Monday, January 12, 2015

The Pivotal First 36 Months

Studies I’ve been reading on “rearing” have made me reflect on my own as well as how much they should inform solutions to problems in today’s headlines.

I was destined to be a fifth generation Idaho rancher and based on the fact that my mother dropped out of school when she was 16, it wasn’t likely I would go to college.

A mother’s education level is usually a strong predictor of a child’s educational aspiration, attainment and occupational success.  Still in her mid-twenties my mother taught herself to type and worked her way up to managing the practices of two doctors and two dentists.

She is a bit of an anomaly as that predictor goes, because she dropped out of high school to elope with my dad as he headed into WWII, staying near Camp Roberts, while he was training for a tank battalion and then spending the time he was overseas working in Denver.

I got off to a rocky start when I came along three years after the war due to an allergic reaction to formula that wasn’t resolved until I was six months old when during a blizzard my parents gave me whole milk.

It was an inauspicious start for my then fifth-generation rancher destiny as the only son of an only son.

So maybe that is why my fourth generation rancher father tried so hard from then through my preschool years to “breathe fire into me,” something I would also futilely try to do during my now concluded career for some co-workers.

Throughout my career, no one ever accused me of not having enough fire, but trying to “breathe fire” into someone never works, regardless of the education level.

People who aren’t ambitious or passionate or growth-oriented by then, also lack what the Japanese call Kaizen, a drive for continuous and never-ending improvement that may trace to their first 36 months of life.

Still in his 20s, my dad - whether he realized it or not – was trying in his own intense way to give me the “scaffolding” necessary to instill the handful of life-skills that must be largely inculcated during those first 36 to 60 months including rising to challenges and learning from mistakes.

My mom, who was in her early 20s, had a different type of intensity but in her own way also helped erect this “scaffolding,” especially through music.

It is clear that my parents incorporated many things into their parenting style.  The examples they set offset my mother’s lack of educational attainment, including a relentless focus on effort over talent and perseverance in the face of obstacles.

They weren’t what today we call “helicopter parents,” preferring a balance of unstructured play, especially in nature, to organized activities.  Nor did they ever tolerate a second of entitlement.

I can see now how much attention they also gave to learning from criticism, persistence, and embracing challenges.  All of these factors have now been confirmed by researchers in psychology to lead to high performance.

I am not aware of a statistical breakdown of adults in society with executive function and self-regulatory deficits (beyond attention-deficit) but I’ll bet kindergarten and elementary school teachers could give an educated guess.

Regardless of class status, today’s parents spend far too much time either making excuses for their children’s educational or work performance or greatly overestimating and placing too much emphasis on their intelligence vs. their effort and performance.

K-12 teachers are slightly more “engaged” and slightly less “actively disengaged” than Americans as a whole, but parenting may be partially responsible for why those who are not engaged miss 2.3 million more workdays annually than teachers who are.

As an aside, officials concerned with creating jobs such as Governor Pat McCrory in North Carolina, where I live, would do well to study Gallup’s reports on worker engagement.

Engaged workers report twice as much job creation as well as good customer ratings, profitability and productivity as well as lower turnover, fewer safety incidents, less theft, absenteeism and defects.

North Carolinians are not as engaged as we think we are.  Unfortunately, the Governor must deal with the fact that engagement among members of the General Assembly is no better than workers overall, fewer than 1-in-3 there with nearly 1-in-5 at cross-purposes even within his own party.

In my mother’s lifetime (my dad passed away shortly after 9/11,) she has seen her children and seven grandchildren leap from the working class backgrounds of my grandparents to middle and upper middle class.

Three have undergraduate college degrees, one a law school degree and another just accepted into top tier law schools, one with a Master’s and another with a PhD, and one who leapt directly from community college to a career in IT administration for the world’s largest video game concern.

More importantly, they are all hard workers and thrive in the workplace, engagement that is never guaranteed by educational attainment.

Americans believe in the individual-centered American DreamIt is rooted in the belief that “all men [and women] are created equal” but science shows that there are many other more powerful influences that shape individual aspiration, none more important than those detailed in the book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.

According to the study, “two-thirds of society ultimately reproduce their parents’ level of educational attainment while about one-third take another path.”

But it is purely arrogant for those of us who transcended to delude ourselves into believing that it is due to our own willfulness.

A few months after I retired, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign identified something of a paradox regarding willfulness and willpower.

As an aside, nearly all of the campus is located in Urbana but Champaign was added to placate Champaign boosters-sound familiar?  A toxic sense of entitlement can invade communities as well (smile.)

It turns out that people willing to ask questions and those who question whether they will succeed, perform better than those who are convinced they will or who spend too much time on self-affirmation.

By the time we reach the ages of 3 to 5 years old, we learn the handful of building blocks needed for success in life known as “executive function and self-regulation skills.”

Dimensions of these skills include:

  • “The ability to hold information in mind and use it.
  • The ability to master thoughts and impulses so as to resist temptations, distractions, and habits, and to pause the think before acting.
  • The capacity to switch gears and adjust to changing demand, priorities and perspectives.”

Self-regulation is the ability to override one response or behavior and replace it with a less common but more desired response.

The researchers who discovered the paradox of will power have already turned to the study of how what we say to ourselves “shapes the course of our behaviors,” the essence of self-regulation.

Parents such as mine gave me the “scaffolding” for developing these skills by challenging me and then stepping back and letting me try to manage things on my own and learn from my mistakes as well as helping me talk and think through what worked and what didn’t work.

I owe them everything.  We may all be “created equal” but those of us who think we are living the American Dream were fortunate enough to have these influences in those first few years.

We have an obligation to help those who didn’t, but the real solution is to focus society on remediation for kids between the years of 3 and 5 before it is too late.

I ran into more than a few people in responsible positions during my career with deficits or even dysfunction in one or more of the three skills noted above, some with high IQs.

Other than being irritating to those who had to work with them, they imposed a lot of lost productivity and long-term contributed to some very poor outcomes, but they were functional nonetheless.

None of us demonstrate mastery of executive function skills 100% of the time.  But our jails and prisons are populated by individuals who never learned them or were never given the chance to learn them because their parents never learned them.

A meta-analysis of studies published a few months ago by neuropsychology and criminology researchers in Amsterdam and led by Jesse Meijers found “a robust relationship between antisocial behavior and executive function deficits.”

In studies published in 2004 and 2008, researchers have determined that “impoverished rearing conditions” actually alter brain functions responsible for executive functions.  To many, we should be looking at rearing and parenting for solutions rather than law enforcement or the justice system.

For children in that 36 month window, reading this simple little 16-page guide is a way today’s new parents can learn how to teach them.  However, the guide won’t teach someone how to show by example or instill them in parents who missed out when they were young.

The more I live and learn, the more I realize how lucky I am and how unfortunate many are.

Maybe the American Dream is really about humility.

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