September 14, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Hello MindSite News readers: School is in! In this issue, we share some engaging columns from Fatherly magazine and medical experts to help keep your kids healthy physically and mentally as they head back to class. Plus: Some sage advice on squelching sibling jealousy, teens who create PSAs about social media, and the mental health benefits of cycling.

Also: Did you know a 10-year-old girl can be married off to an adult man in some parts of the United States? I certainly didn’t, until I happened across an appalling report from Human Rights Watch that received little attention when it came out last fall. Read on to find how far we lag behind many nations on children’s rights.

A back to school fresh start

It’s back to school time this month for most children across the country, and I’m already impressed with the social-emotional curriculum at my daughter’s kindergarten. She’s been walking around the house singing a song her music teacher wrote, “When I feel angry, I put my hands on my belly and breathe…so I can be free!” It’s good prep for how to navigate life, as far as I’m concerned. Anyhow, if you’re looking for back-to-school support, Fatherly put together a special issue just for you, with content dedicated to renewal and reinvention for the school season.

Fatherly also includes books to help you in your parenting journey, books to enjoy with your children of all ages, and even some good TV to get you all into school mode. My personal favorite for dealing with a picky eater: easy-to-make fridge staples for use in tasty homemade lunches. I appreciated the article as someone who leaned too often on sugary snacks in the lunchbox when my daughter was in preschool. This year, that’s totally out. Her new school doesn’t allow such items in lunches, even the ones sent from home. Why? A growing body of evidence links high intake of processed sugar in children to declines in academic performance, learning, and memory. And of course, too much sugar can wreak havoc on physical health, increasing risk of illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

Nutrition and mental health is also covered in this back-to-school roundup from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Besides choosing whole, fresh foods whenever possible and limiting processed sugar intake, the good docs encourage plenty of sleep for children every night. Kids who get enough sleep not only perform better in the classroom, they feel better mentally, too. Better yet, there are tips for helping teach your child to deal with bullying too – whether they are being bullied, witness bullying in process, or are even the bully themselves. 

US fails to protect children’s rights, according to a little-known report from Human Rights Watch

It doesn’t matter the political climate wherever you live; blue and red states alike are failing to protect the rights of children. That’s the gist of a little-noticed shocker of a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) last fall. “Children in the U.S. can be legally married in 41 states, physically punished by school administrators in 47 states, sentenced to life without parole in 22 states, and work in hazardous agriculture conditions in all 50 states,” the report reads. Though Slate News, which covered the HRW report, notes that conditions for children are worse in so-called ‘red states,’ they acknowledge that Democratic states have a long way to go, too.

The report also reveals that, though the international human rights standard is for people to reach age 18 before they can marry, more than 250,000 children married in the United States between the years 2000 and 2018. Not all of them were older teens, either. Most were girls married off to adult men, with some girls as young as 10 years old. 

Then, there’s the matter of physical punishment, which has been widely shown to have a detrimental effect on children, (and likely the adults who dish it out). Only 3 US states outright ban paddling and other physical punishment in public and private schools. There are 25 others that have made corporal punishment in public schools illegal, HRW reports. (That number has now risen to 28, with Colorado the latest state to ban corporal punishment in its public schools.)

Finally, Human Rights Watch notes something rather bizarre: Though the United States has enforced child labor laws for many decades now, a number of Republicans seek to roll back that legislation. Proponents are pushing the idea that some families need children to work in order for the household to afford what it needs to survive – plus there’s an existing labor shortage. Anywho, it’s already a problem on farms. Children as young as 12 can work in an agricultural capacity full time.

If that’s not enough to keep you awake at night, the report also points out that 22 states in our union allow children convicted of crimes to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. If “protect the children” is really a rallying cry, when are we going to stop chanting and get down to business?

Navigating sibling jealousy

What can a parent do when one sibling is unrelentingly jealous of another? Washington Post advice columnist Meghan Leahy offers some useful, albeit counterintuitive, advice: Acknowledge that families have a little less support in raising children these days than in the times when extended family lived nearby, and that jealousy and envy is a symptom of children having less undivided attention from caring adults. So, it’s natural for your child to want more attention from you. 

You can’t fix the unfairness of reality, Leahy says, but you can dedicate time to be fully present with your children one on one. It nurtures and strengthens the relationships you share with each child, and reinforces their individual importance to you. So, make dates with your children and treat the time as sacred. As your relationship deepens, sibling jealousy may not disappear, but it will cease to derail their connections to you and one another.

In other news…

As awareness spreads about the risks of engaging too frequently with social media, especially for teens, a group of Los Angeles youth created a set of PSAs to help one another engage online safely. As part of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Teens Leading Change initiative, teenagers at the Rancho Park Branch and Playa Vista Los Angeles Public Libraries presented their project to the community in June. And now, the Los Angeles Times reports, there’s even an accompanying pamphlet – just in time for the start of school.

Boys struggle with healthy body image, too: A recent article in Yes! magazine highlights the messaging of hypermasculinity in our culture that sparks pressure in boys and men to look ultrafit, even if they’re not really very healthy. “In this world, a fit body not only speaks to your strength but also shouts your success,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, history professor and author of Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. “But the hunt for muscular growth is also inexorably tied to the social enforcement of masculinity, a perpetual anxiety to prove oneself, to respond to threat. The inclination is to dominate your body, and in doing so, carry a body perceived to dominate others.”

Exercise helps reduce symptoms of depression. Could bicycling offer a double boost? According to a brief in National Geographic, maybe. While science confirms that aerobic exercise helps keep your focus and academic performance sharp, some suspect that because of the additional work the brain has to do to keep you balanced on a bike while riding, it may offer enhanced mental benefits. “You’ve got to coordinate, sense, process, integrate, inhibit, and continually make decisions,” explained Allan Reiss, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. He said that his research team is currently working on a new study that will hopefully measure what happens in the brain while someone is exercising — in this case, on a bike. They’re hoping to learn how cycling affects attention and focus, in people with ADHD and without. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...