New Starts #4: Encouraging ALL Our Children

“A teacher affects eternity. He or she can never tell where his or her influence stops.” – Henry Adams

Whether we have sons or daughters, we want our children to maximize their potential and cultivate their natural talents, innate gifts, and proven “knack” for anything from language to leadership. But a spate of recent research has shown that by the age of six—in other words, by the time most kids are in kindergarten, barely on the threshold of grade school—girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant; and they start to rule out certain activities as “not for them” by virtue of not being smart enough. They may be absorbing cultural stereotypes about brilliance. If they watch television, they may realize that geniuses portrayed on television are almost exclusively men (think Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”). And if they watch their parents, they may be picking up on the stereotypes that Mom and Dad imperceptibly uphold and advance.

Think modern parents aren’t guilty of gender bias? Aggregate data in 2014 from Google searches reveal that American parents are two and a half times more likely to Google “is my son a genius” than “is my daughter a genius.” And this is despite the fact that girls consistently show larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences from an early age.

Parents also Google “Is my daughter overweight?” roughly twice as much as “Is my son overweight?” Again, this is fueled by bias – not reality. 33 percent of boys, and 30 percent of girls, are overweight. But parents see, and ruminate over, what they want to see.

In an Illinois study, ninety-six children were told two stories: one about a “really, really smart” person and one about a “really, really nice person.” The children were shown four pictures (two boys, two girls) and asked to guess which one might be the person in each story. At age five, boys and girls were equally likely to associate intelligence with their own gender. But at six, the likelihood of girls picking other girls as the “really, really smart” one sharply declined. Many girls, and most boys, picked the boy. And this remained consistent across all races, parent education and family incomes.

Another test asked children to play a game that was either for “really, really smart” people or one that was for children who “try really, really hard.” Girls were less interested in the former game, indicating a strong preference for the latter.

All the more reason for parents and teachers to make a conscious effort to battle ingrained, even unconscious stereotypes; encourage girls to develop broad interests; and take as much an interest in our daughters’ minds as in their bodies. E-commerce giants like Amazon has launched a subscription service for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) toys. Despite recent gains for women in the workforce, women in STEM are still under-represented. We can change that with a few adjustments to our thinking.


New Starts #3: Time to Chill

“Health is not only to be well but to use well all the powers that you have.” – Florence Nightingale

We all know January is the “time to chill.” But in this post, we’re going to discuss chilling as a means of reducing stress, tension, anxiety and negativity in your life. To that end, here are some key facts about stress:

  1. Your body can’t discriminate between major stressors and minor ones. Whether it’s a traffic jam or a computer virus, the stress reaction triggers a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in your body, taking over a critical part of our brain.
  2. Stress can make smart people do stupid things: clouding our thinking, draining our energy, undercutting our productivity, and even aging us prematurely if left unchecked. We’ve all “lost it” in a stressful situation, likely surprising even ourselves. That’s because stress causes what researchers call “cortical inhibition,” bottle-necking our brain function. And the shallow breathing of stress raises heart rate and blood pressure, even changing blood chemistry in a way that makes your platelets stickier. Sadly, that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. No wonder there’s an expression about taking “a chill pill”!
  3. We can grow numb to stress with enough exposure. Often the daily pressures and irritations of life begin to seem like “the new normal” and cease to faze us. But we may not realize how much they’re undermining our mental, emotional, and physical health until it manifests as a rash decision, an impulsive outburst, or even an unwanted medical diagnosis.
  4. We are fully in control of how we react to stress! We can rewire our stress response to override it with calm, cool and collected “coherence” — bringing the brain, heart and nervous system in harmony, and fostering peak performance.
  5. Handling stress in the moment is the best strategy. Millions of us use the “binge and purge” approach to stress: letting it build up all day, burying it inside, and waiting for an evening yoga class or the weekend. This doesn’t work — the stress response has already activated.

The good news: positive emotion is the antidote to stress in every way, and this mode of thought and reaction grows stronger with practice. And because it utilizes the same receptors as stress, it’s literally impossible to feel stress while you’re cultivating positive emotion and positive thinking. One strategy to do so is a combination of deep breathing and gratitude for the joyful things in our lives. Place your hand on your heart, visualize your breath moving in and out through your heart, and think of a person or place that brings you joy. You can use this practice before you fall asleep, when you wake up in the middle of the night, to prepare for an important communication (from a meeting to a mingle), and to recoup or recover from a stressful situation.  Studies show it leads to improved relationships, improved sleep, improved performance at work and at play, and a greater sense of balance and ease.


New Starts #2: Never Say Diet

Most of us approach the new year with a resolve to lose weight—but it gets difficult when popular diets undermine and contradict each other. We should go meatless but eat like a caveman? We should avoid sugar yet indulge on fruit? We shouldn’t eat between meals, but we should subsist on frequent snacks?

And so our weight loss gets stalled before it begins. How can we possibly decide whether to embrace or avoid fats, carbs, sugar, dairy, gluten, wheat, grazing, and snacks?

In a recent article, Greatist.com counsels to “think of dieting like dating.”

“You wouldn’t choose to be in a relationship with someone you despise from day one, so why would you do that with the foods you eat. Every. Single. Day. You will quit the plan, you will learn to hate healthy eating, and you’ll probably end up more frustrated and confused than when you started.”

So if you love bread and pasta, don’t attempt to restrict your carbs. If you love dessert, avoid restricted sugar eating plans. If you enjoy waking up to a hearty breakfast or ending the day with a late-night snack, don’t buy into diets that prescribe huge lunches.

At the end of the day, “diet” is the wrong approach. But enjoying your food, honoring your hunger, and observing portion size – day in and day out – will all help you lose weight without finding it again, without the drama and heartbreak of a toxic relationship. To that end, remember these general guidelines:

Drink water, eat fiber. Both water and fiber-rich foods can battle bloat and better sync your gut and your brain so you stop eating when you’ve had your fill. Try crunching on zucchini and cucumber (not chips), popping frozen grapes as a late-night snack, and warming up with peppermint tea instead of soda.

Beware the “health halo.” That’s the blinding light surrounding certain foods that beguile us into eating badly when we think we’re making a healthy choice.  For example: granola bars, protein shakes, veggie chips, fruit juice, and frozen yogurt. There’s nothing wrong with having these in moderation – just watch your portion size; otherwise sugar levels can approach that of a king-size candy bar.

Keep it real. Consoled with fat-free or sugar-free versions of your favorite food? The health halo strikes again. When food makers take out fat, they replace the lost flavor with sugar and salt.  When they take out sugar, they replace the lost flavor with fat. All experts say to eat the regular version of anything, from cheddar to chocolate, in moderation. You’ll be far more satisfied.

Savor and socialize. No need to shy away from dinner with family or friends! When you enjoy every bite, and every conversational bit, you will feel fuller much faster.

Don’t skip meals! It messes with your metabolism and sets you up for more overeating. If you over-indulged at lunch or dinner, it’s okay. Make the next meal “green and clean”: lean protein, fish, vegetables, fruits, to keep your energy up and your willpower strong.

Get enough sleep. Besides suppressing hormones that fuel hunger, eight hours of shut-eye means less incentive to nosh late at night, sharper focus in the morning, and more energy to jump into activities you enjoy.


New Starts #1: Tiny Habits, Big Impact

We’ve all heard it: New Year, New You. We’ve done everything we’re
“supposed” to do: joined a gym, cleared the fridge, sharpened our pencils, upgraded our software, and installed that zen-like Meditation app on our phone.

Here’s the problem: most habits don’t have the sticking power to see you through 2017. You might start to break them before you even make them—and throw in the towel before you’ve even brought it to the gym. Maybe that’s because you (secretly) don’t like the treadmill; or you start to fidget when you’re told to “relax”; or a salad with dressing on the side just doesn’t fill you up. Understandably, willpower erodes quickly.

A new approach to change called the Fogg Method reboots the self-inflicted “torture” – think of any diet regimen, abandoned painting project, or dust-gathering gym pass – that inevitably crumbles, backfires, and drains our resources. The psychologist behind the method, B.J. Fogg, lists three steps to focus on training your brain to succeed at small adjustments, celebrate small victories, and draw confidence from them to create momentum and rewrite the “scripts” from inevitable failure to resounding success.

  1. Identify your outcome. Do you want to feel more energetic, less stressed, more focused, less rushed? Do you want to lose 10 percent of your bodyweight, score that promotion, or pull yourself out of debt? And how will that change make you feel? Grounding resolve in our feelings clarifies our decisions, our goals, and our actions.
  2. Identify the “tiny habits” that will help us, incrementally, approach our goals. It’s not necessarily working out at the gym; maybe it’s walking with a friend. Instead of working longer hours, maybe it’s working smarter – requesting that faster computer or second monitor, for example. If meditation makes you antsy, lunch with a friend or cuddling your pet might relax you more. And that’s okay.
  3. Find a trigger – a pre-existing habit – and graft the new habit onto it, in a diluted version that requires little motivation. Examples: putting an apple on the counter when you make coffee, doing one push-up after using the bathroom, flossing one tooth after brushing them all, tossing one piece of garbage from your car each time you park, or lacing your sneakers after washing the dishes. You don’t have to actually eat the apple, crank out calisthenics, floss all your teeth, vacuum your vinyl seats, or head out to jog—yet. This will come in good time. In the meantime, as the Fogg online health coach phrases it, “You’re rewriting your identity as someone who succeeds.” Small victories aggregate into large changes. To join Tiny Habits, visit tinyhabits.com.