Why are some poor kids resilient? Parenting makes the difference

There’s fascinating new research showing us something about where ‘grit’ comes from. ‘Why do some children who grow up in poverty do well, while others struggle?’ Alix Spiegel asks in this article. She answers the question with some fascinating new research showing how the quality of an infant’s attachment to her mother makes an enormous difference to sensitive kids, and that this difference grows over time.

Some infants are a lot more sensitive to the environment than others. These sensitive babies are the kids at highest risk of behavioural problems as they get older. Sensitive babies in this research who showed an insecure attachment to their mothers in infancy (i.e., not soothed by the mother’s presence, not happy to see mother after a separation) are the ones who grew into troubled children with the most severe behavioural problems.

Fascinatingly, though, the sensitive babies who showed secure attachments to their mothers in infancy were the ones who grew into the best kids, with the lowest number of problem behaviours.

(The children with low set points [an indicator of less sensitivity to the environment] were not as good as the best or as bad as the worst, no matter their parenting.)

And perhaps most interestingly, Spiegel writes that ‘The behavior of the children with high set points and secure attachments to their mothers compared favorably with the behavior of children whose environments were often much easier.’ The kids who were growing up in high-risk poverty who were sensitive to the environment (‘high set points’) and who experienced secure attachment to their mothers, actually did better than kids growing up with a lot more advantages.


Thank you to Ben Peterson at Newsana–http://www.newsana.com/— for bringing this to my attention!

For those interested in following this farther and deeper, you can go to the source:

Poverty, Problem Behavior, and Promise: Differential Susceptibility Among Infants Reared in Poverty, by Elisabeth Conradt, Jeffrey Measelle, and Jennifer C. Ablow  http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/01/29/0956797612457381

You might also be interested in Dan Keating’s work– http://books.google.com/books/about/Nature_and_Nurture_in_Early_Child_Develo.html?id=0hdB63OT_RYC

or Stephen Suomi’s fascinating studies with cross-fostering monkeys, discussed by Dan Keating in The Nature and Nurture of Early Child Development, and elsewhere–

e.g., http://books.google.com/books?id=R8-HitN5Jp0C&pg=PA254&dq=stephen+suomi&hl=en&sa=X&ei=rCAuUcbnFIba9ASqvYDYDw&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=stephen%20suomi&f=false

Creativity: A Slow, Messy, Painful Slog, Followed by an AHA! (and More Work)

Creativity is mysterious, but it’s a lot more accessible than most people realize. The hard part about it isn’t the magic, but rather the fact that it’s built on and emerges from a whole lot of hard work.

Mark Changizi is a theoretical neurobiologist, who describes himself as ‘struggling with creativity both as a scientist trying to remain creative, and as a scientist trying to understand creativity.’ He writes a delightful blog for The Creativity Post on all manner of creativity topics.

In his most recent post, ‘The Provably Non-Incremental Nature of Creativity,’ he writes about the slow, painful, messy slogging that’s required to get to the beautiful magical AHA! moment: ‘Discoveries can be dressed up well, but the way we go about finding our ideas is almost always an embarrassing display of buffoonery.’

His analysis is both discouraging–creative breakthroughs take a lot of work over a lot of time, and require a tedious painful detailed muddling-through process–and totally encouraging–creativity is accessible to anyone willing to put in the work. He writes, ‘There’s no recipe for discovery… I’ve been able to prove that for some discoveries it is intrinsically impossible to know how close one is to reaching the end. For these puzzles, sudden breakthroughs—aha moments—are in fact logically required rather than due to some quirk of human psychology.’


5 ways to increase happiness

There are a lot of reasons people are feeling more stressed right now than usual–Hurricane Sandy, economic worries, political uncertainty, and also (in the northern half of the northern hemisphere) the fact that it’s November and the light is decreasing every day.

If you’re a parent–specially of a small child–it becomes even more important to manage that stress well. Little ones absorb our feelings and worry when we worry. Here are five great ideas for coping, and reducing the likelihood of the added stress burden leading to further problems:

5 ways to increase happiness.

via 5 ways to increase happiness.

Grit + Social Support = Success

The idea of ‘grit’ is being talked about a lot these days, inspired in big part by Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character. I agree that grit is too often ignored and that it’s hugely important–but it’s also important to remember that grit rarely leads to success unless it’s accompanied by some help and support along the way.

In this article, ‘Success comes from grit–and plenty of helping hands along the way’, Emily Hanford talks about the importance of social success in overcoming the challenges of poverty. Studying graduates of the YES Prep charter school network in Houston (founded in order to help poor and minority kids graduate from college), she wrote, ‘YES data shows that the students most likely to complete college go to schools where there are good support services and often a concerted effort to encourage and retain poor and minority students.’


Thank you to Annie Murphy Paul for posting this article on her blog.

Raising Successful Children by Madeline Levine


In this recent article in the New York Times, Madeline Levine makes the point that parents should not do for kids what kids can do (or almost do) for themselves. Kids do better when they have to work hard, and get to experience working through challenges on their own, or with minimal help. Boredom and frustration (in balance!) can be good.

She also makes the point that it’s important to kids’ eventual well-being and success in all that matters (careers, relationships, health, etc.) that their parents are living lives that they (the parents) find interesting. She says, ‘One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.’

Victims, Bullies, & Bullying: Not always what you think

A post from Online Education Data Base, reviewing the research findings on bullies, victims, and bullying, with important implications for parents and teachers–


For me, the take-home messages are that (1) bullying is way more complicated than most people realize; (2) bullies need as much compassion, support, and attention as their (apparent) victims; and (3) zero-tolerance programs and punishments hardly ever do more than make the enforcers feel good about doing something

R&R for the Brain: It’s Good to Do Nothing Sometimes

July 3, 2012

New research is showing the importance to our brain’s best work of making sure we build time into our busy lives for reflection, introspection, and imagination—with electronic devices and access to social media turned off. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

In an article entitled “Rest Is Not Idleness” in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues consider what’s happening when our brains are wakefully resting. According to these authors, fMRI data shows that when there’s little by way of external stimulation or intellectual effort required, our minds wander, engaging in a default mode of restful neural processing that is usually suppressed when our attention is focused on the outside world.

In their survey of the literature from neuroscience and psychological science, they conclude that brain systems activated during rest are important for certain kinds of social and emotional processing. These systems are important for our intellectual and psychological functioning, and are associated both with mental health and with cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. Learning, memory, and well-being are implicated; Immordino-Yang and her colleagues argue that research on the brain at rest can shed light on the importance of reflection and quiet time for learning.

They discuss practical implications of this research for education. “We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts. What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?”

The authors observe that while outward attention is essential for carrying out tasks and learning from classroom lessons, the reflection and consolidation that can accompany mind wandering is equally important, fostering healthy development and learning over the long run. As with so much else, balance is the key. Attention to content mastery is critically important, but time spent reflecting and imagining—appearing to do nothing, to daydream, or waste time—can actually improve the quality of outward attention that people can sustain. Mindful reflection is also essential to our ability to make sense of the world around us. It contributes to the development of moral reasoning, and is linked with overall well-being.

Immordino-Yang and her colleagues warn that the high attention demands of urban and digital environments—very much including social media—may be distracting young people from looking inward and reflecting, and that this could have a negative impact on their psychological development. They write, “Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about ‘what happened’ or ‘how to do this’ to constructing knowledge about ‘what this means for the world and for the way I live my life.’”

This research provides valuable information for parents. It suggests that children who are given the time and skills they need for mindful introspection, reflection, and contemplation, will be more motivated, be less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future. It also suggests that parents should be modelling reflection and contemplation themselves, maybe even giving themselves permission for a bit of daydreaming now and then.

In Being Smart about Gifted Education and elsewhere, Joanne Foster and I emphasize the importance to children’s best development of what we’ve called ‘do-nothing times.’ It seems that current scientific research is providing compelling evidence for just that.

Journal reference:

Authors: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh

Article full title: ‘“Rest Is Not Idleness”: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education’

Journal: Perspectives on Psychological Science  http://pps.sagepub.com/content/current

Abstract: http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/4/352.abstract

Article: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-rcf.usc.edu%2F~immordin%2Fpapers%2FI-Y_et_al_REST%25202012.pdf

Thank you to Rebecca McMillan and The Brain Cafe for bringing this to my attention!

Playtime and Chores

March 21, 2012

Why is it that some children seem to enjoy doing household chores, whereas others do everything they can to avoid anything that looks like work? Many of the most successful and productive adults have described their work as feeling like play. There is emerging evidence that the roots of mastery and achievement lie in early play experiences.

We got some interesting responses to my blog on playtime, where I made a case for kids needing lots of unstructured time to do what they want to do. I cited some research showing its importance in children’s development, including the increased likelihood of kids happily and voluntarily involving themselves in clean-up when they’re given enough time for child-directed play.

From Luc, we heard this about his son, Felix:

“Unstructured playtime”, I think that’s what Felix has been doing all his
life. He didn’t want Pokemon or Playstation. As a toddler, he was always ‘constructing’ something, using carton boxes, home furniture, ropes…
I remember having breakfast standing up, because I didn’t have time to
untangle the chairs he had tied together in a ‘construction’.

One thing’s for sure: “to take ownership of their own learning and their own
environments” is happening right now. He’s studying “morphology”, “syntaxis”, “linguistic sciences”, ancient Greek, colloquial Norwegian… while reading many books.

However, it looks like I missed one part somewhere along the route:
“co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period”.
Perhaps that’s related to my office desk looking like a garbage dump most
 of the time?

The same day that this note arrived from Luc, I read a delightful blog posted by Kelly Bartlett, the author of a blog called Parenting from Scratch. She describes herself as a ‘Certified Positive Discipline Educator who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, children, and way too many pets.’

In her blog on chores, Kelly laid out what I recognize (from years of work as a developmental psychologist specialising in gifted development) to be a brilliant step-by-step plan for helping children acquire mastery in anything. She’s applying her plan to chores, but the same concepts apply just as well to musical, mathematical, linguistic, athletic, or any other kind of mastery.

Kelly writes:

When it comes to doing chores, there is a positive approach that can be summed up in two words: Take Time.

To teach, that is. Chores, while seemingly straightforward to us parents who do them all the time, take time for kids to learn. And we need to take time to teach them. And to expect independence with them. And also to form a habit of them. Oh, and enjoyment of them. Well, we might be waiting a LONG time for that one!

But promises of rewards and threats of consequences aren’t necessary as long as the chore-learning process is cooperative and encouraging. In our house, “We do it together,” is our motto right now, with an addendum of, “(until you can do it alone)” to come later. Here are the four steps that help us get there:

1. Model. They see me do stuff first.

2. They help me. I get to have an assistant.

3. I help them. Now it is their turn to take the lead.

4. They do it alone. We’ve done it enough times together that it is not unreasonable to expect them to get a job done on their own.

Of course, the length of time to get through this 4-step teaching process depends on the task. Getting the dog her food is much less complicated than cleaning one’s bedroom.

For big tasks, break the job up.  Make the bed. Put toys away. Pick up clothes. Vacuum. Clear dishes. Throw away garbage. Wipe surfaces. Each one is its own learning process. That’s why it’s overwhelming to say, “Clean your room,” and expect it to be done quickly and without supervision/ direction/ guidance/ help.

Here are some jobs that my kids were able to handle alone at various ages:

Age 1-2 (not expecting perfection)

  • dusting
  • fruit & veggie prep (washing & drying)
  • choosing clothes

Age 3-4 (also not expecting perfection, and expecting some “No’s)

  • setting table
  • folding laundry
  • getting dressed

Age 5-7

  • vacuuming
  • measure ingredients
  • pack own carry-on for trips

Though my kids can do these kinds of jobs on their own, I still expect to give directions as to when they need to be done. I don’t expect them to notice on their own and take the initiative to do some chores (except when the toilet needs to be plunged…that takes no prompting for JJ). At their ages, they simply have other priorities than I do. I think the first time I started taking initiative for doing chores is when I had my own house! That’s when it began to matter to me.

What if they say “No,” or argue when it’s time to do chores? My answer is, “Yes, let’s do it together.” Even if it’s a task that I know they can do on their own, they may simply be needing some extra encouragement right then. So my answer is, “Yes, it needs to get done. Let’s do it together.” I break the job up into “You do this and I’ll do that…” No arguing, negotiating, reasoning, bribing or threatening…just cooperation and some re-teaching. I expect to remind my kids often to do chores. I expect to teach them (“do it together”) for a long time. I remind myself that their whole childhood is time for teaching. Like me, my kids may not exhibit “proactive-chore-behavior” until they’ve moved out into their own place. But because of the years I’ve invested teaching chores and instilling the importance of getting jobs done, it will be second nature to tackle their own chores with confidence.

To see Kelly’s entire blog (from which this was excerpted), including great photographs, go to


Luc’s story illustrates the value of free unstructured play, and it also demonstrates the importance of parents’ modeling the kind of behaviour they want to see in their kids. As Luc says, the fact that his desk is a mess is a clue to why Felix doesn’t volunteer for clean-up. And sometimes—specially if the creative free play has gone on for a while and resulted in a giant mess—clean-up can be daunting, which is where Kelly’s blog comes in. Her approach to chores illustrates the scaffolding—step-by-step support— kids need for learning anything. The more complex the task, the more scaffolding is needed. When this is embedded in normal daily life, the way Kelly describes, it becomes second nature, and kids are given a giant gift—it will be easier for them to achieve whatever they decide they want to achieve.

For more about how important chores are, and how to help kids learn to do them happily, go to http://www.worrywisekids.org/node/125

Playtime! Possibly the Best Learning of All

February 22, 2012

Children need more unstructured playtime in their lives. They need time enough to get bored. If they’re going to learn and grow and achieve as much as they can in the long run, they need ample opportunities to develop their self-regulation, imagination, self-awareness, and other important life skills.

Over the past few decades, playtime has become more about things—toys, educational puzzles, electronic games, etc.—than about imagination and activities that children invent for themselves. It’s also become a lot more adult-directed, with an eye on academic learning and productive use of children’s time, a lot less child-directed and apparently aimless. Instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices.

While many parents think that an increased focus on the productive use of their children’s time will give their kids a leg up in the competitions to get into the best preschools, schools, and—eventually—colleges and universities, there is increasing evidence that it does the opposite. By robbing kids of ample time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, we are taking away essential opportunities for them to develop the skills prerequisite to real achievement and fulfillment over time.

Self-regulation skills include managing and controlling one’s feelings, moods, behaviour, and intellectual focus. Like self-regulation, collaboration skills and self-awareness are key components of emotional intelligence, which is a much better predictor of academic, career, and other kinds of success than IQ or other intellectual or academic ability scores.

Kids who spend good chunks of their time building forts, playing house, or constructing narratives of pirates, paupers, cowboys, and circus clowns are more likely to take ownership of their own learning and their own environments. Interestingly, they’re also more likely to co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period in preschool. In an interview on National Public Radio in the USA, child development expert Laura Berk reported, ‘Children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that [clean-up] responsibility with greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting.’ (To see the complete article, go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514)

Although it may look like they’re wasting time or doing nothing much at all, kids involved in imaginative play may be investing their time as productively as possible for the long run. When they’re making up their own rules and their own games, they’re learning about themselves and others, exploring and finding out what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others. So, let’s not insist on giving kids the scripts and the props we think they need for their play, but rather, let’s allow them to find and invent their own ways of playing and learning, at least for good parts of their day.

Children do need planned stimulation and enrichment opportunities—classes, clubs, puzzles, building toys, educational activities, museums, performances, outings, etc.—but their lives shouldn’t be so jammed with these good things that there’s no time left for imagination and unstructured playtime. Somewhat counter-intuitively, too much focus on enrichment and achievement can actually impede their cognitive and emotional development. Do-nothing times can be the most productive times of all.