Category Archives: evolution

One Reason We Fail to Parent From Where We Want To

We have a bad habit in our society of saying that societies standards are the problem. In fact, society is what keeps all of our most base desires in check. While the many certainly influence us, the small cultures that we’re a part of have the biggest pull.

We absorb our larger culture and our more particular culture. Whether we say pop or soda. Whether we take our shoes off at the door. Whether 80s music is classic or trash. Whether screaming at your kid is normal or looked down upon.

Immediate Return Environment

As humans, we respond largely to the incentives right in from of us. Like lions on the savannah, our ancestors had an urgent need to figure out what was going to bring them pain or gratification now, not in a month and certainly not in 20 years. We lived, for most of our evolutionary past, in an “immediate return environment.” This means a lot of our brain’s coding pressures us to favor the present over the future.

This is why people smoke when they know it will kill them, don’t save when they know it puts them in a bad position, and scream at their kids even when they know it is damaging.

Game Theory

Somehow, though, our ancestors did manage to save. Large scale civilization isn’t possible without some savings. But if our hardware told us not to think about tomorrow, how did we?

One of the few things that we understand clearly in the past, present, and future is our relationships. The prisoner’s dilemma shows the importance of the tit-for-tat function that we use when interacting with other people. Working with others produces the best outcomes for humans. This is why we like other people and need to be liked by them.

If we do defect—if we do bad things that people don’t like in social situations, we will no longer have a social situation. Social rejection, ostracism, and exclusion are tools used by our primate relatives. They mean stress and, if taken to their extreme, death.

So, we developed social emotions to help us override our desire for instant gratification. If you let me have of your food this time and I don’t give you mine next time, that might be the end of our exchanges.

If, instead of just keeping my food for myself, I can see that giving you food will benefit me in the future then I’ll want to share with you.

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Social Emotions

To give long-term choices the boost of instant gratification, we developed a host of pleasant emotions that we get when we’re pro-social. Dr. David DeStefeno goes over the three big emotions in his book, Emotional Success.

Gratitude: This emotion makes you feel pleasant when someone does a nice thing for you. Emotionally salient things are easier to remember, so you’ll be able to keep their favor in mind in the future.

Pride: This is the feeling you get from contributing in a meaningful way. We feel good when others acknowledge our work.

Compassion: This helps you feel connected to others, motivating you to make their lives better.

We also developed an emotion to feel bad when we do something that hurts others: guilt. It stops us from repeating behavior that is likely to get us punished from the group in the future.

Putting it Together

Looked at from an evolutionary psychology point of view, we never do things in the future for ourselves. If there aren’t others around, we are dead. There is no reason to plan for the future.

That’s why you can’t stick to your habits. That’s why you don’t yell when friends are around but do when you’re alone.

That’s why finding a tribe of people who believe in the same parenting ideas as you is so important. When you don’t have anyone around to value the future for, you live in an accountability vacuum. That is something that we just weren’t designed for.

You need people around to get you to accomplish your long-term goals. While you may be able to persevere in the short run, you’ll never get to where you’re going alone.

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Taking Action

Ideally, you would have a large group of people who all held each other equally accountable for following specific, desirable norms. You can start trying to build that, but in the meanwhile, make do with what you have.

I have one partner to hold me accountable for my writing.

I have one partner to hold me accountable for my exercising.

I will add more partners as I need more help developing different skills.

Eventually, some things will become part of your identity and you need less help. Eating healthy is part of who I am and I don’t need help being me.

Other things can be automated—that’s how I save. Still, other means of accountability can be outsourced through technology like the app Stickk.

Whatever it is, recognize that not accomplishing your long-term goals isn’t a failure of character. It’s a failure that happens to anyone who doesn’t have a community who share their values—and that is something you can take control of.

Try to spend more time around the people who act like you wish you did. Who parents the way you wish you did? Give them a call today and ask to set up a lunch together.

Attention Isn’t a Reward

Connection

I don’t even know if I have the capacity for normal emotions or not because I haven’t cried for a long time. You just stifle them for so long that maybe you lose them, partially at least.”

That is a punch to the gut for anyone who feels like they have to hide their emotions or “true self.” Science continues to affirm that concealing your emotions is destructive. Dismissing our feelings makes us less able to maintain our sense of well-being. Our inner, ignored swamps create a distance between us and those we love.

Time does not heal all wounds; connection does. When someone you care for struggles with their feelings, you reach out a helping hand. Sometimes pain comes in the form of destructive behavior—as a society, we recognize this. We acknowledge that addiction indicates alienation and that the most aggressive among us are hurting.
So why do we admonish people for giving their children attention when they are having a hard time?

What are Rewards?

You shouldn’t reward behavior like that.”

If you pay attention to him, he will just keep doing it.”

Paying attention to someone isn’t a reward. Loving someone isn’t a reward. Love is an automatic reaction. We should not pretend to turn it on and off as a means to manipulate.

Are you a good person or bad person for feeling sad?

Are you an upright citizen or dreg for feeling anxious?

Does your regret make you admirable or awful?

These are of course ridiculous questions.

Rewards are something that you get for doing something good. Punishments are for doing something bad. Emotions are not on a moral spectrum.
Labeling feelings as negative or positive is destructive. Learning to accept a wide range of emotions contributes to our ability to self-regulate, an important life skill which you are teaching your child how to do (or not to do) now. When your child makes bids for your attention, that is an opportunity for you to coach them through their feelings.

Attention

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It is easy for us to forget in today’s society what attention actually is. It is even easier to forget as adults because we feel and believe that we “take care of ourselves.”

Attention is our lifeline. Without the attention of others—in our evolutionary past and today—we either die or simply survive. In harsh environments, ostracism is used as an extreme punishment because we are social mammals; being ignored by your community is a threat of death and not an idle one.

Our attention and love are not rewards for our children. Once we recognize belonging as a fundamental human need, we can let go of the fear that we are rationing it incorrectly. You wouldn’t take away air, water, or food from your child as a punishment for their bad behavior. You shouldn’t take away your love.

Wanting attention is a legitimate need. If you find yourself thinking that the desire for attention is something that needs to be fixed in yourself, reflect on this belief, where you got it, and how to fix it. As trendy as pathologizing basic human desires and behaviors is, your family will benefit if you resist the urge.

Overwhelm

In the name of authenticity, we should admit that we want to show our love for our children when they break down. Breaking down can be palatable—the shuddering of shoulders, the “blue zone” that Dr. Siegel talks about where our children clam up and avoid eye contact. Or it can be the dreaded “red zone—the tantrum, yelling, crying, screaming that everyone seems to think they will be able to avoid because they will parent right.

Both of these are normal human reactions to being overwhelmed. Children feel overcome with emotion more often and more easily and have outbursts to match.

What should you do when your child is having a tantrum? You don’t need to tell them that their behavior is great. You certainly don’t need to actually reward the behavior with ice cream and toys. You don’t need to help them quickly get over the emotion. Stop harmful and destructive behavior (physically, if you need to), and just be with them. You don’t want to be alone in your tough emotions. Neither do they.

All behavior is communication. Sometimes that behavior is communicating, “I need your help to stop. I feel out of control.”

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The Quote

The quote at the top was made by a really famous guy. Jeffrey Dahmer.
I’m not saying that your child is going to cannibalize people if you ignore their emotions. They could grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. They may learn how to regulate their emotions.
You are your child’s emotional coach. What are you teaching them?

Please share this post if you enjoyed it! Comment below: How do you handle your children’s tough emotions?

Cry It Out

It is not possible to spoil your baby. Anything that your baby wants, your baby needs. If that is food, if that is sleep, or if that is just your attention.

Attention is not inconsequential to a human’s life. Because we are social creatures, others attention a is fundamental to our survival.
We are used to saying that babies only have one means of communication: Crying. That is not quite the truth. Read anything about breastfeeding, and it will tell you to look for other signals before they start to cry. Rooting, chewing on their fingers, behaving restlessly. The quicker you are to respond to these small signals, the easier it will be for baby to remain in a state of emotional regulation.

Mild Deprivation
We know that extreme deprivation of parental care causes huge problems for an infant. Famous studies were done in Romanian orphanages where they found out that children who were not touched or paid attention to had higher rates of criminality and drug use. They were in worse health and more likely to suffer from mood disorders.
The literature is less definitive on sleep training and other practices that involve the intentional decision to allow your baby to cry without responding.
What the literature is very clear on, though, is that responding to your child’s cues is never going to be the wrong thing to do. Especially not for an infant.

The point of argument is whether or not cry-it-out, as it is know, is negative or neutral; not whether or not responding is a bad thing. There are some physicians who will tell you that without sleep training, your child will fall into sleep dysregulation–some go even as far as to call co-sleeping or nursing to sleep a “sleeping disorder.”

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Sleep Associations
We all use what are called “sleep association” to get us to bed. Very few of us just conk out where ever and whenever. If you look for tips on the best way to get a good night’s sleep, you will again and again come across two suggestions: (1) Make your bedroom only for sleep; and (2) create a routine. Because our brains are association machines, you will automatically be put into a state of ease if you use these tools.
Anyone who is calling using your mother as a sleep association a disorder is drawing an arbitrary and unhelpful line.
While evolutionary psychology is often just-so, I think it is useful to note that babies would have slept with and been nursed by their mother’s for most of human history. While we should be wary of people using naturalistic arguments to push their view, using our past is not a bad default to move from.

Cortisol
What made the children in Romanian orphanages ill equipped to handle life?
It has to do with their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a chemical that is released in response to stress. Too much of it is linked with bad health outcomes.
Since we know at least one of the mechanisms that leads to poor life-outcomes, we can ask specific questions. Does cry-it-out release enough cortisol to produce negative, long lasting effects?

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Hyporesponsitivity
One of the most fascinating things about babies and young children is that they actually don’t produce much cortisol, even when they are crying a lot. This is called the period of hyporesponsitity, and you can read more about it here.
Hyporesponsivity essentially means that while you see your baby or toddler getting red in the face, crying, or having a tantrum, their brains aren’t reacting as if they’re in a stressful situation. It is hard to illicit a boost in cortisol, even if we can see that our children are having a very difficult time.
We don’t know why the brain does this in those early years of rapid neurological development, but we know it does. We also know that brains bathed in cortisol early in life set up their organism for failure, so it makes sense that it has some way to protect itself.
There is one easy way to get a baby or toddler’s brain to start producing cortisol, though: Remove their caregiver.
Our small ones use us as a buffer against stress. We mediate their emotions because they can’t.

Distress vs. Eustress
But isn’t stress good for us?
We will encounter stress throughout our lives. Some of that stress will make us more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and some of it will make us better, stronger people. We can distinguish between these two kinds of stress. One is distress, which is negative; and the other is eustress, which is positive.
Eustress is short-term stress where we believe that we can cope with the demands on us. It is motivating. Taking on new job or hobby are examples of good stress. Distress can be long-term or short-term and it makes us feel like we do not have the tools we need to be successful. Unemployment and a death in the family are example of bad stress.
Are babies experiencing eustress or distress during CIO? Is it chronic stress or does it get interpreted as acute stress?

Inoculation
There is a phenomenon called stress inoculation. If you are exposed to a small amount of stress, you will slowly grow the ability to deal with more and more stress in your life. That is, you’ll subjectively perceive instances as eustress that you may otherwise have perceived as distress, if you have encountered similar struggles before. You will grow your window of tolerance for difficulty.
Studies have shown that baby monkey’s who experience short periods of separation from their mother’s in early life tend to be less anxious later in life.

Answers
This information my awareness of the need to focus on integration. My children and I need to be linked but distinct parts. Sometimes that calls for closeness and comfort, and sometimes that calls for standing apart.

As much as I’d like for the answer to fall definitively on my side–that what my gut tells me is right, is right–humans aren’t that simple. We might never have the answers we need to rest comfortable in our judgementalness of other’s choices.

Consistency is NOT Key

children-817365_960_720.jpgConsistency is not key.

It is a common refrain among parenting coaches and educators that one of the most important things that you can do for your children is being consistent.

Which forces us to ask what the benefits of consistency are.

Consistently responding sensitively to your child’s needs creates a secure attachment.

For children and adults, there is a real upside to having routines and schedules. It allows us to be centered and mindful.

But consistency for the sake of consistency is garbage. Things for the sake of themselves often are.

What if you told your kid no ice cream, then thought about it, and you realized it really wasn’t an issue with you? What if you were angry in a moment, and disciplined your child—and then realized that it was disproportionate or useless?

There are many times when not being consistent is extremely important. Saying, “I’m sorry” means that you’ve changed your mind, or your behavior, or your attitude towards something. You in the present and you in the past do not agree on how to handle something.

Change isn’t always a good thing; but we have to be willing to change our minds. With new information comes new possibilities. With new energy comes new alleyways to discover. With new surroundings comes new structures.

What we create constantly gets knocked down, and that includes ourselves. The principle of non-self (anatta) tells us not to hold onto an idea of a solid, unchanging self because it is a lie. If anatta truly does reflect reality—and I very strongly believe it does—then to be totally consistent overtime is impossible.

One reason people think consistency is so important is because they think children are less intelligent and flexible then they are.

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When I was a kindergarten teacher, I would let my students jump up and down on my stomach. It was very fun for the all of us, and I like to make kids feel big and powerful. The owner of the kindergarten asked me not to do it because she was afraid that they would think it is okay to do with other teachers.

I talked to her about all of the different ways that the different teachers run their classrooms. About how I teach letters this way, but Teacher Ryan taught his this way. About how I played these games and Teacher Claire played those games. About how I let my kids scream, and Teacher Sean always liked his classrooms quiet.

We shared students, and of course, the children had no problem switching from one situation to another. They didn’t get confused with the different English speaking accents.

I asked the students: Who it was okay to jump on? They screamed, “Teacher Amelia.”

As excited as I could, I said, “Can we jump on Teacher Ryan?” and the kids laughed and laughed and said “No!”

“Can we teach on Teacher Claire?”

“Hahaha, no!”

These were 3 and 4 year olds, and we were talking in their second language. They were not confused at all that different people want different things, and that even different times required different behaviors.

If I came in feeling unwell one day, the kids did not feel uneasy when I said, “We have to be quiet today because Teacher is feeling sick. We won’t play many games.” Did they require a reminder or two?

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Sure, of course.

But it didn’t make them fundamentally distrust me, or feel confused about our relationship, or feel that the rug had been pulled out under their feet.

There are ways in which consistency benefits children. Again: responding sensitively to their cues, and having some semblance of a schedule so that they aren’t all over the place. Having an attachment figure, of course.

But children are very smart and adaptable. They start gaining the ability to empathize very young, and they live in an ever changing world. They are humans. Human are excellent generalists. We are amazing at building tools and finding ways to adapt to a variety of situations. We know how to reorient ourselves to new people, new rules, and new cultures.

The concept of consistency is important in a few domains. But in most, it is not. Not only do our moods change over time, but so do our values. What our children are capable of is constantly changing, and if you’re sensitive to their development, you will open up new doors for them at every opportunity. Today’s “No, it is too dangerous,” often can and should be Tomorrow’s “Yes, please give it a try.”

Something I’ll Teach My Children

I’m a woo-free natural mama. I don’t believe in the pseudo-science surrounding a lot of the prescriptions. I try to do my research, but I don’t “f**king love science.” I am not interested in raising my children to create a better, more caring world. I don’t care about the environment.

I am handling motherhood in a certain way and my son is being raised in a certain way so that I can feel good, and so that he can be strong and get what he wants out of the world.

I happen to have been raised without using much over-the-counter medicine and didn’t go to the doctor often because of who my mother is (thanks!) She isn’t anti-Western medicine—and neither am I. There are just a lot of things that can be done before you take antibiotics.

I am not pro or anti vaccine. I am not for “informed choice”. I am happy to be a free rider on the herd immunity that our nation provides. Nobody likes a free-rider, but everyone wants to be one. Our son will be getting some vaccinations; but that isn’t my point.

Whatever my choice, I will not be make it because I have a fear or autism or the heavy metals or cancer. It is because I can.

My children will be unschooled. This isn’t because, as many seem to think, because unschooled children are bastions of liberal ideology.

I am unschooling because I want my children to enjoy learning. I want to be the person to give them those opportunities. I want to influence their ideas more than other people. I want to have more say in their peer group.

I am unschooling because I want my children to be competent and confident in making their own decisions, and never have their curiosity taken way from them. I want them to remain in a growth mindset. I want them to compete on their own terms.

I am not unschooling because I want my children to take better care of the animals and the environment.

I want emotionally healthy children who are amicable, cooperative, and giving. To this end, I am raising them in the gentle parenting style, as advised by people like Dr. Daniel Siegel, the inventor of the field of interpersonal neurobiology, and Dr. John Gottman, one of the lead researchers in family systems, because I want my children to be able to get ahead in life. It just so happens that these skills are the skills of winners. While takers usually end up somewhere in the middle of the race of life, the givers end up at the top and bottom. I want my children at the top.

If, on the other hand, being at the top and being happy and fulfilled meant being ruthless and violent, then I would raise my children to be ruthless and violent.

While some might find this a dim view on why to raise my children in the way that I do, I find that ultimately, pragmatism towards one’s values carries you further than ephemeral ideas and reaching for the ideal. It is close to home that I want my son to be successful. It is much further away that I want Earth to be loved and respected so that it is a beautiful paradise for seven generations down the line.

The more abstract and idea, the less you get feedback from it in your environment. The less you get positive feedback, the harder it is to remain steadfast in your approach.

I will tell my children that we did all of these things because it is what felt good to us, and we thought it was the best way to make them strong and to want to continue a relationship with us in the future. I will make it clear that there is no shame in approaching things from a selfish angle, and the closer to home you make your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them. These are a few among the many great lessons I choose to model—and later, discuss—with my children.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

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When we take an evolutionary look at ourselves, it becomes easier to forgive ourselves for our follies and foibles. It makes it possible to keep in mind what our default settings are, and once we are aware of something, we can often do something to stop, change or leverage it.

I have talked before about how in our evolutionary past, it was much easier to raise children because there was a fixed number of possibilities in their world, and how that is no longer the case. I’m here to give everyone another out concerning the difficulty of parenting: you were never taught how to parent.

Modeling is one of the most important things that we do for our children. Monkey see, monkey do; not monkey hear, monkey do. Modeling is also how we learn most skills. A cursory thought will make it clear that watching other people perform tasks well helps you learn quicker than reading about them.

If our brains are made primarily to reflect the models that we see, both to construct an image of the world we live in and to grow into it, I want to ask you one thing: What models did you have for parenting?

I am not saying your parents were bad parents. Either they were wonderful, or you’re here making sure you don’t repeat what you feel are their mistakes. Or both.

The point is, even if you had excellent parents, how many times did you see children being raised? If you include yourself, once. On the right tail of this bell curve would be someone growing up in a day care, and in the middle someone with a few siblings.

In the past, you saw parenting modeled again and again. Because society was largely out in the open, not behind closed doors in the absolute nuclear family, we had a lot more information at our disposal.

Now, we don’t know what’s normal. Is my baby sleeping too much? Are they supposed to be this gassy? Are this many tantrums okay? Shouldn’t he be developmental milestone-ing by now?

There is a huge amount of anxiety that would be reduced if we just spent time around families as we were growing up. If we had a large variety of responses modeled for us. But we don’t.

Parenting obviously isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are customs passed down, cultural norms, and variation. Did you see some women breastfeed their baby on both boobs during one a feeding? Only one breast? In the cradle hold, football hold, side lying? Did you see some women burp their baby by patting their backs, by gently rocking them up and down, by sitting them bent over your knees, by laying them across your lap? How hard should you hit babies back if you’re burping him? What counts as shaking?

Did you ever see the colic hold?

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How do you take care of a penis? Is your intact boys penis supposed to balloon with pee like that? (Yes.)

Infant care in particular is daunting because people want to present their babies perfectly. As well as internal motivation, the fear of child protective services looms large for many people. Dread around germs also daunts most of us, and sometimes rationally so because we are in such close quarters with so many in our cities.

These are all concerns that would virtually never materialize in an evolutionary environment, and as such, your anxiety would be reduced. With reduced anxiety, it would be easier to remain unruffled.

We lack tribes, which would not only give us a greater sense of community, but more information on the task at hand. In light of this, I suggest spending a lot of time around other moms with an open dialogue about how you handle different issues. Instead of reading it online, you might actually see it modeled. This is an essential part of learning for us.

The world gives to the givers and takes from the takers. Be a giver. If there are younger women in your neighborhood who are interested in having children of their own, be open and honest with them about what your struggles are, and show them how you approach common baby problems: sleep, diaper rash, pottying, etc.

We have lost a lot when we lost our communities: modeling, predictability, and togetherness. We know that we should show, not tell, to our children. The flip side is also true. See if you can be shown, not told, what to do.

Journal Questions:

  1. What is a quality that I need to model for my child more?
  2. What examples did I see of parenting before I became a parent? What was useful? What was not?

Practice

  1. Get together with one mother that you know and ask her to show you how to do something that you’re struggling with.