Last week I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Microsoft co-founder, and American billionaire, Paul Allen. Two things stood out for me. The first is his noticeable lack of warmth. He never smiled once during the whole interview. The second thing I took note of was the fact that he’s had two different bouts of lymphoma. Listening to the history of his interactions with Bill Gates – the relentless multi-hour screaming marathons, the demands and expectations that more and more time be devoted to work, and Gates’ collusion with Steve Ballmer to dilute Allen’s shares in the company so as to significantly reduce their value – I have no doubt these and other stresses worked in ways that seriously compromised Allen’s immune system. Allen was essentially operating in an environment akin to one found in war-ravaged countries. Assaults could come at any time, they were unpredictable, he had little control over them, and there was seemingly nothing he could do to escape them. (There are reasons emotional terrorists often live long lives, they tend to be the ones who dole out the stressors to the rest of us). Microsoft in the early days was not unlike some of the home and school environments many of our children grow up in today. The brain is an associative organ, one that learns by making connections. Hang out with other kids who are mean-spirited and pretty soon hive mind will transform you into someone just like them. Mean-spirited environments (and corporate cultures are environments, by the way) contribute to the creation of mean-spirited kids.
The only reason Paul Allen is not dead today, in my estimation, is that he’s rich. He could pay for the best doctors and for the best treatments available, along with someone to administer them competently. Poverty, as a recent Dana Foundation report indicates, is one of the common variables found frequently in mean-spirited kids.
The Other Side of the Tracks
In contrast to Paul Allen’s social status, as a poor kid on welfare, Connecticut State social workers were required to pay our home a visit at least once a year. We lived in stress-filled dread of these visits. My mother planted the notion that if the social worker did not like the things she saw or we told her, she would have us hauled off to foster care. Consequently, we were on our best behavior in the days leading up to those fearful visits. We ended up in foster care anyway, as I’ve previously described. It’s frequently poor kids like I was who end up in foster care and get shifted from family to family. Lack of consistent, committed caretakers can also lead to mean-spiritedness, which the animals I hunted and killed, and the kids I beat up as a youngster would seem to attest to.
When Did You Stop Beating Your Kids?
In a recent prospective study, University of Alabama psychologist Ted Barker and his colleagues found that harsh, excessively punitive and abusive parenting during preschool predicted aggressive behavior by a child toward his or her elementary school peers more strongly than other variables such as child hyperactivity, family poverty, or being the child of teen parents. I was lucky in that when my father abandoned the family he took a lot of aggressive behavior along with him. Had he not, I’m pretty sure the brain damage he would have inflicted (similar to that inflicted on him as a kid) would have had me end up in jail at some point in my life. At a minimum, as these Swedish researchers have determined, my sisters and I would have spent many more sick days home from school than we actually did.
Smells Like Mean Spirit
Ever notice how mean-spirited kids are rarely the ones carrying around the clarinet or violin cases or have an oboe slung casually over their shoulder? As this recent research shows, if you want to succeed at raising mean-spirited kids, do everything in your power to keep them away from the stress-reducing, brain integration effects of music. Also, keep iPods out of their hands, Garage Band off their computers, and keep them out of the company of a capella gangs roaming through your ‘hood. Their spirit will be all the worse for it.
Finally, this bit of research offers a way to really seal the mean-spirited deal: make sure your kids are born prematurely and do everything you can to avoid breast-feeding them. That offers the best odds for delaying developmental brain connections and starting the life journey with a disadvantageously smaller brain. In the world of mean-spiritedness, smaller is often better.