Why I want my kids to fail

July 5, 2011

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized… It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us.

Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth 2011 Commencement Address

It is strange that a comedian’s words would resonate with me so much, especially bringing to mind two recent child development books that I’ve read [1,2] and an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on self-esteem. But they are all windows into this same myth that plague’s many parents: that building a child’s self-esteem is your most critical job as a parent and to do so means sheltering your child from all forms of failure.

We see this insane focus on over-protecting our children’s self-esteem everywhere. Everyone at a tournament gets a trophy; kids are taught that everyone is a winner; and praise is heaped upon a child for every single accomplishment no matter how mundane. I hear principals say that every child is a genius. It is simply inadequate any more to say that everyone is a human being deserving of respect and love, and now we tell the lie that every child is remarkable in every way. However, kids are not stupid, and they know that when the word “genius” is used in this way, it simply becomes devoid of meaning anymore; it becomes cliché.

Somehow we have gone from “everyone needs to do their best”, to “everyone is the best”. And even more bizarrely, our children are told that the way to be the best is by never failing, or at least never admitting to it. These may not be words that are said directly, but they are the lessons learned. By focusing so much on the result and the accomplishments, rather than the effort, we reinforce in our children this conception that failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Research in child development has shown a couple of things in regards to this topic. First, it is not at all clear that there is a self-esteem crisis in our children nor that it is the root of most of their problems. If anything, this over focus on self-esteem has created a more narcissistic generation. Second, praise has been shown to have an inverse relationship to performance; the more you praise a child, the less they succeed.

The problem is that if we are constantly praised for our success, and not our effort, we start to tie up our identity and self-worth in the results. Failure, rather than becoming a lesson, becomes terrifying. If we are not the best or don’t always succeed, then it is something fundamentally wrong with who we are and our value as a person, or so we think. The fear of failure then becomes paralyzing in itself, and we miss the most important lessons in life, the hardest won: those of our failures.

The end effect is tragic. Being unable to overcome the fear of failure, we stop taking risks that would allow us to do truly great things. We take the safe path, and we never explore other areas of growth and opportunity that make us uncomfortable. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) myself, I have struggled hard with perfectionism. My identity was wrapped up in my perceived intelligence and specifically my mathematical abilities. Getting a 4.0 in 3 college degrees was not enough. It was not enough to have all A’s but I had to beat everyone else’s A in my classes to be satisfied. Most people look at my college career and naturally think that I took the hard path, but in reality it was the easy path. It’s not that I didn’t work hard or challenge myself in those classes. Math was the easy choice because it is where I knew I could succeed. I avoided general education and non-science/math courses as much as possible because it threatened my GPA. I was afraid of failure. As interested as I was in history, philosophy and other subjects, I never took more of those courses than required. I took my easy path. And as I look back on life, I see I have done that far too many times and missed many opportunities. Just now, in my mid-thirties, am I beginning to overcome the fear of failure.

So do I want my kids to be failures; of course not. However, to truly succeed and excel in life, you must have failures as well. I do not want to rob my children of the lessons that failure teaches or allow the fear of it to close doors of opportunity for them. Using these lessons of science and my own past failure to accept failure, I will teach my kids a new way. I will praise the effort, regardless of the outcomes. I will not sugarcoat their failures and mistakes, but instead I will make them face their failures head on and help them through it. I will not let them always take the easy or comfortable path. And in the end, I will help them to succeed at life by learning to fall gracefully along the way.

  1. Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurtureshock: new thinking about children.
  2. Mercer, Jean A., A. (2009). Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.

Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings [Book Review]

April 13, 2011

Having enjoyed both NurtureShock and 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, I decided to read Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings. This book is essentially a collection of 50 short essays regarding common child development myths, many that parents are likely to of heard if not fallen for themselves. Essays are organized in to different sections based on the relevant developmental stage (e.g., prenatal, infant & toddler, preschooler, school age, and adolescent & teenage) of the myth.

This book is clearly written for undergraduate students, as a supplemental text to a child development or education course. It includes questions and exercises at the end of each section along with some references. Even though it is aimed at specific college upperclassmen, it is still very readable and relevant to parents. The author kindly avoids jargon that you might otherwise expect.

I did not find anything really surprising, except maybe that the “Back to Sleep” campaign against SIDS may not be effective, but this may be because I had just read the NurtureShock and 50 Great Myths of Pop Psychology. There was without a doubt some overlap with those books and other common debunkings in the skeptics community (e.g., the fact that vaccines do not cause autism). I think most people will still find at least a couple surprising chapters, and if not, it at least helps to reinforce some of these concepts. I think more than anything, it will comfort some of those parents that worry that they might not have done everything they could have for their child, for example, if they did not breast feed, put their kids to sleep on their backs or were unable to “bond” immediately after birth with their child for medical reasons. If nothing else, this book helps to reinforce the resiliency of children.

I think most regular readers here would enjoy this book and should check it out. My only complaint was that it was rather expensive and hard to find for a small paperback. It was even challenging to find in libraries, and there was no Kindle version. However, I suspect all of these issues are because it is really in the textbook market, which is a different beast than the rest of the publishing world.

But it works for me

April 5, 2011

Being a new blogger, I’ve been struggling to develop an approach for handling comments in a consistent and sustainable way. Not that I have had many trolls on this blog or the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, but I find myself wanting to quickly respond to each and every criticism. If this blog gains the readership that I hope it does someday, that is not a sustainable approach. Further, it is not even efficient as most blog criticisms focus around one or two common points, which could be addressed in one place. So my approach is, at least for now, to take such common criticisms and address them as a new blog entry when I think there is enough meat there to do so and the topic is interesting enough as well. This is the first such post.

The most common criticism I saw on my listening therapy post is one that I see on many skeptical blogs: “but it works for me”. Often, when I express skepticism of treatments with family and friends, I get a similar response. So I think this is an important criticism to address, and it highlights a critical difference between how skeptics and believers think.

At the heart of the matter is epistemology, or more simply, the rules for how we decide what we believe. The rules of evidence used by skeptics are a critical difference between skeptics and non-skeptics, if not “the” critical difference. So when someone says to me that “ listening therapy works for me”, I think “how do you know”. Or even better, I should ask “how could you know”. This is not a criticism of their intelligence, but of the data available to them and the ability to draw conclusions from it. Further, I am nothing if not ecumenical. I recognize that if I try something like Airborne® when I have a cold, that I cannot afterwards make any conclusions about whether it has helped me or not. All I can say is that I got better from the cold, not a very astonishing fact in and of itself. This is also why I find such demands that I “try” some treatment before criticizing it to be a pointless endeavor (unless it is just a question about a matter of taste). My single patient non-experiment could not tell me anything. In fact, self experimenting introduces all sorts of additional bias if anything.

So is all hope lost? Am I advocating classical Pyrrhic skepticism reflected in current postmodernism, where all hope of knowledge eludes us. Hardly, but that is often the simple caricature of skeptics used in strawman arguments against their position. No, there is solution to this dilemma, and its name is science. If I were forced to give a one sentence definition of science, it would be that science is the collection of tools to address human biases and investigate the natural world as objectively and systematically as possible. And before the other common criticism of skeptics is posted, I am not arguing for scientism or the position that science can answer all questions. I am simply saying that reason, using the tools of science and logic, are the best we’ve got when it comes to understanding the natural world.

So what are my thoughts when someone comes to me and says “treatment X worked for me or some of my patients”? What else were they doing? What would have happened if they did nothing; could this just be coincidental? How did their expectations color their perception? How susceptible was the outcome to personal perception? Did the person giving the treatment have expectations that could affect their analysis?

None of these issues can really be addressed in a single person, uncontrolled, self-experiment. In fact, such a method violates every single principle of a randomized, controlled and double-blinded experiment, the gold standard, which was created to address precisely the questions above.

Being only one person, there is no statistical significance and chance could sufficiently explain it. Of course, it also means there is no control group which gets to the question of what would happen if you simply had let nature run its course? To answer that question, we need a treatment and non-treatment group of statistically significant size. If we want to get at causation and not simply correlation, we also need to randomly assign people to the two groups. This gets at the question of what else were they doing? Perhaps it was another treatment or simple consequence of the treatment (like resting more) that really caused the recovery. And when you experiment on yourself neither the experimenter nor experimentee is blinded. Our perception, especially of pain, is colored by expectations. Similarly, the experimenter’s expectations can subtly affect their analysis or influence the one being experimented upon. In the end, you could hardly create a worse experiment for effectiveness of a treatment than the “just try it yourself” approach.

Does this mean that everything in life needs rigorous scientific experimentation to establish its validity? No. For immediate, dramatic, repeatable and objectively definable results, we can often infer causality quite easily. For example, a few self experiments with a severe food allergy would give pretty concrete conclusions. Unfortunately, it may also kill you. I also don’t need an experiment to establish the fact that cuts and scrapes of the skin cause pain. You usually have a enough data by the time you are a toddler to securely make that conclusion. :-) The problem is that most treatments don’t have such a direct and clear effect as a few shots of whiskey, and so we need more than personal anecdotes to evaluate most interesting questions.

Exploring parental controls on your Mac

March 26, 2011

While there are things about Apple that really make me angry, such as most new App Store policies, there is one thing that they have always done right: interfaces. From the Apple IIe to the current IOS, Apple has always been ahead of the curve on user interfaces. Therefore, it should have been no surprise to me when I switched to Mac OS that they had given a lot of thought to parental controls and the interface needs of a child. Just to preëmpt objections from Windows users, yes I know that Windows 7 has many parental controls, but traditionally Windows users have relied upon third-party applications for parental controls (e.g., NetNanny, KidsDesk). Plus, I have to write about what I know and leave it to others to write about the controls available on Windows, Linux or your operating system of choice. Regardless of your OS, I encourage you to explore what is available to you.

If you are a Mac user and a parent, check out this video. There are so many cool things you can do, especially for little kids. First off, consider your applications. You really don’t want your pre-schooler or toddler to do much, except play a few specific games. No problem. You can disable certain apps, or better yet, just allow the few that are made for kids. Your little kids have trouble double-clicking to launch something. No problem; set it to work with single clicks. Are you tired of fixing the finder window after they make all their crazy settings changes? No problem, use the Simple Finder with a more child friendly interface. And if you want to get advanced, you can even lock the dock so they can’t drag icons off it just to hear that “poofing” sound of the icon disappearing. I even did this to my wife’s account because it became such a favorite pastime for our first child when discovering an unattended computer.

Another great feature is time limits. I define when the day starts and ends for the kids on school days and weekends. They can’t login after bedtime, and they are logged off if they are on when bedtime comes. Being a science-based parent who has seen research over and over showing how we should limit the screen time of little children, we decided that we only want our 5-year-old to have 30 minutes a day on the computer. I don’t want to track how long he has been on it, though. But I don’t have to, Mac OS does that. The best part is that it gives our child verbal and visual warnings when time is running out. There is no nagging him to log out. The computer does it, not Daddy, and there is no point in arguing and whining to the computer.

While you can filter web content with the OS controls or with another service like OpenDNS, I prefer to have a short white list of pre-approved websites for our kids. There are only 5 or 6 sites I want my preschooler to visit, and those are chosen by me and automatically bookmarked. If they want to go to an unapproved site in the future, it is simple enough for me to enter a password and temporarily allow it.

When my children get past the preschool age, I’ll probably take advantage of more features, like having white lists of pre-approved email and IM contacts. While none of these things will stop a budding young hacker, they are very effective for young children and probably most older kids. Whether you have a Mac or not, I strongly suggest checking out the parental controls available to you. It can at least make this one part of parenting a little easier.

Hi-Fi pseudo-sci, Occupational Therapy, and making some lemonade

March 6, 2011

Being involved parents of an autistic child, my wife and I go to many different groups and meet lots of other parents of children with PDD (Persistent Developmental Delay) or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I am used to the barrage of pseudoscience and misinformation from well-meaning parents (e.g, anti-vaccination, chelation, gluten-free diets, etc), but I have always expected that professional Occupational Therapists (OTs) would steer us towards evidence-based treatments. They have certainly been critical of many of the common autism myths, like the vaccines and autism non-connection. Unfortunately, my expectations were overly ambitious, and I let my skeptical guard down.

Our older son is very sensitive to loud noises and gets upset quite easily. He seems to have a lot of sensory issues both tactile and auditory, and addressing sensory issues is a large part of what OT therapies work to alleviate. Our OTs recommended that we try some Therapeutic Listening® therapy, which plays somewhat dissonant synthesized music that sounds like back-masked music rapidly oscillating in volume. I was a bit skeptical, but we tried it anyway because (1) they lent us the special headphones and CDs, (2) I didn’t think it would hurt, (3) I didn’t have the time or expertise to look into the research, and (4) multiple OTs told us to try it. Besides, it seemed a bit plausible that people sensitive to noise could be desensitized by listening to something dissonant and random on a regular basis, and we are REALLY struggling with these noise sensitivity issues at home.

It wasn’t until my 5-year-old broke these rather unremarkable Therapeutic Listening® headphones and we needed to replace them that I took some time to look into this. These headphones, with the construction and sound quality of a $30-50 pair, are sold for a whopping $145! They are one of only two approved headphones for this program, and they seem to only be sold through one place, Vital Sounds.

Being a bit of an audiophile before kids, I looked into the specifications and features to see what made them special. Of course they advertise meaningless features like “BioNetic design”, and other things that are wholly unimpressive like “9.8-foot single-sided OFC (oxygen-free copper) cable” and “Supra-aural, semi-open aire design”. The only thing that is somewhat unique is that they have a frequency range of (18-30,000 Hz), whereas most headphones stop at 20,000-22,000 Hz on the upper-end. Since humans can’t hear above 20,000 Hz normally (nor can CDs play sounds above that frequency), this isn’t such a remarkable feature to go up to 30,000 Hz. In fact, Sennheiser made almost the exact same headphones for about $50 with a 14-21,000 Hz range, (quite suitable for humans), which does not have the 150 Ohm impedance that makes them useless on portable devices.

Being annoyed at having to pay $145 for headphones that are worse in many ways (except that dogs may be able to appreciate them more) than my $50 Sony headphones, I dug a little deeper, where the non-sense only grew. You find some web sites saying you can’t even copy the CDs and have to play off the originals. It is said that this is about sound quality, but the writer obviously lacks an understanding of what it means to copy digital information. However, I could see an incentive from the company that sells these CDs for $60 a pop to propagate such a myth. Needless to say, giving little children original CDs is a bad idea. Of course, you can buy their lossless encoded versions on SD cards that can be used by certain music players at a premium, but they warn against ripping CDs to your own players because any compression could make them ineffective (regardless of whatever other magic is used to get 30,000 Hz sounds recorded onto a CD). Considering the open air design of the headphones and the fact that you are supposed to do listening therapy while performing other tasks, I would challenge anyone to tell the difference between even highly compressed mp3s and lossless encodings. This says nothing of higher quality, lower compression formats like 256kbs ACC.

The more and more I read, it just sounded like a couple of companies want to sell overpriced CDs and headphones, by controlling the distribution of “approved” devices for their therapy. A further red light was the range of things this therapy was claimed to help, such as, “improved bowel and bladder function“. More troubling, many of the sites promoting this therapy promote other quack therapies and misinformation to parents of autistic children with a strong emphasis on anecdotes and personal experience. All of this made me wonder about effectiveness of this “scientific” therapy in the first place, setting aside the over-priced hardware and non-sense about audio electronics.

The best, and one of the only sources of skeptical information, I found was at a blog called Autism Street. It is there that I learned that there have been Cochrane reviews and other meta-analyses of this whole field of therapy for autistic children, reviews which find no support for the claims of the companies selling these or the OTs promoting them. Sadly, the best support I found for the therapy was a student paper that basically acknowledged all these issues, but argued that we can’t rule out that there isn’t some effect on a special subgroup and lamely argued that more research is needed.

Needless to say, I am frustrated that tax dollars pay for this pseudoscience and disappointed in what I have discovered about some Occupational Therapy modalities. But I learned several things, and I can make some lemonade from these lemons.

First, pseudoscience can cost you money, even when you never expect it to. Sometimes “just trying” something will hurt. For example, your child could break the over-priced pseudoscientific contraption at the chiropractor’s office. This is irrespective of the fact that most times you cannot “just try” something to reliably infer that it “works” in any sort of controlled and unbiased way.

Our OTs are great people, but it seems like their field is infiltrated by a fair amount of non-sense. So I don’t really know what to believe from them anymore, and I certainly dismiss the less plausible things they say even more readily now. This should have been no surprise, as we see this in many other health care fields. Nurses have therapeutic touch, and OTs have Therapeutic Listening®. I was talking to a good friend who is a physical therapist, and he was telling me how he is endlessly fighting against crazier non-sense infiltrating his field on an almost daily basis. So this whole thing reminded me, in a personal way, that a therapist does not a scientist (or even critical thinker) make.

More importantly, it made me realize how much it helps to share these things, and that there is something that even I can do. This whole event has caused me to gather my thoughts, think about the problem and engage in skeptical activism as a new blogger here at Science-based Parenting. My hope is that others can learn from my mistakes, and maybe, just maybe, someone will find this blog entry when they are investigating this dodgy therapy.

Finally, I learned that Sennheiser has a really nice guy working in the parts department who is sending me a free part to fix the headphones.