Martha Pieper: How to Give Your Child a Foundation of Inner Happiness (36m)

This episode features an interview of author and psychotherapist Martha Heineman Pieper from 2017 by Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting. They discuss dealing with children in a way that make both parent and child, and their relationship, much better off. Purchase books by Martha Pieper on Amazon here.

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Dealing with the Immense Uncertainty of the World

The world is in a state of fear and uncertainty right now, and it’s stressful and overwhelming for most of us.

This kind of fear, stress, uncertain and overwhelm can have some really strong effects on our lives:

  • Constant fear and stress can cause anxiety problems, worsening sleep and health, depression and anxiety
  • In a place of fear, we can often make bad decisions
  • People can panic, overreact because of fear, and cause widespread confusion and disruptions
  • Our relationships can deteriorate when we’re operating from a place of fear
  • We become less productive, less focused, when we’re stressed
  • It has an obvious impact on our happiness, including the impacts from all of the above

These are just some of the strong effects from a constant sense of fear, uncertainty, stress and overwhelm.

So how do we cope with this?

Obviously, there’s no easy answer. Let’s talk about what I’ve found to work, and what I recommend right now.

Dealing with the Uncertainty & Fear

The first thing is just to acknowledge that we’re feeling a lot of uncertainty and stress about the world situation. Bring awareness to the feelings you’re experiencing, and acknowledge their presence.

Often we want to ignore the feelings, or we’re just operating on autopilot and not really aware of it. But then we’re operating from that place of fear and stress, and these emotions are driving us without us being aware of it.

Next, see if you can give the fear and uncertainty some space. That means to turn your attention toward it, and let it be in your awareness … but with a sense of spaciousness, as if you’re giving it a wide open room to just be. You don’t need the feelings to go away or change, they are just going to be in your awareness with a feeling of having space around them, letting them exist as if you could even welcome them.

This is a way of taking care of yourself. When we’re feeling fear, it’s important to nurture ourselves, take care of the feeling. Give it space, and allow it to be in your awareness.

Third, see this as an opportunity to practice. We often close ourselves off to fear and uncertainty, but they can be really powerful things to practice with. They are incredible teachers! Let yourself pause for a few moments to practice with this, because uncertainty and fear and stress will always be a part of your life – you won’t ever be free of them! They show up whether you want them or not, so why not get good at being with them?

This is an opportunity to practice mindfulness with your fear and uncertainty. Open to the opportunity, instead of turning away to distraction and busyness.

Fourth, practice welcoming it and giving it unconditional friendliness. This might sound strange when it comes to fear, because for so long we’ve had an adversarial relationship to fear and uncertainty. We don’t like them, because they feel like stress and pain. But we don’t have to relate to fear this way. We can be more open toward it, even friendly.

So start by trying to welcome it. Allow it into your experience. Even be warm towards it, as you might welcome a good friend.

Then try to give it some unconditional friendliness. It’s an amazing practice. See if you’re able to bring the kind of warmth and friendliness towards it that you do with a loved one. You don’t need the feeling to be any certain way, you can be friendly with it no matter what.

Fifth, let yourself feel the openness of the moment. This one is a little harder to explain, but bear with me. If you can relax and open your awareness wider than the narrowness of your thought patterns or narrative … you can experience the openness of this moment.

Let your awareness open wider than your body. Let it take in the room all around you — light, colors, shapes, sound, textures, sensations on your skin. Feel the relaxed, open nature of the moment — fluid, changing, not fixed, unknowable, dynamic, spacious. This is the nature of our world, the root of uncertainty. It’s actually beautiful to behold. Let yourself relax into this openness.

That can take practice, don’t worry if you don’t feel it right away. Keep practicing with it!

Sixth, open to feeling connected to others through your uncertainty and fear. As you sit in stillness, as you feel the sensations in your body, as you welcome the feelings and practice friendliness with them, as you experience the openness of the moment … you can also feel a connection to others.

Think about everyone else in the world who is experiencing similar feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. Similar levels of stress, fear, overwhelm, anxiety. You are not alone — so many others feel it right now! In this way, you are all connected. Let your heart feel this connection to others going through similar experiences. Send them compassion and love, wishing them well.

In this way, our fear and uncertainty, in these very uncertain times … become an opening for connection and compassion. This is transformative. Try it right now.

The world is in a state of intense mass uncertainty. Don’t shut yourself off to it, ignore it or try to control, distract or exit.

Open yourself to this, because it is a powerful time to practice.

Learn More with Me

If you’d like to practice with me, there are two offerings this Saturday (March 14) and one ongoing program where you can join me:

  1. Zen Dharma talk on Fearlessness with Susan O’Connell (and Leo) on Saturday: I’m joining my Zen teacher Susan in giving a free dharma talk on the idea of fear and practicing fearlessness. It’ll be my first dharma talk ever! It’s tomorrow — Saturday (March 14) at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern. Watch online here.
  2. Fearless Purpose Online Workshop (Saturday): A couple hours later, Susan and I will be conducting a 3-hour workshop called Fearless Purpose. The in-person event has been canceled, but you can still participate online. We’re still holding this workshop because we believe it’s so important right now. It will be from 1-4 pm Pacific / 4-7 pm Eastern. You can still sign up for online participation here.
  3. Fearless Training Program: I also offer an ongoing program called Fearless Training, where we train with uncertainty in the mindfulness methods I talk about in this article. I invite you to join us and train together! Check out Fearless Training here.
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Six Presidents

Nobody asked but …

The Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 klunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  I have the highest regard for the intellects of Jefferson and Madison.  I believe that John Adams was among the greatest lawyers (a rare occurrence).  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been one places a black mark on that career.  Few have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the degradation to the office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the first six:

It is far better to be alone than to be in bad company.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin.

America… goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

But every person who has served in this inauspicious capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

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CPI Bias and Happiness

Our nominal income rises every year.  But what about our real income – our “standard of living”?  In order to answer that question, we have to accurately measure inflation.  If we understate inflation, we’re getting richer at a slower pace than we think.  If we overstate inflation, we’re getting richer at a faster pace than we think.

Most economists, sadly, just forget about the issue and pretend that standard measures of inflation are solid.  Most specialists, however, have long believed that the standard CPI does indeed overstate inflation- and this consensus keeps getting stronger.  CPI Bias is alive and well, so we’re materially much better off than we think.  “There is no Great Stagnation” – say it non-ironically, as you should.

On reflection, however, there is a shocking implication.  Happiness researchers – yes, even Justin Wolfers! – have almost uniformly found little effect of income on happiness.  If official statistics understate real income growth, what should we conclude?

Simple: Income’s effect on happiness is even smaller than it looks! According to Winship, for example, U.S. real income from 1969-2012 plausibly rose not by 16% (the standard estimate) but 45%.  Yet our happiness still barely budged.

How is this possible?  The leading possibilities:

1. Hedonic adaptation.  As Epicurus would predict, human beings quickly psychologically adapt to greater riches.  The more you have, the more you take for granted.

2. Relative income.  Another possibility is that human beings mostly care about how much they have compared to others.  So it doesn’t really matter if the price index says we’re 45% richer or 16% richer; either way, what we really want is to be in the top 1%.

3. False consciousness.  If you keep falsely telling people their income is stagnant, they’ll believe you and feel disappointed.

Where, though, does the truth lie?

The overwhelming factor, in my view, is hedonic adaptation.  Materially, Americans are far better off than they were during my childhood in the 1980s.  Yet hardly anyone appreciates the wonderful new and improved products they’ve received.*

The relative income story, in contrast, is frail indeed.  Why?  Because income has little effect on happiness even at a single point in time.  As I explained in my discussion with Wolfers, his results imply that raising happiness by one standard deviation requires an increase in annual income of over $800,000.  So stop conflating indifference with envy.

What about false consciousness?  I doubt it’s a huge factor, because most of us lack the patience to heed so-called “opinion-makers.”  The people too pragmatic, and the pundits are too boring.  Still, I can easily believe that doomsayers make us feel 10% poorer than we really are.  And in a well-functioning culture, I can easily believe that honest recognition of our good fortune could multiply this effect by negative one.  In other words, a shift from our pessimistic narrative to an optimistic one would make us feel about 20% richer than we currently do.  (Remember, though, how small a change in happiness that implies!)

At this point, I can picture Tyler Cowen remarking, “You’re a bigger pessimist than I am.  According to you, we’re richer than we think, but riches don’t matter much for happiness, so who cares?”  The whole point of optimism, though, is to say, “You may not be happy, but you should be.”  If you want to meme that as, “Optimism is pessimism about the dangers of pessimism,” so be it.

* Aside: Thank you, oh great producers, for the wonderful new and improved products I have received at your hands.  For verily you have redeemed my adulthood from the gray bleakness of my youth, and blessed me with vibrant abundance.

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Why so Many College Students Are In Mental Distress—And What Parents Can Do about It

With college classes underway for the fall semester, parents may worry about how their children will navigate campus life, balance academics and social pressures, and find their pathway to a meaningful career. While parents of college students have long shared these common worries, they now confront new concerns.

The number of college students experiencing mental health issues has soared, with survey findings from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors suggesting that 41 percent of college students are anxious and 36 percent are depressed. So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people?A 2018 survey by the American College Health Association found that 63 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety over the previous year, 42 percent said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function over the previous year, and 12 percent seriously considered suicide. Add to these findings the data showing that the suicide rate for US teenagers and young adults is the highest on record, and parents are right to be worried.

So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people? There are undoubtedly many contributing factors. Greater awareness of mental health issues and more willingness to seek help are positive steps forward that may drive some of the increase in reporting, but there could be other, less favorable explanations, as well.

Too Much Coddling

Some of the emotional turmoil of college students could be linked to a coddled childhood and adolescence that limits young people from developing the resilience necessary to deal with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt trace some of the increased fragility of today’s college students to padded playgrounds, constant adult supervision and structure, more screen time and less authentic, in-person interaction, and an overall emphasis on safety. They write:

On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations. (p. 160)

More supervision and less autonomy, combined with social media influences, could be making college students more prone to anxiety and depression in young adulthood. According to Lukianoff and Haidt:

Both depression and anxiety cause changes in cognition, including a tendency to see the world as more dangerous and hostile than it really is. (p. 161)

In other words, the normal stressors of college may be perceived by some of today’s students as disproportionately dreadful.

Campus Victim Culture

A key focus of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book is that the fragility of today’s college students leads them to demand protection and security on campus, including the call for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Discomfort may be confused with harm, leading more college students to report emotional distress. In his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, Robby Soave explores the victim culture on college campuses in greater detail. He explains that on some college campuses, the focus on mental health has reached an extreme.

Soave describes a visit to the University of Arizona campus, where signs such as “Breathe in. Breathe out. You got this,” and “44% of ASU students report having difficulty managing stress,” are ubiquitous and direct students to the college’s mental health services. Soave explains:

People who need help shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. But at so many campuses, it has begun to feel like mental instability and trauma are the norm—that students are encouraged to see themselves as sick and vulnerable, and so they do. They have fully appropriated the language of mental illness. (p. 495)

Encourage Self-Empowerment

Given the trends and statistics on college students’ mental health, it may seem like there is little parents can do to help their college-age children. But a key step parents can take is to shift the narrative of victimhood and helplessness and encourage their grown children to take control of their own happiness and success. Borrowing the language of FEE’s Director of Entrepreneurial Education, T.K. Coleman, parents can help their children to see themselves as the “dominant creative force” in their own lives.

These students can set their own path. They can avoid dwelling on obstacles and instead embrace possibilities. They can find their passion, incubate innovative ideas, and build new enterprises that are personally meaningful and societally valuable. They can see themselves as agents of change in the world rather than victims of it. They can be the Revolution of One, as the following brief video spotlights:

It is a scary time for parents of today’s college students, as this cohort experiences rising rates of mental illness and a prevailing college culture that emphasizes fragility over self-empowerment. Fortunately, parents can encourage their college-age children to be strong, resilient, and focused on being active change agents and value creators in their own lives.

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How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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