Adults must guide kids' lives, and give them a sense of self-control

"Our kids are 'wired' for control. Our role as adults is not to force them to follow the track we’ve laid out for them; it’s to help them develop the skills to find their own way..."

In recent years, we’ve learned a lot about the damage athletes suffer from hitting their heads too much—either on soccer balls or on the 260-pound linebacker in their way. Today, we think about the long-term consequences of concussions: “Yeah, he looks okay now, but too many more of those and he’s not going to remember his kids’ names.”


We think stress should be talked about in this way, too. Chronic stress wreaks havoc on the brain, especially on young brains. It’s like trying to grow a plant in a too-small pot. As any casual gardener knows, doing so weakens the plant, with long-term consequences. Rates of stress-induced illnesses are extremely high in every demographic, and researchers are working furiously to uncover the reasons behind the rise in anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, binge drinking, and worrisome patterns of self-harm in young people. Affluent children and teens are at particularly high risk. A recent survey showed that 80 percent of students in a Silicon Valley high school reported moderate to severe levels of anxiety and depression is now the number one cause of disability worldwide. We think of chronic stress in children and teenagers as the societal equivalent of climate change—a problem that has been building over generations and will take considerable effort and a change of habits to overcome.

So what does a sense of control have to do with all of this? The answer is: everything. Quite simply, it is the antidote to stress. Stress is the unknown, the unwanted, and the feared. It’s as minor as feeling unbalanced and as major as fighting for your life. Sonia Lupien at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress has a handy acronym for what makes life stressful— N.U.T.S.

 

Novelty

Something you have not experienced before.

 

Unpredictability

Something you had no way of knowing would occur.

 

Threat to the ego

Your safety or competence as a person is called into question.

 

Sense of control

You feel you have little or no control over the situation.

 

An early study that looked at stress in rats found that when a rat is given a wheel to turn that will stop it from receiving an electric shock, it happily turns the wheel and isn’t very stressed. If the wheel is taken away, the rat experiences massive stress. If the wheel is then returned to the cage, the rat’s stress levels are much lower, even if the wheel isn’t actually attached to the shocking apparatus anymore. In humans, too, being able to push a button to reduce the likelihood of hearing a noxious sound will reduce their stress levels, even if the button has no real effect on the sound—and even if you don’t push the button! It turns out that it’s the sense of control that matters, even more so than what you actually do. If you have confidence that you can impact a situation, it will be less stressful.

On some level, you probably know this. You may use it as a justification for cleaning up your desk before starting on a difficult task. Most people feel safer when they are driving than flying (when it should be the opposite) because they believe they are more in control.

You may also have experienced the power of control in relation to your kids. If your child is struggling and you feel there’s nothing you can do about it, your stress level is likely to rise. Watching your teenager take the car out alone for the first time, or perform in a play, also cause stress. You’re a spectator, and there’s little you can do beyond hope everything turns out okay.

Agency may be the single most important factor in human happiness and well-being. We all like to feel that we are in charge of our own destiny. The same thing goes for our kids. That’s why two-year-olds will say things like “I do it myself!” and four-year-olds will insist “You are not the boss of me!” It’s why we should let them do what they can for themselves, even if we’re running late and it will take them twice as long. It’s also why the surest way to get a picky five-year-old to eat his vegetables is to divide the plate in half and let him choose which half to eat.

One of Ned’s clients, Kara, was incredibly insightful about this: “When I was a kid, when my parents would say, ‘You have to eat this or that food,’ I hated it,” she said. “So if they told me I had to eat something that I didn’t want to, I’d throw it right back up on the table.” Kara said sleepaway camp was a highlight of her childhood because campers got to decide from a range of choices what to do all day, and what to eat. And given the freedom to act on her own, she ate responsibly.

Alas, sleepaway camp is not the world we live in. When she was around twelve or thirteen, Kara began to experience anxiety. “I think I first started having anxiety when people started telling me what to do,” she said, “when I didn’t feel like I was in control. And then when I switched schools and had to worry about fitting in and about what other people thought, I think that made it even worse. For me, feeling like I have a sense of control, that I am in charge of my own life, is so important. Even now, I like it when my parents give me choices. My friend’s mom will say, ‘Let’s play this game for a while and then let’s bake cookies.’ And that’s great and all, but it would make me nuts to always be told ‘Here’s the plan’ instead of asking me what I want.”

Lest you doubt how little control our children actually have, think of what their days are like. They have to sit still in classes they didn’t choose, taught by teachers randomly assigned to them; they have to stand in neat lines, eat on a schedule, and rely on the whims of their teachers for permission to go to the bathroom. And think of how we measure them: how they score on a random selection of facts.

It is frustrating and stressful to feel powerless, and many kids feel that way all the time. As grown-ups, we sometimes tell our kids that they’re in charge of their own lives, but then we proceed to micromanage their homework, their afterschool activities, and their friendships. Or perhaps we tell them that actually they’re not in charge—we are. Either way, we make them feel powerless, and by doing so, we undermine our relationship with them and jeopardize their future mental health.

There is another way. Over the last sixty years, study after study has found that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with virtually all the positive outcomes we want for our children. Perceived control—the confidence that we can direct the course of our life through our own efforts—is associated with better physical health, less use of drugs and alcohol, and greater longevity, as well as with lower stress, positive emotional well-being, greater internal motivation and ability to control one’s behavior, improved academic performance, and enhanced career success. Like exercise and sleep, it appears to be good for virtually everything, presumably because it represents a deep human need.

Our kids are “wired” for control, whether they’re growing up in the South Bronx or South Korea. Our role as adults is not to force them to follow the track we’ve laid out for them; it’s to help them develop the skills to find their own way—and to make independent course corrections when things don’t go as planned.

 

Hitting the Sweet Spot:

A Better Understanding of Stress

Let us make one thing clear: we don’t think it’s possible to protect kids from all stressful experiences, nor would we want to. In fact, when kids are constantly shielded from circumstances that make them anxious, it tends to make their anxiety worse. We want them to learn how to deal successfully with stressful situations—to have a high stress tolerance. That’s how they develop resilience. If a child feels like he’s in control in a stressful situation, then in later situations when he might actually not be in control, his brain will be equipped to handle that stress better. He is, in effect, immunized.

Bill cried every day for the first week of first grade because he didn’t know any of his classmates. His teacher was quietly supportive, and when other kids would whisper, “Mrs. Rowe, he’s crying,” Bill would hear her say, “He’s going to be fine. He’ll like it here, don’t worry.” He did, in fact, figure out how to manage the stress of an unfamiliar situation and the coping skills he learned appear to have generalized, as he never cried again in an unfamiliar environment. (So far, anyway.) The teacher was right to let him work it out, instead of swooping in and giving him the sense he couldn’t handle it on his own.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has identified three kinds of stress:

Positive stress motivates children (and adults) to grow, take risks, and perform at a high level.

Tolerable stress,which occurs for relatively brief periods (like dealing with an instance of bullying), can also build resilience. Critically, there must be supportive adults present, and kids must have time to cope and recover.

Toxic stress is defined as frequent or prolonged activation of the stress system in the absence of support. It is either severe (such as witnessing an assault) or recurs day in and day out, in which case it is chronic. Supportive adults—who minimize exposure to things that a child isn’t developmentally ready to handle— aren’t readily available. There seems to be no reprieve, no cavalry coming, no end in sight. This is the space many kids live in today whether they are obviously at-risk students or seemingly high-functioning kids.

So how do you capitalize on positive or tolerable stress while avoiding the bad kind? It is simple in theory, but tricky in execution: kids need a supportive adult around, they need time to recover from the stressful event, and they need to have a sense of control over their lives.

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From THE SELF-DRIVEN CHILD: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson, to be published on February 13, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.