All posts by Dr. Jim Taylor

Are Young People Losing Their Ability to Read Emotions?

An interesting new study was just published that suggests that children who have little or no screen time are able to read the emotions of others better than those who spend considerable time in front of a screen.

Though the sample for the study was small, its implications are disturbing, namely, that the decline in face-to-face interaction caused by the rise in the use of technology may inhibit the development of children’s ability to identify, interpret, and react to the emotions of others.

Given that considerable research has shown that ‘emotional intelligence’ is vital to success in school, career, and relationships, this finding should be troubling to parents who give their children unfettered use of smartphones, tablets, and computers, and to educators who believe that technology is the panacea to all of our country’s educational woes.

From Disabled to Super-Abled: Redefining Being Physically Challenged and Human

I recently was invited by the Huffington Post (for whom I blog weekly) to write a post about a TED talk by Aimee Mullins, a double-amputee who has received world-wide acclaim as an athlete, actress, model, inspirational speaker, and an innovator for the physically challenged. How we look at so-called disabled people is certainly changing these days and I was inspired to offer my perspective. Not long ago, I wrote another post in response to another TED talk by another physically challenge person and the focus of that post was on how disabled people are much more like us “normal” folk than we realize. But this post has a decidedly different tack to it.

In past generations, when we looked at someone with a physical disability, we felt many different emotions including sympathy, revulsion, fear, embarrassment, or “there but by the grace of God go I.” The old reaction of seeing disabled people participate in sports included “Good for them!” and “They’re not letting a little thing like a missing limb squash their dreams.”

But, thanks to incredible developments in the neurosciences and prosthetic technology, what used to mean “not able” has morphed, in many cases, into being “super able.”

Now, we’re seeing these physically challenged people as challenging not just themselves, but all of the able-bodied athletes out there. This shift seems to have reached our collective psyches with Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter who raced against able-bodied athletes and competed in the 2012 Olympics. A German long jumper, Markus Rehm, who won his nation’s able-bodied national long-jump championship, is now in the news for wanting to compete in the European Track & Field Championships, but is being denied because—yes, you hear me right!—he may have an unfair advantage being disabled.

All of a sudden, being disabled is akin to taking performance-enhancing drugs. We able-bodied people have gone from sympathetic to threatened by these supposedly less-able athletes.

Consider the possibilities. Tommy John surgery will seem so 20th century. Instead of replacing your shoulder, knee, or hip, since you’re going to be on the operating table anyway, why not just lop the whole darned thing off and get a brand-spanking-new superhuman prosthesis. And don’t even get me started when the already out of control youth-sports juggernaut and its “I’ll do anything to make my kid an Olympic champion” parenting culture meets the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (talk about visionary TV shows!).

And being disabled isn’t just about surpassing normal people athletically. We normal folk are stuck with the bodies we have. People like Aimee Mullin can design their bodies as they wish. You can decide what kind of legs you want: muscular, thin, or bow-legged? I’ve got a pair of legs for that!

If you’re a fashionista, such possibilities! You could accessorize your prosthetic limbs as Aimee Mullins does. Imagine a different set of legs or arms for casual, business, or formal events. Different shapes, sizes, colors, and designs to fit your mood or your lifestyle. You can even adjust your height (Aimee Mullins does) depending on the height of who you are dating (what would you say on those dating websites when asked for your height?).

Think of the future when many humans become some version of the the cyborgs of literature, film, and television (think Robocop, but, hopefully more huggable). Might previously labeled able-bodied humans become the physically challenged subset of our population and deserving of the sympathy of the new generations of technologically enhanced humans? Will the Olympics have two divisions: cyborgs and humans? Will the cyborgs try to cheat by saying they’re plain humans to win medals? That look into my crystal ball is a bit frightening, yet not so far fetched.

But let’s not get too carried away with the benefits of being physically challenged. This line of thinking works great if you’re just missing a limb or two. But not everyone with a disability can compete in the Olympics (or Paralympics). For many, life is a daily struggle. It’s a whole other story if you have, for example, a spinal injury causing you partial or total paralysis or you have brain damage or some other disability for which technological solutions may be in the works, but are still only a distant, science-fiction reality.

I think there’s little doubt that cyborg-like enhancements are an inevitable part of the future of humankind. Replacing body parts will become as commonplace as replacing parts on your automobile and enable us to live longer, more active lives.

Like the current communication technology upheaval, the prosthetic revolution will challenge us in so many ways. These advancements will alter the way we define what it means to be a “normal” human being and, in fact, cause us to change the way we think about what it means to be human: Is being human corporeal, intellectual, spiritual?

Though it will be an exciting time in the ongoing story of humanity, a big part of me is happy that I’ll be long dead before we have to face such complex questions. Unless, of course, science finds a way to upload my brain content to a 100% synthetic being. Will I still be human then? I just can’t go there now.

Are Youth Sports Controlling Your Family Life?

This article
 is a must-read for any parent struggling to maintain control over the runaway train known as youth sports in their family’s lives.

This is a topic that is near and dear to me because it is something that my wife and I are facing with our two daughters who are now 9 and 7.

Like so many parents, we want to our children to participate in youth sports to gain its many benefits including physical health, teamwork, and life skills. At the same time, we also want to make family time and downtime priorities in our family.

As we have researched different sports opportunities for our girls in our local community, it is clear that, unless you are willing to board that runaway train, there are few alternatives.

Plus, if our girls decide to have aspirations for playing a sport in high school or beyond, they must make an almost full-time commitment now or they will fall behind and never be able to catch up.

How is it that children are forced at a young age to make a massive commitment and specialize in a sport if they ever want to have hopes of being able to participate and be competitive when they become teenagers.

Does anyone think that this situation is unhealthy for both children and families?

Does anyone else think that this situation is insane?!?!

Why Isn’t Mental Training Treated the Same as Physical and Technical Training?

studentsportI’m coming to the end of what has turned out to be a three-week international tour of sport psychology. During my trips, I have worked with athletes and coaches from the U.S., Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Russia in Argentina, California, Oregon, and Switzerland. One question that has emerged during my travels involves the role of mental preparation in athletic development. But before I get to that question, let me provide some back story.

Whenever I speak to athletes and coaches, I ask them how important the mind is to sport success. With few exceptions, the response is that the mind is as or more important than the physical and technical side of sports. I am obviously biased given my work in sport psychology, so I won’t take a position on which I believe is more important. But I will say that the mind is an essential piece of the sport performance puzzle.

Consider the top-10 athletes, male or female, in any sport. Are they all gifted? Yes. Are they all in exceptional physical condition? Yes. Are they all technically sound? Yes. Do they all have the best equipment? Yes. So, on game day, what separates the best from those who are close, but can’t quite get to the top? All of these other factors being equal, it must be what goes on in their minds.

I will also add that, in the greater scheme of life, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that the mental side of sport is vastly more important than physical fitness and technical prowess, at least for young athletes. Why? Because, realistically speaking, relatively few athletes will make to the top of their sport. But, all of the attitudes, mental skills, and life lessons that athletes learn from their sport, for example, motivation, confidence, focus, perseverance, resilience, the ability to handle pressure, the list goes on, will serve them well in all aspects of their lives when they enter adulthood.

Yet, when I ask these same athletes and coaches how much time and energy is devoted to mental preparation, they indicate not very much and certainly not as much as it deserves.

Herein lies my question: Why isn’t mental training treated the same as physical and technical training? To be sure, sport psychology does have a presence in most sports. Sport psychologists work with many professional athletes and teams, as well as Olympic and collegiate teams. And I and many other sport psychologists work with youth programs in many sports around the U.S. and throughout the world.

Yet, when compared to its physical and technical counterparts, sport psychology clearly has  second-class status. While all sports programs and teams at every level of competition have full-time technical and conditioning coaches, few have full-time sport psychologists. Moreover, when sport psychology is offered to athletes, its presence is usually vastly different from the physical conditioning and technical regimens that athletes benefit from.

Let’s consider what makes physical conditioning and technical development effective and then compare it to the use of mental training in most sports settings today. Two key elements come to mind.

First, when athletes work out, they don’t just walk into the gym and do random strength or agility exercises. Instead, they engage in organized workouts based on a structured program that coaches believe will result in optimal physical preparedness for their sport. Similarly, when athletes go onto the field, court, course, or hill, they don’t just play around and hope to improve. Rather, they follow a technical progression based on their level of development. In sum, both the physical and technical components of athletic development have an organized program comprised of a framework and process that guides athletes systematically toward their goals.

Second, athletes wouldn’t get more fit if they worked out every few weeks. And their sport skills wouldn’t improve if they only practiced once a month. What enables athletes to get stronger and perform better is that they engage in physical and technical training consistently. Day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, athletes regularly put time and effort into their conditioning and technical work.

Using these two criteria—a structured program with a clearly defined progression and consistency—it’s pretty obvious that mental side of sport isn’t getting the attention it is due. Yes, many athletes get some exposure to sport psychology either through contact with sport psychologists or directly from their coaches. But, based on my own experience and feedback I have gotten from athletes, coaches, and parents around the country, this exposure, for almost all U.S. athletes, lacks both a structured program and any consistency that is essential for maximizing its value to their development.

So, is there an immediate answer to my original question: Why isn’t mental training treated the same as physical and technical training in sports? I have a few theories.

First, though sport psychology has been a field of study for more than 100 years, it has not been  a traditional part of training for most sports. Old attitudes, habits, and methods die hard and new approaches to improving athletic performance are not easily accepted. Perhaps it will take a new generation of coaches who have been exposed to sport psychology as competitors and then in their coaches’ education for the tide to turn toward wider acceptance and use of sport psychology with athletes.

Second, the reality is that the best athletes in the world have done pretty darned well without formal mental training. They simply developed mental skills through their training and competitive experiences. In contrast, I don’t think there has ever been a successful athlete who didn’t have a rigorous conditioning or technical program (at least not in the last 40 years). As a result, the need for structured mental training may not seem great. I would suggest, however, that for every successful athlete who develops mental toughness on their own, there are one or more who are equally talented and motivated to become successful, but need help in developing their mental capabilities.

Third, psychology lacks the concreteness of conditioning and technical training. You can readily see the areas in need of improvement physically and technically, for example, amount of weight lifted in the gym or technical problems revealed on video. The mental side of sport is not so easily seen, quantified, or measured. As a result, it’s harder to gauge where athletes are in different aspects of their mental preparation, what areas they need to work on, and any improvement that is made mentally.

Fourth, sport psychology can suffer from ‘guilt by association’ with the broader field of clinical psychology that still carries the stigma that only screwed-up people seek professional help. This perception, however inaccurate it is, can prevent athletes, coaches, and parents from seeing mental preparation for what it is, namely, an essential contributor to sports performance that must be developed proactively. This fear can also scare them away from getting sport psychology help when it is needed.

I predict that it will take some time before mental preparation receives the same attention as its physical and technical counterparts. But, as the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher, from the development level to the world stage, athletes and coaches will look for every opportunity to gain the competitive edge that separates success from failure. As the limits of physical conditioning and technique are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that sport psychology has to offer athletes. Only then will sport psychology, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and technical training as athletes strive to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve success in pursuit of their goals. I look forward to that day.

The Power of Words to Teach Compassion to Your Children

Words have a powerful influence on children. What we say and the words we use impact their thinking, emotions, and behavior. Early in children’s lives, emotions and behavior are the dominant forces that guide them. But as they develop their cognitive and verbal skills, words begin to play a leading role in their internal and outward lives.

We live in a world where compassion seems to be in short supply. Children are bullied and cyber bullied. Homeless people are beaten. The poor are blamed for their plight. You as parents can be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Your words can convey callousness and indifference. Or your words can communicate caring and warmth. You can use words to help your children to appreciate and instill the value of compassion in their minds and lives. One way to use words is to develop catchphrases that capture the meaning of compassion in a compelling and memorable way.

The catchphrase that we use to encourage compassion in our daughters (ages 9 and almost 7) is “sharing is caring.” I must admit that I didn’t make this one up. Rather, I stole it from my good friend, Dr. Glen Galaich, who was using it with his daughter (I did get his permission to steal the phrase from him). When our girls were very young and would share with each other or someone else (or when they didn’t!), we would tell them that “sharing is caring.” As they got older and they shared (or should share), I asked them, “Why do we share?” And they would respond, “Because sharing is caring.” We even heard them use the catchphrase with their friends who weren’t sharing. Catie and Gracie have also taken ownership of our catchphrase by being playful with it. When I ask them why we share, they will now say something like “Garing is laring” or “Haring is maring” and get a real kick out of it. But the important thing is that they know what it means. Now “sharing is caring” has become a part of our family’s vocabulary and a constant reminder of the importance of compassion and generosity.

Sonya and Ned have always felt that the most important time to be compassionate is when people (children and adults) do something wrong or hurt someone. That is obviously a frequent occurrence with children, whether hitting, saying something mean, or not sharing. Their catchphrase for compassion is “Sorry is kind.” Whenever one of their three children hurts a sibling or takes something from them, they have to say “I’m sorry for [add offense here], I wasn’t being kind.” Additionally, if their children physically hurt someone, they have to give them a gentle touch as well.

Rose believes that compassion arises from empathy, so she created a catchphrase, “Feel what they feel,” to help her son understand how others may feel when he isn’t kind. Whenever he did something that was unkind, for example, not sharing, she would say the catchphrase and then ask him “How would you feel if you wanted to play with a friend’s toy, but he didn’t want to share with you?” and “How would your friend feel if you shared with her?”

Ellen and Kristo also believe that empathy is the key to compassion and use a catchphrase with the same meaning as Rose’s. When their two daughters start blaming each other for something, Ellen and Kristo tell them to “Walk in their shoes.” The idea is that if they can put on their sister’s shoes, they can see her perspective and understand why she is reacting as she is. One of the funniest things that emerged out of this catchphrase is that, on several occasions, the two sisters actually exchange shoes and the conflict was resolved.

You are welcome to use one of the catchphrases described above. Or, better yet, create a catchphrase that has special meaning to your family. In either case, the power of the catchphrase is to weave it into the fabric of your family’s lives and use it often.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Wake-up Call for All Sports Parents

A compelling article in the New York Times titled All Played Out, written by an orthopedic surgeon and sports father, nails the problem with youth sports directly on the head.

Every parent of a young athlete should take a long and hard look in the mirror at why they have their children participating in sports.

The bottom line for me is that much of youth sports is no longer about kids, but about the profit-driven “youth-sports-industrial complex” and the ego-driven needs of parents.

Hey parents, time for a reset?

5 Messages to Instill Compassion in Your Children

Raising compassionate children is no small feat these days. Because of the egocentrism of children’s early years combined with the increasingly prevalent messages of selfishness, narcissism, and indifference that popular culture communicates to them, children are not likely to readily learn compassion on their own. This means that you have to make an extra effort to instill this essential value in your children’s lives.

Your children’s ability to care about others must be nurtured by you in their early years and woven into the very fabric of your family’s life. The wonderful thing about compassion is that there are so many conduits through which you can communicate its messages that can impact your children. When you immerse your children in a sea of messages of compassion, they are all but assured of getting the messages loud and clear.

Live a Compassionate Life

You send the most powerful messages about compassion to your children by living and expressing those messages in your own life. If you lead a compassionate life, your children will get this message frequently and consistently, and will likely internalize it in their own lives.

Expressions of compassion in your life are communicated to your children in several ways, both obvious and subtle. Your children, particularly when they’re young, will most notice the larger compassionate acts you engage in, for example, volunteering your time for a worthy cause or traveling a long distance to support a family member in need. As your children get older and begin to grasp the subtleties of compassion, they will also see the smaller expressions of compassion you make, such as comforting them when they scrape their knee or assuming dinner duties when your spouse is stressed out from work. Even smaller acts of compassion for example, being kind to a waiter at a restaurant, offer your children more subtle lessons about the depth and breadth of living a compassionate life.

Also, when you express emotions related to compassion (e.g., empathy, kindness) and the emotions you feel when you act compassionately (e.g., satisfaction, pride), you show your children what they will feel when they act compassionately. At first, you may need to tell your children about the emotions you feel, but, as they learn and ingrain the emotional connection, they will be able to sense them from you directly.

Surround Yourself With Compassionate People

As your children expand their social world, the messages from others become increasingly influential. You can actively create a critical mass of people and institutions that will support and reinforce your messages of compassion. The neighborhoods in which you live, the other families with whom you socialize, the schools your children attend, and the activities in which your children participate are all a part of your children’s “message environment” over which you can exert an influence. When you surround your children with like-minded people you not only ensure that your children get supportive messages from many different sources, but those people also act as a shield against unwanted messages directed toward them.

Talk to Your Children About Compassion

As your children mature, you can begin to talk to them directly about compassion. This conduit enables them to develop an intellectual understanding of what compassion is and the role it can play in their lives. Explain what compassion is and why it is important to them, your family, and the world as a whole. The way to really reinforce this message is to offer your children examples of compassion. Point out ways in which your children can express compassion in your family, for example, being kind to their siblings. You can also highlight ways they can show compassion toward their community and the world at large such as donating old clothes to charity.

Explore Compassion

Raising your children’s awareness and understanding of compassion is not going to be accomplished in one or even a few conversations. Instead, this process is an ongoing dialogue in which you regularly engage your children with discussions and experiences related to compassion. You can search for examples of compassion—or its opposites, indifference and hatred—in various forms of media, for example, newspapers, magazines, and the Web will offer daily examples of compassion.

As your children gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of compassion, you can further engage them with other resources, for example, books, television shows, films, and lectures that describe acts of compassion in greater depth and give your children the opportunity to more fully delve into its many facets. The goal of these many and diverse forms of messaging is to evoke in your children the thoughts, emotions, and calls to action that will make compassion a part of who they are and the way they live.

Engage Your Children in Compassionate Activities

There is no more powerful way of sending messages of compassion to your children than by having them experience it directly through compassionate activities. You can encourage acts of compassion in your family, for example, consoling a sibling who is upset or being extra loving when you have the flu.

You can make compassionate activities family affairs in which all of you participate, for example, fostering an abandoned pet. You can then talk about the experiences over dinner to share stories, discuss who and how everyone might have helped most, and to share the feelings that the experience evoked.

There are many benefits to this direct experience. Your children put a human face on their acts of compassion and see first hand its impact on those they are helping. Your children also experience the emotions associated with compassion, including empathy, caring, and satisfaction, with immediacy and intensity. And they meet and interact with others who value compassion, thus providing an additional conduit for your messages of compassion.

Who Compassionate Children Become

Compassion is such a wonderful attribute because it is the wellspring of so many other special qualities, for example, kindness, love, and generosity, that not only help your children become just plain decent people, but also will serve them so well in so many aspects of their lives.

Compassionate children are gentle, considerate, and sympathetic. They are responsive to others’ needs, helpful, and motivated to do good. Compassionate children are also generous and willing to give of themselves to others. Children who express compassion are loved, valued, and respected and, when they grow up, become extraordinary friends, co-workers, spouses, and parents. What makes compassion so wonderful for children is that its expression is a win-win for those involved. The giver feels the satisfaction of giving and the receiver expresses appreciation and will likely reciprocate in some way with that person and others.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Disruptive Innovation May Not Be That Disruptive

Disruption is certainly in vogue these days in the business world. Yet, an interesting and contrarian article in The New Yorker  challenges the conventional wisdom that disruptive innovation actually work. The writer debunks much of the findings of the Harvard professor and business guru Clayton Christensen that businesses and industries evolve or die through disruptive innovation.