Understanding Humans in The Wild

Instead of telling children how to solve a problem we ought to give them opportunities to think through the problem themselves and even show them that were willing to consider their advice.

– Adam Grant

From the desk of Clare Hanbury…

My work at Children for Health is based on a belief that children can and should be involved in matters that affect them – their health, their relationships with others, their schooling. It is thrilling when I hear academics and scientists of the very highest calibre discuss their work and ideas and that these ideas collide so completely with the work that I do. It’s hard to get research funded, not that I have ever stopped trying. Meanwhile, I have to look to others’ research that shines a light of what is meaningful about our work and why it is so.

So it was this week as I was listening to a podcast, Understanding Humans in the Wild, a conversation between Sam Harris (neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author) and Adam Grant (author, organisational psychologist, New York Times writer and academic at the University of Pennsylvania). The following extract is taken from the discussion between minutes 35:32 and 42:30. Sam and Adam are discussing insights from developmental science on what we could be doing as parent (and I would add, educators).

Read on or listen to the conversation on the above link (you might have to subscribe) and then I’ll summarise the collision points at the bottom of this post. The highlights in the post are mine and there are a few bits I’ve missed out, indicated by three dots, the longest of these an ‘aside’ on Angela Duckworth’s research that Adam relates to his workplace.


SH        What do we know about creativity?

AG       I think we know how to thwart it, to undermine it … as teachers, as parents…, stifle it at work. Most of what I know about how to unleash it is about… getting the obstacles out of the way.

SH        How has your understanding of psychology may or may not have affected your parenting. I’m amazed how little of science seeps through into daily life…

AG       I think it’s one of the most irresponsible things that we do as a society… we don’t educate parents in the most basic knowledge about developmental psychology… but I’ve been pretty persuaded by the wealth of evidence in behavioural genetics that a lot of which we might think are parenting effects are in fact shared genes… I think it’s easy to undermine a kid… not being supportive, not showing unconditional love… it’s really easy to damage a child. We have decades of evidence on how much harm you can do by depriving children, by exposing them to chronic stress, neglect, abuse, poverty etc. But, I think if you take out all the bad things that happen to kids I’m not sure how much upside there is around trying to be the world’s best parent trying to get it perfect… but I think there are a few things we ought to be aware of as parents… the biggest thing I’ve learned as a parent actually is that a big part of being creative is building resilience… part of having ideas that are novel – is that it requires you to face rejection and makes you feel like you are alone as a non-conformist who’s maybe not fitting in and there is some evidence that the most creative kid in the classroom is the least likely to be the teacher’s pet. ‘Coz creative kids are annoying in class! I know even as a teacher of college students and MBA students –  the ones who are not quite sticking with the lesson plan and they often want to take the conversation onto a tangent – and then I worry that the rest of the class is going to miss out on the key concepts we were going to cover.

So when I think about all of that I think that if you are going to be creative early on then one of the skills you are going to need early on is that, you need to be comfortable with disapproval socially and one of the ways you can foster that comfort is you encourage children to think for themselves and recognise that they don’t always need the approval of a parental figure in order to feel OK and there are some interesting ways to do this but one that I’ve applied with our kids is that (I’ve read all this research that says) the one thing that kids need in order to be resilient is that they need to feel that they matter. ‘Mattering’ in Sociology has three components.

  1. Other people notice me;
  2. They care about me; and
  3. They rely on me.

Most parents are pretty good at the first two but we miss out on the third which is:

“I matter when I feel that other people are counting on me”.

There are too many parents who make their children feel helpless. There is also this thing called,’snowplough parenting’ where we clear the path for the kids as opposed to  preparing them for the path. So I thought, we are supposed to show our children that we are willing to rely on them. So, one of the things I will do is, when I am nervous before a big speech, let’s say, I’ll actually go to our kids to ask for their advice on how to handle that. And it’s so interesting…

SH:       Oh interesting! Remind me – your kids are what ages?

AG:      So, they are 11, 8 and 5.

SH:       So, very young to imagine that they can actually contribute to your well-being in that way.

AG:      Yeah I mean I don’t have high hopes for a 5 year olds advice on that but…

SH:       No but the fact that you would model that reciprocity is interesting.

AG:      Yeah, I mean I think I don’t want them to feel like I’m needing it but that I want to show them I value their input.

SH:       It’s a team effort.

AG:      Yeah, exactly and so the great thing about that is:

  1. I have signalled that I have confidence in their ability to think through how to handle a stressful situation; and 
  2. I get to watch them practice their own problem solving.

and so… a couple of times when I did this actually was before I gave my first talk at TED and I talked to our oldest and she gave me a bunch of pretty good tips and said… ”Hey, you should think about why you are excited to give this speech and who in the audience it could help…” and a few weeks later, of course, she is in a school play and she’s nervous and instead of me giving her advice she gets to think for herself and know that she already has some ideas about how to handle that situation.

I think we could give kids those opportunities more often, right? Instead of telling them how to solve a problem we ought to give them opportunities to think through the problem themselves and even show them that were willing to consider their advice.

SH:         Yeah that’s great so how does unconditional love mesh with this concept of GRIT we have been hearing more about?

AG:      Well it’s interesting coz Angela Duckworth, a close colleague of mine who put “GRIT” on the map in her research and she has found… for parenting that… there is a 2×2 and one axis is, ‘how supportive are you?’ – that’s your unconditional love factor and the other axis is ‘how demanding are you?’. The goal is to be in the high/high cell and be – ‘I am BOTH supportive AND demanding’…Over time GRIT comes from your kids believing that:

  • You believe in their potential;
  • You care about them and their well-being and success; but also
  • That you also have really high expectations and standards.

And those things don’t have to be at odds…


So what are the key things that resonate so much with the work of Children for Health. Here is my summary:

  • All children, even/especially the poorest, can and should be actively involved in giving their views on matters that affect them.
  • Even young children can give useful insights as well as developing skills they can use later in life.
  • The significant adults in children’s lives must hone their listening skills. Children have important, unique perspectives that we don’t know about and which help improves our understanding and empathy but that we need to know in order to promote their skills and to help us make their lives better. Perspectives that can help us design effective services (like health education).
  • Children ARE relied upon, and in their millions in MOST developing countries, yet they do not get the recognition or praise for that caring role (usually of other children). It’s easy to inform that role – for example by including relevant content and activities at school – and it costs nothing for the adults in their lives to recognise it, praise it and, dare I say, to tell them what we learn from them about what they do and say.
  • That it’s worth teaching children everywhere in a way that gives them opportunities to identify and think through problems – skills that will make them creative, active problem-solvers and even problem-seekers. For example: asking themselves, What is there about this community that could be made better, safer, healthier? And, what can I do?
Children writing a poster as part of the PCAAN programme
Children doing a participatory nutrition activity in their health club

I love the credence that Adam Grant gives ideas that are so fundamental to our approach. Also, I think we can add his insights to what we are doing. I just LOVE the idea of actively working with children to be, ‘comfortable with disapproval’.

Children for Health is currently working on a set of resources that will help adults work with children to build resilience and in a way that helps other children do this too and ‘being comfortable with disapproval’ is now on our list of objectives!