Review of “Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become”

Standard

In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:

1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.

2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.

3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.

Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.

In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?

a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.

b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.

c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.

The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).

But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.

7 ways to build self-worth and confidence in kids

Standard

1) See them as their own people

Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.

If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.

And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.

2) Talk to them as if they’re people

We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.

Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.

Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.

3) Help them develop competency

You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).

4) Be dependably loving

One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.

5) Hold them accountable for the right things

Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.

However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.

6) Give them room and time to play

Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.

7) Model self-worth and confidence for them

I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.

Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?

Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.

Are job interviews useless?

Standard

One of the books I took along with me on a recent vacation was Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. At one point the authors discuss a body of research showing that interviews are generally poor predictors of a candidate’s future performance on a job.

The problem lies mainly in the types of questions asked in a typical job interview and the interviewer’s over-inflated confidence in their ability to judge people’s merit. Many interview questions are soft and fuzzy (“What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? How would you describe yourself?”). They are rarely going to elicit candid responses. Neither are the kinds of questions that ask candidates to imagine themselves five years in the future or lay out their whole career path. Interviewees will generally prepare stock replies, gloss over their actual faults, and put on a performance.

Interviewers know this, but they still think that they can identify the right candidate based on the kind of performance and on the rapport established during the interview. In actuality, this kind of unstructured interview isn’t a reliable indicator of how well a candidate will do on a job. (Also, managers are often looking for people who are similar to them and to other employees, when in fact it might be more beneficial to have someone who complements others in personality and ability; for instance, if you’ve got a team of energetic and dynamic risk-takers, you might want someone who’s more cautious and low-key to provide balance.)

One suggestion for improvement that’s made in the book is to change the format of the interview. Instead of having it unfold in an unstructured and conversational style, interviewers could include some formal tests measuring abilities relevant to the job. They could also add more questions that are concrete and shed light on an interviewee’s thought processes. For example, an interviewer could ask questions involving “what-if” scenarios (“What if you’re organizing a fund-raiser and the caterer backs out two days before?” “What if your star employee suddenly starts to show up to work late everyday?”).

Deficits in working memory – but not ADHD

Standard

The go-to diagnosis for kids who have trouble learning, focusing and following directions in school is ADHD. Even leaving aside official diagnoses, when we look at the way parents and teachers talk about these children, it doesn’t take long for ADHD to pop up as the label of choice regardless of the actual problem.

In The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg, the author points out that kids who have deficits in working memory may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD often have problems with working memory, but not everyone with working memory issues has ADHD.

What’s working memory? There’s a colorful description of it here: “your brain’s Post-it note.”

Working memory helps you retain and process incoming information, such as a set of directions with multiple steps, the thread of a conversation, unfolding stories, math problems and other academic exercises. Even if most of this information never makes it to your long-term memory, you need to hold onto it for the present time to carry out different tasks successfully.

Working memory diagram
(Image links to source: usablealgebra.landmark.edu)

You can see why kids with working memory deficits struggle at school. And given that working memory and attention are closely intertwined, the label of ADHD hovers over these kids. It doesn’t help that when kids are struggling with schoolwork and falling behind their classmates, they often get restless, act out, or let their attention wander – which further reinforces the notion in people’s minds that they have ADHD.

And in kids with both ADHD and working memory deficits, the concern is that people will focus on controlling (medicating) any hyperactivity, at the expense of addressing the working memory problems.

Psychology’s checkered past

Standard

The experiments mentioned in 10 Psychological Experiments that Went Horribly Wrong are more complex (and darker) than how they’re portrayed in the article, which also doesn’t give a full account of the rationale behind some of them and what conclusions we can draw from them.

But the article is still worth a look, to get a sense of the kinds of unethical cruel decisions made by experimenters and doctors, the poor experimental designs of their studies, and the way that human nature can often turn ugly really fast.

An isolated monkey in one of Harlow's experiments

In their bid to capture, quantify or control some of our most fundamental qualities – love, cruelty, craving for approval, sexual identity, fear, power and submission – these experimenters usually didn’t account for how messy people can be (and how easy it is to let power over others go to your head).

Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

Standard

What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?

Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.

You are allergic to peanuts.

Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?

What’s this ‘self’ we’re trying to help?

Standard

Read this thought-provoking piece on self-help in New York Magazine, which asks how self-help can work if we don’t yet fully understand what a ‘self’ is: what the mind is exactly, the nature of personality and character, who we are, what we are, how we operate in the world.

There’s much about the human brain (and by extension, mind) that we don’t know. We can’t fully explain why some people who struggle with an addiction to drugs for example fight it off successfully and remain sober for the rest of their lives, while other people – in spite of loving support and rehab and other life changes – relapse repeatedly. We can’t explain why, when faced with a 1,000-calorie dessert or a pack of cigarettes or a toxic but compelling person, we’re able to turn away sometimes, while other times we give in with seeming helplessness. What is this impulse towards self-destruction that persists even when we know that something is bad for us? What is it that drives our behavior at a “tipping point” when we can easily tilt towards one decision or another, harmful vs. beneficial?

Self-help guru cartoon

One thing I think is true is that the brain craves familiarity. It gets comfortable with certain modes of thought and habits, and it’s resistant to change. There can even be a kind of comfort in destructive behavior, thoughts and emotions, as long as they’re what we know; they’re our reality, and in some ways they feel right even when they’re horrible.

Much of the brain’s activity takes place beyond our awareness. For years and years our thoughts flow along familiar patterns; concepts and categories are fixed in place and cemented from the earliest moments of our life. When we fall back on what we already know and what we usually do, the brain doesn’t have to exert much effort.

So what pushes us to change? Knowing that we should change is not enough. We can spend hours reading books or combing through the Internet, where we will find a lot of information and ideas to contemplate. Some of that knowledge may be necessary for us to improve our lives. But it isn’t sufficient; furthermore, reading endlessly can serve as a procrastination tactic (keep reading the next website, and the one after that, and avoid actually doing anything). So what starts diverting our thoughts from their habitual channels? Even if you tell me that it’s necessary to impose new habits over the old ones – and that eventually those new, hopefully healthier habits will start to seem natural – where does that initial act of will come from that allows you to start checking your automatic thoughts and responses? Why does this will persist in some, in the face of repeated failure even, and why does it die away in others?

(Image links back to its source: Entrepremother blog.)