The US Government Should Step Up and Join the Rest of the Modern World in Helping New Families

photo by D. Divecha

When my first baby was born, I had already studied children's development for seven years. Yet I felt unprepared. When the baby first pooped, my husband and I rang for the hospital nurse; when it came to breastfeeding, I needed to be shown how to position everything. Heading home, part of me was in disbelief that, as two-day-old parents, we could take this little person away unsupervised.

My family was halfway across the country; my husband's was halfway around the world. Both of us worked full-time, and I was on a six-week disability leave from my job. I had no help, and the clock was ticking. In those first few weeks, I couldn't get out of my nightgown. Our bed was an explosion of laundry, food, mail, papers, bills, and diapers. And the shape of the day, once driven by work, flattened to the rapid recycling of a newborn's needs, in addition to a few basic ones of our own.

Three years later I was pregnant with our second child and in a new academic job, in a department of 15 or so men and one other woman. On the advice of a "work-life balance expert," I had requested to teach one fewer course so that I would have some time for parenting--and who better to do this than a developmental psychologist? I felt radical--for a second--until the university countered by prorating both my salary and my progress to tenure. The arrangement was unprecedented there, and my status quickly became labeled The Mommy Track.

Back in 1991, a pregnant academic was rare (unheard of in my department, as far as I knew) and my male colleagues treated me with a curious distance.

"I feel like there's so much estrogen in the room," one commented in a faculty meeting.

"I'm impressed that you can be so pregnant and smart at the same time," another complimented.

It was not uncommon for my lunch to go missing from the refrigerator; most of my colleagues didn't recognize their own lunch bags, since their wives packed them. I not only packed my own but also packed my preschooler's lunch, prepped for dinner, and left the day's instructions for the sitter, all by the time I left home at 6AM.

photo by D. Divecha

When the second baby was born, I took a three-month leave-without-pay from work, and this time I recruited my mother-in-law from India to help us at home. I wanted time to settle in, and now had an idea of what that would take.  I needed to figure out new care arrangements, get to know my baby's signals, keep up with the physical demands of two little ones, recover physically, get some sleep. I wanted the older child to feel secure, I wanted space to learn about the second one, and I wanted to have enough love left to give to my husband. Most of all, I wanted to protect the inner spaciousness that would allow me into the altered state of consciousness that was my children's world, and that would keep me connected to the exquisite beauty of all that was happening.

I let my department know of the successful delivery of our second daughter. One colleague called to congratulate me. The secretary sent a plant. At the end of three months, I returned to work bearing sweets (determined that my colleagues acknowledge this birth) and my breast pump.

Anyone who is employed and has children knows the seismic pressures involved in the transformation to becoming a family. I took a hit financially and professionally, and I absorbed the micro-aggressions, but I returned to work. Many people, however, are forced into the Solomonesque choice between caring for their children and making a living. Unfortunately, American workplaces lag behind--way behind--the rest of the world in acknowledging and supporting this transition. This month, the 22nd anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, I wrote an op-ed piece with my colleague Robin Stern, about why it is so important to children's development that the government protect and support families with adequate paid parental leave.

The thread that begins to be spun between baby and caregiver--that will grow and anchor and support the child throughout life--needs time, space, and attention. The quality of that thread determines the all-important "startup" process, and it also echoes throughout the lifespan in mental and physical health, relationship choices, and more.

Supporting families is an efficient investment in the nation's future.

 

Family Stress: It's Not All in Your Head

For most of my kids' childhoods, I felt that my ability to guide my family faced direct competition from school, and many forces beyond.

In elementary school, heavy backpacks bent my kids' soft little backs. Homework intruded into playtime, even though research has shown that play is important for cognitive and social development. In middle school, more homework and big projects hijacked precious family weekends--just when my kids needed more sleep, more time to adjust to their rapidly changing brains, and more healthy time with friends, and when my husband and I needed some rest. By high school, the downward pressure from looming college applications threatened to torque my kids' developmental arc.

"Don't do anything for a college resume," I warned. "Make choices because they make sense to you."

As the tsunami of outside competition flooded toward us, I felt like a little mushroom field trying to filter toxins out of a roaring river. The competition over messaging added even more pressure: media was saturated with hypersexualized images, dysfunctional interactions, unrealistic problem-solving, violence, and more. It was hard to stay on top of it all, to teach my kids the difference between our values inside our family versus values in the outside world. This on top of our own adult pressures to manage childcare, two jobs, meals, paychecks, health care and sick days, quality time, extended family, and maybe a few friends.

Adults are stressed, but our kids are stressed, too. A recent survey found that in the United States, teens' stress has now surpassed that of adults. Many young people say that they are overwhelmed, depressed, and sad because of the stress that they, themselves, gauge to be unhealthy. And the mental health of teenagers in this country is declining over time. Many parents are frantic, reaching for whatever levers they can put their hands on: hiring therapists, looking to medications, and trying ancient practices to calm everyone down. If only we could find the right key, we parents think, we can unlock the stress, and our child will thrive. 

photo by  Elvin

photo by Elvin

But when the number of kids and families struggling is so large, we have to start asking questions about the systems beyond ourselves. We parents love our children wildly, and ultimately, they're our responsibility. But our ability to care for them successfully also depends in large part on how the wider culture, policies, and values support childrearing. And on that score, America is not doing very well, especially compared to other countries. Last week I published an op-ed in The Washington Post exploring that theme. One of the comments was provocative: "America hates children," it read.

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you," goes the saying. And I'm here to affirm: The stress that you and your kids feel is not all manufactured inside your family. Self-help goes only so far, and sometimes it even deludes us into accommodating to a maladaptive situation. A new election cycle will roll around soon, and it's time to start asking when America will put children first.

My Daughter Took Me to Burning Man

Originally published by the Huffington Post on September 10, 2014.

I checked my packing list for the long Labor Day weekend: antler headpiece, hair extensions, hot pants, fur coat, support hose and estrogen cream. My husband and I were going to Burning Man for the first time -- under the tutelage of our 26-year old daughter, Zai, her partner, Phil, and a large group of their friends.

We packed up the car with food and water for five days, drove to the Nevada desert, and, after a three-hour wait at the gate watching the sunset -- some waited 23 hours while the gates closed for rain on the playa -- it was our turn at the entrance. A distant din and twinkling lights beckoned in the otherwise dark void ahead.

"Welcome home," the young attendant smiled as she took our tickets. "First time?" We told her it was. "Birgins! Please get out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring the bell!"

It's easy to make fun of Burning Man from a distance, and many have. It's even easier up close: People stroll naked or half-naked, in Star-Wars-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Indian-guru garb. Sessions are offered on respectful fisting, penis worship, and making your own greeting cards by stamping your genitals with colorful paint on cardstock -- a craft I typically enjoy, though I've never used that particular stamp.

There is no Internet or cell coverage, no plumbing and no power grid. My husband Arjun gravitates to new experiences, and while I'd rather meditate in a lush forest, I was determined to keep an open mind. I respected our daughter and trusted that what she valued here would be revealed to me. After all, her visit the previous year had inspired her decision to leave a secure job and pursue her passion for metal working and furniture design. I wanted to know -- what could be so powerful here?

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A Developmental Approach to Guiding Young Teens' Technology Use

Scientists are finding that during early adolescence, around ages 12-15, the brain undergoes one of the greatest remodeling projects of any other point in the lifespan. The purpose is to prepare teens for adulthood—to stand on their own, to make decisions, to secure resources, reproduce, form partnerships, and create community. And brain restructuring isn’t the only alteration.They experience changes in all spheres: neurological, cognitive, social, psychological, and physical. Meanwhile, technology is evolving at warp speed. A biological generation is 20-30 years, but scientists estimate that a “technological generation” is only seven years. According to Moore’s law, it could be even faster: The pace of technological change may actually be doubling every two years.

How does this rapid rate of technological innovation intersect with the tectonic changes of early adolescence—and how should you respond as a parent?

1. Inform yourself about technology.

It’s helpful to stay current with technology issues that can affect your teens, both for your own reality-testing and to help “scaffold” kids’ technology use. It’s helpful if parents can sort out fact from fiction about teens’ Internet use: to stand calm in the face of media-generated “moral panics”; to learn how teens are really using social media; and to understand the battle over our teens’ attention, intention, and self-direction.

For a thorough, research-based, and balanced consciousness-raising about technology, check out Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Rheingold’s book is filled with specific and helpful insights. For example: “There is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication.” Websites can be “cloaked” (sponsored in hidden ways by agenda-driven organizations whose involvement is not obvious, for example the Ku Klux Klan hosting a website on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr). Kids need to be detectives, he says, and use multiple strategies to triple-check the authority of sources. Many young people don’t understand how online content is actually generated—for example, that their Google searches are biased by algorithms generated by their previous searches, or that  editing discussions on Wikipedia can be useful to discover controversial themes about a topic.

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What Happens to Children When Parents Fight

When I was a child, my parents’ fights could suck the oxygen out of a room. My mother verbally lashed my father, broke jam jars, and made outlandish threats. Her outbursts froze me in my tracks. When my father fled to work, the garage, or the woods, I felt unprotected. Years later, when my husband and I decided to have children, I resolved never to fight in front of them.

“Children are like emotional Geiger counters,” says E. Mark Cummings, psychologist at Notre Dame University, who, along with colleagues, has published hundreds of papers over twenty years on the subject. Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family, Cummings says. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.

As a developmental psychologist I knew that marital quarreling was inevitable but I also knew that there had to be a better way to handle it. Cummings confirms: “Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it’s not whether parents fight that is important.  It’s how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel that has important consequences for children.” Watching some kinds of conflicts can even be good for kids—when children see their parents resolve difficult problems, Cummings says, they can grow up better off.

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Nine Big Changes in Young Teens that You Should Know About

When children are young, it's easy to celebrate their developmental changes. We're excited to write down their first words and send photos of first steps to grandparents. We also naturally scaffold their learning by breaking tasks down into manageable parts. We speak in short, simple phrases when they're learning to talk; we open our arms toward them when they're beginning to walk; we ease their little arms into sleeves as they're learning to dress; and we practice, practice, practice tying their shoelaces with them.

At the same time, we mitigate their risks. We baby-proof the house, clear the coffee table of breakables, and put gates across stairwells.

But something breaks down midway on the journey to adulthood. Around about twelve years of age, our children's behavior can become perplexing to us. It can feel like they just want to push against us, replace us with peers, make bad decisions, and get into trouble. Suddenly, it's no longer clear to parents exactly what development we're supporting--and it's easy to back off, get judgmental, and start reacting. As a result, both parties can feel abandoned.

Fortunately, we have new information to help us understand this period. Advances in brain science and imaging now let us peer under the hood, so to speak, to see more clearly what is going on at this age. And if we understand the developmental changes better, we can better tailor our support to help them navigate through with greater ease.

Scientists are finding that the ages from 12-15 mark perhaps the period of greatest change of any other point in the lifespan. Modifications driven by thousands of years of evolution begin to remodel the teenage brain--just as they do in other mammals in their adolescence. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes are organized around preparing for adulthood--for reproduction, and for securing sexual, social, and economic resources.

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How Can Parents Help Prevent Bullying in Middle School?

Bullying Prevention Awareness Month is over, and unfortunately it had a horrific run of high-profile tragedies: two teacher fatalities at the hands of students, several bullying-related suicides and attempted suicides, two Florida bullies charged with felonies, and a 14-year-old shooter charged as an adult. Once again, we’re left to face the grim reality that bullying is alive and well in our culture.

But there’s something that all of these cases had in common—and that the news media didn’t notice. All of the kids involved in these events were 12-14 years old.

No surprise, from a developmental perspective. The onset of puberty remodels the developing brain—both for humans and for many animal species—in a way that makes young adolescents especially sensitive to their social world. The reason for this can be understood through an evolutionary lens: Reproduction requires social skills—mating, parenting, fitting in to the social niche, coordinating to secure resources, taking care of the community, etc. So it would make sense that while bodies are being reshaped to produce offspring, brains would also simultaneously change to make us more socially receptive and active at that time.

How does puberty make teens more susceptible to bullying?

Recent research on the teen brain shows that adolescents, compared to both children and adults, are exceptionally sensitive to social dynamics. In brain-imaging studies, teen brains show more activation in regions that process rewards, motivations and emotions (the socioaffective circuitry in the subcortical, limbic regions) compared to children and adults. As a result, teens can feel more intensely, especially about social interactions. They more easily feel judged, threatened, and evaluated by others.

 

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How to Parent Emerging Adults

Compared to my or my parents' generation, young people today are taking longer to reach adulthood, thanks to the social and economic changes of modern society.  They take more time to explore relationships and to educate themselves for the complex information-based economy. Many face unemployment and have to live longer at home--and if they do work, it is not unusual to change jobs many times before they turn 30. Fewer are getting married and if they do, they marry later and have fewer children. Scholar Jeffrey Arnett, of Clark University in Massachusetts, now calls this period from ages 18- to 29-years old, emerging adulthood, a period so unique it deserves to be considered its own distinct phase of the lifespan.

Parenting this age group is also a new ball game. The biggest challenge--since emerging adults are in some ways grown up and in other ways not--is to figure out when to step in and assert parental authority and when to hold back...all the while remaining emotionally connected and respecting their growing autonomy. Arnett teams up with Oakland, CA writer Elizabeth Fishel to interview parents, professionals, and emerging adults, themselves, in order to gather the best advice on just where to find that parenting line... in areas of romance, job-hunting, communication, the Internet, and more.

I reviewed their book, When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult, on the Greater Good Science Center website.

The important news is that our emerging adults still need our continued parenting. Rest assured, it does not mean that something is wrong. In fact when parents step in and help appropriately, their emerging adults do better in the long run--in their psychological well-being, their self-esteem, and even the standard of living they achieve.

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Time to Step Up for Disabled Children

The European Union and 127 countries think protecting disabled children's rights is a good thing to do, but the US Senate? Not. See the NY Times Editorial that takes the Senate to task. 

"The new United Nations report finds that children with disabilities are the least likely to receive health care or go to school and are among the most vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect, especially if they are hidden away in institutions because of social stigma or parental inability to raise them."

"The disabled children and their communities would benefit if the children were accommodated in schools, workplaces, vocational training, transportation and local rehabilitation programs."

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How to Raise Your Child's Intelligence before Kindergarten

We parents spend a lot of time, energy, and money to advance our children's intelligence. Researchers have just made that job a lot easier by identifying the four most effective things we can do before kindergarten to give our children the best start on their intellectual development.

Full disclosure, I'm not a fan of the focus on "intelligence." It is too narrow a concept--the tests for it are culturally biased in favor of White middle class kids, there are many ways to be intelligent and successful that the tests don't measure, it is not predictive of life success, and social and emotional skills are just as important as intellectual ability. That said, in the right hands an intelligence test can be a useful diagnostic tool, and the term intelligence  offers one way to talk about intellectual, or I prefer the broader term "cognitive," skills. But I admit, I couldn't help but peek at this research if even to compare it against how I nurtured these qualities in my own children. A common theme jumped out at me, which I'll get to.

New York University researchers John Protzko, Joshua Aronson, and Clancy Blair looked at 74 interventions that were designed to raise children's intelligence from the prenatal period to kindergarten with the goal of uncovering the most effective ones. They included only studies that met the gold standard of research design--the randomized control study--and they published their findings in the January issue of of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

What did they discover? Four significant building blocks of intelligence in early childhood:

1. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) supplements for pregnant mothers and newborns - IQ gains of more than three and a half points.

Pregnant mothers are encouraged to take many kinds of supplements but only LC-PUFA--found in foods rich in Omega-3s--raised young children't IQs, either when pregnant mothers were given the supplement or it was added to infant formula. The fatty acids are thought to be essential building blocks for nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex--and the body can't produce them on its own. One study showed that very young children who received the supplements for 8 weeks showed more activation in the prefrontal cortex than those who did not.

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What Do Children Worry About and How Can Grown Ups Help?

When I was young, I worried so much that my parents called me Worrywart and bought me a stuffed toy with the same name. It wasn’t the best strategy—I was left feeling bewildered and wondering how to not worry—but what did parents know then? Research from the field of developmental emotion science finds that children who understand and manage their feelings are happier, have better relationships, and do better in school. But as a developmental psychologist I’ve often wished for resources to help parents deal with worrying in their children. So I was pretty excited when I found a lovely picture book recently at a professional conference: Is a Worry Worrying You?  by Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz. This light-hearted problem solving “manual,” based on good emotion science, introduces young children to the idea that worry may be more optional and flexible than they believe—and that they may be able to do something about the suffering it causes them.

As a parent, I’m moved by the realistic examples in the book; as a developmental psychologist, I’m impressed by the sophistication of the advice contained it its slim 16 pages.

The cover illustrates the idea that we are more than our worries, and that worry is something that comes to us like an unwelcome visitor: “It doesn’t ask if it can enter. It just barges in. And it will stay as long as you let it.”

The feeling and qualities of worry are named and described. One of the first steps in managing a feeling is to recognize it—name it to tame it, we say: "A worry is a thought that stops you from having fun, from feeling good, from being happy." "Anyone can have a worry. Parents. Teachers. Brothers. Sisters. Friends." "You can feel tired from a worry. Or sad. Or sick. A worry can feel like a heavy sack is on your back. Only it isn’t there."

Most importantly, the authors offer many strategies for problem-solving. Research shows that young children ages 3-6 tend to ruminate, or spin their wheels, so they, especially, can benefit from help in problem-solving.  And older children who worry a lot believe they can’t solve the problem, though their problem-solving skills in other areas are equal to those of children who worry very little.

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Parents' Support is Good for Young Adults

Parents often feel guilty or conflicted about offering help to their young adults, ages 18-34. Research shows that both parents and their kids can feel that help at this age is "abnormal," but the young adults who are helped do better psychologically and professionally in the long run than those who don't receive help. Attaining adulthood in today's complex and harsh economy remains a "joint enterprise" between young people and the adults who love them.

See my full article here as part of the Greater Good Science Center's focus this week on Generation Y.

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