Tuesday, March 15, 2011
More important lessons in parenting. Via several peoples' Google Reader shares.
My wife Eleanor and I were visiting some friends on a Saturday when their nine-year-old daughter, Dana*, came home. She was close to tears, barely holding it together.
"Oh sweetie," her mom said. "What happened at the swim meet?"
Dana is an excellent swimmer. She trains hard, arriving at swim practice by six most mornings and swimming some afternoons as well. And her efforts are rewarded; she often wins her events, scoring points for her swim team. It is clear she is very proud of these wins.
It isn't like that for all her endeavors. She struggles with some subjects in school, doing extra math homework to keep up with the other kids and getting special help with her reading. But she always works hard.
"I was disqualified," she told us. She swam the race well, but dove in a fraction of a second before the starting gun went off: a false start.
We were in the foyer of the house and she sat down on the bottom stair of the staircase, her swim bag still on her shoulder, staring into space, almost expressionless.
"Honey," her dad said, "there are a lot more swim meets in the season. You'll have other chances to win."
I told her, "The fact that you left the block prematurely means you were at your edge. You're trying not to waste a millisecond in hesitation. That's the right instinct. You misjudged the timing but that's OK. The more you do this, the better you'll get at it."
"Every swimmer on every team has been disqualified at some point," Eleanor said. "It's part of the sport."
"I'm sure your coach will help you practice your starts before the next meet," her mom said, "and you'll figure out exactly when to spring off the block so that you don't waste a second but you don't dive too early either. You'll get it."
Nothing we said seemed to have any impact on her. Nothing changed her expressionless stare. Nothing helped.
Then her grandmother Mimi walked over.
We were all standing over Dana, when Mimi moved through us and sat down next to her. She put her arm around Dana and just sat there quietly. Eventually, Dana leaned her head on Mimi's shoulder. After a few moments of silence Mimi kissed Dana's head and said, "I know how hard you work at this, honey. It's sad to get disqualified."
At that point, Dana began to cry. Mimi continued to sit there, with her arm around Dana, for several minutes, without saying anything.
Eventually Dana looked up at Mimi, wiped her tears, and said, simply, "Thanks Mimi." And I thought, every leader, every manager, every team member, should see this.
All of us except Mimi missed what Dana needed.
We tried to make her feel better by helping her see the advantage of failure, putting the defeat in context, teaching her to draw a lesson from it, and motivating her to work harder and get better so it doesn't happen again.
But she didn't need any of that. She already knew it. And if she didn't, she'd figure it out on her own. The thing she needed, the thing she couldn't give herself, the thing that Mimi reached out and gave her?
She needed to feel that she wasn't alone, that we all loved her and her failure didn't change that, She needed to know we understood how she was feeling and we had confidence that she would figure it out.
I wanted every leader, manager, and team member to see that, because the empathetic response to failure is not only the most compassionate, it's also the most productive.
Empathy communicates trust. And people perform best when they feel trusted.
When I sit with you in your mistake or failure without trying to change anything, I'm letting you know that you're okay, even when you don't perform. And, counter-intuitively, feeling okay about yourself — when you fail — makes you feel good enough to get up and try again.
Most of us miss that. Typically, when people fail, we blame them. Or teach them. Or try to make them feel better. All of which, paradoxically, makes them feel worse. It also prompts defensiveness as an act of self-preservation. (If I'm not okay after a failure, I'd better figure out how to frame this thing so it's not my failure.)
Our intentions are fine; we want the person to feel better, to learn, to avoid the mistake again. We want to protect our teams and our organizations.
But the learning — the avoidance of future failures — only comes once they feel okay about themselves after failing. And that feeling comes from empathy.
Thankfully, the expression of empathy is fairly simple. When someone has made a mistake or slipped up in some way, just listen to them. Don't interrupt, don't offer advice, don't say that it will be all right. And don't be afraid of silence. Just listen.
And then, after some time, reflect back what you heard them say, what you feel they're feeling. That's it.
I said simple, not easy. It's hard to just listen and reflect back. It's hard not to give advice or solve a problem. Hard, but worth the effort.
After some time, Dana got up from the stairs, we all had dinner, and then she went to watch some TV.
We were talking in the living room when she came in to say good night.
"How are you feeling?" I asked her.
"OK, I guess." She shrugged. "I'm still bummed."
I almost told her not to worry, that it would be OK, that she would feel better in the morning, that there was always the next race, that she had lots of time to practice.
"I understand," I told her. "It's a bummer."
*Names and some details changed
Saturday, March 05, 2011
The Myth of Inevitable Teen Rebellion
Dr. Robert Epstein (Ph.D., Harvard University) is a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind and a former editor in chief of Psychology Today. In the April/May 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, Epstein penned an outstanding article entitled The Myth of the Teen Brain. It goes right after the notion, regularly popularized on the covers of magazines like Time and U.S. News & World Report, that incomplete brain development accounts for the emotional problems and general irresponsibility for which teenagers in our day have gained infamy, and that, consequently, rebellion and general incompetence among teens is inevitable.
Epstein’s perspective is the polar opposite: “any unique features that may exist in the brains of teens,” says Epstein, “–to the limited extent that such features exist–are the result of social influences rather than the cause of teen turmoil” (emphasis original). He sites anthropological research data on teens in 186 preindustrial societies which found that “about 60 percent had no word for ‘adolescence,’ teens spent almost all their time with adults, teens showed almost no signs of psychopathology, and antisocial behavior in young males was completely absent in more than half of these cultures and extremely mild in cultures in which it did occur.”
Epstein argues that the angst we see among many teens in the U.S. today is the result of an “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty. He writes:
Over the past century, we have increasingly infantilized our young, treating older and older people as children while also isolating them from adults. Laws have restricted their behavior [see box on next page]. Surveys I have conducted show that teens in the U.S. are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons. And research I conducted with Diane Dumas as part of her dissertation research at the California School of Professional Psychology shows a positive correlation between the extent to which teens are infantilized and the extent to which they display signs of psychopathology.
The 7-page article’s conclusion reads:
Today, with teens trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture, they learn virtually everything they know from one another rather than from the people they are about to become. Isolated from adults and wrongly treated like children, it is no wonder that some teens behave, by adult standards, recklessly or irresponsibly. Almost without exception, the reckless and irresponsible behavior we see is the teen’s way of declaring his or her adulthood or, through pregnancy or the commission of serious crime, of instantly becoming an adult under the law. Fortunately, we also know from extensive research both in the U.S. and elsewhere that when we treat teens like adults, they almost immediately rise to the challenge.
We need to replace the myth of the immature teen brain with a frank look at capable and savvy teens in history, at teens in other cultures and at the truly extraordinary potential of our own young people today.
You’ll want to check this article out. Epstein’s most recent book is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Also well worth checking out on this subject is Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
From sea beasts that disembowel themselves to lizards that make knives out of their own broken bones, you don't want to mess with these kick-ass critters
IN The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams wrote about the "dish of the day": an animal that wants to be eaten and can say so loudly and clearly, thus circumventing many of the ethical problems associated with meat.
Most creatures do not want to be eaten and many go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Some defence strategies are well known: fish and birds gather in shoals for safety, possums play dead, bees sting, and skunks spray a liquid so repulsive that humans caught in the blast are almost always reduced to vomiting.
Yet all of these are just the tip of a very big, very ingenious and very dangerous iceberg. There is a host of other even more peculiar tricks that animals use to convince their persecutors to pick on someone else.
Taking the point
Stabbing a predator with an offensive weapon is a tried and tested defence strategy: thousands of animals and plants are covered with horns, thorns or spines. Nobody who has tried to eat the fruit of the prickly pear - or a hedgehog for that matter - can be under any illusion that they make an easy meal.
But what if you don't have any obvious means of stabbing? At first glance, the 30-centimetre-long sharp-ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl) looks innocuous enough, but it carries a secret weapon. Its ribs have sharp tips like spears, and when it is under attack it arches its back and punches them out through its skin. Hey presto: spines.
These spines are doubly dangerous, because like many of its relatives the sharp-ribbed newt also releases a toxic milky liquid onto its skin. As the spines break through the skin they become coated with venom.
Josef Weisgram at the University of Vienna in Austria has studied the newts for several years, and earlier this year he and his team confirmed that the ribs really do break through the skin afresh every time it performs its horrible routine. There are no pores or holes for the ribs to slide smoothly out of (Journal of Zoology, vol 280, p 156).
A similar trick is pulled by the hairy frog (Trichobatrachus robustus), a native of Cameroon. It has retractable claws on its back feet rather like a cat's. The claws are made of bone and are attached to the tip of the frog's toes by a small piece of collagen.
Under normal circumstances the claws are stashed safely inside the frog's foot - until it comes under attack, at which point it snaps the claws off the toe and thrusts them out through the skin with a strong muscular contraction. If the predator persists, the frog kicks and struggles violently, slashing at its enemy with its improvised claws.
Eat my tail
If a lion had its jaws clamped around your arm, you might willingly sacrifice the limb to escape with your life. It's a strategy not uncommon in the natural world. Many animals actively shed limbs or tails to save the rest of their skins, a process called autotomy. In many cases, the animal regrows the lost body part afterwards. Lizards and snakes are the best known autotomists but are by no means the most extreme.
For some snakes it is almost routine. Spanish ladder snakes (Rhinechis scalaris) can break off their tails by vigorously thrashing and rotating their bodies. A survey published this year in the Journal of Zoology (vol 113, p 269) found that up to 20 per cent of adult ladder snakes were missing a tail.
Some lizards take the idea a stage further. They sport brightly coloured tails which continue to thrash around after they have been detached, presumably to distract a predator. The five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is a good example, with an electric blue tail that contrasts vividly with its yellow-and-black striped body.
Octopuses, crabs and spiders can also shed limbs. But the true champions of self-amputation are sea cucumbers, marrow-shaped relatives of starfish that live on the sea floor. When startled they eviscerate themselves by shooting the tubes that make up their respiratory system out of their rear ends (The Journal of Experimental Biology, vol 204, p 849). They may even go the whole hog and expel their digestive tract as well. The tubes are sticky and entangle any would-be predators. It sounds suicidal but the sea cucumber grows them back within weeks.The true champions of self-amputation are sea cucumbers, which can eviscerate themselves
Chemical warfare is frowned upon in most human societies, but to animals it's routine. Many species follow the example set by South America's poison dart frogs and simply load their bodies with deadly poisons. They advertise their lethality with bright colours - yellow and black being a favourite - so that predators know to steer clear.
Better still if you can deter predators from a distance, but for that you need ballistics. Four groups of beetle, known collectively as bombardier beetles, have honed this to an art.
The beetles have glands in their abdomens which can shoot rapid-fire pulses of hot caustic liquid (pictured, right). Each gland has two chambers, one containing a mixture of hydroquinones and hydrogen peroxide, the other various enzymes. When the two are mixed, a series of explosive reactions occur, including the conversion of hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water. These reactions heat the mixture to boiling point and blast it out of the beetle's backside with an audible pop. Among the products of the reaction are quinones, which many species find repellent even when cold.
The beetles are good shots. The African bombardier beetle (Stenaptinus insignis) can aim in any direction with great precision. Some species have flanges on their abdomens that act as launch guides.
The bombardier beetles' boiling volleys are fearsome weapons, but they are not the most distasteful. That distinction must surely go to the horned lizards, the only vertebrates that shoot their own blood at predators. The Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) relies for protection mostly on camouflage and its spiny skin, but if push comes to shove it can shoot jets of poison blood out of its eyes (the lizard feeds on poisonous ants and accumulates the prey's toxins in its bloodstream). Formidable as this sounds, it is not entirely effective: the lizards often get eaten by carnivorous mice.
Last but not least, one can only admire the entirely unsubtle Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), which deals with potential predators by vomiting up semi-digested rotten meat. "It is certainly one of the most horrific smells that I have encountered in nature," says ecologist Lawrence Igl of the US Geological Survey in Jamestown, North Dakota, who says the trick might either deter the predator, reduce the vulture's weight allowing it to fly away, or simply provide the predator with an alternative meal.
Call in the big boys
"I'll set my big brother on you," and "My dad's bigger than your dad." These playground threats have worked for many of us at some point and are surprisingly common in nature. If you can't fight off a predator yourself, it's a good idea to summon something else that can.
Plants, seemingly so passive, do it all the time. When herbivores start munching on their leaves, plants can release a cocktail of chemicals called green leaf volatiles (GLVs) into the surrounding air. Tobacco plants are particularly sly. When attacked by tobacco hornworm caterpillars, they release GLVs which attract insects called big-eyed bugs, which fly in and chow down on the unfortunate caterpillars (Science, vol 329, p 1075).
Single-celled marine animals called dinoflagellates have a cunning twist on this idea. When predators approach, they often start to glow - a strategy that on the face of it appears suicidal. In some cases the dinoflagellates flash briefly, startling the predator, but others glow continuously. Either way, the predators often retreat (Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, vol 36, p 217). But why? It turns out that the glow attracts other, larger predators which are likely to attack the original predator rather than the dinoflagellate. In effect they pursue a policy of mutually assured destruction: any predator that tries to make a meal out of the dinoflagellate is likely to be eaten itself.
When we think of camouflage, it's usually intricately patterned big cats, or perhaps insects that look like bird droppings. But a squirrel chewing on the sloughed-off skin of a rattlesnake?
Yet that is exactly what female California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) do to disguise themselves from their slithering predators. After a good chew on the snakeskin they lick themselves and their pups, anointing all concerned with the rattlesnake's odour - and it seems to work. In 2006 Barbara Clucas at the University of Washington, Seattle, showed that rattlesnakes were less interested in bits of filter paper that smelled of both snake and squirrel than they were in paper that just smelled of squirrel, suggesting that the squirrels' behaviour really did protect them. Some chipmunks anoint themselves too, and similar behaviour with predator scents has been observed in rats and mice, Clucas says.
Clucas and her colleagues have now gone further, trying to work out how this strange behaviour evolved. She points out that many rodents will bite predators, and also groom themselves when stressed. So it seems plausible that an ancestral rodent might have bitten a predator, picking up its scent in the process, and then inadvertently smeared it all over its fur. This could then have evolved into the anointing behaviour seen today.
If things are really desperate, you could always try blowing yourself up. It will do nothing for your own survival prospects - far from it - but it could help your relatives.
Suicidal behaviour is often found in social animals that live in closely related groups. Honeybees are a classic example. They sting intruders to save their hive mates even though this usually results in a fatal loss of their insides.
Ants also live in colonies, in which many thousands of sterile workers support a single breeding queen. Several species of social ants go in for explosive suicide, and the carpenter ant (Camponotus cylindricus) is one of the worst. Workers have massively enlarged glands running down the length of their body. When they are attacked these burst open, spraying opponents with sticky goo.
The gloopy liquid slows the attackers and sticks their mandibles together. It is also laced with irritating and corrosive chemicals (Journal of Chemical Ecology, vol 30, p 1479). The detonated worker usually dies, but the colony has been protected.
Termites have also got in on the act. Globitermes sulphureus lives in south Asia, where its soldiers are known as kamikaze termites. They have large salivary glands which produce a yellow liquid that rapidly congeals and entangles intruders (Insectes Sociaux, vol 44, p 289). If the soldiers are particularly overexcited, they go into violent contractions and burst their body walls, spraying opponents with the fluid.
Michael Marshall protects himself by squirting poison blood from his eyes
Via New Scientist. #apocalypseworld