Leave Your Cell Phone at Home

Parents need to wean themselves off of the idea that they must be constantly available to their child and vice versa.

Question: What can parents do to be less overbearing?

Lenore Skenazy: You can leave your cell phone at home and so you sort of wean yourself off of the idea that you must be constantly available to your child and vice versa, your child must be constantly reachable by you.  Another tip I give in my book is simply, one of those hours that you’re gonna watch "CSI" with a body dredged out of the swamp, or "Law & Order" with the girl dragged off the street, turn off the TV and spend that hour outside.  You know, walking around your neighborhood, preferable with your kid, to remind yourself that you live in the neighborhood, that’s where you live.  You don’t live in "Law & Order"-ville and "CSI"-ville.  And in fact, I started a correspondence with a guy who started writing on my Web site, who lives in a neighborhood, a nice, quiet Brooklyn neighborhood, where they’re always filming "Law & Order" and it’s so ironic because he loves his neighborhood, 'cause it’s nice and quiet and safe, but if you ever saw it on "Law & Order," you’d think that there’s a murder every week.  So remind yourself about the real world, and also it’s safer.  The more people you meet, the more neighbors you know, the more familiar you and your kid are to the neighborhood, everybody’s safer and connected.  A lot of the "Free Range" message is about creating the community we think was lost.  Well, it’s lost if you don’t go out there, but if you do go out there, you can connect again.  

And that’s why one of the sort of offbeat ideas I also give, tip number three is, when you’re someplace with a bunch of parents, each of them hovering over their own child, the school gate hasn’t opened yet or soccer practice is about to start in maybe five minutes, or you’re at the bus stop, because a lot of parents now drive their children to the bus stop and wait for the bus to come because they’re so afraid of what might happen in that five minutes.  When you’re with a lot of parents, turn to them and say, “You know what?  I’ll watch them.  I’ll watch your kids.”  It’s this mind-blowing idea, because what you’re saying is two things at once.  One is that we don’t all need to be here.  We don’t think that wild banshees are coming, there’s not a twister in the distance that we’re all gonna have to save our kids from.  I think one adult can watch over all these children and they’ll be okay.  And what you’re also saying is, “I don’t think it’s a horrible burden for me to watch your kids.” 

So many times, one of the things that we’re worried about is I don’t want to impose on anyone.  If I’m at the park, I don’t want to ask another lady to watch my kids while I go to the car and get the sippy cups, because that’s too much.  It’s good to ask favors of each other and to offer favors. So you offer the favor, and then if no parent takes you up on it, you say, “OK, well, listen, Mary is staying here and I’m going off to work.”  And then you say, “I know she’ll be safe with you guys.”  So either way, you are almost aggressively saying, "I trust you, I trust this neighborhood.  I trust my child not to run into the street."  And when you start reminding people that this is what people used to do, I think they used to watch out for each other, I think in a lot of other countries, people still do this.  Maybe we can re-knit the kind of community that we all long to live in, and that we all feel is safer for our kids.

Recorded August 17, 2010

Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

Are you an overbearing parent? Author and syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy has some advice to help you loosen the harmful grip on your child.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.