A Better Way To Treat Anxiety

The title of a recent Wall Street Journal article about exposure therapy. 1.8 million young people, or nearly 10% in the U.S., experience anxiety disorders of some sort. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Virginia Tech and other institutions are finding that slowly exposing children to the things they are anxious about, at an early point in treatment, can be highly effective in helping them overcome anxiety.

Stephen Whiteside, a  Mayo pediatric psychologist, in the article:

When parents help children to escape from feared situations, anxiety symptoms may worsen and children frequently become more impaired.

Exposure therapy explained. Also verbatim from the article:

1) Children are gradually exposed early in treatment to things and situations they fear, and parents receive training as ‘exposure coaches’. Instead of avoiding things, the child begins to learn new ways to behave.

2) Don’t overreact. If your child is complaining or distressed about an upcoming situation—say a math test—tell him you understand how upsetting it is but you are going to be very proud of him for trying.

3) Save the praise. Praise the child only after she actually takes a step toward dealing with her fear, such as germs (‘You did a great job of riding the bus on the field trip.’)

4) One step at a time. Encourage your child to take small steps toward a goal, such as visiting an airport in advance of a scheduled flight.

5) Encourage decision making. Let your child make some choices on his own, such as whether to walk past a dog or visit a house where there is a dog.

6) Grin and bear it. Encourage your child in situations that might involve her fears, such as conversing with strangers—even if you think she might become upset or make a scene.

7) Positive reinforcement. Communicate that you are confident that your child can accomplish the goal, such as separating from the family for a camping trip. Tell her it will get easier every time she does something new.

Number five reminds me that when I was young, I was deathly afraid of dogs. In the sixties, with three older sibs, I was left to my own to work it out. Less intelligent than the dogs that scared the sh*t out of me, I tried to outrun a few. Which of course only made things much, much worse. Now, I’m happy to report, the family sometimes worries I may be too close to one particular doggie.

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Spare me the “guess marijuana really is legal in Washington” jokes. It’s early.

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Give Poor Students Computers and Watch Nothing Happen

What happened when researchers gave computers to randomly selected California schoolkids whose families had no computer at home? In short, nothing.

Matthew Yglesias reports:

. . . kids reported an almost 50 percent increase in time spent using a computer, with the time divided between doing homework, playing games, and social network. But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

More Yglesias:

We know that kids from higher-income households do much better in school than poor kids. But that of course raises the question of why that is exactly or what one might do about it. . . If access to home computers was associated with improved school performance, that would be strong evidence that simply fighting poverty with money could be highly effective education policy. The null finding tends to suggest otherwise, that the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement in the instructional process that—unlike computers—can’t be purchased on the open market.

Forget the “may be”. That is how high-income families help their kids in school. We also know kindergartners begin school with serious differences in vocabulary based upon their parents’ socio-economic status. Some kids luck out with two parents, one who might stay at home with them. When they’re not napping, they’re talking. Less television, more talking, much more extensive vocabulary. Think of that above-average age 5 vocabulary as kindling in the fireplace of formal schooling.

“Direct parental involvement in the instructional process” takes many forms. When I went to my youngest daughter’s first field trip when she was five, at a local farm, there were 24 pipsqueaks and 36 parents. We had the kindergartners and animals outnumbered. High-income parents volunteer in their children’s primary schools, they regularly meet with their teachers, they read to their children at night, they (especially grandparents) buy them books by the bushel, they organize school fundraisers, they make sure their school is well supplied, they monitor homework, and they hire tutors, counselors, and related specialists when something is amiss. Most recipients of that type of care think, “I don’t want to let them down.” Think of that resolve as the matches in the fireplace of formal schooling.

Social capital is the network of already well educated people—both within and outside one’s family—who collectively create positive momentum in well-to-do families. Often, it’s subtle, nuanced, and indirect. College-related stories are told at dinner, a new job or promotion is discussed, older siblings succeed. Achievement is assumed. At other times, it’s anything but subtle and nuanced as when a family member or influential family friend asks acquaintances in high places to grant an interview, internship, or job.

Given this dilemma, conservatives argue that spending more money on low-income students is pointless. Progressives draw a different conclusion. We gladly accept the Right’s premise that equal opportunity is essential, but we point out what they conveniently ignore. We can’t have equal opportunity writ large if young people don’t enjoy equal educational opportunity.

And since schools don’t have the wherewithal to level the pre-natal to before school playing field, or balance parent school involvement, or equalize social capital, it’s imperative that school’s compensate for societal inequalities that are not the fault of low-income students. If free computers aren’t that answer, what is? Some possibilities: smaller classes, the best teachers (who usually teach the best students); summer remediation programs; community-based internships and mentors; and longer school days/years.

All of those together won’t close the academic achievement gap. At best, they’ll partially reduce it.

A Peace Corp for Geeks

Call me inconsistent. I’m skeptical of the new national religion, data analysis, but a huge fan of Code for America, a Peace Corp for geeks. Code for America recruits young tech savvy entrepreneurs to improve government. Participants take a year-long leave from their IT positions and earn $35,000, way more than a Peace Corp volunteer, but way less than normal for them.

This ten minute NewsHour segment shows wonderfully diverse, socially aware people with serious technical chops solving real problems like helping homeless people find the services they most need.

A salve for my cynicism. Here’s hoping it achieves Peace Corp-like status some day.

See These Films

1) Mud. 2) Take Shelter. 3) A Place at the Table.

Like most everyone, when I plop down big bucks to see a film, I want to be be transported far from my familiar surroundings. But I most enjoy believable stories, so films set in outer-space, or featuring cataclysmic events, or starring super-heroes don’t really do it for me. Which means I usually seek out independent films that play at our one screen, decrepit, “hippy” theatre.

Friday night, Costco coupons in hand, Ms. PressingPause and I were standing in a longish line at the local cineplex. Knowing Ironman 3, Oblivion, Star Trek into Darkness, and Hip Hop Hemingway were about to start, I said, “None of these people are seeing Mud.” What a shame that I was right.

Worth every bit of our $15. The Jeff Nichols film transports you to rural Arkansas a decade or so ago. Think river life, snakes, boat engines, beans and franks, motorcycles, pick up trucks, Piggly Wigglies, and snakes. So damn authentic it reminded me of Winter’s Bone. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to Hollywood’s steady diet of intelligence insulting romantic comedies. See it for the cross cultural experience and for a greater appreciation for just how hard it is to find and nurture love.

Afterwards, for an incredibly poignant window into mental illness, find and watch another phenomenal Jeff Nichols film. Take Shelter (2007).

A Place at the Table is a powerful documentary that explores hunger in America. It will be available via instant streaming on Netflix sometime in June. See it to meet some hungry families, to better understand hunger’s underlying causes, and to learn about solutions. Given our economically segregated neighborhoods, it’s easy to lose touch with hungry people. I see that disconnect in some of my friends and in myself. The lack of understanding largely explains the associated lack of empathy. The further removed from experiencing hunger you are, the more important it is you see the film.

Lots of new readers last week. Welcome and thanks for the continuing support.

Why I Ignore Stock Market Doomsayers

Doomsayer—a person who predicts impending misfortune or disaster. Mike, a good friend and running partner, is a stock market doomsayer. Routinely, like this morning, he tells me to sell. The doomsayers are certain that the mother of all corrections is right around the corner.

What Mike and his ilk get wrong is that when it comes to personal finance, the value of the Dow, the S&P, and the Nasdaq aren’t nearly as important as one’s income, investment income, expenses, and “historical risk return”.

If you asked me to help you with your personal finances, I’d want to know four things. 1) What’s your take home pay? 2) If any, what’s your annual passive income? 3) On average, how much do you spend each month? 4) If any, how much of any stock market-based investments can you accept losing in the next few days?

1) Annual income. This is straight forward. In the new economy, nearly everyone’s challenge is increasing it without working inhumane hours. That’s why people continue their education, work hard for promotions, and sometimes decide to work long hours.

2) Passive income. This is the money your savings generate. Nearly everyone’s challenge is increasing it in our zero interest rate world. Historically, cash has generated 3-5%. Today money markets and certificate of deposits earn pennies, so when adjusted for inflation, they’re slowly losing value. That’s why people invest in stocks, bonds, and real estate. Passive income includes stock and bond dividends, capital gains, and rental income. I also consider company matches a type of passive income. And social security for the 67+ set.

3) Average monthly expenses. Few people know this. Start keeping track of every dollar you spend using MINT or something similar and then read this recent blog post from Mr. Money Mustache, The Principle of Constant Optimization, for a great tutorial on managing spending. In particular, I second this suggestion:

Make a list of your ten biggest monthly expenses and tape it to your fridge, just so you know they are all there, constantly using up your money, so they had darned well be worth the resources they are consuming. If they are worth the expense, continue to enjoy them. If they are not, optimize them away. Look at your daily routine from an outsider’s perspective, and figure out if you are really getting the most value from each one of your hours.

4) Historical risk return. Where I invest, I can see my entire portfolio online. And with one link I can see a detailed analysis of my holdings including the all important “historical risk return (1926-2012)”. Right now it says the worst year an investor with my assest allocation has experienced is -17.2% in 1931. Ironically, it also says investors with my asset allocation have experienced losses in 15 of those 87 years or 17.2% of the time. So if I round up, on average, I have to expect to lose money every fifth year. Also, if I have $100,000 invested, I have to be prepared for that to turn into $82,800 overnight. That’s the price of admission to a historic stock market run up.

Here’s what the stock market doomsayers won’t acknowledge. As of May 15, 2013, the S&P 500 is up 141.5% since March 5, 2009. While they’ve been crying wolf, someone that had $100,000 invested in the S&P 500 on March 5, 2009 now has $241,500. Here’s what you won’t hear the doomsayers say, “We missed a historic rally because we we’re too afraid of the downside.”

Nor will you hear them say this truism, they’re not smart enough to time the market. Despite Mike’s dire warnings, I’m going to stay partially invested in stocks because I can accept a 17.2% historical risk return in exchange for what my portfolio analysis reveals to be my 87 year average rate of return, 7.6%.

Tune out the doomsayers and forget trying to time the market. Instead, control what you can. Most importantly, whether your earned income and passive income regularly exceed your expenses.

A Key to Intellectual Vitality

Physical fitness results from two things, engaging in physical activity until muscles break down, and replenishing the body with healthy food and rest, especially sleep. As a result of this pattern, one’s muscles spring back a little bit stronger.

In similar fashion, intellectual vitality results from serious consideration of ideas that challenge one’s worldview. Instead of muscles breaking down, one’s assumptions do. Dan Dan the Transportation Man reminded me of this recently. DDTM is a good friend with whom I run about 25-30 miles a week. He’s the Federal Government’s boss man for Washington State’s freeways. Which means whenever anyone in our running posse gets stuck in traffic, we give him shit.

At the end of a recent run, he excitedly told me about a bold traffic experiment taking place in a small town in Northwest England. Here’s the introduction to the story:

No traffic lights. No traffic signs. No painted lines in the roadway. No curbs. And 26,000 vehicles passing every day through a traditional village center with busy pedestrian traffic.

It’s called “shared space.” Is it insanity, or the most rational way to create a pleasant place where drivers, cyclists, and people on foot all treat each other with respect?

The village of Poynton in the U.K. has undertaken one of the most ambitious experiments to date in this type of street design. . . .Variations on the shared-space model have been implemented in other European cities since the early 1990s, but never before at such a busy junction. Poynton’s city leaders sought the change because the historic hub of their quaint little town had become a grim and unwelcoming place.

After explaining the concept of “shared space”, Dan said, “It challenges everything I’ve always thought to be true about traffic planning.” Intrigued, he’s wondering whether some elements of the concept can be applied in Washington State. It speaks well of his intellect that he’s open to entirely new ways of thinking.

That sounds elementary, but it’s not. Increasingly, people surround themselves with like-minded people. We suffer from intense intellectual insecurities so birds of a political feather fly together. Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats read different periodicals and blogs, watch different cable television news programs, and listen to different radio stations. Then on the weekend they socialize with people whose politics affirm their own.

As a result, intellectual laziness prevails. It’s not nearly as obvious as our suspect physical health, but our intellectual well-being is just as bad. It’s impossible to maintain any kind of intellectual vitality in an echo chamber. We must exercise our minds by reading material and talking to people who we know see the world differently than us. For example, this weekend I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal article titled “The Inconvenient Truth about Benghazi” (nearing 3,000 comments).

Many of my liberal friends wouldn’t read the article because it appears in Rupert Murdoch’s paper and they’ve disagreed with things Noonan’s written in the past. We write one another off, on both the left and the right, all the time. I’m guessing most of my liberal friends would give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt regarding their initial explanation and believe the mainstream media already accurately reported the story. I found Noonan’s article well reasoned; cogent; and in the end, quite damning. My intellect is better for having considered her perspective.

Live differently. Test your assumptions and exercise your mind. Your intellectual vitality is at stake.

How to Help Young Graduates Flourish

High school and college graduation approaches. How will the graduates you know fare in the “real world”?

Historically, parents assumed their children would live more economically secure, comfortable, and enjoyable lives than themselves. Now, as a result of heightened global economic competition, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and higher education and health care inflation, many parents worry about whether their new graduates will live as well as them.

Apart from the vagaries of the national and global economy, and health care and higher education inflation, what will determine how the new graduates fare? Many believe people’s success is a result of their initiative, ability, and work ethic. Others highlight the importance of family background, gender, and ethnicity. I believe it’s both/and. 

But there’s one other indispensable variable—the vision young graduates have of their future. More specifically, how positive that vision is. Can they picture themselves educated, healthy, doing meaningful work, fulfilled? I wish I could interview all four hundred graduates at Olympia High School to discover patterns and themes in their personal visions. “Describe your 25 year old self,” I’d start. Initially at least, many would stare blankly at me, but with follow up questions and disciplined listening, I’d learn a lot.

Parents worry. Incessantly. Will their children be able to afford to continue their education and graduate college? Will they find a job that pays a livable wage? Will they have medical benefits? Are they going to manage money wisely? Will they avoid the pitfalls of addiction? Will they enjoy good mental and physical health? Will they make friends upon which they can depend? Will they be okay? Understandably, many young people internalize their parents’ anxiety.

One thing determines whether a young person enters the “real world” with a positive vision of their future—whether the adults they interact with on a daily basis transmit hope for the future. If young graduates are surrounded by people who live as if “things are getting better” the more likely they are to flourish.

This isn’t just positive thinking bullshit. What does it mean to live as if things are getting better? It means denying one self day-to-day in the interest of the future vision. People with positive visions get up and go to work and save money. They eat healthily. They exercise. Their careful with their money, meaning they spend most of it on essentials. They take care of their possessions. They care for the environment by picking up trash, recycling, and reducing their energy consumption. They volunteer their time to make others’ lives better. They live their day-to-day lives mindful of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. And other people’s children and grandchildren.

Some young graduates are surrounded by adults—older siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth pastors, neighbors—with positive visions of a better future. Adults who unwittingly teach delayed gratification. Those young grads can’t help but get caught up in the positive momentum. Their grades and test scores aren’t that important. Or how prestigious their college. They’ll be okay.

Others are surrounded by adults living day-to-day without any vision for a better future. They don’t have a feel for delayed gratification, and therefore, can’t help but get caught up in the negative momentum. They’ll struggle.

Give a graduate the best gift possible this year, model a positive vision of the future.