It’s an unfortunate reality that parents, despite their best intentions, sometimes make bad decisions that can adversely affect their children’s health.
We see this in the case of parents who withhold vaccinations for their kids. I have no doubt that they believe they’re doing the right thing when they buy into the thoroughly debunked claims of a link between vaccinations and autism, or when they fall for the widely discredited idea that the medical establishment’s immunization schedule will compromise their children’s immune systems.
By doing so, they are in fact endangering not just their own children’s health but that of others who are unable to be vaccinated because of medical conditions.
California lawmakers, responding in part to a measles outbreak that originated at Disneyland, voted in 2015 to end the practice of allowing parents to enroll their unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children in public schools through a “personal belief” exemption.
As a result, vaccination rates have indeed improved. However, we are now learning that the rate of medical exemptions for incoming kindergartners rose sharply this year, suggesting that some parents might have found doctors willing to sign off on what amounts to an end-run around the new law.
It’s a disturbing testimony to the power of rumors and myth-making to influence parents when they are making important choices for their kids.
We see a similar dynamic playing out when it comes to our children’s sleep patterns.
A large body of evidence has been accumulated by researchers pointing to a serious problem with sleep deprivation among our youth.
Kids not getting enough sleep has several probable causes, including overpacked social, academic and sports schedules, and heavy homework loads. Too much time spent on social media might play a role as well.
Chronic sleep deprivation has serious health effects for kids. In addition to contributing significantly to general inattentiveness and inability to concentrate, it has been linked to increases in obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.
Research has also demonstrated that young people’s brains are hard wired to work better when their sleep schedules are optimized. Teenagers, for instance, find it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m., and are equally hard-pressed to engage in learning before 8:30 a.m.
Studies have consistently found that students at schools with start times of 8:30 or later have better test scores, higher graduation rates, and fewer traffic accidents, among other benefits.
Again the California legislature might step in to craft a solution. A bill, shelved for the rest of this year, would require all California middle schools and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The bill’s author says he’ll revisit the issue in January.
Sleep deprivation is a critical issue and, as with vaccinations, one that I’ll continue to sound off about. Yet I’m not convinced that a legal remedy is the best one, particularly given the understandable need for schools and families to maintain some flexibility with their scheduling.
What’s more, schools would likely find ways to cheat the system anyway. Many high schools already have zero periods. Perhaps we’d begin to see minus-zero periods, or some such nonsense, which schools would promote as “voluntary.”
A better outcome would be for parents to take a collective stand to encourage schools to develop more reasonable start times and policies regarding homework and extracurricular activities. Instead, what we often see is parents feeding the problem.
Today’s parents are often criticized for being too inclined to overbook their kids. Sometimes, against their better judgment, they fall into the trap of believing that if their children aren’t being pushed to the limit with academic enrichment, sports and artistic endeavors, they are doomed to fall behind their highly accomplished peers.
A recent Time magazine cover story on youth sports highlighted this issue as it weighed the great value of involving children in organized sports against the growing penchant of parents to take it too far with expensive private lessons, hectic club travel schedules and outsized expectations.
We can easily draw a straight line from those unrealistic expectations about kids’ athletic potential to the idea that the only way to fit everything in is to rob children of the sleep they need. This drive can also lead to early burn-out, injuries and increased anxiety.
I imagine some people reading this will be inclined to dismiss the concern over kids suffering from sleep deprivation and stress due to their frenzied schedules as just another sign that modern parents are too indulgent and permissive, and their children are coddled little brats. If kids aren’t getting enough sleep, it’s because mom and dad aren’t tough enforcers, many will argue.
While there might be an inkling of truth in this thinking, it would be dangerous to ignore the mounting evidence that we are damaging our kids not by being too soft, but by pushing them to fulfill a fantasy image of perfection.
It is time for parents to start saying no. No to over-scheduling. No to early school start times. No to peer pressure. No to faulty information. No to our own wobbly instincts about what our kids can, and can’t, practically accomplish.
We all make mistakes as parents. Hopefully if we all pay a little more heed to the facts about children’s health — and with a little luck — our kids will survive all our good intentions.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.