Friday, February 29, 2008

Pythons could squeeze lower third of USA

No burying the lede here. USA Today warns us,

As climate change warms the nation, giant Burmese pythons could colonize one-third of the USA, from San Francisco across the Southwest, Texas and the South and up north along the Virginia coast, according to U.S. Geological Survey maps released Wednesday.

The pythons can be 20 feet long and 250 pounds. They are highly adaptable to new environments.

Seriously, you might want to reconsider venturing outside if you live in the South. Don't say the USA Today didn't warn you...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Last Lecture

What would you say in your last lecture?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rush, Little Baby

This morning on NPR, I was listening to a story on Morning Edition on about self-regulation in kids. It was pretty fascinating. So continuing on the raising kids theme...

The story notes,

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."

Basically, these researchers have shown that a main reason for this diminished ability to self-regulate is that independent playtime has been lost for today's children. They note that imaginative play helps develop a child's ability to function independently in the world today. The New York Times, in an extensive article on play, noted,

Yet for humans, pretend play is one of the most crucial forms of play, occupying at its peak at about age 4 some 20 percent of a child’s day. It includes some of the most wondrous moments of childhood: dramatic play, wordplay, ritual play, symbolic play, games, jokes and imaginary friends. And it is the kind of play that positively screams out for hyperbole when outsiders try to describe it.

At the same time as the recognition of the possible value of play grows, we live in an era where parents are pushing to give their child every advantage they can. In fact, it can probably be stated without hesitation that today's American parents care more about their childrens' success than ever before. Many claim that via the right developmental aids you can help give your child an advantage. And often, this 'pushing' comes at the cost of time spent playing. In a fantastic article, from which I took the title to this post, the Boston Globe reported on the overwhelming trend to provide your child with infant academic assistance. They state,

This desire on the part of many middle-class and affluent parents to help their kids get ahead is understandable. We've all heard the predictions about how, in the downsized and outsourced economy of tomorrow, our children may be the first generation of Americans to be worse off than their parents. Into this vat of anxiety, two forces have been poured that are turning up the heat even more. First, advances in brain research have offered tantalizing clues about the magic at work in our infants' gray matter. Second, market forces have exploited these tantalizing clues and used them to sell billions of dollars' worth of educational toys and programs, often by making claims wildly beyond the conclusions drawn by the scientists who did the actual research.

They go on to talk about the (sometimes subconscious) competition between moms of babies and preschoolers as they compare the advancements of their children. They note, however, that sometimes what seems worth bragging about may not be such:

Spend enough time in suburban preschools these days, and you're bound to hear one parent or another uttering a boast masquerading as a complaint about how they just can't keep the books coming fast enough for their precocious 3- or 4-year-old reader. Odds are, there's probably no reason to boast. Researchers who've been marinating in reading studies for years say a tiny percentage of children - maybe 3 percent, maybe a little more or less - can be classified as truly early readers. These 3- or 4-year-olds understand phonics and context, and they will likely keep up their accelerated reading pace throughout their school years. Bravo to those kids. Reading is the gateway to so much of life's important learning, so a few years more of it can't hurt them.

But most of the other early readers bringing smiles to their parents' faces aren't really reading at all. They're demonstrating merely that they've memorized lots of words by sight. Instead of understanding the discrete sounds and segments that make up the word CAT, and understanding that each letter in the word has both its own name and its own sound or group of sounds, these children - like our early ancestors - see it as just a whole symbol for the furry feline. Change the first letter to E, and they might still think feline, until they memorize the new word. Studies have demonstrated that the early reading advances these kids show typically wash out a few years down the line.

They continue,

A classic study in the 1930s by noted researcher and Illinois educator Carleton Washburne compared the trajectories of children who had begun reading at several ages, up to 7. Washburne concluded that, in general, a child could best learn to read beginning around the age of 6. By middle school, he found no appreciable difference in reading levels between the kids who had started young versus the kids who had started later, except the earlier readers appeared to be less motivated and less excited about reading. More recent research also raises doubt about the push for early readers. A cross-cultural study of European children published in 2003 in the British Journal of Psychology found those taught to read at age 5 had more reading problems than those who were taught at age 7.

Interestingly enough, I can possibly attest to this. As a kindergartener, I went to an elementary school that needless to say was not academically advanced. It actually ended up being one of the reasons my parents decided to move to another town. So I didn't learn to read my kindergarten year. That said, my parents were content to let me advance at my own rate. They didn't push me to read at home and entering the first grade at a new school, I didn't know how. I just wasn't that interested in learning yet. That changed the first day of school when I realized that all my classmates at the new school knew how to read. Literally, according to my parents, I learned to read in a few weeks. I was not going to let myself be behind these other kids, and that was all the motivation I needed. Those who know me can probably attest to the motivation that competition can be for me. I didn't turn back and quickly came to absolutely love reading. A love of reading that endures to this day. I devoured books throughout my youth, and continue to, as much as time now allows.

Did I love reading more because I wasn't pushed to learn and possibly learned when my brain was more optimally ready? I don't know, but I know I wouldn't change it.

They conclude the article, which appropriately enough was subtitled "How the push for infant academics may actually be a waste of time - or worse," by noting,

This doesn't mean that early exposure to learning isn't important for kids. It is vitally important. It should just be the right kind of learning, and the right kind of exposure. Study after study shows the best thing parents can do for their children is give them a nurturing, rich, vibrant environment, reading to them often and exposing them to lots of language in organic ways...

[But] fact, ...this heightened push for early learning might even slow down normal brain development through a phenomenon known as neurological "crowding," where information jams up the synapses in the brain that might best be reserved for more creative tasks in later years. Remember that in his early years, Einstein was considered just an average student.

All of this brings us back to that surprising brain study giving late bloomers cause for celebration. Researchers from the National Institutes of Mental Health performed periodic MRI brain scans on children and teens ranging in age from 5 to 19, tracking the relationship between the thickness of the brain's outer mantle, or cortex, with the subject's IQ. They found that the people whose IQ scores put them in the "superior intelligence" category had cortexes that matured much later than those of average intelligence. The cortexes of the smartest kids peaked by around age 11 or 12, whereas the average kids' peaked by around age 8. Jay Giedd, one of the lead researchers, says he and his colleagues were initially taken aback by the findings, but with more reflection they realized they made all kinds of sense. "By having this peak period of plasticity later," he says, "the brain is adapting to the 12-year-old world, which is more complicated, more similar to the adult world, than the 8-year-old world."

The idea is, patience pays off.

So, in an era where children are pushed more than ever to develop academically and athletically, it just may be that these efforts are backfiring. And ironically, these pushes may be stealing time from what a child may truly need. NPR summarizes,

It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Considering I have my own child now, I've begun to resonate more with articles on parenting and the issues parents face raising their children as I watch the news.

Thus, it hit me when I recently read two articles on the growing problem of children from affluent Christian settings not being ready psychologically or emotionally for adulthood. First, I noticed where John Piper wrote about "'adultolescence'—that is, the postponement of adulthood into the thirties." He references another work that defines further what this phenomenon entails. Then, he goes on to discuss how the Church should respond:

How might the church respond to this phenomenon in our culture? Here are my suggestions.

1. The church will encourage maturity, not the opposite. “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20)....

He adds a total of 15 suggestions. Good stuff, and especially important to keep in mind if we're working with youth or college students.

It all reminded me of this post by Anthony Bradley I read entitled The Suburban Church: Ushering Kids Into Counseling In Their 20s and 30s. Anthony notes,

Raising church kids in the suburbs may be setting them up for psychological distress in their 20s and 30s. A few weeks ago at a youth group from a very large church in a middle class suburb of St. Louis, I asked the following question: 'What are your parents doing to you right now that will probably guarantee that you will be in counseling when you’re in your 20s and 30s?'

I knew about the nearly irreversible lacerations of divorce or the nuclear fallout when negative comments about appearance are delivered to daughters. I was shocked by the other laments. Here is just a small sample from that night...

He concludes,

Once this dam broke the youth pastor had to cut it off so he could give his talk about how the Gospel addresses all of their issues related to past pain. Many hands were still up in the air. It was sad. Dr. Madeline Levin, in The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, summarizes new national data saying, 'America’s newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.' It seems that this is no different in churches of affluence. What happened?

And I think we can all wonder that question. The question for us as parents now, though, is how do we prevent this from being the case for us too?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sending out an S.O.S.

I've always been fascinated by the concept of people sending a message they don't know will be received. Although somewhat morbid, I wonder what note I would write if I were like a miner trapped in a mine after a collapse. Or how about the notes that people write to be placed in a time capsule? Today, I read a good story describing how NBA star Anthony Carter wrote to his future self a note in elementary school about how he would make the NBA. Pretty cool that he saw it fulfilled.

Similarly, sending out a message in a bottle is the ultimate in notewriting hopefulness. I was reading on the Kircher Society's blog and they shared a pretty crazy story in this regard:

The strangest [bottle voyage] case was perhaps that of Chunosuke Matsuyama, a Japanese seaman who was wrecked with 44 shipmates in 1784. Shortly before he and his companions died of starvation on a Pacific coral reef, Matsuyama carved a brief account of their tragedy on a piece of wood, sealed it in a bottle, and then threw it into the sea. It was washed up 150 years later in 1935 at the very seaside village where Matsuyama had been born.

Whoah, what a coincidence! So, if you could write a note to your great grandchild, what would you say?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Evolution of Dance

Probably many of you have seen this before, but since I haven't posted it before, in case you haven't -- enjoy.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Pacifism on the Streets

So it's been about two years since I was held up. Thinking back on it, it's a life experience that's taught me a lot.

Today, I was reminded of the credo to 'turn the other cheek' while watching an episode of The Wire. You see, one of the kids was getting sick of being beaten up, and decided to take some boxing lessons. His instructor, recognizing that his goal was revenge, reminded him gently that even by gaining the ability to defend himself, he was not taking the target off his back. Trouble would just keep coming.

This marvelous story by Shane Claiborne hit home to me after my own experience. How hard it is to walk the violent streets, content to be used by the depraved if they so choose. Shane tells of walking with 11-year-old Cassim in the streets of Philadelphia and facing down a group of young toughs. After they've somehow left them be after a minor beatdown, Cassim asks,

Shane, why am I taking boxing lessons?

Shane responds by noting that using those skills would only have escalated the situation. He goes on,

I asked Cassim if he thought Jesus was happy with how we acted. He thought about it, and then nodded with a smile. I told him that, honestly, I wasn't sure exactly what Jesus would have done if he were in our place … but there are two things I know Jesus would not have done. He would not have fought. And he would not have run. I told him Jesus may have thought of something else, or he may have done something weird to throw them off, as he often seems to do – like drawing in the dirt with his finger (or writing on the road with sidewalk chalk, "you are better than this"), or maybe pulling a coin out of a fish's mouth (or pulling a piece of candy out of a pigeon's mouth). But I think Jesus was happy with how we acted, and that we were good representatives – good witnesses – of Christ to them. Cassim agreed, and then we prayed for them together. And finally, as he was leaving, Cassim reminded me that each of those boys has to go to bed thinking about what they did that day, and so did we.

I'm not sure about those other boys, but Cassim and I both slept well that night...

I wonder, would I have had the toughness not to fight back? I remember well dealing with the anger after losing my wallet. My gut wasn't to turn the other cheek but seek revenge.

Today I was reminded of that when I wanted the youngster in The Wire to fight back and win. Take out the evildoers by force--I wanted revenge for him. It's got me thinking...
I'm not there yet.