Book Wisdom: The Price Of Privilege Teaches Practical Parenting

This parenting bible is about “how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids.” Madeline Levine, a Marin-county based psychologist wrote this bestseller, which begins with a broad definition of privilege: the “relatively affluent”, or a family that earns $75,000 + annually as a household. These are America’s new at-risk kids, and since privilege is a relative term that envelops so many families, it’s worth taking a look at what problems these teens have, and how we can address them (or better yet, prevent them). These aren’t just “rich kid” issues anymore.

What is creating this generation of unhappy kids who are spoiled with material wealth and opportunity? According to Levine, many are denied the opportunity to develop a “healthy self”, which at its core is a feeling of lovability — NOT worth reinforced by achievement. She believes that parents pressure children to be outstanding, while neglecting the very process by which outstanding children are formed.

What is that process?

It begins with a self-efficacy, which is the idea that we can successfully impact our world. It starts in infancy, with warm and responsive parents. Parents who can avoid anxiety and allow for children to engage in creative play without intruding, managing, or becoming overinvolved help teach their children a sense of “agency,” which helps them try out new and challenging experiences.

Healthy selves are able to develop other skills essential for happiness and success. The most important of those are self-control, frustration tolerance, impulse control, paying attention, and delaying gratification.

Levine includes chapters that address developmental ages with suggestions for how to parent in order to help kids develop healthy selves. She explains why the self-esteem movement (a trophy for every participant, a graduation for every grade) has been damaging to self-efficacy and why praise is often a bad form of love.

I think what I like best about this book is that it helps parents understand what to do instead — she doesn’t just describe a problem and then the ideal teens who didn’t grow up with this problem. It’s very practical and based on hundreds of clients of experience.

Buy it here.

Book Wisdom: Willpower - How To Master This Human Virtue

This book is a great look at the psychology of decisions we make. The experiments alone make it worth reading. For example, in order to test willpower, researchers first have to figure out how to deplete it. Here is what they found:

In a well-known experiment, 4 year-old children were left alone in a room, in front of a single marshmallow on a table. They were told that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow until the experimenter returned, they would get two marshmallows. It predicted self-control and success as adults.

Willpower all comes from ONE tank of energy. Your brain doesn’t use different resources whether you are trying to decide what movie to see or whether to resist dessert. It also takes energy to spend time with difficult people because we have to constantly make decisions about how we behave around them. (Do you bite your tongue? Fight for your position? Grow tired of their unique quirks?)

Researchers tested people in different ways, but one of the most common was to have the participants engage in willpower-depleting activities. So they had them make a series of decisions. Chocolate or vanilla? Blue or gold? Tea or coffee? Most decisions were unimportant to the participants. But then afterwards, those who had been forced to make these depleting decisions were much less likely to resist temptation like a bowl of M&Ms, or give up on solving puzzles sooner.

Imagine if you were out for the day shopping for some new clothes. Or at Ikea trying to select a new oven. Or at work making decisions about your new mailing. Or visiting some trying family members. You would eventually encounter what the authors call Decision Fatigue.

Another experiment involved asking participants to not laugh at a comedian on TV — to keep their expressions neutral. This “holding back” and self-regulating (similar to what we have to do around difficult people) also depleted willpower. The participants allowed to laugh and express emotions had a much easier time resisting the M&Ms.

Since willpower comes from all one tank, the authors also recommend that you avoid tackling too many new changes at once. So don’t make a dozen resolutions (especially ones that work against each other, like stopping smoking and losing weight). Tackle one first, and then add in the next one. Avoid difficult people when you are trying to make behavior changes. And now you know what happens when you call off the gym after a tough day at work or decide not to floss before going to bed.

A few more takeaways:

  • Yes, willpower can be strengthened with specific exercises that involve doing something as simple as brushing your teeth with the other hand.
  • To raise successful, happy children, focus on self control and not on self esteem. You can start early, they say, by teaching a child to calm themselves before feeding, and letting them put themselves back to sleep at night.
  • If you sit next to a buffet when dieting, you will eventually deplete your tank for some other situation.
  • Read about the empathy gap that we are all prone to, and how it affects decisions.
  • Make decisions quickly and allowing for change: “I’m not having dessert today, but perhaps tomorrow.” The longer you deliberate, even if you end up deciding to not have dessert, you have already depleted your willpower for later.

Read the book: Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

Buzzword: Empathy Gap

That’s two words, and there’s also two places we are hearing this phrase: in parenting and politics.

Empathy gap is a phrase coined by a psychologist to describe humans as being “state dependent”.  It’s better known among therapists as a “hot-cold” empathy gap -that is, when people are calm and satisfied (cold), they have trouble appreciating others’ agitated states (hot.)

In politics, it’s also described as someone who is out of touch with “the people” or unable to relate to every day issues that voters care about, but I think it’s often misused or simplified too much in this context.

Teach your children to mind the gap

A better place to discuss the hot-cold empathy gap is with parents.  In our calm, cold states, we are not good at predicting what will bother us in the future, and on the other side we make demands of others based on our [not so reliable] hot states.

Therefore, we cannot always assume that our natural reactions can be counted on, since the hot-cold empathy gap is related to our own perspective. We project our own feelings onto other people.  And we can be short-sighted or variable about what we want. Kids notoriously are this way!  Here’s how you can teach your kids about the empathy gap:

  • Teach them about their feelings: how to understand them, and how to cope with them.
  • Encourage them to “cool off” before they make a decision.
  • Show them your successes or failures in the way you decide things based on your emotional state.
  • Don’t sugarcoat. Children need honesty, preparation, and coping skills. If you’re going to the doctor’s office, prepare for what might occur and discuss how you can comfort each other through the situation.