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Laws of Childhood - part 1

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Boys Town's Patrick D. Friman, Ph.D. on raising happier, healthier and better behaved children. (Part One)

Thanks a lot for coming out tonight. Thank you for being here. I'm delighted that you're here and I'm delighted to be here with you and I wanted to just I guess give a vote of acknowledgement or admiration for you coming out tonight when I know you've got better things to do than listen to a person you've never heard of before talk about stuff that you'd rather not even think about and now I have even worse news than that. The guy you're going to listen to doesn't have any children. Never has had and is never going to. I've got some pretty good reasons.

You're scared.

I'm scared, I don't like to touch poop, you know if you're going to be a parent you're going to have to do that so forgive me if I don't shake hands with you. I don't want to mess up any of my theories with real facts so not having kids keeps my theories pretty clean. So I just want you to know that. I can't know what it's like to be you, I can't know what it's like to do your job. I know a lot about kids, I know a lot about families and over the course of my career I've learned a lot about parenting from parents and from other sources but if I get to a point where you're thinking that, "I don't know if this guy knows what he's talking about." Well, I just gave you a pretty good reason to think that is true.

Let's see how I do. This presentation is part of Boys Town's new strategic plan. Boys Town is extending out it's services so that they are relevant and potentially helpful to kids that live in the community of Omaha not that live in Boys Town. It's an attempt by us to get on the front end of things before they ever get so serious that kinds of services that Boys Town has historically offered are necessary. So it's much more on the primary care, preventive end of things and that's what's this whole at home presentation series is about.

I want to start with talking about a skewed idea of normality that we have in this country. The idea of normal has come to mean problem free and I don't mean to suggest that there aren't problem free children, there certainly are but there's just not very many of them and it isn't my belief that that small group of kids should be the standard bearers of normality. The more typical kids have problems and yet gradually and unfortunately we come to think of problem free is what normal really looks like and I have two faults or two places I'd like to place fault. One is the entertainment industry, television and movies. You think about the children that you see on television and movies, they're always adorable and they're always confident, they have good senses of humor. They usually have more wisdom and more charisma than any of the adults they're in the frame with. In fact, they just seem like very, very competent adults in children's bodies and if you watch enough of this stuff you get the idea that's what normal kids are really like. And another source of this notion, another place I'd like to lay blame is on Madison Avenue. You think about all the pictures of kids you've seen in advertising, they're always perfect, they're always adorable, they're always like this. And you can get the idea by having all these images wash over you that this is what a normal kiddo looks like. So I think that folks see this, a picture of a baby like this which you might think of as a group of baby as this is a normal baby. This is the baby that you think you're going to get. But if you study the slide, the picture closely with me, I will point out the abnormalities for you.

First of all the baby is naked as you can see and it's all alone and he doesn't have anything to play with but his hands and feet and yet it's perfectly content. You think you're going to get one of those? Good luck on that. Now let's look at the hind quarters here, there's no poop or pee back there and as you all know from experience the probability of an infant defecating or urinating on a surface is a function of the absorptive quality of that service and this is a highly...I just thought maybe it was the word and I wasn't going to say it anymore but I can. Highly absorptive cotton blanket. There's no snot on the lip, there's no crusties in the eyes, there's no spit up on the chest, there's no gunk in the ear, no dry dew in the hair. Well, this aren't normal characteristics of a human infant. I don't want you to get the idea that I think the normal baby that people believe they are going to get is a white baby. They come in different sizes, shapes and colors as indicated in this slide but this slide is also a lie. Can you spot the lie? They too have nobody to play with and they have nothing to play with. They have each other but they don't play well together at this age, I guarantee you and you know that. And yet none of them are crying. You look at stuff like this and you get the idea that a normal baby is neat, clean, quiet and happy. And they are fun to have, they are fun to hold, they are fun, and easy to communicate with, they are fun and easy to clean up, and they are fun and easy to feed. They are fun and easy to put down for nap or bedtime. They're fun and easy to toilet train. They are fun and easy to supervise, the family pet can take care of that job. They are fun and easy to take out in public. As they get older they get along well with their siblings and they get along well with their peers. And they study hard in school and they do well in school. And even as adolescents after school are they out in the streets garaging and marauding and smoking and joking and toking and bringing shame upon their family and themselves? Nope, they go straight home from school, they immediately begin doing their homework and they invite their parents to participate in the work.

The thing is not everybody gets one of those. A lot of people get babies that have a full range of human emotions for example. One of those emotions is anger. Now how do you know when baby's mad at mommy? Well, when baby gives mommy the finger usually it's a pretty good sign. As they get older it gets quite a bit easier to tell. And they are not always fun to have and not always fun to hold, and they're not always fun and easy to communicate with, and they're not fun and easy to clean up. They're not always fun and easy to feed. Not always fun and easy to put down for nap or bedtime. Not always fun and easy to toilet train. They're not always fun and easy to supervise. They're not always fun and easy to take out in public. They don't all get along well with their siblings. They do not all get along well with their peers. They don't all study hard in school. They don't all do well in school. They don't all go straight home from school and they do not all invite their parents to participate in what they do after school.

Here's a slightly different take on this. This is a list of ranked behavior problems in three year old children ranked by their parents. These are the problems that bother parents of three year olds the most and they're hardest to solve and here's the thing about these problems. These are not abnormalities in three year olds. These are not pathologies, these are not clinically significant problems. These are developmentally expected, normally occurring behavior problems that are skill deficits in three year olds. What does that mean? That means that parents of these kids are on their own solving these problems. They might get a little advice from their pediatrician but that's it because insurance companies will not cover services for these kinds of problems because they're not illnesses.

So how do parents solve those problems? What kinds of things do they use to work on them? Well, this is a list of the most commonly used or most frequently used tactics for those kinds of problems. They're laying around the culture, you don't have to seek the advice of an expert to find out about this stuff. It's passed on from family to family, it's in magazines, it's everywhere. How well does it work? Well, probably not all that well. If it worked really, really well we wouldn't be having this conversation. There wouldn't be any reason for us to have this service at Boys Town. Another way to estimate how well it works is to use what I call the rule of thirds. About a third of those three year olds they get completely better because of these kinds of things are used on their problems and another third, they get a little better or stay about the same. So that those two groups you won't worry about but a third they get substantially worse and their behavior deteriorates and that's the group we're interested in and if that group doesn't get help then they're on a pathway that leads to the other kinds of services that we specialize in. What we want to do is get to that third first before things get worst. That's part of the commitment of this series of presentations at Boys Town.

Tonight I'm going to do an abbreviated presentation on the laws of childhood and I'll just talk about three of them. It will take me a little while to do that. I'll try to have some fun with you as I do it and be informative at the same time. Following that, I'll just take your questions about what I've said so far and maybe about stuff I haven't said so far. So here's the first law I want to talk about. Now children learn through repetition with contrast. So a big question is how do children learn? Whenever you're asking why, why did he do that? That's a form of how did he learn how to do that? Well, here's how kids learn. They learn through repetition with contrast. Now I know that's kind of a technically collegey sounding way of talking about things but I left it that way because it's very easy to remember. It's what's called in the philosophy of science, parsimonious. What does that mean? That means being able to explain the most amount of facts with the least amount of words. You've heard the equation before e=mc2 which is Einstein's equation, that is very parsimonious because it just has a few words and it explains an enormous amount about physical reality. This law it just has a few words and it explains an enormous amount about child behavior and I'll add to it. So children learn through repetition with contrast, pretty easy to understand until you get to the word contrast, what the heck does that mean? It just means change. It's talking about change, about changing what? It means change in how the child feels or change in how they experience and there are just a couple of dimensions to that. One is the change in experience or feeling, it's either large or small and it's either pleasant or unpleasant. And the larger the change in experience is the less repetition is necessary for a kiddo to make any kind of connection. But conversely the smaller it is the more repetition is necessary. If it's pleasant, the change, child learns to do whatever they did again or they are inclined to do it again and if it's unpleasant they learn or incline to not do it again or inclined not to do it again.

As I talked about these laws, I'll supply the law which I just did and then I'll give you the basis for the law. And the basis for this law is in a few different places, one is in learning theory. I really want to drive this point home, I want you to get the sense deeply to what I mean by change in feeling and how it's relevant in learning. So what I'm going to do is invent a feeling scale, a ten point scale and on the one end of that scale will be events that are barely detectable, you hardly notice them. There's hardly any change in feeling whatsoever and on the ten end will be events that you cannot ignore because they're so overwhelmingly present and I'll use a couple of examples to anchor the scale so you'll know how to think about it. On the one end, an example of a one double experience I'd like you to think about is a one year old urinating which I'll act out for you. Are you ready? Okay, here we go. See, it's nothing to them. You know this, so the fluid goes into the infant's body, travels down the alimentary track, stops at an organ that looks like an upside down water balloon. It resides there for a while but not nearly long enough to please it's parents and then it leaves that organ it goes out of the body, that's urination and the infant is delightfully unaware of the process. It's a non-event, so that's on the one end of our scale. Here's an interesting another example on the one end is an adolescent that just been told to clean the room for the first time. I'll act that out. Ready? Same thing, it's a non-event to them. It's a tree falling in a forest but there's nobody walking. So that's on the one end of things.

On the ten end of this scale let me use as an example something from the youth I spent in Montana where I was raised, a land where men are men and so are the women and out there we have, it's a rough country, we have rough fun. One of the things we do in the winter time was to build a sweat lodge with Visqueen and willow branches and then we clear some snow away and build a raging fire, put some big rocks in it and then leave them there until they got red hot, take a shovel, put them into the sweat lodge, strip down naked and jump into the sweat lodge and stay in there until we could bear it no longer. Then we burst out of the lodge, run through the snow, out on to the surface of City Lake into which we had made a big hole with a chain saw and we jump into the water. And the instant our naked flesh hit that frigid water, we were having a 10 level experience.

Yes, we do. You have an idea of my scale. You got a sense of the scale. Okay, so use the scale that we've just invented to rate the following. Imagine a teacher, there's a chalkboard here and she walks to the chalkboard. In her hands she's got some chalk and she goes to the chalkboard and she writes upon the chalkboard, A + B = B + A. Rate that using our scale. One, there's nothing there, right? I mean if you're a mathematician you're probably pretty excited right now but for the rest of us the small equation has nothing in it, it's very abstract, it's sort of a non-event. Okay, now imagine the same teacher. She goes to the chalkboard, she raises her hand, looks like she's going to write something on the board but you noticed she has no chalk. She does have long lovely fingernails and she takes those nails and she rakes them across the board screeching as she goes so loud you can hear them in the back of the room. Rate that. Alright, you can feel it right? You feel that. That's my point. If you're going to try and teach a child something and you use consequences which I recommend, if those consequences don't have something in them that a child can feel, there isn't any reason for them to learn the importance of what you had them do. It doesn't have any meaning. The meaning is derived from what the action produces and a child has to be able to detect it, to feel it, to know it's there and the more feeling there is the quicker they make the connection.

It doesn't have to be unpleasant. I could have used pleasant examples, in fact let me use two examples that produce what I call one trial learning. I'll start off with one pleasant. There's an experience that we probably have all had and most kids have one time in their life and what they do to get that experience they probably never do again. It involves reaching out and trying to grasp open flame with a bare hand. And infants will do that because to them, like us, flame is enthralling and beautiful but they don't know anything about thermodynamics and so if they see a flame and they can reach it and there's nobody watching them, they'll try to grasp it but they'll only try that once. The instant that they try to grasp that flame they'll learn instantly to never, ever, ever do that again. It's one trial learning. Because of the height of the contrast even small animals will learn that connection an example of which involves a cat we used to have and this is not a tragic story by the way it ends well. Remember that storm that we had in Omaha I don't know back in '97 or '98 where snow fell and destroyed all the trees in the Omaha area or damaged them and there were neighborhoods without power. We were without power for nine days and we were very ill prepared for this. We didn't even have a flashlight and we had a cat and he was adorable and stupid at the same time. But he was stupid enough that we always kept candles up where he couldn't get at them so he'd seen candles before but he could never reach them. But then the storm came and the power went out and we weren't ready and we didn't have a flashlight so we lit candles and put them all over the house, down on his level even and the instant we put one down on the fireplace hearth and we weren't looking he went over and stuck his face in it and burned off his whiskers and he sort of yelled like he was hurt badly and then shot down into the pitch black basement and he's down there murmuring and so I need to check and see if he's all right and all I can get is a candle. So I go down to the basement to check on him and he turns into like a wild animal down there and it takes me a moment to realize what he's learned, and what he's learned is that a candle attacked him on the main floor and now it's coming to the basement to finish up the job. He's really, really frightened.

On the other end of the spectrum are intensely pleasant experiences the having of which generate one trial learning and one example of that involves the ingestion of a substance into the human body, heroine. The instant heroine is injected into the human body the person into whom it's been injected develops a craving for that experience that lasts the rest of their life. It's just one try and they'll never forget it and they'll always want. It doesn't mean they're addicted. It just means a connection has been made that will never ever be broken. Now in our work with kids we don't get to use blowtorches and heroine, if we could our work would be a lot easier. If you could use a blowtorch, anything you didn't want your child to do they would never do and if you could use heroine, anything that you wanted your child to do they would do. They'd chew with their mouth closed, they'd line up, they'd do their chores, they'd do your chores, they'd do anybody's chores, they'd do anything they could to get a little access to the heroine. We don't get to use that stuff. We don't use blow torches but what we do instead is we have time outs, we have grounding, we have lose of privileges, earlier bedtimes. Unpleasant stuff to be sure but the difference between that stuff and being burned by a blow torch is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug so you need lots and lots and lots of repetition. It's unpleasant stuff but not so unpleasant they're going to learn the first time.

Over here with heroine we don't get to use heroine, what we use instead are things like points and pats on the head, praise, privileges, extra bed time, places to go, material things, stuff they'd like to have us buy them and it's very pleasant stuff. They like that stuff, it's good stuff but it's not so powerful that they'll learn the first time. Lots and lots and lots of repetition is necessary. And that's something most folks really aren't prepared for. The amount of repetition it takes a child to learn to do something that they haven't previously known how to do or wanted to do or to not do something that they previously have wanted to do and you don't want them to do anymore. Lots of repetition is necessary for them to make the connection unless you have really powerful consequences and we don't. I mean I gave you an idea of what powerful consequences are like. Those are the kinds of things that really drive a lot of human behavior but the stuff we have to work with isn't all that powerful. So we need lots of repetition.

So following the law, it just means the systematic use of carrot and stick. What do I mean by a carrot? Just good stuff, pleasant stuff. Stuff your child, son or daughter like to have and you're okay with them having it, that's just what I'm talking about when I say carrot and stick is the stuff that you use for discipline. Whatever that is, unpleasant stuff that you're willing to use and that they don't like. And repetition, when I say repetition I mean repetition. So let me illustrate with an example of what I mean by all this repetition. I used to work at the University of Kansas and there I worked with teenage mothers who had had their infants removed from their homes because they had abused those infants. And the reason that they were abusive is they were trying to teach their children to not do stuff. What kind of stuff could a one year old do that would make a mother mad enough to do the kinds of things these mothers did and got their children taken away. Well, they got into trouble around the house. Let's look at a one year old's job description because there aren't very many things on there. One thing on there is to do interesting things with saliva. One of which is drool and there's also spit up and bubble and they're good at that. They're good at that job. Another thing on their job description is to do interesting things with food. Another thing is to do interesting things with poop and pee which if you think about it, is an interesting thing to do with food. And the last thing on their job description that it seems to me is to find danger, look for something that's dangerous and go and play there. And so if like you were going to buy a house and you wanted to know if it was dangerous, you wanted to have it inspected, I recommend not using an inspector, too expensive. Rent a one year old and just release them into the house and follow them around with a clipboard. They'll show you where everything that's dangerous is and that's what got these kids into trouble with their teenage mothers. The teenage mothers lived in impoverished neighborhoods and they had dangerous houses and they were trying to keep their kids safe and they got so exasperated in their inability to do it they'd smack them around a little bit and mom became dangerous in an attempt to keep the children away from danger.

But mainly what it meant is that mom didn't have any tools to work with. So in order to get their kids back they had to work with me, I taught them tactics and I'll just give you an idea of what I taught them. I taught them to let their child go somewhere in the house where they weren't supposed to go. One of the things we used was the DVD player because for some reason a DVD player is magnetized to attract children. They don't know how to play the DVD player so they put their stuff in like a sandwich goes inside the DVD player, whatever they have that's messy and sticky they stick it right in there. For some reason they're just attracted to those things. And so I would have mom watch while her infant went over to the DVD player, whatever object we used for training and the instant the child touched it I would have mom say no, and pick the child up and put them in the play pen and then turn her back and leave them there until they stop fussing. When they stop fussing, she'd turn around and she'd pick them up and now she's got them in her hands. She's got to put him down, right? Where? Big house, where'd she put him? By the DVD player because she's cruel and abusive and she wants this to happen again, right? Why would you do that? Why would she put him next to the DVD player? That play pen is not a blow torch, that's not one trial learning. I would be there for the first few sessions, sometimes they lasted hours and she would go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until finally the infant would go to the DVD player, raised it's hand and then turn away. Now why would the infant do that? Because the infant is thinking, "I better not touch the DVD player, mom will put my butt in time out." No, that's not why. That's a one year old. One year old can't think like that, they don't have those kinds of words, they don't think in that way. In fact, even though the world has paid a lot of attention to that infant's butt that infant doesn't have that word. That's not what's happening. What's happened is an association is formed between the play pen and the DVD player and where previously there was excitement about the DVD player that rose up in them, now when they get near the DVD player the unpleasantness of the play pen rises up in them and it isn't fun anymore and so they go off and do something else. At which point I would have mom pick them up and play with them for a while because they veered away from the DVD player and a connection has been made but it was made because of this and the consequences. This is a very key part.

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