Our Kids are Killing Us

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Of the 17 richest countries in the world, the U.S. has the shortest life expectancy, and it is getting worse.  This is according to a wonderful report that came out yesterday from the National Resource Council, called U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.

Why this discrepancy compared to other rich countries?  It turns out that our short life expectancy can be blamed, in no small part, on our kids.

Adolescents in the U.S. have the highest mortality rate of any peer country.

Compared to U.S. kids of previous generations, kids in the U.S. perform better academically, are less likely to abuse drugs, have healthier sexual habits and are less likely to engage in other delinquent behaviors.

However, compared to kids in other rich countries, kids in the U.S. are more likely to:

  • Be obese (the number of overweight or obese 12 to 17 year-olds in the U.S. is twice the average of the other rich countries)
  • Have HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases
  • Be in a fatal accident
  • Be murdered (15 to 19 year-old males in the U.S. are five times more likely to die a violent death than their counterparts in peer countries)

In other words, our kids are dying and it is bringing down the overall life expectancy of the U.S.

Those familiar with my work know that I typically evoke the ubiquitous British directive of “stay calm and carry on” when addressing news stories about our kids.  I routinely rail against the Chicken Littles of the world, who are too quick to claim that the sky is falling every time some random, confused teenager licks a toad or makes a pop bottle explode.  However, this study concerns me.

I am not sure what the immediate policy implications are.  However, it seems worthwhile to use our view from the shining city on the hill to see how our neighbors are managing to raise healthier kids.


School Shootings Should Happen More Often

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There are almost 315,000,000 people in the U.S.  About 34,000,000 are 18 to 25 years old.

Approximately 8% of 18 to 25 year-olds, roughly 2,700,000, have a serious mental illness.  Of them, only 40% receive treatment.

In other words, there are about 1,600,000 untreated, seriously mentally ill 18 to 25 year-olds walking around in our communities.

There are about 139,000 schools in the U.S.

There are 280,000,000 guns.

If that isn’t a lethal enough recipe, consider the popularity of certain violent videogames.  Consider the success of action adventure television programs and movies.  Consider, even, the dehumanizing rancor of the recent elections.

Given these numbers and given our pop culture and political climate, one would think that school shootings, like the one in Connecticut this past Friday, should be common.

But school shootings are not common.  They are incredibly (and thankfully) rare.

In fact, school violence in the U.S. continues to decline, as it has for the last two decades.  Overall, our Nation’s young people are harming each other with less and less frequency, and our schools are safer than they have been for a very long time.

And while I almost am overcome by the sickness and sadness I feel about the events at Sandy Hook School, I cannot help but think that, at some level, the vast majority of adults who care for young people in the U.S. are doing something right, that, in spite of the economy and politics and Call of Duty Black Ops on Xbox 360, our society is getting less violent.

There is something more powerful than videogames or television or gun laws, and that is the influence of caring adults on the lives of kids.  Let us use the tragedy in Newtown to commit ourselves to being present to the young people in our communities, to looking out for them (especially for the ones alone at the edges), and to modeling the compassionate and caring relationships that will keep the U.S. on its current trajectory.

All In…The Family: The Education of Our Children About David Petraeus

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One unfortunate side effect of very public cases of infidelity is that our children become of aware of them.  Because of their bizarre circumstances, the peccadillos of former CIA Director and retired General, David Petraeus, seem destined to be a part of our and our children’s zeitgeist.

So how do we explain infidelity to our kids?

Children, especially young children, tend to have a self-centered view of the world.  This does not make them selfish or immoral.  Rather, it is a side effect of their age and development.  But it means that kids tend to worry about how things effect them personally.  Consequently, our primary concern when explaining infidelity to our kids is assuring them that they are safe from it.

I recommend describing infidelity honestly but generally and without mentioning its long-term impacts on a relationship.  I constructed this definition after reading the suggestions of several child psychologists:  “Infidelity is when an adult mistreats his or her partner and spends time with another person that he or she should be spending with his or her partner.”  Yes, it’s wordy, but kids understand concepts like mistreatment or being mean.  They also understand the importance of spending time with loved ones.

I also came across some good advice from Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, author of Adultery: The Forgivable Sin.  She recommends describing infidelity as one would substance abuse:  something some people do to try to make themselves feel better that ultimately leaves them feeling much, much worse, and not something people do to deliberately hurt other people.

If you find all of this almost too upsetting to contemplate, be like Ike and put the blame the industrial military complex.  I know I do.

Explaining Elections to Kids

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It is the morning after the U.S. Presidential election, and my house, just like America’s metaphorical house, is divided.  My daughter and her 1st grade classmates had backed a different candidate than my wife and I backed.   In discussing this with my daughter, I was reminded of something Lani Guinier said.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, the prominent civil rights attorney, for Assistant Attorney General.  As a Nation, our recollections of President Clinton’s tenure are considerably rosier than the reality.  The opposition to Lani was intense.  The political establishment was especially critical of her ideas on amending voting processes to give all minorities more say.

In explaining her view of democracy to Congress, Lani cited a passage from her book, The Tyranny of the Majority, in which she recounts a conversation she had with her own four-year-old daughter.

Lani had asked her daughter what to do if four friends wanted to play tag and two wanted to play hide-and-seek.  Her daughter replied, “They will play both.  First they will play tag.  Then they will play hide-and-seek.”

This is how I am choosing to explain the elections to my daughter.  Those who win elections have earned the right to try their ideas first, but we need to listen to those who didn’t win because good ideas, fun ideas, can come from them, too.

Kids These Days (circa 1925)

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From The Young Delinquent by Cyril Burt, published in 1925:

“…the handling of a juvenile offender is, or should be, a practical application of known psychological principles.  To whip a boy, to fine him, to shut him up in a penal institution, because he has infringed the law, is like sending a patient, on the first appearance of fever, out under the open sky to cool his skin and save others from the infection.  It is as blind and unintelligent as the primitive treatment of malaria, in the days when the parasite was unlooked for and the mosquito ignored.  With moral disorders as with physical, we must find and fight not symptoms but causes.  Not before causes have been discovered can cures be advised.”

One of the 15-year-old deliquents described in the book:

15-year-old from The Young Delinquent by Cyril Burt, 1925

Majority Do or Does vs. Majority Do Not or Does Not?

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Yesterday Cecilia Kang reported in the Business section of The Washington Post that, “The majority of American teens own a smartphone.”  The statement raises two questions:

Does “majority” take a singular or plural verb form?

Is Cecilia correct?

I have to admit that the first question perplexes me.  The my ears, “the majority of teens are” sounds better than “the majority of teens is.”  However, the recent political conventions have taught me not to trust my ears.  I decided to reference an expert.

From Paul Brian’s Common Errors in English Usage:

“Majority” is one of those words that can be either singular or plural. Common sense works pretty well in deciding which. If you mean the word to describe a collection of individuals, then the word should be treated as plural: “The majority of e-mail users are upset about the increase in spam.” If the word is used to describe a collective group, then consider it singular: “A 90% majority is opposed to scheduling the next meeting at 6:00 A.M.”

Cecilia’s usage is correct.  I am glad because her statement is not.  Cecilia’s article was referencing a press release from Nielsen reporting the results of a recent survey of mobile telephone owners.  Among 13 to 17 year-olds who already own mobile telephones, smartphone ownership is on the rise.  Nielsen found that 58% of teen mobile telephone owners now own a smartphone, but that does not equate to a majority of American teens owning smartphones.

According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 77% of 12 to 17 year-olds had mobile telephones in 2011.  Moreover, that number seemed to declining among younger teens.   In other words, 45% of all American teens have smartphones, and, according to Pew, most of those are in the hands of older teens.  Pew found that only 8% of 12 to 13 year-olds have smartphones, and, as I mentioned the absolute number of 12 to 13 year-olds with mobile telephones is declining.

Cecelia described her finding as “a trend that has raised privacy and safety concerns by regulators and public interest groups.”  Surely, the concerns of people, like me, who care about kids are different for 12 year-olds with smartphones than they are for 17 year-olds with smartphones.  Finally, while privacy and safety (whatever that means) seem like legitimate concerns, I want to leave room for us to be concerned about the smaller, but significant, percentage of American kids who do not have ready access to the Internet from any device.  Or should I be concerned for that percentage of American kids who does not have ready access to the Internet from any device?

Raising Kids by the Numbers

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26.  22.  240.

These three numbers trouble me.  No, not in a science fiction way.  I am not seeing these numbers everywhere I look.  I do not believe that they hold the secret to unraveling the mysteries of the Knights Templar, I do not believe that they explain why we are stranded on this island, and I am pretty sure that none of the three is the correct number of bones in a squirrel’s hand.

26 is the daily cost in dollars of raising a kid in a low to middle income household in the U.S.

Each year, the US Department of Agriculture calculates expenditures on children by families using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, a nationally representative survey of a sample of 28,000 households.  It looks at spending across categories, such as housing, food, transportation, clothing, healthcare, childcare and education.  The data is very robust and the findings, which the USDA has produced since 1960, are very reliable.

22 is the daily stipend, in dollars, paid by the Arizona Department of Economic Securities to raise a foster child.  It is among the more generous stipends in US, but it is useful for comparisons.  As you can see, it is about 15% less than what it actually costs to raise a child (in a low to middle income household).  It does not seem like a big difference, but over the course of the year it equals a shortfall of over $1,000.

Finally, 240 is the daily cost, in dollars, to incarcerate a kid in Arizona.  Yep.  That’s over $87,000 a year.

The tragedy is that kids in foster care are about 7.5 times more likely to become incarcerated.  In other words, the kids that we, as a society, are spending 15% less to raise are costing us almost 1,000% more to lock up.

26.  22.  240.  They just don’t add up.

What Arizonans Spend Per Day to Raise a Kid

The Dog Kids Hate to Bite

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Despite my rosy outlook on the future of our children, I do recognize that they face many dangers. But is choking on hotdogs one of them? The people at Dog Dicer certainly think so.

After watching this infomercial and perusing the Dog Dicer Web site, I set out to learn more about the unintentional inhalation or suffocation risks posed by frankfurters. The task proved difficult. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does track choking deaths and emergency room visits that result from choking, it does not disclose the specific foreign bodies that caused the choking.

I was able to learn this: unintentional inhalation or suffocation does not rank among the top ten unintentional injuries that cause children, ages 1 through 14, to visit emergency rooms. However, unintentional inhalation or suffocation is a top ten cause of unintentional injury deaths. In 2009, the most recent year for which this information is available, 192 1 to 14 year-olds suffocated or choked to death. To put that number in perspective, 659 1 to 14 year-olds drowned and 1,231 1 to 14 year-olds died in motor vehicle accidents during that same period.

Other studies suggest that approximately 40% of unintentional inhalation or suffocation deaths are caused by food, as opposed to items like coins or batteries (apparently choking on batteries is skyrocketing, and I am not kidding). Again, I was unable to learn how much of that 40% is attributable to tube steak.

During my research, I did come across a story from a year ago linking hotdogs with death. Last summer, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sponsored this billboard outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

Hotdog Warning

Surprisingly, their concern was not choking. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine was citing multiple studies linking the regular consumption of processed meats, like hotdogs, with increased risks of colorectal cancer. The evidence is conclusive: regularly eating hotdogs can increase your risk for this cancer by as much as 50%.

If you are worried about the children in your life choking while eating soft, oblong foods unsupervised, the Dog Dicer could be a convenient solution for you. If you are worried about statistically significant health risks facing the children in your life, don’t just cut the hotdogs, cut back on the hotdogs.

Sharing Infidelity

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For many members of Generation X – Americans born between 1961 and 1981 – “sharing” often has a negative connotation.  Sharing sexual partners spread HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.  So did sharing needles.  In the 1990s and 2000s, we learned that sharing ideas leads to lawsuits and lost fortunes.

So it is of little surprise that members of Generation X, now parents, are horrified to learn that their teenage children are sharing their online passwords with their boyfriends and girlfriends (you can read about it here).  Where did Generation X go wrong?

Marriage.  Marriage is where Generation X went wrong.

To its credit, Generation X is committed to better marriages than it experienced as the children of Baby Boomers.  As a result, the divorce rate has dropped almost 30% since the early 1980s.  However, it still hovers around 45%, which is tragic.

What does this have to do with teenagers sharing their online passwords?

According to a study by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the past five years have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of electronic data used as evidence in divorce hearings.  Generation X is using private e-mail accounts and social networks to carry out its extramarital affairs.

Kids see the damage to relationships caused by online privacy, and they respond by eliminating the privacy.  They share.  Generation X may fault this logic, but I see something kind of beautiful in choosing romance over privacy.

Sexting Tips

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I recently received a list entitled, “50 Sexting Acronyms Every Adult Should Know.”  There was no citation.  No author.  Just a list.  It was distributed presumably as a warning that sexting is an epidemic among kids, so adults better learn what these kids are saying.

Let me tell you, the list is fabulous.

The acronyms are crude, complicated, obvious, inventive, and, I began to expect, not commonly used.

I decided to test a few of the terms.

First, I asked my new research assistant, a recent college graduate, about some of the more innocuous acronyms.  She was clueless.

Next, I sent a text to a college freshman that I have mentored for a number of years.  Here is that exchange:

Texting about sexting

Obviously, the data from my little exercise are anecdotal at best.  However, my suspicions are confirmed by a new study in, you guessed it, Pediatrics, which concludes that sexting is atypical behavior.

For example, the researchers found that only 1% of teens have sent sexually explicit images of themselves from their mobile telephones, which is a stark contrast to the 20% or more reported by some special interest groups.

I was starting to feel smug.  My instincts about those “50 Sexting Acronyms Every Adult Should Know” seemed correct.  Then I realized, the list is meant to help adults with their own sexting.  You see, it turns out that sexting is more prevalent among adults, 30 to 49 years-old, than it is among teens.  You can read about it here when you are not texting K4Y, 143 and GNOC.