Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) September 2010

Back-to-School Health and the New E-parents

Neil Seeman

"Back-to-School-itis" is hard not only on kids, but on parents, too. What are parents worried about most this week, and why? Online conversations among parents - (a.k.a. "mommy" and "daddy" blogs) - tell a story worth examining. Parents' real worries may not be the ones to which the mainstream media and opinion leaders pay heed.

To hear the media tell it, parents' concerns involve mainly physical injury. To be sure, children can trip and fall or be pushed down flights of stairs. They can suffer elbow and knee bleeds on the playground. I remember when I fell off a wobbly jungle gym in preschool and knocked out my front upper teeth. One older boy kicked me and sneered.

A new US national survey finds just one quarter of U.S. parents saying their child's high school deserves an "A" for its bullying- and violence-prevention efforts. Hazing is a concern from junior-high onwards. At Robinson High School in Burlington, Ont., on the first day of this school term, five Grade 9 students were beaten with paddles - not hard enough to put them in the hospital, but enough to produce bruises.

And then there are all manner of infections children bring home - flu and pink eye and nits in the hair; rashes of one sort or another; nausea and vomiting and diarrhea. This is a particularly bad year for infection panic because of concern over the H1N1 flu virus.

These are the worries you hear about on television, but my hunch was that many of the more immediate concerns of parents lay elsewhere. So I reviewed parenting blogs to explore parental angst.

Healthy Bodies and Healthy Minds

For children in pre-school, JK and SK, there is considerable online anxiety over the "drop-off." Eric Steinman writes: "parents are (and I say this with nothing but empathy) often paralyzed by the difficulty of letting go and allowing their children to be intimidated, be afraid, and be in the experience of moving onward and upward."

But after SK, the dominant parental concern voiced by parents online is health promotion. Does the school support healthy living? Does it offer sufficient exercise, healthy snacks and lunches, and healthy attitudes toward food? Such parental concerns were a surprise to me, since the media tend to downplay or ignore the preventive health domain.

Many parents today insist their children walk to school, in defiance of the exaggerated risks of meeting up with wretches. The Wall Street Journal's always-insightful health blog notes that Conservatory Lab Charter School and other elementary schools around the Boston area are inviting college athletes to organize more rigorous recess activities like kickball, tag and Hula-Hooping. One of the many benefits: less hazing and trash-talking.

On another health blog, Isabel De Los Rios advises: "Make meal preparation an activity that you do along with your kids. Include them in the process from start to finish. First start by making a grocery list of all the foods you will need for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week. Remember that kids are more likely to eat healthy foods if they have chosen them themselves. Next, food shop together."

Similar healthy living themes find their way into the most popular blogs about back-to-school. says: "Preparing for back to school may begin with school supplies, but let's not forget about encouraging healthy eating habits throughout the day."

It is heartening to learn that parents' diaries online and popular health blogs highlight the theme of healthy living for youth. Although teenagers still obsess about their weight and physical appearance in online forums such as Facebook, a growing army of people whom I will call "e-parents" are forcing schools to pay greater attention to health promotion. An increasingly Web-literate generation of e-parents is a new, powerful lobby to fight the obesity epidemic across North American schools.

In his eloquent back-to-school address in Arlington, Virginia on Sept. 8, US President Obama spoke to high-schoolers about the importance of attending classes; listening to teachers; being unafraid to ask for help; and staring down failure and learning from it. These are all critical messages for today's youth. But in the absence of healthy eating habits and exercise, these goals are hard to achieve. That's what e-parents are saying online. It's also reminiscent of Plato, among the greatest teachers of all time. "Lack of activity," Plato told his students, "destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it."

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto.


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