Other reviewers have missed the point of this book. In this review, I give an in-depth analysis of character and meaning. It contains spoilers, but none that will "ruin" the book for you. This book is a character study more than a plot-driven tale.
"You will have seen rooks."
In the follow-up to her smashing debut novel The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield starts out Bellman & Black with a quote by Mark Cocker in Crow Country:
“You will have seen rooks. Don’t be put off by any sense of familiarity. Rooks are enveloped in a glorious sky-cloak of mystery. They’re not what you think they are.” This is Dr. Setterfield’s hint to us, the readers, that her 2nd novel is not what we, at first impression, think it is.
Reviewers have been indeed put off by a sense of familiarity with the book’s themes of death and grief. So enamored are readers by William’s killing of the rook and Bellman’s elaborate theater of grief that they miss Setterfield’s point entirely.
Despite missing the point, some readers still manage to love the book. Setterfield’s deft turn of phrase, her grasp of the historical milieu, her haunting rook observations, et cetera, are enchanting in themselves. Although some reviewers do get close to understanding the mind of the rook, most are too mercifully lost in the details of William’s story to personally experience the extreme level of creepiness Setterfield delivers.
Yes, I said mercifully lost. A reader enthralled by the surface of this story doesn’t feel her own rooks right behind her.
Here’s the point everyone seems to be missing: Bellman & Black is not about death. It isn’t about grief. It’s about guilt. It’s about the guilt we all have. It’s about the regret that destroys us, and how we humans, in what looks like folly to Thought & Memory, attempt to press our guilt and regret away, as if we can iron wrinkles out of the fabric of time.
Let me explain.
The Fault Line
William’s story doesn’t begin with his catapult killing the rook. William’s story begins, with barely a side mention, with his birth.
Phillip, William’s father, left William and his mother Dora soon after William was born. William grew up believing he was somehow to blame for his father’s abandonment. The kid logic follows, right? His parents were together before his birth. His parents weren’t together after his birth. The only element that seemed to change was William’s existence. By the time he was 10-years-old, with no father to teach him the legend of rooks (as a father of those days did when constructing their son’s slingshot), William was well into the task of burying this core feeling of guilt.
When the stone was in the air, William thought of startling the bird with a shout, but he stayed silent and the rook fell. William then felt a sudden pang of the grave and all-encompassing guilt he had left over from Phillip’s abandonment. Setterfield, like al excellent literary authors, doesn’t spell this out for us but the meaning is clear in her text :
(William’s feelings, after the rook fell):
“He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar left in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed in him. It traveled from his chest along his veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice, and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no language for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent.”
William is adopting the unfair, unfounded guilt over his father’s abandonment and turning it into something he deserves for killing the rook. William basically feels and has always felt unworthy. The horrible feeling that roots in his chest matches the “sentiment” of guilt that was thrust upon him, so he accepts the rooting of it within his being. It now defines him. Setterfield goes on, sharply displaying William’s fall from grace (my emphasis in bold):
“They told and retold the story, acted it out for each other. With imaginary catapults they killed whole parishes of imaginary rooks.
Will stood by. Like any ten-year-old hero, he took more than his fair share of teasing and shoving. He smiled, sick at heart, proud, abashed, guilty. He grinned and shoved back without conviction.”
“The next day, William woke with a fever. For a half a week he stayed in bed being tended to by his mother. During this time, while his blood grew warmer and warmer and he sweated and cried out in pain, William applied his ten-year-old genius and power to the greatest feat he had ever attempted: forgetting.
He very largely succeeded.”
And like one bird joining another, then another, and another until a flock casts a shadow any cloud would envy, William suppresses pain after pain after pain. He does not process Jeannie Armstrong’s preference for Fred over him. He does not face the grief of his mother’s death, or his uncle’s. He does not take the opportunity to trace his father’s whereabouts and/or deal with the guilt from the abandonment which made him feel so worthless. By the time William’s wife and three children are taken from him, the process is permanent. He had, by that time, convinced himself the rook was there to make him a deal for his daughter life. The rook, the representation of the purpose of thought and memory, of course, had a different intent.
William continues to repress the “sentiment.” He denies himself comforts. He practically bends time in order to stuff it full with more distraction. He builds a shining, awesome monument to grief, yet ironically never experiences any grief himself. As soon as any thought of human connection comes in – nuzzling Lizzie’s neck, visiting Fred in his last days – Bellman pushes it away and smothers it in work. He mustn’t think. He mustn’t remember.
In contrast his daughter Dora (named for her grandmother) spends her time thinking and remembering. She constructs her past in her mind; she experiences memories like scenes again and again. She keeps her family alive in her heart. And she doesn’t fear the birds like Bellman. She invites the rooks back. She draws them. She watches with them, the looks at her father with pity as he from Thought & Memory, and eventually from her.
The rook appears one last time to Bellman, and as is the case with sentiments we try to repress, all come back to haunt him in a maddening and deadly flood. The rook looks on with pity as Bellman flings gold at him. The rook insists:
“Remember.” The “sentiment” finally overtakes William Bellman. He loses himself to it and he dies how he lived: “sick-at-heart, proud, abashed, guilty.”
The rook ends the tale by showing us the parish of rooks’ telling of William’s story across the evening sky for Dora, Mary and others, including Dora’s adopted boys (Mary’s orphaned nephews). In this final narrative, the rook tells us that one of his own will come for all of us, close the book on our story, and a parish of rooks will dance a retelling of that story across the early evening sky.
So, you may ask, what does this all mean?
Good question. Bellman & Black isn’t an easily understood book. Why? Because we are all Bellman.
And in this case, Setterfield plays the rook. This talented, haunted, sincere author is holding a mirror up to us. As we fill our time with distractions (most notably lately with the Internet), the thoughts and memories that we should be constructing are disappearing into the dark clouds of the ether.
Memento Mori, meaning “Remember Death,” is a legendary sentiment among writers. Memento Mori is to writers what #YOLO (You Only Live Once) is to the cynical youth set: a reminder, to free yourself and your voice, to dare to speak or write, to not be afraid of the pain that may come from doing so. One day (perhaps soon) the opportunity will be taken and a fate worse than death will fall upon you: you may be forgotten. Suck the marrow from life’s bones now. Write now. Make haste, and don’t waste. Setterfield’s rook holds the same message.
“There are numerous collective nouns for rooks.” In some parts, people should say a regret of rooks.
I am a familiar enough creature until you actually look at me. My appearance, my education, my career, and my relationships have had their beautiful, shimmering moments, but while my life seems bright, colorful, perhaps even pre-ordained, throughout there lies a deep river of pain. I’m no different in that sense, I’ve come to find. Most humans have a “superabundance of blackness” underneath.
So where, or more importantly how, did I manage to build a life that almost magically hides that rudimentary void dug out by the tragic events of my youth (self-absorbed and absent parents, neglect, abuse, isolation, depression)? After finally escaping from the house and small town in which I was raised, I had access to answers.
Enter Psychology, the “magic of the real.” With a vengeful hunger that could not and cannot to this day be sated, I pursued the mysteries of human behavior in Psychology’s theories and practices. With every convenient explanation I discovered for my parents’ neglect, with every justification I gave for my parents’ denial of the physical and sexual abuse that others perpetrated upon me, with every systems analysis I constructed for the hypocrisy and unreliability of the other adults around me, I took a step closer to muffling my own voice. Understanding the damaging actions of others, I thought, neutralized my reason to mourn. I pushed away the pain. In a complete absorption of the message I received from my parents, brothers and society, I silenced myself. I never examined the real effects of this until I read this book.
Here’s the problem with writers: we cannot and we are not supposed to be silent. We are artists. Our job, nay our vocation, is to speak life’s truths. If we censor any thoughts or delude ourselves away from any memories (however unrelated they seem), we cannot write anything of worth. We are blocked. We have tricks, of course, flamboyant ways to force our fingers to type staid technical manuals or petty press releases. We can pass a whole life tapping away, in “common fields, grubbing for larvae.” Many of us do.
Like the Dickens spirits, Setterfield’s rook has reflected a fate that awaits me. I could spend my life like Bellman, silencing myself, barely noticing that I’m avoiding tremendous pain and undeserved distress, and never reaching that other side, the promised land of human connection, a fierce life spent capturing it, striving to “split it, absorb some, and radiate the rest, in a delightful demonstration” of courage, showing you –and myself– the truth that your “own poor eyes cannot see.” Others’ protests to my portrayal have no bearing on my right to portray it. They have their opinions; am I not entitled to my own? Must I silence myself so their illusion remains in tact?
The answer is that I have a right to live how I wish. When I want to speak my truth, I will seek out “the drunken poet or the wild-eyed crone” and we’ll commiserate. Together we’ll spite the “damsel with her coronet,” sample dragon liver and griffin flesh, and chase a unicorn posse across digital fields.
“There are numerous collective nouns for rooks.” Sometimes, I call them a blessing of rooks.
**spoiler alert** [you will have to go to my blog to see the illustrations, including Venn Diagrams, that accompany this review]
Scarcity: Why Having T...more**spoiler alert** [you will have to go to my blog to see the illustrations, including Venn Diagrams, that accompany this review]
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldar Shafir Times Books 2013 ISBN: 978-0-8050-9264-6
Men of Principle
On a dirty, noisy corner in a sun-seared Indian city, the authors Sendhil and Eldar were sweating away waiting for a bike cab to come along. After about 10 minutes a driver pulled up but immediately added a 50% markup to the regular rate. The driver expected the obvious –and hopefully oblivious– American passenger, Eldar, would gladly pay the inflated price. Sendhil wasn’t so keen. He insisted on waiting yet another 10 minutes on the hot, grimy street to catch a more reasonable driver. What did Sendhil and Eldar save by doing this? Less than 40 cents.
Looking at that negligible amount, Eldar wondered if the added uncomfortable time waiting and sweating was worth it. Sendhil didn't budge. Despite the driver’s protest that 40 cents is “nothing” for Americans, a 50% markup based on race or nationality just simply wasn’t acceptable to Sendhil. It wasn’t the money; it was the principle of the thing.
We all make these kinds of “principled” moves, especially when it comes to dumping our hard-earned cash into a seemingly unfair venture. As Duke University researcher Dan Ariely points out, ours aren’t the most rational of decisions when it comes to principles or costs of things.
A Little Voice of "Reason"
Historically, economists theorized that we made money choices rationally. A “Homo Economicus” voice in our heads would tell us which is the better economic deal. Unfortunately for economists, humans aren’t all dollars and cents. Behavioral economics research studies show we make decisions based more heavily on context than Homo Economicus would like. In fact, it seems that we humans can only base our decisions on context (including moral belief systems). Refusing the bike cab driver’s blatant exploitation was worth more to Sendhil than getting off that hot street corner.
These findings have upended traditional economics. Ariely contends we may be irrational beings in light of Homo Economicus, but actually we are quite predictable in our irrational ways. We all tend to make the same kinds of decisions in similar situations (especially within cultures). Most Americans tend to make the same type of decision Sendhil made, albeit in different contexts.
Self Help for the Irrational
The book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldar Shafir examines decisions made whilst suffering from diminishing resources. The authors outline 3 elements that are at the base of logic for our choices in this resource-strapped context: Scarcity; Bandwidth; and Tunneling.
Scarcity, Bandwidth and Tunneling are three states of capacity that influence choices. Opposite of scarcity is abundance, opposite of tunneling is wide and long-term focusing, and the opposite of bandwidth is no capacity to make decisions (e.g. states of extreme stress).
To put it simply, one must have a lot of bandwidth and little-to-no financial scarcity to think about saving for college or retirement. The peace-of-mind expendable income brings allows a person to think about and build up rainy-day savings. The poor are too busy putting out budgetary fires to think about retirement. They have too little bandwidth, or "slack," in their minds and their budgets to entertain such a long-term idea. They are worrying about rent and car repairs. Their tunnel-focus on those immediate costs render the poor unable to look far ahead or plan for the future. Anything that lies "outside the tunnel," as the authors say, gets ignored.
Scarcity, despite its overarching depressing theme of what separates the poor from the privileged, is a fun read. There are the classic behavioral economics studies cited as well as the authors’ own research. By the end of the book we’re armed with new information about how humans make decisions in times of both feast and famine. What the book doesn’t supply, though, is a self-help manual. There are no self-assessments, Likert rating scales, or pop psych quizzes to assist you in determining whether or not you are stuck in what the authors call a “Scarcity Trap” (a bandwidth-absent treadmill of debt-to-loan-to-more-debt that’s all but impossible to escape).
If I’m being honest, I must admit I was hoping for something along the typical self-help lines. I’m working on a fiction novel. Days go by where I don’t write a single word. I have no deadlines, no agent, no publisher. Scarcity showed me the lack of externally-imposed deadlines the dearth of allotted time I give to the novel rings the death knell for my novel. (Self-imposed deadlines, as the authors note, don’t work well because we negotiate ourselves out of them!) Would it have been so hard for the authors to add a “How to get yourself out of a Scarcity Trap” section?
Life in a [Deflating] Bubble
Alas, Sendhil and Eldar are economists after all; we know what helpful and empathetic joys they are to be around. To help us understand the concepts in the book and help me understand where my lack of novel-writing sits in this equation, I’ve made a Venn Diagram of the three decision-making states of scarcity, bandwidth and tunneling:
In the first circle on the left is Scarcity. It overlaps with the Bandwidth circle on the right and the Tunneling circle on the bottom. Scarcity overlaps with Tunneling, Scarcity overlaps with Bandwidth, Bandwidth overlaps with Tunneling. In the exact middle, the 3 areas overlap with each other. That makes 7 separate sections. Let’s look at each one.
Scarcity + Tunneling = Scarcity Trap
Scarcity Venn2Illustrating this classic scarcity trap is the main point of the book. The authors outline this state of being between scarcity and tunneling. An example in the book is “payday loans” (the poor get a small, extremely short-term loan at ridiculously high interest. The interest plus fees on that small loan puts them into further debt, causing them to loan more to repay the original debt). The cash-strapped can’t think of anything else but paying the immediate bills in any way necessary. They can’t absorb the reality of debilitating interest rates when they have no bandwidth to think of such things.
When I began to think about it, though, I realized that Tunneling, Bandwidth and Scarcity interact in our lives and in our organizations in different ways. Here is where I begin to ad-lib off the concepts covered in the book. These concepts can be applied to both individuals and industry.
Bandwidth + Tunneling = Obsession
If a person has “too much time on one’s hands” –as the phrase goes– , she is focused intently on one activity, like a pro golfer would concentrate on golf. The pro golfer would exist in the convergence of Bandwidth and Tunneling. Pro golfers don’t spend their time thinking on things like bills or dinner or medical care. A single mother holding three part-time jobs has a lot more trade-off decisions to make than a pro golfer. What pro golfers do have is time to spend on golf. For lack of a better word, I’ve called this “obsession.” It could be called “passion” or “focus” but I’m thinking of how this state would look for us regular people. A teen in her parents’ basement playing WoW 50 hours a week would also fall into this area: a young adult with no bills, no obligations, and all-encompassing preoccupation with MMORPGs would be a more familiar example of someone existing in the obsession state.
A company can exist in this Obsession area if they have a lot resources allocated to a singular product or goal. The goal may never be attained because the lack of time or money isn’t felt (Scarcity). No motivation exists to complete the project and no other demands are being met. I’m thinking about my novel all the time. I read writing manuals. I meet with other writers. I don’t write enough words. A little scarcity might move me along.
Bandwidth + Scarcity = Simple Living Movement
We’ve all met these types of “bare bones” people. Perhaps they are Thoreau fans that don’t own TVs or live “off-grid.” Perhaps they are an elderly couple who live in a basic apartment with few possessions. Whether the scarcity is self-imposed or is economically created, a person who has a minimalist lifestyle would fall in the Simple Living area. They have the peace-of-mind to deal with the lack of things others deem essential. They accept that scarcity and move on.
Scarcity + Bandwidth + Tunneling = Crisis Management and Prevention
The Red Cross organization not only deals with immediate crises but also plan for and try to sidestep future disasters. Unpredictable events are in fact predictable in their inevitability, and the Red Cross squirrels away money for future use. (In fact, they are rightly criticized for withholding too much money and distributing too little to present-day disaster victims).
I suppose the authors would suggest that individuals and organizations aim for this stasis of Scarcity+Bandwidth+Tunneling. While we are appreciating scarcity of resources (knowing the value of a dollar as well as the worth of our time and moral norms), we have the energy to also look long and hard at savings for the future while concentrating steadily on day-to-day projects. With the right dose of Scarcity, Bandwidth can be loaned to one immediate project in the Tunnel. With the right dose of Bandwidth, Scarcity can be managed calmly in a very temporary Tunnel. With the right dose of Tunnel vision, Bandwidth can laser-focus on the issue of Scarcity.
“You Only Live Once” is a common mantra that’s taken a dangerous hold of young hip-hop culture. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are awash with #YOLO-tagged photos of young people engaging in risky behaviors. Economist and other academic researchers aren’t in the mood to party with them though; the increasing level of risk in young people’s decision-making can mean there is a compounding –and shared– feeling of hopelessness and malaise in that generation. By seemingly doing nothing but partying and posting on Facebook, young Millennials are living a dark minimalist life. With no jobs, no money and no hope, this new lost generation fills their lives with social risk, claiming there is only time now to do crazy things before they need to truly face the reality of a life of struggle or total ruin. This is that bad state of "having too much time on one’s hands": loads of time, a dearth of hope, and total absence of focus. We need solutions to keep our youth engaged and invested while they wait for their turn on the world stage.
DSL, FiOS or Dial-Up?
The book tunnels in on how the poor get stuck in the Scarcity Trap, but lends no bandwidth to the questions “bandwidth” itself generates. My Venn model may break down a bit here too, because Bandwidth and Scarcity can come in many different forms. The typical ideas would be between time and money: Lots of time? No money; Lots of money? No time. But what kind of bandwidth do people need to deal with which kind of scarcity? What should we focus on, and when? Many more thought experiments are needed to test the strength of the Scarcity Venn, and a whole other book is needed to teach us how to deal with our varying states of living.
For now, I’ll try to bribe some friends into generating some hard deadlines for my novel.
Got Bandwidth to lend to this? Not many of my questions are rhetorical. Please comment.
Photo Credit: Book Cover and Venn Diagrams: Christine Cavalier(less)
“Positive thinking is so firmly enshrined in our culture that knocking it is a little like attacking motherhood or apple pie.” -Srikumar Rao, Ph.D., author of Happiness at Work.
Thinking about what can go wrong with a business plan is a secret task, lest anyone in the board room sniff out treachery. Planning for the worst possible scenario in life is chastised as a Fates-tempting practice, as if the idea itself could manifest doom. Positive thinking has taken over the culture. Any attempt to examine its logic, as Dr. Rao implies above, is met with disdain and even fear.
But we must examine the tenants of positive thinking. Visualizing a positive outcome, eradicating negative thoughts, setting meaningful goals, and being optimistic in all endeavors can actually lead us down paths to failure and sadness. Research shows that these practices can be dangerous pursuits that evoke the opposite of their intentions. Some studies discovered that visualizing yourself as having accomplished a goal actually decreases your likelihood of actually achieving that goal. In educational studies, the almost-holy positive-thinking concept of telling children they are smart harms their ability to do well on increasingly hard tasks. All of this “glass half full” stuff has a dark downside.
What if, instead of bubbly (but ignorant) bliss was replaced by sensible realism? Would we descend into the dark depths of cynicism if we examined the cracks in the positive thinking armor?
In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman shares his own journey across the underbelly of the optimism movement in America. In the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Julie Norem, Burkeman sets out to test some of the more damaging principles of positive thinking and battles with the assumptions surrounding them. Burkeman educates us about the Stoics and their hard-won and precious reality focus. He also visits an extreme Buddhist meditation retreat to become hyper-aware of the “bad thoughts are our enemy” myth. His meeting with an Oprah guru teaches him that silence gets a bad rep. Other adventures and more lessons continue toward the end of the book, where Burkeman realizes we all may be asking ourselves the wrong question. It isn’t about “how to be happy” as much as it’s about “defining happiness” that fits into our human existence.
Combining Stoic and Buddhist teachings, Burkeman gives us this alternative perspective on how people and companies can release their fears by “leaning into the discomfort” (as therapists say) as opposed to turning our backs to it. We need not stare at the sun to see the light, nor must we always be thinking “positive” thoughts in order to succeed. As humans, we can’t keep tensing that positivity muscle and expect it to hold out. Instead, Burkeman suggests, perhaps we should wonder why we insist on positivity in the first place.
I like this book. It’s a fun read and the storytelling makes difficult concepts easy to understand. I’ve already put some things I’ve learned from the book into practice. For example, I now know that my anxious thoughts are not me, no more than my internal organs are “me”. I can step back from my thoughts and observe them like I can observe my breath, or the weather, and realize I have little to do with them, and they have little to do with me. When I feel anxiety creeping up, I go into this “movie mode” and let it play out. At the end, I see what’s left. What issues really need addressing? What are my resources? What do I need? I can disown the anxiety and take responsibility for solving the problem instead. Circumstances are weather. They are neither good nor bad. They just need to be dealt with.
The “negative” path to happiness, Burkeman poses, will render a more solid and realistic pursuit and destination than constantly fighting against our own nature to spot the inconsistencies and dangers that await us. This path to a happy realism may be just what we need to get out of the positive thinking hangover we’ve all been nursing for the past 30 years.
Check out my interview with Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, at PurpleCarPark or on iTunes at PurpleCar Park. (transcript available).(less)
Sister Bernadette was having none of my hijinks. Her face was as old and gray as her patience, and time was running out on both. Usually when my first grade self got a bit “bold” (Sister’s favorite word for me), a swift and decisive reaction from her was enough to get me in my seat. This day, though, I was on a roll. I had the class in stitches, and like any good comedian I wanted to ride it out. I was incorrigible.
Sister Bernadette, in a rare gutsy move I hadn’t seen before or since, made me stand in front of her desk facing the class in a waste paper basket. The message: “You’re garbage.” Sister was betting on my ability to be embarrassed.
This old school nun was not a good gambler. She made two fatal mistakes: 1. She overestimated my moral sense. 2. She underestimated my ingenuity. She had me stand with my back to her and my face to the crowd. Immediately I was miming and moving my hands, continuing to make the class laugh. She told me to stand straight with my arms locked at my sides. I stood perfectly still. Except for my face. I started contorting my mouth, nose and eyes in all sorts of crazy shapes. More laughs!
The basket was then moved to the side of her desk where I could face her. That’s when pure boredom set in. Still, I wasn’t absorbing the lesson, until my older brother came in the classroom with a message from his 4th grade teacher. In hindsight, Sister must have, without my notice, summoned my brother down on a messenger ruse. This was a devastatingly clever strategic move on her part, because the thought of my mother knowing about this incident terrified me to the point of pure panic. Instant, hysterical tears came pouring out of me and I lost my breath. The beating that awaited me when I returned home would be so severe I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week. Sister Bernadette finally seemed satisfied and I was permitted to go back to my seat. Lesson learned. I never acted up that much again in her classroom.
In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, New York Times journalist Paul Tough presents research about the importance of traits like resilience, optimism, self-control, and conscientiousness to long term success. These characteristics appear to be more important than early-intervention academic support for long term success in children growing up under the poverty line. Tough, an education reform reporter and author of the poverty-reform call-to-arms book Whatever It Takes, cites studies that give a different view on what schools, parents and the government can do to break the poverty cycle through education; success, these studies say, lies not in early intervention and implementation of traditional cognitive skills (reading, math) but by teaching the “non-cognitive” skills that noteworthy people appear to have in abundance since toddlerhood.
This “strong character” argument in education is nothing new. Parochial schools and many elite private schools use “building character” as a selling point as much today as they did 200 years ago. Tough reports that the current education system’s shift away from inculcating character traits toward teaching to standardized testing (the
quantitative measurement of basic academic skills) only took hold in the 20th century. This skill-measuring approach was solidified by the most recent testing-on-steroids No Child Left Behind program. And, Tough notes, it is just easier to test skills like reading, addition and subtraction. “Soft-skills” are harder to quantify. How does one judge a child’s self-control? How do you measure curiosity? What defines “grit” in a first grader?
Enter the Marshmallow test. It turns out there are ways to measure character traits. This famous test, conducted by researcher Walter Mischel in 1972 at Stanford University, put one large, yummy marshmallow in front of a 4-year-old, then instructed the child to wait to eat the treat. If she could wait for 10 short minutes, the researcher said, she would have two marshmallows, but only if she waited the whole time. If she couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back and the preschooler could eat the one marshmallow.
Some preschoolers made it through the ten minutes, some didn’t. There were varying lengths of tolerance, of course. None of this is very interesting. The mind-blowing part of this study was what Mischel and others learned years later. It turns out that the length of time the 4-year-old waited directly correlated to her level of achievement decades later. The kids who could wait were more likely to graduate from high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and dodge other pitfalls, then go on to college and eventually earn more. The researchers studied the tapes and discovered the successful delayers had creative ways to distract themselves from the tempting treat. Some sang songs, some turned their backs to the marshmallow, others played with their hands. One kid even napped. The kids who couldn’t hold off for even just a little bit tended to fall into the nightmares that poverty can bring, dropping out, drugs, crime, and early sexual intercourse. The message was clear: the early character skill of being able to delay gratification was essential to accomplish long-term goals.
Tough cites some similar thought-provoking examples of this character research that ended up delivering the question of measurable traits to neuroscientists. Neuroscientists love their EEG’s, PET scans, CAT scans and functional MRI’s, and they employed the tech to discover if any brain variations were happening between the successful kids and the “at-risk” youth the education system tries so desperately to help. The tech showed some disturbing results: brain anatomy is altered, yes, physically altered, by stress. Repeated stress introduced into early lives can prevent the construction of the pathways children need in order to develop good character traits and solid cognitive skills.
This isn’t to say that those pathways can’t be generated later. If lower-income parents, Tough posits, can learn some theories and practices adopted from the attachment parenting movement, the children’s brains can recover and the kids can thrive and succeed even whilst living in poverty. There is some evidence to support this, and Tough gives some real world examples of what an “attachment to build character” program looks like. He also spends quite a large chunk of the book studying unique and wildly successful inner-city chess clubs as well as some pathway-to-college programs in Chicago’s poverty-ridden districts.
How Children Succeed is pretty compelling. Tough is a seasoned writer. He frames the dry research with rich profiles of educators and academics. His stories of students affected by these programs pull at your heartstrings.
Personally, the book brought me back to fundamental questions that come with being a parent in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. No child I know is struggling with poverty. The kids here attend very well-ranked public and private schools. Despite their secure middle-class lives, these children’s bad behavior frustrates me almost daily. Not only would the majority of these kids not be able to wait 5 seconds for the marshmallow, they would not be able to keep their hands off the bag as the researcher opened it. I couch my complaints to my husband as “lack of discipline” but Tough’s book peels that onion back a bit more and reminds me these children lack fundamental character traits. And indeed, Tough mentions how this dearth can affect more affluent children, especially those born to classic “helicopter” parents (attachment parents gone astray). I worry for the preschool children who torture their infant siblings, I am concerned for the kids who can’t sit in a restaurant, or those who simply cannot allow their parent two quiet minutes for an important phone call. These parents, in a misguided effort to shield their children from suffering, are creating self-control-free mini-tyrants. We all worry for the future of our country when we’re standing in line behind these little monsters at Whole Foods. A little character-trait training could do us all some good.
That fateful day in the beginning of my first grade year, I rode the bus home in fearful silence. I dragged my feet when my two older brothers got off the bus with the dozen (wild!) public school kids that also lived in the dilapidated apartment complex across from an equally dilapidated US Army depot. It was still September, my first month at the small club that was Monsignor McHugh Elementary school and here I was, already labeled garbage. My brothers were home probably for a full minute before I got to the door. I expected one of my mother’s famous full-on, thick-leather-70’s-belt blitzes, but all I got was the typical (and contradictory) “I-miss-my-baby-all-day” smothering. My brother didn’t rat me out. He let me dodge a bullet, and I always respected him for it. I learned loyalty and compassion from him that day.
My parents divorced when I was in 4th grade. We stayed in that apartment complex, my brothers and I sharing a room, until I was 12-years-old. Life was stressful, but my brother had just enough rare moments of precocious wisdom to carry me through to adulthood. I chafed every single teacher at Msgr. McHugh and at my catholic high school, but there were a few strong, trustworthy folks there who provided me with some solid footing. And early in my life, my bond with my mother was good enough to create the brain I needed for success.
My neighbors weren’t so lucky. By the time I was in second grade, I could feel myself pulling away from my playmates by leaps and bounds. They would spend any loose change immediately on candy; I would save it. They would play pranks and steal little things here and there, and I would walk by myself in the woods. I would read; they would watch hours upon hours of TV. By the time we left the complex when I was 12, I was college bound and they were running with crowds that would lead them down tragic paths. The discrepancy was painfully apparent. An old neighbor stopped my mother in the grocery store, years later, to ask how she managed to get me off to college when her granddaughter, my childhood friend, was pregnant by the time she turned 16. My mother couldn’t do anything but shake her head. She often had the same question.
In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough may have just offered the answer. (less)
**spoiler alert** I don't want to rain on a parade here; I see most of the reviews are glowing. I do have a few comments, though, as to why I thought...more**spoiler alert** I don't want to rain on a parade here; I see most of the reviews are glowing. I do have a few comments, though, as to why I thought the book was only "OK."
Here are three main "mehs" I have with the book (I have more but these are my main ones):
1. The author doesn't truly get the point of her whole experiment until page 293 or so, and even then, Wyma hardly has a true grasp on the concept. Our behaviors, as humans, affect one another and in turn our own well-being. Common courtesy, empathy, resilience, and grit are the survival characteristics Wyma is truly teaching; these are the very core skills we need to be good people, and Wyma only touches upon this idea toward the end of the book. Granted, she is no child-psychology expert, but still... I'd expect a bit more insight sooner rather than later from someone who used to hold high-powered jobs. (And on a side note here, I felt like the Christianity was thrown in for marketing purposes. Not much of it sounded sincere).
2. Basic economic theory and behavioral theory is ignored. Never pay for chores. There are many, many writings that debunk the misguided notion of pay or allowance for children's household work, showing that it is a law of quickly decreasing returns with a backlash of inflation in the mix. Again, this woman is no expert, but it's disappointing to see an educated, privileged woman fall into famously debunked myths. For more information, see Freakonomics or any of Dan Ariely's work. Also, the other hidden side of this chore experiment is nagging. To avoid nagging and deal out more relevant (not monetary) immediate consequences, see How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by Faber & Mazlish.
3. Wyma's "experiment" is just a version of helicopter parenting. Stay with me here, it's a bit hard to explain. Throughout the book, Wyma insists her children are being handed a disservice when she does all the errands, tasks, housework, etc., without the children's help. In the beginning of the book Wyma admits she skipped the teaching sessions because it was easier for her to do things herself. She chided herself for raising privileged kids, as if the only way to teach children to be responsible is to break your back instructing them on how to do daily tasks. I don't owe my children a correct bathroom-cleaning technique. That is something they will pick up in time. I do owe them their best shot in life, and doing chores builds skills toward grabbing that best shot, but I need to take care of my entire family as well as myself. My kids will learn the skills in the book as they grow, because I raise them to be empathetic, resilient and hard-working. I think it's OK if parents decide to post-pone the gas pumping lessons forever, especially if they need to get to work on time.
Here are three main "WAY TO GOs":
1. Wyma learns how to stop underestimating her children. Human children are capable of a lot. Most of the time they are left to exercise their manipulation skills, all under the guise of "Oh, he's a just baby, he doesn't know any better." You wouldn't say this if you've seen all the research as well as all the anecdotal evidence I've seen about the animal kingdom and human children. They're smart and resourceful and you should give them a chance. They have agency. Foster it.
2. Sibling rivalry is kept to a minimum. Perhaps Wyma didn't report it, but absent were the torturous whines about fairness, work loads, etc. It seems like Wyma could've either had a good editor or her kids do have a general respect for each other.
3. Humor helps. There aren't rip-roaring comedic scenes in the book but there's a definite sense of humor throughout the book (and hopefully throughout the household). Humans are imperfect. You gotta laugh at yourself. No one has to be supermom. Just do your best.
I hope you all have a great time with your kids. Check out the books I mentioned if you want some more peace and respect in your house.