What is normal is not normal. The human biology expects sunlight, constant movement, physical novelty, whole, natural foods, close relationships built upon shared purposeful efforts for survival, and a generally slow life pace.
Today it is normal to eat exclusively processed, convenience foods, to remain indoors all day except for trips in our temperature controlled cars, to feel pulled and prodded by constant message alerts, and to sit all day, predominantly with our face in a screen while being passively entertained. Normal is a relative term.
Very few forces are as powerful as the human need to belong. Consequently, we naturally tend towards herd mentality, behaving as the masses do, regardless of personal benefit. In fact, we’ll adopt odd “normal” behaviors without even realizing they directly contradict our desires, or that we could choose not to.
The standard model of life that we’ve been handed has created a devastating global health picture and all signs point to this trend worsening in our youngest generation. Now, more than ever, we must be willing to question what is normal and carve a different path.
Freedom is not just having the ability to behave as we wish, but knowing why we choose those behaviors. Through reflection and education, we truly become free and are then able to craft an environment that pulls our family to health and vitality.
If wondering where to start, I recommend exploring these six norms that may be making your family less healthy.
1. Having “Kid Food” Around
There is a widespread belief that there should be a distinction between kid’s foods and adult foods. I’ll never forget a client telling me how she ate well for most meals, but often found herself snacking on her kid’s chips or popping a soda. When I suggested she stop keeping these foods in the house, she responded angrily, “I’m not going to not have chips and sodas for my kids.”
I’ve even seen this in healthy parents who make separate meals for their children so the young ones aren’t subjected to nutritious eating, as if this was a torturous experience. They’ll have roasted chicken, brown rice, and mixed vegetables while making chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, or frozen pizza for the young ones.
We’ve been sold the belief that kids can only eat chicken in nugget form, fish in fried stick form, and that the rest of their diet should come from packaged junk. While it is true that palates have to develop, children have always eaten natural, whole foods.
Fruits, vegetables, meat, seeds, and nuts have been the only available foods for almost all of human history. Roasted vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fish are actually childhood favorites when children aren’t engulfed in a world of Pop Tarts and pudding that only further serves to warp their palate. Without a diet predominantly consisting of whole foods, children are virtually ensured of future struggles with health and eating.
Make it simple. Make meals from foods that could have existed 10,000 years ago and have your children eat what you do. Ice cream and other desserts are wonderful occasional treats, but they should require a special trip, not be an always available temptation.
2. Driving As Your Only Mode of Transportation
For most of human history, human muscle moved us wherever we went. Today locomotion outside of our sanitized home or office environment is typically outsourced to the automobile. We even drive across the work campus or endlessly circle in search of a closer parking spot.
Most people struggle to find time for fitness while neglecting to incorporate normal activity into their everyday life. Why is there a need to drive your kids to school if it is less than a mile away? Why must you drive to work if it is just across town? My daily trip to work only went from 10 to 20 beautiful minutes when I switched to a bike commuting lifestyle.
According to the CDC, 71.6% of Americans over age 20 are overweight. Healthcare costs are unsustainable, and yet we drive when it would be almost as easy to use human muscle.
Help your kids break free of this pattern. What a model it would be to make it standard practice to bike when round trips are 10-miles or less, or to walk to pick your kids up from school until they are old enough to walk home themselves.
Despite modern helicopter norms, this is the goal of parenting: to create self-sufficient people capable of creating a purpose and contributing to something bigger than themselves. As much as it scares us we should want them to have this desire for independence and exploration. It sure beats smartphone addiction.
3. Letting Kids Have a TV in the Bedroom
Our environment is powerful. If cookies are always on a plate in the kitchen, we’ll probably make it a norm to grab one while walking by. Replace that norm with a bowl of fruit or ants on a log (peanut butter and raisins on celery), and our snacking norms change.
Screens are an especially pervasive temptation in the modern world. They bring an infinite number of messages. Nowadays, televisions are the focal point of our homes, constantly beckoning us to sit down and stop conversations. But at least we share the programs. They can provide talking points, mutual laughter, and a communal experience not too much different from the primal experience of fireside stories.
Yet, in a kid’s bedroom, the TV brings no positives and many negatives. It is a constant source of distraction from study, reading, getting out to play, or trying any creative endeavor. It is a pull towards more time in isolation and more ability to avoid dealing with potential family conflicts. Most destructively, it is a recipe for poor sleep.
Adolescents and teens need 8 1/2 to 10 hours of sleep per night but tend to average 7 or less. Absent of this they will be foggy, moody, lacking concentration, and at increased risk for the poor decisions that characterize this age.
Their natural body rhythms pull them towards later hours, but school start times rarely honor that reality. Add extra-curriculars and socializing and it can be very difficult for teens to adopt a healthy sleep schedule. These struggles magnify tenfold when they have a TV in their bedroom, which they’ll inevitably watch from bed.
Dr. Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, says that the number one thing you can do to help your kids avoid sleep problems now and into adulthood is, never put a television in their bedroom.
The only rationale I can see for putting a TV in bed is to appease your children, despite their own well-being. You are the parent. Be the parent.
4. Giving Kids Smartphones Without Boundaries
Nothing poses a greater risk to your children than that screen they can walk around with every hour of the day. The phone allows millions of messages to shape unhealthy beliefs and values, it prompts poor posture and sitting, it precludes face-to-face communication and overcoming social fears, and it wraps the mind in a vortex of anxiety and a compulsive need for distraction.
At least with the TV you sit and share a single program with other people. The smartphone isolates and constantly prompts you to search for the next best thing after only a brief superficial scan. Take everything wrong with having a television in the bedroom and multiply that by a trillion with the smartphone.
There is no culprit more responsible for the terrifying state of American physical, mental, and emotional health, particularly in childhood than smartphone ubiquity.
But, what are you gonna do, right? It is the world we live in, right?
Please, parents, piss your children off. Tell them no, not until 8th grade and not without tons of boundaries. Why open Pandora’s box too early? I’m sure I sound extreme, but this technology is extreme. While working in schools I’ve watched the lobotomization it renders on a generation and, it isn’t just them.
Parents line the park benches scanning furiously. Grandparents and babysitters take their children to bounce houses at odd hours so they can sit and scan their phones uninterrupted. We’ve all seen tech addiction and we’re all subject to the allure. Unchecked smartphone use is the path to a Wall-E type dystopia.
You can’t pretend smartphones don’t exist and you can’t hide them forever, but you can for a while. I highly recommend checking out the screen use recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatricians and using their Create Your Family Media Plan tool. It is very easy and will prompt you through ideas and nuances you may not have considered.
5. Not Managing Smartphone Alerts
As usual, we should start with our own model. Strong parents make strong kids. More often than not we are constantly pulled away from the moment by email dings, texts, and quick scans that turn into a 10-minute mental mindless scroll. This is only made worse by the Apple watch that now supersedes any phone away boundary to shove messages back in your face. Take that dinner time!
Simple recommendations that can help you take back control of your time and be more present for your family:
- Anything urgent should require a call. Go to your settings and silence all texts and email messaging. People will learn this about you and it will recalibrate their sense of what is urgent.
- Plan the times you will batch all messaging response.
- Plan the times you will use social media, apps, etc. For example, maybe you can batch this to two 30-minute blocks within your day. This takes the negative out and makes the tool work for you.
- While doing complex work, turn the phone on airplane mode and focus. You’ll get more done.
- After work or as you come to dinner, put the phone on a charger, away from you and your bedroom.
- Get an alarm clock. A single function device.
- Silence all calls and notifications a couple hours before bed. You can make exceptions for people you mark as favorites. This is quite easy to do actually.
6. Buying Into a Modern Youth Sports Culture
After the smartphone, this is truly the toughest insane norm to tread in the modern world. For most of you reading, youth sports were an amazing, integral part of your upbringing. Here we learned essential social skills, how to work on behalf of a team, and how to practice to improve. We played every sport, building a broad array of physical skills that nurtured a love of moving and play. It’s probably where you first fell in love with training.
Today, these foundational experiences have been completely perverted by conmen looking for easy money and a culture of over the top bulldozer parents, willing to pay any price to convince their child they are the center of the universe. Second graders have “signing days” when their parents pay for them to join the “elite” soccer team.
Third-grade football teams put the kids’ name on the back of the jersey and have a “pep-rally” every Friday night before Saturday games. Most disturbingly, at earlier and earlier ages, coaches try to convince players they are falling way behind without ridiculous travel, specialization, and expensive skills coaches.
Elementary school kids will have multiple evening practices per week, late games, and long Saturday tournaments. Family time evaporates under the guise that this is what you have to do. By middle school baseball and volleyball parents have conceded their wallets and their summer to travel ball. The family no longer has the option to vacation other than 1,000-mile trips to play athletes just like the ones in their own city.
Clearly, this is an article unto itself. The biggest take-home message is:
- This is not the best way to build athletes. Athletic participation is way down, meaning our talent pool is smaller and more kids miss out on these vital experiences. Furthermore, as detailed in the Long Term Athletic Development model, optimal athleticism follows age-appropriate, balanced exposure to sports.
- Youth sports should not be expensive and should not be all-encompassing. All the kids want to do is play the game with their friends. Remember that? We’d just go play sports with our friends without coaches or parents and we grew up doing it. Or, we’d go outside and play catch with mom and dad.
- Resist the urge to follow the masses into this crazy debt trap. Youth sports can be an amazing experience, but they shouldn’t be the only experiences. How you spend your time matters. Family dinner matters. Family vacation matters.
“It’s no sign of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
As usual, any broad rambling list will be full of prescriptions that don’t accommodate or appreciate your unique constraints and needs. There are major exceptions to nearly every point I’ve made, but I will stand by the underlying principles. Our standard model is a cultural conveyor belt towards poor health and dissatisfaction.
The best thing we can do is have the courage to buck the norms and live authentically, pursuing a path we earnestly believe in. This will take strength and require you to be counter-cultural. Your efforts matter. Strong parents make strong kids.
This Week’s Mission
Apply any of the suggestions from these six unhealthy norms. If you are unsure where to start, create a family media use plan. Having boundaries tends to offer a great deal of freedom. Without them, we are constantly pulled and prodded, controlled by a constant flood of habit-inducing notifications.