monkey see, monkey do

this article is rather sobering given the amount of time most kids spend playing video games and watching TV. here's an excerpt:

When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain the same areas that are involved when we make that movement. This innate tendency for imitation was first observed in macaque monkeys where "mirror neurons" in the monkey's prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grasps a peanut and when it watches another monkey grasp it. Mirror neurons are also active in our brains.

If you observe my hand reaching for a cup of tea the motor cortex in your brain will become slightly active in the same areas you would use if you reached for the cup of tea yourself. Further, if you observe my lips as I savor the tea, the area of your brain corresponding to lip movements will fire as well. Of course that doesn't mean you can taste my tea but it does mean that I am directly affecting your brain as you watch me drinking it. And the process is reciprocal. If you pour yourself a cup of tea, a similar pattern occurs in my brain. In both situations the artificial distinction between you and me breaks down; we form a unit influencing each other's actions: I alter your brain as a result of your observations of me, and vice versa.

On the bright side, we can stack the deck for healthy behaviors by letting our children watch us doing them. The power of example penetrates into the brain at a cellular level.

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we all need somebody to lean on

This afternoon on my walk I passed our local elementary school while the kids were being dismissed for the day. As I approached I could hear the wailing of one tiny little girl, who was sobbing and clunking her feet in big snow boots a few paces behind what appeared to be her mom and dad. She looked like she was maybe three or four years old -- but kids come in all shapes and sizes, so she was probably a kindergartener.

I passed the parents first. I made eye contact and smiled, scanning their faces discreetly to see how they were reacting to the situation. They seemed pretty neutral, even a bit detached.

thoughts on authoritarian parenting

For some reason I've been very intrigued by the case of the sweatlodge deaths in Arizona, and have been following it closely. So I was not surprised to hear that James Arthur Ray was arrested the other day. This whole incident has really got me thinkin', and triggered a spirited discussion with some friends about child-rearing.

I tend toward letting kids learn from experience as much as possible, assuming they won't get themselves killed in the process (I wouldn't let a toddler learn about traffic by getting hit by a car!)

Rather than a limit-setting, discipline-oriented authority figure, I see my parenting role as more of a provider of information and an asker of questions that will help my children tune into their own common sense and intuition when making decisions.

For example, instead of saying, "No, you may not stay out until 12:30 to go to that party. Your curfew is 11 and you will be grounded if you are home late," I'd be more likely to say, "I hear that you want to stay out late that night. I'm concerned about the things that often go on at parties and on the roads after midnight. But if we can come up with some ways to make sure you are safe and sound, I think it would be okay to extend your curfew for this special occasion. What kind of ideas do you have? I might feel reassured of your safety if you would text me every half hour or so after 11, and I could come and pick you up instead of getting a ride home from your friends. What do you think?"

I want my kids to develop a trustworthy internal sense of Yes, that seems like it would be okay to try, and Nuh-uh, that feels like it's not worth the risk -- there's got to be a better way.

If I am constantly telling them how to act, what to decide, or to obey me because I said so, their internal decision making skills aren't getting much of a workout. If I demand that they comply with what I say, or punish them until they do, they may just take the batteries out of their internal smoke detectors, because they know I won't let them act on the alarms going off inside them. And later in life, when the stakes are much higher, they may continue to look to others to be told what to do.

Although no one will ever know the truth of what happened in that sweat lodge and why, perhaps this incident could serve as a warning about the danger of teaching our kids to respect external authority more than their own inner guidance. Blind obedience, in certain contexts, can kill.

If we demand that our children obey us on a regular basis without giving them any explanation for why we want something done a certain way, aren't we doing their thinking for them? Aren't we basically saying, Don't think for yourself, Don't question what I said, I know better than you what is best for you?

Is that the message we really want to send?

Don't we want their discernment muscles pretty well exercised by the time they are old enough to be sitting in a sweltering tent on the brink of death while being told by another external authority figure that they cannot leave until the next time he opens the door?

Don't we want them thinking for themselves, protecting themselves from harm, and listening to the inner guidance that says Get the heck outta here right now?

Now granted, it seems to me that part of the problem was that folks handed their internal authority over to this guy. From what I can discern, it seems that he did not hand it right back, as some spiritual teachers do. But it makes sense that followers will seek out leaders, and vice versa. No doubt this situation was much more complicated than we'll ever understand.

Nevertheless, I think as parents (and teachers, too) we have a marvelous opportunity to lay the groundwork so that the kids we love can be the ones who crawled out the bottom of the tent even though their esteemed leader told them not to, and survived.

Let's not be the ones who tell our kids to Sit down and shut up. Let's be the ones saying, Well, let's give this some thought. Does it make good sense? Is it safe? Is any part of you telling you that it's unwise or too risky? What's the worst that could happen if you do this?

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit