Dr. Louis Cozolino is a respected leader in the relatively new field of neuropsychotherapy and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University. The author of several books on social neuroscience—the study of how human brains are hardwired to connect with one another—Cozolino argues in his latest work that we can overhaul our approach to education using new understandings from this field.
Most would say that the American public education system could certainly use overhauling; few would disagree that it's broken.
Among popular ideas for fixing it is that of bringing the findings of neuroscience into the classroom. This approach may be referred to as "brain-based learning," but it often involves focusing on individual concepts taken out of context and applied piecemeal. It isn't that these research findings aren't helpful, but as Cozolino points out, "renaming teaching as 'brain-based education' while keeping the present model in place is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The challenge lies in identifying the most pressing problems of this model and where to begin in addressing them.
Three challenges that stand out to Cozolino are each related to the fact that the current educational model is based on the production industry. "This model has proven itself over the last 150 years and works exceptionally well for making automobiles, washing machines, and chicken nuggets," he says. But to make these products well, you need to use raw materials that are all the same, tools for stamping them that are all the same, and a clear vision for the end product. Our challenges are that our raw materials are children who vary widely in their makeup; their teachers—the tools used to form them—vary just as widely in their skills and approaches; and to cap it all off, we don't have a clear vision of our final product.
"Education is supposed to prepare young people for the future," Cozolino writes. "But what future?"
The mistake is not in the raw materials, the machinery, or even necessarily our assumptions about what skills children will need to succeed. Rather, Cozolino suggests, our primary problem is in mistaking human beings for industrial products. "When a teacher begins to think of his or her classroom as an assembly line, it's time to make chicken nuggets," he says. "If we are going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers.”
So how do we equip children with the education and skills they will need—not only to make their best contribution to society—but also for lifelong success, whatever success might mean to them?
"What has been missed thus far in essentially all books on brain-based education," Cozolino proposes, "is the recognition that the human brain is a social organ of adaptation." In other words, the brain is equipped to adapt as necessary to navigate its environment, especially through linking to and learning from other brains "in the context of emotionally significant relationships."
A single human brain doesn't operate in a vacuum. The release of important chemicals in the brain is controlled by social interactions, and the quality of these interactions determines how well we learn. As Cozolino puts it, "our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom."
Successful teachers stimulate students’ minds and brains to learn by creating an environment that is enriched with novelty, supported by positive expectations, and characterized by safety and acceptance so that anxiety is reduced. "Anxiety is the enemy of curiosity, exploration, and new learning," Cozolino writes. A mild sense of arousal is good for learning, but in higher states chemicals are released in the brain that shut down its ability to create new connections between neurons—that is, to learn.
Unfortunately, the industrial model of education promotes anxiety and fails to cultivate what Cozolino refers to as the human "natural habitat," which calls for a context of supportive, nurturing relationships where secure attachment bonds are cultivated. In such an environment, other brain-based research concepts have a chance to succeed. But they might as well be deck chairs on the Titanic without this foundation.
If the thought of attempting to cultivate this type of classroom seems daunting to teachers, Cozolino suggests it will be well worth the journey: "As human beings, we need to connect with our students as much as they need to connect with us." Those who come out on the other side, he says, will have a new vision of what it means to be a teacher, a new sense of passion and compassion, and "the empowerment that comes with engaging in and surviving a worthy challenge."
This week's post is from one of my frequent guest bloggers, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff. A friend and mentor from Brandeis University, Dr. Nemzoff offers valuable insight into some of the most challenging of family relationships.
I once read that a dog was the best man at a wedding. I thought I was reading a spoof, but the story was real. I understand that your best friend may indeed be an animal, and you may want to honor that relationship by making the mutt the best man. However, man’s best friend can be a family’s worst enemy. Your in-laws, whether the parents, the siblings, or the extended family, may object to your choice because of allergies, fear, or the dog's behavioral problems. In fact, while animals give comfort to some, they give the sneezes, terror and trauma to others.
During interviews for my books about relationships between parents, adult children and in-laws, I heard the following complaints:
“I am allergic to the dog, but my brother-in-law insists on bringing the animal to the ceremony.”
“I am terrified of animals and my adult children want to bring this beast to the wedding. They say I just have to learn to overcome my fear, but I think they are unsympathetic considering I was bitten as a child.”
“My fiancé’s sister’s dog jumps on the children, eats from the table, and barks—no way is he coming to the wedding.”
A great deal of sensitivity is needed if families are to recognize both the love and deep connection some members have with their pets, and the very real problems other members have.
Allergies are real. I did not believe it myself until I saw a young boy gasping for breath after entering a home with a cat. When we enter into a relationship with another person—whether it be a spouse, a partner or a friend—we can no longer assume that only we are worthy of consideration and love. The benefits of our connection come with the obligation to understand the needs of others. Allergic reactions are unpleasant for all. If you do have a family member who is allergic, ask them if their reactions are controllable with medicine and if they would be willing to take it so that you can bring your pet along. However, if their reaction cannot be tempered by medicine, or they are reluctant to take it, health trumps animal affection. Leave your animal at home.
When a family member fears animals, much sensitivity is required. Instead of disregarding their concern as trivial, acknowledge that they have a real terror of the animal. Ask them how you might work with them to help them overcome their fear. Some people are so scared that they are unwilling to approach the idea of loving your pet. But others may express an interest in coming to terms with their fear.
I, for example, was terrified of dogs. My best friend bred Briards—huge sheepdogs—and I was too scared to even walk into her house. I liked my friend so much that I was willing to tackle my fear to spend time with her. She, however, showed great consideration by always greeting me through the closed door, letting the dogs out of the house before I entered, then calming them down and letting them smell me while she held them by their collars. Instead of ridiculing me and reassuring me about how loving her dogs were, she helped me grow accustomed to them. I never grew to love them, but I did learn to tolerate them and to achieve my main goal, which was to enjoy my friend. I tried not to belittle her interest in animals, though I think she was perhaps more successful in understanding my fear than I was in understanding her passion. In families, acknowledging the full range of human emotion and reactions goes a long way toward enabling future connections.
In another instance, I realized my fear of animals was crippling me. I was afraid to walk in the woods. So I asked a neighbor to help me. She obliged by holding her dogs while I patted them on the back, then letting them sit quietly next to me. After several days, I found I could control my panic and could even understand the joy of having a dog look up at me, smiling.
As for the discipline of the animal, if your dog jumps on visitors, grabs food off of plates, barks incessantly, or interrupts dinnertime, you need to examine what you’re doing. In this instance, the discipline of animals is similar to the discipline of children. Would you allow your child to run all over the house, yelling and stealing food while you’re trying to have a nice visit with family? Though you may treat your dog as if it is your child, there is a need to rethink your frame of mind when your animal is more badly behaved than a two-year-old child.
The animal lovers feel their charges are part of the family. Those who don’t like them consider their owners rude and inconsiderate when they bring their much-loved companion to weddings or family events without even asking, while those who treasure their pet feel targeted when they’re not allowed to bring their pet to the wedding.
Just as you shouldn’t bring a baby to a wedding without asking permission, so too should you not bring your pet without inquiring. The tensions between one’s own needs and preferences and those of another are fundamental to human relationships. How we manage them creates or destroys our future interactions. There are no perfect answers, only imperfect people willing to put up with less than perfection.
A dog can be the best man at a wedding, but I bet if he could talk, he’d tell both his lovers and his haters to be considerate of each other’s feelings.
RUTH NEMZOFF, Ed.D.
Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., Author and Speaker: Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)
When the world is in the throes of an economic crisis, everyone sits up and takes notice. After all, financial hardship hurts, both physically and emotionally. Without money, we become financially bankrupt and unable to supply our physical needs, which impacts our emotional well-being too. So, of course, we eagerly subscribe to news sources such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, because we want to know how vulnerable we are to economic collapse at any given moment.
But are we equally concerned about our vulnerability to emotional bankruptcy? Are we fully alive to the potential fallout of a global empathy crisis? What would such a crisis look like?
The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” although an important dimension seems to be missing in this simple statement. I prefer the definition given by science writer Maia Szalavitz and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry in their 2010 book, Born for Love. “The essence of empathy,” they write, “is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.”
Szalavitz and Perry add theirs to the voices of many others who see empathy slipping as the tone of modern culture becomes increasingly harsh. To them, the indications of this change run the gamut “from calls for the legalization of torture to the actual practices uncovered at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and ‘torture porn’ movies like the Saw series.” They also cite reality shows that present the pain and misery of others for our ghoulish entertainment.
But what about more subtle clues? For instance, how quick are we to jump to judgments about the intentions of others, or to offer smug “eye for an eye” solutions to complex problems? It can feel deceptively good to strike back, especially when we coat our strike with a veneer of concern and call it “tough love.”
Don’t misunderstand—firm boundaries are a vital expression of love. But the “love” part of the phrase is supposed to refer to the attitude that is clear and present in their enforcement. Unfortunately, the oft-prevailing attitude might well provoke a bystander to remark, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
It’s interesting that the term “tough love” was coined by therapists Phyllis and David York, who developed a program in 1979 to support parents of problem teens. The intent was to help parents lay down appropriate boundaries in a context of unconditional love.
Since then, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own, however, and is now used to describe boot-camp approaches that overlook the love part of the equation almost entirely. It seems that many in our society believe love can accomplish more when unfettered by “soft” emotions like empathy and compassion.
This is far from the case. Empathy feeds relationships; and the human brain develops in the context of relationships. When they are secure and we feel safe in them, we learn and grow. When we are stressed and afraid, learning shuts down. To think that fear, competition, anger and vengeance can reliably motivate others to new, positive ways of thinking is a serious miscalculation. And it would also be a serious miscalculation to suppose that politicizing empathy could have a positive outcome.
“Empathy is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Szalavitz and Perry conclude. “It makes the modern world possible and allows the economy to grow. It’s not just a liberal thing: while conservatives may have attacked President Obama for emphasizing empathy in judges, the right wing’s opposition to violent and sexual media and its charitable missions recognize and seek to protect this quality.”
Suspicion and distrust are archenemies of empathy, which is one reason it’s much easier to extend empathy toward those in our “in-groups” rather than to outsiders. But it’s the ability to extend empathy beyond these natural barriers that is likely to make the difference in resolving some of our most complex global challenges. And while it may not solve all of them alone, Szalavitz and Perry rightly point out, “few of them can be solved without it.”
Have you ever heard someone say that they don't agree with attachment? Well, in all likelihood, what they really mean is that they don’t like the popular parenting styles that go by the label attachment parenting. Attachment and attachment parenting are not interchangeable terms. Attachment parenting is simply one way that parenting gurus have tried to apply the scientific understanding of attachment theory. To say one disagrees with attachment is somewhat like saying one disagrees with the theory of relativity.
Unfortunately, Time’s famously provocative magazine cover that came out almost a year ago didn’t go very far in clearing up this kind of misunderstanding. The media debates that followed called on all the popular parenting experts, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik—who actually has a neuroscience degree—to Pamela Druckerman, an American freelance journalist living in France, who wrote about what she admired in the French parenting approach. Even the Tiger Mom was dragged into the debate, although her book was actually a personal memoir rather than a parenting book.
Of course, the point was to get everyone into debate mode, because that’s what often sells—so the media frenzy focused on the differences between the approaches rather than the similarities. And there were similarities to be seen if you understand what attachment is. Unfortunately, as brain researchers tell us, the way our brain works in debate mode is that we typically decide what arguments to buy into—not by weighing the issues, although we like to think that’s what we do—but by jumping to emotional conclusions about what we like or don’t like, and we do it pretty much at first sight without thinking much about grey areas.
This is essentially what happened in the attachment parenting debate that played out in the media after Time’s story was published. And it did play out mostly in the media—real mothers are too busy to obsess very much about what other mothers may be doing.
Unfortunately, during this debate the opportunity to actually inform parents about what children DO need was completely missed, disappearing down that huge chasm that exists between research and popular opinion. It’s not just that opponents of attachment parenting that misunderstand attachment research. Even its supporters don’t always understand. And the media is no less in the dark.
As just one example, you might have seen the term “attached parents” in some books and articles.
This term is scientifically meaningless. It reflects a basic misunderstanding of attachment bonds. By definition an attachment bond is one in which you’re seeking security and comfort, and of course, parents aren’t looking to their kids for security and comfort, so you wouldn’t say a parent is “attached.” The other side of that is that all children—even abused children—become attached to their caretakers. They will have a dysfunctional attachment style because they aren’t receiving the security and comfort they desperately need, but they are still “attached.”
Of all the other attachment relationships we grow up to have throughout our lives, our parents are especially important because we need them to provide security and help us regulate distress during a crucial period of brain development: the first two years of life. The process of parent-infant bonding teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world, including how we should expect others to respond to us in the future. So it’s laying the foundation for our future emotional and mental health. Sometimes what we’re learning is very tragic—and of course we’ll see the results down the road. And research is finding that it’s not only mental health that suffers when there’s dysfunctional attachment, but also physical health.
On the other hand, when parents do engage—when they attune to a child’s needs and respond with comfort and security, the attachment is “secure,” and we have the foundation we need for emotional regulation and general well being.
Is attachment parenting the only way to work toward secure attachment? Not at all. It can take you there, but so can many other approaches. In fact, Attachment parenting is just as scientifically meaningless as the term “attached parent.” It implies that there is a specific set of parenting practices underlying secure attachment. This isn’t the case. There is attachment research . . . and then there are a lot of different people’s ideas about how to apply what we’ve learned from that research.
When researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first developed attachment theory in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t trying to define limits for how long babies can be allowed to cry or how old they should be when they’re weaned. Instead, they focused on the core idea that our emotional and social development depends heavily on responsive relationships with caregivers during early life. For more than half a century, almost every field related to the development of the mind for has continued their research—and in the last 20 years neuroscientists have been out in the forefront with new tools that allow us to confirm that in all the essentials, Bowlby was right.
The very different term, attachment parenting, was coined by parenting gurus. It initially outlined an approach by pediatrician William Sears in The Baby Book, a popular parenting manual written in 1992, but more recently it has been applied to the slightly different approach popularized by Bialik. Her book, Beyond the Sling does not refer to Sears at all, focusing instead on Bowlby’s research. Of course, Bowlby himself didn’t actually coin the phrase “attachment parenting.” And he certainly didn’t set down a prescribed list of parenting practices.
To be fair, neither does Bialik, when it really comes down to it. She is pretty straightforward in admitting that many of her recommendations go beyond “good-enough” parenting and may not be for everyone. But the core of her philosophy does square with Bowlby’s attachment theory because it’s all about being attuned and responsive to the needs of children. That said, so is the philosophy behind Druckerman’s “French” parenting. And even the Tiger mom, by the end of her book, came around to realizing her confrontational approach wasn’t working. Clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy—and a sensitive emotionally responsive approach is going to be in the right ballpark.
This is good news for parents. The takeaway point is, if last year’s cover of Time didn’t resonate with you, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t have to be a proponent of attachment parenting to apply attachment research to your own parenting style. The important thing is to stimulate the right kind of growth in your child's brain through attuned, responsive interactions, thereby laying the foundation for empathy, self-regulation, and the social and emotional intelligence that will support his or her mental health far into the future.
Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars?
It may be the latest buzzword in parenting circles, but the concepts underlying “attachment parenting” aren’t clearly understood by most people—including many of those who practice it. Exactly what is attachment, and what does it have to do with parenting?
Today’s tragedy in Connecticut has touched all of America, and in fact, the world. We all grieve painfully with the parents, teachers and students of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the community of Newtown.
Although our condolences fall sadly short, especially to the parents involved, they are offered with all our hearts: we are all anguished by these unspeakably tragic losses.
We each have a "belief system" that arises in part from what we've been taught combined with other aspects of our environment, including the influence of relationships we value. When we consider that everyone does not grow up with identical influences, even within a single extended family group, it's no surprise that we stumble over so many areas of potential conflict between these belief systems. Add in-laws from entirely different cultures to the mix and the potential for fireworks becomes almost limitless. In this guest post, Ruth Nemzoff offers a perspective that can help us focus on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses, of our family relationships.
Best friends forever, as in, "This is Ellie Sachse, we've been friends forever." I've known her since I was 17 when Barnard College randomly placed us together as freshman roommates. At first we merely lived well together. She was kind, considerate, and could sleep with the lights on. We shared the births of our children and the deaths of our parents. She helped me write my books. But it turns out forever was only 54 years.
This summer, it was a time to comfort. I gave the eulogy and talked of her accomplishments—first woman division chief at the World Bank, board member par excellence, loyal friend and photographer. Last week, I traveled to her home for the first time since her death, and it was a time to enjoy some of the wonderful people she added to my life: her husband, her daughter, her grandson, and her son-in-law.
Her husband graciously handed me some of her photos. Their subject matter offered me a time to mourn. They depicted what we had shared: cups of coffee, bottles of wine, and exquisite scenery. The song in my head was "Seasons of Love" from RENT. In cups of coffee, in activities shared, in miles walked, how does one measure forever?
Best friends yes, but forever, no. So this holiday season, despite all the stress, enjoy your friends and family whatever they believe or don't believe or whatever lifestyles they practice. Let the petty annoyances roll off your back, because time is rolling on and forever is just a moment and the moment is now. It is your time to enjoy and to treasure.
Books by Dr. Nemzoff
Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)
"Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff
In-Laws and Outliers
If We Could Talk Like the Animals
In my last post I talked about the latest book from Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). Today on Family Matters, just in time to help families plan a peaceful Thanksgiving, we are fortunate to have a guest post from Dr. Nemzoff herself. In this post, Nemzoff offers the same caliber of sound, practical advice that characterizes both her books:
What is more American than apple pie? The Thanksgiving turkey, of course. Unless you are a vegan or a vegetarian. Then the turkey symbolizes our inhumane treatment of animals rather than the idyllic Norman Rockwell picture of family togetherness. Yet, for some family members a roasted parsnip and rutabaga just doesn't do it. Thus begin the Thanksgiving food fights.
Round one: A family member comes, doesn't eat, complains bitterly, and disparages the eating habits of the other guests.
Round two: The hostess is miffed. "I worked hard, and all I get are complaints."
Round three: Everybody's angry.
The all-American Thanksgiving—one of two holidays a year with no religious significance—is a holiday that should bring families together. But it can become instead a reason to instigate arguments as the universal appeal of coming together and eating is crushed by judgmental accusations and self-righteous attitudes. One family member won't eat at the table of omnivores and another demeans the ideology of Paleolithic eaters. Because the meal is the central altar on which we observe this holiday, the host is particularly sensitive to those who won't partake of the food and those who criticize the menu.
Many years ago, when I was a professor at Bentley University, I asked my students to write an essay about their Thanksgiving celebrations. I was looking for how family members interacted. Evidently, my instructions were unclear, because the papers I received described the meals in mouth-watering detail. Reading these papers, I discovered we are all putting our own stamps on Thanksgiving. The Vietnamese community added spring rolls; the Italians antipasto; the Jews knishes; and the Greeks grape leaves. Blending community customs with the traditional Thanksgiving fare has apparently been going on for years.
The lesson for today’s families with different dietary philosophy is tolerance. You can easily serve a platter of roast turnip and rutabaga, which contains no animal product or gluten in addition to the turkey. The host or hostess may need to make minor accommodations such as not putting the whole bird on the table, which looks particularly offensive to the animal-lover. Rather than digging in your heels to stick to an old tradition, blend the new with the old. Now that's as American as apple pie!
Those who do have special dietary needs might ask in advance if they could bring their own special dish or, if plane travel precludes that option, they could order from a local store or request time in the kitchen to make their specialty. The bonus is the host and new family member will spend time together and teach each other a thing or two.
If you're entering a new family, you can be sure the meal won’t be exactly like mommy used to make it. The stuffing won't be the same. The new family may use cranberry sauce from the can (a no-no in your family). You can choose to focus on the differences, or enjoy what you're served and treasure the new experience with your in-laws.
Maybe in your family, everybody pitches in to clear the table and do the dishes. Much joking and teasing and camaraderie accompanies these tasks. In other families, they may have hired help. In either case, both are demonstrating hospitality. If, at the end of the meal, everyone gets up to take their plates to the kitchen and you're used to being waited on hand and foot, don't pitch a fit about the extra work. Join in the fun because working together can be fun, and many hands make light work, as well as a much happier hostess.
Books by Dr. Nemzoff
Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)
It’s just as well that a 2010 Federal court decision concluded you can’t sue someone for telling mother-in-law jokes. Otherwise, imagine the rush on the justice system: they are a staple of modern humor. Well, not only modern humor. In actual fact, mother-in-law jokes have been tossed around at least since Juvenal’s first-century work, Satire VI. “It is impossible,” he wrote back in the day, “to be happy while one’s mother-in-law is still alive.”
When you think about it though, it seems a bit unfair that mothers-in-law are the ones branded as the primary "outlaws" of the family. We all have a lot to learn about being good in-laws, whether we're a parent-in-law, sibling-in-law, or even an aunt-, uncle- or cousin-in-law. Fortunately Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, the latest book by Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff, explains how to navigate these unique relationships and smooth the way to making in-laws a gift rather than a curse.
Why are these relationships so challenging, in the first place?
Nemzoff points to a disconnect between reality and our expectations. When we choose to hitch our star to the wagon of our dreams, we aren't necessarily prepared for all the cargo in the back. In fact, sometimes it's hard to tell exactly how much cargo the wagon actually carries. How close is your new partner to his or her family members? How close will you be expected to be? Will the two of you interact mostly with his nuclear family, or will you be expected to spend significant time and effort on relationships with in-law aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents too? The answers to these questions will vary considerably depending on the situation, but the potential exists for unwelcome surprises—not only for the new spouse, but for the bonus relatives too.
"We become an in-law by a decision made by someone else," Nemzoff points out. "The younger generation makes the choice of partner, but they have no say in all the relatives who come along with their mate." Nor do the relatives. Suddenly there are all kinds of new relationships among people who are likely to come from very different backgrounds. "They have little idea which buttons they can push, what happens when they push one, and which buttons the new person will push in them," she explains. "They have not survived disagreements and arguments. In-laws do not share a common history. They are virtual strangers."
Obviously, this sets the stage for a whole slew of potential pitfalls. Fortunately, Nemzoff has done her research. Using interviews and focus groups, she has taken an audit of the myriad issues, disappointments and challenges that arise among in-laws and has offered viable strategies that are sure to counteract the familiar cliches that keep in-laws stuck in the mire of animosity. And she does not shy away from difficult topics, such as culture clashes, financial battles and issues that arise over disability or death.
Don't Roll Your Eyes follows very naturally on the heels of her first book, Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. "In the almost 300 lectures I gave around the world after my first book came out," she explains, "I had many questions about adult children, but the one that was most common was the in-law question." As readers related their personal experiences it became clear there was a need to dig deeper into the issue, and Nemzoff has addressed the task with wisdom, humor, and cultural competence.
This is not the pat treatment most often encountered on the topic of in-law relationships. Rather, it's a truly useful presentation of real perspectives and specific issues. And while it may not turn every outlaw into a beloved in-law, her advice offers the best way forward for those who are ready to make real changes.
For more about her book, see our interview with Ruth Nemzoff, "Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" and the accompanying comparative review titled "In-Laws and Outliers."
Parents who want to encourage good decision making in their children must also encourage one of the skill's important components: individual autonomy. But how? By pushing them to succeed in the supposed tradition of a "Tiger Mom?" By stepping back as a "Wise French Parent" might do to let their children "live their lives"? By shielding them from every possible hurt as some have characterized current American trends?
If anything, it seems the recent flurry of parenting books has clouded the question rather than clarifying it. Of course, you can't really blame the authors. To sell a book, authors have to convince publishers that they have something unique and important to offer, which means they need to stand out from the competition. They do this by emphasizing their differences—even exaggerating them if necessary. As readers identify with one author or another, friends and family can become polarized, especially if they cling to the conviction that one or another approach is the only "right" one. Views on parenting, in particular, can become very emotionally charged, which can create rifts in family relationships.
But let's consider parenting from a more fundamental perspective. Digging deeper than culture and opinion, what are the basic elements that the human brain needs to develop the capacity for autonomy and good decision making?
These capacities, say researchers, stem from secure attachment with early caregivers. Perhaps ironically, our ability to act responsibly and autonomously is rooted in the security of our relationship with someone who was attuned and responsive to our needs when we were utterly dependent.
Of course, there are genetic factors involved in our ability to develop these healthy skills. As UCLA researcher Daniel J. Siegel puts it in The Developing Mind, “Although it is important to be aware of the significant and very real contributions of genetic and constitutional factors to the outcome of development, it is equally crucial that we examine what in fact is known about how experience shapes development. Such a balanced view enables us as parents, for example, to have a sense of responsibility for the experiences we provide without the unnecessary burden of guilt generated by the belief that our actions are solely responsible for the outcome of our children’s development.”
If we're concerned enough about our success as parents to care whether we are tiger moms, French moms, American moms, or any other kind of mom (or dad, for that matter), we are likely to have cared for and responded to our children as infants. If we have slightly different parenting approaches, the common denominator would have to be that each child has the assurance of the parent's love, presence, and concern for their well-being, or these approaches wouldn't work.
This is not to say that variations in parenting approaches might not produce certain differences among our children, and we may perceive these differences as more or less preferable, depending on our culture. For instance, some cultures may encourage lesser or greater degrees of individual assertiveness or other traits. But as a baseline for mental health, we all need the ability to connect with other human beings and to form healthy relationships: a capacity that stems from secure attachment.
Even further, say researchers, there are certain core "competencies" that support lifelong psychological resilience and protect children from risky behavior. These include good decision-making skills, a positive sense of self, self-control, a moral system of belief, and outgoing concern and empathy for others (prosocial skills).
It's entirely conceivable that tiger moms, French mothers and granola moms alike want these skills for their children in abundance. Sure, it's interesting, even amusing, to ponder the cultural differences between us as we go about teaching these competencies to our children. But there are human needs that transcend culture. The need for secure attachment (which encompasses love, understanding, attunement and connection) is one of them: and it's as real as the need for food and water.
We can either accept romantic rejection with dignity or we can deny the loss of a dream and obsess over the love object (and I do mean "object"), becoming a thorn in their side, their stalker or even worse.
It's the "even worse" that was the focus of research by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev and Ruhama Goussinsky, both of the University of Haifa in Israel. Their findings were published in 2008 as In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims. Why, the book asks, does one man react to unrequited love by murdering his wife or girlfriend, while another walks away and rebuilds his life?
After reviewing existing research and interviewing 18 men convicted of murdering their wives or girlfriends, Ben-Ze'ev and Goussinsky argue that it isn't simply a possessive personality that leads to murder, nor is it accurate to suggest these are merely "crimes of passion." Rather, they write, "what is perceived to be the ultimate expression of romantic love—'I can't live, if living is without you'—is in fact a state of mind that turns the partner, who is perceived to be the sole supplier of meaning, into a hostage." Romantic Ideology, in other words, can carry dangerous undertones for those who swallow it hook, line and sinker.
"You are all that I am living for," sang Elvis Presley in a song titled "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You." The murderers, who insist they still love their partners and always had, echo the words of the bards. "Only she was on my mind," insisted one. "People might say, there's happiness, and I'd tell them, it's her. People might say there's enjoyment, and I'd tell them, it's her. People might say there's a world, and I'd tell them it's her. My life was a black curtain. Just her."
What a heavy burden to place on a person one claims to love. A romantic ideal that paints the partner as a god, responsible for providing us with the sum total of life meaning and happiness is, in reality, an ideal that imprisons them in our selfish expectations. "Genuine romantic love," say the researchers, "should involve first of all profound reciprocity, which is indicative of the crucial caring aspect," They define "profound reciprocity" as an interest in the profound happiness and well-being of the other. "When I do something for my beloved, I do not do it because I expect to get something in return, but because I care so much for her that I want to do it."
Although the murderers in this study claimed they did love their victim and still do, the burden they placed on their beloved contradicts any such claim.
Ben-Ze'ev and Goussinsky argue that their findings pull the rug out from under legal defenses that reduce charges for crimes of passion. The murderer, they insist, considers the consequences and makes the decision to act despite what it will mean to him personally. His choice may be "colored by depression and despair and by his inability to cope with the impending separation." And perhaps it is even helped along by cultural romantic ideals. But it is still a choice.
Extreme examples like these aside, however, Ben Ze'ev and Goussinsky don't completely discount the value of ideals. Ideals are essential, they insist. "They inspire us to improve and approach a standard that we esteem." But the authors also stress the importance of boundaries, and an understanding of human limitations so we can be content with what we have. "In love, as in life," they write, "a measure of positive illusions, accompanied by some awareness of reality as well as compromises and accommodations, is of great survival value."
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