Tag Archives: Obesity

Overscheduling Kids Negatively Affects Development: Parenting Without Borders, Part 6

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we’ll look at the importance of unstructured “play.”

There’s an epidemic of overscheduling kids in the US and it’s negatively affecting development. You’ve probably heard or seen the stereotype: afterschool, little Johnny is off to baseball practice on Mondays, piano practice on Tuesdays, swimming on Wednesday, every other Thursday is Boy Scouts, and on Friday, the family goes to the cottage (when there aren’t piano recitals, baseball games, or swimming tests on the weekends). Oh, there’s also little Julie who has all of her extracurricular activities afterschool, too. Don’t get me wrong, certainly those activities will be helpful in little Johnny or little Julia’s development (within those activities), but they will be harmful in other ways.

All of the activities I mentioned above are structured activities. Meaning, there are clear and set boundaries and defined outcomes contained within. Kids will certainly learn from these kinds of activities, but they are being robbed of the importance and value of unstructured play. From the book:

One survey found that 79% of middle and high school students participate in some sort of activities during the weekdays or on the weekends; 57% have an extracurricular activity every day or almost every day. As scheduled activities have increased, the amount of outdoor time children enjoy has plummeted. Today, the average American child is spending only between four and seven [!] minutes in unstructured outdoor play.

It looks like it’s implied in the passage that this is daily play (but it doesn’t specify). Four to seven minutes — are you kidding me? That’s the amount of time we’re supposed to be spending brushing our teeth everyday (three times a day, at least two minutes each). How the heck is an imagination supposed to develop in only 5 minutes a day?

Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you about that yet, did I:

Childhood play is how kids construct meaning and make sense of the world when they are little, and discover what they love as they grow. Play is a springboard for creativity: as kids pretend and make up their own games, they create possibilities out of thin air. Pretend play is an especially crucial way to hone human intelligence because of how it enables kids to envision possibilities.

So I say again, how is an imagination supposed to keenly develop in 5 minutes a day?

In this chapter, Gross-Loh also tries to draw connections to the rise in childhood obesity and increase in the use of antidepressants in American children. While those points are valid, I think the previous point — development of creativity — is a strong enough argument for more unstructured play all on its own. I mean, some parents often lament the shrinking amount of time spent on arts and physical education in schools. It turns out, children’s access to “arts” is probably getting a similar treatment (by having been overscheduled and given little time to develop their imagination).

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It turns out that part of the shift to structured activities began in the ’80s and ’90s when the media alerted us to new research in brain development. However, as is often the case when it comes to the media reporting on scientific research, there was a disconnect between what the research actually said and what was expressed in the news. The message from the research was mainly geared to “disadvantaged children” (about the importance of those earlier years) and then the message became co-opted such that all parents thought it was important to focus on those early years. As it happens, this may be to the detriment of children:

Researchers found that early-learning centers, which promise to give infants, toddlers, and preschoolers an academic head start, produced children who eventually had more difficulty: anxiety about tests, lowered creativity, and less of a liking for academics. Many studies show that “artificial stimulation” — early learning that is developmentally inappropriate — can be counterproductive and even hinder children’s development. One well-known study showed that the more babies watched educational baby videos, the more their vocabulary dropped.

There are also myriad behavioural issues that can develop by trying to force this early learning on kids (and we wonder why there’s been an explosion in the diagnosis of kids with ADD or ADHD?). There’s probably a number of reasons for the higher frequency in that diagnosis, but I suspect that the pressures felt by parents to force their kids into environments that will foster behavioural issues is a factor.

I’m already close to 1000 words and I haven’t even talked about how the effects that overscheduling has on a child’s ability to figure out what they’re passionate about (how can you figure out with you like when you’re always being shuttled from activity to activity?) or how it’s important to intersperse physical activity with learning (breaks are essential to improving a person’s attention).

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One of the main reasons that I chose to write about this book through a series was to make sure that I presented different perspectives, so I wanted to make sure that I offer a few examples of that before closing this post.

In Denmark, there’s a forest kindergarten for students between the ages of three and six. Gross-Loh shared a delightful anecdote about the kids wanting to go swimming in the sea (in the winter) and how the teacher didn’t tell them about how the water was frozen. Instead, the class all walked to the sea to learn that in the winter, the water is frozen and that when you break the ice and go in the water (yes, some of the kids put their feet/legs in), the water is extremely cold. A perfect quote from that story: “There is no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.”

In Germany, they also have a forest school where it’s not only normal, but it’s encouraged for kids of different ages to be playing together (just like we learned in Japan in previous chapters).

And let’s leave the last word to Gross-Loh:

The children spend “off task” — time that might seem idle and wasted — is often full of interior richness. Children are doing exactly what they should be doing. The benefits of play seem, to me, to be as crucial for our kids’ futures as anything we enroll them in, because through play, they internalize a valuable lifelong attitude: the idea that they have the power to make something of their own lives, and that they can create so much out of so little.

The Complications of Spoken Confidence

Sometime last year, I came across a speech from the 2015 Toastmasters World Champion, Mohammed Qahtani. If you have a few minutes, I really suggest you take the time to watch it. OK, let’s say you only have a couple of minutes: just watch the introduction.

**SPOILERS BELOW**

While I’m not a fan of Qahtani’s parenting style (either option), I’m going to skip over that for now, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post. I’m also going to skip over the stereotypical portrayal of scientists, again, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post (but I will say that I’ve never meant a scientist who confirms that ‘stereotypical portrayal’). The main reason for writing this post is the first few minutes of the video. The startling anecdote that Qahtani shares about smoking and diabetes. Be honest — did you believe him when he said, “the amount of people dying from diabetes is three times as many dying from smoking?” Based on the audience’s response, I suspect that there are probably — at least — some of you who didn’t know this. To be clear, it’s not my aim to make you feel bad about this. If this isn’t a piece of data you’ve been exposed to at some point in your life, you probably have little reason to know. (Unfortunately, smoking is part of my family history, so I knew Qahtani was up to something when I heard him make that statement. Oh, and if you’re curious, WHO posits that smoking is the leading cause of death where 1 in 10 adults worldwide [!] die as a result of it, whereas diabetes is ‘only’ the 7th leading cause of death in the US.)

Circling back to the video… conviction. Did you notice the conviction with which Qahtani parroted the statistics about diabetes and smoking? He said it so assuredly that it almost makes you want to believe him (or at a minimum, question whether what you thought you knew about those two pieces of statistics was true or not). When I saw him do this, it reminded me of the hundreds of articles you see published each year that advise people on how to sell themselves or their company. The infamous elevator pitch.

Invariably, when you read articles (or books!) about how to give a good elevator pitch, you’re going to find that it’s very common that one of the most important things you can do in that elevator pitch is to be confident (or passionate or some other synonym that fits nicely into the author’s acronym). Don’t get me wrong, confidence is certainly important when it comes to making your elevator pitch, but in seeing Qahtani express himself with an air of confidence, it made me wonder about the human fallibility, with regard to elevator pitches.

Sure, I suspect that for people who’s job it is to listen to elevator pitches on a constant basis will tell you that they have a finely tuned BS-detector, but what about the rest of us who haven’t spent 10,000 hours listening to elevator pitches? I bet you’re thinking that you don’t have to worry about that when it comes to your field because you’re an expert. OK. Let’s accept for a moment that you are — what about all the other fields that you haven’t achieved “expert” status in — what do you do there? Well, I suppose you/we could perfect y/our BS-detector, but I suppose there’s still the possibility that you might make a type I/II error (depending upon your perspective). That is, there’s still the possibility that you might miss the BS for what it is and it’s also possible that you might incorrectly assess something as BS when it’s actually gold!

On that note, I want to leave you with the powerful words of Dr. Maya Angelou, on words:

Stand and Deliver: We Think Better on Our Feet — Literally

Did you see the post from ScienceDaily a couple of months ago? As it turns out, we think better when we’re on our feet. Maybe more importantly though, given how much we tend to sit throughout the day, standing is a good way to change things up (and standing is actually better for us than siting).

This study looked at standing desks in the context of education. In particular, with regard to elementary school-aged children. Given the epidemic of obesity, particularly in America, it certainly seems like a good idea to try and tackle an issue at one of the roots (sitting). While we already know that as a general rule, standing is better than sitting, the researchers were interested in how this would affect the academic performance of students. The results obtained indicate that there are no adverse effects on engagement for those students who were standing. Translation: standing desks don’t negatively affect academic engagement. Wonderful!

Of course, the researchers make it clear that this applied to the sample they studied (about 300 students of 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-grade age, from three schools in one suburban school district), and that there’ll need to be replication. The thing that I’m most curious about moving forward is different ages. In particular, older students. I presume that there’d be similar effects found in 6th and 7th grade and for teenagers as well, but it’d be great to see this confirmed with data.

Why stop at high school, though. It’d also be great to see this for university students. I suppose you can see where I’m going with this, right?

Whenever I go to a conference or a talk somewhere, there are almost always a handful of people who can’t bear to sit through the whole thing and it’s not because of a lack of engagement from the speaker. It’s probably a combination of factors, but what if it’s also because they find that they (the audience members of the talk) can be more engaged when they’re standing in the back of the room (or off to the side)? And if, as adults, we think that we’re better engaged in what the speaker is saying when we’re standing, why don’t we also offer that same option to our kids?

ResearchBlogging.orgDornhecker, M., Blake, J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of stand-biased desks on academic engagement: an exploratory study International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/14635240.2015.1029641

Should it be Illegal to Call Someone ‘fat’ on TV?

Jennifer Lawrence thinks so.

Take a look:

She certainly makes a good point. If we’re regulating other words that are spoken on TV because of the effect they have on younger generations, why not the word fat? I can already begin to see the argument against: “if we start regulating words like ‘fat,’ does this become a slippery slope into regulating other words?” While I understand that practically, regulating criticisms like ‘fat’ on TV might be a bit difficult, I think it’s certainly something interesting to consider.

I originally saw this clip as part of a bit from Morning Joe, but that doesn’t embed so well here, so I found a clip of Walters’ interview with Lawrence on YouTube. The actual bit I saw had some commentary from some of the folks who make regular appearances on the morning television program on MSNBC. As I said, I can’t embed that video, so take a look.

Similar to how the opinion can be understood of the “slippery slope,” the first fellow that speaks on the video that’s telling Jennifer Lawrence (and other celebrities) to ‘shut up’ because they always blame the media for everything — I don’t buy that. It’s not that the media’s at fault for everything, but as has been demonstrated, they certainly do have a large impact on the way that people feel about themselves. In particular, young and impressionable people.

As a result, someone who outright denies the possibility that the media can have an opinion on the way that young people (and even not young people!) can feel about themselves, to me, seems out of touch. To reiterate, I can see where this fellow is coming from, but putting that aside for a second, Jennifer Lawrence absolutely has a point. There’s certainly a culture of highlighting flaws that is perpetuated (not just in the media), but in our culture — and in particular, with young women. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: if you haven’t yet, take the time and watch Miss Representation. It’s an important documentary that I hope will shed some light on this issue.

To be clear, I’m not implying that people, the media, or our culture are necessarily perpetuating this attitude intentionally, but that doesn’t mean that there completely innocent, either.

New Perspective on Healthiness: When You Get Unhealthy, Your Spouse or Your Kids Pay For It

I’m certainly a fan of behavioral economics, behavioral finance, and especially the ideas in Richard Thaler‘s book, Nudge. After reading Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human earlier this winter, I was thinking about how to combine some of the principles of those books in tackling what is a self-inflicted crisis: obesity.

Last month, I wrote about the importance of considering neuromarketing in the discussion of obesity, but I think there’s another way to frame this discussion. More importantly, at first blush, when framing it this way, I think it could motivate some people to take better care of themselves (at a minimum, it helped to motivate me to do so). I don’t remember how I came to this idea, but I know that it combines some of the things that I’ve read in the books I mentioned above (and was why I made note of them).

The idea: a marketing campaign in which we tell people that, when they get unhealthy, their spouse or their kids will have to pay for it.

Most people don’t want to burden their spouses (or their children), so I thought that by drawing to their attention that their spouse/kids will be the ones who’ll have to take care of them (and maybe pay for the cost of their care?), it might sway people away from making those choices that negatively affect their health.

When I had a conversation with someone about this, they raised the important point that many people don’t have spouses and many people don’t have kids, so this campaign might not be as successful as I first thought. Those are very valid points, but don’t we think that many people will — eventually — have spouses? If we can agree to that we then could add “future” spouse or “future” children to the campaign. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the underlying principle of the idea. Do you think that people care that their spouses/kids will be left to take care of them?

The Obesity Crisis: How Come No One’s Talking About Neuromarketing?

The Economist did a fantastic special report on obesity a few issues back. I highly recommend reading it. You may see the obesity debate in a whole new light. However, I was a bit disappointed in the closing paragraph of one of their opening articles in that issue:

There is a limit, however, to what the state can or should do. In the end, the responsibility and power to change lie primarily with individuals. Whether people go on eating till they pop, or whether they opt for the healthier, slimmer life, will have a bigger effect on the future of the species than most of the weighty decisions that governments make.

I can totally understand where this perspective is coming from, but I don’t think that this perspective accounts for neuromarketing.

The technical definition:

In recent times, ‘neuromarketing’ has come to mean the application of neuroimaging techniques to sell products.

Meaning, marketers hook you up to a machine while you watch images/video of  product and then notice when certain areas of your brain light up. With this information, they’re able to tell when your brain is active and — theoretically — determine that it’s because of what you’re watching. [Is that frightening to anyone?] So, as the title of this post asks, with regard to the obesity crisis, why isn’t anyone talking about neuromarketing? Let me make the connection a little clearer.

We know that through neuromarketing, it’s possible to determine how our brains react to certain advertisements and products. With this information, companies can then use the advertisements that are most successful in getting consumers to buy their products. If we apply what we know from this abstract scenario to the food industry (is it weird to anyone else that it’s called the food industry?) we can posit that there are probably companies out there who use neuromarketing techniques to convince consumers to buy their product. Isn’t it possible (probable?) that companies who are in the business of selling us over-the-top sugary drinks or unnecessarily sweet-tooth-inducing treats also in the business of using neuromarketing techniques to convince us that we need to be drinking these drinks or eating these treats?

Getting back to the opening quote from The Economist, my response would have to be — in part — no. While I agree that personal responsibility is important, sometimes, the environment is too compelling. In this case, the environment is neuromarketing. How can a consumer make an informed choice if her/his brain is being manipulated?

I’m not sure of the solution to the obesity epidemic (though I have an idea that I’ll talk about in the coming days!), but I know that we most certainly need to include neuromarketing in that discussion.