The Simplest Way to Change the World

Form a family. Of any sort, biological or otherwise. Eat dinner together nightly. Repeat.

In that spirit, here’s a paragraph to ponder from the reading journal of one of my January-term students*:

“Since both my parents had careers in the Air Force, my family was run in a military manner with strict rules, many activities, and time management. We had timers to regulate our homework, play, and exercise. Our family vacations were notoriously un-relaxing, with us often traversing 6 different cities in two weeks or cycling the entire coast of a country. However, one area in which we were a “slow” family is related to dinner. My mom very strictly required that we have a sit-down family meal together at 6:00 P.M. every night, at which we were expected to try every food item on the table, chat about our days. Skipping or arriving late to dinner was unacceptable, as was leaving the table before 7:00 P.M. My brothers and I rotated through chores of setting the table, helping cook the meal, and loading the dishwasher. I thought this was normal until I found that none of my college friends had routine family dinners growing up. Though I resented this forced family interaction time, it became the stabilizing force in my life, a chance to wind down and reconnect with my family. Is this family priority outdated, unrealistic, and a little ridiculous?”

The “stabilizing force in my life”.

Social scientific research on the effects of family dinners is eye-opening. How can something so simple have so many positive correlations? From “The Importance of Eating Together” in the Atlantic:

“. . . children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.”

Consider the flip side, the negative consequences of families who do not eat together with any regularity:

“There are two big reasons for. . . negative effects associated with not eating meals together: the first is simply that when we eat out—especially at the inexpensive fast food and take-out places that most children go to when not eating with their family—we tend not to eat very healthy things. As Michael Pollan wrote in his most recent book, Cooked, meals eaten outside of the home are almost uniformly less healthy than homemade foods, generally having higher fat, salt, and caloric content.

The other reason is that eating alone can be alienating. The dinner table can act as a unifier, a place of community. Sharing a meal is an excuse to catch up and talk, one of the few times where people are happy to put aside their work and take time out of their day.”

Why don’t we eat dinner together more? Have we convinced ourselves we lack the time or are we unaware of the positive effects?

The more we follow the lead of my student’s mother, the better the world and we will be.

*shared by permission

Digital Photography, Creeping Narcissism, and the End of the World

Whomever scheduled the Olympia High School prom didn’t care that I should have been at the Pre-Classic in TrackTown USA last Saturday night. The true Head of the Household made it clear that I was expected to attend “prom pictures”. Back in the day, prom pictures meant standing in line during the dance to spend sixty seconds getting a picture or two taken by a professional.

Not anymore. Not even close. Now since you can take as many pictures as you want for free, prom pictures are a digital extravaganza.

We got to Tumwater Falls Park at 6:30 p.m. Five nicely dressed couples and lots of parents sporting expensive photographic gear, along with some sibs, and a grandparent or two. Pictures along the river’s edge. More pictures in front of the falls. More pictures on the bridge over the river. Guys only. Girls only. More pictures involving play acting a martial arts fight. All with an eye towards bolstering one’s Facebook self. Despite being an endurance athlete, at 8:15 p.m., I was byrned out.

For the Digital Photography generation, a lengthy prom pictorial is just the tip of the iceberg. In upper middle class suburbs, you can’t just have your senior picture taken. You have to schedule a shooting with a professional. During the shooting you’ll change clothes, travel to a few different locations, and I suppose, feel special. And don’t even think of mailing a text-based graduation announcement. You have to have craft a photo-montage of your graduate through the years. If you plan ahead, you might be able to use parts of or the same collage in your quarter (you like your child), half (you like your child twice as much as quarter page parents), or whole-page (you truly love your child) year book dedication to your graduate.

This may be more of a female, Tyra Banks inspired thing, but a favorite after-school or weekend activity for many teenage girls? Getting friends together for a photo-shoot. Different clothing, music, serious, silly, inside, outside, five hundred images to choose among, edit, and upload to Facebook.

Look at me. And leave a cryptic comment so I know you’ve seen me. The more pictures taken of them, the more convinced many teens become that the world revolves around them.

This may be the most cynical of my 745 posts. I acknowledge, life is better today than when I attended the Cypress (California) high school prom in 1980. Grandma Byrnes always loves the personal calendar that Seventeen whips up using digital pictures from the previous year. But I can’t help but think there’s a cost to nearly free digital photography. It’s accelerated a child-centeredness that promotes self-centeredness.

The digital photography generation doesn’t enjoy better self esteem or mental health. If anything, the more pictures they take, the less value each one has, and the more self conscious they become.

Look at me. And tell me I’m alright.

Understanding Teens

Turns out adolescent anger is contagious.

Mary Daily in the January 2012 issue of the UCLA Magazine summarizes Psychiatry Professor Andrew Fuligni’s and colleagues new research on adolescent development and family relationships.

A study that involved 578 ninth-graders from three ethnically diverse LA public high schools (redundant phrase) showed that adolescents had more arguments with parents or other family members on days when they also had conflicts with their peers, and vice versa. The participants completed a questionnaire at school and kept a diary for 14 days. The daily family-peer link was the same across ethnicities.

In Fuligni’s own words, “Adolescents interactions in the home and with peers shape each other on a daily basis, at least in part, through emotional distress.”

He adds, “Adolescents tend to respond with more extreme and negative emotions than do preadolescents or adults, probably because it’s the time in their lives when they are experiencing multiple transitions that might be stressful—puberty, dating, and changing schools as examples.”

Therefore, do everything possible to minimize family conflict in the interest of improved peer relations, and don’t take every argument personally, instead try to find out if things might have gone sideways with a friend or friends at school.

Should Schools Screen for Mental Health Problems in Teens?

From a recent WSJ article by Laura Landro:

With rising concern about adolescent depression and suicide, more schools are turning to screening tests to identify those at risk and, if necessary, help them get treatment. Voluntary screenings are being offered through school health classes, school-based health clinics and community agencies, which then can refer children for diagnosis and treatment to school psychologists or local health care providers.

. . . According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all cases of mental illness start by age 14, and about 11% of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18. Left untreated, such issues can lead to high dropout rates, substance abuse, violence—and suicide, the third-leading cause of death in adolescents. In a study of 2,500 students who went through the Fond du Lac program at six public high schools between 2005 and 2009, published last week in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, nearly 20% were identified as at risk, of whom 73.6% were not receiving treatment at the time of screening. Among that group, more than three-quarters completed at least one visit with a mental-health provider within 90 days after referral to school and community services.

Some groups oppose mental health screening programs because: 1) they believe the screenings interfere with issues that should be the domain of the family and 2) they lead to over-prescription of psychiatric meds. Opponents to screenings are also afraid 3A) kids who aren’t really depressed may answer questions in a way that makes them seem so and that 3B) children will be wrongly identified as problematic and stigmatized, or that 4) parents will be penalized if they don’t seek treatment. And 5) Howard Adelman, co-director of the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA believes that teachers are adept enough at picking out kids at risk without screening programs.

Marian Sheridan, coordinator for health and safety for Wisconsin’s Fond du Lac school district, counters that it is a “false perception” that schools and parents know which kids need help.

Sheridan is right, Adelman wrong.

“It’s not something a lot of kids like to talk about with their parents,” a 24 year-old who first started experiencing symptoms of depression in the eight grade contends, adding, “they may not want to bring it up at school either.”

Sixty percent of Fond du Lac’s eligible students were screened last year which I guess means 40% of parents didn’t provide consent. Obviously school-based mental health screenings are something upon which reasonable people can disagree.

I’m opposed to mindlessly holding teachers accountable for childhood obesity and more and more obviously non-academic responsibilities, but this quick-hit program has proven to make a positive difference in the adolescents that participate in it. As a result, I’m all for the expansion of voluntary mental health screening test programs for secondary students.