The Phenomenon That Teaches You Not to Press Your Luck

Don’t go crazy in Vegas, ok?

Even if you’ve never heard of Sir Francis Galton, you’re probably familiar with some of his work. He is credited with making the first weather map. He’s responsible for popularizing the terms nature and nurture to refer to traits that are inherited versus created by one’s environment. In the second half of his career, inspired by his half-cousin, Charles Darwin’s work, Galton turned his focus to eugenics. His contributions to the advancement of science and his focus on good breeding make him not unlike a real-life Voldemort, one who did “great things – terrible, yes, but great.”

Regression to the mean

Aside from his more odious contributions to breeding the ideal race, one of Galton’s most lasting achievements is a simple concept that we rarely stop to notice: “Regression to the mean”
Galton studied 930 adult children, as well as their parents, and found that unusually tall parents generally had children who were shorter than them. Unusually short parents generally had children who were taller than them. When the adults’ and children’s heights were plotted on a graph, there was much more variation in the adults’ heights than the children’s heights.
Galton termed this phenomenon of subsequent generations moving toward the average, “Regression towards mediocrity.”

How attention to regression impacts our choices

Regression to the mean has had an impressive impact on not just the field of genetics, but on medicine, statistics, and really, any other subject in which there are measured averages. Understanding how regression works can also help us answer everyday questions.

Evaluating reviews

Let’s say that you and your spouse are planning your first vacation without the kids and want to pick a hotel. You start the search at your favorite travel site and find that Hotel A has an average of 4 stars, based on one thousand reviews. Hotel B has an average of 5 stars with one dozen reviews. The overall average review of hotels at your vacation destination is 3.5 stars.
Which hotel do you pick: the 4-star Hotel A or the 5-star Hotel B?
Although Hotel B appears to be the better option, you should pick Hotel A. The phenomenon at work here is regression to the mean. The large number of reviews for Hotel A suggests that it is an above-average hotel for that area. The reviews for Hotel B, although higher in average than the number of reviews for Hotel A, are considerably fewer in number. As Hotel B receives more and more reviews, it’s likely that patrons will offer differing reviews.

Gambling winnings

Picking the right hotel is really important because you’re dropping the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s house so that you and your spouse can have a crazy weekend in Vegas. At the craps table, your wife blows on your dice, and you have an amazing winning streak. But then, Lady Luck plied with too many free drinks meant to keep you both in the casino longer, seeks the ladies’ room. You lose.
Was it your lucky charm leaving that led you to lose all of your winnings on that last toss of the dice?
No. It was regression to the mean. You had a run of abnormally successful tosses, and, with subsequent rolls of the dice, your results moved closer and closer to the mean. On average, the house wins, so as you play more games your cumulative losses are likely to outweigh your wins.

Folk remedies

Now imagine that you’re awoken early the next morning by your mom, who says that one of your kids has a fever, sore throat, and runny nose. You spend the next few hours contemplating an early return home when your mom calls back to tell you she gave your child some apple cider vinegar and now she’s doing fine.
Should you credit that apple cider vinegar with curing your child?
No. You should instead credit regression to the mean. Your child felt lousy, but then she felt better. If you took a large population of people with colds and gave them all apple cider vinegar, within a few days you’d notice that many of those people got better. You wouldn’t know whether the apple cider vinegar had anything to do with that improvement.
The gold standard of scientific research is the randomized controlled trial, in part because it features a control group and a test group, the study of which allows researchers to account for regression to the mean. Without a strong randomized controlled trial, there’s no way to prove that the apple cider vinegar had any effect, because of regression to the mean.

Why we fail to identify regression to the mean

Why, given the concept’s 150-year history and its apparent ubiquity, is regression to the mean often invisible to us? Galton’s original terminology of “regression towards mediocrity” may hold one answer. Regression to the mean is, as scientific concepts go, one of the most disappointing because it offers the bland truth that eventually things average out.
Understanding regression could have helped you from being taken in by reviews that appeared too good to be true. Understanding regression to the mean when at the craps table could have sent you home with a lot more money. Understanding regression to the mean when on the phone with your parents could have saved you future dependence on a nonsense cure for the common cold. But telling the story of a Vegas vacation is much less exciting with regression to the mean.
You could come home from vacation and tell your friends that your hotel was as reliably comfortable as its reviews suggested, that you had a few lucky rolls and left while you were ahead and that your child had an illness which quickly ran its course.
Or you could tell them a version in which you had to escape a hotel from hell, your good luck charm left and ruined your winning streak, and your child miraculously improved after consuming fermented apples.
The second version is a much better story, and that’s the one you tell your friends when you’re back home. Regression to the mean that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The Other PMS: The Lesser Known but Arguably Worse – Perimenopausal Syndrome

Perimenopause is what I like to think of as period purgatory, where your uterine lining isn’t quite passé, but it’s not the hot spot it used to be.

Like every female I know, my menstrual cycle has commanded more than its fair share of my attention over the years. This high maintenance relationship between my reproductive system and the rest of me began with a series of vaguely embarrassing and terrifying conversations with my mother, who thought she was bleeding to death when she got her first period and wanted to spare me that horror. As a result, I learned in graphic detail about the changes my body would undergo in preparation to procreate before I had mastered tying my own shoelaces.
Years later, six to be exact, when I started menstruating for real, I was sure I was adequately prepared for the mechanics of it all. What no one had articulated – not the pamphlets, the books, the sex-ed filmstrip, not even Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – was that the happenings in and around my uterus were going to dominate my life for a long, long time. I was also not informed that I was not to speak publicly of them.
For decades, symptoms so disruptive they’re classified as a syndrome hit me like cyclical, lunar tides. Bloating, mood swings, headaches, cramps, etc., you know the drill, and then the period itself. Over and over, nature’s design on my body affirmed that I could bear life (!!!), but to me, the sluffing of dead cells was hardly something to celebrate, and I longed for the day when this whole fertility thing was over.
That was before I found out what this whole fertility thing being over meant.
If you think our society is repressed when it comes to talking about menstrual cycles (which we so are), wait till you hit the tail end of your fertile phase and enter a stage of life medically referred to as perimenopause.
Perimenopause is what I like to think of as period purgatory, where your uterine lining isn’t quite passé, but it’s not the hot spot it used to be. You don’t meet the clinical qualifications for menopause, but you’re on your way.
Your ovaries have become sluggish and lazy, and the production of delicately-balanced hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone, which have kept you PMS-ing on a monthly basis, fluctuates and gradually decreases. This fluctuation is the last hoorah of your reproductive system before official old lady-hood, and it’s a doozy.
Not to paint too bleak a picture of what is inevitably in store for the entire childbearing population, but perimenopause is everything unpleasant about menses combined with everything unpleasant about menopause. It’s essentially the body’s transition from producing and depending upon estrogen and progesterone, to existing and maintaining bodily functions with minimal amounts of either one. Perimenopause is like withdrawal but with the added bonus of irregular and unpredictably gory menstrual periods. As a curse, it’s got it all.
The first time I heard anything about this lovely facet of womanhood was in my early forties when I went several months without having a period and asked my doctor about it. He said I was nearing the perimeters of menses cessation, i.e. I was perimenopausal.
I asked him how long I had (as in, to live, because isn’t menopause the same as death?), and he said with sufficient opacity, I had “a while.” We commiserated about getting older – even though all he had to do was succumb to aging gracefully, whereas I had to clear the hurdle of this new affliction in addition to facing regular menopause – and then I went home to Google myself into a depressed, perimenopausal stupor.
This is an overview of what I learned:

There are three stages to menopause

Beginning with pre-menopause, when women are still fully fertile; perimenopause, when reproductive function gradually declines; and menopause, which marks the end of menstruation. Most of the symptoms occur in the middle stage, as the ovaries are preparing to permanently shut things down, like some condemned amusement park.
There is no set age for the onset of perimenopause, though it seems to be influenced by heredity, environmental factors, and lifestyle. It typically lasts ten years or longer. (You heard me.) Like everything else pertaining to the reproductive system, the timeline is unpredictable and varies greatly.
What makes perimenopause so formidable is the gamut of symptoms women can and will experience, many of which disrupt daily life and are unlike anything else she’s previously encountered. Including: hot flashes, breast tenderness, worsened premenstrual syndrome, decreased libido, fatigue, irregular periods, vaginal dryness, discomfort during sex, urine leakage when coughing or sneezing, urinary urgency, mood swings, insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
As I move toward this stage in my own life, I have to confess that I am afraid. I’m vain, I like things the way they are, and I like my body the way it is. I don’t want to get old, and I don’t want to be less than a woman, if that makes sense. I know I’m not alone. My mission is to bring this whole perimenopausal thing into the open and talk about it until it becomes normal and, in time, less scary. We’re in this together, we got this.

What You Should Know About Adolescent Cutting

Recent studies have found that one-third to one-half of adolescents in the US have engaged in some type of self-injurious behavior.

Cutting is a terrifying and serious epidemic plaguing adolescents. Recent studies have found that one-third to one-half of adolescents in the US have engaged in some type of self-injurious behavior.
As a psychotherapist who specializes in treating teens who self-harm, I have been baffled by this for years. This act of mutilation makes no sense. After all, youth is fleeting and adults are desperate to maintain their health and vitality, so why do the young intentionally compromise their own?  
Three phenomenon help explain why an adolescent is compelled to cut. The first is developmental. An adolescent’s brain chemistry is drastically different, causing them to be far more impulsive.  Also, because of the massive changes in hormones and with their bodies, the adolescent is often uncomfortable in their own skin.
Moreover, because they are attempting to figure out who they are in relationship to the world (identity formation), acceptance from their peers becomes a primary need. If there is rejection, it feels as if the world is ending.
Secondly,  an adolescent is more vulnerable to the anxiety that proceeds self-harm due to a decrease in outside time. In the past four decades, nature-based activities have decreased by forty percent. The average adolescent spends eight hours a day staring at a screen. This is problematic because research indicates that being in nature increases serotonin levels, reduces blood pressure, and lessens the symptoms of ADD and anxiety in children and adolescents.
Lastly, free play, which systematically helps a child master anxiety by providing a continuous feeling of control, as well as the chance to be creative and work out inner conflicts, has largely diminished in young people’s lives. Because the world is increasingly competitive, children and adolescents spend a great deal of time participating in structured activities that involve achievement – and less time playing.  
The collective research shows a  devastating impact on their ability to mitigate anxiety and depression due to the drastic decrease in free play. Statistics show the suicide rates of teens and adolescents doubling over the past several decades and steadily increasing.
Essentially, the activities that, in the past, allowed children and adolescents the opportunities to reduce their anxiety have diminished from their current routines. Top it off with the developmental difficulties of adolescence, and the perfect storm begins to brew. So, how can a parent help their teen metabolize their anxiety so they do not reach the point of wanting to hurt themselves?
It is of paramount importance to re-establish the closeness in the relationship. Research shows that adolescents who have a close relationship with their parent are less anxious and depressed. So, listen empathically to her. Refrain from telling her not to feel the way she does, but instead, honor her hurt. Let her know you understand and that she is not alone.
A second useful tool is to help her reinstate a healthy mind and body connection. There is increasing evidence to support the role of the mind and body connection in reducing anxiety and depression. This can be extremely helpful and healing for an adolescent whose changing body feels foreign to them. Activities that reconnect the mind and body allow the adolescent to feel whole, grounded, centered, and soothed.
Traditional Eastern activities such as yoga and martial arts have become popular because these are the activities which help us maintain a healthy mind and body connection. Participation in sports and the arts are also activities that strengthen the mind and body connection. Essentially, any activity that the mind and the body intricately collaborate on is a mind and body activity.
It is important to note that when anxiety and depression intensify, the mind and body are out of sync. They are disconnected. Psychosomatic symptoms, sleep issues, eating issues, body image issues, and the compulsion to cut become prevalent. In most of the interviews conducted with adolescents, they report “cutting is the only relief” because it provides an escape from their emotional pain.
In fact, the majority of adolescents report they don’t feel the first cut. Some report feeling nothing until the second or third laceration. This signifies the distance between the mind and the body it takes a moment for the mind to return to the body. Yet, when the sensation of physical pain washes over them, the adolescent feels instant relief because they have forced their mind back to their body through the experience of physical pain.
The mind reconnects with their body through the sensation of physical pain. The pain is real and it anchors the mind and body for a moment. Their mind and body feel the pain together. They are united for an instant which is what provides the feeling of relief.
Unfortunately, self-harm is a temporary and unsafe solution. As soon as the pain fades, so does the feeling of relief. It is also extremely dangerous and can be deadly if things go awry. Yet, for some adolescents, it is the only escape. The only relief. Like a drug, it becomes obsessional. Also like a drug, the shame and remorse that follow the act are unbearable. Thus, the cycle perpetuates itself. The shame and pain become intense and the only escape feels like cutting again. Thus, It is necessary to prevent the cycle from even beginning.
Prevention starts with the parent. Be empathic and get close. Help your child facilitate a healthy mind and body connection. Invite them to yoga class or martial arts class. Go for a hike or ask them to paint or sculpt with you. Meditate. Ride bikes. Hug. Listen. Love.

The Science Behind Discipline: 7 Tips to Keep in Mind to Modify Your Child’s Behavior

A child learns about acceptable and unacceptable behavior by observing the people around him/her. What lessons can you learn from behavior modification?

Your 7-year-old daughter won’t brush her teeth when told and says “I’ll do it in five minutes
Your 3-year-old daughter throws tantrums every time she doesn’t get her way
Your 10-year-old son switches on his tablet when you tell him “no more video games for the night
Your 4-year-old daughter refuses to eat her breakfast because you put bananas in her cereal and she “doesn’t feel like bananas today”.
Your 8-year-old son has watched too much TV. You ask him to turn it off to which he replies “no”.
Do these scenarios sound familiar?
Discipline is one of the greatest and most common challenges parents face.
This explains why the quest to predict, and thus control, human behavior has continued to receive much attention over the years.
In 1905, Thorndike came to the following conclusion: “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation”. Other studies have come to similar conclusions:

  • Positive reinforcement helps produce desired behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement reduces undesirable behavior.
  • Overall, children exposed to aggressive models are more likely to use physical and verbal aggression.
  • Children are more likely to imitate behavior from those they perceive to be similar to themselves (same gender). For instance, boys are more likely to become more aggressive when they start school if other boys in their class exhibit aggressive behavior.
  • A child learns by observing the consequences of other’s behavior: If a girl sees that her older sister’s negative behavior goes unnoticed, she is likely to reproduce the same behavior if this behavior appeals to her (jumping on the sofa, refusing to listen to instructions, throwing tantrums, being a picky eater, etc.).

In other words, a child learns about acceptable and unacceptable behavior by observing the people around him/her (parents, relatives, teachers, friends, TV personalities, etc.)
What lessons can you learn from behavior modification?

Success breeds success

Make it a habit to, “catch your child being good” and offering positive reinforcement (for instance by praising his/her behavior or effort) is likely to lead him/her to repeat the behavior.
There is scientific evidence that the “carrot and stick” approach in which good behavior is rewarded (positive reinforcement) and negative conditions are removed is effective in teaching your child about appropriate behavior. Rewarding good behavior, therefore makes your child more likely to repeat that behavior.

What can you do?

Focus on good behavior. Teach your child to view him/herself as a “good child.” Let your child overhear you praise his behavior.

Have clear expectations

Some studies have found that parents’ expectations and behavior largely determine how children behave in childhood years and beyond.

What you say matters

Telling your child, “I want you to be good,” is way too vague for a child. What does being good mean? Get specific: “I want you to share your LEGO bricks with your sister.”
Another example: telling your son, “You can play video games once your homework is done,” can lead to conflict when you ask him to stop. It can feel like you’re taking away his “hard-earned benefits.” To avoid this, be specific: “You can play video games for 30 minutes once your homework is done.”
Being clear on your behavioral priorities also makes it easier to modify behavior.
What are your absolute priorities when it comes to behavior? What are you willing to let slide?

Use relevant consequences

Consequences can only work if they are age-appropriate and relevant. “Grounding for a month,” does nothing more than increase your child’s resentment towards you.
Be clear about your expectations and clearer about the consequences. Warn your child, then apply the consequences: “If I have to ask you one more time to turn down the volume, I’ll put off  the TV.” Be one hundred percent consistent.
When possible, consequences should be as closely related to the misbehavior as possible: “If you ride your bike without your helmet, you won’t be able to play with your bike for a week.”

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Modifying behavior is no easy task. It helps to take small steps.
It’s much easier to focus on one specific behavior you would like to change, then move on to another when your objectives are met.

Punish or reward immediately after specific behavior

Evidence suggests that you are more likely to succeed if you punish or reward immediately after the behavior you want to suppress or reinforce is exhibited. Let your child know the reasons for the positive or negative reinforcement.

Praise sparingly

When your child does a good deed, praise the effort “you did a great job”, not the child “you’re so clever”. Give praise where praise is due.
Evidence suggests that verbal praise can be effective in reinforcing positive behavior.
However, there is proof that praising children without thought can go very, very wrong.  
According to Mueller & Dweck, inappropriate praise can affect children’s mindsets and lead them to avoid challenges. Inappropriate praise can also lead children to associate praise with failure or to become immune to praise.

Keep an eye on your child’s models

We learned many things about our son the first time his best friend came home for a play date: they acted exactly the same, spoke with the same Southern French accent and used the same expressions.
According to the behaviorist theory, children identify a number of models with whom they identify (TV personalities, parents, siblings, friends, classmates, relatives) then imitate those models. This is why it’s important to know who your child is hanging out with.
It’s just as important to keep an eye on what he/she is actually watching.
Studies on television and video violence have consistently found that violent shows affect how children think and act: children exposed to violent shows are more likely to behave aggressively, be fearful and show less empathy.

What can you do?

  • Monitor what your child is actually watching.
  • Determine where and for how long TV can be watched.
  • Allow your child to watch current news only if you are available to explain any disturbing information.
  • Ban violent programs even if your child hates you for it – he/she will thank you later!

Behavior modification can only work if you are realistic about your expectations and make a consistent effort to modify misbehavior.

Actionable Steps

  • Is your child often “acting out”? Observe his/her models. How well do you know your child’s friends or the influences in his/her life? Spend some time together this week and find out.
  • How well do you know the programs your child watches? Watch at least one of his/her favorite shows together this week. Watch him/her play his/her favorite video games.
  • Honestly assess how you convey instructions. Do you communicate clearly? Are you aware of your expectations? Is your child always aware of what is expected of him/her?

I’d love to know what’s working for you! Let me know in the comments below.

Do You Use a Cart Cover? It’s Full of Bacteria

How much health risk is actually posed by a shopping cart? And can a cart cover minimize that risk?

Parents building registries may notice an unusual item in the ever-growing list of “must have”s for baby: a shopping cart cover.
Cart covers are advertised as a way to protect children from germs coating the average shopping cart, which, according to some recent studies, plays host to more bacteria than a public toilet. But how much health risk is actually posed by a shopping cart? And can a cart cover minimize that risk?

Targeting shopping cart handles

Shopping cart handles began earning a reputation when they made an appearance in a four-year study of environmental surfaces conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona. Bacteria was not the main focus of the study, which mostly tested surfaces in public places (daycare, offices, grocery stores, etc.) for protein and biochemical markers. In other words, the researchers were mainly looking to find bodily substances and viruses that transmit through those substances.
The researchers also took 200 samples from various environmental surfaces and tested them for coliforms, a subgroup of bacteria types generally present in the intestines that are generally good indicators of possible fecal contamination. One of these surfaces was shopping cart handles. The study determined that one handle out of twenty contained coliforms.
That first study, published in 2005, appears to have inspired others. Researchers began testing environmental surfaces for bacteria commonly found in raw meat and surveying the various ways children might be exposed to it. A 2007 survey of parents whose infants had been infected with Campylobacter – the most likely culprit of human diarrheal illnesses – found that children who rode in shopping carts were more likely to be infected with Campylobacter than children who had not.
In another study published in 2010, researchers surveyed parents whose children had tested positive for salmonella. Children who had been riding in the back of the cart were more likely to be infected than children who were riding in the front of the cart. Only 10% of the parents surveyed responded that their children had been directly exposed to raw meat, suggesting that the carts themselves might be the site of infection for many kids infected with salmonella.

“More fecal matter than on the toilet”

After these multi-site contamination studies identified shopping carts as a potential hazard, researchers began devoting entire studies to shopping carts alone. A 2012 study of 85 randomly-sampled grocery carts in California found that 72% of the handles contained coliform bacteria. 18 of those cart handles tested positive for the most well-known coliform bacteria, E. coli.
That finding led to headlines like “E. coli found on 50% of shopping carts,” which is an overstatement of both the finding and its impact. The “50%” refers to 18 out of 35 cart handles that were given additional testing. It’s more reasonable to say that E. coli was found on 50% of carts contaminated with coliforms. The sample size may be too small to know whether or not it is representative of all shopping carts as a whole.
Furthermore, the study’s authors note that one of the types of tests they attempted did not identify E. coli in any of the samples. They explain that one test may not have detected E. coli because the amount of bacteria was too low.  In other words, if one of the tests they conducted found bacteria while another test found none, there might not be sufficient quantities of bacteria to be medically concerning.
The author of that panic-inducing news article actually quotes one of the authors of the California cart-sampling study, Charles Gerba, who explained why shopping cart handles tend to have more bacteria than public restrooms: “That’s because they use disinfecting cleaners in the restrooms. Nobody routinely cleans and disinfects shopping carts.”

What’s on the bottom of the cover is on the whole cover

Many parents, understandably panicked by the fear-inducing reports of so many multi-syllabic bacteria, have opted to purchase fabric shopping cart covers in order to protect their children from all of the bacteria reported in the news.
There are two major problems with this approach.
First, there is the problem of installing the cover in the first place. Imagine you are trying to cover a shopping cart while also carrying a child. You are inevitably going to touch the shopping cart in the process. During the trip through the store, you are probably going to touch your child, say, to give them the snack you promised yourself you wouldn’t open until you got out of the checkout. So, even though the cover is there, from the moment you touched the cart you’ve picked up and transmitted bacteria to the cart cover, to yourself, to the snack, and, therefore, to your child’s mouth.
Second, even if you managed not to touch a single square inch of the cart, the bottom of the cover will touch the cart. If the cart is covered in bacteria, so is the bottom of the shopping cart cover. And if bacteria is on the bottom of the cart cover, it’ll be on the top eventually.
Although there haven’t been any widely-reported studies of bacteria present on cart covers, there have been studies of another object that frequently travels in shopping carts: purses. In 2013, one study of women’s purses led to flurry of news articles about purses carry more bacteria than public toilets.
The medical community uses the word “fomite,” which comes from the Latin for “tinder,” to refer to a non-living object that can carry and readily transmit infectious organisms. Like the shopping cart handles in the previous examples, purses are also fomites that can transport bacteria from bathrooms to shopping carts to cars to kitchen counters.
It’s likely that cart covers are also good fomites, because it’s likely that they, like purses, are infrequently washed.

Fecal matter is everywhere

Before giving into fear of our purses and shopping carts, it’s important to step back and consider the funding sources of these studies. Gerba’s work at the University of Arizona has been funded at least in part by Clorox, a company so tied to the concept of germ-fighting that its name is synonymous with bleach. The study in the UK that launched so many reports about 1 in 5 purses harboring dangerous levels of bacteria? The organization behind it was
The study in the UK that launched so many reports about 1 in 5 purses harboring dangerous levels of bacteria? The organization behind it was Initial Hygiene, a company that sells different sanitation devices, among them bathroom cleaning equipment.
The organizations supporting these studies don’t make the resulting research invalid, but they do suggest that these organizations had something to gain from a public perception that our shopping carts and purses are carrying dangerous levels of bacteria.
Such studies have inspired not just cart covers, but also patents for shopping cart sanitizing machines, shopping cart handles that repel bacteria and countless forms of sanitizing wipes. The questions that these studies do not answer is whether those objects are necessarily more dangerous than any other items.
Yes, that cart has more fecal matter on it than a public toilet. Yes, your diaper bag is harboring burgeoning colonies of bacteria.
But so is everything else.
A recent Huffington Post article summarizes the issue nicely by reminding readers that “there’s fecal matter on practically everything.” The article quotes Kelly Reynolds, a professor of Public Health and the main author of the paper that initiated the concern over bacteria-laden shopping carts. “Given that we all produce and excrete feces,” Reynolds says, “fecal matter in the environment is pretty common.” Reynolds’ advice to those concerned about bacteria is simple: wash your hands and wash your surfaces. That’s it. There’s no mention of protective devices to ward off bacteria.
The average human body has roughly 30 trillion cells, as well as 40 trillion bacteria. Bacteria is everywhere, and we tend to think about it only when its presence is advertised, as when we read a newspaper report about bacteria-coated purses. If you go looking for bacteria, you’re going to find it. But that doesn’t mean you are likely to get sick from it.
Bacteria is present on shopping cart handles, and yes, in quantities larger than you’d expect to find in a public restroom. That’s because public restrooms are regularly cleaned, while shopping carts are not. Using a sanitizing wipe before touching the cart handle can bring your cart to bathroom, or even better-than-bathroom levels. And even if your kid licks a dirty shopping cart handle, most of the resulting bacteria are relatively safe. Remember that E. coli, common fixture of news terror though it may be, already exists in our intestines and is in many cases harmless.
If you’ve bought that shopping cart cover because you want to protect your kid’s adorable clothes from whatever the last kid left behind, it may work as a stain protector. If your cover is full of distractions to help you shop in peace, fine. If you just want a little extra padding so your child will lay back and snooze in the cart, it’s also a fine option. But a piece of infrequently-washed cloth isn’t going to do much in the way of disease prevention.

Unleash the Hidden Power of Laughing With Your Kids

Whether we are feeling anxious about current affairs or dealing with a health issue, laughter, believe it or not, can help us persevere.

Sometimes life can be tough. Whether we are feeling anxious about current affairs or dealing with a health issue, something as simple as laughter, believe it or not, can help us persevere.
As adults, we can get bogged down with our to-do lists and stresses of daily life, and forget how beautiful it is to let loose and have a good laugh. Unfortunately, most adults do not laugh enough. In fact, one study found that healthy children may laugh as much as 400 times per day, but adults only laugh 15 times per day.
We can learn so much from our children when it comes to being lighthearted. It is important to raise them in such a way that they will continue to experience fun and laughter throughout their lives. We can create a positive environment for them to grow up in by stopping once in a while to have a laughing fit together.
Laughter really is like medicine. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing is one of the easiest ways for us to reduce stress and anxiety in our lives. Laughing transforms our body and mind in many amazing ways, boosting positive emotions.
When we laugh, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of our brain is activated. This releases feel-good hormones called endorphins that allow us to experience pleasure and satisfaction. Laughing also reduced our stress response because the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine are lowered.
We feel energized since we take in more oxygen-rich air when we laugh. Finally, laughing relaxes our muscles, which soothes tension from stress. In fact, a good laugh can leave your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes.
The muscles that help us smile also affect how we feel. When we use these muscles, we trigger a part of our brain that improves our mood. One particular research study involved having participants hold a pencil in one of three ways in order to get them to make certain facial expressions without telling them exactly what they were doing.
The first group held the pencil sideways in their mouths to force a smile. The second group stuck the pencil in lengthwise to force a frown. The last group, serving as the control group, held the pencil in their hands. Participants were then asked to watch cartoons and rate how funny there were to them.
The group with the sideways pencils (the “smiling” group) had higher funny ratings than the lengthwise group (the “frowning” group). The control group scored between the other two groups, demonstrating how smiling and laughing can really make a difference in how we perceive the world around us.
Researchers also found that facial expressions can reduce negative feelings like pain and sadness. In one study, researchers applied an uncomfortable heat to subjects’ arms and then instructed them to make either a relaxed face, an uncomfortable face, or a neutral face.
The results showed that the people who made a relaxed face experienced less pain than those who made an uncomfortable or neutral face. Smiling releases endorphins and serotonin, which are thought to reduce any pain we feel.   
Laughter can also change how we look at a situation. A silly moment can offer a healthy distraction from negative emotions like anger, guilt, and stress. It’s hard to feel bad when you’re cracking up! When faced with challenges, a lighthearted perspective helps us view such events as positive opportunities as opposed to threats.
Laughter builds resilience and the ability to adapt to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or stress. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more able to obtain happiness and success.
Resilience cushions us from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. (Mayo Clinic 2015) Laughter plays a huge role in how we handle adversity by allowing us to escape from our problems for a little while. By teaching our kids to laugh even in times of pain, we are giving them a key tool that will help them be more resilient as they grow older.
Laughing with our kids is so special because it builds a bond with them. These joyous moments create a more uplifting environment at home. What’s really fun is that laughter tends to be contagious, so before you know it your whole house could be giggling up a storm.

So, how can we laugh more with our kids? Here are 10 ideas to get you rolling:

  • Start a laughing contest to see who can make the other person laugh first.
  • Play fun games like charades, Twister, Pictionary, and Headbanz.
  • Read joke books and websites, and then share your favorites with each other.
  • Create funny stories using Mad Libs or whisper down the lane.
  • Have a family talent show and see who comes up with the funniest routine.
  • Dress up in silly costumes.
  • Watch a comedy television show or movie together as a family.
  • Talk in a silly language like Pig Latin.
  • Keep a collection of funny quotes and pictures that you can bring out at any time to get everyone laughing.
  • Try laughter yoga with your kids. Created by Dr. Madan Katari in 1995 in Bombay, India, this yoga practice combines breathing exercises, yoga, stretching, and laughing. Look for resources like Laughter Friends and’s guide to teaching laughter yoga to children.

For more intriguing facts about laughter, check out this infographic by Happify.

5 Ways to Make Kindness a Family Activity

Recent science surrounding kindness is so fascinating that we can’t ignore it.

Why do you help others? Yes, it’s the right thing to do – but did you know that it also makes you happier and healthier?

It may seem a bit selfish to look at how being kind to others is beneficial to us personally, but the recent science surrounding kindness is so fascinating that we can’t ignore it. Plus, it’s important for parents to understand why we want to instill kindness in our children so that we can provide all the reasons to them when they question it.

Kindness is a win-win for both the giver and receiver. In searching for ways to reduce my own stress, I started volunteering in my community. I recently worked with an underprivileged six-year-old boy on his reading skills. It was rewarding when he read the word “different” on his own since it had been very challenging for him. His teacher was excited, too, which gave him a confidence boost. I experienced such joy from helping him and can’t wait to go back in a couple weeks.

What Happens When We Are Kind?

Our brain chemistry actually changes when we do something nice for another person. Studies show that thinking about, watching, or practicing kindness stimulates the vagus nerve, which is linked to the production of oxytocin in our brain. Oxytocin is a hormone that soothes us, making us feel calmer and happier. Kindness also triggers the production of dopamine, the hormone responsible for positive emotions and that natural high feeling we get. As a result, we experience positive health changes including:

  • Increased life expectancy
  • Feeling less lonely
  • Stronger immune system
  • Fewer aches and pains
  • Decrease in stress and anxiety
  • Less depression

How Kindness And Stress Are Connected

How can helping someone else reduce our stress level? A study published last year by UCLA and Yale University School of Medicine linked acts of kindness to stress reduction. For 14 days, a group of adults was asked to report stressful events they experienced each day from several categories (e.g., interpersonal, work/education, home, finance, health/accident). They were also asked to report whether they participated in various helpful behaviors (e.g., held open a door, helped with schoolwork, asked someone if they needed help) that day.

Results showed that on any given day, helping others controlled the effects of stress on overall health. Researchers concluded that volunteerism can be an important way of coping with stress. According to the Association for Psychological Science, study author Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine said, “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”

Ways To Expand Kindness In Your Family’s Life

Now that you know all the amazing benefits of kindness, don’t  you just want to get out there and make someone smile? There are so many simple ways you can incorporate kindness into your family’s daily routine.

  • Find a local volunteer project to do as a family.
  • Do random acts of kindness with your kids and talk to them about the experience. How did it make them feel? Some ideas include leaving a treat on a neighbor’s doorstep, giving a very generous tip to restaurant staff, opening a door for a stranger, and helping the elderly with groceries.
  • Send a thank you note to someone who has done something special for you.
  • Join a kindness challenge. I encourage everyone to sign up with KindSpring. The site offers kindness challenges and an online community of people who practice small acts of kindness, share stories, and support each other.
  • Bring kindness programs to your child’s school. Check out the following wonderful resources:
    • Ripple Kindness Project: Provides a kindness school curriculum and an interactive community with stories and inspiration. They also offer kindness cards and other products.
    • Random Acts of Kindness Foundation: Encourages the spread of kindness in schools, communities, and homes through inspiration, ideas, stories, and school curriculum.
    • Samaritans 365: This program connects children with philanthropic organizations so they can learn firsthand what it means to be a good samaritan – through acts of charity and kindness. Check out Growing Up Glad to see how one amazing mom has become involved in bringing kindness to her daughters’ school through Samaritans 365.

6 Health Benefits of Nature for Very Young Babies

Six science-backed reasons why a little time in nature goes a long way for babies’ development.

When the clock strikes 4 most afternoons, it’s as if an alarm reminds my six-month-old to get fussy. Thankfully, one activity calms him without fail: Putting him in a carrier and taking a walk around the neighborhood.

As we step outside, he goes from agitated to enchanted with the vivid colors, perfume of blooming flowers, and cool breeze. It’s clear to me there is something about that fresh air that is so soothing — even to an infant.

I suppose I have some other motives, too. By introducing him to nature at such an early age, I hope to establish a lifelong love of exploration and activity. Plus, I still get to enjoy my favorite trails with the added benefit of witnessing his wonderment with the world.

It’s also pretty incredible to think about the health benefits he is experiencing from our daily dose of outside time. Beyond the advantages of continued outdoor play through childhood, here are six more science-backed reasons why a little time in nature goes a long way for babies’ development.

1 | Jumpstarts language skills

From the wind to the sunshine to smells good and bad, babies simply have more sensory information to take in and process outside than when they are in a controlled, indoor environment. That, in turn, promotes early language development, according to a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Sciences Education and Research.

2 | Improves physical development

Studies have shown that children acquire most of their basic motor skills before the age of five — with much of the progress occurring within the first couple months of life. The same 2014 study found time outdoors helps facilitate the development of many of those skills even for babies, who benefit from observing others running around and playing.

3 | Lays a foundation for learning

According to The Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, outdoor play prepares young ones to be future brainiacs — or at least more adept at learning science and reading skills. Technically speaking, that’s because varied environments promote the formation of brain synapses. Or, as researchers put it in a study of infant interaction with nature, “We believe that children are born natural scientists who are curious and ready to learn. Even in infancy, children compare and contrast objects as they explore their world.”

4 | Helps create healthy sleep patterns

Regular bouts of time in the natural sunlight aid the establishment of good sleep patterns for little ones. According to a 2004 study in the Journal of Sleep Research, babies younger than 13 weeks who slept well at night spent twice as much time in the sunlight than their wakeful peers. The lead researcher hypothesized that’s because the outdoorsy infants established their circadian rhythms sooner. But all that mom and dad need to know is that they will get more shut-eye, too!

5 | Wards off illnesses

Research dating back to the early 20th century shows young children who spend more time outdoors are actually less likely to come down with illnesses — possibly because early exposure to the non-sterile outdoors boosts babies’ immune systems. Thom McDade, PhD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University, told WebMD, “Microbial exposures early in life may be important…to keep inflammation in check in adulthood.”

6 | It’s good for mom and dad, too

For those dealing with postpartum blues, one of the official recommendations from the March of Dimes is to get outside. Another study published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine recommended taking exercise outdoors, which has been found to “improve self-esteem and negative mood subscales, such as tension, anger and depression.”

Using it as bonding time with baby just makes it a win-win situation.

If health and safety concerns still give pause, rest assured that pediatricians agree most newborns can benefit from time outside. The key is to take a few precautions for young outdoor adventurers, including staying out of direct sunlight, dressing in appropriate layers, and avoiding places where people are known to be ill.

10 Science-Backed Benefits of Practicing Gratitude With Kids

When people engage in gratitude, they experience measurable psychological and physical benefits. Don’t you want to give this gift to your children?

Only recently have scientists begun to study the benefits of gratitude.

Vitamin G, as some like to call it, plays a critical role in happiness. Focusing on the positive boosts body, mind, and spirit. It gives us energy, inspires us, and transforms us. In a nutshell, it provides life with meaning by thinking of life as a gift. Don’t you want to give this gift to your children?

Top 10 Benefits of Gratitude

Dr. Robert Emmons is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He conducted studies involving gratitude journals and found that when people regularly engage in gratitude, they experience measurable psychological, physical, and interpersonal benefits:

  1. Feel better about their lives overall
  2. Experience higher levels of positive emotions like optimism, enthusiasm, love, and happiness
  3. Are kinder and more generous to others
  4. Have fewer physical problems including pain
  5. Exercise more regularly and eat healthier
  6. Sleep better
  7. Visit the doctor more regularly for checkups
  8. Feel less stressed
  9. Able to cope with stress more effectively and recover more quickly from stressful situations
  10. Live longer–on average, being thankful adds 7 years to our lives!

How It Works

Why does saying thank you have so many benefits for us? When we count our blessings, we interrupt the cycle of negative and fearful thoughts, which allows the stress system in our bodies to recover. Research shows that when we are thankful, we love our lives and want to make sure we stick around long enough to enjoy them. Also, when we receive praise from others, our brain releases the chemical dopamine, which encourages us to do more to receive such praise. This makes us want to thank others and make them feel good as well.

How To Teach Children Gratitude

In her book 10 Mindful Minutes, Goldie Hawn explains that being thankful is not a natural instinct; children need to be taught how to do it. She asks parents to be a good example to their children by thanking them often. It is important to explain to our children why they are being praised.

Another important tip is to be careful not to judge how our children express gratitude. Young children under age seven may not fully grasp the concept. It is not what they are thankful for, but that they are learning how to express gratitude that matters. If they want to be thankful for a toy, that is okay.

Keeping a gratitude journal is the backbone of gratitude scientific research.

Anytime you read about gratitude, you will be asked to write down five points you are thankful for that day or week on an ongoing basis. Over time, you will begin to experience the benefits of gratitude such as stress reduction and optimism.

I tried the traditional journal approach when I first learned about gratitude and it did not work for me. I found it repetitive and boring, to be perfectly blunt.

This is why I started my nightly ritual of the gratitude prayer with my children. That works for us, but each family needs to discover what is most effective for them. Plus, you don’t want it to become an annoying chore–it is supposed to make you happier after all!

Here are some ideas for fun, creative gratitude journals using a variety of media. As technology changes and our children learn more about what they can do with computers, iPads, and iPhones, we should show them how to use these tools for something positive–for making them feel better.

Female writing some notes. (detail of female hand)

5 Ways to Keep Gratitude Journals With Your Kids

1 | Blog

My son just starting getting writing assignments in second grade using a student blog site. He loves seeing his words online and gets so excited when classmates comment on his posts. Why not set up a family gratitude journal blog (password protected, of course)? You can even involve grandparents and cousins, no matter how far they live. You could introduce this idea at the Thanksgiving table and challenge everyone to submit a post each week throughout the year.

2 | Audio Recording

Children love to hear their own voices. You can have them record their journal on a phone or iPad. Once you have the recordings, you can get really creative by posting them online for others to listen to or you can even put it to music and create a song or rap using highlights of what they said.

3 | Videos

Children also love watching videos of themselves. My daughter can spend hours watching herself on my phone. They will have a blast talking about what they are thankful for and watching it over and over. Maybe have them pretend to be reporters and their gratitude is the news of the day. Or they can act out scenes from the wonderful moments they had.

4 | Drawings

For children who are more visual or artistic, ask them to draw or paint what they are thankful for at the time. You can then put the artwork together in a book organized by month or year. Create your own handmade journal or take pictures and use Snapfish or an online slideshow to present the images.

5 | Collage

Looking for pictures in magazines or online to build a gratitude collage is a fun family project. And no artistic talent required! All that cutting is also a great way for your child to build fine motor skills.

I hope you enjoy saying thank you with your children in these innovative ways. You can mix and match these media as well, such as posting videos on your gratitude blog. Before you get started, I recommend you read some very helpful tips about gratitude journals from the Greater Good Science Center.

Please share your experiences so we can all learn from each other. Have fun!

Versions of this post originally ran at

Science Journalism Has a Big Problem

Scientists and journalists are having trust issues. How can both sides get on the same page?

Taken out of context, scientific phrases can have longstanding repercussions for those at the helm of the research.

Should a story misrepresent scientific work, the blame should fall on the journalist’s shoulders, not the scientist’s. In other words, writers need to be allowed to do their jobs and should expect to be held accountable for their work—and scientists need to understand that even if they want editorial control, that’s not something they’re going to get.

Source: Science Journalism Has a Big Problem. How Can We Fix It?