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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The God (or mom) From the Machine

In my 25 years of writing books for children and teens, I've had my share of plot problems.   Often, when a writer finds she has written her characters into a situation she can't quite get them out of, she is tempted by (but must resist!)  the deus ex machina solution.  This literary term (literally "the god from the machine") comes to us from ancient Greek drama, and refers to the device of lowering a statue of a god onto the stage to resolve a crisis.  Evidently this was perfectly satisfactory to the ancient Greeks, but it is far from satisfactory for us today.  When the hero or heroine of a drama gets bailed out of a tricky situation by some unforeseen and improbable stroke of luck, the reader is left feeling cheated.  There was no clever resourcefulness, physical skill or moral courage at work to save the day,  just a lousy old deus ex machina. "Oh come on, really?" the reader asks.  "How convenient."

When writing for children, with children as protagonists, this is especially difficult to work around.  In real life, children aren't usually left to their own devices to track down jewelry thieves, mediate social conflicts, run their own businesses or invent extraordinary robots that have the Pentagon calling.  No.  All too often, there is an adult keeping watch (or guard, depending on your view) and managing everything from on high: the Mom from the Machine. (Yes, sometimes it is the Dad from the Machine, but more often the mom.)  So when writing children's fiction there is a delicate balance between plausibility and good plotting.

As Lisa has written previously on her posts on internal v. external locus of control, children must develop confidence in their own agency, their own ability to solve problems, make choices and be responsible for the outcome.  The more often the mom ex machina swoops in to take over, the less likely the child is to develop a strong internal locus of control.    And just as the deus ex machina solution in a story leaves us feeling rooked, so does the mom ex machina solution in our children's lives leave a feeling of inadequacy in its wake.  So often we relish the role of superhero, enjoying the warm glow of gratitude and appreciation and admiration from the ones we've "saved" from a big problem.   But unless you are prepared to be lowered from a machine onto your child's stage in perpetuity, you might consider letting your child learn to be the hero of his own story.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What If I'm Wrong?

One of the ways to determine if a given situation requires courage is to dig for the risk.  On Lion's Whiskers our definition of courage has less to do with fear, and more to do with risk.  If you perceive a risk (either real or imagined), then you need courage to face the risk.  In most matters of intellectual courage, the risk is being wrong.  Being wrong, as "the world's only wrongologist," Kathryn Schultz, points out in this fascinating TED lecture,  does not feel good. Correction: knowing that you are wrong does not feel good.  As Schulz observes, often when we are wrong we don't know it, so we feel fine.  It's the discovery that we were wrong that can feel so bad.  In fact, the more our identity is wrapped up with our intellectual accomplishments or with our ideologies, the worse being wrong feels.   It ought to be a simple matter of saying, "Oops, this fact I thought was true is actually false," and letting it go, but instead we make it about ourselves:  we are wrong.  Ow.

Intellectual courage, or being willing to face the risk of being wrong, allows for flexibility, inventiveness, adaptability, creativity, curiosity, objectivity, and focus.  Being unwilling to face the risk of being wrong (discovering we hold false beliefs) leads to rigidity, dogma, prejudice, and worst of all, more wrongness!  As philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."   Let me hasten to clarify what I  mean by false belief:  If you believed that two people were standing on your foot and it turned out it was only one person standing on your foot, that was a false belief.  If you further believed that the person standing on your foot was deliberately and maliciously hurting you, and it turned out the person was actually unaware of your foot there, that was a false belief.  I'm not talking about religion.

Refusing to accept the reality about the person standing on your foot is generally an indication that the risk of being wrong is truly enormous, that it threatens the very foundations of a whole system of beliefs.  A good example of this is the Inquisition of Gallileo, who presented evidence of planetary motion around the sun and the imperfection (in the form of sunspots) of the universe, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest because of it.  (In this case I am talking about religious belief.)

Two more insightful quotations are instructive here, the first from Aristotle, and the second from Emerson:

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."  

"Let me never fall into the vulgar  mistake of dreaming I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted." 

Without the intellectual courage to consider and investigate an idea that may challenge or contradict our current beliefs and possibly reveal them to be false beliefs, debate becomes impossible, and a discussion between people with opposing views can quickly devolve into shouting and personal attacks.

Not long ago I ran into a version of this problem with my daughter, who had decided that something she had been doing (let's call it X) was not at all her cup of tea.  The problem arose when I asked how she felt about the thing that X was a subset of, and her position was she didn't see anything positive about any of it, because she didn't see anything positive about X.  She was taking the part for the whole, a logical fallacy called pars pro toto.  This is the (often false) belief that what is true for part of a thing is true for the whole thing.  I kept asking, "But what about this part, and this other part, and this other part?" and she dug her heels in even harder and claimed I was forcing her to accept X!

So I backed off.  Just as I have been trying to model that failure is always an option, I am trying to model that being wrong is always an option, too, and that revising an opinion in the light of new evidence is totally acceptable.  The more often I can find opportunities to say, "Oh, I guess I was wrong about that," the better.  Mind you, at first I didn't especially enjoy saying, "Look, there I go being wrong again," but the truth is it actually gets easier the more I do it!   Lisa recently wrote about making failure okay, and how liberating it can be to let go of perfectionism, and I am finding it very liberating to make being wrong okay.  Besides, it's exhausting having to be right all the time - and my friends will tell you it's very annoying!

Here's Kathryn Schulz's liberating (and entertaining) TED lecture, and notice (near the end) what she has to say about stories.  Enjoy!
 







Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Issun Boshi, the Inch-High Samurai

This story, Issun-Boshi the Inchling, or the Inch-High Samurai, is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Tom Thumb.  It is a much loved story that reminds us that physical courage is not reserved for the big and strong among us. 

Long ago there was an old couple who had reached old age with no children.  They prayed every day and every night to have a family, and at last they were blessed with a little boy.   Little boy.   Very very little boy, only the the size of your finger.  His parents' joy was unlimited, however, and they called their treasure Issun-Boshi, Inch Boy.

Issun-Boshi ate and ate and ate like any baby, any toddler, any child, but he did not grow.  As  he grew older he grew strong and agile, but he did not grow any taller.  One day, while looking at the river that flowed past their village, Issun-Boshi asked his father, "Where does this river go?"

"The river goes to great Kyoto, Issun-Boshi.  It must be a wonderful place, but I have never seen it."

"I will," Issun-Boshi decided. "I will see it.  Help me get ready, Father."

His parents knew he was old enough to go on his own, so his father fashioned for him a sword (it was a needle) and his mother gave him a boat (it was a rice bowl) and an oar (it was a chopstick) and they waved farewell to their brave son.  "Be safe!"

The voyage took many days, and was fraught with peril.  Large fish tried to eat him, and often the rice bowl crashed into rocks and nearly tipped over.  Whirlpools spun it around and around and hungry herons peered in at Issun-Boshi with bright bead eyes.  But undaunted Issun-Boshi paddled and steered with his chopstick, and at last came to great Kyoto.

With great excitement, Issun-Boshi tied his sword at his side, and strode to the door of the finest, largest house he could see.   He pounded as large as he could, and gave a shout.  "Hello!  Hello!  I'm looking for work!"  The guard at the door looked around with a puzzled frown, but saw nothing until Issun-Boshi yelled, "Down here!"

"Ah!" The guard bent over and picked up Issun-Boshi for a clearer look.  "Well, someone as brave as you can work for me, young man.  You may join the guard of my master's daughter."

This suited Issun-Boshi very well and he joined the household guard.  One day, he went with the lord's daughter to the temple.  As they walked the path two goblins leaped out, their red eyes gleaming.  They were about to kidnap the young lady, when Issun-Boshi leaped upon the first one with a cry of anger.  "You will not take her!" he cried, stabbing the goblin on the shin with his needle sword.  

"What's this?"  The goblin picked him up by his coat, and thinking that Issun-Boshi looked just the right size for a snack, swallowed him whole.  But Issun-Boshi continued stabbing and jabbing at the goblin from inside, and within moments the goblin was howling with pain.  "Ow!  Ow no!"  And he choked up Issun-Boshi and spit him on the ground.    Without skipping a beat, Issun-Boshi then attacked the second goblin, scrambling up his legs and onto his head, where he poked the goblin in the eye.  

Both goblins took to their heels and ran away, screaming in pain.  The young lady and Issun-Boshi stood laughing on the path, and then she noticed something gleaming behind a rock.  "Look, a magic hammer!" she exclaimed, bending over to pick it up.  "One of the goblins must have dropped it.  It will grant you any wish you ask."

Issun-Boshi looked at the hammer, and he looked at the beautiful young lady, and he said, "I would like to be bigger."

So she waved the hammer, and chanted, "Grow, Issun-Boshi, Grow!"  Before her eyes he grew into a tall (and of course, handsome) young man, as fine as any samurai. 

And they were married, as you can imagine, and Issun-Boshi remained just as brave as he had been when he was one inch high.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Prototype of Courage

Here's another reason why sharing stories that illustrate all six types of courage with your kids may be a very constructive project.  As children develop and acquire language, they are actively engaged in concept formation (which of course began in infancy).  What is "dog" or "chair" or "jumping" or "soft"?  These are all concepts that are learned through exposure to a wide variety of examples.  Each exposure helps the child refine the prototype, the essence or ideal, if you will, of "dog" "chair" "jumping" and "soft" based on what is common among all the examples of the concept.  

It works like this:  If a child has experience of many different sorts of dogs, her prototype of the concept "dog" may end up as something of medium stature, with an affectionate nature and an appetite for long walks - something like a Labrador retriever (not surprisingly one of the most popular of breeds.)   Generic or stylized signs for dogs generally show an animal of medium stature and average proportions, rather than a wasp-waisted whippet or a low-slung Basset hound.  If the child sees primarily Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers, her prototype might be something decidedly smaller, more nervous, and more inclined to sit on laps than your average Labrador.   (I am reminded of an anecdote I heard recently about a young boy whose mother was a lawyer with many women attorneys in her social set; the son disdained the idea of practicing law as a career since it was something "only girls do.")

If children form a prototype of the concept "courage" based on a narrow range of examples (e.g. only police officers or soldiers or firefighters) might they find it harder to recognize other types of courage in themselves or others? I can't find any academic studies supporting this, but it would certainly be an interesting investigation.

As I wrote earlier in a post on more evidence on the power of stories, researchers find more sophisticated "theory of mind" in children who listen to or read a lot of stories.  Theory of mind is the ability to imagine what might be going on in another person's head.   Some researchers contend that theory of mind may be critical to forming certain concepts.  For an abstract concept such as "courage" it may be necessary for a child to imagine the mental states of different people undergoing challenges.   In other words, theory of mind may allow a child to infer that a given situation is frightening or difficult for another person, and thus allow additional material for forming the prototype of "courage."

A recent article in Psychology Today also proposes that imagining other people's choices clarifies our own.  When faced with a choice we have never had to make before, we summon our mental prototype of a person who would made that choice.  If that prototype is something we aspire to (i.e. courageous action), we may make the choice in a way that matches the prototype.  Much as many Evangelical Christians use the motto, "What would Jesus do?"to guide their decisions, we prompt ourselves to conform to a standard that we wish to match.  If we have allowed ourselves and our children to form a prototype that encompasses all six types of courage, can we hope that we will be better able to rise to the challenge when it meets us on the path, in whatever form it takes?  If courage resides in the hearts of such diverse heroes as Horatio, Br'er Rabbit, and Lady Godiva, the prototype of courage our children take with them through their lives may be as nuanced as our complex world requires.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Girls Gone Wild? No: Lady Godiva

John Collier c. 1898, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry
This enduring and popular English legend is, like many legends about historical figures, very unlikely to be true.  But what I like about it is that given the culture and norms of the period when this story gained popularity, this is a story of extreme social courage.  Imagine if you will a Zeitgeist very different from Girls Gone Wild (and if you don't know what that is, it's just as well.) In the 11th century, a noblewoman's virtue was her most valuable possession, because without it her future was grim indeed.  We're not talking about the risk of embarrassment.  This would have been the risk of being banished to a cloistered convent or worse.  There would have been a wide selection of sanctions to punish her with, but (according to legend) Lady Godiva risked it anyway.

A certain nobleman, the Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, had imposed heavy taxes upon the people of that town.  They struggled to feed their families and pay their taxes as well.  Bellies ached with hunger, and some were driven penniless from their homes.  Lady Godiva, the earl's wife, pleaded with him daily to relieve the burden.  "My lord, the tax is too heavy," she told him, day after day.

At last, annoyed by her persistence and her tender heart, the earl replied, "My lady, I will remove the taxes the day you ride naked through Coventry."

Word went swiftly from house to house that the lady would take his dare.  Out of respect for her modesty and gratitude for her compassion, the people shuttered their windows and drew the curtains.  As the dawn broke, Lady Godiva disrobed in the stableyard.  Mounting her horse, she draped her long hair around herself like a cloak, and rode through the streets of the town.  They say only one person peeked, but that he was immediately struck blind by fate.

True to his word, the earl lifted the taxes, and the people of Coventry remained grateful to Lady Godiva for all her days.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making Failure Okay

A couple of years ago, Jennifer, my husband and I took our kids to a ropes course called Adirondack Extreme. It is described as an “Aerial Tree Top Adventure” which includes a complex ropes course suspended between trees at 10 to 60 feet off the ground. It promised to be a fun physical courage challenge. Little did I know that it would be more of an emotional and social courage challenge for me. The labyrinth of ropes wouldn’t prove to be my biggest adversary, but untangling myself from my own perfectionism would be.


Jennifer did not climb due to an old injury, but she supervised our daughters on the kids’ course. My husband, our son, and I challenged the adult course. We attended a brief instruction on how to put on our harness, how to securely hook and unhook ourselves along the course, and how to ask for help—if push came to shove and we decided we were done at some point along the increasingly challenging course. I paid pretty close attention to the introductory talk, but only half-listened to the “asking for help” part. As I’ve written about previously in my post “Quitters, Campers, and Climbers,” I’m not much of a quitter. I’m a climber who, I'm embarrassed to admit, even sometimes secretly feels superior to quitters.


By the time I reached mid-course, my then 12-year old son was lapping me. He seemed recklessly, blissfully unaware of all the risks that I was quickly becoming aware of as I looked down from the tree tops to the ground twenty, then fifty, feet below. He just kept saying “Mom, this is SO much fun. It’s easy!”


I can assure you this course was NOT easy! And I was so over the idea of this being fun. The more joyless and humorless I became, the more rigid my body became.  My joyful son, on the other hand, had the agility of a monkey; while I swung precariously, holding on for dear life with increasingly sweaty palms, between the various rope mazes. He was fearless, while I was quickly becoming fearful.


One of the big differences between kids and adults in terms of risk assessment is the cognitive tricks that our minds begin to play with us as we develop. According to child psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky (2004), in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias, we feel anxious when we begin to confuse the possibility of occurrence with the probability of it actually occurring. Dr. Chansky writes that the “Anxious Response= Overestimation of Threat + Underestimation of Ability to Cope.” So, while I was focusing on whether or not the ropes were strong enough to hold me, the possibility of falling, how painful it would be to hang upside down for an extended period of time waiting for help, whether or not my children (who I no longer had in sight) were okay or not, and how embarrassing it would be to quit; my son was enjoying each new obstacle on the course while feeling totally secure in his crotch harness and physical ability.




At the second to last level, all alone now on the course, I was officially scared. But quit? OMG, no way! Quitting = Failure, to the perfectionist mind.  Which is, as Jennifer wrote in her last post Failure is Always an Option, “tantamount to total annihilation.” At the very least, annihilation of the ego. Success for me, at times, can be deeply intertwined with trying to prove that I’m lovable and valuable. In short, I wasn’t a kid who learned that her success in life is based on who she is, not on how she looks or what or how well she does. A perfectionist places more value on how she appears to the world than on who she is on the inside.  This misplacement of her inherent value creates a fragile ego swinging precariously from one success to the next, desperately trying to avoid the identity-crisis pitfalls that mistakes, and especially failure, threaten.  It's also what makes perfectionists highly competitive and probably not all that relaxing to be around sometimes. Needless to say, this aspect of my personality is not particularly healthy--nor is feeling secretly superior to quitters, for that matter! These are not personality characteristics I wish to pass along to my children. Instead, I parent my kids in ways that focus on their inherent value.  I focus less on how they look and what grades they get, but more on the core qualities they are developing as kind, loving human beings.  I encourage them to listen to their limits and feelings, to focus on their successes, to identify goals that are truly important to them (not society at large), to do their best because there is no such thing as perfect, and to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes.  I’ve coached them to develop an internal locus of control (you can read my parenting tips here: Are You an Inny or an Outy?) And I'm known for saying "I love who you are, and who you are becoming."  Let’s be honest, embracing this kind of unconditional acceptance of both ourselves and our children is kind of radical—especially today in our culture of overachievement! Dr. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding and letting go perfectionism!


One of the many gifts of being a parent, in my opinion, is that we get the chance to teach (and learn from) our kids what we, too, need to learn in life.  In essence, parenting has given me the opportunity to release myself from perfectionism's uncomfortable grip and develop the kind of self-acceptance and love that my kids seem to instinctively possess.  And now I was about to model that it's sometimes okay to quit!


When I reached the next tree post, I found myself hugging and not wanting to let go of that tree with the kind of intense love usually reserved for extreme environmentalists. I was done! It was suddenly much more important to me to listen to my body’s limits and find my kids on the course than to prove to myself and others that I could finish. Suddenly, quitting was not only an option, but it was okay. I couldn’t remember the code word the guide had told me to yell if I needed to be rescued, but in any situation screaming “HELP!” usually works.  I started with a timid “Helloooooo. Guide?!” which quickly progressed to screaming above the treetops “HELP! I need to get down now.” 

In a matter of minutes, a very kind and capable young man arrived on the scene to lower me from the towering heights of my new BFF. I told him I was okay and felt surprisingly calm.  I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t going to cling to him like a crazy lady when he finally reached me.  He, in turn, reassured me that this kind of thing happens every day.  That made me feel a lot better!  I found myself laughing, recalling my high-pitched screams for help above the tree tops, and relaxing as he lowered us to the ground. I was amazed not to be embarrassed. The earth did not open up to swallow me whole when my feet reached terra firma. Throngs of people weren’t waiting on the ground to laugh, jeer, and otherwise poke fun at my failure. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep perfectionism well-fed, by the way, and keep us from trying things that might mean risking failure in some way, shape, or form. In fact, I felt kind of proud of myself. I had actually asked for help and received it! Trust me when I say, it took more emotional courage for me to quit, ask for help and trust that it would arrive, and social courage to risk embarrassment amongst my peers and family, than the physical courage to force myself to finish the course.


I could have focused on my failure and spiraled down into an abyss of low self-esteem, but I made my failure okay by focusing instead on what I was able to accomplish. I made it okay to quit by untangling who I am as a person from my perfectionist expectations.  I discovered that the belief that you are already “good enough,” no matter what you are able to accomplish, is perfectionism's personal kryptonite. Adopting a new respect for quitting has also freed me up to be willing to climb again! 


By honoring the type of courage I actually needed to develop, I was able to reframe my perceived physical courage “failure” as an emotional courage accomplishment. We can do this for our kids, too, by helping them to recognize the gains they make everyday, by breaking apart difficult tasks into smaller more manageable and achievable ones, and by celebrating their successes. We can help them identify which of the six types of courage they are developing, and are capable of, in everything they do!


As I was writing this post, I asked my daughter to define failure.  Her answer: “There is no such thing as failure Mom. Whatever you are able to do is okay.”  When I also asked if she'd like to try the adult course with me again this summer, now that she's almost 12, she said: “Probably not.  I'm not a big fan of heights.”


You can read more about coaching kids to face challenges in my previous post: Discourage/Encourage: What’s a Parent to Do?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dancing Through the Pain, Part II

Last week, in the first part of this interview with former professional ballet dancer, Jane Haugh, we discussed what can make a person willing to tolerate pain. Here, in Part II, we continue to explore pain as a voluntary experience, and as an involuntary experience. Jane now lives with her husband and three children in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Pain (as opposed to suffering, which is mental or emotional) is in the body, and thus is the risk associated with physical courage.

Haugh: In the end, Jen, what I did in order to be a professional dancer in terms of dancing on stress fractures and soft corns with such unbelievable pain – I don’t know how healthy that was. I do question my decision to do that. I think that it wasn’t emotionally and psychologically really healthy to get to the point where you could disengage your nerve centers from your feet so you didn’t feel your feet anymore. That’s not me. That’s not part of my body. That doesn’t hurt. To the point where I would sometimes bang my feet against something because that hurt so much that my brain shut that down and I could pretend it wasn’t there. So a little pain can be more difficult than a lot of pain. And I don’t think that’s so good! I think that’s kind of sick!


Armstrong: So you’re in this culture of never mind the pain, keep going. Were there techniques or mental processes or gimmicks that were part of that culture, were there stories, did you remind yourself of such and such dancer where she did this and –


Haugh: Sure! Stories about Melissa Hayden dancing on a broken foot, stories about Darcy Kistler when she broke her elbow and finished "Swan Lake." We had these stories of famous people who performed through amazing things. Darcy I think seriously injured her elbow for life, and never did Swan Lake again – or only did Dying Swan – I don’t remember what the whole thing was – but it wasn’t good! But if you’re at the New York State Theater and you’re in Act I and you’ve got two more acts to do, what are you going to do? So you do it and then you go to the emergency room later I guess!


Armstrong: Okay, so I want to go in a different direction now. When your parents died and your sister was very badly injured [in a car wreck], you were 17, and so you were already a very dedicated dancer. So your sister was very badly injured for a long time, am I right?

Haugh: Yes, she was operated on a couple of times. You know, we did this weird thing. She had a plate in her arm, and she also had a brain injury, and deep into the fall they x-rayed her arm, and no healing had begun. The accident was in July and this was in September. And this bone was really brittle and they were very upset about it because the plate was not an ideal way to hold the bones together and it was kind of shocking that there had been no healing. And so they wanted us to rent this machine that was really really expensive and we didn’t have any health insurance, and my aunt [their guardian] was really upset about this, and I remember having a conversation with my sister where I said to her: “You have to concentrate on healing this bone. You have to think about it. You have to concentrate on it.” I don’t think if I wasn’t a dancer I would have thought of it that way. But I already understood that my body responded, to some extent, through the control of my mind. And I really did think that it was possible that if she concentrated on healing her arm that it would start to heal. And then we wouldn’t have to get this expensive machine and do all this stuff – and it did! They said they’d set up a four-week assessment and if no healing had begun she’d have to go up to Columbia regularly for electro-stim or something, and four weeks later there was quite a bit of new healing when they took an x-ray, or whatever they did. I don’t know whether that helped, but I definitely remember having this conversation with her. I remember – like taking a bath, and something really hurting, and just lying there and trying to relax my mind into that pain and trying to get the blood flowing there and I would start to feel – I mean I am not a big believer in that stuff. But…


Armstrong: Most Americans, probably, live pretty cut off from their bodies, right? Would you agree? So you had a much more intimate relationship with your body. So you understood a lot more about what the body can do, and what its limitations are. What I wonder is, did you ever evaluate or compare the pain that you endured willingly with the pain she had to endure unwillingly?

Haugh: No. I think one of the things that I learned from dancing is that everybody’s pain threshold is really different. And I started to understand that I actually experienced quite a bit of pain, especially for somebody who was a professional dancer, and that a lot of people around me were not experiencing quite that level of pain. So we would do the same thing, have the same number of blisters, and I felt like I could really barely walk, and I spent all night icing my feet, and the other person was out dancing. And I thought, well they are obviously not in as much pain! Or they’re managing it so differently. I mean, I see in my kids – there’s a huge difference in Z.’s and M’s pain thresholds, and then another huge leap to T.’s. Z. will hurt herself and she’ll get a bump somewhere, a black and blue mark, and a week later – not complaining, but she’ll say this thing still hurts, should I take some more arnica, or should I ice it ? And M. will have the same kind of injury and two days later she’ll have forgotten about it. I think her body experiences less pain. Her body recovers from pain more quickly. She recovers from emotional upset more quickly. She recovers from loud noises more quickly. Her physiological self recovers faster from things. But I think T. [her son] – I don’t know how much pain he experiences but he rebounds very quickly partly because he doesn’t want to stop in order to feel that pain. So he can have a huge knot on his head and I think it’s got to hurt, but if I go to touch it he’ll shy away and it does hurt him, but he doesn’t want to stop. So that’s a different way to overcome pain, is to be so focused on what you want to do that the pain is secondary. So with my sister, I learned early on not to project any kind of pain I was feeling onto anyone else’s situation because it so often just doesn’t work. I’d be all sympathetic [to a fellow dancer] and they’d be like “What?” I’d say, “Your feet are a mess!” but it wasn’t bothering them.


Armstrong: Okay, so here’s something about pain, and that’s that pain has a lot to do with what we think about. What is the story we’re telling ourselves about the pain – am I doing myself an injury, what’s going to happen? The story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening to our body… I mean, pain only happens when you notice it right?

Haugh: Right, so when you go on stage you don’t feel the pain in your feet because you have all this adrenaline, so you’re not noticing it.

Armstrong: It’s like taking the kids to the doctor to get a shot. There’s all this suffering, this storytelling. So, and this is my projection, I would think that if I’m a dancer, my world, everything I do, involves my body, right? So if I break my ankle then I won’t be able to work. So I’m curious about the role of storytelling in this. Stories that you tell yourself to keep going, or stories that limit you.

Haugh: Part of the story of dancing is being tough, of saying this hurts but I’m strong enough and I can overcome this, or this hurts and I might hurt myself but the director is there and I really want this part so I’m going to do this anyway, because I see myself as that person who will overcome this pain. And then he’ll see me as that person and then I’ll get the part. Or I’ll get to go on tour. So there’s some part of talking yourself into doing things because of the way you see yourself: as a strong person who can overcome things that normal people would stop at. You say, well, maybe someone else would stop, but that’s not me. I’m not that person and I’m going to keep going.

But I also think there’s storytelling with our kids, when our kids hurt themselves. There are two different things. There’s where people say, “you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay,” but the kid isn’t okay, and the kid is upset and doesn’t feel okay. And then there are people who say, “Oh no, you’re hurt! You’re bleeding, you’re not okay!” But there’s something in the middle where you can say, “Let me see what happened. I need to see what happened.” I think all three of my kids think of me as a very competent person to deal with whatever hurts them. They bring me their hurts. I say we need to calm down so we can see what happened so that we can deal with whatever that is. I think it’s really important for them to realize that you can get sick or you can get hurt and then your body does this amazing thing, it heals you, it heals your cut, you get a scab and then there’s nothing there anymore. What an amazing thing! So this is an opportunity to say, “You’ve hurt yourself, but you’re going to get better, because your body is this amazing thing that knows how to heal itself. How awesome is that! And then there’s this feeling of resiliency, this feeling of ow – I really hurt myself ! – but I know I’m going to be okay.


Please feel free to share your thoughts about physical courage and the risk of pain, either from your own experience or from watching your children.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Physical Courage and the Redheaded Child


If you are a redhead, you may already know - or at least suspect - that your relationship to pain is a bit different from your blonde or dark-haired friends. And if you are the parent of a redheaded child, but are not a redhead yourself, you may have wondered why your little carrot top seems very sensitive.

For years, it was recognized by anesthesiologists that redheads require more pain-killers than others. Eventually, researchers heeded what was common knowledge among the anesthesiologists and began to investigate. It turns out that the gene associated with red hair is also linked to endorphin production. There is also some evidence that topical anesthesia (such as Novocaine) is less effective on redheads, making them especially anxious about visits to the dentist. And yet it's more complicated than merely being more sensitive to certain kinds of pain, because there's also evidence that redheads are less sensitive to other kinds of pain.

Physical courage, as we have said on this blog many times, is related to one's willingness to tolerate pain - or the risk of pain. Thus if you are the parent of a natural redhead, it may be useful to you to read about some of the research about redheads and pain. Your child's path to develop physical courage may be easier if you have some familiarity with this information. Go here to read WebMD's page on pain tolerance, go here to read Discover magazine on the Secrets of Redheads, go here to read the New York Times on The Pain of Being a Redhead.


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