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Archive for November 2011


Tips for a long trip to school

Readers’ Question: how do long commutes to school and back (30 mins or more) affect active boys, and long-term effects on their learning, family life and physical health? How do parents deal with long commutes with kids in the car, their own time management and energy levels, and if people have chosen a neighborhood school over a more desirable but far away school. As we consider school options for our soon to be Kindergartner, the issue of long commutes and its implications is becoming a significant one.

These days we’re all squeezed for time, and for many of us, commutes seems to be getting longer. One study reports that 3.5 million Americans spend more than three hours a day commuting to and from work. It’s not only adults who are affected. Children have long commutes to and from school, and it may be causing problems.

Spending hours on a bus or in a car, stuck in traffic, rushing to school, then going from school to various activities, no doubt raises stress levels in many children. Beyond the travel itself, long commutes eat into valuable time to socialize, get homework done, and engage in play activities that balance out an otherwise academic-heavy day.

Children who live close to school and can safely bike or walk get more exercise. One study showed it can add as much as 24 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous exercise. That goes a long way toward meeting the minimum one-hour per day of recommended physical exercise children need. Studies also suggest that kids who walk or bike to school are less likely to become obese (i.e., they have a lower body mass index) and have better cardiovascular health.

The fix? If you can, walk or bike to school. If you have concerns about sidewalks and bike paths to ensure safety, contact your local officials. Many cities and towns across the country are actively improving ways to encourage people to walk and bike more in their neighborhoods.

To encourage kids, it’s more fun when a small group can go together. Have adults accompany younger kids. Schools have reading clubs, why not ask your school to start a bike and walking club – with points that kids can tally and use to monitor their distance over each week and month. Provide incentives for reaching certain goals and for staying in these types of health-fostering programs.

At home, you can help reverse the stressful effects of long daily commutes piled onto hours of sitting at school. Get kids outside for a few minutes right after they arrive home, as well as after homework. Consider taking a short walk before dinner. Try to strike more of a balance between your indoor-living (sitting, working, screen time) and outdoor-living (movement, sports, recreation). Exposure to natural settings, even in brief 10-15 minute bursts, has been shown to help kids focus better once inside. It also will improve their sleep and help them maintain a more balanced mood. Why not join them? This helps us feel better too.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

How the Wild Things Tame Themselves

Where the Wild Things Are is a timeless classic that children adore. But, in recent years, Maurice Sendak’s tale about a rambunctious boy being sent to his room has hit a national nerve and sparks heated debates about how to raise kids.

As the story goes, Max’s mom banishes him to his room without supper for misbehaving. Experts and parents are hotly debating this part of the story, and many think it’s draconian. Many think its abandonment, cruel to withhold food, and believe its better to stay alongside a young child and talk it out. In my work as a child psychologist with over 20 years experience, Max’s mother gets it right. She knows that engaging Max endlessly with reminders, yelling, coddling, or lecturing is not only fruitless, but will make things worse. When parents come to me at their wits end, I’ve found that a simple time-away in one’s room really improves the household. For years, I’ve recommended Sendak’s book to guide parents through these trying times.

As with Max, young boys learn best from real-life experience. They don’t respond well to long verbal exchanges. They rarely improve their behavior only because you tell them. While this is true for many girls, research shows that girls don’t get themselves into these disciplinary situations as often. Girls have less motor activity. They attend better to rules. They make better eye contact, use language more effectively, and are more likely to think before they act out their frustrations. In short, they aren’t seen as hyperactive or having deficits of attention nearly as often.

In today’s climate of fast diagnosing, Max might be a candidate for ADHD. Rather than turning to psychiatric labels, and the medications that usually follow, Max’s mother relies on this effective yet simple behavior parenting technique. What happens to Max while he’s banished in his room? No doubt he gets angry. He might scream and cry. He might wish he had a different family and a less rule-bound mom. In the safety of his quiet room, Max uses his imagination like a tool. With it he constructs a boat that carries him far away from his mom, his family, and all the rules young kids are forced to obey. Meanwhile, his mom respects his time-away. She doesn’t interrupt his voyage by checking in or telling him how he should feel or what he should think. She respects his ability to make the journey himself. This conveys confidence in Max that he can work through the problem himself. Only he can pull back his wildness. He wants to get back to his family, but first he’ll need to make some changes.

Sendak’s story beautifully illustrates how a child’s play and imagination is the catalyst for cognitive growth. Max’s boat reaches a place where other Wild Things live. They carry on, roar, swing from trees, and gnash their terrible teeth. The Wild Things, (mostly boys by the look of them), will soon learn the lessons that Max has learned from his mother. You can’t act too wild. There’s a time and place for everything. There are limits, and consequences for your behaviors. In Max’s fantasy he uses pretend play to channel his wild urges. Next, he models his mother and pretends to be a parent. He banishes the Wild Things to their bedroom without supper. He’s now powerful and in control. He uses that power on improving himself.  Now he’s ready to go home.

It’s the smell of food that lures Max back to reality. He returns to his bedroom, calmer and better behaved, having made the journey on his own. His supper is waiting for him and he knows he’s loved.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.