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Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan


Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal


The Forbidden Marshmallows

14 Feb


                           During the past holiday season my wife Diane prepared an advent calendar for our four grandchildren. This calendar is shaped like a house with 24 doors. Beginning in December the grandchildren open one door every day until Christmas. Each door opens a tiny compartment that contains a small gift for each grandchild. This whole process drove our four-year-old grandson crazy. He kept sneaking into the room where Diane was working and by his own admission, later opened several doors, when no one was looking. This charming yet frightening  preschool impulsiveness reflects the nearly universal human preference for immediate gratification.  

             The inability to delay gratification is seen clearly in how much more we spend than save. Historically American have been notoriously poor savers.   On the average we save only about  6% of our  annual incomes compared to 13% for the  Germans, 14% for the Swiss,  and  a whopping 30% for the Chinese.

Besides our need for instant gratification, some of the other  common reasons for our lack of savings are (1) our insistence  on  maintaining  our current standard of living, (2) our wish to keep with our peers,  (3)  our inability to manage  credit card debt,  and (4) our talent for avoiding the truth.  After years of keeping my head in the sand, Diane recently shamed me in to seeing a retirement planner. It was like getting a financial root canal. 

Wells Fargo Bank’ s Annual 2011 Retirement Survey found  that  on the  average, Americans have only managed to  put away  only about  7%  of  their desired retirement savings.  The median retirement savings is only  $25,000 as opposed  to a goal of $350,000.  Experts estimate that less than 5% of Americans will achieve anything approximating financial security in their retirement and today almost two thirds of American workers put nothing aside for  the future.

In a recent Newsweek  article, science writers Sharon Begley  and Jean Chatzky say that our instant-access culture, in which we can have almost any product delivered to our door overnight is doing little to train the next generation in how to delay gratification.  Northeastern University economist William Dickens believes that our preference for current consumption over future consumption may even be hard-wired into our brains.

           In a  study from the  1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel  from   Stanford University   offered to give 4 year-olds subjects one  marshmallow now, but two marshmallows later,  if they would only wait for while to  get it. Some  of the children  ate the marshmallow  immediately, and the majority  lasted less than 3 minutes. Some children, however, were able to wait much longer to get their marshmallows.   Fourteen years later,  Mischel found that children  who could wait fifteen minutes for their marshmallows had  S.A.T. scores that were two hundred and ten points higher on the average,   than kids who could wait only thirty seconds. The delayers were less likely to be obese, addicted to drugs, or divorced. I also wonder what their  401k balances were.

             Thirty-five years after the  marshmallow experiment, researcher  B. J. Casey from  Cornell Medical College managed to tracked down  59 of the original subjects and  conducted brain imaging analyses,  finding  that in  subjects, able  to delay gratification, the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning  was much more active. Also active was an area of the brain  which   control impulses. Subjects less able to delay gratification had less activity in both of these regions, but more activity within the limbic system, an area associated with pleasure and fear.

Other  areas of the brain that are involved in the ability  to delay gratifications  are those that deal with estimating consequences, processing rewards, controlling memory, and activating motivation. Neuroscientists found that activity in   all of these areas were  correlated with people’s attitudes toward spending and  saving.  For spend-it-now folks, activity in these regions fell dramatically when future gratification was proposed. In people who could delay gratification,  activity was the same whether they were thinking of  current  or  future gratification.

The   prefrontal cortex, however, may be the key player.   When it is temporarily  “deactivated” by the use  of strong magnets, people becomes more impulsive, however, when it is artificially stimulated, people actually become more willing to save for the future.  

               In another follow-up study  researchers   also indentified   a  substantial number  of original subjects  who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds,  but ended up becoming responsible adults who were   able  to routinely delay gratification. Mischel is especially interested in learning more about these subjects, since, at sometime during their lives, they seem to have found the secret to learning self-control.

            Behavioral psychologist  B.F. Skinner believed that humans could be trained to delay gratification, by the use of contingent reinforcers. In his 1948 science fiction novel Waldon Two,  Skinner provided his unique vision of a futuristic society,  grounded in the tenets of radical behaviorism. In his world of Waldon Two young children spend the day with a “forbidden lollipop” hanging around their necks, in order  to teach them how to delay gratification. Only after a specified period of time elapsed, were the children allowed to eat  the lollipop, which had been dipped in powdered sugar, in order to detect licking transgressions.

More recently psychologist Warren Bickel of Virginia Tech  conducted  memory improvement training and  found  that as subject’s memory improved,  they  also developed more appreciation for the future and thus greater ability to postpone  gratification.

   Economist Antony Davies of Duquesne University believes one reason younger workers do not save, is that they simply cannot that they cannot imagine themselves as getting old. I can certainly identify with that.  In his classic book Future Shock  Alvin Toffler discussed how our age  effects our subjective perception  of time.  For example asking a three-year-old to wait an hour for a cookie, is roughly equivalent  to asking a thirty-year-old to wait ten hours for a cup of coffee. Thus asking a twenty-year-old to put aside money for retirement in forty-eight years is like asking him to give it to a complete stranger.  

Impulsive shopping, of course, applies to buying things for other people, as well as yourself. As “Black Friday” kicks off the holiday shopping season an estimated 212 million Americans will spend over 45 billion dollars today alone. This may be just the year to try to control some of those built-in shopping impulses. Crank up your prefrontal lobes, don’t buy that marshmallow shooter,  don’t eat the marshmallows, and leave that lollipop alone.

Based on a column that appeared  in the News Tribune of Southern Indiana.

Delta Tales: We Don’t Grow Polester

1 Sep

“And it pays a hundred dollars a day.”   “Say what?”  Back then that  was more money than I could imagine.   Randy, the psychologist I worked for, was moving to Atlanta  and bequeathed me a plum consulting job at  a private school for handicapped children.. “All you got to do is go there once a month,  test a kid or two , have lunch, and  talk to the teachers. And it’s a remarkable place.  Mrs. Johnson, who runs it is a miracle worker.”

            Early Saturday I carefully started out for Johnson City. I had only been in the deep south a few months, but had learned that road hazards ranged from the sudden appearance of  highboys full of cotton to raw-boned state troopers who were unsympathetic to red sports cars with  “Land of Lincoln” license plates.

            By nine o’clock I came upon the  large white  ranch house with an oak and a rusty swing set in the front yard.  Mrs. Johnson met me at the door. Her appearance was overshadowed by her enthusiasm and sense of  urgency. She was a personable  woman in her early forties, but she was obviously a woman with a mission. I remembered Randy saying that the Johnson’s  started the school after having a disabled child who died at an early age.

            The spacious living room had only a couch and chair and was dominated by a   white brick fireplace and  a sailfish mounted on the wall. Mrs. Johnson asked me to sit and launched into a description of the school. They had 10 children, four teachers  and few part-time aides.   The teachers were all young women  who lived at the school. Usually one of them was off attending the university  as part  of a home made work-study program, the Johnsons sponsored. The  house was larger than it appeared with separate  living quarters for the family, children, teachers, and even the farm help. Behind the house was a long narrow building with a  tin roof that served as the Chicken Coop School.

            Through the front window I could see a boy of about 10 years riding a bicycle with a tether attached to the handle bars. He could only ride in a wide circle. Mrs. Johnson told me that  was Donny. He was an appealing child with shiny black hair and steel gray eyes. Donny also was autistic  and spent most of his life isolated in a private world  with only the most slender  connection to our reality. The tether was devised to prevent him from running his bike into the trees. Donny couldn’t use language and Mrs. Johnson eyes virtually glowed when she talked about teaching him to communicate.

            At lunch time, Mr. Johnson arrived looking like he just hopped off a tractor, which he had. He looked more grizzly bear than human and he shook my hand vigorously. The children flocked around him and he herded them all into the kitchen.  We all sat around  a huge wooden  table. Each child was seated between two adults. I saw  Mrs. Johnson expertly  redirect Donny when he started slapping at the place setting. I was feeling out of place–  not sure how I was suppose behave. A petite black woman appeared from nowhere and   poured sweet  tea into big plastic tumblers. I immediately knocked  mine over, soaking the  tablecloth. Mr. Johnson and the children laughed out loud, while the teachers  politely grinned. The farm hands ignored it and continued  dishing out the cornbread stuffing. Mrs. Johnson explained  to the children how that everyone makes mistakes, even one hundred dollar a day consultants.

            As I ate the chicken  and fresh figs, I heard Mrs. Johnson telling her husband  that the children needed new clothes. He agreed but insisted that she buy  100 % cotton underwear, because as he put it, “Honey, remember we don’t grow polyester.”

             After lunch we reviewed the case of a very disturbed five year old girl.    The week after she arrived  Mrs. Johnson carried her to a church service. The girl started screaming racial epithets disrupting  the sermon. Mrs. Johnson  stared down the  parishioners. gently held the girl on  her lap. and gestured  to the traumatized preacher to continue. The girl finally fell asleep as the sweating preacher quickly finished his sermon. The screaming eventually extinguished, but the First Baptist Church was never quite the same.

              Mrs. Johnson told me  more about Donny. He had shown little progress since he came to the school a year ago.  His parents had abandoned him and the school was the was the end of the line after a series of foster homes. Mrs. Johnson said she had decided to take Donny  down to the state university, where they would both live in a trailer  in the parking lot for three months, while she took him to specialists in speech and language twice a day.   She planned to  work with him individually the rest of the time. 

            When it was time to leave, Mrs. Johnson pressed a check in my hand and saw me off. I drove straight for  a town where my Lebanese friend, Saleem  lived. Once  I got there there I ate kibbi and promptly lost the entire hundred in an all night Boo Ray game.

            A few months later I  left for a job in another state. I never found out if   Donny learned to speak, but if not, it wasn’t for lack of effort. They didn’t  grow polyester  down there,  they grew hope.


Evaluating Your Children’s Presents this Christmas

16 Dec

This article will tell you if you bought enough and the right kinds of presents this year to make this Christmas one of wonder and awe for your children. Christmas eve is almost here. You must soon decide if Santa’s presents are sufficient to surprise and delight your children. Consider using the following five tests.
Things Required:
• Spreadsheet of all presents bought broken down by child
• Lastest credit card statement
• Your last ounce of strength
Step 1
Are there enough presents to unwrap Christmas morning? Unfortunately a dozen presents is about the minimum for a successful Christmas today. Don’t wrap each crayon separately but save batteries for the stocking. One Christmas Eve we came up short, necessitating a crisis visit to Wal-Mart. With our last ten dollars I rescued a refugee from the clearance bin— Milky the cow. This oversized Holstein with latex udders could actually be milked. Although creepy, it did put us over the top. We also scored priceless photos of our bewildered daughter examining Milky’ s underside Christmas morning.
Step 2
Did you pay enough? If you have not reached your limit on at least one major credit card, then back to the mall. Snooty toy shops can quickly increase net expenditures with bizarre educational toys from unpronounceable countries. On-line purchases also provide a great opportunity since shipping always adds 15%.
Step 3
This is critical. How flashy are the presents? Will the kid next door eat his heart out? Cheap toys with lots of lights, smoke, and noise can shore up this department. Don’t worry if they break before New Year’s, the future is now.
Step 4
Do they take up enough space? If you don’t have a bike, you might be in trouble. One year we failed to have a huge present under the tree. Christmas morning the kids said those seven words guaranteed to break your heart, “It doesn’t look like Santa Claus came.” We learned our lesson and always bulked up the haul. Inflatable toys can accomplish this in a cost effective way. Life-sized crocodiles can help set that perfect holiday mood of avarice.
Step 5
If you have more than once kid, there must be perfect balance. We have often switched gift tags at the last minute or doubled down and assigned the new X-box to two kids. This not only achieves balance, but guarantees months of holiday squabbling.

Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow (1978)