In her groundbreaking book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth – a psychology professor and 2013 MacArthur Fellow – introduces us to David. She recounts how while taking a freshman high school algebra course, David’s first math test came back with a D. In her interview with David, she asked him how he dealt with that disappointing result. He said: “I did feel bad – I did – but I didn’t dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out, you know, what I did wrong. What I needed to do differently.” Duckworth reports that “by senior year, David was taking the harder of Lowell’s two honors calculus courses.”
David’s story might seem rather surprising. Duckworth observes that “conventional wisdom says that math is a subject in which the more talented students are expected to excel, leaving classmates who are simply ‘not math people’ behind.” While we tend to think of riding a bike as something anyone can learn with dedication, effort, and time, we are also used to thinking that math comes naturally to those who are good at it, and that if it doesn’t come naturally, it cannot be learned. But the more Duckworth paid attention to both her teaching and the research she was conducting, the more she realized that talent isn’t a good guide and that instead it was an attitude of grit and a willingness to grow that predicted student success. Duckworth says that initially she too had been “distracted by talent” but she slowly learned that “aptitude did not guarantee achievement.” She further writes that “during the next several years of teaching, I grew less and less convinced that talent was destiny and more and more intrigued by the returns generated by effort.”
Duckworth is quick to stress that “talent – how fast we improve in skill – absolutely matters.” But she also points out that “effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” Duckworth says talent can be a helpful boost at the beginning of the learning process, but she also notes that the best way to develop any skill is to focus on practicing at the edges of current ability, and that means embracing failure. Duckworth also warns about the danger of overemphasizing talent because it can easily lead to a fixed mindset, the kind of mindset that says “I’m not a math person so I can’t learn this” rather than allowing a growth mindset that says “I don’t know how to do this yet, but I can learn!” (You can read more about the difference between these two mindsets by reading this article.)
It isn’t just in the discipline of mathematics that grit matters. Duckworth reports on her research on competitive spellers, “Measurements of grit taken months before the final competition predicted how well spellers would eventually perform. Put simply, grittier kids went further in competition. How did they do it? By studying many more hours and, also, by competing in more spelling bees.” Duckworth also studied the military students at West Point to answer the question, “what matters for making it through Beast,” the grueling program that separates West Point grads from the dropouts. She found that the answer to that question is “not your SAT scores, not your high school rank, not your leadership experience, not your athletic ability.” Instead, “what matters is grit.”
Parenting for Grit
Duckworth devotes a whole section of her book to providing ideas for parents who want to cultivate grittiness in their children. “First and foremost,” she stresses, “there’s no either/or trade-off between supportive parenting and demanding parenting.” She notes that “it’s a common misunderstanding to think of ‘tough love’ as a carefully struck balance between affection and respect on the one hand, and firmly enforced expectations on the other” and argues that “in actuality, there’s no reason you can’t do both.”
Another piece of advice to parents is to encourage their children to play. She writes, “before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest.” One way to help children in this process is to encourage them to sign up for extracurriculars and also pushing them to stick with their chosen activity. Duckworth writes, “If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have all the children in the world engage in at least one extracurricular activity of their choice, and as for those in high school, I’d require that they stick with at least one activity for more than a year.” The reason for this this desire is her recognition that “kids thrive when they spend at least some part of their week doing hard things that interest them.”
The point about sticking with activities is crucial. Duckworth notes that passion has less to do with intensity and more to do with consistency: “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” In order to foster grit, the Duckworth family created the “The Hard Thing Rule” which has three parts:
1. Everyone – including Mom and Dad – has to do a hard thing, something that “requires daily deliberate practice.”
2. “You can quit. But you can’t quit until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other ‘natural’ stopping point has arrived…In other words, you can’t quit on a day when your teacher yells at you, or you lose a race, or you have to miss a sleepover because of a recital the next morning.”
3. “You get to pick your hard thing. Nobody picks it for you because, after all, it would make no sense to do a hard thing you’re not even vaguely interested in.”
Earlier in the review, I mentioned the problem of fixed mindsets. Duckworth cautions parents that “children develop more of a fixed mindset when their parents react to mistakes as though they’re harmful and problematic.” She instead recommends that parents try to model “emotion-free mistake making.” For example, she shares about a technique where teachers “commit an error on purpose and then lets students see them say, with a smile, ‘Oh, gosh, I thought there were five blocks in this pile! Let me count again! … Great I learned I need to touch each block as I count!” If you’re anything like me, daily life provides plenty of opportunities for me to own up to honest mistakes and model a growth mindset. (For more tips on cultivating a growth mindset in yourself and your children, check out this article.)
While Duckworth believes that grit is essential for success, she thinks there are other traits that need to be cultivated alongside grit. She writes, “In assessing grit along with other virtues, I find three reliable clusters. I refer to them as intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intellectual dimensions of character. You could also call them strengths of will, heart, and mind.”
1. Intrapersonal character: this cluster includes grit as well as “self-control, particularly as it relates to resisting temptations like texting and video games.”
2. Interpersonal character: “includes gratitude, social intelligence, and self-control over emotions like anger. These virtues help you get along with – and provide assistance to – other people.”
3. Intellectual character: “includes virtues like curiosity and zest. These encourage active and open engagement with the world of ideas.”
(As a brief aside, Duckworth’s cluster of virtues is very similar to the skillsets commended by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in his book on robot-proofing education.)
Finally, Duckworth warns that while grit is good, too much effort without enough rest can lead to burnout. She explains that the cardinal feature of burnout is “the feeling of exhaustion” usually accompanied by “depersonalization – the sense that you’re unconnected to the people you’re serving or working with – and also helplessness – the sense that no matter what you do or how hard you try, you’re not making progress.” The concern about burnout is real; we sometimes recommend our customers take a math break. Amanda Capps explains that a math break can be full break and other times it can mean “taking a break from the current curriculum and focusing more on math games, math apps, reading math-related literature, or reviewing concepts.” She notes that a math break “could also include applying math to real-world applications such as cooking, budgeting, or building that occur outside of a workbook!”
To conclude the review, I want to revisit the story of David. Remember that David was the high school freshman who got a “D” on his first math test, and who went on to take advanced math as a senior. As it turns out, David went on to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering and is now working at the Aerospace Corporation. Duckworth writes: “quite literally, the boy who was deemed ‘not ready’ for harder, faster math classes is now a ‘rocket scientist.’”
Did you know that Iceland is the leading European country for cleanest-living teens? The World Economic Forum reports:
The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to 7 percent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 percent to just 3 percent.
And also reports on a study that:
…revealed clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and other drugs, and those who didn’t. A few factors emerged as strongly protective: participation in organised activities – especially sport – three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings.
The push for parental engagement proved essential in Iceland’s campaign to reduce substance abuse.
Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organisations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings.
In addition, the national umbrella organization Home and School has introduced agreements for parents to sign. “The content varies depending on the age group, and individual organisations can decide what they want to include. For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.”
The director of Home and School Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir argues that “these agreements educate parents but also help to strengthen their authority in the home.” Researcher Inga Dóra adds that “we learned through the studies that we need to create circumstances in which kids can lead healthy lives, and they do not need to use substances, because life is fun, and they have plenty to do – and they are supported by parents who will spend time with them.”
One reason that Iceland’s reliance on parental engagement is so effective can be explained by recent research in the field of social neuroscience. An article in Scientific American explains that while we have known for some time now that the brains of adolescents are still developing in areas related to risk assessment, self-control, emotional regulation, etc., what this newer research is showing is that social factors affect the teenage brain and thus play a significant role in teen decision making. The simple version is that when teens are around their peers, their ability to accurately assess risk diminishes, whereas active parental engagement can help increase teens ability to self-regulate, assess risk, etc.
One of the most memorable memories recounted in Augustine’s Confessions is the story of how as a youth, he and his friends stole pears from their neighbor’s tree simply for the thrill of it. While this story reminds me of the kind of comically mischievous adventures of Tom Sawyer or Peter Pan, Augustine is not in the least amused by his earlier folly. In context, Augustine uses this story to diagnose our tendency to delight in sheer wickedness, a problem that can manifest itself in worse things than stealing a pear! But there’s another feature of interest in Augustine’s account: he mentions that he only stole the pears because his friends were doing it!
Augustine’s pear story illustrates something that parents know quite well: teens tend to take more risks in the presence of their peers. Recent research in neuroscience is helping us understand why this is the case. An article in Scientific American explains that while we have known for some time now that the brains of adolescents are still developing in areas related to risk assessment, self-control, emotional regulation, etc., what this newer research is showing is that social factors affect the teenage brain and thus play a significant role in teen decision making.
One study had teens play a video game version of “chicken” where they had to choose whether or not to drive their car through a series of yellow lights or wait for the green light. The researchers found that “when teenagers played this game alone, they took risks at about the same frequency as adult players.” But as soon as teens were told that their friends were watching from an adjacent room, they began to take significantly more risks. In contrast, when teens were told their mothers were watching, they took fewer risks.The article reports that “the scanner revealed greater activation in reward-sensitive brain regions, such as the ventral striatum, with the friend-influenced risky behaviours. Meanwhile, the mothers’ presence correlated with activation in the prefrontal cortex, an area known to be involved in cognitive control.”
This research points to the importance of our role as parents in helping our teens as they build their risk assessment skills and learn to act wisely. As fully developed adults with years of experience, our guidance is essential in helping our teens in this challenging phase of their development. Nevertheless, while it might be tempting, in light of this research, to hide your teen away in a tower until they’re 25, another dimension of this research shows why that would be a bad idea. The researchers found that “when they returned to the driving game after experiencing social exclusion, adolescents who said they were sensitive to peer influence took significantly more risks. Those who demonstrated this pattern also showed greater activation in a brain area involved in modelling the thoughts of others, the temporoparietal junction.” In another study, these researchers also found that “teenagers who were more socially excluded or victimized took more risks.” The key takeaway, then, is not that teens shouldn’t spend time with their peers, but rather that the time spent being influenced by peers should not supplant the primary attachment bonds of the teen to the family.
At the end of the Scientific American article, a neuroscientist named B.J. Casey pointed out that adolescence is a uniquely difficult transition period in our lives. Casey said, “I can’t think of a more challenging period of development. Every time I give a talk, I ask people to raise their hand if they want to go through adolescence again. And no one does.” Thankfully though, your teen doesn’t have to figure this stuff out on their own: they can look to you for guidance.
In his book, Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, Dr. Neufeld discusses the rise of youth culture and the shift from young people being mostly influenced by their parents to being mostly influenced by their peers. Dr. Neufeld outlines three negative effects of peer orientation:
1) Peer-oriented kids are more vulnerable.
2) Peer-oriented kids lose their natural shield against stress.
3) Peer-oriented kids become sensitized to insensitive interactions of children.
Neufeld advises parents to continue to nurture a bond with their teens and to recognize the vital role they have in their teen’s development. Here’s an article with four tips for cultivating healthy attachments with your kids, based on Dr. Neufeld’s research.
Joseph E. Aoun has been president of Northeastern University for twelve years. During his tenure, he has thought deeply about the role of education. In his recent book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in The Age of Intelligence, Aoun asks “How should education be used to help people in the professional and economic spheres?” He notes that “as a university president, this is no small question for me…the university I lead, Northeastern, is explicitly concerned with the connections between education and work.”
Like many of our nation’s thinkers, Aoun is deeply concerned with how automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics will transform economies and displace workers. Thankfully, Aoun’s own rich academic background in linguistics and philosophy as well as his experience as a leader in higher-education have combined to give him a vision for robot-proof education. The education that Aoun recommends is a blend of the liberal arts and STEM, a mix of textbook and experiential learning, a balancing of the contemplative and practical.
Education is its own reward, equipping us with the mental furniture to live a rich, considered existence. However, for most people in an advanced society and economy such as ours, it also is a prerequisite for white-collar employment.
Aoun thinks there are two kinds of thinking that are uniquely human and that need to be emphasized in education. The first is critical thinking – something often talked about but not always well defined or understood. He defines critical thinking as “analyzing ideas in a skillful way and then applying them in a useful one.” Moreover, “to do this well, a person needs to be able to observe, reflect, synthesize, and imagine concepts and information and to communicate the results of the process.” Critical thinking goes hand-in-hand with the second model of thinking, systems thinking. This approach “involves seeing across areas that machines might be able to comprehend individually but that they cannot analyze in an integrated way, as a whole.” For example, even a well-coded algorithm can’t tell us “why certain hashtags on Twitter are trending, why the global commodities markets are rising and falling, why the Antarctic ice shelf is melting.” Aoun gives a concrete example of how humans and computers can work together: “…in the case of wind blow-over derailment, computers can help a team of engineers predict when it is likely to occur, but they cannot marshal the different talents needed for the project, give them direction, interpret the wider ramifications of the findings, and decide how to implement change.”
3 New Literacies
In order to develop the kind of thinking that will prepare us for careers in the digital age, Aoun proposes three new literacies. Just as today’s students are guided into mastering basic reading, writing, and math, tomorrow’s students will also need basic proficiency in technology, data analysis, and human literacy.
1) Technological Literacy
This means “Knowledge of mathematics, coding, and basic engineering principles.” Aoun explains that, “in much the same way as factory workers a hundred years ago needed to understand the basic structures of engines, we need to understand the elemental principles behind our devices. This empowers us to deploy software and hardware to their fullest utility, maximizing our powers to achieve and create.” In addition, “because coding is the lingua franca of the digital world, everyone should be conversant in it.”
2) Data Literacy
This is about knowing how to read and interpret data, particularly as it is reported in journalism. Aoun notes that “there is little use in accumulating massive amounts of data unless we can arrange it into useful information and thence into understanding. Data analysis allows us to do this by shifting through these giant sets of data to find the correlations in them that yield useful findings.”
3) Human Literacy
Human literacy equips us for the social milieu, giving us the power to communicate, engage with others, and tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty. It encompasses the humanities traditionally found in a liberal arts education but also includes elements of the arts, especially design, which is integral to much of digital communication.
In addition to basic training in ethics, human literacy is about forming human judgment. Aoun observes that “technology lacks the discernment to filter truth from deceit. And although human judgment can be grossly flawed, humans are also adept at sniffing out the truth by using context.”
In each of these literacies, Aoun identifies the same sequence of learning, and one that should be familiar to all of you who use our Math-U-See curriculum: “acquisition [of skills], integration, application” which leads to “high level of mastery,” otherwise known as “expertise.”
We can think of a student’s progress from ignorance to mastery as an advancement through four stages of development within the dimensions of consciousness and competence. In the first stage, students are unconsciously incompetent. They lack the knowledge to realize the extent of what they do not know. In the second stage, as the extent of this begins to dawn on them and they understand they have much to learn, they advance to a state of conscious incompetence. Further advancing, they reach a state of conscious competence in which they can perform well but must do so with deliberation and intent. At the final stage, they achieve the liberating state of unconscious competence, instinctively operating at the highest level of their domain.
Moreover, just as our math curriculum, Math-U-See, is both sequential and conceptual, so is the education model proposed by Aoun. Without conceptual mastery, Aoun warns:
[Students] may find themselves overly dependent on familiar contexts and inflexible to new applications. They also make lack a deep understanding of their domain, knowing the what but not the why. This blinds them from seeing how their knowledge could be utilized in a different setting.
Thus, the goal is to teach conceptual mastery, the “why” of education, not just the how, because that will allow students to “take the components they have integrated and apply them to complex, living contexts.”
Aoun also recommends the exciting work of Carol Dweck who coined the phrase “growth mindset” to describe ways of thinking that point to our potential to grow (“I don’t know how, but I can learn”) rather than to fixed mindsets (“I can’t do it, I’m just not a math person”).
The growth mindset is essential to nurturing the cognitive capacities of critical thinking and systems thinking because both demand that students cast the nets of their minds on wide, and often unexplored, waters. And it is the key to becoming the most robot-proof person of all – the self-directed, lifelong learner.
Aoun also reminds us that life-long learning isn’t just about picking up new skills. He writes, “by experiencing different situations and contexts, we trigger our emotions, challenge our beliefs, and test the fabric of our minds.”
While it may seem like the education model being proposed here is fixated on STEM and ignores the humanities, Aoun is deeply concerned about keeping the humanities front and center as well.
“[We need to] move beyond the canard that students must choose between an economically rewarding career and a fulfilling, elevated inner life. More than ever before, the capacities that equip people to succeed professionally are the same as the virtues espoused by Cardinal Newman in his paeans to ‘liberal knowledge’ – namely an agile mind, refinement of thought, and facility of expression.
Rather than replacing the liberal arts, Aoun thinks we need to add “an experiential component.” He explains that “this means combining the rigor of traditional academics with active participation in workplaces, laboratories, or volunteer opportunities. For example, an English major might intern with a media company, applying ideas encountered in a class on the technology of text to writing in new publishing formats.” Aoun further explains that “an experiential liberal arts model integrates traditional liberal arts skills with technological proficiencies…History students, for example, could compile digital archives of nineteenth-century black intellectuals in their cities or create networks of historical texts and maps.” The bottom line for all of us who love the liberal arts is this: “the humanities are expanding their digital toolbox. As we expand the scope of what they can do, we have to expand the scope of what we must teach.”
Aoun ends his book by saying: “I believe that when people are given education, they may still be astonished by the changes and mysteries that the future holds, but they will see these as opportunities rather than threats.” While the future is always an unknown, Robot-Proof is a great resource for thinking about how we can best prepare for the unknowns of tomorrow.
In his book, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, the acclaimed social theorist, psychologist, and educator Jerome Bruner explores the power of literature as a pathway to this important ability to imagine new possibilities. Bruner asks us to recognize that the artist, whether the painter or novelist, “creates possible worlds” that we, the viewer or reader, can inhabit. Bruner says that the purpose of the humanities is to cultivate hypotheses about our world which can lead to new ideas, whether a new scientific theory or new business or even a new political order as seen in the founding of America.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey has found that parents think teens spend too much time on their phones, and teens agree. The Atlantic reports:
Fifty-four percent of the roughly 750 13-to-17-year-olds surveyed said they spend too much time absorbed in their phones, and 65 percent of parents said the same of their kids’ device usage.
But it’s not just teens who are struggling to manage their time well. The article notes that while “seventy-two percent of parents in the survey said that their teenagers were ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ distracted by their phones during conversations,” it’s also true that “roughly half of teens felt the same way about their parents.”
Many of us feel frustrated with how much technology has changed our family life, providing endless distractions that interrupt and prevent familial bonding. But few of us know quite how to deal with this problem. Thankfully, Andy Crouch’s latest book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, is filled with practical insights and advice.
Crouch isn’t afraid of technology, but he is concerned about potential pitfalls.
If we don’t learn to put technology, in all its forms, in its proper place, we will miss out on many of the best parts of life in a family.
Crouch frames his book as an exciting quest to put tech “in its proper place,” thereby making space for the “hard and beautiful work of becoming wise and courageous people together.” Crouch asks us to remember that “our homes aren’t meant to be just refueling stations, places where we and our devices rest briefly, top up our charge, and then go back to frantic activity.” Instead, our homes are meant to be “places where the very best of life happens.”
Principles for a Healthy Relationship with Technology
Here are the basic principles that Crouch sees as providing a foundation for a healthy relationship to the technology in our lives:
• Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.
• Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another.
• Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.
• Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on.) When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.
• Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding. It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.
• Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. “…it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess.”
One of the key ideas repeated through the book is that the easiest ways to capture our attention are often not the best ways to develop our abilities.
Skip the plastic, skip the batteries, skip the things that work on their own. Or, if they find their way into your home anyway, put them at the edges. In the center, put the things that both adults and children will find endlessly engaging, demanding, and delightful.
As a practical example, Crouch says that rather than the television set being the primary way to cure boredom, why not have a dedicated card-table for art and craft-making? Of course, for kids accustomed to the digital world as an escape for boredom, alternatives that require creativity and effort might not be appealing at first. But if the cords are unplugged and the tech put aside by mom and dad (push) and other alternatives for play and imagination are made available (pull), they’ll soon find that they can fill their time in more productive ways.
10 Ideas for Technology in the Family
Here are ten practical ideas that are explored in more detail in the book:
‣ We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
‣ We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
‣ We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
‣ We wake up before our devices do, and they ‘go to bed’ before we do.
‣ We aim for ‘no screens before double digits’ at school and at home.
‣ We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
‣ Car time is conversation time.
‣ Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
‣ We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
‣ We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.
Ultimately, one of the most important insights from the book is that navigating the use of technology as a family requires flexibility and the willingness to learn together. Crouch writes that “the proper place for technology won’t be exactly the same for every family, and it is not the same at every season of our lives.” Above all, Crouch says what is needed is discernment, the ability to grow in wisdom and courage as a family and to let that be the guiding light through the complexities of the digital world.
Alysse ElHage’s in-depth interview with Andy Crouch further explores key ideas in his book.
One interesting section of Crouch’s book explores the concept of “nudges” in the social sciences.
The makers of technological devices have become absolute masters at the nudge. Every notification that comes in on your smartphone is a nudge – not a command or demand, but something that makes it easier to stop whatever you’re currently doing and divert your attention to your screen.
Indeed, even “the mere presence of your smartphone in your pocket is a nudge, a gentle reminder that just a tap away are countless rewards of information, entertainment, and distraction.” Thus, for Crouch, “one key part of the art of living faithfully with technology is setting up better nudges for ourselves.” For very practical steps toward how to mitigate the smartphone nudges (for example: turn your phone to grayscale so as to avoid the red dot which irritates our brain and compels us to click the notification) read this blog post.
My wife Anna and I have spent this past year going through the required training to become adoptive parents. One of the most helpful books we were assigned to read is The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Drs. Karyn Purvis and David Cross. I wanted to share some of the exciting insights from this book.
The fundamental principle of the book is that we can only love children with troubled backgrounds when we are able to see them holistically.
Too often, parents and experts look at behavioral disorders as if they existed separate from sensory impairments; separate from attention difficulties; separate from early childhood deprivation, neurological damage, attachment disorders, posttraumatic stress; and so on. We take a more holistic approach, because we know from a wealth of scientific research that…neurological, physical, behavioral, and relational skills all develop and emerge together.
To fully see a child (the prerequisite condition for genuine love) requires that we cultivate a disposition of compassion.
With compassion, you can look inside your child’s heart and recognize the impairments and deep fear that drive maladaptive behavior – fears of abandonment, hunger, being in an unfamiliar environment, losing control, and being hurt.
This loving gaze sees past the exterior behaviors of a hurting child and seeks to know and love the interior heart of the hurting child. For example, the authors note the complex ways that interior grief can manifest itself in external behavior: “a child’s grief can take many shapes. It might look like opposition, agitation, aggression, withdrawal, or obvious sorrow. Unless adopted children can authentically express their losses, sadness, and emotions, they will never be able to connect to you or others in meaningful ways.”
Our intent is to see beyond maladaptive behaviors to the real child who has been holed up inside a fortress of fear. We use the term ‘real child’ to refer to the core of highest potential inside a young person. It’s always our goal to free up and reveal this magnificent inner core and to enable the child to experience his or her full potential as a loving, connected, and competent individual.
In other to help us as parents to see the real child, the book provides insights on how to achieve the following parenting goals:
• Disarm your child’s fear response.
• Establish clear and sensitive parental authority.
• Provide a sensory-rich environment.
• Teach appropriate social skills.
• Support healthy brain chemistry.
• Help your child connect with his or her own feelings.
• Forge a strong emotional bond between you and your child.
As an example of the practicality of the book, here’s a technique called matching that can help foster bonds:
Matching is about becoming attuned to another human being and it is a very nurturing activity…For example, by kneeling down to a child’s level when you look her in the eye, or by sitting on the floor in the same position she has chosen to play a game, you send an important, unspoken message that you’re responsive to her, that you ‘see’ and value your child.
The authors do add one caution: “make sure your child sees your touch coming, understands your loving intention, and doesn’t feel trapped.” The authors also note “if your child has a history of harm, sensory processing issues, or an intense fear response, sustained eye contact may be more than he or she can accept in the beginning.” Thankfully, love can heal many wounds: “work to earn her trust over time, and eventually you and your child will be able to share warm, gentle, and emotionally connected eye contact.”
One final insight was deeply meaningful for my wife and me. While American culture prizes individualism and independence, attachment theory suggests that we have a genuine human need for relationship and dependency. I’ve written before about how deeply children need their parents to function as a secure base, but The Connected Child has helped me realize that this need is even more pronounced for kids from troubled backgrounds.
Parents sometimes have the mistaken assumption that they’re teaching independence by keeping their distance. However, many adopted and foster children have already endured too much distance and were required to be prematurely independent, to their detriment. Your child can only reach a healthy level of independence after he has become fully bonded and knows he has a safe base with you, his parents.
Oskar Eustis begins his 2018 TED Talk with this statement:
Theater matters because democracy matters. Theater is the essential art form of democracy, and we know this because they were born in the same city.
Oskar sees three features that emerge from the interplay of democracy and theater in Greek culture.
1) Conflicting Voices Can Leads Us to Truth
Dialogue, whether on the stage or in the public square, shows us that the “other person has an opinion too, and it’s drama, remember, conflict — they disagree with me.” Oskar suggests that the principle that emerges is that “truth can only emerge in the conflict of different points of view. It’s not the possession of any one person.”
2) Empathy is a Necessary Tool for Democratic Citizenship
Oskar explains that with theater as with democracy, “I’m not asking you to sit back and listen to me. I’m asking you to lean forward and imagine my point of view — what this looks like and feels like to me as a character. And then I’m asking you to switch your mind and imagine what it feels like to the other person talking.” In short, both democracy and theater are built on our ability to empathize.
3) Community is Central to Our Experience of Theater and Democracy
You may have walked into that theater as an individual consumer, but if the theater does its job, you’ve walked out with a sense of yourself as part of a whole, as part of a community. That’s built into the DNA of my art form.
Oskar leads the team that produces Shakespeare in The Park, which allows New Yorkers to see high quality Shakespeare productions during the summer – for free. A more recent initiative is their Public Works program wherein “Tony Award-winning actors and musicians are side by side with nannies and domestic workers and military veterans and recently incarcerated prisoners, amateurs and professionals, performing together on the same stage.” Oskar notes that “it’s not just a great social program, it’s the best art that we do.” And behind this program is the belief that “artistry is not something that is the possession of a few. Artistry is inherent in being a human being. Some of us just get to spend a lot more of our lives practicing it.”
At the end of his talk, Oskar restates the essential role of theater in democratic life.
Our job is to try to hold up a vision to America that shows not only who all of us are individually, but that welds us back into the commonality that we need to be, the sense of unity, the sense of whole, the sense of who we are as a country. That’s what the theater is supposed to do, and that’s what we need to try to do as well as we can.
Oskar’s insight that theater and the arts build empathy and strengthen our imagination and reasoning skills is supported by the research of cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. To dig into that research, check out my review of Bruner’s classic book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. You can also read my series on engaging in arts and culture with your kids.
The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein’s insight is that thinking is dependent on language.
Think about how an infant’s world expands as she learns to communicate, and how the young child’s world expands even more as her vocabulary rapidly expands. (Notice that I just used words to help you imagine a situation that helped clarify a thought.) As another illustration: try to remember a time when you said “I never thought about it like that before” – chances are that it was the words someone else used that helped you to reimagine a situation.
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner
In his book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, the acclaimed social theorist, psychologist, and educator Jerome Bruner explores the power of literature as a pathway to this important ability to imagine new possibilities. Bruner asks us to recognize that the artist, whether the painter or novelist, “creates possible worlds” that we, the viewer or reader, can inhabit.” (49). Bruner says that the purpose of the humanities is to cultivate hypotheses about our world which can lead to new ideas, whether a new scientific theory or new business or even a new political order as seen in the founding of America.
One reason it is so important to read fiction and engage with art is because doing so helps us “sense the alternativeness of human possibility” (53). Bruner points out that we “account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama” (69). Given that story is so engrained to our we make sense of our lives and our world, learning how to be good readers of good stories is central to our ability to unlocking meaningful ways of envisioning ourselves in our world. Bruner reflects on reading Shakespeare’s Othello. He writes that reading the play “joined me to the possible worlds that provide the landscape for thinking about the human condition as it exists in the culture in which I live” (128). In other words, the play is “an invitation to reflection” that allows us to deepen our sense of “the complexities that can occur in narratives of human action” (128).
Toward the end of Bruner’s book he writes: “The language of education is the language of culture creating, not of knowledge consuming or knowledge acquisition alone” (133). If there is one takeaway that Bruner wants us to have from his book, I think it’s this: fiction is an essential aspect of education because it helps us creatively tackle the complex situations of life and gives us the ability to harness language in powerful ways. As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once argued, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
To read more about the importance of reading in education, check out my series on parental engagement and reading.
Scott Barry Kaufman grew up with an auditory processing disorder and high anxiety which made him struggle as a student. Kaufman was also a gifted student. Educators are accustomed to using mutually exclusive labels like “struggling learner” and “gifted learner” and mutually exclusive programs like “special education” and “gifted education.”
Kaufman’s story helps us recognize the problems with this kind of thinking. In an article for Scientific American, Kaufman writes of his experiences with a special education teacher who “saw beyond my label to some hidden strengths that were bursting to come out from deep within me.” His teacher encouraged him to sign up for more challenging questions and to participate in extracurricular activities. Kaufman continued to flourish as a student and today he has a Yale PhD in cognitive psychology; his research is designed to broaden our understanding of intelligence and to advocate for other twice-exceptional students.
What Does Twice Exceptional Mean?
Twice exceptional, or 2e, is a relatively new term in the world of education. 2e students are gifted learners who face one or more learning difficulties. Kaufman explains that 2e students “demonstrate exceptional levels of capacity, competence, commitment, or creativity in one or more domains coupled with one or more learning difficulties.” These students can often fly under the radar because the interplay of ability and disability can be complex. Kaufman writes:
Their exceptional potentialities may dominate, hiding their disability; their disability may dominate, hiding their exceptional potentialities; each may mask the other so that neither is recognized or addressed.
New Research About Twice Exceptional Learners
Kaufman’s new book, Twice Exceptional: Supporting and Educating Bright and Creative Students with Learning Difficulties, is designed to help educators identify 2e students and support them in their education. Kaufman writes:
Viewing the 2e student as neither exclusively disabled nor exclusively gifted, but, rather, as a dynamic interaction of both, leading experts offer holistic insight into identification, social-emotional development, advocacy, and support for 2e students.
Kaufman’s research on intelligence highlights the importance of personalized education. He explains that we need to shift from “an educational model that compares children to each other on a single dimension (e.g., IQ, academic performance) to an appreciation of the whole child, which includes a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses, but also recognizes the importance of ability, engagement, and personal goals working together and changing over time.” In other words, rather than forcing students into preexisting boxes, we need to customize education to meet the needs of the student.
Demme Learning believes in the power of individualized education. That’s why our products are designed to support every kind of student at each stage in their learning. And we’ve heard countless stories of all kinds of students excelling with our math and spelling programs. For example, here’s an in-depth article about how Math-U-See can benefit dyslexic learners.
And here’s the story of William, who used Math-U-See, and credits the curriculum with preparing him to flourish as a math major in college who plans on pursuing his doctorate.
What Are Algorithms?
Algorithms are the invisible track guiding our interactions with technology and social media. These algorithms are often really helpful:
Google Assistant relies on algorithms that can track payment calendars to remind me when my credit card balance is due.
Other times we question the algorithm; when Facebook’s newsfeed starts getting clogged with advertisements rather than updates from friends and family, for example.
Until recently, we haven’t tended to think of the ethical significance of the algorithms we rely on as a society. The Russian bots that spread fake news on our Facebook newsfeeds have brought the issue into clear relief.
Yet there are some less obvious reasons for why we need to think deeply about our algorithms.
In a TED conversation, TED curator Chris Anderson talked about algorithms and social behavior with Netflix CEO Reed Hasting. Hastings explained why Netflix changed the underlying algorithm that personalizes the user experience and provides recommendations:
Everyone would rate Schindler’s List five stars, and then they’d rate Adam Sandler, The Do-Over three stars. But, in fact, when you looked at what they watched, it was almost always Adam Sandler. And so what happens is, when we rate and we’re metacognitive about quality, that’s sort of our aspirational self. And it works out much better to please people to look at the actual choices that they make, their revealed preferences by how much they enjoy simple pleasures.
But isn’t it the case that algorithms tend to point you away from the broccoli and towards the candy, if you’re not careful? We just had a talk about how, on YouTube, somehow algorithms tend to, just by actually being smarter, tend to drive people towards more radical or specific content…
This short exchange raises all sorts of ethical questions.
Is it the responsibility of a for-profit company to attempt to direct us toward “the broccoli?” And who decides what is broccoli and what is candy, and on what basis is that judgment made?
The TED talk on YouTube algorithms that Anderson referenced reveals a more pernicious issue: algorithms on YouTube designed to secure high viewership to generate advertising revenue have led to an environment that is remarkably unsafe for young children.
James Bridle begins his talk by discussing the seemingly innocuous “surprise egg” videos that have garnered millions of views on YouTube and are a hit with young kids. These videos are simple: people open up chocolate eggs to reveal hidden prizes.
Bridle points out that “if you search for ‘surprise eggs’ on YouTube, it’ll tell you there’s 10 million of these videos, and I think that’s an undercount.” It sounds innocent enough, but Bridle explains why it’s concerning: “These videos are like crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos over and over and over again, and they do it for hours and hours and hours.”
Unfortunately, super addictive but still kid-friendly content is not the only kind of video that YouTube’s algorithm unwittingly puts in front of young children. Bridle shows how just a few clicks can take a kid from an innocent cartoon to bot-created videos that feature those same cartoons in grotesque situations with weird violent or sexual undertones. Bridle warns that “this stuff really, really does affect small children. Parents report their children being traumatized, becoming afraid of the dark, becoming afraid of their favorite cartoon characters.”
As disturbing as the content itself can be, the deeper concern is that we often don’t even know the source of these videos. Bridle asks:
Is this a bot? Is this a person? Is this a troll? What does it mean that we can’t tell the difference between these things anymore? And again, doesn’t that uncertainty feel kind of familiar right now?
Bridle has one key piece of advice for dealing with these algorithms: “If you have small children, keep them the hell away from YouTube.”
That’s good advice as far as children go. But it doesn’t solve the bigger problem:
We built a system that seems to be entirely optimized for the absolute worst aspects of human behavior [. . .] we seem to have done it by accident, without even realizing that we were doing it, because we didn’t really understand the systems that we were building, and we didn’t really understand how to do anything differently with it.
These two TED Talks make it abundantly clear that both corporations and consumers need to think deeply about the ethical questions embedded in our technology. Thankfully, there have been some notable contributions to that work of thinking deeply.
Tristan Harris created the Center for Humane Technology in the hopes of “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.” The Center provides practical steps for using technology responsibly.
We have put together a helpful guide about digital citizenship for parents that includes more research and helpful tips for guiding our children as they learn how to navigate the digital world.