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.