Friday, January 5, 2018

Peak-End Parenting


I am not a helicopter parent.

When I first overheard someone using the phrase, I thought it provided an apt metaphor for effective parenting. Helicopter technology is ideal for popping into both delightful and urgent situations. I’ve enjoyed helicopter rides on a couple of touristy occasions, when I got close views of the volcanic crater on Mount Saint Helens, and of jungle waterfalls on Maui. Those memorable experiences would have been impossible from any other vantage point.

Helicopters are also uniquely designed to respond to many emergencies, like when my uncle fell off a mountain a couple of years ago. The only time one of the kids has ridden in a helicopter was when the doctors insisted on airlifting Eleanor to Seattle Children’s Hospital to be treated for a mysterious bacterial pneumonia. (Such a drama queen. Even unconscious.)

I like the idea of observing from a healthily increasing distance, but zipping in to parent with surgical precision whenever necessary. Unfortunately, it turns out I’ve embraced the wrong kind of helicopter metaphor. Instead, the contemporary phenomenon of helicopter parenting actually means “constantly hovering.” Ick.

Source: Greg Williams, Creative Commons

It’s true I can be a tiger parent when advocating for my kids, particularly when dealing with hostile bureaucrats. (Those are the scenes where Sally Field will be playing me inthe movie.) But I don’t want to turn into a snowplow parent, attempting to remove all obstacles to make life easier for my children. Instead, I like what I’ve heard about free range parenting.

First, it caters to lazy, tired parents.

Second, there’s a whole world out there for them to explore. One of the many benefits of moving from Seattle to Bellingham was the escape from urban fear. Yes, occasionally someone falls into the pond. But it’s better than being stuck in a bubble. (And the pond is a foot deep.) Someday we may visit that free-range park in Wales where unsupervised kids can start fires in dustbins. Meanwhile, I’m confident everyone will make it to adulthood with memories of a lot of interesting experiences, and all their limbs intact. I’ll consider myself a success if we manage to avoid any headlines screaming “Worst Parent Ever.”

Third, I want my kids to be themselves, not Mini-Me. My son will never delight in accompanying me to the theater. (That’s what Eleanor is for.) My daughters will never wear any clothes I suggest. At least they seldom argue about stealing each other’s clothes – the girls came with opposite shapes and tastes. (Although they were born only two weeks apart, no one ever mistakes them for twins.) Despite their occasional efforts to humor me, my kids realize I'm smart but not cool. All three have mastered the “Oh, Papa” eye-roll that substitutes for filial piety these days. They are busy turning into themselves. 

Tiger parents may be fiercely protective, but they are also devoted to passing on their own stripes. I prefer instead to expose my children to a variety of interests and opportunities. Sure, I try to nudge them. But not too hard. Ultimately I try to “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” (That’s what Joseph Smith said about the first generation of Mormons, before the LDS Church became so relentlessly authoritarian, and before Joseph’s flock became so blandly and blindly sheep-ish.)


Several years ago, I took my first tentative steps toward mental health when a therapist recommended I try mindfulness meditation practice. Numerous studies confirm meditation can be effective in reducing stress. I was always a haphazard meditator. Since my PTSD diagnosis, however, I have committed to serious daily meditation. I recognize the ongoing health benefits of mindfulness.

Anxiety can be described in blunt shorthand as an excessive response to the (imagined) future, while depression is an excessive reaction to the (remembered) past. Either one can thwart our happiness. Wildly gyrating between the two is particularly debilitating.

Mindfulness meditation cultivates a dispassionate awareness of our present thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences. Mindfulness focuses you on living in the present moment – which is of course the only place you can live. As we sang in my first concert with Vancouver Men's Chorus, this is your one and only life – what will you do?

Daniel Gilbert is a psychology professor at Harvard, and one of the world’s leading experts on happiness. His excellent book Stumbling on Happiness addresses a fundamental paradox about the human brain: we are terrible at guessing what our future selves will wish our present selves had chosen to do. For example, countless homeowners sacrifice to purchase bigger homes with guest bedrooms they end up using only a couple of weeks out of the year. But numerous studies demonstrate the direct tradeoff often involved – a miserable daily commute throughout the year – is one of the most unhappiness-inducing activities of modern life.
  
Rather than focus on the present/future dichotomy directly, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes our two selves as “the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and makes the choices.” By definition, the experiencing self only lives in this moment. But the remembering self – the sum of our memories so far – is also here in the moment, making our choices. Eventually, the future version of our remembering self will be the one looking back to evaluate our choices with the squinting clarity of hindsight.

It's impossible to live a life of permanent ecstasy. The next best thing – the path to happiness – is to enjoy the moment, while also making the best memories for your future self to benefit from. And after the passage of time, what we remember is not the details or duration of each experience, but rather how we felt about its peak and end. (With terrible experiences, we remember the nadir and end.) This mental process begins even before the experience itself has ended. Servers receiving meager tips on a busy night where diners enjoyed excellent food but waited too long for the check can attest to this principle.

Our brain’s peak-end wiring can have counter-intuitive results. For example, multiple psychologists have conducted versions of a “cold hand” test. Participants are told they will have their hands placed in cold water three times, seven minutes apart. They actually experience two immersions, then are asked which of the two they would like to repeat. As Kahneman and his co-authors describe the set up:
The short episode consisted of 60 seconds of immersion in water at 14° Celsius, which is experienced as painfully cold, but not intolerable. At the end of the 60 seconds, the experimenter instructed the participant to remove his hand from the water and offered a warm towel. 
The long episode lasted 90 seconds. Its first 60 seconds were identical to the short episode. The experimenter said nothing at all at the end of the 60 seconds. Instead he opened a valve that allowed slightly warmer water to flow into the tub. During the additional 30 seconds, the temperature of the water rose by roughly 1°, just enough for most subjects to detect a slight decrease in the intensity of pain. 
The test was carefully controlled, with subjects randomly assigned to undergo the longer and shorter trial first. When asked which of the two experiences they would like to repeat for their third trial, “Fully 80% of the participants who reported that their pain diminished during the final phase of the longer trial opted to repeat it, thereby declaring themselves willing to suffer 30 seconds of needless pain in the anticipated third trial.”


School day mornings in our house are trying. Every day, at least one kid will struggle to wake up, forget something important, or flirt with missing the bus. Yet no one really judges a day based on the morning rush. Enforcing bed times can also be a challenge – but unlike mornings, it’s more important to bite my tongue and try for a smooth landing at the end of the day.

Experiences, not things, are what matters in life – particularly experiences shared with the people who are most important to you. Yet it’s the memories of those experiences that ultimately endure, reinforced by photos, videos, and shared storytelling.

Do you want to know the dirty little secret of a smoothly-handled amicable divorce? [Ed. note: parents in rocky marriages should skip this part.] Alternating kid weeks is just about the ideal parenting arrangement. The kids and I enjoy our week together. Our days are packed with school, adventures, and screen time. Then, just as we are beginning to annoy one another, the kids go across town. They get to enjoy a week with my ex and his husband, two adorable dogs, and different screens. In the meantime, while the kids are with Jason I can get errands done, go to chorus or the theater without splurging on a babysitter, and have adult time. Regardless of the week, we all get together for things like holidays and middle school choir concerts. By the time I miss the kids, it’s Friday afternoon and they’re back.

So what is peak-end parenting? All I need to do to ensure my kids end up with memories of an idyllic childhood is to make sure each kid week includes some memorable peak experiences, and that we end the week on a high note.

On the steps of my childhood home in Canada


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