Monthly Archives: July 2011

Off the grid

A short post today, as we’re heading “off the grid” for a three-day camping trip in the western Adirondacks. Realizing that we’ll have no wifi access — not even dependable cellphone access — is kind of humbling. My girls know to leave their iPads behind. Of course, the iPods and DSs are still coming for the car ride, but once we are there, the kids are surprisingly able to amuse themselves with each other in the woods and by the lake.

Our annual July camping trip started off in 2001 with just the two of us and our 2-year-old twins in a lovely small campground at Mont Tremblant Provincial Park, and it’s now grown into an 11-family extravaganza, all with children under 13 years old. We swim, canoe, do at least one 5 or 6-hour hike to the top of a nearby mountain, and spend a lot of wonderful time with friends making great memories and fabulous meals. It’s amazing how much time gets spent on food preparation and clean-up when you don’t have a sink, dishwasher or microwave!

We all enjoy the chance to unplug and spend some time with simpler things, though a couple of the adults, anxious about work, sometimes drive to the nearest cellphone hotspot to check their email. We have toys no more sophisticated that water soakers, frisbees, balls, bubbles and markers. We never once hear “I’m bored!”  When they aren’t collecting sticks or helping cook on the fire, the kids find all sorts of things to do with sticks and games of chase. It’s really idyllic, particularly if you don’t mind the grime.

Wishing you all a wonderful mid-summer weekend!

In praise of boredom

One of best things about summertime is the invitation to embrace a bit of laziness. Our hectic winter schedules get put aside. We can sleep in on hot summer mornings and stay up late on hot summer nights. There are no battles over homework, mealtimes tend to be later and more informal and there is generally less tension all around as we relax into a slower pace of life for a few precious weeks.

In between our travels and the occasional week at a summer camp, we settle in up at our favourite place in the whole world, a family cottage by a lake in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal. It’s very comfy, but certainly more rustic than our city life. The 3 girls share one room and everyone has to pitch in to keep the smaller space uncluttered and habitable. My parents are often there as well, and 3 generations under one small-ish roof means lots of wonderful memories and also a need for consideration and compromise.

While we do have both cable television and wifi at the cottage, we strongly encourage everyone spend most of their time outdoors. The girls initially bristle when I put limitations on screen time, since they don’t have homework or other demands, but we all gradually settle in to a slower pace of life. Shelves of toys accumulated over the years generally go untouched. We do a lot of reading. We swim or hang out with friends and family. We spend a lot of time making and eating food.

An every once in a while, when someone whines about how bored they are, I’m secretly very pleased.

I’m a big fan of bored kids. Boredom is the catalyst for creativity. Boredom is the reason they scour the recycling pile for old newspapers, which they rip into shred ands dip in a gloopy flour and water mixture to make papier mache. Boredom is the engine behind the elaborate homemade board games they invent, and then forget the next week. Boredom is the only way our dog gets groomed or taught new tricks. Boredom leads to all sorts of experiments in the kitchen, many involving chocolate, some of which were even edible.  We’ve had treasure hunts invented, imaginary maps created, treehouses built.

Famous writers, from Nelson Mandela, to Martin Luther King, Jr., O. Henry and Antonio Gramsci, used the enforced idleness of their imprisonment to create some of the most important and enduring ideas and stories of our time.

There is a big difference between kids who are constructively bored and negatively numbed, however. We need to remember that boredom itself is a very modern concept. Prior to the 19th century, only the wealthiest people had any idle time on their hands, since simply eking out an existence required constant effort. A combination of labour-saving devices, the modern electronic entertainment industry and a coddled approach to child-rearing has left ou kids — and ourselves — expecting constant stimulation. I see it with my university students, who expect their professors to keep their attention with elaborate multimedia presentations and interactive activities.

Kids who are bored might initially spend more time bickering, but then realize they need to depend on each other to find something to do. My daughters have spent long afternoons by the lake engaged in made-up activities together, when they might otherwise not be able to endure even the 10-minute ride home from school in each others’ company.

Kids who are bored need to learn to figure out how to occupy themselves. They need to be creative, a quality that is notoriously difficult to teach. In fact, some suggest that too much conventional teaching actually erodes the natural creativity of children.  The satirist P.J O’Rourke famously declared colleges to be places where “pebbles are polished and diamonds are dulled.”

The unstructured time we give our kids helps them explore their inner and outer worlds. It requires effort on their part to figure out what they want to do. It is ungraded, un-evaluated and unremarked upon by anyone other than themselves. It offers freedom, but can be intimidating to kids who are used to be stimulated, to getting toys that instruct them to follow rules to predetermined ends. It takes a bit of practice to get good at being bored.

The tricky part is that sometimes we parents need to be involved. We aren’t so good at being bored either. Sometimes our kids who claim to be bored need a bit of parental bonding. Or they need supplies or ingredients or a supervisory eye while they play capture the flag with canoes.

It’s a good lesson for all of us. And lazy summer afternoons are the best time to do this kind of learning.

Fighting thinspiration: eat with your kids and avoid “fat talk”

Creative Commons license An Honorable GermanApparently, Prince Charming only marries skinny girls. That’s the apparent takeaway from the recent fairy-tale marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, at least according to the skewed perspective of the pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) websites who’ve been trumpeting the thinspiration offered by the new Duchess of Cambridge and her super-stylish sister, Pippa.

Thinspiration (or “thinspo” in the vernacular of the pro-ana and pro-mia subcultures) are images of ultra-skinny people — usually celebrities or models — used to inspire those suffering from eating disorders to continue losing weight and/or delay treatment that can save their lives. A Today Health article online has observed that images of the Middleton sisters are popping up on these websites:

“Every little girl at one time wants to be a princess, and these images will not only reach teenagers but middle and elementary schoolers,” said Jill M. Pollack, director of the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia. She has been treating patients suffering from eating disorders for over 20 years. “To have the Middleton sisters [on pro-ana sites] is like, oh my God, a disaster waiting to happen.”

Recent tabloid reports have estimated Kate’s current weight at 95 pounds — and while there’s no evidence to support these claims, Pollack concedes that the Duchess’s visible collar bones alone may be cause for alarm.

“It’s not easy to starve yourself,” Pollack says, “and [people suffering from eating disorders] look for thinspiration to lose weight.”

According to information cited by the National Eating Disorders Information Centre (NEDIC), 1.5% of women between 15 and 24 years of age and 0.5% of males will develop either anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness; 10% of sufferers will die of the condition within 10 years of onset (1). These figures don’t take into account the other unhealthy behaviours associated with poor body self-image, such as exercise obsession, use of anabolic steroids, smoking to curb appetite or fad dieting binges.

Our children are constantly surrounded by images of extreme thinness, and fed media messages which suggest thin people are smarter, more attractive, more capable, more interesting and wealthier. The consequences of this play out in our self-awareness from a very young age. Thirty-seven percent of girls in grade nine and 40% in grade ten perceived themselves as too fat. Even among students of normal-weight (based on BMI), 19% believed that they were too fat, and 12% of students reported attempting to lose weight.

I challenge you to find a single adult woman who hasn’t — at some point in her life — had a messed up relationship with food.

There are at least two things parents can do to lessen their kids’ risks of developing an eating disorder or (more commonly) what the experts call a dysmorphic body image (in which they are unable to see themselves as others see them).

The first is to regularly sit down to meal times with your teenagers. University of Illinois researcher Barbara Fiese reviewed 17 studies of adolescent eating patterns for the June issue of Pediatrics, involving more than 200,000 chidren and teens. She found that teens who eat least five meals a week with their families were 35 percent less likely to be disordered eaters. Even three meals a week eaten together seemed to offer protective benefits as well, with kids in those families 12 percent less likely to be overweight. They were also 24% more likely to have healthy eating habits and eat healthier foods than teens who ate alone.

“For children and adolescents with disordered eating, mealtime provides a setting in which parents can recognise
early signs and take steps to prevent detrimental patterns from turning into full-blowing eating disorders.

Professor Fiese said: ‘Family meals give them a place where they can go regularly to check in with their parents and express
themselves freely. If family meals are not a forced activity, if parents don’t totally control the conversation, and if teens can contribute to family interaction and feel like they’re benefiting from it, older kids are likely to welcome participating.” (Daily Mail)

The global protective effects of family meal times have already been demonstrated when it comes to teens consuming alcohol, drugs and staying in school.

One other thing parents can try and avoid is “fat talk,” which includes constant discussions about weight loss, weight gain, how fat other people are, dieting, exercise, etc. This kind of talk tends to creep into everyday conversation, and we aren’t always aware of the damage it can cause. It can be insulting to others and harmful to our children, who hear one underlying message about how fat is disgusting and to be avoided at all costs. Fat talk can trigger all sorts of unhealthy behaviours, and make both ourselves and others feel bad about their bodies.

For more information on how to stop fat talking, and for an inspiring video on the subject, check out Operation Beautiful.

(1) Sullivan, P. (2002). Course and outcome of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In Fairburn, C. G. & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). Eating Disorders and Obesity (pp. 226-232). New York, New York: Guilford.