More than 50 years have passed and I can still clearly remember Mrs. Lieberman, my fourth grade teacher, announcing to the rest of the class: “Mark is a very good reader. He reads with excellent comprehension.” That single piece of praise shaped a significant part of my life thereafter – reading became a daily mainstay, as necessary for me as food, air and water.
And then, in my early twenties I attended a talk in Ojai, California by the renown Indian spiritual teacher, J. Krishnamurti. I was flabbergasted when I heard him say that he never read books, that books were a distraction on the spiritual path!
Each of these declarations made a lasting impression on me. The first is a demonstration of what Princeton philosopher, Cornel West calls “The Gravitas of Affirmation,” the second an illustration of what spiritual adepts call a “teachable moment.” In the latter instance, I was ripe for waking up to the possibility that something I learned in the fourth grade, which I held sacrosanct, might not hold the truth and power in the real world that I thought it did.
But the point of this little vignette is that parents, teachers, therapists and clergy have great power, often more than many of us realize. The things that we say and do in the presence of children (and adults as well) can leave lasting impressions for good or ill. For example, just last week the New York Times published this piece on the negative impact that yelling has on kids – something I’ve been railing against for years. All we need do is pay attention to how we feel when we’re screamed at – attend to the flood of neural-inhibiting glucocorticoids racing through our bodies, along with the guilt that often follows – to know that yelling is not “best for the children.” Nevertheless, as the article indicates, the majority of parents in America do yell at their kids, without realizing its negative neural impact. What to do?
The Power of Proclamation
I’m sure many of you reading this column can recall a casual positive remark, perhaps made in passing by some person of consequence long ago. It’s very likely one that greatly impacted your life and remains with you still: Mrs. Creel in the third grade telling you you had a lovely blue eyes, or Ms. Levitt in the sixth grade proclaiming you as very good at long division, or Mr. Fisher, the school principal, genuinely amazed when you scored off the charts on the Minnesota Spatial Relations test. The sum of these kinds of affirmations can take on a gravitas of their own, a kind of collective meta-gravitas, if you will. And while I know of no direct empirical research on their neurological power, there is little doubt in my mind that they can do wonders for neural growth and connectivity. I know this mostly by extrapolating from research on the neurobiology of successfully managing stress, laughter and play, all of which do enrich neural development.
Anything that keeps allostasis (good stress) from turning into excessive or sustained allostatic load (bad stress), has to be placed on the plus side of the neurological ledger, especially for expectant mothers. And timely, authentic praise makes our neurophysiology hum like a symphony string section. For empirical evidence, simply check in with your own body. Essential though, is that the praise and affirmation we bestow needs to be just that: timely and authentic. It can’t be faint praise offered days later with a hidden or double agenda. Interestingly, these are also aspects of contingent communication, for which we do have a lot of empirical research confirming neurological efficacy.
There’s a wonderful Zen directive that lives in my long-ago memory as something like this: “Do not think bad thoughts. But if you do think bad thoughts, do not speak them. But if you do speak them, do your best to correct any damage they may have done.” We don’t have to be perfect in this practice. We only have to be willing to attend closely to the intent of the words we put out into the world and work on repairing any damage they may have done. With practice (about 10,000 hours worth), the things we do think and the things we do say may more and more begin to take on their own affirmative gravitas.