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This is why Dutch kids are much happier than American children

Posted: Mon, 04/10/2017 - 13:44
In the Netherlands, kids get chocolate sprinkles on their breakfast and early sex education
Rina Mae Acosta is Asian-American, a mother to two young kids, and originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She grew up not far from Amy Chua, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which explored strict kid-rearing inspired by Chinese parenting traditions — and prompted countless debates over the key to children’s happiness.
By contrast, Acosta chose to raise her children in a small village in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband, and her approach is far more laid-back. She lets her kids eat chocolate sprinkles every morning for breakfast. Her children, aged four years and 20 months, have open play dates and are free to roam around in the backyard, unstructured and unattended.
“I guess I’m a Tiger Mommy failure,” she says.
But parents in the Netherlands like Acosta seem to be doing something right, because in two consecutive Unicef studies (conducted in 2007 and 2013) on children’s well-being in rich countries, Dutch children came out on top. Out of the 29 countries studied, the U.S. ranked 26th. “The Netherlands heads the league table of children’s subjective well-being with 95% of its children reporting a high level of life satisfaction,” the 2013 study cited.
Now, Acosta and co-author Michele Hutchison — a British expat also raising her two kids in the Netherlands — are sharing the secrets of Dutch parenting more widely, with “The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids by Doing Less” (The Experiment).
“The Dutch parenting approach is not really something new,” Acosta says. “I think it’s an intuitive parenting approach that most of us already know but have forgotten.”
MarketWatch spoke with Acosta to see what American parents can learn:
MarketWatch: Your book says it’s all about the “hagelslag” (chocolate sprinkles). Why is eating “hagelslag” with bread for breakfast the key to Dutch kids’ happiness?
Acosta: Who wouldn’t be happy with having chocolate first thing in the morning? But the bigger idea is: Everything in moderation. So if children are allowed their own indulgences, it becomes less of a taboo and they learn to have more self-control. For example, my four-year-old, because he knows he can get chocolate first thing in the morning for breakfast, is able to moderate himself. He’s happy with the two slices of bread. Even if I put the whole box of hagelslag on the table, he doesn’t pour more in once he’s had his share.
MarketWatch: So in creating a more free environment, you actually help a child set his/her own rules?
Acosta: A really happy child is a child who is given boundaries and, within those boundaries, is given a lot of freedom. They are not children who are entitled — in fact, the children who are spoiled and entitled are often the unhappiness, I find. [Those] children feel like the world owes them everything. They want the most expensive toys or the newest, fanciest toys and biggest birthday parties. Middle-class Dutch children would know even if they wanted something, they have to actually work for it.
A great example is King’s Day, one of the most important holidays in the Netherlands celebrating royalty’s birthday. Aside from everyone wearing orange and everyone partying, the whole country becomes one giant flea market. This is when Dutch children have their own section where they can sell and buy toys. You can find seven- or eight-year-olds trying to sell their toys or cupcakes. We’re talking about prices that are, like, 25 cents. One euro is actually a lot of money for a toy. It teaches them the value of money and to take joy in the simple things.
MarketWatch: If they eat chocolate sprinkles every morning, how come Dutch kids aren’t fat? They have some of the world’s lowest obesity rates.
Acosta: They bike to school. They have 45 minutes of recess. They’re also expected to play outside. The first years of school, they’re encouraged to create their own play dates. The parents talk and it’s decided whose house the children are going to be at, and what time the children are picked up or dropped off at their house. During that time, the children are expected to entertain themselves. They’re expected to go outside and play. But, keep in mind, we also keep the area safe.
MarketWatch: As an Asian-American expat, what has been the biggest adjustment for you?
Acosta: I grew up with this idea that to be the best mother, I always have to be there for him and to be cautious and careful and anxious. Anxiety is a sign of being a good mother in American culture. In a way, it’s our battle stripes, and we do take pride in being worried about our children.
It’s not that the Dutch are not worried. Like all parents, they have concerns. What makes them different is they try to take a pragmatic assessment of real risk versus perceived risk. Rather than just worry and try to control everything, they try to equip their children starting from a young age with how to assess risk. A great example would be how to navigate the road safely. Starting at the age of two, toddlers are already taught the traffic rules. Here’s a bike lane, stay on the right-hand side. Also, swimming: It’s really important because we’re surrounded by a lot of water, so at around four- or five-years-old, the children all have their swim diplomas so they won’t drown.
MarketWatch: Specifically with babies, what is a unique aspect of Dutch parenting?
Acosta: My research of Professor Sara Harkness and Charles Super’s studies led me to realize that a lot of American babies are actually being overstimulated. There’s too much emphasis on cognitive development at such an early age. The takeaway is for parents to just relax and realize that for a newborn baby, the world is interesting and stimulating enough.
MarketWatch: What about with teenagers?
Acosta: I see a difference in terms of openness and communication between Dutch parents and teenagers. Two great examples are drugs and sex. Dutch parents talk about everything with their children. Parents would rather the children come to them than get their information from somewhere else.
Dutch teenagers are often allowed to have romantic sleepovers with their significant others because Dutch parents would rather their teenagers are in a safe environment. We should also stress that the Dutch teenagers have among the world’s lowest STD rates. They don’t engage in sexual activity earlier than their American peers and when they do have their “first time,” it’s often with more positive experiences. Everything is so open for discussion — not everything is allowed, it’s not a free for all — and it seems that Dutch children are less likely to rebel.
MarketWatch: Americans can be conservative when it comes to sex education. What’s the Dutch approach?
Acosta: The Dutch are the paragons of sex education in Europe. They beat the French and the Italians and the Spanish — the Latin lovers. The Dutch pragmatically believe in teaching sex education. Starting at the age of four, children are taught in age-appropriate ways about sexuality. They’re taught about feelings, different kinds of people and, also, what is appropriate and inappropriate touching and how to be vocal when they’re touched in a way they don’t feel comfortable with: A simple thing such as a child not wanting to be touched on their arm. There’s a whole week dedicated from age four to 12 about sex education. As the children get older, the topics become more detailed and explicit. But what I love about starting at the age of four is it helps children understand the importance of boundaries.
MarketWatch: Your book highlights the Dutch saying, “Doe maar gewoon,” or “just act normal” or “calm down.” How does it extend to parenting? For instance, you write that some expats interpret this as pressure to resign yourself to being average.
Acosta: It’s not necessarily that the Dutch lack ambition, which is a common misconception. “Doe maar gewoon” can be translated simply as not putting with up pretenses, of not thinking you are better than everyone else but just being down-to-earth. “Doe maar gewoon” is the Crown Princess Amelia biking to school, just like all the other Dutch kids.
If a child happens to be brilliant and intrinsically motivated, they are given the support to excel, both at home and in school. It is this same “Doe maar gewoon” mentality where the Dutch win Nobel prizes, namely in chemistry and physics, where they lead the way in architecture, design and medicine, and where they are well-respected and quite opinionated in the European Union.
Of course the Dutch have ambitions for their children like all parents around the world. It’s simply that the Dutch see happiness as a means to success, that “happiness,” self-awareness, intrinsic motivation, independence, positive ties with their family and friends, can cultivate success. Whereas, often times in our modern day culture, success is seen as the way toward happiness

The consequences of forcing young kids to sit too long in class

Posted: Sat, 03/18/2017 - 10:03
Robbi Giuliano teaches her fifth-grade class as they sit on yoga balls at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School in West Chester, Pa., in 2013. (Matt Rourke/AP)
On July 8, 2014, I published a post titled “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today” by Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist. Ever since then, the idea has struck a chord with readers around the world, still drawing a big audience along with some of the follow-up pieces Hanscom wrote.
Why did that story have such resonance? Because standardized-test-based school reform has overemphasized math and reading instruction and test prep to the exclusion of other things, forcing young children to sit in their chairs for hours at a time, often without a real break, even though many kids aren’t ready to do that (if, indeed, young people of any age should have to). The result, as Hanscom has written, is that too many kids fidget, lose focus and act out, with some diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder even when they do not have it.
To be sure, some schools have realized the damage this is doing to children. One is Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, which has started sending kids out for unstructured play four times a day as part of a program it adopted called the LiiNK Project. The project connects play and character development and is designed to bridge academics with the social, emotional and physical well-being of children. 
Other schools, too, have started adding recess back into the school day, but still too many limit it, and kids wind up suffering. In this post, Hanscom takes a new look at the issue. She is the author of “Balanced and Barefoot,” and the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in the United States and in New Zealand.
It originated on my blog here as what appeared to be a simple plea for people to wake up to the dark realities of restricting children from two things: movement and outdoor play. It got picked up and posted here and here and elsewhere, and it keeps going viral even today, nearly three years later.
Why does this message resonate with the hearts of so many?
It is a great indicator that there are many truths behind this article — ones that we need to start paying attention to. And they remain the same truths today: In order for children to learn, they must be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we must let them move!
To do anything less, we cause harm. In fact, we’ve reached a tipping point, where we are restricting children’s movement and play experiences so much that we are witnessing the consequences from toddlers to adolescence on this new generation of children. It is alarming.
Teachers are reporting a significant decline in children’s ability to pay attention in class to more reports of children falling out of their seats to seemingly being “unable to keep their hands off each other” during recess breaks in the past 10 years. At the same time, the number of children needing occupational therapy services to treat these issues is on the rise in a profound way.
The connection? When we continuously expect children to be seated for hours everyday, whether that is sitting for lengthy stints of time in the classroom, being driven from one event to the next, or doing homework till it gets dark outside — children are often found in an upright position with little sensory stimulation.
Children need to move much more than we realize. They need ample opportunities to move their bodies in all different directions such as going upside down, spinning in circles, rolling down hills or even climbing trees. This movement causes fluid to move back and forth in the inner ear, stimulating hair cells that develop the vestibular (balance) sense. This sense is the unifying sense and supports all the other senses.
Many children today are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular sense. It is the No. 1 issue we have to treat in the clinic. A mature vestibular sense supports attention, emotional regulation, eye muscle control, spatial awareness, and organization of the brain to support learning! As you can imagine, if this isn’t developed and maintained through plenty of daily movement opportunities, it is very, very hard for children to learn.
This truth isn’t always easy to hear, especially when it requires action.
“I never said this was going to be easy,” my mentor told me last year when I was facing a particularly difficult trial with my work in relation to TimberNook and getting children outdoors. He was right. Doing what is right isn’t always the easiest path — but it is the right path. It would be so much easier for us to just throw our hands up and say, “this is impossible” or “we don’t have time for more play or movement during the day,” or even “our hands are tied.”
I have news for you. If you ignore this message, things are only going to get worse for the children. We will continue to see a decline in children’s strength, coordination, balance, attention and social-emotional skills.
We will likely see even more:
• Children struggling to sit still and pay attention;
• Children falling from their chairs;
• Children lacking the ability to regulate their activity levels and their emotions;
• Children hitting with too much force when playing games like tag;
• Teachers losing faith in their profession;
• A continuous rise in sensory and motor deficits.
As adults, we often have the choice if we want to move or not. Children do not have the same luxury. Even if they need to move, oftentimes they are told to remain in their seat. And their 15 minutes of recess to “play” within a six- to eight-hour school day is laughable. Young brains depend on frequent movement experiences throughout the day in order to learn, yet most schools fail to provide this essential, basic need. And we wonder why they fidget in their seats or “act up.”
We have an obligation to defend our children’s right to move.
We cannot allow fears, worries, justifications, rules and regulations to take over, to dominate the educational world and continue harming our children on a global level.
It starts with you and me. May you gather your courage and start taking the steps necessary to create this change our kids need. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
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• Bring the “post that won’t sit still” to your administrators. The secret to creating change is to share the science behind movement and outdoor play and how they impact child development. Most adults want what is best for children. Once their eyes are opened to this truth, they often desire to work toward that positive change.
• Get Creative. It is time to start thinking outside the box. What are your objectives in the classroom? If it is to teach, then this is best done through meaningful hands-on, whole-body learning experiences. Take notes from Finland, and allow children to study the ecology of a river by exploring an actual river. Take a walk to a local museum to learn about history, science and the arts. Go outdoors to write poetry. Walk outside to discuss complex topics with a partner. Go a step further and create a committee just to brainstorm ways to get children moving more while learning.
• Be the example. If you are a teacher, take the children outdoors and tell other teachers about this and the changes you are seeing. If you are a parent, invite other children over for the day and send them outdoors! If you are an organization that gets kids outdoors, invite the local press to come see what you are doing and get the word out about the benefits. Being the example can be one of the most powerful ways to create change.
• Unite. Schools could benefit immensely from creating outdoor classrooms. Work with local organizations to help you plan for and fund for this endeavor. Watch as the community comes together for this greater purpose of getting children outdoors in meaningful learning experiences. Parents can do the same at home. Find like-minded individuals that value outdoor play and invite their children over to play or go on outings such as camping trips or hikes. Get to know your neighbors again to create a community that watches out for the children.
It is not enough to read these articles and say, “Yes, this is good.” Will you listen?
By Valerie Strauss March 17

There's only one post-game comment kids need to hear from parents

Posted: Thu, 03/16/2017 - 10:25
“You gotta want it, son. Show them you have a little heart.”
“Be ready, the ball’s coming your way!”
“Ugh, It’s OK. You’ll get it next time.”
“Let’s play some defense now.”
“Stay in there, hands up! Put your hands up, PUT YOUR HANDS UP”!
Kids just need to know you love to be with them, not your opinion of their athletic ability.
Those are just a few of the dozens of things the parents sitting next to me yelled out to a pint-size 7-year-old as he ran up and down the basketball court for 36 minutes. If only they knew that prompting, instructing and endlessly offering their two cents from the sidelines was actually sabotaging their young athlete’s chances at success, not helping them.
Imagine trying to do your job or focus on a task while someone slings non-stop corrections and critiques at you? It would make concentrating on anything impossible. When we do that to our children, not only does it distract them from the game, but in many cases, kids will actually shut down and tune out when they hear too much instruction. How do you expect them to listen to their coach when all they hear is you?
I used to be that parent. Thinking I was helping by yelling out “insightful” tips to my children. My daughter even started looking at me after each play to see my reaction. Each time she made a mistake she would get more and more anxious, clearly wondering if I approved or disapproved of her performance.
Then a few years ago I read about some meaningful research conducted by Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller of For 30 years, they asked kids of all ages what their parents could say about the sports they played that would make them feel happy, confident, and fulfilled.
Turns out the words children most want to hear from Mom and Dad are “I love to watch you play.” It's that easy. Yet In the hundreds of youth sporting events I had attended, I had never heard one parent say it.
So I started. So did my friends. I worked on being quiet during the game and afterwards, I’d say things like “it was so fun for me to watch you today,” or “I loved being here and seeing you play soccer.”
At first it felt a little cheesy, but guess what? It worked.
Unlike seemingly positive statements like “you’ll do better next time,” which inadvertently put pressure on kids to improve, “I love to watch you play” doesn’t place judgment on performance. Instead, it sends the message that you’re happy to be along for the ride, just because you enjoy being there. It’s a way of letting kids know they have your unconditional support because their value isn’t dependent on winning.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly once shared a similar insight. He said he believed a key to his football players' success was having a support system they knew always would be there, especially when they had played poorly or suffered a loss.
In the increasing crazy and competitive world of youth sports, our kids don’t need us telling them what they already know — that they should have shot the ball, blocked the puck or stuck the landing. They need to know we love them even though they didn’t.
Alex Flanagan is a sports broadcaster for NBC Sports and the NFL Network. She created the website to provide parents with a resource to help them survive youth sports. She lives in southern California with her husband and three children.


Talking to Kids About Sex

Posted: Wed, 02/08/2017 - 12:08

The "birds and the bees" talk is one that parents often put off as long as possible. But learning about sexuality is a normal part of child development, and answering your child's questions in an honest, age-appropriate way is the best strategy. Read on for tips on what to say, and when.

What kids can understand, age by age

Ages 2 to 3: The right words for private body parts, such as "penis" and "vagina"

Ages 3 to 4: Where a baby comes from. But they won't understand all the details of reproduction—so a simple "Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born" is fine.

Ages 4 to 5: How a baby is born. Stick with the literal response: "When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy's vagina."

Ages 5 to 6: A general idea of how babies are made. ("Mom and Dad made you.") Or if your child demands more details: "A tiny cell inside Dad called a sperm joined together with a tiny cell inside Mom called an egg."

Ages 6 to 7: A basic understanding of intercourse. You can say, "Nature [or God] created male and female bodies to fittogether like puzzle pieces. When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm, like tadpoles, swim through the penis and up to the egg." Explain what you think about sex and relationships. For instance: "Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other."

Ages 8 to 9: That sex is important, which your child has probably picked up from the media and her peers. A child this age can handle a basic explanation on just about any topic, including rape. ("Remember when we talked about sex being part of a loving relationship? Rape is when someone forces another person to have sex, and that's wrong.")

Ages 9 to 11: Which changes happen during puberty. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news.

Age 12: By now, kids are formulating their own values, so check in every so often to provide a better context for the information your child's getting. But avoid overkill or you'll be tuned out.

Handling specific questions

Your child's questions about sex don't always come up at convenient times or in predictable ways. Some common scenarios that can catch you off guard, and how to respond.

your 3-year-old is fascinated by her baby brother's diaper changes. "what's that?" she asks, pointing to his penis.

How to respond: You may be tempted to change the subject quickly, and fasten that diaper even faster, but that can give kids the idea that talking about private parts is taboo. Instead, be matter-of-fact and say, "That's how you can tell the difference between a girl and a boy. It's called a penis. You have a vagina." Don't be surprised if the question comes up again and again while your child sorts it all out.

you're in line at the grocery store when your preschooler looks up and asks, "why is my penis getting hard?"

How to respond: If a question arises at an inopportune moment, it's okay to give an incomplete answer, along with a promise to fill in the rest later on. In this case, you can say quietly, "Oh, that happens sometimes. It will get soft again soon." Or, if the question requires a more involved answer, you can reply with "That's a really great question. We can talk more about it in the car if you want." But it's important to come back to it later and answer any questions your child has.

hoping to demystify the potty for your toddler, you let her watch you pee. she asks, "why do you have hair down there?"

How to respond: Just say that it's natural for grown-ups to have hair in places that children don't, especially under their arms, between their legs, and, for men, on their faces. You can also add that when she gets to be a big girl like her mother and her aunts, she'll have hair covering her private parts, too.

your child tells you his classmate has two mommies. "how can that be?" he asks.

How to respond: Homosexuality may be a confusing subject—especially for kids who haven't even gotten the concept of heterosexuality down yet. But your explanation doesn't have to be complicated. Say, "In Ginny's family, her two mommies love each other the way Daddy and I do. So they live together, and both take care of Ginny."
If your child has heard a homosexual slur—say, a classmate calls someone else "gay" and he wants to know what that means—you can explain that sometimes boys fall in love with boys and girls fall in love with girls, but that the boy at school probably didn't really understand what he was talking about. Then remind your child that calling people names isn't nice and might hurt someone's feelings.

you catch your child touching or rubbing her private parts.

How to respond: Kids start to explore their bodies, including their genitals, at a very early age. Babies will touch themselves during diaper changes, and toddlers will sometimes stick their hands down their pants. They do this for comfort, not to achieve an orgasm. You might say, "I know that touching your vulva [or penis] feels good, but it's something to be done in private." Don't act as though masturbation should be avoided. Taking her hands away with a swift "Let's go color" is like saying, "What you're doing is so awful that I'm going to pretend I didn't see it."

you've explained that when a mommy's egg and a daddy's sperm combine, a baby begins to grow. now your 6-year-old asks, "how does the sperm get to the egg anyway?"

How to respond: Your explanation doesn't have to be a big deal. You might start by saying, "Daddies have to be close enough to mommies so the sperm can come out of their bodies and get into the mommies. The sperm comes out of the daddy's penis and goes right into the vagina, a special place in the mommy's body made for keeping the sperm safe and helping it get to the egg." If your child asks additional questions, offer a slightly more detailed explanation: "A penis is made to fit into a vagina sort of like an arm fits into a sleeve."
If you want to introduce a moral framework, you might say, "God had a great plan for mommies and daddies to make babies. He designed them differently so they fit together like a puzzle. The sperm comes out of a daddy's penis and swims inside the mommy's body till it reaches the egg."

your preschooler has been content so far with vague information like "babies grow inside mommies." but now he wants to know what happens next: "how does the baby get out of there?"

How to respond: Accurate but uncomplicated answers are best. Try "Most babies come out through the mommy's vagina." You can add, "The vagina is like a tube inside the mommy. It stretches really wide so the baby can get outside."

your grade-schooler's friend tells him how to get to an x-rated website. you walk into the family room later and find him staring at a naked woman on the screen.

How to respond: Try not to get angry. Your son's interest is only natural. Still, you need to make it clear that such material isn't appropriate for kids.
Condemn the pornography without judging him. Calmly say, "That's a website for adults; you need to stick to sites for kids." Then bookmark the sites you've approved—and be sure to download some parental controls for the family computer.

Additional resources

Storybooks can help get across the concept of sex to your child or further explain what you've already discussed. Check your local library, set aside time to sit and read together, then offer to answer any questions. Don't just send your child off to read in a room by herself, though. Being involved from the get-go will show her that she can come to you when she has more complicated or sensitive questions as she gets older.

Divorced, deceased parents linked to kids' smoking and drinking

Posted: Mon, 10/17/2016 - 09:49
By Susan Scutti, CNN
Children who experience the loss of a parent are more likely to smoke and drink by age 11, a study finds
Boys are more likely than girls to drink and smoke by age 11, regardless of their family circumstance
(CNN)We know that parents have a profound influence on their child's life, and increasingly, scientific research is connecting the dots between attention or neglect and behavior.
Children who experience the loss of a father or mother early in life are more likely to smoke and drink before they hit their teens, a new study of English families found. This association between parental absence and risky behavior in childhood occurred no matter whether the cause was death, separation or divorce.
In fact, preteens with an absent parent were more than twice as likely to smoke and drink, the researchers discovered. They defined parental absence as the loss of a biological parent before a child reached age 7.
"We know from previous research that people may take up risky health behaviors as a coping strategy or as a form of self-medication, to help them cope with stressful situations," noted Rebecca Lacey, an author of the study and a senior research associate at University College London.
Possible evidence of the link between parental absence and behavior comes from an unlikely source from across the pond: President Obama.
In a new MTV documentary, "Prescription for Change: Ending America's Opioid Crisis," Obama reveals his past drug use: "When I was a teenager, I used drugs, I drank, I pretty much tried whatever was out there, but I was in Hawaii, and it was a pretty relaxed place. I was lucky that I did not get addicted except to cigarettes, which took me a long time to kick."
Notably, Obama's parents divorced around his 3rd birthday, within the parental absence time frame defined by Lacey and her colleagues.
Based on her findings, Lacey says, early life assistance provided to children with an absent parent may help prevent substance use, which might set a pattern and lead to poor fitness later in life.
"Health behaviors established earlier in life are known to track into adulthood," Lacey and her co-authors wrote in their study, published Monday in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Thousands of children studied over time
The research team examined data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, which records health data for thousands of children born between 2000 and 2002. Among the goals of the study is to collect information on fathers' involvement in children's care and development. After a first survey of the children at 9 months old, surveys collected information for each child at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11 years old.
Overall, the researchers examined the records of nearly 11,000 children. Of these thousands of children, more than a quarter had experienced the absence of a biological parent by age 7.
During their age-11 survey, the children were asked whether they had ever smoked cigarettes or drunk alcohol. Those who had tried booze also answered whether they'd had enough to feel drunk.
Today's teen troubles: Sex, drugs and texting on the go
How today's teens are putting themselves at risk
The results to the smoking question would soothe the nerves of most parents: The overwhelming majority of preteens said they had not smoked. However, 11-year-old boys were more likely than girls to have tried cigarettes: 3.6% versus 1.9%.
Drinking was much more common among the 11-year-olds. Here again, the boys outnumbered the girls, with one in seven boys reporting that they'd tried alcohol, compared with one in 10 of the girls. Of the preteens who tried drinking, nearly twice as many boys (12%) said they'd had enough to feel drunk, compared with slightly less than 7% of the girls.
Lacey and her colleagues calculated that preteens who had experienced parental absence before the age of 7 were more than twice as likely to have taken up smoking and 46% more likely to have started drinking.
Although the boys were more likely to have reported smoking or drinking, they weren't any more likely than girls to have reported smoking or drinking as a consequence of parental absence, explained Lacey.
Is death more significant than divorce?
One interesting datapoint in the study showed that kids whose parent had died were less likely to have tried alcohol by the age of 11; however, those who had tried it were more than 12 times as likely to get drunk than kids with absent parents due to separation or divorce.
"We need to be a little bit cautious about overinterpreting this result," Lacey said, since the sample population contained very few children who had experienced parental death.
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Overall, Lacey and her colleagues believe that a range of factors -- including less parental supervision and unhealthy coping mechanisms on the part of the kids -- may contribute to the association between parental absence and risk behaviors.
Mitch Prinstein, a professor and the director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, believes the study covers "an extraordinarily important topic."
"The rate of health risk behaviors like smoking and consumption of alcohol is a serious concern, not just in the UK but in many nations, especially here in the US," said Prinstein, who was not an author of the study. Prinstein added that anything to help us understand which kids are at risk at the earliest age "deserves our attention."
Other adults can make a difference
Though it's "exciting," Prinstein noted that the study had one weakness in that the researchers could not control for factors such as parental depression or physical illness. As a result, no one can say whether a parent's absence was the cause of a child's risky behavior or whether other factors, such as a parent's depression, might have played a more direct role.
"All studies have limitations, of course, so this is not to suggest this (research) is not an important contribution," he said, adding that previous research suggests parental neglect can be a factor leading to risky behavior in children. Though the study focuses on children in the UK, Prinstein also believes the results "might not be culturally bound" and so probably apply to American families.
Father figures, in your corner
Father figures in your corner
Still, Prinstein cautions against misinterpreting the results since past studies revealed that "aunts, uncles, grandparents, coaches, members of the neighborhood community can serve a very important role for kids."
Someone who is not in the "formal role of a parent" can still have a "dramatic" and positive influence in the life of a child, he said, and they may even help a child resist peers who have begun to experiment with substances.
Prinstein concluded, "I would hate for anyone to feel stigmatized that what they're providing for a child is not OK if they are offering that child access to other adults, like grandparents and aunts and uncles -- because we know that is very helpful."