August 27, 2014

Should Your Child Walk To School?

The answer is probably “yes.” Yes, your child – every child – should walk to school if it’s possible to do so.  There are solid reasons why.

First off, early morning exposure to the outdoors contributes to better sleep at night. This is so counter-intuitive that it needs some explanation. Sunlight tells the brain to wake up and resets a person’s biological clock. Without this reset, the brain’s natural cycle is longer than 24 hours, meaning that a person is likely to gradually go to sleep later and later – and get up later and later. To keep the brain on track, outdoor light early in the morning (even on cloudy days) is important.

To wake your child’s head up for school and get your child’s head to sleep at night, walking to school is the perfect solution.

Second, early morning exercise has been demonstrated to increase learning and lead to academic success. A study at one high school that compared students who started the day with gym class to those who took gym later in the day found great increases in academic success among the early exercises. In fact, students with first-period gym and who had access throughout the day to exercise equipment doubled their reading scores and increased their math scores by as much as 20 times.

Walking to school is a simple way to get early exercise into the day. Walking gets the brain going, increases oxygen to the brain and releases neurotrophic factors essential to brain health. Walking anytime during the day can do this, but why not start the day off right?

In earlier eras, all children walked to school. We’ve fallen so much into the habit of transportation to school that even when a child is not eligible for school bus service, parents are likely to drive their child to school in the family car. This leads to congestion around schools twice each day, contributes to air pollution around school buildings, and adds to the danger for children as they enter and exit the school. You can reverse this trend and make your child smarter at the same time. Here are some tips.
  • Walk to school with your child. There are few greater pleasures than walking and talking to and from school. The walk back home alone is the perfect time to think about your own day too.
  • Link up with other parents and take it in turns to walk to and from school with children from several families. Organize a Walking Schoolbus in your neighborhood.
  • Drive part way if the walk is too long. Parking several blocks from the school and walking the rest of the way gives your child the benefits of an early morning walk but keeps the distance manageable and reduces traffic around the school.
  • Walk to school in the morning and let your child take the bus or a car home.
  • Don’t let the weather stop you. Remember that weather almost always seems worse from inside the house. Get out in the weather and enjoy every day, not just the sunny ones.
  • Just do it. There are lots of excuses. Don’t accept any of them. Instead, work through solutions to the barriers and make walking to school what your child does.

How would the day be different if it started more calmly, with a bit of exercise, a bit of seeing what’s happening in the neighborhood, a bit of conversation with your child? If you think that recapturing just a bit of a past pattern might get the day off right, then do it. Start a trend. Let your child walk to school.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

August 14, 2014

Is Your Child’s World Too Small? Was Yours?

The fun a child is allowed to have depends on when he was born, according to results of a survey conducted by Slate magazine. When the data from all 6,000 respondents were tallied, the results became clear: your parents had more fun than they let you have and your kids are allowed to do less than you did.

The world of experience has shrunk dramatically over the past 30 years.

Take walking to and from school, for example. People born in the 1940s were allowed (some would say required) to walk to school, starting in the second or third grade. Children born in the 1980s weren’t allowed to walk to school by themselves until fifth grade, and by the 1990s children couldn’t walk to school on their own until they hit middle school.

All sorts of other ordinary activities follow the same trend, like going to the playground alone, being out after dark, using the stove, and using sharp tools. People born in earlier eras were allowed more freedom than children born in later eras, with the greatest difference in the 1990s compared to those born in the 1980s. Adults who are now in their early 20s grew up in a much smaller world than adults who are now in their early 30s, and in a much, much smaller world than their grandparents experienced.

It’s reasonable to assume that the trend continues. Because the survey participants were all adults, the experience of teens and children born since 2000 was not included. But given that a parent in South Carolina was arrested recently for allowing her 9-year-old child to go to the playground alone, it’s fair to guess that the limits put on kids’ activities have grown even greater. What do you allow your kids to do on their own?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the world is much more dangerous for children today than it was in the 1960s and it takes a lot of oversight to keep kids safe. But this is flat-out wrong.  While it’s true that child abductions have increased in recent years, this increase is entirely due to kidnappings by non-custodial parents of their own children. While the divorce rate has increased over time, and so the number of disgruntled exes, the rate of kidnappings by strangers has not.

The impression that children are snatched off street corners on a daily basis is supported by today’s constant stream of news updates unheard of before the Internet era. Child abductions seem more common simply because events in remote localities now make the national and social media news. In fact, the jump in parental restrictions between the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed almost entirely to Reagan era panic over child safety. This is the time when Have-You-Seen-Me milk carton messages started, when Reagan declared National Missing Children’s Day, and when playgrounds were shutdown nationwide because of equipment suddenly deemed unsafe, despite years of uneventful play by generations of children.

Children’s shrinking world is a problem for their development and so for our development as a country. As you are well aware by now, we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. Spending time in the house, playing with electronic gadgets or even reading, develops the brain in only one way. Children miss out on opportunities to learn and develop complex skills that make them more capable of handling adult challenges and solving big problems. When we make our kids afraid to go outside, we set the stage for dependency, obesity, and rigid thinking.  And we start our future grandchildren on the path for even duller lives than the ones we’ve given our children.

It’s not your fault. If you were born in the Reagan era, the fault for your own timidity lies in the fear-mongering and over-reaction to danger that was common among grown-ups when you were in your early years. But the solution is your responsibility.

Will you continue the trend and keep your children closer and even more limited than you were as a child? Will you shrink their world to something even smaller than yours? Or will you embrace the rich experiences that only come with freedom to explore and learn?  Here are some first steps:
  • Let your child walk to school. If school is within walking distance, great. If it’s not, park a few blocks away – in an area where other kids are walking – and let him walk from there. Walk 15 feet behind him if you must, but let him go.
  • Let your child go at the playground. Quit saying “be careful” all the time and let your child figure out what is safe to do. If you have to stand nearby, go ahead. But don’t be obvious about being your child’s spotter.
  • Let your child make his own purchases at the store. Don’t count out his money for him and don’t count his change. Stand behind him as if you were the next customer in line and let him manage this for himself.
  • Let your child cook something. Yes, the stove gets hot. Yes, knives are sharp. Your kid’s no dummy, she knows this stuff. She’ll be more careful if you’re not hovering over her every move. Be nearby if she needs some help but otherwise get out of her way.
  • Let your child play in your yard without being supervised. For goodness sake, isn’t this why you got a house with a yard, so the kids could play in it? Let them go outside, even in the front. 

If your child is old enough to make his own decisions, let him. Widen his world.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

August 05, 2014

Do You Call Your Teen When He’s Driving?

We all know that talking or texting while driving is a bad thing to do. We know that teens are especially likely to use their phones while behind the wheel. But who are they talking to? You!

A study of 400 teens, aged 15 to 18 from 31 states, reported that more than half of their calls – 53% - were from their mother or father. According to Noelle LaVoie, lead researcher, “Teens said parents expect to be able to reach them, that parents get mad if they don’t answer their phone and they have to tell parents where they are.” Teens also said their parents use their phones while driving and don’t seem to think that calling or texting while driving is a big deal.

Of course, it is a big deal. In 2011 cell phone use was blamed in nearly one-quarter of all fatal crashes involving teen drivers. Cell phones are responsible for an even greater number of non-fatal accidents, accidents that can put your teen in the hospital, raise your insurance rates, or damage your car. Yet a 2013 survey found that 86% of high school juniors and seniors routinely use their cell phones while driving.

You are part of this problem. Here’s what you must do, starting right now.
1.     If you know your child is driving, don’t call her. Just don’t. Wait until you can imagine she’s safely arrived at her destination.
2.     Instead of calling, text your child. Nothing you have to say is so important as keeping your kid’s eyes on the road. You can afford to let your child get back to you when it’s safe to do so.
3.     Make it clear to your child that you do not want her to answer your call or text if she’s driving. In fact, make it clear that she should never answer anyone’s call or text while on the road. Don’t crab at your kid or penalize her for not answering you immediately.
4.     Set a good example. Quit talking on the phone or texting while you drive and stop answering the phone when you’re on the road. If you believe an incoming call is vital, pull over and stop the car.

The notion that a brain can do two things at once has been demonstrated to be false. Instead, brains do one thing at a time, switching attention between competing needs. Teens are not any better at multitasking than adults are. They have not somehow trained their brains to attend to more than one thing at once.

Similarly, the notion that driving is so automatic that there’s lots of brain bandwidth left over for phone use is not true. Certainly while you drive, your brain has time to think of things you should be doing and people you need to talk with. But your brain doesn’t have capacity to actually do those things or launch those conversations. Get where you’re going, then do what you need to do.

Parents have been demonstrated to be a huge part of the problem of teens’ distracted driving. Now it’s time for parents to be a huge part of the solution.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.