Tag Archives: psychology

Meltdown Mountain

Why do kids hate to hike?

Mt. Konocti

Mt. Konocti

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.
– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I recently re-read the book The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl, in which the child’s brain is celebrated as a source and agent of wonder.  The authors reference the Romantic poet William Blake who spent his career trying to regain that naïve curiosity. I do not disagree with their central thesis about the importance of studying brain development.  But faced with the constant experience of my own children, romantic notions of childhood are replaced with frustrating reality.  The young brain may be designed to learn, but not necessarily to care.

I was a reluctant Girl Scout. I found hiking hurt and it bored me. I went along when the activity was foisted upon me, but as a city kid this was thankfully rare.  If I made it to the top of a mountain on a hot, sweaty hike,  all that mattered  was that I could eat my soggy sandwich and return home faster than we came, toes shoving into the tips of my shoes in the hasty path down. The view, to me, was mockery in its yawning stillness – the great anti-climax.

This Christmas, since the kids are of a certain durable age – too old for piggy backs, too young to stay home, we decided to push their endurance and climb Mt. Konocti, a 4,000 foot volcano above Clear Lake in Northern California. We’ve gone on more physically rigorous excursions than this, but for some reason, none so emotionally brutal.

They say the air in Lake County is the cleanest in the country and on a still, cold day, I believe it. The winter chill seems to give increasing clarity with every blink. Though my husband and I felt beckoned by the mountain this afternoon, the kids were moaning their refusal, appreciating nothing but their despair even before we set out. I wondered aloud why the kids were so afflicted by this activity, and to myself, why were we afflicting ourselves with the struggle. Why bring the kids along at all?

I sleep better, I think better when I run on a trail rather than a treadmill. The Japanese have a word for the practice of “bathing in forest air”: shinrin-yoku. A fair amount of research supports this sentiment, particularly for improving executive function, and especially in developing brains (see The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature). So dragging the children along, like forcing the issue of salad with dinner, may sully your peaceful moment, but the struggle has value.

Until this trip I blamed my own childhood allergy to hiking on poor fitness and Depression era parents. They made us walk and city bus it everywhere but there was never an excursion into nature for the sake of it. Leisure time was foreign terminology, like disposable income.

Our kids have grown up differently. They are all sun-drenched, water-soaked Californian, and sufficiently active. Still, there was complaining, yelling, stumbling, reversing, even some rock throwing as we tried to get them up this not very steep mountain. The poor behavior can be blamed in part on the fact that my modern, well-fed children have never seen true hardship (if we had needed to cross the mountain, this would have been a different scene). Still, their fundamental lack of appreciation for the experience was confounding. I was reflective, they were agitated.

We carried on like this, slowly tumbling upward, the day darkening with each bend in the path. And finally, by leaving a couple of children floundering in their misery just in the wake of the peak, we reached the top. And there it was: the view. It was spectacular. We nudged each child over the last hump of difficulty so they could see the full moon, impossibly pink and huge, hovering above the horizon. At our backs, the sun set as its mirror image dressed in orange while the trees  just below us were lit like polished copper. I don’t remember what I exclaimed, but my nine year old rolled her eyes and sighed, “I don’t get why grown ups always have to say how beautiful everything is.” The others murmured agreement.

I’m a photographer. Light is my medium and I watch it wherever I go. And this was the most fantastic display of natural light I had ever seen. Yet to them it was as boring and pointless as the views I had dismissed as a Girl Scout.

Why was my perception as an adult so different? Is this beauty so commonplace to them as Californians that it does not strike them?  Their school (Waldorf methods) teaches reverence from preschool onward. Was this effort backfiring? Or do children of this middle childhood age really not see meaning, beauty, significance like adults?

The child’s entire being is tuned to the future. Their hormones are dedicated to growth, their neural connections are being constantly sculpted in the profoundly active process of learning. Gopnik, Metlzoff, and Kuhl say “The most interesting thing about [babies] is their infinite capacity for wonder.”  But after the brief toddler years (the last time I can remember my children in rapture over a bug or flower) where does that wonder go?  I’m not suggesting children have lost this capacity because of technology or modern life, but that we are looking at it incorrectly.  A child stopping to review the day or a moment is putting a machine on pause for no purpose.  They are all absorption and no reflection.

Now that scientists have the ability to see the living brain through MRI’s, we know, literally, the color of our differences. As our brains develop, grey matter turns white. This is due to the development of a fatty layer around the neurons called the myelin sheath, which doesn’t completely develop in the frontal lobe until our mid-twenties. This coating allows for quicker neural conductivity across longer, broader regions of the brain. It provides for better decision making and stronger impulse control. Actions and consequences are connected by a superhighway in the mature brain. But in the young brain, that super highway hasn’t been built – it’s a tangle of city streets. The sheath aids in drawing connections between concepts, and as more myelin is laid down over the years, it contributes to what we call the “wisdom” of elders. But the paucity of myelin is part of what gives kids that endearing (or maddening) randomness about them.

I have a friend in the design world, John Bielenberg, who celebrates the unmyelinated brain. He believes it makes better designers because the younger set do the wacky and the risky better without the stabilizing influence of mature thinking. He has developed a program called Project M where he brings recent college graduates together to engage in design ventures for the greater good. He says that because they lack all the white matter he has, his young cohorts are better at “thinking wrong” and coming up with more innovative, world-changing designs. The elders, on the other hand, are simply maintaining life, regurgitating ideas, and following well-worn paths.

Maybe it is the white stuff in John’s brain that makes him the old dog unable to generate the creative storms like PieLab and Common Hoops, both of Project M. But it is that same old dog who came up with the idea of bringing these young, un-myelinated brains to the table. If the young are the seeds of Project M, John is the seed-bed. His old brain provides the infrastructure for this project to exist. Focusing on myelin alone in brain development is an oversimplification of a profoundly complex process. But it highlights one important physiological aspect for how we are different beings from our children.

As I stand looking out over the hills of Lake County, I’m bringing together everything I know to regard that moment. The stillness of the rock, trees, and dirt allows my brain to work more efficiently. And despite the family struggles at my feet, I am calm. I am thinking of winters in my childhood, colors in my palette, geography I have seen and read about. My old, white brain drags their young, grey brains here because I know what’s good for them until they do.

I would argue that although I am far more cynical than my 8, 9, and 11 year-old combined, it is the adult brain that has greater capacity for awe.  Children learn without trying and should be given every opportunity to do so.  But next time one of them rolls their eyes as I smell the forest air, I’ll try to remember it doesn’t matter.   It is easy for me to forget how vastly different their minds are from ours. Not because their experiences are different from mine, but because they are simply children, headed forward, not yet looking back.

Entertaining the Plausible

The first post of this blog on parenting, technology, and education was supposed to be a book review. But current events have swept aside such organized meditations and I am compelled to reflect on the moment.

On Friday morning I was in my kitchen in California talking to my sister in Connecticut as we have been doing daily, recently. It is just a year since our mother died, and this loss is still reverberating through our lives, the anniversary bringing the grief in sharper relief. This was the emotional backdrop to my week, and to this brief conversation.  My sister said she would have to call me back because there was screaming in the school where she was doing a practicum. She needed to investigate.

Neither of us had been aware of the news that morning. I was on a crash diet from social media and limiting other news outlets until the evening.  But as I hung up the phone, I began to imagine what that screaming could be. Sounds of gunfire ricocheted around my imagination, images of children choking with terror, teachers trying to engulf the fear with helpless arms. I felt fear for my sister’s safety. I could hear the calls for gun control in Congress and the defensive replies from the NRA that guns don’t kill, deranged people do. I texted my sister to please tell me the screaming was nothing. She wrote back instantly, “Goodness, no! Just a kid throwing a tantrum.” I exhaled and to calm my still rattled nerves, I decided to polish the surfaces of my various devices before settling back into studying. Lifting the lid of the iPad, a NYTimes alert appeared, “Mass shooting at Connecticut elementary school.” Thirty miles from my sister’s school where I had just vividly imagined such a tragedy (5o miles from my home town), an entire classroom of first-graders and their protectors were lying dead, riddled with the bullets of modern warfare from one disturbed young man.

If I had a spiritual bent, I might say my soul had some inkling that evil was afoot; that on some level far below conscious thought I knew what had happened. But since giving birth four times and burying two parents, and still with no discernible godly connection,  I seek more pragmatic explanations when coincidence appears divine.  The reason my brain invented a large-scale tragedy as one was taking place is that such an act is not unimaginable, it is plausible. Twenty years ago I probably would not have first thought of murder by assault weapon when the verb “to scream” was mentioned in the same sentence as the noun “school.”  But every time we hear of another terrible event on our soil, from our people, it becomes an expected event in the national narrative. We have storms, elections, sporting events, and mass killings. Remember Oklahoma City, the Amish schoolhouse, Columbine, to name just a few.

All those events, as they shatter individual lives and families and permanently scar the psyches of those closest to the dead, become fodder for more death and more fear. The waves of grief become content for crime dramas, movies, statistical analysis, sociological studies. The news cycle devours these stories and regurgitates the details in a repetitive stream devoid of meaning. An attempt is made to make sense of the senseless, but mostly we resort to describing with breathless fascination HOW it all took place. And in this era of sharing, we jump on each other’s tweets and Facebook posts to say words of condolence, outrage, activism, or test the waters of humor and reveal our compassion fatigue. Some pose as perpetrators themselves and use the platform to wield more hatred.

There is simply too much contact, too much noise. The human side of this – the pain, loss, grief, love cannot be communicated through these channels. It is drowned out by the overwhelming power of the story’s existence- it happened. And by learning of it, another troubled person gets the idea to play it out in real time with new victims. Adam Lanza was a first grader in 1999 when two teenagers stormed Columbine and killed 13 people.

Normally I am a news junkie, but this week, I am indulging in quiet. I have not yet told my children, ages 8 through 11. Their last day of school before break was on Friday and if the teachers learned of the tragedy during the school day, they did not yet share it with the kids. I have kept the news off and the Sunday New York Times, with it’s black epitaph, was flipped over. I haven’t figured out how to tell them what happened.

They know about wars and 9-11. They have been to more funerals than weddings in their short lives. Death is not a secret. But for various reasons we do shield them from popular culture. We don’t allow video games.  TV is nearly invisible, movies are a rare treat and the news comes via radio and newspaper. I take some heat for this from friends and family who think sheltering the children will keep them in a perpetual state of naiveté. And I am ambivalent about our restrictions at times.  But this week I am grateful we have made this choice. It has given me the space and time to think. I am not worried that they will be distraught – I predict they will take the news in pleasant stride,  as they live firmly in their own reality, untarnished by world-weary cynicism. I dread the telling because in that moment they will learn as so many children have learned this week, that a person in this country can buy weapons at will and murder a class of first-graders.

What a parent utters to their child is not drama, or fantasy, it’s the truth, as far as they know.  This terrible news becomes a fact that will become tied to the many other facts they are compiling as they progress through childhood. I’ll try to explain how it’s not something to be feared, but a sadness to reckon with. I will say how rare and bizarre and horrible it is. And that will be that.  In this moment of roiling national debate saturated in grief, I am grateful that T.V., YouTube, Facebook are not sharing this information with my kids – I am.  Next year my son will be in middle school and this cocoon will be busted, I know.  But for now, I appreciate the quiet and control I can briefly conjure.  The barrage begins to numb and soon this news seems almost normal. And the greater tragedy in all of this, if there can be one,  is that reality begets fantasy and fantasy begets reality. As we tell the story to our nation’s children, through every orifice of media technology, over and over, we make sure it will happen again. It’s not just the guns, or the mental state – it’s the shared imagination. This is plausible.