by Pallas Hutchison
If you don’t have kids, I’d like to tell you that parenting is scary. I’m constantly second-guessing myself and comparing myself to other moms. Am I pushing the girls too hard in school? Am I over-scheduling or under-scheduling their week? Where are they developmentally and where are they supposed to be? What high school will provide them with the best education? How will I pay for college? Do they get enough social time, media time, homework time, exercise, one-on-one time…? The list goes on.
People who know me may be surprised by this. I get compliments on how well behaved my kids are all the time. Teachers gush over how helpful and kind they are. Friends who aren’t ‘kid people’ don’t mind babysitting. Acquaintances that we run into in public, like the waitress at our favorite restaurant, comment on how polite they are. My youngest actually received the “Good Citizenship Award” at her third grade graduation, an award that goes to one kid who displays exceptional helpfulness and kindness throughout their entire time in the school – in her case, K-3. That says something, right?
Positive reinforcement from all of these sources doesn’t stop me from stressing out. It takes a conscious effort to prevent somatization, which basically means that mental or emotional stress manifests itself as a physical symptom. For me, emotional stress settles in my shoulders and neck, making me stiff, sore and irritable. This in turns can inhibit my physical activities, which increases irritability, causing more pain and now there is a downward spiral. [The next blog will talk more about the pain cycle, with links to research.]
To live without pain, the cycle needs to break. To break the cycle, something needs to change. Accepting that I can’t change overnight is the first step. I won’t succeed if I expect instant results, basically setting myself up for failure. By setting realistic goals, I begin to reduce stress. With a goal in mind, my outlook becomes hopeful and I further remove myself from the pain cycle.
Things I’m actively working on to reduce my child-rearing stress:
Pain Cycle Image
by Pallas Hutchison
Stress is multifaceted and will stretch across the next several posts so that I may thoroughly explore the idea of stress management. The first thing I want to address is technology. I did the following research after our school district elected to make iPads mandatory learning devices. My objections to this go beyond what I will discuss in this blog.
Technology has become enmeshed in the fabric of global society. It provides a tool for business transactions, a network for sharing information and a platform for connecting with people. The implications of what it can do and what it should do are the source of many debates internationally. The pros and cons of technology use is something specific to each individual. Everyone should take the time to decide what the right answer is for them. A person’s addictive nature can turn a useful tool into a problem with many unintended consequences. Excessive use can literally rewire the brain.
Email and video conferencing streamlines many aspects of business including supply chain management and marketing efforts. The internet allows information to be found quickly. It also allows families to close physical distances and reconnect or meet new people, creating new relationships. Some video games are said to help improve visual acuity and tactical thinking. However, these benefits do not necessarily outweigh the negative impact technology has on the brain or on society as a whole. Employers and teachers rely more on technology for communication, putting pressure on employees and students to be available 24/7. This pressure can push people into using technology beyond the scope of work intended. Social media and gaming become an escape. “The ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room” (Richtel).
According to Richtel, people consume an average of 12 hours of media per day. A 2007 study of children in Australia reports technology consumption at close to five hours per day (Berry). The more time spent in front of a device increases the amount of sedentary time, which may cause delays in the development of sensory, social-emotional and motor milestones. Brain scans on Internet addicts yields results similar to alcoholics and cocaine addicts (Elmore). One study shows that several areas of the brain actually shrink after daily video game immersion over a six-day time span. The areas in questions, the cortex and hippocampus, are responsible for memory formation and retrieval as well as cognitive functions including decision-making skills (Mosher).
Laptops, home computers, and iPads all have the ability to switch rapidly from program to program creating an information overload that is difficult to sift through and process. This degree of multitasking causes difficulties in focusing and makes it harder to sift through irrelevant information. These two effects combined increase the overall stress on the individual. The level of stress hormones is linked to short term memory. “Scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist” (Richtel).
To keep up with the evolving technologies, the brain creates new neurons able to process information faster (Elmore). The combination of devices and applications available provide a constant stimulus and therefore a steady stream of dopamine bursts to the brain. The frequent release enables the brain to build up a tolerance to dopamine, requiring more and more stimulation to achieve the same pleasure (Swenson).
Resisting the pull of electronic devices is even harder on children than adults. A child’s brain is still learning how to set priorities and control impulses. The excessive use of technology has been linked to many negative behaviors in children and teens. They withdraw from friends and activities, preferring virtual interactions on social media and gaming platforms over face-to-face interactions. Their schoolwork diminishes in quality leading to lower grades. The violent content in some video games leads to aggression and desensitization to violence, as shown by the increasingly combative games leeching from a screen onto the playground (Berry). Other negative effects include an increase in irritability, depression, “reduced inhibition of inappropriate behaviors and diminished goal orientation” (Mosher). The younger generations display a sense of entitlement and lack of patience that may result from the deficit of goal orientation and the surplus of instant gratification available through technology.
The impact that technology has on the family dynamic is also disturbing. The increased mobility of electronic devices blurs the line between the workday and down time. In some cases, the differentiation disappears altogether. Relationships and marriages become strained when one partner’s obsessive use of technology leads to neglect in other aspects of daily life. In many households, family time consists of video gaming together or being in the same room and using separate devices. Children bond with their parents through mutual video gaming, gaining respect and admiration for them based on their competence within the game (Richter). Vacations often become more of the same with a higher price tag because people feel guilty taking time off, making them unable or unwilling to unplug (Elmore).
After talking about how technology impacts the mental and social aspects of life, the physical impact is no less dramatic. With few exceptions, video games and computers are primarily sedentary activities. The increasing obesity rates, especially in children, have been linked to excessive television viewing. In my opinion, it is not a far leap to include other forms of media and technology. Video games with quickly flashing sequences have been linked to seizures. Looking down into screens and game consoles causes neck and head pain as well as promoting poor posture, which can lead to more severe problems if not corrected. This becomes more prevalent as people turn to tablets and iPads, which rest in their laps. Dr. Matthew Gardiner, an ophthalmologist at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, sees many patients with what’s called ‘computer vision syndrome.’ He states that because of intense focus, we forget to blink. This causes eyes to become dry and irritated. Hearing is also a factor. “An ear bud doesn’t block out background sound so people tend to turn the volume up louder” (Ebben). Over time, this can lead to tinnitus or hearing loss. Repetitive stress injuries have expanded from a typist’s carpal tunnel to include Blackberry/iPhone thumb, an injury common from overuse of thumb in texting or video game play. (Ebben & Hosale)
As with many other things, education and moderation is the key. Parents set the example for their children. Take the time to learn about each device, application and gaming software to determine whether it is age-appropriate. Electronic use can be limited to a set time duration for non-homework purposes or by designating a specific room in the house to keep devices in. The latter tactic removes the temptation to sneak texts to friends or beat ‘just one more level’ into evening hours, which directly affects quality of sleep. The set-up itself is also important. Use the image below as a guide to minimize the postural damage. Re-create family traditions without giving technology the focal point. Explore and encourage interests separate from technology. Over time, friendships based on mutually enjoyed activities will develop and become more meaningful than the tenuous connections found in cyberspace.
Technology is a useful tool with many positive and negative effects. As with any tool, the positive or negative impact is based on the individual user. Each person, adult or child, has the right to use or reject each technological advancement and the unanticipated consequences of long term use based on individual values and integrity (Berry & Healy).
I did not allow them to bring home an iPad from school, making them a distinct minority among their peers. The irony is, as I write this in OpenOffice, I have my internet browser with five open windows of research articles in the background and two cell phones sitting next to me on the desk. One is chiming insistently with incoming texts from an employee, the other has messages from my boyfriend. Both I read and respond to almost immediately. I don’t, however, have television or cable. We have a DVD player and the internet. I have a desktop computer for the house and a laptop for work. My kids don’t have cellphones of their own. They are limited to an hour of media, outside of school assignments, per day. I have explained why I have made these decisions and, while they understand my logic, they still beg for cell phones.
by Pallas Hutchison
Not everyone is a born athlete. Although I’ve attempted sports, I’ve never been good at them. Ballet was a disaster. My sister, as previously mentioned, got all of the grace in our family. As a child, I was all knees and awkward angles. In 6th grade, my stint on the track team ended with a sprained ankle at the first meet. In 7th grade, one season as bench-player on the field hockey team convinced me to put away the stick. Over the summer, I discovered that tennis didn’t suck as much as the other sports but I wasn’t good enough to make the team. By sophomore year, I had accepted my non-athleticism, choosing to smoke pot with friends as we walked around the track or played poker on the bleachers instead of participating in whatever torture the gym teachers devised. Needless to say, I failed gym class in high school. (Ironically, I rode my bicycle to summer school to make up the lost credits. According to MapQuest, I rode 5.45 miles each way. I was in great shape that summer.)
For my senior year, I signed up to take a pre-natal yoga class in lieu of gym class. Not only was I being proactive about my health and my baby, I would get credit towards my diploma over a GED. I loved yoga. The gentle movements were modified to accommodate my ever-more-bulbous body. The other expectant mothers ranged from late 20s to early 40s, and the comfortable companionship they enjoyed with each other did not extend to include me. Pregnancy was a beautiful and natural thing. Teen pregnancy felt like leprosy. I only attended three classes. (In hindsight, I was probably hypersensitive.)
Back to the lifestyle overhaul…
Kids need outdoor play time. My dog, who has since passed, needed walks. Weather permitting, we would walk to the park and the kids would play. When my mother watched the girls, I would walk with the dog around Bell’s Neck and enjoy fleeting moments of serenity. My bicycle rusted quietly in the garage.
I bought a beginner’s yoga DVD and have watched it enough to create my own stretching routine. Am I doing the moves correctly? Maybe… I bought a gym membership, one of those holiday deals at Planet Fitness where you get the year for $99. My orientation consisted of a distracted desk clerk pointing me to the machines. “Press the start button. You’ll get the hang of it.” And off I went to a room full of people who knew exactly what they were doing. I went faithfully for two months and never braved anything beyond the “press start” phase. I’ve discovered that I lack the knowledge & self-discipline to exercise effectively on my own.
I signed up for swing dancing lessons and enjoyed it immensely. Cost-effective, fun exercise that opens up a whole new social circle. Unfortunately, it is a partner dance. I’ve bartered massages for private lessons and now I’m a fairly decent dancer. (Swing, as a faster-paced dance, requires more enthusiasm than grace.) I pop in on classes every now and then but without a regular partner, it’s not consistent.
In 2010, the girls joined a kids martial arts class. Rules #1 at the dojo: parents are not allowed to coach. I didn’t know the first thing about martial arts or self-defense anyway. Six months later, I signed up for the adult’s class. Movements that initially felt unnatural became muscle memory. Tight muscles that limited range-of-motion stretched to allow movements I didn’t know I could do. For the first time in my life, I can do push ups – just the girly-knee ones, but they still count.
Now, in 2013, the girls have made it to the rank of red belt and transitioned into the adult class with me. My belt rank is green with a black stripe, two full ranks behind the girls. I’ve participated in -and completed- a Spartan Sprint. Apparently I am an athlete of sorts; I’m just not a team player.
Next step, rest & stress management.
I don’t know where I first heard the phrase “Physician, heal thyself” but a quick internet search tells me that it originated in the Christian bible. I’m not a fan of organized religion in general but that line has stuck with me for years. How could I possibly heal anyone if I couldn’t first take care of myself? My abhorrence for hypocrisy forced me to do something. My self-imposed lifestyle overhaul began.
Diet seemed like the easiest place to start. My idea of a diet isn’t a strict set of limitations on food. My little sister took ballet for years and she tried diet after diet to force her body into the lithe frame required for professional dancers. They all worked for a little while, but then she would hit a plateau. Her frustration and anger, mostly directed at herself, remained constant and tangible for years. I kept my mouth shut while she tortured herself, guilty of having the body type she desperately wanted. (Our perspectives may vary on these events but I think we’ll both agree that I have half of her class and none of her grace.)
I didn’t want to add any emotional turmoil or set myself up for failure. For my diet, I simply paid more attention to what I put in my body. Junk food, ice cream and soda gave way to vegetables and home cooked meals. Cooking has been an integral part of my family’s gatherings; it seems we are born with a love of food and at least basic cooking concepts. It turns out that I love to cook and most of the time, I’m pretty good at it. (Don’t ask my best friend, who is an actual chef, to validate that statement.)
Sixty pounds melted away with minimal effort. My flat stomach and skinny thighs are lost in the past but my body no longer feels like foreign territory. Success, even a small one, is encouraging. It helped me stay motivated and keep moving forward.
Next step: Exercise.
by Pallas Hutchison
I did not come up with either of these ideas but I implemented a modified version combining both ideas last year. I pinned a print-out of both to our bulletin board in the kitchen, where we keep our school calenders and write in all of our activities etc. It has worked surprisingly well. My kids feel that they have some control over their life and I have to play the "bad guy" less often.
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