Be a ‘Worker’ Rat, not a Helicopter Parent

In 2020, my daughter Josie, who was completing her first year at university, was invited by her high school to speak to the matrics and their parents.

Josie chose to avoid talking about topics like time management, consistency, prioritisation, balance and getting sufficient sleep and exercise – while important, these are well covered by teachers and by high performing learners in post-matric results interviews.

Instead, she spoke about something which in today’s world – so fixated on instant gratification, quick and easy fixes, and the entitlement-driven belief that we deserve maximum rewards with minimal effort – I believe was incredibly pertinent, not only to matric learners and their parents, but to all of us: Josie spoke about rats.

Several years ago, Dr Kelly Lambert, a world-renowned neuroscientist, discovered a fascinating link between directed effort and rewards while conducting research into the behaviour of two groups of rats. The first group consisted of ‘worker’ rats. These rats were fed treats in the form of Froot Loops cereal pieces, which were buried under mounds of earth in their cage forcing the rats to forage and dig in order to get to them. The second group, which Lambert called the ‘trust fund’ rats, were simply given the Froot Loops for free – delivered on a silver spoon so to speak.

This continued for several weeks, after which Lambert carried out a series of tests on the rats to assess a wide range of psychological functions, including emotional resilience, problem solving capabilities, anxiety levels and the ability to handle stress. The results were as remarkable as they were irrefutable. The ‘worker’ rats significantly outperformed their ‘trust fund’ counterparts in all these assessments.

In one task, many of the ‘worker’ rats actually dived to the bottom of a tank of water to see if they could find an escape route – this without having even been taught to swim! During the same task, many of the trust fund rats quickly gave up, and were content simply to float on top of the water, waiting to be lifted out to safety. In short, the effort that the ‘worker rats’ had to make in order to secure their food had made them far more psychologically robust and emotionally stable than their ‘trust fund’ counterparts.

Higher order decision making

Interesting, you may be thinking, but what do the effects of effort driven rewards on small rodents have to do with humans? Well, as Lambert points out, quite a lot. Rats share about 90 per cent of their DNA with us, and although their brains are a lot smaller than ours, they are similar in terms of structure and neurochemical make up. Crucially, higher order decision making processes in the rat cortex are also quite similar to our own – so laboratory rats can provide valuable and instructive models of human behaviour, even in higher-order brain functioning.

I find it interesting (and salutary) that recent research into the effects of different parenting styles seems to echo and amplify Lambert’s findings.

Overprotective, “helicopter” styles of parenting (always hovering around) that desperately attempt to avoid children having to experience any adversity or discomfort, or to ever leave their comfort zone, have been shown to promote adverse effects on children. These include increased levels of anxiety and depression, an inability to deal effectively with stress and a prolonged childhood and adolescence. ‘Helicopter parenting’ and ‘lawnmower parenting’ are two current catch phrases that accurately describe this style.

Research has shown that the children of parents who adopt a ‘free range’ parenting style (a ‘worker rat’ type of approach) which allows children a lot more space, requires them to struggle and to make an effort, to make decisions on their own and to take ownership of the consequences of their actions, are substantially more emotionally resilient, less anxious and depressed, and more confident and competent than their cossetted helicopter and lawnmower parented peers.

Don’t be afraid to fail

As my daughter Josie impressed upon her audience:

Nobody ever tells you how important it is to struggle; how important it is to fail. Struggling means you are outside your comfort zone and you could fail. Failure is an opportunity to learn and improve… but the point is, just like the worker rats, we’re hard-wired for struggle. Biologically, it’s good for us to struggle. It makes us perform better in the long term, and moreover, it makes the reward more meaningful.