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.

Visit for discussion of important safety issues.

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.