The science of grumpy old men, voodoo dolls and smart kids

It is Science day in this space, and we will be taking a look a three recent studies: why men get grumpy after age 70, why parental involvement in a child's education isn't what it's cracked up to be and what makes couples stick pins in voodoo dolls that represent their mates.

Like many, I have always assumed that the oversight I provided during my children's school years was responsible in large measure for their academic success. Not only that, but I assumed that their classmates who struggled did so because there was nobody at home supervising homework and bedtime reading, nobody volunteering in the classroom or showing up at teacher conferences.


I assumed that it wasn't the schools that were failing these kids, it was their parents. Turns out, I am probably wrong.

Writing in the New York Times, Keith Robinson of the University of Texas, Austin and Angel Harris of Duke report that the kind of parental involvement in which I took such pride does not improve grades or test scores and can actually undermine a child's success. In fact, the researchers found higher levels of achievement when the parents were less involved.


Further, wrote the authors of "The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children's Education," public policies that promote that kind of parental involvement, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, are misguided.

"There is a strong sentiment in this country that parents matter in every respect relating to their children's academic success, but we need to let go of this sentiment and begin to pay attention to what the evidence is telling us," they wrote in the Times.

What works? It is pretty simple. Parents need to let their children know how much they value education, chiefly by discussing the school day and regularly conveying the expectation that they will attend college. (Interestingly, requesting a particular teacher for your child has a positive impact, the researchers found. I did that, too.)

"Instead of schools looking for ways to get parents more involved, they should be looking for ways to help parents communicate the value of schooling," the authors concluded.

Next? Grumpy old men.

An article published in Psychology and Aging suggested that men age 50 and older are content with their lives — until around the age of 70.

Men at 50 and 60, the article concluded, experience less adversity, fewer obstacles and annoyances, and they are still in full command of their ability to adapt.

But by 70, health problems begin to appear, financial resources diminish, the brain gets foggy and friends and loved ones begin to die. You'd be grumpy, too.


Interestingly, the researchers, who focused on military veterans ages 53 to 85, found that grumpy old men in nursing homes lived longer, presumably because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But there are limits. Researcher Carolyn Aldwyn of Oregon State University told National Public Radio that hostile or violent patients fare very poorly.

No word on when women become grumpy. Now, on to grumpy spouses.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tracked 107 couples and their blood glucose levels — and their moods — for 21 days. They could register their displeasure with their mates by sticking any number of pins in a voodoo doll (each participant was given 51 pins),or they could blast them as loudly as they wished with unpleasant sounds, including fingernails on a chalkboard.

It was found that spouses with low blood glucose levels were more willing to blast their mates during computerized competition in a lab. But those who were served a sweet drink before the competition were less irritable.

The scientists from Ohio State, Kentucky and North Carolina also found that mates were more willing to jab the voodoo dolls representing their mates before breakfast and late in the evening, when glucose levels were low. The reason, they concluded is that glucose provides the energy the brain needs to exercise self control.

So, it appears the old marriage bromide, "Don't go to bed angry" might have a corollary: Don't go to bed hungry.


Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on