You Are the Food You Think About

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There’s such a thing as “fast food thinking.”

There’s plenty of evidence that food choices affect our behavior. But here we’re talking about what happens when we simply think of fast food.

You don’t even have to eat fast food to see behavior changes. It merely has to cross your mind.

We think we’re in charge of our choices. Our moods. Our long-term goals.

Apparently not.

Marketers work hard to shape consumer behavior. They use neuroscience findings to figure out how to attract our attention. They use psychological research to manipulate our needs. Of course we rationalize, “I’m the exception. I know my own mind. Just thinking about fast food can’t affect me.”

Chances are, it does.

A three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Wonder why we all feel hurried? In the first experiment of the three-part study, half of the participants were shown subliminal images of six fast-food chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s). The images were seen only twice, for just 12 milliseconds — much faster than the conscious mind can recognize. Participants who were exposed to these subliminal images rushed through tasks even though they were under no time pressure.

Wonder why eco-friendly, well-made products aren’t top sellers? In the next experiment, participants were asked to recall a recent fast-food meal before rating products. When they did so, they were more likely to choose time-saving as the best rationale for making a purchase over other factors, such as environmental friendliness, aesthetics, or quality.

Wonder what happened to saving money? In the final experiment, participants who briefly looked at fast-food logos were much more likely, when considering compound interest, to choose a small payout immediately rather than wait for a larger payout later.

Children are even more at risk from this “fast-food thinking.” Because their brains are still developing through the teen years, young people are much more vulnerable to techniques used by marketers. Child-development experts see all kinds of detrimental effects, including what psychologist Allen D. Kanner calls the “narcissistic wounding” of children.

The problem is more, much more, than fast food. It has to do with a daily bombardment by messages telling us we should have it all and have it quickly — even though neither leads to greater happiness. As Robert V. Levine noted in A Geography of Time, people actually feel more impatient when they have access to time-saving devices.

There are benefits to waiting. Things like patience and a rush of pleasure when what you’ve been anticipating is finally ready. Picking apples together, cutting them, and baking them into a pie takes time. The smell of the crust breaking under your fork and the shared exclamation as you take the first bites together: bliss.

This experience can’t compare to a McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve.

What we eat and how we eat may no longer satisfy one of our deepest hungers: the desire for connection to people, place, and culture. We see the results of that separation in our health and environment.

Contrast these slogans:

  • “Have it Your Way” (Burger King)
  • “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s)
  • “Your Way, Right Away” (Burger King)
  • “What you want is what you get” (McDonald’s)
  • “You can eat great, even late” (Wendy’s)

with this thought:

“As you eat, know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding the soul’s longing for life, its timeless desire to learn the lessons of earthly existence — love and hate, pleasure and pain, fear and faith, illusion and truth — through the vehicle of food. Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”  ~Marc David

Living in a fast-food society changes more than our eating habits. As that recent study indicated, we unconsciously hurry other aspects of our lives as well. When we find ourselves “getting through” anything to get on to the next thing, we’re ignoring the here and now. We’re ignoring our lives as they are in this moment.

Let’s think instead of fast food as a metaphor, a symbol showing us that there’s another way to experience what’s right in front of us.

 

Originally published in Culinate 

fast food behavior, food related behavior,

A McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve can’t compare to sharing a slice of home-baked pie with a friend. (image: pixabay.com)

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

child

School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

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Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

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Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

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Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

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Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

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Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

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I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities

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Helping out early=long term success. (Image: 2.0 clogozm)

Years ago my two older kids, about seven and nine at the time, were getting ready to wash the floor. A neighbor girl knocked at the door asking to play. When my son told her he was going to wash the floor first she begged to be included. Although this girl had more monetary advantages than my children could have imagined (summer camp, private skating lessons, hundreds of TV channels) she was entranced. She’d never seen kids doing chores, let alone kids in charge of cleaning a floor. She pitched right in as they scooted furniture out of the way, then swept. I gave them a bucket of slightly soapy water and they went to work with rags, scooting across the wet floor on their knees like crabs, giggling as the floor got wetter and their scooting became sloshy sliding. Their method didn’t matter to me. I was holding the baby and diverting the toddler while peeling potatoes and finishing up a work-related call. I was pretty sure the floor would be somewhat cleaner when they were done. They dried it with towels, moved the furniture back with appropriate grunting and groaning, then slumped on the couch. They looked entirely relaxed, as people do when satisfied with a job well done. When I got off the phone I came in to thank them. They were admiring how the floor caught the light and cautioning our toddler to keep his sippy cup on the table.

After that day the neighbor girl asked if she could do chores every time she came over. It seemed funny at the time, but I think now that she recognized she’d been missing the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie found in working together.

The floors aren’t spotless in my house. The bathrooms are also far from perfect. But I’m totally at peace with this. That’s because my kids handle much of the cleaning around here. I’m happy to do the cooking (or more truthfully I have control issues about what goes into the food my family eats). And I don’t mind being the family laundry wench, although I know kids are capable of handling their own laundering tasks. But in the spirit of “we’re all in this together” I’ve expected my kids to handle a sizeable share of household (and farm) work ever since they were small. I still do.

Timing

Start your chefs early. (Image: woodleywonderworks)

Actually, starting young is the key. When toddlers beg to help fold laundry or wash the car with us it’s easier to send them off to play so we can get the job done ourselves. But this is exactly the time to foster a child’s natural helpfulness.

It’s also a powerful way to promote positive development in all sorts of areas. Research shows that children who participated in household tasks starting at age three or four were more likely to succeed in adulthood. I’m talking big success like educational completion, meeting career goals, and maintaining good relationships with family and friends. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities.

And waiting until children were older can backfire. We tend to spend a lot on activities and products for our children assuming this enriches their lives but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.

Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with cooking toys, he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but a child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.

Movement and Hands-on Experience

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Movement builds bodies and brains. (Image: spacecadet)

Helping out engages young children in activities that promote movement-cued development. This includes large motor activities like digging in the garden, carrying a watering can, putting away groceries, and sweeping with a broom. It also includes fine motor tasks like using a screwdriver and tearing lettuce for a salad.

Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who regularly engages with manipulatives (arranging veggies on a platter, setting the table, sorting socks) and applies real-world math (measuring and pouring coffee beans in the grinder, taking things apart and putting them together, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts when they are introduced later. These movement-based tasks are also closely linked to the brain development necessary for reading and writing. (Find out more about this in Sally Goddard Blythe’s wonderful book, The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning.)

 

Growing as a Person and a Family

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Shared tasks build relationships. (Image: Appalachia Service Project)

Children accustomed to flashy toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it they’re bored. The slower pace of yard and household tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried or left out. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, slow down so you can make working together enjoyable. Letting a small child spread peanut butter, cut sandwiches, and pour milk into cups from a small pitcher affirms the value of the present moment. It also makes an ordinary lunch into a tea party.

The benefits don’t end for older children. Hands-on experience in all sorts of tasks and hobbies promotes learning, builds character, and helps to form the basis of our future selves. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers he found many credited their expertise to attributes learned through hands-on activities. In his book, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Wilson emphasizes that resourcefulness and self-definition arise from the use of our hands more than from the dictates of our educational system.

In a way, doing tasks together puts parent and child on more even ground. So often we parents are rushing to schlep our kids to practice or lessons or other kid-oriented events, making them the pivot around which a family’s activities revolve. Taking part in regular tasks together, even if we’re pulling weeds on opposite sides of the garden, affirms the sort of mutuality that advertisers tell us is only found in pricey vacations. Of course time afterwards for a nice game of hoops and some cold lemonade builds bonds too.

As our children grow, doing tasks together can continue to strengthen our relationships. Moments of meaningful interaction happen easily when washing dishes, folding laundry, fixing the car, or walking the dog together. Working on shared chores helps a child’s contemplative side emerge, prompting discussions that may never have happened otherwise. This is true between parent and child as well as between siblings. I remember my mother bemoaning the arrival of our dishwasher because we no longer took turns washing and drying, ending a relaxed half hour of post-dinner conversation each evening.

It’s easy to make these activities a tradition. Teenagers who have always helped out when a parent puts on snow tires, cleans out the basement for a yearly garage sale, or cans pickles may grumble when asked, but chances are they’d feel excluded if left out too. In part, who we are is defined by what we do. Growing up with hands-on lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, and working towards a goal helps to shape character. And it transforms pickle-making from drudgery to an important family ritual.

Delayed Gratification

early responsibility for success in adulthood,

Labor’s fruits may seen a long way off. (Image: OakleyOriginals)

This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.

We model delayed gratification each time we choose to work for a later or larger goal. This includes saving, making do, and making it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family pitches in to rake a neighbor’s leaves while she’s recovering from a broken hip. We teach it when we let a child see that if he doesn’t do the laundry when it’s his turn, there won’t be a clean team shirt to wear to the game. And we show that it’s expected every time our kids pitch in with the ordinary jobs necessary to run a household.

This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification.

This is pivotal for success. Multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) found that children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals. Delayed gratification is also related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community.

Expecting children and teens to take an active part in running a household gives them plenty of opportunity to gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may seem like returning to the old adage, work first, play later, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

Skill building

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Loud chores are more awesome. (Image: Appalachia Service Project)

Regular tasks allow our children to see for themselves how the world works. They grasp principles of science and math as a seed becomes a tree, as boards are transformed into bookshelves, as flour and yeast turn into bread. They develop traits such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors of their own. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as our children become proficient at the jobs necessary to sustain their families, they also see themselves as capable. That perception transfers across all endeavors.

There’s no denying that children who participate pick up useful skills. They see that maintenance is easier than waiting till the car or laptop breaks. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. While they are making real contributions to running the household they’re actively learning how to cook, launder, clean, make repairs, maintain a vehicle, budget expenses, and handle other tasks which are essential for an independent life once they’re adults. Wonderful lessons in cause and effect are reinforced when children complete work and benefit from the results. Seeing oneself as an agent of useful change, priceless.

They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four or 40, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy chopping mangoes, strawberries, and pineapple into tasty chunks, try renaming the result “Sophie’s Special Fruit Salad” for extra reinforcement.

Purpose

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Wring some meaning from work. (Image: Pink Sherbet Photography)

When we stack firewood to prepare for the upcoming winter, make a gift to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have purpose and value. As our children participate along with us, they feel the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something that has meaning.

So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation.

Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.

Beyond Chores

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The way we do things in our family. (Image: Evil Erin)

I’m not fond of the word “chores.” It implies that kids and adults have tasks that are set apart from the rest of our lives. Making work around the house and yard a regular part of our lives together seems more natural.

I think it’s valuable to get work done together as much as possible. For me, the simplest way to respond to grumbling has always been, “that’s just how we do it in our family,” without engaging in arguments on the topic. And of course balance is essential. Children and teens (well, all of us) need time for daydreaming, play, socializing, relaxation, projects, and all of life’s other joys.

My kids have their own chores, which they sometimes rotate. They haven’t always done them well or on time by any means. Accepting a floor as clean as a child will get it is part of having children participate. And I’m pretty laid back about things like clean bedrooms. (I remind them we try to adhere to the Firefighter Rule: Could emergency workers navigate a bedroom if necessary?) I understand that kids put less energy into tasks that don’t seem to have much importance. They recognize that a clean bedroom doesn’t affect our family’s functioning, while they know for sure that cutting and stacking firewood will keep our house warm. Hence, the firewood is done right while their rooms are often just short of scandalous.

We’ve never given them an allowance, mostly because we haven’t been able to afford it. Families have counted on children throughout history for work that was reliable and essential. Today we are fortunate that we don’t have to rely on our kids to survive, but we can expect them to contribute. The tasks may not be fun or interesting but they are necessary. They demonstrate to every child that he or she is a valuable contributor to the well-being of the family. And hearing, “Thanks, we couldn’t have done it without you,” feels good too.

I’m pretty sure growing up this way has contributed to how super responsible my kids are now in their teen and young adult years. They see a pile of boxes I need to load for our food co-op and carry them, never waiting for me to ask. They gladly stop whatever they’re doing to pitch in for an hour or all day when help is needed in the garage or barn or back yard. They are incredibly capable people who are far more astute and skilled than I’ll ever be. They can milk cows, fix tractors and cars, cut and bale hay, install plumbing, make meals, diagnose a sick chicken, hang drywall, identify spiders, back up their political opinions, weld, put on a roof, well, you get the idea. Sure, they have busy social lives and enjoy keeping their faces aimed at screens just like everyone else. But they recently spent an entire weekend helping a family member pack, move, and make repairs. They worked hard and displayed nothing but their usual good cheer. After exhausting 14 hour days I asked if they’d rather have skipped this particular task. Every one of them affirmed that it was no big deal. And I heard my words come back to me, “It’s just the way we do things in our family.”

Portions of this article were excerpted from Free Range Learning.