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Toxic Environments

The Real Threats to Children’s Happiness


Monday, August 6, 2007

Most parents worry about their children. Top contenders for parental angst include illness, dangerous people, ruined physical environments, accidents, and drug and alcohol abuse. As children get a little older, parents worry about sexual experimentation that could lead to disease or unplanned pregnancies. All of these deserve our focus as parents, but may not be the most dangerous forces undermining a child’s happiness.

Consider some influences that we know do damage to children’s physical, emotional, and social welfare but continue to surround many children for at least part of every day.

Jane Close Conoley

Bad food: U.S. parents continue to give into the lure of fast and fat- and sugar-packed foods that are causing an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes in the United States. Advertisements on television and in movie theatres promote eating as a multi-tasking activity. We are shown that we should be drinking or eating in almost every context. Food is packaged to be portable, extremely attractive to children, and ubiquitous. Instead of being in charge of what goes into their children’s bodies, many parents allow children to choose. The results are obvious and life threatening.

Bad communication: Any trip to a store, beach, or playground will provide a listener with many examples of parents saying threatening, demeaning, or ambiguous statements to children. Reciprocally, these same trips often expose children saying sarcastic, challenging, and disrespectful comments to their parents with no consequence. Many parents seem to have lost the will or confidence to say yes or no and mean it. They resort to threats and promises to cajole obedience and they almost never follow through on either.

Bad connections: With many children now spending up to five hours per day in front of television sets or video games, they are losing their skills in reading and in relating appropriately with peers. Parents and other caregivers are concerned about an apparent rise in attention deficit disorder but fail to see how they are contributing to this behavioral pattern. Most diagnosed attention deficit is not due to brain abnormalities as the original cause but instead is due to our failure to hold children to high standards of communication skills - for example listening, looking at a person when they are being spoken to, answering questions when they are asked, and following orders without complaining. The adults must model, demand, and reinforce attentive and caring behavior from children. We must walk the walk and organize activities for children that put them into positive peer situations.

If you are wondering how to re-connect with your child, consider reading a book by Bobbi Conner’s Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. There are no “silver bullets” to raising a happy child, but there is a need to recognize that our busy world with its proliferation of experts and information has reduced some parents’ confidence in how to be the adults in the family and has surrounded their children with toxic environments of bad food, hyper-stimulation from media, and reduced opportunities for carefully supervised creative and reciprocal play with other children. Much of this danger is invisible because it’s everywhere. Parents, fight toxic environments even when they taste, feel, and seem the norm!

Professor Jane Close Conoley is Dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Billy Collins & Aimee Mann

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