Screen Time: A Reality Check on “Reality TV”

As someone who spends most of my waking hours dedicated to finding and promoting the best ways to raise children to be happy, healthy, well-educated and successful adults, I feel compelled to say that reality television is definitely not it. I realize that this sounds dangerously close to stating the obvious, but I would argue only in the same way as pointing out that the emperor is, in fact, not wearing any clothes.

To make use of language from the reality TV lexicon, “at the end of the day” what we now have – for better or for worse – is an immensely popular and pervasive form of television that is so far from reality that it begs the question of why on earth we still call it reality TV.

At this point, I should clarify that it’s not like reality TV only recently just hit my television screen for the first time. Having all but taken over the airwaves since it first burst onto the scene in the early 1990’s in the form of MTV’s The Real World, it has since invaded my home just as predictably as it likely has yours. It’s bad enough that grown adults (myself included) find it hard to look away. What concerns me even more is that “reality” television is working against us as parents, unless you happen to firmly believe in excessive drinking, lying and deceit, premarital sex, frivolous spending, catty fist fights, racist and/or sexist remarks and worse. Scoff if you like, but reality television is making these behaviors seem commonplace, and thus providing a terrible filter through which our children are learning to see the world.

Now I’m not the first (or the last) to note irony in the fact that we persist in using such a blatant misnomer to describe the genre. But I felt particularly compelled to share my mounting concerns when the admittedly hard-not-to-watch Bachelor franchise decided to have the admittedly suave bachelor-du-jour surprise his legions of fans at their new-season viewing parties. In case you missed the episode, there were plenty of 20-something women glued to their sets, and they predictably squealed and swooned with cameras rolling when the new bachelor dropped in to join them unannounced.

What really got me, however, was when pig-tailed girls who looked all of thirteen at best, gushed into cameras that the reason they love said bachelor, and the whole Bachelor franchise for that matter, was because it gave them proof that prince charming and true love really do exist, and that dreams really do come true (or something to that effect). I’m sorry, WHAT?? This is when my protective parenting and pediatric defenses collectively kicked in. Since when did watching 27 evening gown and/or bikini-clad women use their feminine wiles to compete for a man become as acceptable as, say, a pajama party?

At one time, I would’ve hoped that what I’m about to say would be obvious, but now more than ever I’m concerned that the point has been lost in two decades worth of reality TV channel surfing: Reality is what we make of it, and as parents (much less a society), we have both the opportunity and responsibility to shape how our children view it. To this noble end, reality TV is not helping – at best giving us more teachable moments about how not to live than we could possibly ever need.

Reality – in the real sense of the word – does not mean that every action one takes needs to be neatly summed up as a step in one’s life journey, or summarized in an “end of the day” soliloquy. Reality does not require every pound gained or lost or tear shed to be broadcast, nor should it involve stopping conversations mid-scene to turn to the camera and narrate to the public one’s every thought, feeling and emotion. In fact, reality should not include perpetually having cameras pointed at one’s face (unless said camera is held by one’s mother, I should add for the sake of not having this used against me by my children). Reality does not (for all but the very few who aren’t likely to read this, anyway) involve first or second or third dates in exotic lands or carefree lives limited to gyms, tanning and laundry.

And here’s the kicker. You may think all this is obvious, or harmless, or simply not a big deal. But as with the viewing of television violence, we now know too much about the insidious nature of these sorts of images and their ability to shape the way our children see the world to ignore what’s right in front of our children’s faces on a 24/7 basis. I’m not by any means saying that adorable Juan Pablo is single-handedly responsible for bullying or poor body images. But what I am saying is that what we allow our children to watch – day-in and day-out, matters. And words matter, which brings me back to my point that we really should stop calling it “reality” television!

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

21st C Parenting: Connecting with Kids in the Age of Digital Disconnectedness

Rising to the challenge of parenting digital natives – a term commonly used to describe a generation of children who have never known a world without digital technologies – inherently means that we, as digital immigrants, have some important work to do. As a crucial first step, we need to both familiarize ourselves and then keep up with technology. After all, the responsibility falls squarely on us to help our children learn good judgment and how to responsibly navigate the rapidly changing digital world.

With the new year and new resolutions right around the corner, I figured this was as good a time as any for us all to commit to doing a better job of setting appropriate limits for the use of technology in our everyday lives – both for our children and for ourselves. After all, in today’s digitally connected world, taking a few key steps toward disconnecting can actually go a long way towards helping families become and stay more closely connected.

The following are some tips to get you started in what I hope brings you and your family a happy, healthy and technologically harmonious 2014.

Make time for face time. Today’s digital invasion of childhood is raising serious concerns, as clearly evidenced by this year’s recent recipient of the TOADY Award. This annual dishonor, given to the toy deemed most oppressive and/or destructive to young children, was bestowed upon a digital potty seat designed to allow potty-training toddlers to remain connected to their screens. For infants, young children and teens alike, face time – not the kind you can ask Siri to set up for you on your iPhone but real, in-person face time – is critically important to their social-emotional development. For infants and young children in particular, this means resisting the temptation of replacing human interaction with iPad potty seats and app-loaded infant seats (yes – this too is an actual product that also understandably ignited a virtual firestorm of digital debate). What you can do instead is powerfully simple – read books, talk, sing, make eye contact. And while you’re certainly not alone if you’ve made a habit of texting your ‘tween or teen, or emailing your spouse as the most reliable way of communicating, remember that at all ages, nothing compares to in-person, face-to-face conversations.

Take a tech-timeout. Another big concern when it comes to technology’s pervasiveness in our children’s everyday lives is that it takes away any time for boredom. While I am well aware that that may seem a particularly appealing attribute when you’re busy, stressed or just hoping for some peace and quiet at the end of a long day or start of a long trip, you may want to think again. The problem with the constant and chronic use of tech toys as boredom-busters is that boredom has long been recognized as playing a key role in fostering creativity, resourcefulness, and innovation. So what’s a parent to do? Be sure to establish times and places when cell phones need to be put away and screens need to be turned off to allow your children’s creative juices to start flowing.

Vacation planning. For anyone with holiday travel plans, or planning any travel for that matter, take a moment to consider why it is you’re traveling in the first place. Visiting friends or relatives, perhaps. Setting out to see new sights. Or simply spending time together as a family. Regardless of the reason, the fact of the matter is that cell phones, tablets, TVs and/or computer screens all have the uncanny ability to keep kids from looking up, looking out of the window, making eye contact, or – simply put – connecting with the world around them. In other words, technology (it’s non-essential use, that is) can sabotage your best-laid vacation plans. My suggestion? Plan to leave any unnecessary cell phones and other digital distractions at home. While your children may well protest at first, have a little faith. With very little practice, they’re sure to find alternative, meaningful, tech-free ways to enjoy the vacation as a result.

Declare the dinner table a tech-free zone. As the parent of three teens, I will be the first to admit that this is easier to write than it is to enforce. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely worth rising to the challenge of establishing the dinner table as a tech-free zone. With no buzzes, no rings, no emails, texts or tweets allowed, your chances for meaningful conversations with your children increase considerably – whether you have toddlers, tweens or teens.

And with that, I will leave you with my best wishes for a very happy holidays. In the spirit of both the holidays and of practicing what I preach, I now intend to shut down the computer, turn off my cell phone, turn on some holiday music, and go spend some quality time playing our family’s favorite board game (Settlers of Catan) with my kids.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Feeding Your Baby: Tips for Successful Breastfeeding

For anyone entering parenthood today, you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “breast is best,” and for good reason. That’s because there are simply no substitutes that rival the invaluable health benefits of breast milk, which explains why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding babies breast milk exclusively for the first 6 months, and as long as possible – ideally throughout the first year. Yet according to the CDC’s 2013 Breastfeeding Report Card, while nearly 4 out of 5 new moms start breastfeeding, only half are still doing so at 6 months, and fewer still – only about twenty-five percent – continue throughout the full first year.

As with so many aspects of parenthood, it has been my experience that it’s one thing to know what to do, and altogether another to know how do it. In the case of breastfeeding, the fact of the matter is that what’s “natural” doesn’t always come naturally. Too many moms are caught off guard by this and quit early because they don’t have the support they need. In other words, they mistakenly think they’re failing when they’re really not. That’s why I think it’s so important to share the following breastfeeding insights and practical tips, as they can really help to increase the odds of breastfeeding success.

  • Catching on to latching on. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if at first your baby doesn’t succeed. Some babies are born with the ability to latch on to the breast correctly right from the start, but others really benefit from some hands-on training before they catch on to this all-important skill.
  • Be sure to send out an SOS (in Search out Support)! Anyone who’s ever done it knows breastfeeding can be time-consuming, tiring, or – if we’re being honest with ourselves – even downright demanding. Breastfeeding moms should always remember to ask for support – whether it’s in the form of a helping hand at the hospital, help tending to baby’s other night-time needs, or to fend off any feelings of isolation or frustration.
  • Remember it’s a matter of supply and demand. Fussy babies often fool moms into believing their milk supply is inadequate. Instead of simply assuming that extra fussing and/or frequent nursing are sure-fire signs of breastfeeding failure, it helps to first understand how the concept of supply and demand applies. Whether in the earliest days of breastfeeding or in the weeks after settling in to a predictable nursing routine, fussing and acting hungry is how babies communicate their growing “demands” so that they can successfully increase the milk supply. If you have any concerns, always remember to check-in with your pediatrician to make sure that everything is on track.
  • Get comfortable. This not only includes finding a comfortable feeding position that works for you and your baby – whether it’s a cradle hold, a football hold, or laying side-by-side – but also becoming comfortable with breastfeeding in general. The ability to find a comfortable position, feel adequately covered-up, and nurse in public and/or on-the-go all serve to make breastfeeding a more enjoyable experience.
  • Don’t get too irritated. Be aware that there are some mild irritations that can show up during the first few days of breastfeeding – most notably some nipple irritation and uterine cramping – but tend to go away within days. After that, remember to be on the lookout for and seek medical advice throughout your breastfeeding months for the onset of any new irritations in order to keep blisters, cracks, blocked milk ducts, or mastitis (breast infection) from getting in the way of an otherwise painless and enjoyable breastfeeding experience.3
  • And finally – remember that breast milk each day really can help keep the doctor away. Not that I am in any way advocating the avoidance of your pediatrician, since a close partnership with your pediatrician and regular checkups are key to your baby’s health. Rather, I find it is both empowering and motivating to finish any discussion of breastfeeding with a reminder that breastfeeding is a great investment in your baby’s overall health – one that not only provides them with the ideal food, but also lots of other health benefits and plenty of opportunity for shared bonding time.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

If Sitting is the New Smoking, Walking is a Powerful Antidote

Ever since I took up running in my early teens, I have always considered myself a runner. Never a particularly fast runner, mind you, but an every-other-day distance runner. I made a habit out of running all through high school and college, and even ran a marathon (my one and only) as I finished out my first year in medical school. And then life’s demands really set in. With the realities of a husband, three kids, and a demanding job, I found myself figuratively running all the time, but with so little to spare that even finding the time to finish watching a movie on a 5-day rental was a challenge, and my running went by the wayside altogether.

One of the disadvantages of having been a former distance runner is that it took me many years before I was able to convince myself that anything short of a five-mile run counted as real exercise. Concerningly, I’ve found that people contemplating exercise for the first time share this impression, making it a misperception that stands to seriously get in the way of getting up and getting active. And it’s clear that getting up and getting active is something we all could afford to do more of.

In fact, a 2012 Lancet article reported that “physical inactivity is a global pandemic, with far-reaching health, economic, environmental, and social consequences.” The New York Times recently reported that Americans are “thousands of steps behind” – walking barely half (5117) of the 10,000 steps per day typically recommended by the health community compared to countries like Japan (coming in at over 7000) and both Australia and Switzerland (both close to 10,000 per day). According to America’s health rankings, Nebraskans are not faring so well either, with nearly a quarter of us over eighteen reportedly doing no physical activity or exercise other than in the course of our regular job. With physical education time and funding being dropped from elementary, middle and high schools alike, we’re all but setting our children up to follow in our physical inactivity footsteps.

So what kind of far-reaching effects does all this physical inactivity have? According to epidemiologist Min Lee it “has an impact on health comparable that of smoking” – a troubling sentiment shared by a friend of mine, Nilofer Merchant, in her recent TED talk, in which she asserted that sitting has become the smoking of our generation.

If sitting and our tendency towards physical inactivity really is the new smoking, then the good news is that there is a powerful, easy to administer, and entirely free antidote. That antidote is walking. With the lowest dropout rate of just about any physical activity, it’s high time we all commit to doing more of it. To that end, I wanted to share some of the many convenient and motivating ways you can add more steps to your family’s day.

  • Walk and talk. Just like regular exercise, finding time to connect with friends is clearly an important aspect of well-being too. Instead of getting together for food and/or drinks, why not plan to take a walk and talk instead? If your days are filled with meetings, consider which might be just as fruitful if conducted while walking rather than sitting.
  • Make walking a club sport. Many area elementary schools have adopted walking clubs, in which children can come to school early and walk a mile or more with the peers, teachers, and/or parents. If your child’s elementary school doesn’t have one, consider volunteering to help get one off the ground!
  • Walk where you’re going. While October 9th has been officially recognized as International Walk to School Day, consider having your child walk to/from school every And while you’re at it, consider other daily activities where you might be able to walk rather than drive – the grocery store? The post office? Take a look around your neighborhood and you’re sure to find places within walking distance. Or simply add an evening walk around the block to your daily routine.
  • Measure your progress. Pedometers and other fitness tracking devices abound, and for good reason. For many of us, simply being able to see how many steps we have (or haven’t) taken in a day is enough to motivate us to get up and moving.
  • Watch while you’re walking. Can’t find time to walk? Consider taking a look at your TV viewing schedule and commit yourself to walking on a treadmill while you watch your favorite weekly show(s).
  • Walk the walk. Remember that as parents, we have a responsibility to set a good example for our children – which includes both talking the talk and walking the walk. After all, if we get it right, they are very likely to follow in our 10,000-plus steps-per-day footsteps!

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Why E-Cigarettes Have Me Worried

The more I hear about e-cigarettes, the more they have me worried. And unfortunately, I’m not the only one who’s hearing a lot about these increasingly popular “alternatives to tobacco cigarettes.” In fact, a recent nationally-representative survey found that 40 percent of Americans have heard of the electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) affectionately referred to as “e-Cigs”, teens seem to be quite taken by them, and annual sales this year are shaping up to be a predicted $1 billion. But that’s not all. Here are a few other compelling reasons why I’m worried.

What you see isn’t always what you get. Ask any teen to describe what’s in an e-cig and the likely answer you’ll get is that it’s “just water vapor,” and therefore harmless. For those of you who have yet to pay much attention to e-cigs and don’t yet know what they actually are, let me explain why this is a dangerous misperception. E-cigs are devices – many of which are designed to look similar to cigarettes – that do in fact vaporize appealing-flavored solutions into a mist that can be inhaled into the lungs. But while “water vapor” may be what you see, what e-cig users actually get is a vaporized chemical mixture typically composed of nicotine, propylene glycol and other chemicals. And what we do know is that nicotine can be highly addictive.

What you don’t know can hurt you. Just because e-cigs don’t produce tar or ash like cigarettes do does not mean they’re safe. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Tobacco Free Initiative states that the potential risks they pose for the health of users remain undetermined, the safety has not been scientifically demonstrated, and scientific testing indicates that there is significant variation in the amount of nicotine and other chemicals contained in each product. Their conclusion, and one that I share: Until e-cigs are deemed safe and effective and of acceptable quality by a competent national regulatory body, consumers should be strongly advised not to use any of these products.

E-cigs are a step in the wrong direction. According to the Legacy Foundation, youth cigarette use declined sharply between the mid-1990’s and 2010, leveled off in 2011, and continued to decrease in 2012. In contrast, the CDC reports that e-cigarette use by minors is rapidly increasing – having doubled between 2011 and 2012. While advocates argue that e-cigs are a “safer alternative” to cigarette smoking, there are no scientifically proven methods for using e-cigs as cigarette replacements. In the meantime, they have me and just about everyone I know who’s involved in promoting healthy behaviors worried because they run the very real risk of initiating new teen e-cig smokers and making smoking cool again.

Looks can be appealing. Speaking of cool – it’s not so long ago that cigarettes were considered cool. In fact, too many movies still portray those who smoke cigarettes to be dashing, daring and desirable. Now enter e-cigs and you’ve got a new and even more appealing high-tech design. Now I’m not just worried that all of the longstanding public health efforts directed towards keeping teens from smoking will go up in smoke, but quite possibly go up in vapor as well.

Jenny McCarthy can be quite convincing. As if the enticing flavors and the convenience and the easy accessibility of sleek new e-cigs wasn’t enough, Advertising Age recently reported that Jenny McCarthy – known for her many years speaking out against childhood vaccination despite nearly two dozen scientific studies to the contrary – has signed on to be the new face of the leading brand of e-cigarettes. And even though tobacco advertisers haven’t been allowed to advertise on TV since 1971, e-cigarette makers now can because unlike their tobacco-containing counterparts, e-cigs are not yet regulated by the FDA. This really has me worried, given that a recent study on the international reach of tobacco marketing among young children confirms that pro-smoking messages delivered through marketing and the media can reach very young children and influence attitudes and behaviors around smoking.

So now that you hopefully agree that I’m justifiably worried, I hope you’ll join me in being proactive about it. Talk to your kids about e-cigs. Find out what they know, what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen. And make very sure they are well-informed – both about what e-cigs are, and about what they’re not!

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Back-to-School Parenting: Addressing Common Ailments

It’s that time of year again, when prepared parents get a head start on supply shopping while our children eagerly pick out new backpacks in anticipation of the rapidly approaching return to school. As both a parent and a pediatrician, I’ve found that this is the time when it’s also useful to arm oneself with information about some of the more common ailments and health-related challenges of the season.

What first comes to mind, in addition to the annual scramble to get school physicals and sports forms signed (a necessary and important pre-requisite for getting the school year off to a good start), are the not-so-eagerly anticipated maladies that predictably show up each fall. While children predictably share everything from strep throat, pinkeye, and common cold viruses to dreaded head lice – I’ve found that it’s the back-to-school headaches and stomach aches that have a way of leaving parents scratching their heads wondering which ones warrant being taken seriously.

When it comes to stomachaches, parents often find it difficult to determine which ones are “real,” and which are simply the result of not wanting to go to school. By “real,” most parents are thinking of the stomach-flu type illnesses that often cause symptoms like fever, vomiting and/or diarrhea. It’s important for parents to understand, however, that stomach aches not attributable to a virus or other medical cause can still be quite real. Stress-related stomachaches in school-age children are actually quite common and often said to be the equivalent of headaches in adults. Even if the underlying cause is due to a child’s stress or desire not to attend school, very “real” symptoms (such as vomiting and diarrhea, but not fever) can result, and it’s worthwhile trying to identify and address the underlying cause(s).

Similarly, the appearance of headaches can often cause parents to question whether they are serious or simply related to new school year nerves. When it comes to getting a head start on school-year headaches, as well as stomachaches, it’s always important to consider when they first start (after the first day of school? or during the family’s eagerly anticipated summer vacation?), when they occur (first thing in the morning? Or after a long day of reading and/or computer use?), how bad are they (do they make your child stop doing even those things they really enjoy? Or only get in the way of chores and going to school?) And what makes them better or worse.

There are common medical explanations – the eye strain and/or the yet-identified need for glasses, or the onset of seasonal allergies, for example – but it’s equally important to enlist your child’s doctor if you need help sorting out stress-related causes of headaches and/or stomach aches, as the resulting symptoms can be just as “real,” and addressing them just as important.

Getting a handle on these school-time ailments, as well remembering to help ensure your children get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast, will go a very long ways towards making this a more enjoyable and productive school year.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Top reasons people visit the doctor during the summer

As my children finish out another school year and the whole family settles in to our summer routine, I can’t help but be reminded of how nice it is to have made it through another winter of cold and flu season. After a winter of spending significantly more time indoors and in closer quarters with other people – the characteristic of winter which inevitably leads to more effective sharing of illness-causing germs and more frequent trips to see the doctor – I routinely find myself welcoming the sunshine, the swimming, and all of the other outdoor activities that summer brings.

As I buy my summer supply of sunscreen, fill prescriptions for allergy meds and remind my teenagers that they are still expected to wear their bicycle helmets, however, I am also reminded that stepping into summer fun and sun is not without its own set of reasons to visit the doctor. After all, this warmly welcomed season comes with its own set of most common illnesses, ailments and injuries.

Seasonal Allergies. For millions of allergy sufferers, some of the sure signs of summer – freshly cut grass, pollen and weeds to name a few – also serve to bring about itchy eyes and runny noses. Allergy symptoms that often start in the spring can and often do persist throughout the summer and into the fall, and can range from annoying eyes, nose and skin irritations to more serious sinus infections and difficulties with breathing and wheezing – all of which may warrant a trip to the doctor for diagnosis and/or treatment.

Bites. Need I say more? Spider bites. Mosquito bites. Tick bites. These too are the signs of the season, and in some cases warrant a trip to the doctor – in some cases for identification, because of increasing pain, redness, swelling, or the appearance of a rash, or for symptomatic treatment.

Broken Bones. Along with the welcoming outdoor weather and increased physical activity of the summertime comes a noticeable increase in injuries which, in addition to the common bumps, bruises, and skinned knees characteristic of the season comes the increased likelihood of broken bones. While necessitating a trip to the doctor, the good news about broken bones is that despite the temporary pain and limitations, children’s bones actually heal incredibly well.

Diarrhea. Not only do summer viruses have the distinct ability to cause some less-than-desirable effects when it comes to vomiting and diarrhea, but so do several bacteria known for contaminating food and summertime fun. That means that in addition to recognizing and regularly acting on the importance of hand washing when dirty, when in contact with germy hands or surfaces, or when exposed to someone who is sick, remember to heed.

Rashes – in addition to bug bites, rashes such as heat rash, increasingly dry skin and eczema, sunburns, and contact rashes such as poison ivy all tend to make their appearances in summer. Generally, a trip to the doctor is warranted either to figure out what the rash is, and/or figure out how best to treat the often-associated discomforts.

Stings. Head outdoors in the summer and you’re sure to find bees. While I only just finished listening to a world-renowned bee expert give a TED talk on how crucial bees are to the world’s food supply, nevertheless as a physician when I hear “bees” I think bee stings. While a run-of-the-mill bee sting doesn’t typically necessitate a doctor visit, some people can have enough pain, swelling and even – in some instances, all-out allergic reaction that requires medical attention.

Sun-related. While sun may be one of the things we all look forward to most about summer, having a healthy respect for its ability to cause sunburn, dehydration and heat stroke – especially during the peak hours of 10a to 2p – can help keep your family out of the doctor’s office, as can making sure you stay well-hydrated and well-equipped with sunscreen.

Swimmer’s ear. Also referred to as “otitis externa,” this common ailment of summer occurs as the result of repeated exposure to water, and typically presents itself as an annoyingly itchy and often painful irritation of the ear canal. While the pain and redness are often alarming enough to bring people in to see their doctors, the good news is that simply drying out the ear canal and treating the infection work very well.

Viral illnesses. While we all tend to think of winter as the time for cold and flu viruses to lurk, there are still plenty of summertime viruses – most notably a group called enteroviruses – that can cause anything from vomiting and diarrhea to hand foot mouth, and/or croup-like illnesses. In most cases, what most determines the need for a trip to the doctor is the persistence of high fevers, dehydration, lethargy, accompanying rashes, or simply reassurance.

Well visits (for school). I would be remiss as a pediatrician if I did not remember to mention that while you may think of them as “school physicals”, summertime is actually a great time to beat the crowds of people who wait until just before school starts and take your school-age child in now for his/her annual well visit (not to mention camp physical, sports participation physical, etc).

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Taking a Page from the Preschool Playbook

As an author myself, I have always had a very healthy respect for the fact that people not only judge books by their covers, but that coming up with just the right title can make or break a book. Much like the marketing slogans you simply can’t get out of your head (think “where’s the beef?” or “yo quiero, Taco Bell”), a really great book title can convey the essence of a book long after the details contained within are all but forgotten.

Whether I’m interacting with business leaders or functioning in my role as a pediatrician, early educator, or parent – the book title that keeps coming to my mind is Robert Fulghum’s All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This was certainly true when I sat down to catch up on the morning’s national news and saw the lead story about Rutgers University’s head basketball coach “behaving badly.”

My first reaction to the videos, which if you didn’t see them can be summarized as a whole lot of yelling, kicking, shoving, name calling (in the form of homophobic slurs) was to find them quite disturbing. My immediate thought was that perhaps the coach – who was reportedly instructed to get some remedial sensitivity training – had missed learning a few really important lessons in early childhood. What would clearly have served him well was simply to take a page or two from what I call the “Preschool Playbook.”

Having clearly recognized many years ago that what we teach children in early childhood is immensely important to their future life success, my strong belief that what happens in Preschool does not stay in preschool, but rather impacts children’s social, emotional, and cognitive competency for life. This belief is now being supported by everyone from the top brain scientists and academic institutions in the world to the military, the juvenile justice system, and the business community.

With respect to the representative viral video footage released by ESPN on Tuesday, let me just share with you a few fundamentally important lessons we routinely teach from said preschool playbook, and let you be the judge of just how important they are for future life success.

  1. Keep your hands to yourself. The fact of the matter is that children are not born with the ability to control their impulses. While this leads predictably to a certain amount of predictable hitting, biting, throwing and other socially undesirable behaviors, the ability to overcome these urges is unquestionably important for future life success. That said, most children who get proper encouragement and teaching of this important life skill, can be expected to master the impulse to push, grab, throw and/or shove sometime between the age of three or four.
  2. Use your words. Early childhood language development isn’t simply a matter of how early and many words a child can master for the sake of parental bragging rights, but rather how many words a child has at their disposal so that they can better communicate and interact with others. Every parent and child care provider knows the challenge of having a toddler who knows what they want, but has yet to develop the language skills to communicate it. The predictable result? A short fuse, frequent and unexplained “meltdowns,” temper tantrums, and all of the other behaviors so common during toddlerhood and what has long been referred to as “the terrible twos.” By age three, however, children can be expected to reach such fundamentally important developmental milestones as following instructions with 2 or 3 steps, carry on conversations using at least 2 to 3 word sentences, and talk well enough for strangers to understand them most of the time.
  3. If you can’t say something nice…. I’m willing to bet that the second half of these useful words to live by goes without saying. Preschool is all but defined as a time when children are learning and testing out social dynamics. They may (and often do) say some hurtful things to each other, but usually to test them out and see what happens when they say them. When in the care of adults who help them learn what is and isn’t socially acceptable, children soon learn necessary skills such as empathy and the awareness of how what they say effects others. As the parent of a teenage athlete, I’ve often wondered if the “old school” (loosely translated = belittling) coaches perhaps either missed this lesson or simply forgot it.
  4. Use your indoor voice. Sure, this phrase is often applied in preschool to the goal of keeping the decibel level down to a manageable level in closed spaces. But it is also a very important skill to remember when dealing with conflict and disagreement. In fact, whenever I help parents or teachers learn to instruct children more effectively, I routinely remind them that no one – child, adult, or college basketball player – responds well to being screamed or yelled at.

While the Rutgers basketball coach happens to be the story of the day, it is my sincere hope that the public interest fueled by social media isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan. Unless we want to raise a generation of adults who push, shove, belittle and have little-to-no impulse control, can’t control their reactions under stress, and whose overall behavior we find equally as disturbing as what we’ve just witnessed by the Rutgers basketball coach, we need to permanently raise our collective awareness of just how important early childhood education and stop discounting the importance of the preschool playbook.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Signs of Spring: Recognizing, preventing and treating seasonal allergies

While most people welcome spring with open arms, an estimated 35 million new and seasoned allergy sufferers may not be so excited. These folks are generally the first to realize that spring is, quite literally, in the air. They’re faced with questions about how to recognize, understand, prevent and treat seasonal allergies. While it’s hard to believe with snow still on the ground, the fact is we’re fast approaching that predictable time of year when the runny noses of “cold season” are replaced by those provoked by pollen.

In general, think of allergies as the body’s over-reaction to something. That “something” being an allergen – certain foods, pet dander, dust, medicines, mold spores, pollen, etc.

Every person is different when it comes to whether their body reacts to allergens, which ones and how bad. Some people go through life with no allergies whatsoever. Others experience reactions ranging in severity – from a simple runny and/or itchy nose, eyes, mouth, throat and ears, to wheezing or worse.

These symptoms definitely have some overlap with those of the common cold. In fact, the runny/stuffy nose and sneezing offer little insight into whether a cold or an allergy is to blame. Coughs, on the other hand, are more likely to mean cold. And the presence of itchy eyes or nose points to allergies. There’s actually a term for that habitual upward nose-wiping gesture you often see kids doing. It’s called an “allergic” or “nasal salute.”

If you start seeing possible allergy symptoms in your kids, have a conversation with their pediatrician. Figuring out the cause of your child’s symptoms is going to determine how best to treat and prevent them. The ideal approach is to prevent exposure to the culprit allergen(s) altogether. In many instances, avoidance can be challenging but nevertheless doable – like peanuts or penicillin.

In contrast, spring’s molds and pollens literally make their way into the air we breath, making absolute avoidance much less realistic. A typical pollen season can run from March through October, and the amount of pollen in the air can vary from day to day depending on the weather (with hot, dry and windy days especially bad). Keeping windows closed, using an air conditioner, air purifier, humidifier or air filters, and staying indoors when pollen counts peak can certainly help.

There is also a wide range of medicines – antihistamines, nasal steroids, decongestants, and allergy shots – that help prevent allergic reactions or minimize symptoms once they appear.

Be sure to brush up on your allergy-prevention plan and treatment if your child has been diagnosed with seasonal allergies in years past, and check in with your pediatrician if you suspect them.

As we jump straight from the snow into spring, many little noses are likely to keep on running, so keep an eye out for the telltale signs of allergies vs. cold. And it’s not a bad idea to continue to keep a box of tissues on hand!

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Arming teachers with what they really need…pencils, books, and healthy, school-ready children!

There’s no ignoring it. The topic is everywhere. Our country is engaged in a national debate about gun control, and in many cases, whether or not we should arm our teachers. I certainly have concerns about putting guns in closer proximity to our children, since the absence of guns from their homes and communities has been proven the most effective way of preventing firearm-related injuries within this age group. And while the conversation about gun control is long overdue, I feel compelled to point out that there is a more important discussion when it comes to arming teachers.

Far less controversial and already proven “arms” exist, and we actually know a lot about what works when it comes to ensuring our children stay safe and healthy while at school. Here are a few ideas.

Books. Helping children grow up with a love of reading in a literacy-rich environment is crucial for their future success and well being. Every educator and pediatrician I’ve met agrees – children must spend their first few years of school learning to read in order to spend the rest of their lives reading to learn. The sad fact is that far too many child care settings and elementary schools lack the books (or the budget) needed to make this happen. And Omaha is not immune to this problem.

Breakfast. As the co-author of Food Fights, a book that offers solutions to kid-related nutritional challenges, it should come as no surprise that I believe that good nutrition (all day every day) is essential for kids (and adults, for that matter). It’s needed for good physical health, concentration and the ability to learn. The fact of the matter is, hungry children simply don’t learn as well as others. So it’s time to ask the tough questions: How do we provide all children, especially those who are disadvantaged, with a nutritious breakfast?

School nurses and other health professionals. Our health and ability to learn are inextricably intertwined, especially in our children’s earliest years. Unfortunately, budget cuts often leave our schools with little, if any, access to a school nurse or other health professional. Even fewer child care centers have this much-needed access, despite the existence of clear justification for these health consultants.

Vaccines and other germ-fighting tools. Making sure children and teachers are fully vaccinated is so important. This also means insuring measures are in place to limit the spread of infection and missed school days. We need to arm our teachers not only with the paper and pencils, but with vaccinated children, cleaning supplies and disinfecting procedures. Access to hand washing sinks, soap, hand sanitizer, bleach water and/or disinfecting wipes are small investments that can yield big returns.

Children who are ready-to-learn. Key words here: when they enter kindergarten. We have irrefutable evidence that proves investing in early childhood and a strong foundation is hugely important for safety, health and lifelong well being. We also know this foundation must be laid in the earliest years of a child’s life – well before he or she enters kindergarten. That’s why efforts such as First Five Nebraska and Educare are so crucial.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska