Play or Decay, Kids!

Hi Folks! Here’s a spankin’ new study that won’t surprise you:

Children who spend more than three-quarters of their time engaging in sedentary behaviour, such as watching TV and sitting at computers, have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than their more active peers, reveals a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

The study, involving Portuguese children, found that physical activity alone was not enough to overcome the negative effect of sedentary behaviour on basic motor coordination skills such as walking, throwing or catching, which are considered the building blocks of more complex movements.

“Childhood is a critical time for the development of motor coordination skills which are essential for health and well-being,” said lead author Dr Luis Lopes, from the University of Minho. “We know that sedentary lifestyles have a negative effect on these skills and are associated with decreased fitness, lower self-esteem, decreased academic achievement and increased obesity.”

The authors added that kids they studied — random kids, that is — spent about three fourths of their time being sedentary. Remember this when people look at you askance for letting your kids walk to school or spend time at the park without you. If you have to supervise them all the time they’re outside, they won’t be outside that much because — face it — adults have other things to do with their time. Let them OUT and you are being a GOOD parent, helping them develop the motor coordination they will need their entire lives. So THERE!  – L.

Why I’m Not Cheering the “Helicopter Parents Have Neurotic Kids” Study

Hi Readers! A bunch of you have forwarded this story, from livescience.com, that I’ve been mulling for days:

‘Helicopter’ Parents Have Neurotic Kids, Study Suggests

The piece is about a study of 300 college freshmen that found the students who are “dependent, neurotic and less open,” may have their over-involved, over-worried, helicopter parents to thank for crippling them. It even went on to say that  “in non-helicoptered students who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents, so-called ‘free rangers,’ the effects were reversed.” [Boldface, mine.]

So here’s our movement, being scientifically legitimized, and even called by its rightful name — the one coined right here! So why am I not jumping up and down and shouting, “Told ya so!”? Two reasons:

First, the story includes three of the questions that were asked of the students to determine if their parents were the “helicopter” type.

Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,” “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,” and “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

By those criteria, I pretty much qualify as a helicopter mom. I have spoken to my son’s school when he was having problems. (As recently as  yesterday!) And I am pretty sure that if and when, God willing, we drop our kids off at college, we will help them unpack and then stay the night in a nearby hotel before bidding them goodbye in the morning. Just like my parents did when they dropped me off at school. What’s the big deal?

As for constant contact, I’m not sure how often we’ll call back and forth, but I just can’t see that as a black and white, helicopter vs. free-range issue. In my book I do suggest leaving your cell phone at home some times, so your kids can’t call and ask you to solve all their problems or make all their decisions — e.g., “Can I have a snack before I start my homework?” But if they call from college every couple of days to say hi, is that fatal to their characters or damning of ours? I don’t think so. Which brings me to —

Point #2: Who says it is the parents and only the parents who shape a child’s entire personality and outlook on life? That’s the very same belief — parents as Michelangelo, kids as clay — that motivates helicopter parents in the first place. If you really see your child as yours and yours alone to create or destroy, naturally you are going to worry about optimizing every single moment. That’s a big burden.  Every parental choice looms large because it is seen through the lens of MAKING or BREAKING the child. One of the cardinal rules in my book is to let go of the idea we CAN control  everything about our kids. As if there’s no such thing as luck, genes, other relatives, teachers, siblings, the neighborhood, quirks and a million other influences.

A study like this — a study like so many that academia seems to churn out on a daily basis, pointing fingers and purporting to be able to boil down an entire person to how good or bad a job his parents did raising him — is so  simplistic as to be meaningless.

Which is not to say I still don’t believe wholeheartedly in the idea of giving our kids more freedom and responsibility and hovering less. I do think it is great for them — and great for us. But we are not the only influence on our children, and one of the reasons parents are being driven so CRAZY these days is because everyone seems ready to blame us for any problem our kids ever evidence or endure.

Yes, it’s nice to see Free-Range Kids endorsed in the parenting-obsessed media. It’s too bad the parenting-obsessed media is still part of the problem.   — Lenore

Are You Spending Enough Time With Your Kids? (Funny I Should Ask)

Hi Readers! Here’s a guest post from Laura Vanderkam, a journalist who blogs at my168hours.com, writes for The Wall Street Journal (among other fancy places), and just came out with the intriguing book: “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.” Here she ponders:

Are Parents Spending Enough Time with Their Kids These Days?

by Laura Vanderkam

This loaded question usually starts a discussion of some perceived social ill: killer hours, working moms, maybe the frenetic pace of modern life. Certainly, many people worry that society is coming up short on this front. As Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute recently told The New York Times, “I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”

Of course, to ask whether parents spend enough time with their kids implies that there is a correct number of hours one should devote to this job. And since we usually throw in “these days,” it implies comparisons to some other time when, perhaps, parents approached the optimal amount.

Going down this line of reasoning, however, we make some interesting discoveries.

First, when do people think this golden era occurred? Maybe you’re picturing a 1950s/early 1960s Ozzie and Harriet-style home, a simpler time of one-income families when work didn’t follow us out of the office.

But social scientists have been tracking how Americans spend their time for decades, and it turns out that parents are spending a lot more time interacting with their kids now than they did in, say, 1965. In 1965, according to data from the 1965-66 Americans’ Use of Time Study, mothers spent 10 hours weekly on childcare as a primary activity. Fathers spent 3 hours.

Meantime, according to a recent analysis by economists Garey and Valerie Ramey: College-educated moms now spend 21.2 hours on such things (15.9 for women with less education). Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks at the University of Pennsylvania calculated that college-educated dads are now up to 9.6 hours per week.

This is interesting, because far more women work outside the home now than did in 1965. And yet weeks still contain the exact same 168 hours that they always have. So what happened?

Two things. First, women used to spend a lot more time doing housework. In 1965, married moms did 34.5 hours a week. All that cooking and cleaning didn’t have a lot of surplus time for interacting with children. While they were busy ironing blankets and dusting ceilings and who knows what else, many moms sent kids out to wander their neighborhoods all day. There are upsides and downsides to this, and Lenore’s blog here focuses on the upsides, but the point is, mid-century women often perceived their job as house care – not childcare.

Which brings us to the second point: The culture of parenthood has changed. Not long ago, my parents gave me some books they’d saved from my childhood. I marveled that I hadn’t destroyed them, because until my son turned two, his books didn’t last 30 days, let alone 30 years.

My parents’ secret?

They didn’t read to me until I was old enough not to destroy books! Now, of course, not reading to your baby is considered practically child abuse.

Between the decline of housework and the rise of intense parenting, the interactive hours have crept up, pretty much across the board. Even if you’re working full-time, you’re probably spending more time interacting with your kids than your grandmother did.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s enough time. Many of us could turn off the TV and do more. But if we fret that modern parents aren’t spending enough time with their kids, it’s important to note that our forbears were, by this standard, hideous. And most of us don’t think they were. So maybe we’re doing okay too. – L.V.

Why “Worst-Case Thinking” Gets It Wrong

Dear Readers — Oh my god, this is a BRILLIANT essay by security expert Bruce Schneier. He’s a guy who thinks a lot about terrorism, but his words will make sense to all of us who are concerned with the difference between real danger (which we’d like to guard against) and “worst-case thinking,” which over-reacts to unlikely scenarios. Listen to this Schneier-ism:

There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability…”

Just like people who assume if their kid goes out to play, she MAY be kidnapped, so she probably WILL be kidnapped, so why take that awful risk? That’s the kind of worst-case thinking that leads folks to believes they can never let their (soon to be preyed upon) kids out of their sight. And listen to this:

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

So true! The “cost” of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in. In other words: “Why risk my sweet child’s safety?” is never countered by, “What does my child GAIN by walking to school, and playing outside, and  becoming street-smart and self-reliant,” etc. etc. And then there’s this!

Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planetis bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.

And that’s the only point I disagree on. Because if a fear would make a good television plot, it works, too.

Finally, regarding our inflated sense of doom, regarding our kids (and everything else):

…worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don’t know — and what we can imagine.

And then he quotes the venerable Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting (a seminal book in my house):

“Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, the government and institutions should organize their life. It institutionalizes insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularizing the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats.”

Thank you to so many readers who sent this in. The essay really puts everything in focus: When we jump to the worst case scenario AND assume that because we can PICTURE it, that’s proof enough it could happen,  we are living in a nightmare.

And thank you to Bruce Schneier for helping to wake us up. — Lenore

What if you leave your child at home while you get milk and a bomber comes by?

British Kids Being Mummy-fied

Hi Readers:  Just in case you were wondering what America may to start look like, in terms of helicoptering, check out this story from ahead-of-the-craziness-curve England. It notes:

The survey of 6,099 people commissioned by LV= Streetwise, a charity that educates children about safety, revealed that nearly a quarter of children aged 15 or under were not allowed to sleep at a friend’s house, 60 percent were forbidden to travel on public transport alone and 43 percent can’t go to the park without a parent or guardian.

It said more than 60 percent of mums and dads think the world is more dangerous than when they were kids.

…In contrast, just four percent of today’s adults say they were banned from sleeping-over when they were 15 or younger, only two percent were forbidden to use public transport, and the same number couldn’t go out on their own in familiar surroundings, such as their local town or park.

Got that? Just one generation ago, 98% of children were allowed to go, on their own, to the local park (not to mention the bus)!

All the more reason to get behind May 22’s “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day,” say I.  (Of course, I would.) Kids are being coddled, crippled and caged thanks to overblown parental fears. While most parents think the world has gone to hell in a handbasket filled with predators, kids today are actually SAFER than WE were when WE were kids — at least here in America. Crime is lower today than it was in the ’70s and ’80s (and not just because the kids are inside).

England is ahead of us when it comes to parental hysteria. It is time for us to declare our independence –again! And if you want to celebrate with a cookout and sparklers, go right ahead. (Just keep a fire extinguisher handy.) — Lenore

Don't Tread on Kids

Hey Kids (and Parents) Don’t Forget to Fail!

Hi Readers — Those of you who have read my book know there’s a chapter called, “Fail! It’s the New Succeed!” The idea being that when we let kids fail, they learn that it’s not the end of the world and this is a great lesson, even though it’s very painful (for parents. And kids, too, I guess.)

So here’s a fantastic Wall Street Journal column by Sue Shellenbarger timed to coincide with all the rejection letters high school seniors are currently receiving from the colleges of their choice. Warren Buffet, Meredith Vieria, Tom Brokaw — they all had their hearts and egos broken by schools that said, “Nay.”  So did Ted Turner. Harold Varmus was turned down by Harvard Med School twice. That was, of course, before the pathetic reject went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

The whole piece is great reading for any parent or kid wondering if the world has indeed come to an end. Great reading for me, too, who was turned down by that stupid, stuck-up school in Cambridge, Mass. The same one that also turned down Warren Buffet, who went on to give $12 million to the school that DID take him (Columbia). Life goes on. Revenge is sweet.  — Lenore

The Baby Sling Thing

Hi Readers! Perhaps you read the other day that now even baby slings are regarded as “risky” by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. This because, over the course of 20 years, there have been a reported 13 baby sling-related deaths.

It is really hard to write “death” in any story about children without sounding cavalier when adding, “Does that really mean a product is risky?” But still, that’s what I have to write. The odds are so overwhelmingly good for babies in slings — fewer than one death a year — that to label a product like this “dangerous” is to label doing almost anything on earth dangerous. In 1999, 624 people died falling off of furniture. So is sitting on furniture risky?

Another 45 people died that year from being bitten or crushed by reptiles. I’d consider that a rather uncommon way to go. But it is about 5000% more common (isn’t it? Help me out with these numbers, folks!) than dying in a sling. Even dying thanks to a venomous spider — 6 deaths in 1999 — is way more common. Here’s a death chart. See for yourself.

Then check out this nice piece by Rachel Lever in the Salt Lake City Parenting Examiner, about the sling thing. “I’m all for child safety, believe me,” she writes. “I have five of my own children and I want them to outlive me. What I worry about here is that people will go too far.”

I worry, too. In fact, I worry that we worry so much we have lost all perspective and are afraid of our own shadows. And especially our baby’s shadows. — Lenore

It's not like baby slings are a new fad.