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How We’re Setting Our Kids Up to Be Fat, Sick, and Unhappy

I’ve been on a bit of a “children’s health and wellness” kick lately, with a couple posts discussing the importance — and, unfortunately, dearth — of free play [1] and exploration in our children’s lives [2]. Some of you have speculated via email that Carrie and I have something to announce, but that’s definitely not the case. This is simply an important topic for everyone with a stake in the future of this world. The mental, physical, and spiritual health of our children today will determine our trajectory through history in the decades to come. If a fat, sick, and unhappy generation takes the reins of this planet, nothing good will come of it.

Also, those are our kids. Once you’ve popped one out, it’s your responsibility to give them the tools and environment they need to realize their potential. No, not a free ride. Not a hand-holding session. But we need to provide the things they, as infants, toddlers, and prepubescents filled with simmering stews of hormones, cannot. The incredible thing about smaller, less “mature” humans is that make pretty good decisions regarding health, fitness, activity, sleep, and every other lifestyle factor we seek to optimize on this blog if they’re in the right environment. No micromanagement required (in fact, micromanagement of our children is one of the biggest impediments to their healthy growth and development).

Okay, so what exactly is wrong with kids today? Why am I yelling at this cloud?

Their parents are told to ignore their instincts early on.

What’s the first thing a new parent feels like doing when they behold that wrinkly red humanoid that just sprang from the mom’s loins? Holding it close. Bare skin against bare skin. You don’t want to whisk your newborn off to the nursery, or have to wait patiently until a medical professional runs diagnostics and decides when you can hold him. You want that thing in your arms, right now.

And when you get home (or maybe you did it at home), you just want to fall asleep with your new family member in the same room as you. Maybe even in the same bed. You probably don’t want to leave your defenseless, utterly confused womb emigrant alone in an empty crib halfway across the house. You don’t want to hear distant cries. You want that burbling no-necked little monster making indecipherable coos, grunts, and farts (a necessary evil) onto your chest. But you ignore those instincts, because you’re not “supposed” to sleep with your baby. Unfortunately, you and your family may be missing out on some important, long-lasting benefits granted by co-sleeping [3].

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not co-sleeping. You don’t have to do it, and babies turn out perfectly healthy and happy and well-adjusted sleeping in their own beds. But if you want to co-sleep, don’t fight the urge. Don’t let the reigning conventional wisdom regarding baby sleeping arrangements dissuade you, because it’s not based on sound science. That instinct is a powerful one, and I think it’s probably important to heed it, particularly if you practice safe co-sleeping [4].

The important thing is that parents have lost trust in themselves. Don’t. Get it back. Because once you start second guessing your motherly or fatherly instincts, you’re going down a stressful path. To live in conflict with oneself is untenable and unsustainable. You can’t parent effectively like that.

They spend most of their time sitting still in chairs at school.

Kids are active beings. They don’t like to sit still. They love to run, jump, crawl, leap, climb, squat down to look at some bugs or build a teepee with sticks, lift rocks to see what lurks underneath, throw things (often at each other), dance, and laugh. Put one down in a large grassy area and you’ll see it for yourself. They need to move. And we wring it out of them every time they go to school. We force them into chairs for eight hours a day, which is perfect training for future office workers but terrible training for healthy human animals. What’s the number one problem in first world nation adults, according to many researches? We sit too much [5], and it’s killing us. So why do we force kids to do it when they’re at their most vulnerable and malleable? What do we think is going to happen when they grow up?

This is changing, slowly. On Weekend Link Love, I’ve linked to a number of classrooms doing trial runs with standing desks [6], and across the board they’ve been successful at improving kids’ focus and reducing behavioral incidents. And kids with ADHD who are allowed to squirm around on balance balls or ride stationary bikes in the classroom learn better [7]. Kelly and Juliet Starrett are starting a nonprofit called StandupKids [8] that hopes to revolutionize the way classrooms are set up, so be sure to check them out.

They spend most of their free time sitting in chairs and sofas at home staring at screens.

In 2010, the average time spent each day staring into electronic devices [9] for 8-18 year-olds was 7.38 hours. A 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics’ study [10] found that average 8 year-olds use electronic media for 8 eight hours a day and teens average 11 hours. If that sounds like a bad idea, it is:

They spend what little time remains sitting in chairs while being driven between home and school.

Independent mobility is down [14], way down. Rare is the sight of a kid biking or walking to school, the park, or just aimlessly on a lazy summer day. Now, cars pileup around the block to wait in line to drop individual kids off at school. Even if the parents wanted to let the kid walk there unassisted, half the time it’s not allowed by the school administration. Heck, Child Protective Services gets involved [15] when a parent dares let their kids walk a half mile alone to the park, even though it’s never been safer to be a kid in the United States [16] (and the same goes for most first world nations). Wealthy NYC parents are hiring play date consultants [17]. We’ve managed to stifle, confuse, and disrupt one of the most powerful forces in the known universe: a child’s sense of play and desire to explore the surroundings. It’s utter madness.

When they do get to move around, they’re wearing heeled shoes.

Look, if you want to teeter around on heels as an adult, that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that provided you accept the consequences and maybe try to take some steps to ameliorate the effect it has on your lower limbs. But kids don’t buy their own shoes. For the first few years, they don’t even put on their own shoes. They don’t really have the choice.

For every positive degree of heel elevation, another joint along the kinetic chain has to compensate by a degree. Maybe it’s your knee, or your hip, or your lower back. Maybe it’s all of them. Whatever it is, even a slight heel throws the rest of your body out of alignment. You may be okay with that. You’re used to it. But we should give our kids the chance to start fresh and establish motor patterns without the altered input from heeled shoes. If they want to mess with their joint angles later, that’s on them. For now, keep your kid’s heels on the floor.

They eat too much sugar.

The other day I wrote about average sugar intakes around the world [18], and the averages for all ages were quite high. The kids are way, way worse. In the US [19], boys get 16.3% of their energy from added sugars alone. For girls, it’s 15.5%. Rates are similar across other nations [20].

In theory, kids should be able to get away with a little more sugar than adults, especially if it’s whole food sugar from something like fruit. But not if they’re sitting around all day, failing to realize their essential natures as living balls of kinetic energy, and not if they’re eating added sugar and missing out on all the nutrients that normally accompany sugar sources in whole foods. In today’s kids, just one daily serving [21] of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to a 60% greater chance of obesity.

They don’t get enough time in nature.

I’ve often said that nature is the default environment of the human genome. Our genes expect trees, grass, weeds, sand, desert vistas, rolling waves, gurgling brooks, rushing rivers, towering rainforests, and all the other things we associate with “the great outdoors.” Before agriculture (and for most people long after), that was the world. It wasn’t a separate place, the wild frontier we explored and conquered and today pay a fee to access. It simply was. And if we adults are susceptible to inadequate amounts of time spent in the default environment, kids are even more sensitive.

Nature deficit disorder [22] is a real issue that research [23] has linked to rising rates of depression, ADHD, obesity, and sedentary living. The more green space children can access, the more active they are [24], the less TV they watch [25], the more independently they explore the neighborhood [26], and the fewer behavioral problems they have [27] (which applies to both green and “blue space,” or the beach). Forests seem to be especially effective at promoting greater physical activity [28] and less sedentary time, far more than residential greenness or public parks (which were surprisingly associated with a greater risk of asthma and only a modest reduction in sedentary time). The wilder the better, I suppose.

They’re not sleeping enough.

Kid physiologies are finely tuned to their sleep needs, if you let them. They rub their eyes the instant the pineal gland starts pumping out melatonin as a warning sign to everyone in their immediate vicinity: get me to bed or face the consequences. But we get in the way.

We give them the aforementioned electronic devices to keep them quiet and save us the burden of reading stories to them before bed. We keep the TV on late into the night. We install blue night lights in their rooms to keep the bogeyman — and sleep — away. We allow TVs and other small electronic screens in the bedroom which disrupt their sleep [29]. The result [30] is that 30-40% of kids don’t get enough sleep each night, and what sleep they do get is often of poor quality. Plus, over 2 million kids have diagnosed sleep disorders. Even obstructive sleep apnea is prevalent enough in kids that it has its own name: pediatric OSA [31].

They take more prescription drugs than ever before.

Diagnoses for anxiety, ADHD, depression, and eating disorders are way up in American kids [32], which is just sad. Some people worry about illegal drugs, but I find the prospect of our children filling more prescriptions chilling. Even though the prescription numbers [33] don’t seem astronomical on an absolute basis, but they’re higher than they should be and probably belie even higher numbers of kids with the conditions but no diagnoses or access to health care. How many kids who are suffering from depression, ADHD, and other conditions aren’t taking prescriptions because they have no access to health care or refuse to admit they have a problem or tell their parents, let alone a doctor?

Antidepressants are associated with suicidal thoughts [34] and weight gain [35], and we don’t even know if they actually work [36] in kids. But the biggest, saddest issue in all this is that we have millions of children who are so depressed that they need medication.

They’re still too fat.

Although the obesity rate for the youngest (2-5 years) Americans has slightly declined to 8.4%, childhood obesity in general (2-19 years) has remained steady [37]. And among all children, tot and teen alike, obesity rates remain elevated [38] and largely unchanged from a decade ago. The causes are multifactorial — see everything above for some strong candidates — so addressing childhood obesity is a big, big job.

Okay so these are (some of) the problems facing our kids and, by extension, placing the future of the species in peril. What can we do? That’s for another post at another time. For now, I want to hear from you.

How would you address some of these issues? How have you addressed these issues in the children in your life? It’s not quite so simple as “go Primal,” is it?

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here [39].