3 ways school puts your child’s health at risk

We talk about the health of children all the time. But we rarely talk about anything that would lead parents to take their kids out of school. School is so sacred that people who are supposed to be protecting kids are scared to come out and say what kids really need.

1. Obsesity and sleep disorders
I’m in New York with my kids, and we stay with my friend Lisa Nielsen at her bright red bottom-of-Harlem apartment. Throughout our stay I listen to her give interviews to media outlets about her views on education.

Today School Library Journal asked about the flipped classrooms. This is when kids watch videos of teachers at home and then classroom time is devoted to discussion. The idea is that it’s a waste of time to lecture kids in person. They can do lectures on video.

The whole flipped classroom argument seems to be to be an argument for doing Khan Academy at home, so you can watch videos about what interests you. But Lisa is not doing an ad for Khan Academy, so she sticks to the message that kids should not be lectured to in school. Kids should have interactive, discussion-based learning in school.

Then School Library Journal asks, “Isn’t the flipped classroom with its push to watch videos at home a problem for parents who want to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics who want to limit screen time?”

Lisa says, “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time because of obesity, irregular sleep and less time for play. But all these things are negative side effects of school.”

2. Compromised emotional resilience.
I was at the doctor’s office for a checkup a few weeks ago, and she asked the kids very leading questions. For example, whether they eat two servings of vegetables a day, if they brush twice a day, and so on. It’s clear that this is the new way to help families to learn healthy habits without preaching to them.

Then she got to mealtime. She said, “Do you eat family meals together at least three times a week?” And I said, we eat almost every meal together. We homeschool and both me and my husband work from home. She congratulated me and told me the health benefits of the family meal.

I wanted to say, “Then all kids should eat at home instead of at school, don’t you think?” Because the benefits of a family meal far outweigh the benefits of going to school every day.

Psychologist Christopher Peterson says that people overvalue quality time with their kids, and what we should focus on is the quantity of time. He reports that kids who eat family meals together are happier and healthier than kids who don’t.

Psychologist Jayne Faulkerson studies family meals in conjunction with the University of Minneapolis Eat Project and  Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. These think tanks have found associations between family meals and what psychologists call developmental assets. Developmental assets are the internal attributes and the external forces that shape a child as he or she grows. Internal developmental assets include positive identity, high self-esteem, and social competency. External developmental assets include family support and expectations of child behavior, and community.

Ironically, top private schools are very focused on developmental assets rather than test scores. But the real way to encourage developmental assets is to create an education system that does not undermine the family meal.

3. Mental health disorders.
Lots of mental health professionals think that ADHD is wildly over-diagnosed in young kids. Most often people cite how teachers need kids to do things that are not age appropriate in the classroom, like sit still, stay inside all day, and speak only when given permission.

Let’s consider, for a minute, that the kids are properly diagnosed. The Atlantic reports that the medication is not changing the symptoms in 90% of the cases. So we owe it to the kids to try something else. The logical thing to do would be to take kids out of school. Then we can see if the medication works outside of school. That would be a logical first step.

Then we could take the radical step of seeing if kids who do not go to school also do not exhibit signs of ADHD. The rate of diagnosis for ADHD is a national health crisis that we are not likely to understand until we remove kids from the school environment to see if school is creating false symptoms.

When we talk about the health of kids, there is a gap in the discussion where school should be. School is off-limits when we talk about what’s unhealthy for children. It reminds me of the way the tobacco industry would lobby Congress in the 1970’s to make sure no one came out and said cigarettes are bad. As soon as the lobby lost power, it became common knowledge that cigarettes are bad.

25 replies
  1. Julie
    Julie says:

    I am old enough to remember going home for lunch. We lived close to the school and I just ran home had lunch and then back to school to join recess. It was great.

    My hsed teen stays up late, which is when she prefers to do much of her writing. She sleeps an hour or two later than the rest of us. She is following her natural teen sleep cycle and it works much better for her.

    I stopped worrying so much about family meals when we started hsing. My husband works from home much of the time too. We have so much time together that I don’t think it is that big of a deal if there are nights where the kids eat early and we eat later. When they were in school family meals and the need to make them happen and be some sort of always happy quality time was kind of stressful. They happen more naturally now, especially lunch. And with evening activities, especially for my older daughter we often can’t manage an evening meal together without eating way too late for my younger daughter.

    I agree that the structure of school is causing the health problems you describe. And we continue to look to schools to solve them or doctors or, sadly, pharmaceutical manufacturers.

    • Karen M
      Karen M says:

      Yes! I’m so happy to see that someone else does this. We rarely eat a meal together as a family but seeing as we all spend the day together (my husband also works from home), I just don’t see it as a problem. We let our two boys who are 11 and 8 set their own sleeping and eating schedules most of the time. Breakfast and lunch are mostly help yourself when you’re hungry and the boys like to have their supper a lot earlier than my husband and I do and don’t usually like what we’re having anyway. I try to have us all sit down for a formal dinner together on Sundays but that’s mostly about keeping their table manners up to scratch.

  2. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Your link from Christopher Peterson points out that eating meals together is correlated with better mental health. So it may just be that healthier families eat meals together more. Because they do everything together more. That is the message I get, and it fits with my experience and observations.

    So family meals are great but are not a fix for not spending time really together: talking with one another, and importantly–listening to one another. This is supposed to be *why* we work so hard the rest of the time, right? If you are skimping on this, honestly, you have no-one to blame but yourself.

    If your child is depressed or having problems of any kind, they are not likely to take advantage of a short hyped-up quality time event to bring that to a parent’s attention. It’s special time; the child knows that and is more likely to try and protect that time by pretending everything is fine. So the contact remains hollow, a pretense of quality.

    By spending quantity time together, quality emerges naturally. A child has freedom to relax and will reveal (often nonverbally) information about their life and feelings the parent can follow up on. In order to parenting to be effective, parents and their children need to know each other very well. That takes time, no getting around that.

    Penelope, I know you do not have a tv in your house. We have one, but it does not get much use. It is not connected to cable, it is just for occasional netflix shows we all enjoy. The point is, if you eat meals with entertainment, the family will get a lot more out of that if it is viewed as an opportunity to talk as much as watch. Liberal use of the pause button is the best way to turn a numbing and stupefying influence into a source of material to have conversations about.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      What I gathered from the article was that he was proposing we redeem time by doing things together that we already do, like eating.

      I tried that with friends, it’s a little different because of schedules but I’d like to give it another try. On friday nights we get together for dinner. Everyone eats, might as well do it together.

      I think that once we’re grown up we know that if there are 30 minutes in the day to connect with our spouse or friend we make the best of it. But children are still learning how to do that so they need more time to unwind their emotions, questions, etc. So more time leads to more quality with children whereas it doesn’t have to be that way with adults always.

      I use netflix for Ted talks and that kind of thing. It’s actually pretty fun as new parents (who the thought of just getting out of the house is exhausting) to learn something new, pause, talk, continue, pause, talk. And cheap, of course! :)

  3. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    I think that the biggest health risk caused by school, for many kids, is the stress of constant evaluation, the incessant ranking and comparing of kids, and the higher and higher stakes of these evaluations at younger and younger ages.

  4. Robyn
    Robyn says:

    Penelope, have you read “The Secrets of Happy Families”? I read it yesterday and one section was about meal time. Basically saying that it wasn’t so much the meal itself as the quality of conversation and taking time to be together in a fast paced world. Good book overall!

    I always wonder about the number of ADHD diagnosis as well. My six year old son is a ball of energy. He’s always on the move and we break up homeschool into small chunks of time to help him focus. I can’t imagine him sitting in a desk all day! To me, that’s just part of being a kid.

  5. Mindy
    Mindy says:

    I keep hearing about people who question homeschooled kids to see if they are really learning. But at the same time my husband keeps reading research about the benefits of homeschooling. Your post is great and goes right along with it! So glad that there are people out there that realize family dinners and quality time is still important!

  6. Josh Moll
    Josh Moll says:

    Lovely post. We just took our daughter back out of her Montessorischool because of health problems. She was homeschooled fot 4,5 year and she was never ill. In the last year, in school, she was ill a week per month. We missed eachother so much. She is so much happier since she is back home, our family life is so much more relaxed. And she is back to her bouncy self.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Your mention of obesity in #1 reminded me of a live streaming event I watched this past weekend at a local college. It was the Manhattan TEDx: Changing the way we eat. I only listened to three talks but one of them happened to be by Anna Lappe. Her talk was about “the 2 billion dollars spent every year by the food industry to hook kids and teens on high-fat, high-salt, high-cholesterol foods–and what we can do about it.” – http://guidetogoodfood.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/tedxmanhattan-speaker-profile-anna-lappe/ Her talk can be seen at http://new.livestream.com/tedx/manhattan2013 ,Session 2:Educate starting at approximately the 12:30 mark. The mention of TV, schools, and more are included in her talk.

  8. Anna Louise
    Anna Louise says:

    Other health issues – contagious bugs, overstimulation of the senses and other forms of stress leading to high cortisol levels and various health issues, endless cupcakes and candy due to birthday parties and holiday celebrations and rewards from teachers, sugary snacks for snack time and other unwanted free food, poor air quality, excessive sitting, insufficient sleep, poor quality of school lunch. We had all that and more to deal with at a private school.

  9. Cindy Gaddis
    Cindy Gaddis says:

    Hip, hip, hurrah and so, so, true for #3. I couldn’t agree more. I wrote a post about my high energy son here: http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/2012/11/08/the-adhd-push-back/. The energy is still there at home, but there’s respect for his need to move and be outside, and he can grow into the skills he needs at the appropriate developmental stage right for him and his individual nature. Plus, he can have a caring adult mentor who helps him learn the emotional intelligence most needed for his personality.

  10. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    Not sure why school would give kids sleep disorders – thinking the set times get parents to put kids to bed at a set time and wake them up at a set time which is supposed to help improve sleep patterns.

    And the same with obesity – the kids can’t eat all day, only at set times which should help with that. Although school meals and tuck-shops could be a problem.

    That’s terrible about no. 3 though. Very sad.

  11. MBL
    MBL says:

    Early on I noticed that nearly all homeschooled kids are thin, regardless of the the parent’s physique. Yesterday we spent 5.5 hours at the pool. Some days are 4 hours at an indoor play structure/gym. At the zoo, all of the kids take hour long breaks from the exhibits to race around on the playground.

    I love knowing what my daughter actually eats during the day. At school, a child could ditch or maybe trade food. I can’t imagine if we were dealing with allergies. My daughter functions best with small frequent meals. At school the kids’ meal times are based strictly on logistics. I really want my daughter to continue to recognize her body’s signals. The concepts of eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, and go to the bathroom when you need to are, necessarily, suppressed at school. How healthy can that be?

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I’ll tell you, my boy isn’t thin. In my experience as a homeschool parent, though, I see no fat kids, and kids who all typically get much more exercise than do school kids. My boy is one of the two I know who isn’t thin, but he’s also not fat. In his case, it’s just genetics – he never has been, nor will he ever be, thin. He’s 8 with a 34 inch chest, looking good in a Men’s XS.

      No matter what you do, most programmed sports activities will still be in the after-school hours. I’m more bookish and less active than some homeschoolers I know, so my kids typically only get about an hour a day of exercise before they hit the after-school sports for another two. It is awfully nice, though, that we’re all rested and energized rather than exhausted from suffering through school at that point.

      There is no doubt in my mind that it’s a healthier lifestyle for the kids. And as I mentioned before, it’s so nice not to get lice anymore.

  12. katie
    katie says:

    We don’t do a lot of family meals here either, but we homeschool so there is quality time and plenty of it. We just have too many people with weird diets and it’s too hard to make it all ready at the same time…

  13. Helen
    Helen says:

    I have seen all those studies about family meals and I’m not convinced. Maybe if all the kids are old enough not to make the family meal a living hell, it’s worth it. Otherwise, seems to me if you all eat dinner together two or three times a week you’re doing fine.

    People who can manage eating together as a family on a regular basis have their act together in other ways, which is why their kids do so well.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      My family (me, husband, 2 sons) has always eaten together as a family. From the time they were not even eating solid foods yet. My husband has actually fed the baby a bottle while eating his own dinner. They are active, rambunctious, normal boys who can often be loud and flatulent at the dinner table, but they have never made it “hell.” It was a long time before I even realized (thanks to Parenting magazine, I think it was) that some parents actually feed their kids at a separate time and/or in a separate room from the grown-ups, and ever since I learned this startling fact–no less startling to me than when I discovered that not everyone washes and reuses Ziploc bags–I wondered how you teach your kids things like table manners if they aren’t at the table with you. How do you teach them, in short, not to make dinner time a “living hell” if you don’t eat dinner with them?

      I homeschool, so we don’t really need to talk about “their day at school” so we talk instead about books they are reading on their own, what they built today in their playroom, what we want to do tomorrow, and we play guessing games (“I’m thinking of something that you ride that rhymes with course.” That kind of thing) while we eat. We all find it quite pleasant, and not at all like a hell. And, no, my kids are not particularly gifted in terms of manners or sitting still. They’ve just had a lot of practice of family meal times.

  14. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    And add this to 3: the long-term health effects of bullying.

    Bullying is not a harmless rite of passage, but inflicts lasting psychiatric damage on a par with certain family dysfunctions, Dr. Copeland said. “The pattern we are seeing is similar to patterns we see when a child is abused or maltreated or treated very harshly within the family setting,” he said.


  15. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    I feel like I only comment on my own specific situation, but then we all do.

    My kids in public school in Brooklyn come home for lunch. My little ones comes home 4 days a week, and once a week my husband goes and eats with them at school. My middle school kid’s entire school has open lunch. Some kids go home, some go out, some bring lunch and eat in the park with friends. Mine does all three.

    The problem – for me – with some of these posts is that is takes YOUR situation and expands it to all of america. This feels like a flaw.

    • Kate C
      Kate C says:

      Your comment …”and expands it to all America…feels like a flaw..” is precisely the reason that federal control over school is a ridiculous idea.

  16. kristen
    kristen says:

    I agree that school should be part of the discussion when it comes to childhood diagnoses like ADD/ADHD. But I think that for many families school should be a tool demonstrating healthy behaviors and teaching these behaviors. The idea that everyone can and should homeschool is naive and sheltered. Many people in lower socioeconomic classes can’t get it together enough not to hit their kids much less teach them. School is a refuge for these kids so it should be a place that exemplifies self-care and good habits. Most schools don’t even come close. Ignore the horrendous lunches and birthday/bullshit-day treats…and you’re still left with an institution of learning that doesn’t have the children exercising at least an hour each day or brushing their teeth after each meal. These are not expensive, time-consuming ordeals…these are things that healthy people do every day. But in our “Race to Nowhere”
    school culture the impression of being uber-focused on reading and math is more important than the actuality of healthy children.

    All that being said, for middle class kids diagnosed with any letter diagnosis (ADD,ADHD,ODD,etc.) I agree with getting them out of that environment. But that is only one part of the solution – screen time and diet are huge influencers as well and not mentioning them weakens the argument.

  17. Jen
    Jen says:

    This is pretty off-topic, but I’m reading this post while listening to a state legislative committee hearing on all-day kindergarten and it occurred to me: if more Democrats spoke out the same way you do, the school lobby might lose power the same way the tobacco lobby did.

    Republicans have been criticizing school as state-funded babysitting as long as I’ve been a political spectator, but they have no credibility and no sway with the teachers’ unions.

    Public school reform won’t look like schools changing to meet the challenges of these issues, since we can’t afford to fund them effectively.

    But if the lobbies were less powerful, maybe parents would have room to make kid-specific and family-centric choices. And maybe that’s what reform really looks like: choice.

  18. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    My son has several diagnosis: Tourette Syndrome, OCD, and ADHD. He attended one year of public school and we clearly saw that was not the environment for him. We pulled him out and have homeschooled ever since. I started out very much doing “school at home” because it was the only model I was familiar with. Over the years I have slowly migrated toward more self-directed learning. It is out of my comfort zone, but I cannot argue with results. The further we go in the interest lead learning direction the less apparent and intrusive my son’s “issues” are. He is now in 5th grade and I’d say they are pretty much non issues now. Thank you for your blog! It encourages me to stay this path despite judgement around me. That is a huge gift!!

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