create a group that has influence on someone – one that creates a tight bond – you’ve got to get the entire group (or most of it) to fit into that 15 slots of the close circle. That necessarily constrains small group sizes to less than fifteen.

Once the group size is set, the next trick is to keep the group together and keep it relatively stable. It’s this stability, structure, and familiarity that put the pieces together to allow the relationships to form.

Crowd Management

While serving in cub scouts, I learned a few things about crowd management. These crowd management skills, it turns out, are very effective at helping kids learn. My first lesson was presence. If you have a set of children who aren’t following instructions, listening or being respectful, go sit among them. I’ve never found anything as effective as sitting among a bunch of children who were previously not paying attention. The magic of this for me is you don’t have to say a word. The children just all start doing what they should be doing.

I also learned that setting clear expectations has immense power. By explaining clearly what the rules are and what the consequences are, the number of challenges that we had were substantially reduced. In any activity with young children, there’s both the defined boundaries – the things you talk about – as well as the undefined boundaries. We knew what things were critical to explain to everyone – and what things we could allow to evolve to the point where we needed to establish the boundary.

Most frequently, the thing we allowed to evolve was play. Boys sometimes do subtle escalations of their play to the point where it’s no longer “safe enough” for the leaders. There we had to help deescalate the play – or, depending upon the children, stop it all together. There are no clear expectations you can set for play. The boundaries aren’t clear enough to define in advance. You have to negotiate these boundaries.

Sometimes, it turns out, the best way to help children succeed is to manage the crowd better. When the guidelines are well-known, the number of times that you have to intervene is fewer, and you can focus on the educational tasks – or the development of non-cognitive skills.

Learning and Taking Risks

All learning involves risk-taking. All learning and growing is accepting someone else’s view of the world as valid. Learning is about changing who you are in small ways; and making changes to who you are and what you believe is an unsettling process. In order to learn, you’re necessarily taking these risks and sometimes it’s these risks that can freeze, paralyze, or immobilize children and adults alike.

When we experience a high degree of variability in responses, negative events associated with learning, or embarrassment that we believe something, this creates a barrier, or at least friction, to the learning process, whether that learning is cognitive or non-cognitive skills.

No matter the type of learning being encouraged (cognitive or non-cognitive), we must be mindful of the barriers that inhibit children’s growth and seek to fill in the gaps in their experience or patch over the rough spots so that they’re capable of learning.

Interesting and Challenging

Once you’ve removed the barriers from learning, it’s time to pull children through the process. This pull-through should be extrinsically motivated at first with the intent of transferring to intrinsic motivations. While this may sound easy, in practice it’s anything but. We’ve been conditioned to believe that education should be dull and boring. If we spit out the information, children will just accept it and regurgitate it for the test. However, as Tough points out, this may be the wrong approach.

James Hiebert notes that math classrooms in Japan follow a radically different script than they do in the United States. Instead of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the all-knowing oracle that spits out the right answer, teachers in Japan are more likely to behave as facilitators. They facilitate the classroom reaching the right solution to a problem. The teacher may crystalize an idea and create clarity around it, but it’s the students themselves that are learning.

There’s not a reliance on rote memorization or repetition. The reliance is on creating a deep understanding of the processes involved. We’ve “known” about Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, and other frameworks that explain the need for us to create more understanding and mental models, but in most classrooms in America that doesn’t happen.

In many ways, the approaches we take to education continue to be challenged. For instance, in Schools Without Failure, Glasser points out the value of collaborative classroom discussions. His work was published in 1969. Similarly, Knowles et al.’s work on The Adult Learner hints at the need for children to learn differently than we currently teach them – while carefully avoiding directly stating the need for education to change. The first edition of this book was published in 1973.

As we’re creating programs that are designed to help children succeed, we need to acknowledge that learning, whether cognitive or non-cognitive, requires a set of skills that are different than we’ve come to expect. We have to pay attention to the interest and motivation of the children we’re teaching, and design activities (not lectures) that students can engage in at their own levels. Science fairs and their much maligned parental involvement are the kinds of project-based learning that children need to internalize a subject and to build the mental models that will serve them for their entire lives. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models.)

The best way that we have of Helping Children Succeed is to create activities that are hospitable to children of different levels, which allow and encourage them to challenge themselves. Engaging activities with an element of stretch drive children to more effort and thus build a virtuous cycle. Maybe you can start the cycle for yourself or the children you care the most about by reading Helping Children Succeed.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Book Review-Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

My children haven’t seen Back to the Future. They’ve not seen the idealistic view of the 1950s portrayed in a movie from the 1980s. They don’t understand what it was like when I was growing up when we walked down to the park to play, rode our bikes all around town, and generally expected that the world was a friendly place. Kids today are taught to be warry and cautious. We teach them “Stranger Danger!” and “Don’t talk to strangers.” The world that our parents grew up in, the world that we grew up in, and the world our kids will grow up in are radically different. But this isn’t exactly new news. Robert Putnam’s classic book Bowling Alone discussed how our social lives were different. His new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis focuses on social mobility and how kids today don’t have the same opportunities that they did 50 years ago.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is simply the ability for people to change their social class. The focus is on how many generations it takes for a person in one social strata to move to a different one. Obviously, the primary focus is on our American dream of being able to move up the ladder. However, there seems to be evidence where the upper middle class has the capability of moving up, lower class and lower middle-class families aren’t able to help their children get ahead.

It’s important to note that social class – or social strata – is mostly defined by income but because income numbers are notoriously fickle as people misrepresent their income, studies shy away from asking the question, and people will outright lie, Putnam chose to use as a proxy educational level as the demarcation point between the upper and lower middle classes. This makes the analysis cleaner and mostly fits with the data – but it does mean that at times he my unfairly categorize high-income earners in lower classes.

Attitudes and Acceptance

While there were (and are) pockets of the country which are preoccupied with prejudices and differences, for the most part after the second World War people just wanted to get along with one another and enjoy life. Putnam sites his home down of Port Clinton, Ohio as a place where race wasn’t a factor and where the social classes hadn’t split. Kids with parents of all income brackets and backgrounds played together and became friends.

It turns out that while race relations and prejudices still exist that many of the same social problems are working themselves through every race in America. The determining factor isn’t – it seems – race but is rather the support systems that are in place around our children that matter.

It turns out that children who are from homes in lower income brackets are more frequently struggling to keep a place to live, are living in neighborhoods with poorer school education, and are fighting off neighborhood forces that are driving pregnancy and drug use. It’s not a surprise that children today who are faced with more adverse childhood events (ACE) are struggling. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.)

The radical enforcement of drug laws in the 1980s exasperated the problem of single mothers raising children and made a reality out of dad being in prison for untold numbers of children. (See Chasing the Scream for more about the savagery of the war on drugs.)

Airbags and Active Defenses

Americans greatly value our rugged individualism. We love to portray ourselves as conquerors of the frontier. We love the image of the lone cowboy riding off into the sunset to meet his fate. However, this is a Hollywood movie not the realities of our westward expansion. In truth our grandfathers banded together with others who shared a similar taste of adventure and a desire to make a better life for their families. Our rugged individualist grandfathers created wagon trains that could be pulled together to support and protect a traveling community of people rather than “going it alone.”

Perhaps the Hollywood story explains why we buy into the idea of a “self-made” man. Someone that overcame all odds to move themselves up the social strata. However, the more we look into the stories the more we realize that there were people behind the scenes protecting the “self-made man” and allowing them to take more risks than others. Bill Gates, for instance, was allowed to spend so much time with computers as a child because of the relative affluence of his parents. (See Outliers for more.)

Affluent parents are more likely to engage on the children’s behalf. Whether it’s intervening in an unfair situation at school (as I have done) or helping them plan for college, affluent parents with their greater connections are more likely to lift up their children above the muck and to deploy “airbags” to protect them from unnecessary harm. While Putnam uses the term airbags – I believe there are two dimensions of which the term airbags only covers one.

Limiting the impact of a negative event is one dimension. However, the other dimension is what I like to call active defenses. That is what the parents do to actively prevent harm for their children and to enrich them. Whether it’s sending them on a mission trip (which I’ve done for two of our children) or facilitating conversations with business owners about a job – affluent parents are more capable (and perhaps therefore more likely) to support their children’s growth.

When you’re struggling to pay the rent and keep food on the table you’re simply not able to focus on these things for your children.

Schools and Saviors

Schools get a lot of flack for the lack of performance from students. While there are opportunities for improvement (see Schools Without Failure and How Children Succeed) schools cannot be held solely accountable for the educational state of our nation. Instead we have to look at schools as lifelines for students to learn good study practices and the “how” of how to learn. We’ve come to defer our responsibility to educating our children to schools.

Putnam discussed the differences that we have experienced as a society in Bowling Alone. Membership used to mean mutual commitment and somewhere along the way it meant writing a check. We as a society have decided that schools are responsible for educating our children. We are taxed for it and we pay fees for it so we expect the service to be that they’re educating our children. However, this is such a critical responsibility that we can’t completely defer the responsibility – even if we might like to.

Schools cannot single-handedly become the saviors of our children. While they can provide structure to their learning and can round them out in ways that we cannot personally, our children’s savior is us. It’s the parents personally taking an interest in their children and at a more communal level each parent looking out for the other children as well.

Defending Against Drugs

Drugs are an easy out, an escape that seems quick and easy. It’s no wonder that we have such a struggle with drugs and drug addiction. (See Chasing the Scream for more on drugs, enforcement, and addiction.) Despite the relative ease of drugs there are numerous factors which can influence a child’s decision to try drugs or to make a decision to abstain. We’ve all heard of peer pressure and thanks to Nancy Ragan have heard the public service announcements teaching our children to “Just say no to drugs.” The truth is that influence over a child’s life shifts to being less focused on parents and more focused on peers – but the influence of a parent doesn’t go away.

The parent’s attitudes – and particularly behaviors – have a profound impact on the child’s life. If you (or your spouse) decides to use drugs in view of the children then it becomes OK for them. It becomes acceptable to them. It’s normal. Even if you and your spouse aren’t engaged in drugs other members of the family or living in close proximity can be a powerful negative influence. Again the more OK, normal, or right the drugs become the more likely that a child will try them.

However, there’s more to it than this. Even attentive parents – those who know where their children are and what they’re being exposed to represent a protection to the children. Parents can prevent unnecessary exposure to elements that might lead towards an addiction. By knowing where your children are and what they’re exposed to allows you to redirect inappropriate energies.

Finally, there’s the challenge of economics. If a child believes that the only way out of the situation that they find themselves in is to sell drugs – then you can’t blame them for considering it. If you’re looking for a way to protect your children from drugs the answer may lie in giving them an awareness that they can make their lives better – without drugs.

Dinners and Dads

With social science there is almost always a twinge of suspicion. This weeks’ research study will be contradicted by next weeks’ study. When researching after reading The Cult of Personality Testing, I discovered that even though there were numerous personality tests that had been discredited through peer-reviewed journal articles there were still many practitioners using those tests – and that there were at least a few journal articles that supported the dubious techniques. Such is the nature of social science – it’s messy and rarely are there clean answers. However, when it comes to having dinner together as a family the research is unequivocal. Having dinner together as a family is linked to a variety of outcomes later in the child’s life. Sadly, my own children comment how few of their friend’s families make a point of doing dinner together. In our microwave, crowded schedule world, it seems that the glue that holds a family together – the dinnertime meal doesn’t fit or isn’t convenient enough.

Though not as unequivocal as the data regarding having dinners together, there’s a growing mountain of evidence that suggests that fathers are essential to the development of children – both boys and girls. As a father I’m glad to know that my impact matters. As a member of the American society where fewer children are in regular contact with their fathers because of unstable sexual relationships where the parents don’t see each other any longer, incarceration of too many fathers due to drug related charges, and the social factors that have led to a greater acceptance for unwed mothers.

Whatever the causes the downstream impacts are being felt by children. They’re being deprived of the input that they need to help them to grow up to be productive and well-adjusted members of society. At least part of that is due to the gap in time that’s being spent with children.

Time and Skills

Parents who are struggling to keep things together simply don’t have spare resources to divert to the enhanced development of their children. Holding down two jobs and keeping a household together means that there is little room to wiggle in the way of providing coaching to children who are struggling to make sense of their environment.

While studies indicate that working mothers have sacrificed themselves and other things to continue to spend as much time with their children as their non-working parents, it’s a hard road, and one that is really indicative of the upper-middle class who have the capacity to share the load across parents and who aren’t literally worried about how to pay the rent next week.

Those who are struggling to provide for the basic needs of their children spend much less time with their children. It makes sense and there may be no solution but it’s tragic. It’s equally tragic that the parents who have the least time also have the least ability to teach good life skills to their children.

Things like financial planning, grit, and persistence are some of the factors that have led to the parent’s – and therefore the child’s – situation. You can’t teach what you don’t know and in too many cases the parents haven’t developed the life skills to pass on to their children.

Community Caring

In the end the changes that have swept across the country are moving us into a more segregated, separated, and more self-focused point of view than we’ve had before. If we really want to improve society as a whole we may need to decide that all of the children that we know are Our Kids. We may need to return to a time when it took a village to raise a child. It seems it still does – even if we don’t behave that way.

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Book Review-Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Play is, for many, a lost art. Somewhere between childhood and growing up, we’ve lost our ability to really play. However, play doesn’t have to be a separate activity from our day-to-day lives. Play can – and perhaps should be – woven into the very fabric of our lives. In Stewart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, he covers how we’ve lost play and how to reclaim it.

Playing into Flow

Play has some very interesting connections to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) The conditions for play that Brown highlights are:

  • Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • Voluntary Inherent attraction
  • Freedom from time
  • Diminished consciousness of self
  • Improvisational potential
  • Continuation desire

Comparing this list, to Csikszentmihalyi’s list of characteristics for flow we see a great deal of overlap. Czikszentmihalyi’s list for flow is:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

At a direct look only two of Brown’s criteria – Apparent purposelessness and Improvisational potential don’t directly map. However, later in Brown’s own book he admits that play is about the internal attitude of the activity not the activity itself – and so while I believe play does not need to have an explicit relationship to something purposeful but it can if you have the right attitude. (More on this idea later.)

While flow does not require improvisation, it does generate it. Research studies indicate that people in flow are more creative and that this creativity lasts for days after the flow state. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the chemicals involved and the creativity.)

The state of play and the state of flow are so closely connected that one could wonder how the most productive state (flow) might be the evolutionary byproduct of the development of play – a way for us to learn how to better adapt to our environments in a safe way.

Consciously Creative

Play may be important for children, but an important question is “How is it important to business today?” The answer comes from the relationship between play and creativity. It comes from the desire that businesses have today to have people that are more creative. Theory U quoted Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University in speaking of “the rise of the creative class” and attributed roughly 30% of all employed people into this new creative class. According to an IBM global survey of 1,500 top executives in sixty countries, the most desirable skill in a CEO was creativity.

Creativity is serious business – it is the driving force behind Pixar’s success (See Creativity, Inc. for more on Pixar and creativity) as well as many other organizations (See Unleashing Innovation for how Whirlpool leverages creativity and innovation.) However, it is play’s characteristic of continuing desire is what converts creativity into innovation.

Defining Innovation

As it turns out, I have written about innovation in my chapter titled “Removing Innovation Friction by Improving Meetings” for the Ark Group Book Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results.
Innovation is not just creative ideas. Innovation is taking those creative ideas and seeing them through to the end. That takes a persistence that you develop through play. You learn to enjoy the “birthing” process so much that you continue to play with your creation until it becomes something real and tangible.

I cannot tell you the number of people who are impressed at the humble child safety cards that we created for Kin-to-Kid Connection (Visit www.kin2kid.com for more on the child safety cards.) While there are many comments about the cards themselves, I’m astounded at the number of people who have congratulated us on simply accomplishing something – converting the idea into implementation.

So play creates the conditions that allow for better creativity through a safe environment and then develops the persistence to get things done. (See How Children Succeed for the impact of persistence – which the book calls grit.)

Safer but Not Safe

From an evolutionary standpoint, play is interesting because it’s energy that is expended with no clear and direct purpose. That is, it is not hunting and it is not recovering – so how is play a useful part of the evolutionary process. The answer it turns out may have more to do with our ability to create mental simulations than the direct learning of skills. While cats deprived of play can still hunt and kill, antelope will be maladjusted with the herd, if they have been deprived of play. We are not just rehearsing our practical skills; we’re learning to simulate alternative realities in a safe way.

One of the challenges of our world is that it is not safe. We seek out ways to manage our apparent safety either by taking risks or by avoiding risks. For some, who didn’t get enough “licking and grooming” and therefore didn’t develop a secure attachment to their parents, there never seems to be enough safety. (See How Children Succeed for more on licking and grooming.) For others, we cower and never get a chance to find the courage to be ourselves perhaps because we did not have enough opportunities for safe play. (See Find Your Courage for more on being courageous.)

Courage is learned through play whether it’s in sparring (See The Art of Learning), just talking (see Dialogue), or even having crucial conversations (see Crucial Conversations). Courage is feeling safe enough that you can learn and grow – that you can take appropriate risks.

However, play is not safe. Play is relatively safe. That is that we are measuring our risks and not taking unnecessary risks. The simple fact of the matter is that sometimes animals and humans die while playing – so from an evolutionary standpoint it is necessary for the benefits of play to outweigh the few casualties that result from it.

Simulations are one of the things that humans do best. While we may withstand the worst of this with additional stress, it is an extremely effective way for us to adapt and avoid dangers that we could not normally see. Consider the fire captains that Gary Klein researched for Sources of Power who were running mental simulations to create effective firefighting strategies.

Learning Safety

We really learn differently when we are stressed. Quite literally, the processes that are at work to integrate memory are different depending upon our state when we are learning. When we are in a stressed state, the memories are routed via the hippocampus and stored for use by the amygdala to use for the pattern recognition used in fight or flight. The memories are therefore not directly accessible by the conscious. (See Incognito, Lost Knowledge, Sharing Hidden Know-How, and The New Edge in Knowledge for more about knowledge management and how we don’t have access to all of our memories.)

Play creates an air of safety that surrounds the activity and ultimately allows the lessons learned to be applied to other situations and environments. Play is supposed to be safe and is therefore supports the development of memories which can be applied to other situations.

Purpose and Play

Brown quotes Running Magazine as categorizing runners into four main categories: the exerciser, the competitor, the enthusiast, and the socializer. Every runner is objectively performing the same action – that is they are all running. Running is a means to some end – it is not the end itself. However, the experience for each – the internal game – is different. The socializer does not worry much about whether their running is good or bad. The Enthusiast just enjoys the act of running and does it for the pleasure. The exerciser may be disappointed with their workout and the competitor about their performance. Four different people, the same activity and four different reactions.

What if play isn’t about the actions that we’re performing? What if it is not about whether we are doing a pickup game of football or volleyball but is instead about the way that we are approaching it. What if play is about being in flow – rather than the actions we are doing? Brown carefully explains that because play is self-fulfilling and therefore better players will play-down to the rest of the players to keep the game going.

Malcom Gladwell made Anders Ericsson’s research regarding expertise popular in his book Outliers. Outliers says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. However, the caveat here is that it has to be purposeful practice. However, Ericsson might have been speaking about flow and play. He was clear that the objective had to be to become better at the object of the effort. The examples that are often cited by Gladwell and others clearly enjoyed the work that they were doing – they could not distinguish it from play. The objective for them – the purpose – was often just to drive something forward. Their purpose was the purpose of becoming better, becoming more than they were.

It seems that play is the internal state of mind, which is characterized by a desire to improve – even if there’s no clear tie to being a “productive” human. Csikszentmihalyi was clear that flow required a clear goal and constant feedback. However, the clear goal can be to get better – even if one cannot explain exactly what better would mean.

So when examined closely, it seems that play can have a purpose – but the purpose of play cannot be to be productive. Play requires the feeling of safety even in failure.

Building a Brain for the Ambiguity of Life

The best adaptability and survival technique that Mother Nature has come up with is the ability to learn. It turns out that the ability to learn – rapidly and continuously – has a huge evolutional advantage. It’s no wonder then that play creates a strong positive learning effect – one which dramatically out paces the risks associated with the activities of play (in most cases.)

Traditional adult education says that adult learners need to be trained at the moment in time that they need the learning (readiness), why they need to know a piece of information (need to know), that they have the foundational concepts necessary to integrate the new information (foundation), and that they have an understanding of the problem they are trying to solve (self-concept). The training must be focused on solving problems (orientation) and the motivation for learning must map to the internal motivations of the student (motivation). (See The Adult Learner for more on adult learning.)

Most of the research in education (See Efficiency in Learning) is focused on the management of cognitive load. That is, most educational research says that helping to keep students focused on the task at hand is an important – if not essential part of the process for learning. Students (of all ages) have a limited working memory and without the ability to create complex schemas and chunking to reduce the load on working memory they’re frequently overloaded or teetering on the edge of being overloaded. (Efficiency in Learning talks about schemas. Sources of Power uses the word models for the same ability to process a large number of items as if they’re one thing.)

Lost Knowledge, which is focused on the retention of critical tacit knowledge explains the learning problem from the point of view of strategies of learning which are more and less effective. Instead of focusing on creating focus, Lost Knowledge focuses on approaches, which are more effective while admitting that capturing tacit knowledge is very difficult. That is, gaining experience and integrating the unspoken learnings from the experiential process, is challenging.

This is where play comes in. Play is autotelic – that is self-motivating. This eliminates much of the educational research which is trying to keep from distracting the learner – or allowing the learner to be distracted by their passing thoughts. When you couple in the self-regulating challenge aspects of play and realize that play will regulate the level of challenge into an acceptable band you’re left with an educational opportunity which is incredibly effective.

When organizations seek to teach their employees how to handle situations for which there is no rulebook the best strategy is to run simulations of the situations that you can expect – and allow the employees to internalize the foundational principles and to develop guidelines which can be generally applied to any situation. That’s what play is – simulation – and so it’s not surprising that brain development happens at its fastest rate while playing.

Rat Park and Dysfunction

From Chasing the Scream we learned about the studies on rats and the use of drugs. We learned that the rats that drugged themselves to death were in solitary confinement. They did not have other rats to play with – or things either. Their life was solitary and without any way to play or interact. So faced with an awful situation the rats chose drugs to numb their pain. When the rats were allowed to socialize with other rats, they rarely used drugs. The context of rat park was the study of drugs. However, somewhere along the way, we learned that socialization was important for rats. Buried in socialization is the innate need to play.

When humans are deprived of play as a child and as an adult, they have a disproportionately higher chance of creating harm or being locked up. You don’t have to be Charles Whitman in a bell tower to be handicapped by the lack of play. An over-controlled childhood with a lack of play seems to be a way to lead yourself to jail. We need play – just like the antelope – to learn how to get along socially and how to self-regulate.

Play Signals

Knowing that you need play is one thing – knowing when it is time to play is another. In the animal world, there are “tells” for when animals are playing. A dog will “bow” and wag its tail. There are also tells that the dog isn’t playing – like hair standing up on their backs. During the engagement, you’ll see animals voluntarily rolling on their backs to indicate they need a break or to reduce their position of power over the other animal.

Animals, even of different species, recognize these play signals and respond accordingly. They instinctively know that play is an important part of learning and growing. Even if humans aren’t endowed with the same level of play awareness we can improve our play and reading Play may be the place to start.