The Geeky Parent Guide is happy to share an interview with Steven J. Kirsh, PhD., a professor at SUNY (State University of New York) Geneseo, where he discusses his latest book, Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse: The Psychology of Raising Children in a Time of Horror.
Let’s take a unique look at parenting in what might be the most unimaginable situation ever: a zombie apocalypse.
Geeky Parent Guide: Steven, thank you so much for taking time to discuss your latest book, Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse. How long have you been a professor of psychology, and what are some courses that you often teach at SUNY Geneseo?
Steven J. Kirsh, Ph.D.: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you. I’ve been a psychology professor for over 25 years. I regularly teach Introductory Psychology, Child Development, and courses on the psychological effects of media consumption during childhood and adolescence. I also teach an Honors seminar called Parents vs. Zombies. To understand parenting among the dead, it is first necessary to learn about parenting among the living. Students in the class read social science theory and research about parenting and then apply that information to the zombie apocalypse.
GPG: Have you always loved the field of psychology? When did you decide that being a professor, and also an author, would become a goal for you to set your sights on?
SK: During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, I took a course on child development with an amazing professor. About halfway through the course, I decided that I wanted to do what he did, right down to the field of study, developmental psychology. Honestly, I’m not sure what I would have done with my life if I had taken that course from a different professor. Most of the books I’ve written were for courses that I wanted to teach, or had recently taught, but couldn’t find texts that mirrored the way I structured these classes. So, I decided to write books that did.
GPG: I imagine that you are a fan of zombie stories, yes? How long have you been a fan of the horror genre, especially relating to zombies? Is there a particular book or film that led you to enjoying or gravitating toward “the walking dead?”
SK: My mother introduced me to the horror genre. Together, we would watch classic monster movies, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man. She then directed me towards the novels of Stephen King, for which I am eternally grateful. My love of the zombie genre goes back over 40 years, as well. Like many kids growing up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, my formal introduction to the zombie apocalypse started with the Romero classics: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. My high school friends and I were captivated by the bloody decapitations, eviscerations, and dismemberments. These days, I primarily get my zombie apocalypse fix through reading, with J. L. Bourne, M. R. Carey, Peter Clines, Rhiannon Frater, Mira Grant, Jonathan Maberry, David Moody, and Diana Rowland being some of my favorite authors. But my all-time favorite book is Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. In fact, I use aspects of that story to illustrate psychological concepts in my new book. Of course, I’m also a big fan of The Walking Dead comic book and TV series. Stories from that apocalyptic universe appear prominently in the book, as well.
GPG: As a professor of psychology, what drew you to creating a book that discusses parenting and what that would look like in the face of a zombie apocalypse?
SK: Although I had voraciously consumed the horror genre for years, it took me quite a long time to realize that most stories of the zombie apocalypse depicted few, if any, children. Because of their physical, emotional, and cognitive limitations, it made sense that most children wouldn’t survive an undead rising. But some would. The question was, “How?” What parenting strategies would keep children alive during the zombie apocalypse? And for those children that lived, what were the psychological consequences of being parented for survival in an undead wasteland? As much as I love the bone-crunching and blood-spurting carnage of the zombie apocalypse, years of teaching psychology led me to become more intrigued by the mindset of the survivors, especially as it related to their parenting. It also became apparent to me, that when you take the undead out of the zombie apocalypse, you are still left with impoverished conditions, violent surroundings, and parenting under conditions of extreme physical and emotional duress. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of parents and children live in adverse, apocalyptic-like environments. In addition to being a book about parenting in a fictitious world overrun with the living dead, the book also underscores the point that real-life parenting often occurs in harsh and untenable conditions.
GPG: Will you share some of your experiences in the field of psychology that helped you develop Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse?
SK: I’m not a psychotherapist (nor do I play one on TV), and my primary research has been on media effects, so my psychology-related experiences are based on conducting research, as well as developing and teaching courses on child development. Undeniably, the biggest single influence on the book was the Parents vs. Zombie seminar on which it was based. Without that class, there would be no book.
GPG: How much research was involved in creating this book? Beyond academic research, were previous films or other stories relating to zombies a part of the process?
SK: It turns out that my 40 years of playing video games, watching movies and TV shows, and reading comic books and fictional accounts of the zombie apocalypse was essential research. Throughout the book, I illustrate or introduce key parenting- and child-development-related concepts with examples from these zombie-laden media. In terms of academic research, most of the classes I’ve taught have focused on parenting and child development under relatively non-stressful conditions. But the zombie apocalypse is beyond stressful, so I had to learn a lot about the impact of highly stressful environments on parents and children.
GPG: What will parents be able to take away from Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse that will also apply to scenarios that routinely take place in parenting? Are there other specific issues relating to grief or other stresses discussed in your book that you feel are important for parents to learn about?
SK: In the book, I talk a lot about the determinants of caregiving, such as the parents’ upbringing, their personality, their children’s behavior, available support systems, and, of course, stress. These sections might help parents understand how they raise their children, why they parent that way, as well as the potential impact of their child-rearing on children’s development. But, the book isn’t so much a “how-to guide” for parenting during the zombie apocalypse” as it is an awareness raiser and explanatory model of the difficulties that parents face in today’s world.
GPG: With working on this project, were there any moments from start to finish that you found particularly challenging?
SK: The chapter on maternal and infant mortality was particularly heart-wrenching to write. In the book, I report real-life research. So, every one of these deaths, be it due to abuse, malnutrition, homicide, disease, etc., was accompanied by unimaginable pain and suffering. The emotional impact of these mostly preventable deaths was not lost on me. Likewise, the chapter on grief pulled at my heartstrings, as it deals with the grief associated with children losing parents and parents losing children. Zombies do not exist in reality, but the non-fictional elements in this book are very real. In addition to statistics, I also relay quite a few studies on parenting as a refugee, victim of violence, or while living in a war zone. These are current, relevant hardships occurring throughout the world today. I tried to be mindful of that as I wrote the book. I didn’t want to sensationalize or minimize the difficulties that parents face under such challenging conditions. I wanted to emphasize that “normal parenting” always has a context.
GPG: On the other side of things, were there any parts during the entire process that you enjoyed the most, whether it be the initial idea, any of the research involved, or seeing the final product?
SK: I loved, loved, loved writing the On Zombies section of the book. In those chapters, I introduce the essentials of the zombie apocalypse, discussing the popularity of the genre and the psychology behind it. I also address the nature of zombie functioning, the basics of zombie-human interaction, and survival strategies related to raising children. All of my academic training and love of the zombie genre melding together for the first time. That was a lot of fun. Seeing the cover of the book was pretty cool as well. The book didn’t seem real until that point.
GPG: Since you’ve taught a class, “Parents vs. Zombies,” are there any insights into that class you could share with our readers or possibly any questions that are most often asked from your students?
SK: The question students ask me the most is, “Why zombies?” The thing is, it’s not really about the zombies. It’s about the psychological impact of having everything near and dear to your heart ripped away, mostly figuratively, but sometimes literally.
GPG: When a class is over or a book is completed and you’re looking to unwind, what books, TV, or movies do you currently geek out over?
SK: The first thing I do when I finish a book is to look and see if any of my favorite authors have released anything new. If they have, I’ll snatch it up. I’ll also find things to binge on Netflix or HBO. I’m partial to movies/series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars Universe, and shows on the SYFY channel. These days, I’m partial to John Wick movies. There are not enough of those.
GPG: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me! Where can others find you online, and where can they purchase Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse: The Psychology of Raising Children in a Time of Horror?
SK: Follow me on Twitter (@kirshsteven). You can order a copy of the book from any of major online retailers, such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and from my publisher, McFarland Publishing.
I want to extend a major thanks to Steven for sharing his outstanding insights into his book, Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse: The Psychology of Raising Children in a Time of Horror, and how parenting under such stress applies in the world today.
Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.