Friday, December 16, 2011

Invisible Scars

In his book ‘Invisible,’* artist turned author Hugues De Montalembert, who tragically lost his sight when a burglar threw paint remover in his face, describes a scene that unfolded with a Paris Taxi cab driver. During a Paris trip in a taxi-cab, the Cambodian driver extended his sympathy towards Montalembert for his obvious handicap. The author thanked him for his concern, but remarked that there were “people much more wounded than me.” A moment of silence ensued, before the cabbie opened up and confessed that his wife and children had been slaughtered right before his eyes in Cambodia. “So there he was,” Montalembert writes, “driving his cab in Paris with this huge wound that nobody could see.”

This story illustrates a principle that is very active in our everyday lives, and one we should all try to remember more often: Our perceptions of the world, especially those involving judgments or assessments of others, are limited by what we don't know about them. A primary contributor to many of the problems we face in this world is that everyone is limited by their own perception, and thus blinded by what we cannot see.

We float about our daily lives, bumping into our fellow human beings along the way, relating to each other like pinballs - reacting according to what we encounter on the surface. We all have a tendency to get lost in our own little world, dealing with all the problems and little dramas in our own lives. Amidst this, we tend to forget that others have their own issues that they are dealing with, and that these issues can impact the choices they make or the way they behave. We take in a fraction of a percent of the knowledge about other individuals, yet we turn around and use this sliver of a perspective to make rash judgments that we then hold in the utmost confidence. From the people we judge on news or TV shows to those we interact with in our day-to-day lives, we are all guilty of making surface judgments about others.

Not every taxi-cab driver has had his wife and children slaughtered in a genocide, but every single one of us is the product of our inherent biological quirks interacting against our life experiences, and you rarely see even so much as a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes material that makes the person. We all carry our own scars and woes, our own hidden stressors, and it is usually these hidden issues and underlying insecurities that drive the ugliest behavior we see in others. Perhaps the rude man you ran into at the grocery store just received a foreclosure notice. Maybe the woman who cut in front of you in line is worried about losing her job if she's late getting back from her break. Perhaps the driver who just cut you off is working two jobs to make ends meet and is caving under the stress. Perhaps the ex-convict who was re-arrested for committing another crime had filled out a thousand job applications and could not find a single employer who would give him a chance, and so he regressed back to the only way he knew to make a living.

With every person and in every situation, there are always angles we cannot see. It's a reminder to be a little more patient, a little more compassionate, and perhaps a little more understanding and less judgmental when others do upsetting things or get on our nerves. Nobody wakes up in the morning with a desire to be evil or means spirited; each of us is merely doing our best to manage the unique struggles we each face according the mental and environmental resources we have available. It’s good to remember this when you end up on the receiving end of someone's less-than-desirable behavior. There are always underlying stressors and hidden motivations residing under the surface. So always keep in mind that your perspective is limited - don't let your view of the world be blinded, or your empathy for others dampened, by ignoring the things you cannot see.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Learning Physics While Skateboarding

A cleaver study by psychologist Michale McBeath of Arizona state University, found that skateboarders are better than college students at answering physics questions related to slope. When give the problem of predicting which ball reached the bottom first on two slopes, one with a steeper incline, then a flat spot in the middle, then another steeper incline, verses a slope with s steady decline and not flat spots, more experienced skateboarders recruited from a skateboarding park got this counter intuitive problem correct (61%) than did college students (27%). The correct answer is that the ball on the slope with the long flat area will reach the bottom first, because it's slightly incline on the other two sections makes up for the level area.

So how does this experiment pertain to you kid? We found it interesting because it shows that intuition about complicated mathematical concepts really does come from experience learned through a child's interaction with the physical world. Weather it be skateboarding, riding bikes, playing sports, or simply getting outside in nature, a child's core intelligence is strengthened through physical activity and interaction with the natural world. So send your kids outside so that they can study physics!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Teen Girls, Competition; and Self-Esteem

We all want our sons or daughters to be winners and not losers. But when it comes to teens and competition, there may be something more important for your child's self-esteem than whether or not they win or lose.

New research out of California State University, in collaboration with the University of Texas at Dallas, examined two types of competition involving high school seniors: competing to win and competing to excel. The spirit of competing to excel is not necessarily to beat out your competition, but to surpass your own personal goals or improve one's skills. In the study, more boys than girls reported competing to win--a finding consistent with other research. And for boys, who are naturally more competitive to begin with, this attitude of seeking to dominate rivals, annihilate the competition, and prove their superior skill did not significantly relate to outcomes of mental health.

Yet the spirit of competition seems to affect boys and girls differently, and among teenage girls, it was a quite different story. Females who said that they competed to win reported higher rates of both depression and loneliness, as well as fewer friends and social relationships, when compared to girls who said they did not compete to outperform their competition. Meanwhile, in both boys and girls, competing to excel was correlated with higher self-esteem, more feelings of achievement and lower rates of depression.

There could be several reasons for such a finding. More competitive teens tend to be harsher both on themselves and others when they feel they don't measure up. And since these psychological inventories tend to capture traits that leak into other areas, it's hard to say which is causing which. (More competitive spirits may be more often seen in narcissistic and/or self-absorbed teens, as well as in those with a poor self-image, who may use competition as a crutch to make up for other self-esteem issues.) And of course, teens that make a habit of showing off and showing down their peers will tend to drive away friends, thus leading to more social isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Whatever the answer, there is one thing for certain: it's not necessarily whether you win or lose, but the manner in which you approach the competition. It's a message I'm sure most parents would agree with, yet it's one that often gets lost in practice. Too often the focus in competitions rests solely on winning, with awards, trophies, and recognition/praise given solely for beating the competition. Whether as parents or as educators or as coaches, we could all do more to encourage competing to excel versus competing to win. Do we recognize a child's improved performance? Do we comment about how they've improved over themselves? Do we award self-growth in sports and other interests as much as we do dominating the competition? Or is the focus merely on winning or losing?

You don't need to downplay the thrills of winning or pretend that losing can't be unpleasant. We’re not trying to advocate a delicate-flower philosophy where everyone must get a blue ribbon just for showing up. Just try to include the focus on competing to improve oneself, and make it just as much a part of the game as a win/loss column. It will help youth develop a more well-rounded and healthy spirit of competition. After all, few of us can be Tiger Woods or John Elway or Kobe Bryant. If the only goal is getting to the top, it's one that will end in failure for 99.999% of youth.
But when the focus is built as much around improving oneself as it is measuring up against others, it's a goal everyone can feel good about obtaining.

Some quick guidelines for promoting the spirit of "competing to excel":

1. Set individual goals for participants in team sports, and reappraise them at the end of the season.

2. Point out the varying degrees of ability in everyday life. Even among professional athletes who have reached the top tier, there are varying degrees of ability, yet all are an important part of making up the team.

3. When your child loses a game but scores a goal or plays well, do you celebrate their performance? After all, a game is comprised of many parts that are more than just a score card, and these can be praised even amidst a loss.

4. Model this behavior yourself. It's going to be difficult for your kids to adopt this spirit if you treat winning as everything yourself.

5. Make a habit of praising other players, teams, and play. This sends the message that it’s OK to recognize the skills of others without feeling threatened by it.

6. Start early. If you foster this spirit in little league, kids will have healthy attitudes towards sports during the teenage years and for the rest of their life.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Darker Side of Reusable Grocery Bags

Kudos to those who have started using renewable grocery bags when they shop. Lord knows our depleted planet needs any relief from the parasites that are us which we can possibly give it. But like all things in life, there are sometimes unintended trade-offs, and a few of these are becoming evident as consumers make the switch from paper or plastic to reusable grocery bags.

One thing people need to be aware of is the possibility for contamination from reuse. For example, if you put a hunk of meat in your bag, and it drips, you could start your own little E-coli culture in the bottom of the bag, which could sicken your family if the next time you place vegetables or other food items in it. A joint study by the University of Arizona and Lona Linda University in California found that half of the 84 reusable bags they tested had coliform bacteria, which is not surprising considering 97% of users said they never wash them.

Also concerning was a recent report by the Tampa Tribune, which found that reusable bags purchased at Winn-Dixie, Publix, Sweetboy, Walmart and Target all contained lead. This is particularly troublesome given that we put our food in them. The good news, according to testers, is that the lead seems to be in paint used for illustrations on the bag, which wouldn't easily rub off on food, though it might eventually flake.

In response, retailers are asking suppliers to make reusable bags with less lead, and some are calling on federal agencies to put a ban in place for reusable bags that contain lead. Don't ask us why it's so hard to make bags without any lead, but apparently, it is.

Reusable grocery bags currently make up 10% to 15% of the market, and are expected to grow to as much as 25% in the next few years. And there's good reason to be using them. Plastic bags are the world's second most common form of marine debris (the first is cigarette butts) according to a 2009 report by Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group.

Just be sure to take proper precautions. Wash your bag regularly, particularly after using it to transport something that is potentially hazardous, such as raw meat. Or you can make an exception for meat products and stick with the stores plastic bags rather than transport it in your reusable one. That way you can have guilt-free shopping while ensuring your family's safety at the same time. Almost guilt free, I should say ...there's nothing to be done about that bag of cookies in the cart.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Parents: No cellphones for toys

Call phone are like computers: if it is a few years old, it's already out of date. But as millions of parents update their device, many have been giving their old cell phone to the kids to play with. This, however, has created an unintended problem for 911 call centers.

Many parents don't realize that as a safety feature, any deactivated cell phone can still dial 911. It doesn't matter weather the service is shut off, if it still has juice in the battery or some other power source, it can still call 911. Some will even dial the emergency number simply by pressing 9. So as parents let their preschoolers play with a deactivated cell phone that still has power, it has presented an unintended problem for emergency responders.

So if you want to give your child an old phone as a play prop, please make sure that the power in the battery is completely drained. It may be more fun for kids if the buttons work, but not so much for the police and firefighters who have to chase down rogue calls.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sewage in Your Tap-water...Oh Joy!

This is America. And in America, you assume there are certain things you can count on. You expect that the electricity will work if you pay your bills, or that you're not going to fall into a giant, unfixed sinkhole while driving down the highway. And you assume that when you turn on your faucet, clean water, and not untreated sewage, will greet your efforts and fill the sink. Yet a new report suggests such simplistic assumptions may be naive. It turns out that your dog may have known something you didn't all those years: the water in the toilet might be just as clean as the water supplying the taps in some areas of the country.

A new report by the American Society of civil Engineers (ASCE) paints a dim picture about the state of America's water system. National drinking and wastewater systems scored a pitiful D-minus on the group's annual report card - the lowest grade in their analysis. Alongside the ever-growing list of crumbling infrastructure problems in the U.S., it seems that our water systems might be in the worst shape.

Most unsettling of all - and you can chalk this one up alongside that memory of the time you surprised grandma in the shower as things you'd rather forget - was the disclosure that as much as 10 billion gallons of sewage flow through America's taps annually. As a result of this and other problems, approximately 19 million people are sickened from degradation in our water delivery systems every year. On top of that, in some places more water leeches out of pipes than people actually drink. It's lost through thousands of miles of old water delivery systems, some of which are made of wood or Terracotta. With shrinking water tables across the continental U.S. and the dreaded "water wars' scientists have warned about for decades just starting to arrive, this water waste is concern enough of its own.

Sewage leeches into the pipes because in some places, both water and waste pipes run along the same routes. So if pipes in these areas are heavily corroded, then puddles of sewage from a leaking waste pipe can find their way into a corroded water pipe. There are also problems in some selective water treatment plants.

The situation in New Mexico is especially dire. More than $1 billion is needed to bring its water system up to snuff, and the ASCE says fixing the water system should take top priority, naming it a more pressing concern even than roads and schools. (Lest New Mexico become even more like the water supply in old Mexico, which isn't a good thing, as many unfortunate tourists can attest to.) The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nationwide, around $300 billion is needed to bring the nation's water systems up to date and up to code. Cost estimates from the ASCE are even higher. So far, the Obama administration has secured $6 billion, hardly a drop in the bucket. (A putrid, sewage filled bucket.)

On the bright side, the taps in most areas are perfectly safe, and often times less polluted than what you might find in bottled water (which often contains contaminants leeched from the plastic; see 'The SPA Debate: Are Plastics Poisoning Your Children?) but certain problem areas, especially in rural communities that are being supplied by pipes that are old, outdated, or rusted through, it's a much different story.

In the mean time, there is one other thing you can take comfort in: It hasn't killed your dog yet.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bad Booster Seats

Booster seats can keep a child safe in a car crash, which is why many states have passed regulations requiring them for children up to 8 years old or 80 pounds. The purpose of the booster seat is simply to make the seat belt fit the child, protecting against paralysis and other serious injuries that occur whenever a child's body is whiplashed in a crash. This can occur when the shoulder strap (which provides vital upper body support) is either behind them or riding too high across the neck, rather than the child’s mid section. Yet a new study by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety finds many booster seats fail miserably at their soul purpose: positioning the seat belt properly across the child’s body.

The latest test found that half of all booster seats do not deliver a proper fit with all safety belts from different vehicles. They found 6 in particular that were especially bad:

Evenflo Brand
1. Chase model
2. Express model
3. Generation 65 model
4. Siteseer model

Dorell's Safety 1st Brand:
5. Safety First All-in-One model
6. Alpha Omega model

If you are currently using any of the above models, it is recommended you switch safety seats for your child to a higher rated model. The study gave high ratings to Harmondy Juvenile Products, who’s models of car seats all rated as "best bets." Britax Frontier 85 also scored highly. You can check the IIHS's website for more details.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Child Injuries from "Checking" in Youth Hockey

To check or not to check, that is the important safety question facing youth hockey players, their parents, and the leagues they play in. Hockey is known as a rough sport in general, but the defensive move of checking, which involves slamming another player with either your body or your stick-wielding forearms to keep him from getting to the puck, is proving to be particularly dangerous.

A 2010 study reveals that pee-wee ice hockey leagues which allow body checks among preteens report more injuries than leagues which don't, and most of these injuries are related to the body check. Publishing in the June 9 Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers did a comparative analysis of hockey players from two Canadian leagues; one which allowed checking, and one which did not. They enlisted 150 different youth hockey teams from the Pee Wee league (children ages 11 or 12, most consisting of boys but a few girls as well), and had a physical trainer or other adult record injuries to the team's players throughout the season. All told, the study tracked more than 1,000 players.

The Alberta leagues recorded 209 total injuries during games in this period. That compares to 70 game-related injuries for the non-checking Quebec teams. Among these injuries, there were 73 concussions reported among the 74 youth hockey teams which allowed checking, compared to 20 in the 76 teams in the other league that did not. This is particularly worrisome, because recent research has linked brain injuries among youth to a variety of future problems, particularly when multiple concussions are involved.

Study co-author Carolyn Emery, an epidemiologist and physiotherapist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, reports that "the public health implications of body-checking in Pee Wee ice Hockey are significant. In Alberta, we estimate that if Pee Wee ice hockey checking were removed, it would prevent over 1,000 injuries and 400 concussions per year." The study joins a growing body of research highlighting the dangers of checking in Hockey.

Players who were in the lowest 25th percentile for weight in their leagues proved more prone to injury than their heavier peers. In other words, the littlest kids got creamed the most, which shouldn't be all that surprising.

Many youth Hockey leagues already ban checking among pre-teen players for safety reasons. However, youth in older-age groups often allow the practice. Hockey is a physical sport, and parents can't shield their children from every injury, especially if it involves a game your child loves to play. But you should at least be aware of the risk: with the checking comes a substantial increase in injuries.

1. Nathan Seppa, "A check on youth hockey injuries," Science News, July 3, 201 0, Vol. 1 78 ( 1 ) :9

Visit for child safety information.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Goat Bandit Girls

They might have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for that pesky neighbor. The one who called 911 to report a curious sight; something that seemed out of place for this quiet neighborhood in Mankato, Minnesota: two young girls, in their pajamas, walking down the street in the middle of the night, with a goat.

Apparently, the 911 operator found that a bit odd as well and sent an officer to investigate. (Though in my neighborhood, you might have to through in two chickens and a donkey before it raised anyone's eyebrows.) When police arrived, they found the odd trio just as it was described, and decided to ask a few questions. The girls tried to explain that the goat lived in their closet, and that they routinely took it out for late night walks. Nothing out of the ordinary here . . . just two girls and their goat, out for a midnight stroll. The officer wasn't buying it. He walked the girls home and talked with the parents. Forget about police videos of car thieves or drunks falling over -- I want to see taped footage of how that conversation went down.

As it turns out, the step sisters, ages 6 and 7, had attended a birthday party at the Sibley Park Zoo earlier that day, when they had apparently grown so fond of the goats they decided they would take one of them home and keep it as a pet. (No word on how they smuggled the goat out of the petting zoo.) I must give them props; as a child I surprised my parents with snakes, rescued baby birds that were stashed away in strange places (usually not at the same time), but a goat? That takes ambition.

All things considered, getting caught as they did is probably for the best. Something tells me that a goat in the closet wouldn't have turned out too well in the end. If somehow the trip-trap of hoof prints coming from the bedroom didn't alert mom and dad, trying to explain why you got hungry and ate holes in all your school clothes would have been a dead give away. Although having a goat in your closet might have provided a credible excuses for why you home work got eaten . . . assuming, of course, your teacher bought into the whole goat in your closet story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

How to Forgive a Shark

When six year old Lucy Magnum was recently bitten by a shark as she boogie-boarded in the shallow waters off the North Carolina coast, she was understandably upset. Thanks to her parents, who acted quickly to get her out of the water and applied pressure to the wound, Doctor's were able to save her leg.

Recovering from her wounds in the hospital, Lucy angrily declared: "I hate sharks. I like dolphins way better." But once her parents explained that the shark had simply made a mistake and didn't know she was a human when it bit her, her attitude changed: "I don't care that the shark bit me," she told her mother. "I forgive him."

It is an amusing story, but we grabbed on to it because it nicely illustrates an important principle of psychological healing: the manner in which you frame experiences can completely alter a child's emotional reaction to it.

People can behave like sharks sometimes in that they often make mistakes that can cause others a great deal of pain and suffering. Yet how you explain those things -- as either the product of intentional malice or the misunderstanding and imperfections of flawed humans -- will determine whether a child finds a quick psychological recovery, or stays stuck in a ruminative state of negative emotions that stays with them well into the future.

Children will suffer injustices in their lives at the hands of others. Yet when they do, parents routinely cause their child far my harm than the event they are concerned about by modeling reactions that teach them a negative, stigmatizing or destructive way of relating to that event. Remember this: while experiences are limited in nature, a child's interpretation of that experience, which is largely garnered by the attitude of adults, will endure well into the future. Whether a child continues to be bothered by a negative experience often has little to do with the event itself, and everything with how parents teach them to relate to that event.

Just like sharks, people sometime make mistakes in the way they act. And just like it feels worse to think a mean-spirited shark is out to ruin our fun at the beach by trying to eat us on purpose, it feels worse when parents react to a child's other negative experience with explanations that involve intentional malice or other stigmatizing ideas. So be very careful in how you teach children to interpret the world. You want them to live in a world where good people sometimes make mistakes, not one where sharks are out to gobble them up whole.

Monday, August 1, 2011

School Bus Fees

It's a sign of the times, parents in Indianapolis, Indiana will now have to pay for school bus privileges for their children. Franklin township Community School Corp outsourced its busing duties After running into financial difficulties. Parents in the district must now pay an outside firm more that $400 a year for each child to have them taken to and from school. Angry parents packed a town hall meeting to question why the district wasn't tapping it's 17 million dollar rainy day fund to pay for it's own transportation. I guess they figured the school teachers already paying out of pocket for most classroom supplies, and parents around the country filling in for other budget cuts so their school can keep basic services such as a library, why not try to tap that stone for just a little more blood.

We have also learned that Douglas County School District in Colorado, charges it's students for bus rides and will be starting their second year of this pay for the ride program when school starts August 10th.

Off topic, yet interesting:

Biologist from the university of California, Dadis, have discovered that Western Scrub Jays hold funerals. The birds will gather in large crowds around dead comrades and voice themselves loudly. Their calls are different than those that alert of predators, indicating a unique ritual. Interestingly enough, they also held gatherings around deceased birds of other species. Though their calls weren't as robust as when it was their own kind.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kids, Cellphones, & Cancer

A long awaited study on brain cancer in children is out, and it shows no link between cellphone use and brain cancer.

The team of researchers let by Dr. Denis Aydin examined nearly 1000 children ages 7 to 19 in western Europe, including 352 with brain tumors and 646 without. It was found that there was no difference in cell phone use between those with cancer and those without. What's more, it was discovered that children had the lowest risk of tumors in the part of the brain that was exposed to the most cell phone use.

Facts about cell phone radiation
Cell phones emit weak radiation that is not strong enough to damage DNA or cause cell mutations under currently know medical process. Your child receives a higher radiation dose simply by walking outside. However, it has been shown that cell phones can increase activity in parts of the brain closest to the phone which has caused some alarm. Parents shouldn't let kids sleep with a cell phone or use it before bedtime because of this potential brain stimulation. Yet this increased activity doesn't mean damage is taking place, only that the cell phone radio waves are activating the brain.

There was one contradictory finding showing a slightly higher risk of brain tumors in kids whose cellphone subscriptions began more that 2.8 years ago. This might be a statistical anomaly considering the brain areas affected by cellphones (and thus, the areas one would expect most tumors to grow if there was a correlation.) had a lower overall risk.

We'll continue to monitor this subject for parents, but so far we've seen no discernible evidence to suggest a link between cellphone and cancer. Parents should proceed with a calm caution: limit your child's cellphone use, use headphone extensions whenever possible, and don't let your child sleep next to it, but don't panic either.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ear Infections & Prenatal Pollution

Japanese researchers publishing in the May issue of Environmental Research have found a link between prenatal exposure to dioxin-like compounds -- such as the pollution that comes from waste burning from forest fires -- and an increased risk of ear infections later in life.

The team followed 364 children from before birth to 18 months of age. Those tots who were in the highest exposure group while in the womb were five times as likely to be predisposed to ear infections as the least exposed infants. Baby boys were especially at risk.

So for expecting moms: no dancing near forest fires or holding bonfire parties to burn all you hubbies favorite man-toys. You'll just have to find other ways to have some fun.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sticks and Stones

We've all heard the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." What vicious lies our caretakers told us. This phrase is an absurdity many continue to perpetuate even today. It's all meant in good spirit, of course, uttered to encourage children not to let the harsh words of others get to them. But in doing so, it aims to brush right over the hurt and ignore a child's emotions. It's time we finally put an end to this phrase once and for all.

The reality is that words do hurt us. In fact, the social pain that is caused by vicious words is registered in the same area of the brain that monitors physical pain.(1) Moreover, stress caused by interpersonal social pain, such as that created over name-calling or taunting, causes a higher spike in cortisol (the stress hormone) than it does for other stressors, and this spike in stress hormones also stays on the brain for longer under such circumstances.(2) That's scientific language for: words can hurt just as much, and often more, than sticks and stones. Yes, as we've all secretly suspected, words really do hurt.

This phrase in itself is a recipe for emotional harm. When parents tell a child that words shouldn't hurt, you're sending a youngster several problematic messages by such an assertion:

A) You should just easily brush off someone's meanness (and by default, if you aren't able to show such a steel backbone, something must be wrong with you.) In actuality, the children least able to brush it off are usually those with the highest levels of empathy. You're punishing the good children for being a compassionate person, while sending the message that they should lose this good quality in favor of "not caring."

B) It's dismissive of a child's emotions. You're not comforting the hurt. You're not helping them work through or refute what was said. You're encouraging them to suppress their emotions and bury the hurt deep inside. This pattern of emotional suppression in families can do just as much harm as chronic abuse can over the course of time.(3)

C) Parents may not realize it, but such a phrase actually gives encouragement to teasing, taunting, and bullying. I can't tell you how many times in the classroom I've had a child try to justify their maliciousness by saying that, "it's just words so it shouldn't bother her." Parents utter such a phrase when their own child is on the hurtful end of a statement, but through this phrase, caregivers essentially give the child a license of their own to do the same to others. Not only is the parent not acknowledging the wrongfulness of the other child's taunting, but they're doing this while sending the message that such taunting is "no big deal." This works in both directions. A child who has their own torment brushed off will get the message that tormenting others is "no big deal."

Sticks and stones may break bones. But words can also destroy the psyche. They can cause mind numbing depression and sadness. They quite regularly drive people towards physical aggression, suicide, or even homicide. Another surprising fact for many: verbal abuse (mere words) is actually 7-times more correlated with lasting harm than sexual abuse. (4) The reason is simple: the harm to children comes through messages more often than actions. A beating may be unpleasant, but it's the messages such an action sends that will stick with a child. Negative ideas persist long after an action is done with, which is why verbal abuse does more harm in the long run than just about any other type of abuse. The most harmful acts to a child come not through actions, but through the destructive ideas they are left with after. Although the verbal lashing that comes from peers in an elementary school setting is less potent than that from caretakers, (who, at the time, play a higher role of importance for the child than their friends); this fact also illustrates why it's important for parents to not merely brush words under the rug. Instead...

A) Teach your child that aggression is aggression, whether verbal or physical. All aggression is wrong, and so words doled out with the intention of injuring another are also wrong.

B) When your child feels hurt over someone words, DON'T BE NEGLECTFUL. Do your parental duty and take the time to address it properly. The phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" arose because parents didn't want to take the time to address the very real injury that words can cause. At the very minimum, your child needs to hear that the other child was in the wrong by being mean. Their emotions need to be acknowledged.

C) If it is something silly and ridiculous or minor in nature, help the child to reach that conclusion through reasoning with them, but don't brush aside their emotions.

Our emotions are far from accurate. They have a tendency to over-react, to see the world through distorted lenses, and at times drive us towards ridiculous behavior. But they are hardly silly or unimportant, and can't merely be brushed under the rug. We'll end with a quote by T. Rusk and N. Rusk in their book, 'Mind Traps': "The 'feelings are foolish' trap originates in childhood. To prevent it, adults need to pay greater attention to the comforting of children. Only if children are reassured that emotional hurt is an unavoidable part of life will they be able to learn healthy attitudes toward emotional discomfort. Parents' concern for feelings- their children's and their own - validates feelings as important messages worth understanding. And since feelings come from the core of a person, if you validate feelings, you validate the person." It's time for parents to start validating their child, and let's skip the vicious lies about words not hurting.

1. N. Eisenberger & M. Lieberman, "Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain," Science, 87: 294-300, 2004

2. S. Dickerson & M. Kemeny, "Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research," Psychological Bulletin, 130: 355-91, 2004

3. Global Children's Fund (2009) Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison, Unpublished manuscript, available on request.

4. P.G. Ney, T. Fung, & A.R. Wickett, "The worst combinations of child abuse & neglect." Child Abuse & Neglect, 18, 705-714, 1994

5. T. Rusk & N. Rusk (1988) 'Mind Traps,' Los Angeles, CA: Price Stern Sloan Publishers


Friday, July 1, 2011

Shop Around for Family Health

Most families assume that health care costs what it costs, and that all medical centers in their area basically charge the same fees.

Yet a new study shows that the price for medical procedures can vary widely even for clinics within the same 20 mile radius -- by as much as 683%! One provider may charge as little as $230 for a CT scan, while another in the same town may charge $1800. This can affect a family's portion of the bill, especially those whose co-pays are based on percentages rather than a fixed rate.

"Don't assume that the provider you are going to is the best economic deal," says Howard McClure, CEO of Change:Healthcare. For those who are on a tight budget, it may pay to do a little price comparison. Call around ahead of time and ask different clinics what the base price is for things such as X-rays or a CT scan, so you know where to go for the best rates on basic care.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do Full Moons Really Drive People Insane?

So...there's a full moon coming up. What should you do? Is it time to A) Show extra caution in your drive home tonight so you don't run over any werewolves, B) Go grab your party clothes and run out to join the fun, or C) Grab the kids from their beds, lock the doors, and huddle in the reinforced cellar until it passes, lest some crazy out there driven by full moon rage decide to rape and pillage your family?

The idea that a full moon alters behavior and incites crime or violence has been around for a while. One recent survey found that 45% of college students believe that moon-stricken humans are prone to unusual behaviors. More interesting yet, other surveys have suggested mental health professionals are even more prone to believe such a thing than the general public. Pop-culture asserts that the moons gravitational pull impacts humans (who are mostly comprised of water) in the same way it exerts a tug on the ocean, thus causing the brain (also mostly water) to behave in altered ways. In fact, such beliefs are so strong that in 2007 several police departments in the UK added extra officers on full moon nights; an effort to cope with what they perceived to be increased crime rates. Even the word "lunatic" originates from the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna. So, is someone really more likely to go crazy against you or your family when the moon is full and bright?

The answer to this question can be derived from examining a few basic facts:

1) The gravitational pull of the moon effects only open bodies of water, such as oceans or lakes. It has no effect on contained sources of water, such as that lump of gray matter inside your skull that some of us occasionally use to think with. (Some people very occasionally.)

2) The gravitational effect of the moon is just as potent during new moons (when you can't see it) as it is during full moons when it hangs bright and prominent in the sky. The stages of the moon are created by reflections of light from its angle to the sun, not because it's any closer to the earth.

3) A mosquito sitting on your arm exerts a more powerful gravitational pull on us than does the moon. So if this is driving us crazy, we have become delicate creatures indeed.

Cold, hard physics aside, this myth is prevalent enough that it's warranted study throughout several scientific papers. A meta-analysis of 37 such studies revealed that there is no effect whatsoever of the moon on crime or human behavior. No research claiming a moon-lunacy link has ever survived scientific scrutiny and held its credibility.

But if this is the case, why do so many people, including entire police departments, still believe it? One factor at work is cognitive consistency: we remember crazy events more when they happen on full moon nights because it fits within our stereotypes and makes such a correlation memorable, whereas crazy things that don't happen on full moon nights don't prompt this association and aren't elevated to the same status in our minds. Therefore our recollection of all those 'crazy things' that happened when the full moon was out are biased in our memory.

There is one aspect of such a myth, however, that does hold some water: people who believe that full moons drive people crazy may be subconsciously driven to behave in crazier ways themselves. Decades of psychological research has shown us that expectations inadvertently alter behavior. The belief influences our actions even without us realizing it, causing us to act in a way befitting of our expectations. To what extent this principle drives full moon madness is debatable, but the research would suggest its effect is limited to general silliness, and doesn't induce a mad-rush towards criminal behavior.

So it's probably safe to let your kids out of the cellar. Assuming, of course, that's the reason you locked them there in the first place.

1. Scott 0. Lilienfeld & Hal Arkowitz, "Lunacy and the full moon," Scientific American. Mind, Vol. 20(1): 64-65, Feb. 2009
2. James Rotton & Ivan W. Kelly, "Much ado about the full moon: A meta-analysis of lunar-lunacy research." Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 97(2): 286-306, March 1985

Monday, June 13, 2011

Childhood Shenanigans & Deadly Decisions

In Stone Mountain, Georgia, right in the middle of summer 2008, there occurred an incident that defines the very word "tragedy." During their summer break, two brothers, ages 14 and 11, drowned in a pond. Each child died in succession, the older one drowning after jumping in to try and save his younger brother. More tragic still was the situation that led up to their deaths.

Police say the brothers had been playing with a group of children when one child apparently tossed a can into the water. It must have been something of some personal importance, because the younger child, 11-year-old Jaqures Brown, went in to retrieve it. When the lad went underwater and didn't come up, his older brother Jacoby jumped in to rescue him. Sadly, he disappeared under the murky water as well. The bodies of both boys were later found about 10 feet from the shore of the pond.

This is a unique story, but one with a common theme: one child's callous treatment of another child's possessions sets off a chain of events that ends with a child dead or seriously injured. I'm reminded of a similar personal experience that took place several years back. I was returning from child care bus-runs when a scene quickly unfolded in front of me. The school bus had just let off a group of elementary students outside an apartment complex, and so dozens of kids were walking home from the stop. Three boys were walking back in a group, when one of the older boys, apparently acting quite maliciously, threw the younger boys possession, which had been given to him to look at, out in the middle of the road. Instantly this boy’s face contorted into a look of agony and despair, and he burst into tears. I was probably 100 yards away, yet I'll never forget that look. I couldn't tell exactly what it was the older boy had thrown in the road, but it was quite apparently something of significant emotional importance. The child who threw it seemed mighty pleased with himself. Just as suddenly as this boys face had distorted into despair, I found myself overcome with anger and rage over what was transpiring.

I pumped my brakes to try and avoid running whatever it was over, but there wasn't time to stop. I think I missed it anyhow. For a moment I planned to stop and give the pair the scolding of their lives. But considering my emotional state, I envisioned myself chasing them down the road and thought better of it. I considered stopping the van in the middle of the road and helping the child retrieve whatever it was that was thrown. But then I wondered about how wise it would be to stop in the middle of a moderately trafficked road to get out and hunt for a trinket while leaving a van of 14 grade-school kids unattended in the middle of the left lane. There were no sides to pullover to. In the end, my indecision triumphed and I drove right past. Keep in mind this is all going in about 2 or 3 seconds at 35 miles-per-hour. By the time I decided I should have stopped to help the poor kid fetch it, we were already well past. It's a moment I've regretted everyday since. I should have doubled back and found some way to park and help. So to that little boy, wherever he is today, please accept heartfelt apologies for my inaction. To those boys who should have been chased down the road, shame on you.

The reason I bring this story up is because it illustrates an all-too-common pattern for how childhood shenanigans (or just plain meanness) can turn tragic. Other children have died after being hit by a car while trying to retrieve something in the road that was rudely deposited there in just such a manner by another child. I don't know whether this youngster got his possession back, but I'm fairly certain he got through the day safely, because I never heard about it on the news. There were no sirens to be heard from our center, which was only about half a mile away as the crow flies. Still, the potential danger of such a situation cannot be understated.

What happens all too often is that this teary-eyed little boy, overcome with the emotions of the moment, rushes out into traffic to retrieve his treasure and gets nailed by an oncoming car. Or jumps into a river to try and get his toy back, only to be swept away downstream to a watery death. Or falls through the ice and dies of hypothermia after a mean-spirited peer tosses his mitten out in the middle of a frozen pond. Others have been hit by trains or suffered fatal falls from trees or ledges. The stories of tragedy go on and on, each a little different but all with the same theme: They are set into motion by a child chucking something.

Much of child safety and accident prevention is a game of instilling children with a repertoire of second thoughts to avoid ill-advised decisions. Building that instinctual voice that pipes up and warns them of dangerous situations. So if you get the opportunity, either before bed tonight or during the ride to school tomorrow, tell your kids about these two stories. Talk with them about how it's not very wise to throw anything in the road, onto tracks, or into bodies of water. Talk with them about how horrible they'd feel later on for doing such a thing out of meanness. How disappointed you'd be in them. How demented preschool teachers in big white vans might just get out and chase them down the road next time around. Also tell this story from the victim’s standpoint, and emphasize how important it is to stop, calm down, and get help so that you can act safely to retrieve it. Teachers: these stories make a great opportunity for group time discussion.

A little discussion of potential consequences could get kids to stop and think twice and sometimes that extra thought is all it takes to make the difference between life and death. It might also save other children from ever having to manage such an agonizing expression. Either way, it’s worth the talk.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

When Their Life Is On The Line, Will Your Child Wake Up?

House fires are one of the most lethal childhood killers that a family confronts. With every year that passes, there are around 380,000 residential home fires, which claim the lives of around 800 kids and seriously injure tens of thousands of others. When we say "seriously injure," we mean it. Anyone who’s ever visited a burn unit knows just how catastrophic and life-altering fire-related injuries can be. Fire safety is also an area where a little bit of planning can often mean the difference between life and death. But while many parents take the time to studiously study any sex-offenders who may be in the neighborhood, few do all that's necessary to protect their children from a house fire; something that poses a far greater threat. (Put in other terms, it would take registered sex-offenders around 1,600 years or more to kill as many children as are killed by fire in just one year, at current statistical rates.) Needless to say, a little bit of prevention focused on this area would be time well spent.

One aspect of fire safety that is especially neglected is the night-time fire drill. Most fatal house fires occur at night. This means that waking up to the smoke detector and getting out quickly is probably what will determine whether or not your child lives or dies. Yet tests done in child care centers during nap time have also revealed that a large majority of kids will sleep right through the sound of your common household variety fire alarm. (Side note: Fire alarms in commercial child care centers and schools are commercial systems which are much louder, so you needn't worry about this issue at their school.) Such tests beg an important question: when their life is on the line, will your child wake up? If not, there is a crucial flaw in your family's fire safety plan, which is why we advocate that all families conduct a night-time fire drill with their children. So...

After the kids have gone to bed (on a non-school night, obviously) and after they've been sleeping for at least an hour, set off the smoke alarms in your house. You want to make sure of two things:

1. Your children are awoken by the fire alarm.
2. They realize what to do and can overcome a groggy state of mind to react quickly and appropriately.

Now I realize that the thought of intentionally waking your children in the middle of the night may sound about as appealing as a double root canal. It may seem like a hassle, and we won't lie: it may indeed be one. But it's a necessary hassle. It will give you vital information about how safe your family really is, and you should only have to do it once. (Though additional practice won't hurt for those so inclined.) If all goes well, hopefully your children are awoken by the alarm and spring into action without hesitation. You'll learn your family is safe and your children the embodiment of safety excellence. If you're like most families, however, you might find that your children's safety net in this regard is a little lacking.

If your children woke up and knew exactly what to do and how to respond, then congratulations: your family is protected and you shouldn't have to do a thing. Yet if things didn't go quite as planned, take heart. Most who try this usually discover some fairly decent flaws that would jeopardize their child's safety in a real-life situation. This is good: It means an opportunity to fix those problems and provide a new level of safety and comfort that you didn't have before. That's the whole point in performing these drills.

If your child failed to wake up at the sound of the alarm...

1. Upgrade the alarm system in your house to a louder model, and place a detector directly outside the child's door if there isn't one already..

2. There are numerous types of fire alarms on the market. One particular type is a voice activated model. Parents record a short message ("Jamie! Get up! There's a fire in the house! Get out right away!") so when the alarm sounds, it plays this message over and over again either by itself or in combination with a standard alarm. Studies have found that children are more likely to wake up to a parent's urgent voice than they are to an alarm. Just like parents tend to get sensitized towards their child's cries, children build sensitivity towards their parents' voice. Such alarms tend to do a much better job of awakening children, and they have the added benefit of providing a groggy child with information about what the alarm means and how to act.

3. Whether you choose to go with additional smoke detectors or a different type, or perhaps both, we have some bad news: you have to do it again. Run another test while they are sleeping, and continue until you find an arrangement that wakes your child.

If your child was groggy, confused, or didn't know how to act...

1. Most often, indecisiveness comes from inexperience and the novelty of this new situation. So if you go over what to do a few times and talk about the experience as much as possible, they should perform much better the second time around.

2. Make sure your child can identify the unique sound of your smoke alarm. It's not enough for children to be awoken by an annoying sound, they need to know what that annoying sound means. This is why parents should regularly set off the alarm so that children become familiar with what it sounds like. This way they can quickly identify it and act appropriately.

3. Make sure to do regular daytime fire drills, so that children know exactly what to do. Repetition builds competency.

In general...

1. Have children sleep with the door cracked, preferably not wide open, as doors are a natural fire barrier and can prevent their room from filling with smoke. Many fire safety experts will tell you to keep them closed, period. But other safety issues (abduction, general welfare) provide better protection when children aren't noise-proofed from their parents. A good compromise is to crack it slightly. It makes the room less soundproof but still serves as a natural smoke barrier.

2. Work into your family's fire escape plan a way for an adult to exit through a route that allows them to check on the child on their way out. Every child's bedroom should have a window to escape through if they become trapped, and adults can simply make this the primary escape route if it's on the first floor. If the children sleep in different rooms, assign a different adult to check on each child. Also always make sure your child has some sort of direct escape route from their room, which might mean purchasing a portable safety ladder for the window if they sleep on the second floor. Post a sticker on the window to alert firefighters of a child's room. Most important of all, practice. Children 4 and up should receive practice about how to get themselves to safety, because you may not be able to reach them in an actual fire

3. Read your children some of our fire safety books. These go over the basics of house fires and escape routes.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Botox and Child Abuse

You have probably heard the story about the mother who injected her 8 year old daughter with Botox before beauty pageants to reduce the girls wrinkles when she smiled. The absurdity of the parent believing that an 8 year olds' skin needs wrinkle treatment has created a firestorm of controversy. For sure, this mothers' action are highly questionable. Aside from the medical risk, we were most concerned about the psychological messages this girl was receiving (no 8 year old needs a cosmetic procedure to be beautiful).

But I was more disturbed upon opening up a magazine and seeing a news brief that CPS workers had taken custody of the girl. Those who aren't equally horrified by this outcome need to pay close attention to the following information.

Far too many people have the impression that it is somehow a benign process to kidnap a child from their home and place them with strangers. I assure you it is not. (This belief is just as absurd as the idea that an 8 year old needs Botox.) CPS removal is an unspeakable trauma for the child. The fact that the kidnappers are wearing state issued name tags rather than ski masks doesn't make it any less terrifying for the child who finds herself suddenly uprooted from everything and everyone she has ever known. Even when parents are less than perfect, or even flat out abusive, this is a horrible experience for the child. It is usually met with screams of protest and someone physically overpowering the child to yank them away from their loved ones. Research on foster children is bleak: they show far more disturbance than those children who endure actual abuse of other types. Which makes a mockery of our ideas of children being "rescued."

This mothers actions were outrageous, fanatical, and potentially harmful; but what she did hardly warrants snatching this kid from her home; especially in light of the countless other options available.

As for this girl, a small injection to the forehead is nothing compared to the abuse she is suffering now. To those insensitive souls who were clamoring for this outcome to fulfill some sadistic sense of shadenfraude, congratulation: you've succeeded in bringing about unspeakable torment to a defenseless little girl. It makes the mother look like mother of the year in comparison.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bacteria Act Selflessly in their Battle Against YOU!

They're one of mankind’s oldest arch enemies. With a stealth that far outdoes that of the most cunning community predator, they lurk all around you, inside your home and around your children's parks and playgrounds, yet you'll seldom notice they're there. They can kill more children in a single year than sex offenders do in a millennium, and now evidence has been uncovered that they're sharing secrets in order to defeat our best defenses against them.

In a new study in the September 2, 2010 edition of Nature, researchers studying the question of antibiotic resistance discovered something that even took seasoned scientists by surprise: bacteria who prove resistant to drugs seem to sacrifice themselves in order to give their fellow bacteria a better chance at surviving the assault by antibiotics.

Working with an experimental Escherichia Coli (E-Coli) colony, they found that the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria amongst the group willingly shared their secrets with others at the expense of themselves, by producing a small molecule called an 'indole' when treated with antibiotics. This protein compound then floods through the communal broth of the colony, triggering similar mechanisms of protection in the less-resistant members.

As surprising as this finding was, equally as shocking was that bacteria do this even though it comes at a personal cost in overall health. This secret sharing ends up weakening the individual bacteria that produce it, leaving them less fit to grow and thrive, thus lessening their own chances at survival. Essentially, they're "taking one for the team," says James Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and one of the study's authors. "It's not that they die, but they would do better if they didn't produce this protein." Who would guess it: Bacteria act altruistically. Perhaps calling someone scum isn't such an insult after all.

This discovery adds a new sense of urgency to worries about antibiotic overuse. Previously, scientists believed that bacteria developed resistance only through random mutation. It's natural selection at work: if you bombard bacteria with antibiotics, most will die off. But the few whose genetic makeup prove resistant are those that will survive and reproduce, passing on their resistant genes to their offspring. Over the course of many generations, the original strain is all but replaced by the resistant strain, precisely because the resistant strain were the only ones surviving to reproduce. This is how 'superbugs' are born.

That situation was bad enough, but the fact that bacteria are actually plotting against us in the here and now, sharing secrets about how to defeat our best medicines, adds a new twist to the debate on antibiotic overuse. In this study, only around 1% of the bacteria were highly resistant to the antibiotics, but they shared this resistance with others in order to help their neighbors develop the same traits.

Bacteria have been around for millennium, and so you shouldn't let this panic you or cause unnecessary anxiety. But in this back and forth tug of war between them and us, between the drugs we try to kill them with and the adaptations they implement to survive, there are a few simple things you can do to fight back:

1. Avoid using antibiotics unless you absolutely need them, and ask your doctor to do the same in prescribing them to you. One of the trends contributing to this resistance is the tendency for doctors to over prescribe antibiotics for every little thing. The more we expose potential pathogens to this weapon, the more bacteria work out defenses to defeat them.

2. When you or your child are prescribed antibiotics, make sure you use them all, even if you start to feel better. The way strains become resistant is by being hit with antibiotics without being completely wiped out. They then come back, more resistant to the drugs used to treat them.

Your immune system can take care of the remaining 1% of pathogens once antibiotics help your body knock out most of the infection to gain the upper hand. But if you stop too soon, the bacteria could come back with a vengeance, and they are likely to be more comprised of this newly resistant variety.

3. Purchase organic meat and beef. At large commercial producers, livestock are literally fed antibiotics in their feed in order to keep them healthy amongst the cramped and deplorable conditions that might otherwise make them sick. This practice has worried scientists and medical professionals for years, not just as a threat to our livestock supplies, (a resistant bacteria wipes out most of our cattle), but that this widespread and indiscriminate use of one of mankind’s best medical weapons could put humans at risk, by making bacteria in general more resistant to such medicines.

So far, there hasn't been a problem. Sorta like a year ago, there hadn't been a problem with deep-water oil drilling, and several years back there hadn't been a problem with the modern U.S. financial system. We can only hope that it doesn't become a problem.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Can You 'Catch' Obesity From A Common Cold?

In the never-ending cycle of hyper-inflated science "breakthrough" claims making their rounds in the news of late, one in particular is generating a lot of discussion: the idea that obesity may be caused by a common cold virus. But before you press the panic button because your child has the sniffles, you should know a little bit beyond the sound bites.

A study published online September 20, 2010 in the journal Pediatrics found that children who had been exposed to adenovirus-36 were more likely to be obese than children who had not. It found that whereas 7% of normal-weight kids had such antibodies, 22% of obese children did. What's more, it discovered that kids with evidence of previous adenovirus-36 infections were about 35 pounds heavier on average than obese children who hadn't caught the virus.

The study adds to several others, including one of Korean children and one of American and Italian adults, which have turned up higher rates of the virus in those who are obese. About 30% of obese adults carry antibodies x against adenovirus 36, compared to 10% of normal weight people. And there is lab research to back it up. Chickens, mice, rats, and monkeys infected with the virus show weight gain, even when they don't eat more or exercise less. Experiments with human cells grown in laboratory dishes also provide a potential mechanism for such a correlation: adult stem cells infected with the virus make more fat cells, and those fat cells store more fat than normal cells.

These are intriguing correlations to be sure, but before you start believing that obesity is caused by a virus, we need to put these findings through a little bit of a reality check, in order to place this knowledge in its proper perspective.

Why Obesity Can't be Blamed On A Virus
It's important to note that the vast majority of obese kids in the study DID NOT have antibodies for the virus (78%), which means that most kids are getting fat for reasons other than a cold virus. Even if such a cause and effect does exist, it is but a small player in the child obesity epidemic. When you further consider that 7% of kids tested positive for the virus yet were maintaining a normal weight, this would seem to indicate that catching the virus hardly dooms a child to obesity, and that it DOES NOT trump environmental factors. (85% of kids have already demonstrated the virus to be irrelevant, so only 15% of the issue is even up for debate.)

There are other reasons to be cautious. The sample size was relatively small, consisting of just 67 obese and 57 normal-weight children. If I flip a coin 124 times, I may very well end up with a differential of plus or minus 15 for either heads or tales, but that doesn't necessarily mean the results are anything more than random. Since obese kids have weaker immune systems and get sick more often, this finding could be corollary and not causative. Considering that two other studies have failed to provide a link between adenovirus-36 and obesity, this link, while interesting and worth exploring, is still far from established fact.

Even Jeffrey Schwimmer, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of California, Sand Diego and author of the study admits that a link between the virus and obesity doesn't mean the virus causes weight gain: "I don't think we know enough to say, 'Oh, if you get this virus you're going to be obese,'" he told Science News.

So while it's an interesting development that is being further explored, this does not mean that children catch obesity from a virus. The good news is that a vaccine against the virus is already in existence, so if this link does become established, we can easily address the problem.

One last note: you can't "catch" this virus from obese people, as some rumors have already begun to allege. So let's not go getting all silly with prejudice. The virus is long gone before any obesity-related effects would take place.

In the mean time, the tried and proven method for preventing childhood obesity is just as true as ever, and will remain so far into the future, regardless of what happens on this topic: proper diet, filled with fruits and vegetables, combined with plenty of exercise, will always overcome any genetic or viral influence.

1. Tina Hesman Saey, "Exposure to cold virus linked to obesity epidemic among children." Science News, 178(8):5-6, Oct. 9, 2010

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Death by Nanotoxins: A New Threat To Your Family?

By now, most people have heard about the new scientific field of nanotechnology. In case you've been out of the loop for a while, it's an emerging area of physics that hopes to build all sorts of wonderful things by designing and putting them together, particle by particle, at the smallest levels. A nanometer is a unit of measurement, and it's extremely small. How small? Well, if you were to take a typical human hair and slice it up into 100 slices of its original width, you would have the measurement of a micron. (One-millionth of a meter.) And if you were to take that micron and divide it again by 1,000, you'd have something measuring one nanometer.

Nanotechnology refers to any type of product designed at these microscopic scales. The technology is still in its infancy, and at this point the field is as much hope and conjecture as it is practical application. Thus far scientists have successfully created nano-fibers; essentially a super-strong type of thread. They're still trying to scale up the process, possibly to create super-light bulletproof vests or clothing, or maybe cables that could support an elevator to space. (No, we're not making that up.) Others promise nano-size robots that would essentially eat unwanted toxic waste and turn it into something useful such as fuel. A lot of work is being done on nanotechnology in medicine. Imagine going to the doctor and getting an IV of cancer-eating nanobots that could restore you to health in a few days. Another team of physicists also managed to put together a crude nano-engine and car, though it proved difficult to control and was more amusing than useful. (It relied on chemical reactions between the molecules to propel itself.)

Though miracle uses for nanotechnology are still theoretical, other less impressive uses are far more here-and-now. In fact, more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanotechnology are already on the market and available to consumers in the United states. Yet some scientists are raising concerns about the safety of this technology.

Some fears are straight out of science fiction movies, such as the concerns expressed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Billy Joy in his essay, 'Why the World Doesn't Need Us.' He argued that self-replicating nano-robots might spiral out of control, consuming everything they encounter and spreading like a virus, transforming the world as we know it into a clump of "gray goo." (Let's hope that doesn't happen.)

Yet another more immediate, and more likely concern may be that the materials created are just plain toxic to humans (or the environment). It's a familiar story: The potential dangers of chemicals such as BPA or Phthalates or lead or asbestos are either downplayed or just plain ignored. Each time, the public is exposed for many years before the government recognizes that we are being poisoned. Then we backtrack. The same concerns and then some exist for nanotechnology. With nanotechnology, we're not only creating new chemicals; but we're actually building entirely new molecular structures that don't exist in nature, and extremely small ones at that.

What do we get when we design entirely new microscopic structures to create nanotechnology? Nobody really knows, and that's precisely the issue. If you bind two oxygen atoms together, you just get good-old oxygen. Add a hydrogen atom to the mix, and you get water, a life-giving resource. But swap out that hydrogen atom and replace it with a carbon atom, and you get Co2, a noxious gas, which is why it's not a good idea to leave your car running in the garage. That one little atom and the manner in which it is arranged can make a big difference in what you end up with.

Moreover, even ordinary materials can display unique properties at the nanoscale level, so even nanometer-size bits of an otherwise benign material might turn out to be toxic. Even naturally occurring nanoparticles can be harmful to human health, because their sheer size makes it easy for them to invade areas of the body where larger particles of matter can't go. For example, when it comes to air pollution, it's been found that fine particles seem to pose the greatest health risk, particularly those 2.5 micrometers indiameter or smaller. Nanotechnology works on a scale hundreds or even thousands of times smaller than this.

Will these nanoproducts prove harmless like water, or will some be toxic like arsenic? Only time will tell. But there's more than a little reason to be concerned. After all, the track record of regulatory agencies over the past century has not been too encouraging. The old "poison you first, ask questions later" philosophy has become a well-established routine that government regulatory agencies play alongside drug or chemical manufacturers.

The good news is that in response to these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced they were launching a research strategy to study the health and/or environmental effects of nanomaterials, something concerned scientists have been pressing for in recent years. It's a good start, and we can only hope they remain diligent in their task.

Just as worrisome as any potential toxic threat unleashed is the public backlash that could be caused by such a health crisis, should regulatory agencies fail in this due diligence. Nanotechnology has immense promise, and a public health scare could stifle progress and hamper the industry. Just because one form of nanotechnology is noxious doesn't mean they all are, yet the public has a tendency to think in such categorical terms. Procter & Gamble, for example, has already halted R & 0 on nanotechnology, citing the long-term risk of litigation. Public distrust might provide a roadblock towards its miracle uses, which is why it's so important for the EPA to work proactively.

At this point there isn't a whole lot you can do about it...other than hope for cures for cancer and run away from any self-replicating gray goo you come across. So don't waste worries on uncertain dangers that may or may not come to fruition. We just thought you might be interested in knowing about some of the health issues which are unfolding all around us, as technology continues to expand into new realms.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Finally, An Air-Bag You Want Near Your Children

Automobile air-bags have always been somewhat of a mixed blessing. While they work well in most cases, they can be deadly to children and even small adults. This is because when airbags deploy, it's not exactly a gentle process. They inflate with a tremendous amount of force, which for little ones, hits them in the head and neck area rather than the more durable torso. Hundreds upon hundreds of kids have lost their lives to this safety device, and each case is frustratingly tragic. I can think of nothing more horrible than to lose a 5-year-old boy or girl in a minor fender bender that barely causes any damage to the car, all because he or she happened to be sitting in the front seat when the air bag deployed - a storyline in numerous deaths we've followed. Which is why you don't sit children in the front seat of a car that has air bags.

After more than a decade of development, Ford motor company is about to launch the first airbag designed primarily with children in mind. It's an airbag sewn directly into the seatbelt itself, with bags that pop out into sausage-shaped tubes in a crash. The breakthrough involved working out a new type of cold gas system that inflates the tubes. A cylinder underneath the seat (much like a Co2 cartridge) shoots its contents of cold gas through a special safety-belt buckle and into the bags in the event of a crash. Because of the way they expand, it spreads the force of the crash out over 5-times as much area, which will greatly reduce the jolt children experience, and thus, the degree of injury they sustain.

The seatbelt air bags should be especially helpful in combating seatbelt syndrome - a condition where a child's spine is broken in a crash and they become paralyzed. This happens because of the way in which the seat belt sits on them, which causes an uneven distribution of force. (This was a primary reason for the invention of booster seats, which were intended to combat this problem by better adjusting the way shoulder straps rest on a child. Lap belts alone, however, can be even worse, causing a whiplash action right in the child's midsection.)

As an added bonus, Ford spokesman Wesley Sherwood says that more than 90% of those who tested the belts rated them at least as comfortable as conventional belts, and many said they were even more comfortable because the thickness of the bag folded inside the belts makes them feel softer. This may assist in the battle to get more rear-seat passengers to buckle up; something government data reveals only 61% of rear-seat occupants to do, compared to 82% in the front seat.

These back seat airbags will be optional, at $395 extra, on the 2011 Ford Explorer, which hit dealers this past December. Eventually, Ford plans to include the feature globally in other models and seating positions.

We seldom get all googly-eyed over a safety feature, nor do we generally openly endorse a commercial product. But this is one that, if it works as planned, could help spare at least some children the torment of a debilitating spine injury.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Your World In Quotes

Sometimes a sentence or two speaks volumes. Here are some notable quotes about issues pertaining to child welfare from around the world:

"In the US, they treat teachers like pizza delivery boys and then do efficiency studies on how well they deliver the pizza." -- Educational specialist Dan MacIsaac, speaking in Time magazine about the broken state of the US school system. He has spent time observing school in Finland, where teachers have more freedom and fewer restrictions. Despite adopting an unconventional educational philosophy (the exact opposite of the "Tiger Mom" approach)Finnish schools recently ranked second in Science and Reading, third in the world in Math, proving that a good education does not demand children spend their childhood engaging in boring drills.

"If your not bruising you child at times, your not spanking the child enough." -- And Independent Fundamental Baptist minister, encouraging his followers to engage in child abuse, claiming that passages in the Bible demand that parents beat their children.

"I'm going to kill you all!" -- Wellington Oliveira, 23, who killed 12 students at an elementary school in Brazil and injured at least 12 others before turning the gun on himself. He apparently roamed the halls of his former elementary school, lining children up against the wall, and shouting this before going down the line shooting them in the head at point blank range. Cell phone videos posted on UTube captured some of the malay, as screaming student attempted to flee for help. The dead included 10 girls and 2 boys in what was Brazil's worst school shooting. We've been monitoring safety for many years so not much shocks us anymore. This sickening event was the exception.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Babies On Ledges

Babies and ledges--they are two things that seem like they should be diametrically opposed to each other. Yet researchers in child development love to put babies in all sorts of precarious situations to find out what happens, and hopefully learn more about the way children think in the process. The latest shenanigans tested how infants and toddlers of different ages deal with height perception, and suggests that there is a period shortly after they begin crawling/walking in which they may not recognize their own physical limitations.

A 2010 study by New York University developmental psychologist Karen Adolph suggests that young children need to learn (and re-learn) a fear of heights that properly corresponds to their motor skills as they enter a new phase of mobility. Unlike mountain goats, which are born knowing where they should and shouldn't climb, human infants learn their limitations partly through trial and error.

To test this, Karen placed 12- and 18-month-old infants at the top of a wooden "cliff" that could adjust to various heights. They were then beckoned over the edge by their mothers. (Researchers were on hand to safely catch any who actually took the tumble.) It was found that babies who had been crawling for several months generally did not go over drop-offs that were too big for them, even when coached, nor did toddlers who had been walking for a while. But those in the transition phase--the ones who had just started walking or crawling--readily marched right over drop-offs that were beyond their capabilities, including the highest, most hazardous 3-foot plunge. Like teenagers who think they're indestructible, the study suggests that as kids master a new skill, their perception of physical limitations may not keep up with their own ambition.

This doesn't necessarily mean young children are completely without a fear of heights; other research demonstrates that babies do indeed possess a certain amount of innate fear for large drops. (This wasn't the first study to place babies on some sort of ledge and see what happens.) One in particular devised a long, elevated platform for babies to crawl across, while their mothers stood at the other end. In the middle of the platform, the visible "bottom" dropped out, leaving only a glass surface as the floor. When babies encountered this "visual cliff" as an obstacle, they innately sensed danger and looked to their mothers for cues about what to do. Babies whose mothers gave a reassuring look continued right on their merry way. Babies whose mothers were instructed to look worried, however, were able to sense this emotion. They stopped dead in their tracks, sat, and started to cry.

So although young children may possess some innate fears of heights (and may also be coached into disregarding these inclinations if mom says so), the newest study suggest there is a definite learning period, during which tots may lack the proper judgment about what types of terrain are within the capabilities of their new-found mobility. Much like the eyes may want more than the stomach can handle, a baby's brain may envision larger feats than the body is capable of accomplishing.

So as your little one enters one of these windows of recalibration, it's a good time to be extra vigilant. You don't need to protect them from every little spill, but you don't want them taking a 12-foot tumble down the stairs, either. The ledges on stages, landscaping dividers, and playground steps are other potential problem areas. Watch the fall hazards as your tot is learning just what amazing feats their developing mobility can accomplish.

You will find interesting child safety information, teaching materials, books and more on our website at

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Medicine Worked Fine, Until His Jaw Came Off

Eben Byers, a 49-year-old wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist, was looking to ease the chronic pain he was having in his arm. The year was 1927, and Eben was advised by his doctor to try a powerful new drug to cure his pain: Radithor. He became hooked. It appeared to not only heal his pain, but seemingly rekindled his sexual vitality.

It was two and a half years after regular use of Radithor, when Eben began complaining of chronic headaches and weight loss. Shortly thereafter, his teeth fell out, holes formed in his skull, and his mouth literally collapsed. Covering Eben's case, an article in the Wall Street Journal ran the headline: "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off."

Radithor, as its name implies, was radioactive; water containing Radium and Mesothorium. This 'miracle cure' was marketed by the notorious quack and confidence man William Bailey, whose very own Radium Laboratories sold half ounce bottles of "certified radioactive water." In two years of use, Eben had gone through 1,400 bottles, sometimes drinking as many as 3 bottles a day. Unfortunately for him, unlike many other quack treatments of the day, Radithor did actually contain considerable amounts of Radium, its active ingredient. Eben was slowly turning his body into a fleshy pile of radioactive waste.

Eben was not alone in partaking this poison. The radium craze broke out in the early 1900s, and was promoted as a miracle cure for everything from acne to impotence. It's value as a placebo was likely amplified by the fact that it was the only "medicine" that glowed in the dark; a special pizazz that no doubt captivated people and made it easy to believe the miraculous claims. For three decades, doctors and the public alike heralded the seemingly endless health benefits of consuming radioactive water.

Of course, we now know that radioactive materials are quite harmful to human health. That ominous glow-in-the-dark quality means a slow and painful destruction of the cells in your body, not a miracle cure.

Radithor was on the market for over a decade, making William Bailey very rich, before it was removed from the market in 1931. By then, more than half a million bottles had made their way into the hands of consumers around the world. How is it that something so utterly wrong can gain such widespread acceptance?

A century later, there are still plenty of lessons we can learn from this debacle, and Eben's tale provides a cautionary warning that is every bit as pertinent today. We may have figured out the health risks of radioactive water, yet in modern times, our science journals continue to be filled with warnings about how our tendency to leap before looking could be jeopardizing our health, as well as our planet. As a society, we're still just as prone towards quick fixes for what ails us; which usually turn out to be rash judgments that haven't been thought through. We're just as prone to being misled in the name of profit, as recent economic events should make clear. We still have a tendency for sacrificing the welfare of tomorrow for the exploits of today, with little regard for how it may come back to haunt us.

The lesson in all this is one of sensible precaution. With drug companies rushing out new "cures" as fast as they can get approval for them, and studies raising serious questions about the effectiveness of these drugs or even revealing many of them to be deadly after-the-fact, consumers need to understand that not all that glitters in the dark is gold. Especially when it comes to medicating our children, a sense of healthy skepticism is well in order.

The other lesson: just because a practice doesn't seem to seriously harm us in the moment (pollution, greenhouse gases, deforestation, etc.), that doesn't mean its harmless. Most importantly, never take at face value what the man selling radioactive waste has to tell you.

What is today's radium water? What are we doing today that future generations will consider utterly insane? Only time will tell. The important thing is that we stay vigilant in continually asking this question. Because there's little optimism to believe that we aren't capable of repeating similar mistakes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rear Facing Car Seats: New Guidelines for Kids Two and Under

The American Academy of Pediatrics just released updated recommendations about the use of rear facing car seats. It is now suggested that parents put children in rear facing car seats until age two (Or even longer if the child is small) as opposed to the current recommendation that they ride in such seats until age one.

The reason for this change is that rear facing car seats distribute the force of an accident more evenly across a child's body, preventing head, neck and spine injuries in frontal crashes, which comprise the bulk of all accidents. The AAP policy statement sites research which has shown that children under two are 75% less likely to be severely injured in a crash if they're in rear facing car seats.

Most convertible car seats on the market can accommodate a two year old up to 35 pounds, so you don't necessarily need to buy a new car seat. The biggest fuss may come from your toddler, who may whine about having to turn around.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Firefighters Go Bump in the Night

Imagine your child alone and on their own in a haunted house. Not the tame, kidsy kind with paper streamers, fake spider webs, and a tub of spaghetti that is supposed to be intestines. I mean the real, actually scary commercial kind that prop up in abandoned malls each year around Halloween. It's dark. They can barely see their hands if they hold them up in front of their face. They're disoriented. They're scared. Terrified, would be more accurate. Nerves are running wild. Then, out of nowhere, a monster emerges from the void, frightening them to wits end. Do you have that mental picture in mind? Good. Now tell me, do they: A) Cower in the corner, B) Run and hide, or C) Extend their arms and grasp for the monster?

This may sound like an absurd mental image to bring to mind, yet this is precisely the type of scenario many children find themselves in during a house fire. They are often alone. It's pitch black from both the darkness of the night and the thickness of the smoke. They can hardly see a foot in front of their face. They're groggy from their sleep and generally disoriented, not knowing exactly what's going on. Then suddenly, a figure emerges into the room. It is carrying an axe, looks like a space monster, and is breathing like Darth Vader. If you're an already frightened young child, what would you do with this sensory input? Unless you've been prepared ahead of time, there's a decent chance you might withdraw in fear. Because of this, during a house fire many children will hide from the one person who is there to save them.

A full-suited firefighter can look scary to a young child. Throw in the fear and anxiety that comes with being caught in a genuine house fire, and this tendency towards a fearful response can be even worse. Which is why it's important that parents and teachers do all they can to alleviate this potentially deadly fear.

There are several different ways to do this. One of the most effective methods is in person. Children need to see a firefighter dressed in full uniform amidst a safe setting, and most local fire stations are happy to oblige. They often host field trips for local schoolchildren, and sometimes will set aside certain dates for safety education. (Contact your local station to ask about safety education programs or to see if you and your children can tag along on the next school-group presentation they conduct.) These presentations will include an explanation of all the different apparatus that firefighters wear when fighting a fire. Step by step, they'll dress up a firefighter (or another caregiver that the children know) with all the gear, so that kids become comfortable with the knowledge that inside all of that protective cover is a normal person who wants to help.

A second method, and just as important for ensuring the message sinks in, is to expose your kids to firefighters through books and other resources. You can find a free printable discussion picture of a firefighter dressed in full uniform on our website at The same site also has an assortment of books and coloring sheets on firefighters and fire safety, all available for free online and in a printable format. Your local library is another great source for books and videos on fire safety.

Finally, talk with your kids. Acknowledge that firefighters can look a little scary when all dressed up. But explain that underneath that suit--which is there to protect them from the fire--is a nice person who wants to rescue you and bring you to safety where you can reunite with morn and dad. Explain that this suit represents a ticket to safety and a way to reunite with their parents. So no matter how scary it might be, they should go to them, not hide from them. Use this opportunity to discuss any other particular concerns your child might have.

If your child is the type of kid who hates it when people put on masks or costumes and is unsure about things even when they are shown the person underneath, you'll want to work extra on this topic. It may seem like a remote threat, but keep in mind that with around 600 to 900 child fire deaths each year, letting a fear of firefighters go unchecked is far more likely to kill your child than any sex-offenders living in the neighborhood.

With a little bit of time devoted to this and other fire safety issues, your child can be protected from one of the most prominent dangers out there. Plus, if done correctly, this is one of those safety topics that can be a lot of fun to learn about. After all, what kid doesn't like big shiny trucks and cool space-man looking suits? Let's just make sure they know the kind, helpful person that resides inside that suit.

For more information on child safety in a fire visit

Friday, March 11, 2011

Missing Links in the Search for Causes to Autism

In the field of child developmental disorders, autism is the current hottest topic. Partly because of the recent debate about vaccines causing autism (they don't), and partly because its become the new ADHD; with diagnosis rates rising faster than the U.S. National debt. It can also be expensive, requiring special schooling or behavioral therapy, and taking a toll on both children and their families. This combination of public exposure and rising rates of diagnosis has left researchers scrambling to find autism's causes and, hopefully, cures.

Scientists and doctors have always suspected that biological or genetic factors might play a role, and past research has managed to turn up a few clues about genetic factors. Now a new study adds more evidence to the genetic-autism argument, by pinpointing errors in the way a child's DNA is coded that may lead to the disorder.

When our genomes are copied, it isn't a perfect process. In fact, nobody's genome is ever replicated perfectly. Sometimes we end up with deletions in certain areas, other times we end up with duplicate copies of a portion of the genome, and in other cases we inherit areas where the coding may be scrambled. These random mutations can alter our genetic expression, for better or worse, if they happen to hit along a section of the genome that is important for development.

Most of the time, such random mutations are benign. In fact, a great deal of the human genome is obsolete, encoding for things that are no longer active in human development. Sort of like your garage, the human genome is full of junk that's been collected over the years but is no longer used or needed. For example, some human beings are born with remnants of a tail, because a random copying error happens to "turn on" an area of the genome that encodes for such backside appendages--which have long since been abandoned from our lineage.

These gene alterations, known as copy number variants, have also been linked to conditions such as schizophrenia or other diseases. Previous research has also revealed that those with autism may have slightly more copy number variants than normal people. The current study uncovered no more such variants in autistic people than in non-autistic people, but discovered them in key areas among some in the autistic group. The researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of 996 people with autism and 1,287 without. More than 5,000 copy number variants were found in those with autism, usually cases in which portions of DNA were missing. Many people with autism had areas where large chunks of DNA was missing.

You and I likely have just as many errors or deletions in our genome, but since they don't hit important genes that code for the development of things important to language or social interaction, we don't develop autism.

By themselves, each specific variant was fairly rare, with even the most common one occurring in no more than 1% of the people in the study. Each person analyzed seemed to have a distinct set of genetic variations, suggesting that every person may have their own genetically unique version of the disorder. Though varied in nature, the affected genes all tended to influence similar biological processes: particularly those involved with brain development and functioning.

In some cases, the deleted genes had a strong link to autism: just a single copy error was enough to push a person over the autism threshold. Others had to be inherited together along with other copy number variants in order for autism to develop. One gene with an especially strong link to autism was DDX53-PTCHD1, which is located on the X chromosome. Some women naturally carry a deletion of this gene on one of their X chromosomes. This doesn't doom their children to autism, because such women will almost always carry a healthy version of the gene on the other X chromosome, so the child inherits a healthy copy. But if a random coding error occurs, deleting this area of the healthy gene, the child is left with no healthy copies to draw from and will develop autism.

The group was also able to identify several previously unknown areas of the genome that seem to be involved in the formation of connections between brain cells. All together, 25 places were identified in the present study that may be linked to autism. The hopes are that this information might be used for earlier diagnosis, or down the road, possibly even to treat the condition through some type of gene therapy. Yet such things are still a ways off. Scientists need to better understand how all these factors work together to cause the disorder before any definitive diagnostic tests or gene therapies come about.

Lest you believe that the source of autism has now been explained, think again. Even with these newly discovered genetic markers, scientists are still only able to pinpoint genetic causes in about 10% of autism cases overall. "What causes the other 90% of the cases is still on the table," says geneticist Steve McCarroll of Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Science News.

Many problems still exist in the study of autism, not the least of which being that we still can't pinpoint precisely what autism is. What we group under the generic label of autism is in all likelihood not a single condition but a broad array of different disorders with multiple causes that tend to result in similar symptoms. This is why the diagnosis is officially labeled as "autism spectrum disorder." Each of these variants along the spectrum may be its own unique condition with its own unique cause.

It's not the miracle parents of autistic kids are hoping for, but every little advancement helps. If nothing else, this study shows the complexity of the problem, and how naive it is to try and blame autism on a quick and easy scapegoat such as vaccines.

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