Archive for the ‘Responsibility’ Category

It seems to be that all the most mature people I know have something in common: their parents treated them like adults even as children. (Exact details vary, and the changes show in the person, but this general theme holds.) This sort of trust is hard, no doubt. The world can be a dangerous place, though probably not as dangerous as the nightly news would have you think, and children are, well, children after all. However, a big part of growing up is making mistakes, and maybe getting hurt. The important thing to remember, though, is that these mistakes are typically more frightening then they are damaging.

Take the recently posted (and very controversial) story of Lenore Skenazy, who left her 9-year old son at Bloomingdale’s (in Manhattan) with a bus/subway map, twenty bucks, and a few quarters in case he needed to call home. People have been calling for her head, or at least for child abuse charges, but for nothing. Her son made it back fine, proud of himself and better prepared for life. I’ve made a similar trip before a bunch of times, and it is significantly less difficult then most things we ask young children to do. If you remember a few numbers and follow signs (both very useful things to teach children, especially in New York), it’s a piece of cake. From what I can gather in the story, here are a few key take-away lessons.

Prepare your child. Lenore didn’t just dump her child in the middle of nowhere. She gave him a reference point, a map, and more then enough cash to make the trip. I’m sure, as well, that she’s taught him a million little lessons on subway and bus navigation while they’ve traveled around New York. So he wasn’t really doing anything new, he was just doing it independently.

Realize you can’t always prepare your child. The world is simple too novel a place to account for every possibility. (Fun fact: linguists suggest that most sentences you ever utter are unique to your experience, and will probably not be uttered again.) At some point, you have to trust that, even if your children reach a point where they don’t know exactly what to do, they’ll be able to fake their way through it. After all, you probably do the same thing every day (who taught you how to deal with that customer service rep?).

You can’t always protect your child. As stated in the article, “The statistics show that [child abduction] is an incredibly rare event, and you can’t protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.” In fact, I would argue that being overly protective of children does more harm than good. It’s impossible to protect your children from everything, and odds are if someone really wants to hurt your child, they can and will. Instead, if something happens to your child, you should hope that they are independent enough to take car of themselves. Take little Ashlie Chumley, one of several amazing your children I’ve heard (but not very much) about recently.

Last year, 11-year-old Ashlie Chumley of Houston was abducted from the hallway of her church. Having seen Escape School on television a year earlier, she escaped from her abductor by waiting until his car slowed down, and then jumping out. She found her way back to the church by running more than a mile in the dark, following the glow of a steeple on a church that she remembered was next to her own. Within 45 minutes, she was back with her family.

True, it would be a traumatic experience for a child. Odds are, though, that law enforcement couldn’t have helped, at least not immediately. Instead, she got herself home, and is safely with family.

You don’t always need to protect your children. My favorite line in Lenore’s column is this:

I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Most important of all, recognize that being too protective is harmful to your child. Your child is not you, is not a pet, and sooner or later your child will be an independent person. Without letting them learn how to be that, you’re hurting their chances at being successful. So join Lenore’s new Free Range Kids movement, and give your kids the sort of childhood you probably remember having.

“Here’s your MetroCard, kid. Go.”


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Yesterday, I spoke about the importance of getting started when you want change. However, another common problem is establishing new habits. I’ve always been told it takes three weeks to transition from an old habit to a new one. Once established, it’s easy to keep going, but first you have to make it through three weeks, during which your natural behaviors will still be wrong. If you’re going to succeed, odds are you need something to keep you in line.

Of course, there is positive reinforcement. It’s probably worth it’s own post eventually. I’m suspicious of it, though. Too often, I’ve tried to use positive reinforcement and ended up failing at my goal, but still finding an excuse to reward myself. No, for stubborn people me, it has to be negative reinforcement.

There are a few things to keep in mind about negative reinforcement for it to be effective.

  • Immediacy. If you’ve ever tried to train an animal (and behavior modification of yourself is no different) you know that delivering a punishment late is worse then not doing it at all. You need a way to punish yourself (a metaphorical rolled up news paper) that is quick and easy.
  • Pain. No two ways about this, it needs to hurt. The entire point of negative reinforcement is to alter your life’s reward system; continue your bad behavior (which probably feels good) and get a dose of pain, or make change (which also probably feels good) and avoid the punishment. I prefer actual physical pain (a rubber band snap to the wrist, in fact, which hurts a lot after a while), but it could be psychological pain as well. Think curse jar (bad language).
  • Novelty. If you have plans to change a behavior, then you probably already feel bad about it. Maybe you already punish yourself in little ways. Whatever method of negative reinforcement you choose though, it needs to be new and unusual, or else it will just blend in. If you want yourself to behave differently, you need to drastically alter the rules you play by. Your punishment should be something new, and should be used only for this behavior.
  • Consistency. A system like this doesn’t work if it isn’t applied all the time. Shock a rat if he touches a wall, and he will learn to not touch the wall. Shock him only occasionally, or with a different wall each time, and he will go insane. You probably wont go insane, but you certainly wont make much progress either.
  • Exposure. This is largely optional, but I think it can help if your method for punishing yourself is a little public. Not only will a desire not to explain (why you’re thwacking yourself with a rubber band) make you more diligent, but it’s likely to get people asking about (and then helping police you on) your goal.
  • Goal. The most important thing is not to lose sight of your goal. While you are punishing yourself for backsliding, your reward is progress. Don’t let yourself get accustomed to the punishment. Not only should you use the pain of punishment as a deterrent, but use it as a way to track your progress.

Keeping these things in mind, it’s pretty easy to create a system that will help you learn your new habit. Whether it’s a curse jar, a rubber band around the wrist, or some other way to punish yourself, negative reinforcement can be a valuable tool for creating real change in your life.

(As an aside, psychologists make a distinction between “negative reinforcement” and “punishment”. The latter is administered in response to a bad behavior to cause discomfort; the former is a negative condition created before a behavior occurs to encourage avoiding that behavior. Technically, the methods I mentioned are punishments. The rat’s electrocuted wall, however, is negative reinforcement [it’s a continuing condition which encourages the rat to learn a new behavior, ie. not touching the wall]. Consider true negative reinforcement an option as well. Want to make yourself watch less TV? Odds are you can’t electrify your couch, but you could force yourself to ride an exercise bike while you watch TV. That way, you win either way.)

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Making lists is an easy, effective way to get organized, and one of the oldest is the simple to-do list. Here are a few things you can do to really get the most out of them.

Subdivide into Smaller Lists
Splitting your list into smaller lists can help you prioritize work. Date is a good way to approach it, but breaking into sections like Home, Work, Pleasure, etc. can be helpful too. A to-do list stops being helpful if it is too long or confusing to effectively remind you of your responsibilities.

Keep it Short
Maybe you need two lists; one can cover the most important things that must be done today, and other can cover the less important stuff. Maybe you can just be critical of what goes on the list. The important thing is not to let “pay electricity bill” get buried beneath “rent the first season of CSI.”

Use Check Boxes
This is one of my favorite and 95% psychological. True, check boxes are useful for quickly recognizing what’s done and what’s undone, but the emotional boost you get from checking off each thing is much more important. It’s a great feeling that will keep you working.

Account for Other People
Most likely, something on your to-do list involves someone else’s participation. If so, it’s important to remember that other people aren’t always reliable. Attack these early, and if that contact in LA takes four hours (or four days) to respond to you, you wont be sunk.

Go Digital
I am still fond of my paper to-do list, but there is a lot to be said for digital versions. They’re often easier to restructure (so that you can move that new assignment to the top priority), but the real gem is that many digital lists can be active about reminding you. Whether on your phone or your computer, a digital alarm tied to a to-do list can be a life saver when it comes to time or date sensitive tasks.

Keep it With You
A to-do list is no good if you can’t see it. If it’s only for work, maybe you can get away with keeping it on that dry-erase board over your desk. However, for most uses, a to-do list will only be helpful if you can carry it with you easily. Mine stays in a little Moleskine notebook that fits neatly in a pocket or book bag, so that it’s never far away when I get my next appointment or assignment.

Check it Often (But not too often)
A list is only as helpful as the number of times you check it. If you never see your list, it can’t help you. However, checking it too often can keep you distracted. If you’re really trying to get things done, the best way to go is to sit down with your list, pick the most important task to work on next, and then go back to your list only when you’re ready to check off the first task and see what’s coming next.

Schedule for Fun
We’re all really busy, but it’s important to kick back occasionally. So while you shouldn’t flood your to-do list with recreation, including a few things can help. Again, this is partly psychological. Every time you look at that long to-do list and groan, you’ll remember that at least some of what’s coming up is fun. Avoiding feeling discouraged is important to staying productive.

This is just a small sampling of ways you can improve your productivity with the simple to-do list. What other ways do you make them more useful?

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Lately I’ve been reading a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Year of Biblical Living, a complex book which I have a lot of mixed feelings about. However, there are three related concepts that I wish I could take from it; avoiding gossip, honesty, and compassion.

Let me back track a little. Last Friday, I was in my dorm when I came across a clearly intoxicated girl in our (men’s) restroom. She was giggling and being silly with a friend. About an hour later, though, I went back into the hall and she was sitting against the wall, alone, and gently sobbing. I passed her and didn’t say anything. What sort of person does that make me?

True, she probably didn’t want my help. There probably wasn’t anything I could have done, either. But I should have tried, right? What really bothers me is, I want to be the sort of person who would help a stranger. I always say “next time, I’ll do the right thing,” but every time I get a chance, I put down my head and pretend I don’t see, just like everyone else.

So I need to change. How? I’m not sure. Practice, I suppose. Put myself in scripted situations (volunteer work, etc.) where I help strangers. I think it would help to work on related (and equally biblical, apparently) notions of honesty and gossip avoidance. Both are fundamentally about being good to others; basically everyone, all the time. It’s also about trust among members of a community. Would most people know that I will tell them the truth, or that they can trust me with their secrets? Probably not. Some might though. And maybe, in a karmic way, it pays dividends.

I think I’d like to try (maybe with another Lent-like forty day experiment?). It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it. What does everyone think? Honesty, gossip avoidance, compassion? Are they always worth the effort, the practice, and the self control? Or is that too morally absolute?

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