Advising people to calm down, reduce the stress in their lives, become more
sociable and improve their marriages is like being in favor of motherhood and
apple pie. If an author also explains how to accomplish this, the book would
certainly become a best-seller. And if the writer bases it all on scientific
research, his work would catch even more attention.
This is what has
happened to David Code, a self-described marriage and family coach and
Episcopalian minister residing with his wife and two children in State College,
Pennsylvania, whose latest book, Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental
Stress is Toxic to Kids has indeed become a best-seller since its recent
publication in English in the US. With over 160 references to scientific
articles appearing in Pub Med, the National Library of Medicine at the US
National Institutes of Health, it is clear that Code – who is not a physician or
scientist – has done his homework.
Born on a farm in Saskatchewan,
Canada, Code has lived in Tokyo, Moscow and Paris and learned Japanese, Russian
and French to interview foreign families in their own language.
the 184-page, softcover volume (available for purchase at
and also sold for $12.20 via Amazon) to The Jerusalem
for review, even though it – and he – seemed to have no connection to
Israel or Jewishness.
But in fact, they both do. And Israelis – who are
probably among the most stressed-out people in the world for obvious historical,
economic and geopolitical reasons – would be interested as well.
volume has caught much attention, and Code has been interviewed by respected
papers and magazines and made numerous TV appearances around the world. The
award-winning author, who draws on the latest neuroscience research, also used
his own study of families in more than 20 countries across five continents. He
studied at Yale, Princeton and the Georgetown Family Center (formerly part of
Georgetown Medical School) and has over five years of supervised experience as a
pastoral counselor, a hospital chaplain and a volunteer with AIDS and cancer
There is absolutely no Christian missionizing by this
clergyman. Code visited Israel in 1987, and in the last chapter of the book he
quotes Hebrew University Medical Faculty pharmacology researcher Prof. Marta
Weinstock- Rosin. He also endorses the concept of Shabbat, which he mentions as
a Hebrew word.
“Keep the Sabbath, and make that day your ‘relationship
day,’ when you reach out by writing or calling your siblings and
A Jewish friend of mine remarked: ‘A whole day is too much for
our family to dedicate to relationships. We simply practice a Shabbat dinner. It
puts us back in touch with both our family and our roots.’” Another of Code’s
interesting references is to “scapegoating,” which he describes as a “primal
instinct that humans share with other animals. Any lab researcher can tell you
the remarkable similarity the rat brain has to human brain structure. The
similarity only seems shocking because humans have largely forgotten that we are
animals, and we share with animals a little-known, unconscious instinct to
scapegoat those around us.
This is what drives couples apart,” Code
“But a simple awareness of our scapegoating instinct can
transform how we view our marriages,” because blame is displaced, preventing our
brains from being overwhelmed and unable to hunt, gather or procreate. The human
scapegoat, he notes, is usually an innocent person blamed for the suffering or
wrongdoings of others. Then he describes the ancient Jewish ritual of atonement
during Yom Kippur in which one goat was sacrificed as a symbolic “payment” to
God for the debt they amassed by their sinning, with the second goat driven into
Back to Code’s main thesis that he constantly refers to
in the volume, he insists that excess stress in life is not only unpleasant,
time consuming and harmful to the health of adults; it can be among the major
causes of health problems – from learning disorders and attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder to allergies, type I diabetes and autism – in children.
It can even affect the fetus in utero, the author continues.
usually described by researchers as being linked to a number of unknown genes,
but the author says that environmental influences like stress are undoubtedly
involved as well, as the disorder does not occur in all identical
“Since I grew up with few resources, I always assumed what many
others assume: Families with more money and education must be more secure, more
relaxed and just plain happier. But when I was ordained... in 2003 and served
two wealthy parishes near New York City, I was surprised at what I found,” he
writes in his introduction. “The wealthy families I counseled almost seemed to
suffer more. Even the relatively normal families I visited often had children
with allergies, asthma, learning disabilities, ADHD or mood disorders, and many
were on medication.”
Code says he couldn’t understand such pathology when
the children were born to “well-educated, well-intentioned, self-sacrificing
parents who were doing what the experts told them to do.”
As he delved
into the issue, the author’s conviction that “there is a mind-body connection
between a parent’s mind and a child’s body became stronger. It almost seemed as
though children become barometers for their parents’ state of mind. Could it be
that children are ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ indicating when a family’s levels
of stress has become toxic?” Code does not blame parents. He explains that
today’s parents “are more stressed out because our social support networks are
dwindling, and we don’t realize that, as our isolation increases, it drives up
our stress levels.”
Over the centuries, children were part of a “team”
keeping the household going, doing chores, he continues. This didn’t change very
much for a very long time. But in the past two generations, he continues,
parents began to believe that unhappy adults suffered a lack of love as kids.
Thus, Code says, parents concluded that the more attention they give children,
the more objects they give them, the healthier (psychologically) they will
In the course of giving all these things – from clothing and
electronic gadgets to afterschool clubs – they have themselves become more
stressed out and desperate while the children have soaked up the tension like
sponges, Code argues.
The author’s belief that children can be affected
physically by stress in the family, especially suffered by the mother, while in
the womb wins support from the HU’s Weinstock- Rosin. Cortisol and adrenalin,
which are stress hormones, are released when the body is exposed to
“If parents paid more attention to children in the womb and
already outside, it would be good for mankind. I agree with David Code,” she
told The Jerusalem Post
Weinstock-Rosin has worked for 26 years on the
prenatal effects of stress on rats.
“We know that the neuroanatomy and
hormonal influences in the rodents are very similar to that in humans, on whom
one cannot experiment. We showed that messenger RNA can be altered as a result
of stress and how genetic changes can be overcome. On this, Code is right on the
Fortunately, reading the book is not a guilt trip for parents.
He insists that it’s never too late to change one’s habits and ways of dealing
with a spouse (he never discusses singleparent families) to reverse the harm
that has been done.
As 21st-century people are much more isolated than
they were in the previous centuries, Code gives lessons on how to socialize
“Get back to baseline,” he says, meaning that one should work hard
to reduce stress by exercising, calling friends, reading, praying, taking a nap,
meditating or getting into bed with one’s partner. Thus one is more able to “get
in touch with the stress response... and transform your brain from upset,
fight-orflight mode to thoughtful mode.”
Take a vacation every three
months, and even every day, Code continues, the latter by leaving work for an
hour so stress levels decline while you’re out and fail to rise to the heights
they would have if you stayed at work. Socialize more with your spouse by
exercising – even just taking a walk – together.
“Let the air out” of
your inner dialogues, he says, just by listening to your partner express her/his
feelings for three minutes before leaving for work. When you return home, both
of you should in a few moments describe their “highlights” and “lowlights” of
the day, instantly “creating a sense of shared intimacy and preempting future
Another piece of advice is realizing that “the grass is not
greener,” that your marriage is probably as good as or much better than those
that seem to others to be perfect. Code urges adults to socialize more with
their parents (if they still have them), writing letters if they are too far
away to see them. Also socialize more with siblings and other relatives, along
with friends and work colleagues and neighbors to increase your support system.
One can even organize a block party as people used to do for the neighbors many
decades ago, he suggests.
Other tips for minimizing stress in children is
to turn off TV, computer and cellphone screens after 5 p.m.; dine potluck once a
week with friends – at their place our yours.
“It may seem too good to be
true,” Code writes, “but this book gives you permission to have more fun... it
actually insists that you have more fun” to increase the chances that your
children will be better off. “Stress is by far the most toxic thing in our
environment, and no single toxin impacts our children’s health more.”
Post asked two prominent family physicians who have not yet read Code’s book to
comment, based on an oral and written summary of his views. Dr. Amnon Lahad is
head of the department of family medicine at the Hebrew University Medical
Faculty and a staff member at the Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and
As a family physician, he says, it was clear that
emotional stress can cause physical disease in the person affected as well as by
those around them, but he wanted to see scientific evidence supporting the claim
it was involved in autism. Pub Med publishes about half a million medical
journal articles every year, and they are not uniform in quality, he notes. One
must also remember that an article can show association but not necessarily
Dr. Karen Djemal, a prize winning doctor who is director of
Terem’s family medicine clinic in Jerusalem, comments: “It is clear that stress
can induce or exacerbate nearly all medical conditions – asthma, diabetes,
allergies and general well-being are known to be stress-related. It is also
clear that children respond to their parents’ non-verbal cues, moods and states
of mind, so that if they are pre-occupied, depressed or stressed, the child of
course picks it up. This will become, in some but not all cases, a source of
stress for the child too. Clearly a child with a learning disorder who is
stressed at home, will function less well... Code’s list of illnesses and
‘dysfunctions’ is truly impressive,” Djemal concludes.
Thus this is a
book that Israeli English speakers could benefit from as well as Americans.