PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS, STORYTELLING

Beliefs (Not Facts) Inform Behaviour

Take the Example of the Flu and COVID-19

We are so busy that it is impossible for us to deeply investigate each headline. These headlines, by the way, are designed to scream a soundbite at us to believe and then repeat. This morning on the news, we heard once again that the flu numbers were much lower than in previous years. But why? And how do we KNOW why that is? AND how does that impact our behaviour?

Everyone has their own theories depending on their set of beliefs. If you believe that COVID is a hoax, you insist that everything is being counted as a COVID death even when the death should be counted as something else. You may find Facebook postings or Tweets from nurses that confirm this. The lower number of flu deaths would support that belief, because a flu death being counted as a COVID death means that the flu numbers would of course be lower than before. 

If you feel that masks and social distancing prevent transmission of disease, you will attribute the lower flu numbers to our COVID prevention behaviours. You would point to articles from WHO or Public Health. Facts support our own beliefs. 

But how did we get to our beliefs?

We’d like to think that we are rational people who end up with beliefs based on fact.  A lot of our beliefs were taught to us and we believe them unconsciously. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Our experience and constructs interact and we end up with beliefs that are confirmed or challenged by new interactions. Many of us feel that science and research form the basis of our understanding of the world, while others point to conflicting studies, changing advice from healthcare providers, or pharmaceutical firms lobbying governments. In any case, we all prefer to be in our echo chambers seeking information that confirms our biases.

In the case of COVID and the flu, complicating all that is how facts are collected, recorded, analyzed, and reported. How are rules interpreted by the frontline? How consistent is the data being collected? What else is happening? Who is funding the newspaper reporting the news? What is their political stance? And more importantly — WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING!? How do these facts inform our behaviour?

After reading all the different articles out there1, I reluctantly realized that the reality is that I firmly believe that the flu and COVID are transmitted in similar ways. Therefore, I believe that if we do things like wear masks, wash our hands, and socially distance, we can lower the risks of transmitting both the flu and COVID. I staunchly believe that masks and social distancing help us protect each other from our respective germs.

What does that have to do with parenting?

We often have a set of beliefs about our children. Their behaviour over time supports that belief or surprises us, which then may cause us to adjust our beliefs.  However, humans don’t really like to have our beliefs challenged. It causes cognitive dissonance (holding two opposing thoughts at the same time) that can be anxiety-inducing. So sometimes we get defensive (maybe even go on the offensive) to protect our ego and beliefs.

Let’s say we believe that our kids are lazy.

There is some truth to that anyways, as humans are designed to conserve energy.  But then we see everything they do (or don’t do) as a confirmation that they are lazy, which then adds layers and layers of stress, because how in the world are they going to become successful contributing members of society if they are lazy? We have to change them! They need to buck up and be less lazy! 

So then, what do we do? We tell them to stop being lazy. And what do they do? They get defensive about being labeled lazy because of such-and-such an excuse/reason. However, if they hear the word “lazy” enough, labeling them, they will embrace that, Oh, I must be lazy and in order not to be lazy, I have to work very hard, which I don’t want to do right this moment, so I’m not going to. Which triggers our fears again. And on it goes. They behave exactly the way we feared they would.

It is our responsibility to break that cycle. (If we don’t, we just pass it on and they will have to break the cycle when they become adults.) We need to always challenge our beliefs about our children. Be aware that our natural tendency is to take a behaviour and use it to justify our beliefs. Instead, we can wonder what else is going on. I’ve learned that a lot of times they have some barrier that I didn’t know or understand until we dug into a bit more. More of than not, their “excuse” was actually quite legitimate, and by listening carefully and working with them to remove those barriers (such as being tired or fearing the consequences), they have become a lot more willing to get done what I think is important to get done.

Let’s say that we believe our kids are addicted to playing video games.

If we believe that there is no educational benefit to video games and that it’s bad for their brains, we will become quite stressed out at their “addiction” to playing video games. We will worry that they are wasting their time and that they cannot control their urges to do what is fun as opposed to what they should do. So we nag, scold, limit, and tell them that they shouldn’t be addicted to video games.

It’s important to observe them carefully without bias whenever possible. I started noticing how much more interactive video games are nowadays and how complicated they are. It requires a great deal of problem solving, collaboration, and hand-eye coordination to play these games. They are learning leadership and followership skills that they might have gotten in the olden days when kids ran wild until sundown. COD, R6S, Among Us, Fall Guys, Animal Crossing, Roblox, and Minecraft are actually amazingly interactive games where the kids grow as people.  I’m really impressed with how much they learn and how excited they are explaining very complex things to me.

Let’s say we are worried they will fall behind everyone else. The Tiger Mom in me wants them to be really good at math, competent swimmers, perfectly tri-lingual, dedicated to a martial art, and talented at a musical instrument.  But why? Because I want them to be successful as adults. When they were little, I made them do math programs, weekend Chinese school, and take swimming, kung fu and piano lessons. I drove them around and yelled at them to practice everything. At one point in time, they would hear me coming and leave the room so that they didn’t have to hear me lecture them. We were stressed all the time.

I quickly realized that the stress I put on them was causing problems with our relationship and they were starting to hate the things I wanted them to be good at! They were internalizing the stress and what failures they were for not meeting my expectations. They feared me and flipped between trying to please me and trying to escape all that I wanted them to do. All the activities were not getting them to where I wanted them to be.

Rest and Restart

It was time for a reboot and a review of what my beliefs and ensuing behaviours were actually doing. I realized that I don’t need them to be excellent at things. I want them to learn how to learn, experience improvement, and to desire excellence. None of what/how I was doing was getting us there. So we started over and I took them out of their activities and let them pick what they were interested in exploring. Now we choose things together that we want to invest in and I don’t (consciously at least, ha ha) give them any pressure to have to be good at it. Ironically, that seems to free them up to want to be good at it.

So far my kids are: decent at math, competent swimmers, reluctant to learn languages, and lovers of pop music and computer games. They are very adept at PC software (one can even build a PC from scratch), are learning to code, like to host Discord parties, and will challenge my husband or me if they disagree with our opinions. They can hold their own when conversing with other kids or even adults. They have their own ideas and aren’t afraid to voice them. 

Do I think they will be successful adults? I believe they will know how to set their own goals, develop thoughtful plans, and work well with people to get where they want to go. I believe they will know how to be healthy and happy. I believe they will be fine.

That’s successful enough for me.

1Readings about this topic:

From WHO: “WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard From the Canadian Government, Public Health: “Overview of influenza monitoring in Canada From Texas’ KXXV: “Healthy habits urged during COVID-19 also help prevent spread of flu” by Halle Jones, November 16, 2020 From New York Post: “Drop in flu deaths may indicate that most at risk died from COVID-19” by Melanie Gray, October 24, 2020 From United Press International: “COVID-19 prevention may lead to record low flu rates, CDC says” by Dennis Thompson, September 18, 2020 From Yahoo!life: “Can the Flu Shot Help Protect Against COVID-19? The Answer May Surprise You” by Dominique Michelle Astorino, August 27, 2020 From AFP Fact Check: “CDC does not add flu and pneumonia deaths to COVID-19 toll” by Clare Savage, June 23, 2020 From Arkansas’ Baxter Bulletin: “Statistically speaking: COVID-19 vs. flu” by Dr. Steve Parsons and Dr. Susan Parson, April 1, 2020 From WHO: “WHO launches new global influenza strategy” March 11, 1919