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Friday, March 29, 2019

Review: The Highly Sensitive Child

The Highly Sensitive Child is targeted towards a specific parent, the kind of parent who never got over the sensitivities and feeling of being overwhelmed as a child when confronted with a world much bigger than you.

Here are the claims of the book:

  • About 20% of the population are people who are "highly sensitive." These are the people who pick up on every detail of their environment, and as a result can find nuanced information (say, about other people's emotions), but conversely, because of having to do so much information processing, are more cautious and therefore more easily overwhelmed. 20% is a huge percentage of the population, so this ought to be something super common: in a class of 10, you'll see 2 kids like this, and in Singapore, in a class of 40, you'd see 8 kids in class like this.
  • These kids are not abnormal, but would benefit from good parenting. The characteristics of such kids are such that with good parenting, they would be more likely to become great leaders, visionaries, and other such good things. The book claims that:

Traditionally, sensitive people have been the scientists, counselors, theologians, historians, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and artists (for example, at one time sensitive people naturally became their town’s schoolmaster or -mistress, preacher, or family doctor). But, increasingly, sensitive persons are being nudged out of all these fields due to what seems to be a cycle that starts with the nonsensitive moving aggressively into decision-making roles, where they, quite naturally due to their temperaments, devalue cautious decision making, emphasize short-term profits or flashy results assertively presented over a quieter concern for consistent quality and long-term consequences, and do not need and so eliminate calm work environments and reasonable work schedules. Sensitive people are discounted, have less influence, suffer, or quit. Then the nonsensitive control the profession even more. (Page 15)

  •  Part of the American disdain for sensitivity is cultural:

And a study comparing elementary school children in China and Canada found that being a “sensitive, quiet” child was associated with being popular in China, but with being unpopular in Canada. Perhaps “old” cultures with rich artistic, philosophical, and spiritual traditions such as China and Europe can afford to reward sensitivity more than “new” immigrant cultures such as the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Australia, which have rewarded pioneering “macho” men and “tough” women who gave little thought to the risks in a new land. (Pg. 63)
OK, then the book proceeds to give an entire volume's worth of advice targeted for parents of such a "highly sensitive child." Here's my problem: there's nothing in this book that you shouldn't do even for non-sensitive kids! I certainly wouldn't call myself "highly sensitive", but I remember that as child (or even as a young man), how every slight, every setback seemed to be so big that it could be tear-inducing. Part of growing up and attaining emotional maturity is an understanding that:

  1. The world is a big place.
  2. Most things cannot possibly be about you.
  3. In particular, most people are so self-centered that there's little chance that their daily life or messages or broadcasts are about you!
I think it's perhaps unique about American society that maybe a strong dose of "it's not about you" is lacking in standard upbringing, so we have 20% of the kids growing up who do believe that it's all about them (you know the type --- they're the people replying to your e-mail thinking that something you sent to a broad distribution list was all about them). Then we create a special label called "X" and then create a special program implying that if you're X you're not special. As Shelley Shostak once said, "No, don't expect special treatment: this is a job, you're getting paid. Just quit whining and do it!"

Despite that, the book wasn't a complete waste of time. There's quite a bit of good common sense advice, and even wisdom that every parent (not just the special hothouse flowers that the author of the book thinks they are) should know:
Psychologists Nathan Fox, Ana Sobel, Susan Calkins, and Pamela Cole studied children from two to seven years of age. At two years, one aspect of the study was to videotape the children in a laboratory while a clown tried to interact with them and while they were presented with a toy robot. At seven, they were observed while playing with three children they had not met before. Later, the seven-year-olds also watched the videos of themselves at two and the psychologists asked them how they felt about shyness generally, how they felt about their behavior as two-year-olds, and, if they had changed, what had changed them. Those who were cautious at two but outgoing at seven tended to explain their change as due to their parents exposing them to lots of things. In other words, these children themselves were indicating that parents can have an effect on their child’s confidence. (Pg. 257)
 In expecting your child to join activities and have friends, but not too many, do not expect these to be the activities and friends the “average” adolescent “ought” to have. Your HSC may prefer role-playing games in the park with “geeky” guys, as River did, or studying photography with a middle-aged professional, or mountain climbing with loner outdoor types. Remember our motto, To have an exceptional child you must be willing to have an exceptional child. (Pg. 302)
 What you will have around age thirty is an adult friend. Maintain the good boundaries and good manners you would have with any friend. Remember, your memories of this adult as a tiny baby, clinging toddler, and adoring five-year-old are fresh, but your young adult does not remember all of that so clearly. Now, if you want the relationship to be strong, you must have shared interests. You need to stay abreast of your child’s career and other pursuits. (Pg. 309)
So despite my visceral reaction to the book's penchant for labeling the hot-house flowers (vs the dandelions) and constant refrain of "Yes, it's hard to be you! It's so hard to be sensitive", most parents (even parents who are insensitive or have kids who are insensitive) could get something out of this book. Just remember at the end of it all that it's not about you (and don't teach your kid that he/she is a hot house flower --- I can't see any good coming out of that!).

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