John Rosemond Recent Columns
Copyright 2020, John K. Rosemond
The Greatest and Most Painful of Gifts
In 1972, a Stanford University psychologist conducted a study in which young children, individually, were offered either a small but immediate reward (a marshmallow or a pretzel) or a doubled reward if they were able to wait for fifteen minutes. In follow-up studies, researchers found that children who were able to postpone gratification experienced better life outcomes as measured by such things as SAT scores, academic achievement, and body mass index.
I have long maintained that well-done research in the so-called social sciences does nothing but confirm common sense, and it certainly seems commonsensical that impulsivity and difficulty delaying gratification have a negative impact on life outcomes. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, as it is known, bears significantly on childrearing attitudes and approaches. Simply, teaching a naturally impulse-driven child to exercise restraint greatly increases the child’s chances of success.
In previous columns I have extolled the parenting virtues of “Vitamin N,” referring to the two-letter word that the mental health community began demonizing in the late 1960s, claiming it induced all manner of psychological problems. Supposedly, said vitamin was part and parcel of “shame-based” parenting (which refers to childrearing that activates a child’s conscience). Even today, despite commonsense and a body of research akin to the Stanford study, I continue to hear of parents and preschools that adhere to a “no no” policy.
I have been so bold and psychologically incorrect to say that children should hear “no” at least five times more than they hear “yes.” That proportion approximates what they are going to experience post-emancipation as they learn to navigate real world contingencies. The earlier in life a person adjusts his expectations to reality, the better.
Because children are impulsive and instant gratification oriented by nature (as opposed to those traits being the result of chemical imbalances and other pseudo-scientific fictions), learning restraint involves psychic pain, which children express in tantrums and various forms of petulance. Teaching restraint, therefore, requires that parents also be able to tolerate pain. Having raised two children and assisted in the raising of seven grands, I can attest that there are few things more painful to endure than the prolonged shrieking of a young child.
And so, it is ironic to note that those parents who are better able to restrain the impulse to end said shrieking by giving in are more likely to raise children who can tolerate delay of gratification and achieve life success. Endowing restraint requires restraint. Teaching endurance requires endurance.
Take it from an expert on the subject, when all is said and done, life success is not a matter of money, prestige, honors, and the like. It is a matter of personal contentment, a sense of serenity that no outside influence can disturb.
Contentment is life’s brass ring. Enabling a child to eventually, much later in life, grasp it requires daily doses of Vitamin N, the greatest and most painful of gifts.
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Appreciate the Odd Among Us
I have come up with a new psychological diagnosis, one that I won’t, however, be submitting for approval to the powers that be: simply, odd. My “odd” is to be distinguished from ODD, the acronym for oppositional defiant disorder, an invention that enables mental health professionals to obtain payment from insurance providers…but that’s another column entirely. Stay tuned!
Odd is what all human beings are. Starting from the top down, all adults are odd. I am odd, you are odd, Bill Gates is odd, President Trump is odd, Barak Obama is odd (must have diversity, you know), and so on. Most people, by early adulthood at the latest, begin to identify their personal peculiarities and realize they must be concealed from the general public lest they cause social and employment difficulties. Adults who fail to conceal their oddities are prone to becoming known as “jerks” and other equally hobbling nicknames. Or, they become mental health professionals, politicians, and famous actors who win Academy Awards.
Odd is unique to humans. Animals –take dogs, for example—only become odd when exposed to very odd humans for long periods of time. Just for the record, my dog, Mazie, is not odd, which is probably due to my wife’s influence. Mazie is simply cute and playful.
Children, being human, are odd. Children, however, are not capable of the introspection necessary to realize they are odd. So, they let their oddness hang out rather indiscriminately. In my career as a family psychologist, I have come across a veritable plethora of odd kids. Take the four-year-old who played only with G.I. Joes, wanted to dress as his role model, and often insisted upon being called “Sargent Joe, Sir.”
Sargent Joe’s parents sought the advice of a psychologist who wanted to assign him a diagnosis and take him into weekly therapy sessions where he could work out his “anger issues.” Wisely, the parents declined “treatment” for their very inventive and imaginative mini-Joe.
They subsequently asked my opinion. I told them his fascination with G.I. Joe was not likely to last past second or third grade, which it did not. Mini-Joe did what is called “growing out” of something odd. When he realized that other boys did not all share his obsession, he let it go and moved on.
Sometimes, a child’s odd behavior needs more of a push. It needs to be stopped, for the benefit of all concerned. Take the pre-school girl who started making clucking sounds with her tongue when she was a toddler. By the time she was in kindergarten, her clucking was driving her parents up the proverbial wall. Her teacher, furthermore, wanted her to visit with the school psychologist. She mentioned the ubiquitous “spectrum,” which probably applies to everyone.
I told the parents their daughter’s clucking was simply an annoying habit that, unfortunately, was drawing lots of well-meaning but counterproductive attention.
“Tell her she can only cluck in her room and if she forgets and clucks outside her room—at, say, the dinner table—you will send her to the downstairs bathroom for five minutes, where she can cluck the entire time.”
Voila! Within two weeks, the clucking stopped—outside her room, that is. Is the little girl still slightly odd? Yes, but that’s life. Some things just take patience and a lotta love.
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The Value of a Reward
Psychologist B. F. Skinner, the formulator of behavior modification theory, was attempting to prove that the same principles that govern the behavior of amoeba, planaria, rats, dogs, and monkeys also govern the behavior of human beings. A very Darwinian proposition, indeed.
What my graduate school professors conveniently “forgot” to tell me: Skinner failed to prove his hypothesis, and no researcher has ever succeeded where Skinner did not. Some have claimed success, but all they’ve succeeded at proving, really, is the fact that human beings are economists by nature. From a very early age, humans weight benefits versus costs and make logical decisions, if not always rational ones.
Dogs are not economists. Behavior modification strategies – manipulations of reward and punishment – compel the behavior of a dog. Their outcomes are predictable. But behavior modification outcomes are not at all reliably predictable in a human, even an infant.
Researchers have found that when the subject is human, rewards and punishments have paradoxical effects at times. Rewards can lessen desired behavior and punishment can increase undesired behavior. Significant numbers of parents have discovered the same paradox, albeit most of them don’t understand what it is they’re seeing.
Put a 15-month-old child in two minutes of time out every time he goes after one of his mother’s set of limited-edition porcelain figurines and watch as his determination to obtain the figurines increases. Praise and continue to praise a 4-year-old child for making an attempt to draw a horse and watch him stop drawing horses. In both cases, economics is at work.
In the case of the toddler, two minutes in a chair doesn’t begin to outweigh the thrill of the chase. The more time outs, the more of a challenge those figurines become. The 4-year-old stops drawing horses because he figures out, intuitively, that any old horse is good enough to send his mother into clapping spasms, high-fives, and “woo-woos!” That wears thin quickly.
To work, punishments must outweigh a child’s determination to win, to prove that no one can tell him what to do. To win over the little rebel/economist, the cost of misbehaving must be significantly greater than the benefit and believe me when I say that rebellion is its own benefit. It scratches a persistent itch. The parental goal should be to punish infrequently, but when punishment is necessary, to do so in ways that establish permanent memories. Time out is the least memorable of all punishments, by the way. It’s merely annoying.
To be motivating, rewards must be dispensed conservatively. The more “everyday” they are, the less meaningful they become. The value of a reward is inverse to its frequency. The scarcity of praise forces a child to self-reward, which characterizes all high achievers.
As I will forever maintain, childrearing is not complicated; it’s almost completely a matter of commonsense. Unfortunately, for going on fifty years now, American parents have been listening to professional “parenting” types who have made it seem complicated and anything but commonsensical.
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‘Good Mommy Club’ Does No Favors for Kids
The biggest problem in the life of today’s all-too typical mother is herself. She is her own worst enemy. Them’s fightin’ words, I know, but please, hold the tomatoes and other vegetables and bear with me.
One of the doctrines of the Good Mommy Club, the evil sisterhood to which many if not most of today’s mommies belong, albeit unwittingly, has it that the Good Mommy does as much for her child as she possibly can, and then some. A guarantee of frustration, anxiety, stress, resentment and guilt, that.
The mother of the 1950s, the decade of my childhood, had no Good Mommy Club to which to belong. Furthermore, that very commonsensically-grounded mother wouldn’t be welcome in today’s GMC, which got its start around 1970 and has been swallowing women whole ever since.
By the time I was three, my mother was deliberately, with purpose in mind, doing as little for me as reason allowed. I learned to tie my own shoes when I was four, for example, because my mother, after showing me how, refused to tie them for me.
“John Rosemond,” she would say, “My job is to make sure you learn to stand on your own two feet, and if I let you stand on mine, you’ll never learn to stand on yours.” Hardly the words of an enabler. Kids don’t hear their moms talk like that anymore. What a shame.
Telling her I “couldn’t” do something was unacceptable. “Well, that’s too bad,” she’d say, “because I’m not doing it for you.”
Unlike all too many of today’s kids, I was not an object of obsession, much less coddling. I knew full well that my mother loved me with all her heart, but I was not the be-all, end-all of her existence. She had a life outside of her responsibilities toward me – a job, college, lots of friends. For that reason, I saw her as an interesting person. She taught me, at an early age, that women were interesting people. Every mother should have that purpose in mind.
A mother who is obsessed with her kids is not going to be regarded by them as interesting. They are going to take her for granted. The idol doesn’t find the idol-worshipper interesting in the least.
All too many of today’s mothers have taught their kids – again, unwittingly – to think of them as biological vending machines who are there to dispense and deliver whatever they want. Vending machine, perpetual enabler, servant-on-the-ready; not self-respecting roles for a woman to play in a child’s life.
Today’s all-too-typical mom demeans herself and her sycophantic attitude leads to disrespect of all sorts. (And yes, I know there are exceptions and they know who they are.) Instead of respecting their mothers and wanting to please them, the Good Mommy’s kids EXPECT from her.
I give thanks almost daily for having been blessed with a mom who showed me how to tie my shoes when I was four and let me figure it out from there.
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Why Small Classrooms Are Overrated
No rational person would argue that the smaller the class size, the better, right?” asked the radio talk show host.
“I think I’m a rational person,” I said, “and I can offer proof that smaller class size propaganda is nothing but, well, propaganda. Small classes are overrated. Individual attention is overrated. It quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns.”
“Really? What proof?”
History, personal and otherwise. I went to first grade in 1952. At the time, Kindergarten was not universal in South Carolina, so first grade was my first grade. One teacher presided over fifty children. That’s a large classroom, for sure, yet I’ve spoken to women who taught as many as ninety-five first graders in the early-to-mid 1950s, when the first wave of boomers was entering school. All of the women in question attest to orderly learning environments. Today, in many third-world areas of the world, classroom size is huge by first-world standards; yet, those teachers also report orderly learning environments.
How much individual attention do you think any given child received in my first-grade class? Correct. Very little. Occasional. We had to pay attention. Get it?
Typically, a 1950s elementary teacher taught for fifteen minutes or so, gave a timed assignment, and worked at her desk while her students worked at theirs. When time was up, students exchanged and graded one another’s papers. Then, on to another subject area. Fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, five minutes, put away one workbook and take out another.
I’m writing this column for parents who homeschool, the number of which the current school shutdown has greatly and suddenly increased. For the first time in over a century, most elementary-age children are being taught by their parents, at home.
The Internet is full of advice for these new homeschoolers, but I have yet to run across one article that tells these folks, mostly moms, many of whom are complaining of exhaustion, to relax about the involvement thing. Homeschooling does not require a high level of parent involvement. That is myth. Across the demographic spectrum, student achievement in the 1950s, when children were largely “deprived” of one-on-one attention, was significantly higher than it is today.
The key to successful homeschooling is not lots of involvement, it’s organization. When I’m giving advice to a parent who wants to homeschool, I recommend the fifteen-thirty-five routine. It worked with fifty or more kids; it will surely work (and does, in fact) with less than a handful.
The more individual attention children receive in a classroom setting, the more they expect it and the more they come to depend upon it. The attention-overdosed child is likely to not pay close attention to what his teacher is saying unless she’s standing over him, talking directly to him. In a homeschool situation, codependency is an ever-looming possibility.
Codependency is exhausting. Homeschooling, per se, is not.
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In Defense of Homeschooling
In his November 1863 address at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the men who lost their lives on that battlefield had done so in order that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln was restating a principle first set forth in the Declaration of Independence, a principle essential to the preservation of our historically unique form of government.
Then and now, American political and cultural tensions have boiled down to an ever-escalating tug of war between those who believe in the power of government and those who believe in the Founders’ original vision. Exemplary of the former is Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, quoted in a Harvard Magazine (May/June 2020) article titled “The Risks of Homeschooling.”
Bartholet’s animus toward homeschooling is palpable. She believes it exposes children to abuse, not to mention inferior educational standards, not to mention undemocratic values, not to mention “authoritarian control” exercised by parents who largely believe in female subservience, white supremacy, and a biblical view of creation. She wants it outlawed.
Bartholet opines, “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people [parents, that is] in charge of the powerless [children], and to give the powerful ones total authority.”
Yes, well, so do I. Every feature and expression of democracy is fraught with potential danger. Human nature is not a pretty thing, and the ugliest expressions of human nature are almost always committed by people in positions of power. But history teaches that the greatest abuses are perpetrated by those who deny the realities of our nature and harbor utopian visions. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Brandeis put it best: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
Bartholet essentially advances the proposition that government is a more trustworthy caretaker of children than their parents. It is “dangerous,” she says, for a child to spend his entire day, day after day, with his parents. With that absurd notion, she qualifies as a well-intentioned person of zeal who is dangerously lacking in understanding. On the basis of an uber-small number of homeschooling parents who abuse the right to direct their children’s education, she would assign all children to the vagaries of a government-run bureaucracy that is – as are all bureaucracies, ultimately – more interested in self-preservation than the preservation of our flawed but unsurpassed system of self-rule.
In a rebuttal to Bartholet, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly asks, “Can fair-minded people not acknowledge that parents have every right to choose their child’s educational route?”
Indeed, fair-minded people can acknowledge what fair-minded jurists have affirmed, but people who believe in “government of the bureaucracy, by the bureaucracy, and for the bureaucracy” are not fair-minded. Their well-meaning zeal so narrows their point of view that, as in Bartholet’s case, the big picture ultimately disappears.
When all is said and done, the best regulator of the homeschooling parent is other homeschooling parents, motivated by desire to preserve their own and everyone else’s freedoms. Long may they run.
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