A Fundamental Question About Kids, Survival and the Zombie Apocalypse


Image: Flickr/David Williss cc license

I was at a party this weekend, a phrase that used to mean one thing and now means something else entirely. While my 7-year-old boy stared blissfully into the light breeze having his face painted by a classmate and his 5-year-old sister tried to catch his terrified friends and kill them with a badminton racket, I found myself chatting with a circle of dads. Of course, the topic turned to the zombie apocalypse.

The question was this: When the apocalypse comes, would you want you and your children to survive, only your children to survive, only you to survive, or everyone to go as quickly as possible in the first wave?

Greg was sure a quick death for all was the best possible end. He should know: his popular self-published book on how to retrofit a Sprinter van as an RV puts him in contact with a population of steampunk tinkerers who have looked the awful possibility of the apocalypse in the eye.

Scott recommended all or nothing – you and the kids both live or both die – citing the idea that if the kids survive, you’d want to be around to take care of them. But then again, Scott tends sponges for a living. Okay, he’s a Berkeley-trained PhD cellular biologist, but can you really trust the reasoning of a man who grows sponges?

Chris is a toymaker. He gave my offspring blowguns for their two-years-but-one-day-apart birthdays. He said that he would choose to live after the apocalypse but wished a quick end for his kids. His reasoning is that the post-apocalypse world would suck, but that as an adult he was equipped to handle it emotionally and physically in a way that would destroy the souls of children. Then again, he gave my kids blowguns, for frick’s sake. And now my dogs are nervous.

My knee-jerk answer was for the kids to survive but for me to sacrifice my own tragically limited grey matter by taking a dive off the highest, nearest cliff to Boulder, CO as soon as the zombie horde passed critical mass. It was knee-jerk because: can you imagine wishing for the death of your kids in any circumstance? But on second thought, maybe leaving them the responsibility of continuing the human race amid certain awfulness is selfish?

I imagine there are existential, metaphysical, technical, and moral implications beyond my grasp. Can we please come to a reasoned conclusion on this important issue?

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The Science of Why I Largely Disregard Parenting Science

Who could possibly throw pine cones at these sweet children?

Who could possibly throw pine cones at these sweet children?

I was at the park the other day throwing pinecones at my kids when a horrified mother asked, “How can you hit your kids with pinecones!” I said it was pretty easy: you just don’t lead them as much. First, this is important because my brain is almost completely incapable of accessing the proper pop-culture comeback (in this case, Full Metal Jacket) until the middle of the night after it was needed. Second, it’s not entirely true: my 5-year-old still tends to take a vector, but my 7-year-old has learned to zig and zag in a way that makes him really hard to hit. (Note: for proper aerodynamics it’s essential to use pinecones in which the seed scales remain closed. You’ll thank me later.)

Of course, I imagine there may be studies in the fields of education or child development that recommend against pelting your offspring with small, swiftly-thrown projectiles. But gosh is it fun! And I just ran across this One Study to Rule Them All, which implies that as long as you love your kids and they love you, it takes a real, concerted effort to mess them up too badly.

The study, by the Sutton Trust, is about attachment. Now attachment is a hot topic, fraught with intrigue and argument in circles that care to intrigue and argue about this kind of thing. But basically, secure attachment describes a situation in which, “a child can safely express negative emotion, and seek proximity to the caregiver, and can expect to feel better,” the authors write.

On the flip side are two major styles of insecure attachment: avoidant in which distressed kids learn to avoid the parent, and disorganized in which the child tries desperately to break through a parent’s wall of indifference or anger with “big” and sometimes irrational emotions.

A host of studies show the benefits of secure attachment, ranging from higher cognitive and social skills, to higher incomes and lower rates of divorce and mental illness. Apparently, the benefits of secure attachment remain even across tiger parents and helicopter parents and free-play parents and parents who over-praise or under-wash or happen to have a particular fondness for watching children run in glorious mock horror as they try to make it to safe zone before being pummeled by coniferous reproductive structures.

Here’s the kicker: the study finds that a full 40 percent of children are insecurely attached. Twenty-five percent of kids avoid their parents when the kids are upset. And 15 percent “learn to resist the parent, because the parent often amplifies their distress or responds unpredictably,” they write.

Sadly, attachment tends to be a generational, trickle-down thing – the largest risk factor for having a child with insecure attachment is a parent’s own attachment. Were you or are you still in this 40 percent? If so, it’s going to take some conscious creation of a new way of relating in order to break the cycle.

Now, I don’t know nearly enough to draw the line between what is responsiveness and what is over-indulgence. But what I do know is this: after we get back from the park, my kids are going to want to snuggle in bed and look at pictures of macaroni penguins on the iPad.

I figure: love the hell out of your kids and let the rest sort itself out.


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What Calvin’s Dad Knows About Explaining Science to Kids

Calvin.HobbesGary Larson tapped into the universal absurd. Charles Schulz helped us identify with the underdog in us all. And Bill Watterson accurately represented a father’s profound and boundless knowledge of the universe, as in Calvin’s dad’s explanation that ice floats because, “It’s cold. Ice wants to get warm, so it goes to the top of liquids in order to be nearer the sun.” Or his explanation of relativity: “It’s because you keep changing time zones. See, if you fly to California you gain three hours on a five-hour flight, right?”

Again, and in the words of another cartoon sage, “It’s funny because it’s true.” How true? Well, THIS shows that preschool-aged children blindly accept adults’ explanations of things without considering how the claims match real-world evidence. So Calvin’s dad is scientifically copacetic: as we see in the comic, six-year-old Calvin is just starting to tentatively doubt his dad’s explanations that, for example, a bridge’s weight limit is determined by, “Driving bigger and bigger trucks over the bridge until it breaks. Then they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.

So will kids younger than Calvins believe anything we tell them? When we wag our parental mouthparts in a preschooler’s general direction, does the content matter? A study on early view at the journal Child Development says yes, and the implications for how kids use parents as guides through the purgatory of questionable information goes far beyond cartoons.

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New Kind of Reward Leads to Intrinsic Motivation (Or “How to Trick a Child Into Playing the Violin”)

Here he is with a guinea pig in a front carrier. Sheesh.

Yes, it’s a guinea pig in a front carrier.

I would like for my son, Leif, to play the violin. I’m a serious ex music geek and so in addition to pegging me as an abhorrent tiger parent intent on thrusting my offspring into the one-percent where they can be hedge fund managers and own things like furniture coasters, I also happen to think that music is an enriching skill that adds depth to a life well lived.

That’s beside the point.

The real point is this: in this age of Candy Crush and YouTube fail compilations, how can I encourage my 7yo to stick with his violin teacher’s insistence on months spent perfecting the perfect hand and bow position? I know one thing: the second I add my own insistence to the teacher’s the jig is up. Leif has to want to play or he simply won’t. My second instinct is to incentivize practice with Candy Crush and (be still his pop-culture-deprived little beating heart!) maybe even a pre-screened YouTube fail compilation that happens to be without swearing skateboarders and bikini-clad college girls falling off rope swings.

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Personality and Brain Structure Work Together to Grow Creativity

PhrenologyWhat does creative thought look like in the brain? With the willing brains of creative people and tools like fMRI that can look inside these brains in real-time, you’d think it would an easy question to answer. The problem is, creative people don’t always think creatively – when you stick a creative person in an fMRI tube and prod them to have creative thoughts, the result is a little like throwing electric spaghetti into the air: it’s all over the place and nearly impossible to discover which strands in which areas of the brain are responsible for the “novel, useful thought” we commonly call creativity. This has led to overall non-finding, findings like, “the anatomical correlates of creativity is not limited to one lobe of the brain, nor to one hemisphere, nor to the ‘more is better’ notion.”

Gosh, all that study of all those brains and the headline is that science knows that creative thought might be anywhere!

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Study: Music Prodigies Beat Math Prodigies at Numbers and Art Prodigies are Awful at Shapes

ProdigyAt age six, Mozart performed at the court of the Prince-elect Maximilian II of Bavaria. At age eight, Joy Foster represented Jamaica in table tennis at the Caribbean championships in Trinidad. What do the brains of these two child prodigies have in common? Not as much as you might think: a study published this week in the journal Intelligence shows that one size brain does not fit all prodigies – the brains of math prodigies are different than those of art prodigies are different than those of music prodigies. But for every prodigy, there’s a profile: distinct brain abilities help to make astounding performance possible.

First, the researchers from Ohio State and Brown Universities searched news sources for mentions of art, music and math prodigies. Then they went to prodigies’ homes to run them through the ringer of the Stanford-Binet 5th ed. full scale intelligence test.

Drilling down into the test results strikes the black gold of much cool information, but let’s start with the headline of overall intelligence: child prodigies are smart, with an average IQ of 126 putting them in about the 96th percentile. And if you were going to guess, would you imagine that math, music or art prodigies have the highest IQ? Actually, the IQs of math and music prodigies are a statistical tie, with the IQ’s of kids tested ranging from 134-147 for math, and 108-142 for music. Art prodigies lagged a bit behind their prodigious peers with IQs between 100 and 116.

And so right off the bat, here’s one interesting side note: something other than overall IQ must define the brains of art prodigies. And the study has at least a partial answer for what this special something might be: the authors write that, “The art prodigies displayed a surprising deficit in visual spatial skills, obtaining scores much lower than both the math prodigies and music prodigies.” In fact the art prodigies’ scores were even below the scores of average test-takers at an average of 88.

Does that surprise you as much as it surprised me? Really: art prodigies are awful at rotating shapes in their minds. Why? The study doesn’t know for sure, but the authors write that, “Talented young artists [may] perceive objects differently than less talented young artist and use figurative processes which focus on attention to detailed surface features.” Less talented young artists are trapped in the literal, but it seems that art prodigies are largely unbound by the way things should look. Apparently, when a math prodigy rotates a shape in his or her mind, he or she gets a rotated shape – but when an art prodigy rotates the same shape, he or she gets…Dali!

In other findings, math prodigies scored highest in fluid reasoning and music prodigies scored highest in working memory (though even the art prodigies had astounding working memories and especially in the domain of art, reported being able to reproduce complex scenes from memory). Surprisingly, there was no statistically significant difference between math and music prodigies’ scores on the part of the test that measures quantitative reasoning – in fact, the music prodigies were a bit higher than the math prodigies.

So art prodigies can’t visualize shapes with precision and math prodigies are no better than music prodigies at seeing the consequences of numbers.

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Study Shows the Difference Between Shyness and Social Anxiety in Children

Scared.SistersSome shy babies become shy, happy children. Others become withdrawn and socially anxious. A study just published in the journal Infant and Child Development tested babies and looked inside the brains of 7-year-olds to discover the difference: it turns out that the amount of cognitive conflict a shy child feels when life isn’t “clean” can predict whether they sink or swim in challenging social situations.

Let’s start at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start.

First, researchers including Ayelet Lahat and Nathan Fox measured something called “Behavioral Inhibition” in infants at 24 and 36 months old. Basically, after asking moms about their children’s temperaments, researchers presented babies with new stimuli and watched what they did. Some eagerly engaged, while others did so only cautiously or even pulled away. For now, think of behavioral inhibition as a shorthand for shyness: some babies were shy and others weren’t.

Then the researchers waited until kids turned seven and then did another round of tests. This time, kids started with something called the Flanker Task: a target shape is surrounded by a bunch of distracting shapes and so the Flanker task requires inhibiting the distractions while focusing on the target. The difficulty of keeping some things in mind and others out is “cognitive conflict” and researchers saw each subject’s amount of cognitive conflict as the electrical activity produced by a specific part of their brains during the Flanker task.

So far we have shy babies with varying degrees of cognitive conflict and there was one final piece: social exclusion. In a game called the Ball Task, a child is paired with a same-age, same-gender “friend” and then they play catch with a researcher. Only, for 60 seconds the researcher throws the ball only to the friend and not to the subject – for a minute, one child is excluded.

How does this excluded child react? Well, in the case of this study’s 81 seven-year-olds, the responses were divided as follows: “Aggressive (.60%; dropped due to the low frequency); directly assertive (12.6%; child stood up for him/herself); indirectly assertive (31%; child stayed involved in the situation but did not directly stand up for him/herself); passive-redirect (13.2%; child directed attention elsewhere); or passive-withdrawal (42.5%; child withdrew from the situation).”

What would you want for your child? In this situation, many parents would want their child to say something like, “Hey, throw the ball to me too!” And we can see that 12.6% of children did – they were “directly assertive”. But far more drifted away from the game.

Of course, you would expect the shy children to withdraw, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. Alone, the shy children were no more likely to go gently into the background than less shy children. It was only the shy children who also experienced high cognitive conflict that drifted away. Put another way, it’s not simply shy children that withdraw in the face of social challenge, it’s shy anxious children.

The researchers write that, “Children with [high conflict monitoring] who are also highly behaviorally inhibited may not flexibly engage their control processes, resulting in rigid, inflexible, and over-controlled behaviors. This over control may result in increased withdrawal during challenging social situations.”

Reams of research show that it’s not easy to be a shy child. This new study adds a layer: it is especially difficult to be a shy, anxious child.

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Intuition, Emotion-Based Learning & the Iowa Gambling Task

Water.DropHow much certainty do you have in your life? Are you certain there’s enough milk in the refrigerator to last through tomorrow morning? Do you think you can drive 20mph over the speed limit without getting a ticket? What are the chances the person you met at a bar last night will be your life partner? These are the murky calculations of our lives and a slew of research over decades of work has shown that it’s not just our brains that make these decisions – or, of course it’s your brain, but rather than the Spock-like logical side of your intelligence, many of our most difficult choices are decided by hunches, gut feelings and the kneejerk of reactions that are beyond or beneath consciousness.

This is what researchers call emotion-based learning: Based on the emotional significance of past events, you learn to approach or avoid similar situations in the future — without needing to process these situations consciously. The horror of that morning last month without milk for your coffee makes you reconsider the splash that may or may not be in the ‘fridge now; you know the five minutes you’d save going 60 in a 40 aren’t worth the $200 ticket and half an hour of being pulled over; and about that fling who was sexy in a self-destructive way last night? Well, if you’ve been down that road before, your emotion-based learning should tell you to steer clear now.

So why, so often, does it fail? And how can you ensure your emotion-based learning leads your intuitions in the correct direction?

These are questions of a recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology by Oliver Hugh Turnbull and colleagues. As the paper points out, much of what we know about emotion-based learning comes from a test called the Iowa Gambling Task – and it’s been exactly 20 years since Antoine Bechara’s famous paper put the IGT on the map. Variations exist, but basically the IGT asks you to pick cards from one of three decks. Some cards give a reward and some cards penalize you, and here’s the important part: the decks are stacked so that some pay more than others.

You can’t use sense to make sense of a senseless world. (Does that make sense?) Instead, the human brain has developed a second system: Even before picking enough cards for a cribbage hand, people tend to develop “hunches,” which researchers can see as increased skin conductivity when subjects hover over the wrong decks – like Venkman’s famous scene in Ghostbusters, subjects anticipate being punished before they can articulate their understanding that a punishment is coming. (That is, unless the subject has a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in which case they continue to act like your friend whose lack of emotion-based learning dooms him or her to strings of failed relationships and many mornings without milk in the ‘fridge.)

Amnesia, even dementia? Turnbull and colleagues point out that these things that can ravage what we think of as “memory” may not affect emotion-based learning at all. These learning systems are independent: you can learn with your head or with your heart (okay, okay, emotion-based learning technically remains just another area of your “head” but you get the point).

No matter the mechanics, you know that some people have more emotion-based learning than others. Let’s let the cat out of the bag and give it a name we all understand: some people are intuitive and others aren’t.

And the overwhelming message of Turnbull looking back at 20 years of Bechara is that unless you’ve taken a hit to the VMPFC, you probably have whispers of intuition, only, so many of us choose not to listen. And even if we listen, we choose not to hear.

Bechara shows (and Turnbull reports) that sometimes the smarter we are – the higher our IQ – the poorer we do on the Iowa Gambling Task. That’s because smart people may try to impose their cerebral might on a task they could have “felt” their way through much earlier. They may choose to not hear the whispers of intuition. Other subjects in these tests choose to willfully disregard their hunches, imagining these hunches are false whisperings and that any information they can’t source in their consciousness must be less valid than things we call “thoughts.” These people listen but choose not to hear.

“For much of its history, psychological science focused on rational choice, rather that the less well-specified and emotion-based intuitive aspects of human choice. These later systems are clearly enormously important for human beings,” Turnbull writes.

In education and business and the ivory towers of research institutions, we’ve wrung the juice from the rutabaga of rationality. But even after 20 years, the study of how we are led by our emotions and how we might best use our poweful intuition is just gathering steam.

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Wisdom and Narcissism: What Makes a Good Leader?


Study: only one of the five components of wisdom is associated with transformational leadership. And another component of wisdom actually blocks leadership ability.

Narcissists make seductive leaders: they love themselves and so of course you should love them, too. But despite narcissists’ magnetism and outward-facing confidence that frequently land them in positions of power, we all know that narcissists make bad leaders…right? And, of course, we all know that wise people make good leaders…right? A study in press at Leadership & Organizational Development Journal challenges the popular understanding of both. And it turns out the influence of narcissism and wisdom on leadership is more nuanced than you might expect.

Let’s start with a curveball about narcissism, where the science has been mixed. For example, this famous study of Major League Baseball CEOs shows that a CEO’s narcissism is negatively related to the team’s winning percentage and to fan attendance – in other words, it’s terrible for leadership! But on the other hand, this second equally famous study compared the narcissism of U.S. Presidents to their “charismatic leadership” and measures of performance and found that the greater a president’s narcissism, the greater his influence. (By the way, raters independently agreed that FDR and Lyndon Johnson were the most narcissistic leaders of the pre-Bush era.)

So which is it? Does narcissism make for a transformational leader or a self-involved paper tiger?

Put the question on hold. We’ll get there. For now, let’s take a peek at this new study in JODJ. The study by researchers at the University of Queensland went inside a high school to interview and test 77 employees – not just for their own wisdom, narcissism and leadership, but their opinions about their colleagues.

Here’s a neat test you can try at home: the researchers asked teachers, administrators and other school staff to think aloud for 12 minutes about the following question, pulled from a test called the Berlin paradigm: “In reflecting over their lives, people sometimes realize that they have not achieved what they once planned to achieve. What should one/they do and consider?” Independent raters scored these recorder answers and subjects got a wisdom score from 1-7. (By the way, scores ranged from only 2.00 to 3.47 on the 7-point scale – wisdom is difficult!)

Then they had subjects self-report their narcissism by answering a 16-item quiz based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. And finally subjects’ transformational leadership was scored by three colleagues.

Narcissism, wisdom and leadership: how did they stack up?

Let’s start with a robust, clean conclusion: the authors write that, “Narcissism had a significant and negative effect on transformational leadership.”  But then wisdom wasn’t nearly as clean. When the researchers looked inside wisdom they found that of five widely-recognized components of wisdom, only one was associated with strong leadership and one component of wisdom actually made for less effective leaders. Read that again: there’s something inside wisdom that makes a bad leader.

Here’s another game you can try – even if you don’t know exactly what the following five components of wisdom mean, can you pick the one that led to good leadership and the one that blocked it: Rich factual knowledge about life, Rich procedural knowledge about life, Lifespan contextualism, relativism of values and life priorities, and recognition and management of uncertainty.

Here (finally) are some answers:

  • While knowing that societal, interpersonal and personal values and priorities shift is a component of wisdom, this wishy-washy relativism makes for a bad leader. Rather, it seems that a little bit of absolutist idealism is needed to pull people along by your example (perhaps consider George HW Bush…and also Hitler). The wise flip-flop; strong leaders do not.
  • It doesn’t matter how much you know, or how much you understand, or how fully you appreciate your own and others’ histories and possibilities (that perplexing “lifespan contextualism” factor) – these things make you wise, but they don’t help or hurt your ability to lead.
  • The only piece of wisdom that makes for a transformational leader is the ability to recognize and manage uncertainty.

It seems that rather than knowing anything or being able to do anything or understanding life’s changing complexities, what we want from a leader is simply the ability to courageously march into the unknown and make it safe for the rest of us to follow.

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4 Scientifically Proven Ways to Teach Kindness to Kids and Teens

(Note: Kristi and I find the best way to teach kindness is to tire them out. Kids are especially kind when they're sleeping...)

(Note: Kristi and I find the best way to teach kindness is to tire them out. Kids seem especially kind when they’re sleeping…)

Thanks to Free Spirit Publishing for tracking me down to write a post in support of Random Acts of Kindness Week! The following post originally appeared yesterday at the Free Spirit Blog.

Maybe if you turn three times in a circle while hopping on one leg and then hoot the Stanford University fight song in the voice of a tawny owl, you can make the young people in your life kinder—to you, to their peers, to themselves. Poof! Just like magic, empathy, goodwill, and cute-puppy-hugging will abound. And if that doesn’t work, try these four strategies shown in peer-reviewed journal studies to boost kindness in children and teens.

Note: The articles linked in the post are published in journals that require membership or payment to access.

1. Model Empathy
A study published in the journal Child Development looked at how teachers influenced empathy and aggression in 82 middle school classrooms. What the study found is very cool: Teachers who had a high aversion to aggression “enhanced the self-perceptions of both aggressive and withdrawn children.” By refusing aggression, teachers didn’t throw aggressive students under the bus—instead, everyone felt better about themselves and others. And teachers who rejected aggression in favor of personal warmth toward their students created classrooms in which students self-policed violence from the room while respecting their more withdrawn classmates.

2. Use Folktales
Think about the folktales you know: Anansi and the Dispersal of Wisdom, Jack and the Beanstalk, Coyote Places the Stars. Not only are these tales moral lessons, but they expose kids to the ways cultures around the world deal with their problems. An article in the International Journal of Early Childhood describes the experience of a Kenyan teacher in the period just after independence from British colonial rule who used Indian folktales to teach kindness in his classroom. He told the story of The King of the Banyan Deer, who offers to sacrifice his life to save a mother deer from another herd. He told the story of A Glass of Doodh (a tea and milk beverage), in which a king presents a full glass of doodh to a priest and his people seeking refuge in the kingdom—the king means the full glass to show that the kingdom is already full, but the priest adds sugar, showing that his people would sweeten the kingdom without overflowing the glass. Through teaching these folktales and then helping kids act them out, the teacher observed that, “This diverse group of children treated each other more kindly, talked to each other in respectful tones, and played with children who were members of ethnic groups other than their own.”

3. Make Kids Feel Good
In a famous paper subtitled “Cookies and Kindness” researchers Alice Isen and Paula Levin show that kids who feel good about themselves are kinder to others. When subjects found a dime in the coin-return well of a pay phone (yes, this was 1972), they were more likely to help a person pick up dropped papers. When researchers gave kids cookies, they were more likely to volunteer to help a peer in need. The researchers put it this way: “Subjects who have unexpectedly received cookies help more.” (My wife knows this: in me, oatmeal raisin cookies spontaneously induce laundry-folding behaviors.)

4. Doing Is Knowing

Modeling is all well and good (see #1), but then the time comes when a child needs to experience acting kindly to make it part of his or her behavioral and emotional repertoire. Really: As lovely as Dora the Explorer undoubtedly is, a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development shows that kids who role-play acts of kindness go on to act more kindly in everyday life than kids who watched similar acts of kindness on television. You probably already guessed that, but it’s always good to have proof: Help your kids walk a mile in the shoes of kindness and they will learn to be kind.

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