Decision Fatigue

Back to school SCMP Article this month on decision fatigue…

Most people celebrate the New Year on January 1st or according to the Chinese Lunar calendar in January or February each year. The New Year is a perfect time to set intentions, try new things and to make new commitments to be our best selves.

I also celebrate the New Year, but for me the real New Year begins in late August when the kids go back to school.   Back to school marks the end of unscheduled days and late bedtimes, and the beginning of routine and rigor. My annual family photo albums begin each year not in January, but with the first day of school and end with our adventurous travel and lazy days of summer photos.
Each year as the kids go back to school we all have an opportunity to try new things, commit to new routines and to set goals. The kids choose new activities and their busy schedules enable me to explore new interests too. I sign up for volunteer positions, revamp my exercise, take on consulting jobs, meet new people and have more energy to engage in projects I have been putting off all year.

While the unscheduled summer months hold their charm and the pace of the school year is exhausting and complaint-worthy, most parents secretly yearn for the sanity of routine and schedule, and with good reason. Research shows that children thrive within the comfortable boundaries of familiar routines, clear expectations and sensible limits.

Child development experts unfailingly advocate the importance of routine for children. Routine is the foundation of elementary school. At home, children thrive with well-established morning and bedtime rituals. “Bath, brush, books, bed” is a popular, healthy evening routine in households with any age children. This gives everyone something to look forward to and sets a clear expectation of when it’s time to turn off the lights and go to sleep.

Routine is also important for adults. A fascinating 2011 New York Times article by John Tierney described the phenomenon of decision fatigue, claiming that humans have a finite capacity for decision making each day, and that this capacity is depleted every time a decision is made, no matter its relative importance. For example, the article suggests that the time of day a judge hears a case is a more important indicator of the likelihood of parole for an inmate than are the circumstances of the case. Judges are much more risk averse right before lunch and late in the day than in the morning or immediately following a lunch break.

Making decisions can be exhausting. The more decisions one makes, the harder each one becomes. After awhile, decision makers can become reckless or reluctant to make any decisions at all. In a series of fascinating studies, researchers demonstrated that making choices eventually undermines willpower and resolve too.

Stanford University psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal has written extensively on the topic of willpower. Her bestselling book The Willpower Instinct provides great guidance for those looking to change habits and set more positive routines. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is another useful book that describes the science behind the formation of habits and the importance of cultivating positive ones.

Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can be mitigated by a solid routine, and, interestingly, by a boost of glucose. Instead of waking up each morning trying to decide if you should go for a hike or a run, sleep in or eat breakfast, automating those decisions frees up precious space for more important decisions later in the day.

Annie Dillard reminds us that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” With consistent day-to-day routines, we have more space to make constructive big decisions and the willpower to stick to those resolutions, whenever we begin.

Raising Financially Literate Children

In this month’s Between The Lines column in the South China Morning Post, I wrote about financial literacy for children, offering both practical and philosophical guides for initiating these important discussions with adolescents:

Financial literacy is as important to teach our children as is any other kind of literacy, and yet many of us shy away from candid conversations about money with our children. In so doing, we miss an opportunity to instill family values and to cultivate positive traits like generosity, patience and perseverance.

When I lived in Santa Monica ten years ago and had young children, I was pleased to see many teenagers in my neighborhood who could babysit. Talking to their parents, however, I was told that they were too busy and they didn’t need the money. I was astounded. Babysitting was my route to financial autonomy when I was in High School. I babysat for a dozen different families who paid me about a dollar an hour. I saved my money and thought through my purchases carefully, always hesitant to part with that hard earned cash.

Wanting to impart the same lessons to my own children, I attempted to introduce an elaborate plan to teach my first born about money. I gave him three dollars each week allowance and insisted that he put one of each in three separate envelopes labeled “spend,” “save,” and “donate.” The problem was, he wanted a toy that cost $30. At that rate it would take him so long to save enough to buy the toy, he would have lost interest (an important lesson in itself, but not the one I was trying to teach). At that age, was waiting five months really teaching him anything about financial management? I soon abandoned my allowance plan.

Ten years later many wonderful resources exist to guide parents through allowance strategies that are more successful because they are both practical guides and they help parents initiate conversations about underlying values associated with stewarding wealth. In this broader values-based conversation that incorporates lessons about gratitude, generosity and responsibility, raising financially aware children is easier and more meaningful.

Last year, New York Times money columnist Ron Lieber released a book entitled The Opposite of Spoiled. Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money. This book offers practical tips for the best way to handle basic financial transactions including everything from allowance to donations, birthday presents to cell phones and more. It also helps parents to identify and instill traits and virtues that embody the opposite of spoiled. He says, “when parents shy away from the topic, they lose a tremendous opportunity—not just to model the basic financial behaviors that are increasingly important for young adults but also to imprint lessons about what the family truly values.”

Raising Financially Fit Kids by Joline Godfrey and Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees by Neale S. Godfrey are two more excellent books that walk parents through the process of raising financially literate children. The website is a practical resource offered by a coalition of diverse financial education stakeholders working together to educate and prepare youth for life-long financial success.

It’s never too early to begin to introduce the concepts of wealth stewardship to children. Children’s picture books can be a terrific way to initiate discussions about money management and generosity. The Penny Pot by Stuart J. Murphy focuses on using math in everyday life and comes with oversized coins to help them do so. Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins is a great read aloud picture book about entrepreneurship and the costs of doing business.

For teens and adults, the 1926 classic by George S. Clason, The Richest Man in Babylon uses ancient parables to discuss wealth management and might be a good option for both parents and teenagers to read to begin a deeper, more philosophical discussion about affluence and values.

Conscious stewardship of wealth is as important a skill to impart to children as are manners and kindness. A local Hong Kong philanthropist explained that his motivation comes from witnessing his father’s own generosity and from Confucian teachings to take care of one’s family. Christian values also encourage generosity and restraint in the accumulation and dissemination of wealth. Whatever the source, teaching children that money should be spent wisely, given generously, and shepherded carefully will help inculcate valuable life skills and positive character traits.

Sometimes the benefits can accrue directly to the parents. For example, I love my dog, but I really dislike is the early morning dog walk. This summer my youngest son and I came to an agreement. If he would do the morning dog walk, he would be paid $10/week. For him it is a source of pride, gets him up and out for a good long brisk walk around the neighborhood, teaches him responsibility and has awakened a new understanding. He has started to consider purchases in terms of what percentage of his weekly earnings something costs. When he realized that buying a trinket at the market cost over half of his weekly earnings, he quickly stopped pestering me about it.

Twelve Meals in Hong Kong

Driving the entire perimeter of Hong Kong Island takes less than an hour with no traffic.  I sometimes think of HK Island as a clock with Central at noon, Stanley at 5, Pokfulam at 8 and so on.  Going out in Hong Kong can be lots of fun, but deciding where to go can be a challenge. Many of the restaurants in HK are mediocre and expensive, and not really that much fun.

Over the years I collected a running list of places where I really like the food, or at least the vibe of the place.  Working my way clockwise around the island, here are twelve tried and tested eating adventure itineraries (A separate list will include the hole-in-the-wall, local, bargain interesting food places beyond HK Island, and another for hike/meal combos).  Enjoy eating your way around the island:

1.  Wanchai East – Start at Stone Nullah Tavern for a drink in the fun London-style neighborhood pub, then walk across Queens Road East and down a block toward the wet market to Serge et le Phoque for an unbelievable “can’t make this at home” tasting menu.  Plywood tables, french blue banquettes and a long horizontal mirror strategically placed to capture the red signs from the Wanchai wet market outside create the perfect paired down chic interior, coupled with the cute French waiters and earnest sommelier; it’s a great night out.  Best with one other couple or a few girlfriends.

2.  Causeway Bay – I must admit I didn’t spend a lot of time eating in Causeway Bay.  I understand that it’s a food mecca, with fantastic places tucked high above the hustle and bustle, but I never really tapped into the scene. I had a great meal at Town, but I never really discovered much else because the pull of our absolute favorite family meal, Din Tai Fung was just too strong.  Despite it now being a global chain from Taiwan, everyone loves the xiao long bao and beautiful greens.  The more the merrier, but get there when it opens or plan to wait awhile for a table.

3.  Taikoo Shing/Quarry Bay – Years ago my friend Cindy introduced me to the greatest pottery studio and private kitchen called Gitone in a housing estate in Quarry Bay.  This is a total gem of a place with a delicious tasting menu for dinner or simple, healthy noodle soup and vegetable lunch in an oasis of calm and beauty as soon as you walk through the doors.  Take your book group for a pottery/dinner, host a private party, or just grab a few couples and have a quiet delicious meal in the capable hands of the husband/wife artist owners who will make sure everything is perfect (I even hosted a 12-year-old pottery birthday party there and the kids seemed to love it!).  Top off your night with a drink at Sugar, a rooftop bar on the top of East with stunning views of Hong Kong.

4.  Stanley – The best food in this seaside town is tucked in a windowless room in the middle of Stanley Market.  Lucy’s has been serving delicious, innovative food to the south side for decades.  Don’t go to dish, as you will know everyone when you walk in.  Relative newcomer Stan’s Cafe has a beautiful view, the best baguette, cheese and sausage available southside, and a strong, if expensive, French menu.  With the kiddos, skip the sketchy Softee truck and instead hit The Cave (below Paisano’s Pizza) for Pinkberry-worthy frozen yogurt.

5.  Repulse Bay –  Despite the recent opening of The Pulse, RB is still a culinary straggler.  Spices is an old-time favorite, good for a birthday lunch with a pan-Asian menu, and tea at The Verandah, run by The Peninsula Hotel, gives you the same experience without the trek to TST, but neither is spectacular.  I didn’t find a restaurant I really liked at the Pulse, despite several attempts.  Limewood has a great look and location and is really good at private parties, but I’m not a huge fan of the regular restaurant.  Not sure why their food is much better when the party is private, but after 2 parties and six attempts at lunch/dinner, that was my experience.

6. Aberdeen/Wong Chuk Hang –  My current favorite food in HK is located on the 22nd floor of the Yally Industrial Building.  The sketchy lift from the cargo loading dock opens out to an industrial chic, order at the counter, soup/salad & thinnest crust pizza ever made by earnest 20-somethings at 3/3rds.  With free wifi, generous light, couches and mis-matched tables, this is a place to go with friends, or on your own with a book to hang out for awhile.  I love this place!

7. Kennedy Town –  This is old school, but if you want to feel a million miles away from the HK scene, Bistronomique is a classic French place with a great look and a tucked away location on a small gentrified street.  It’s industrial and refined.  Reviews online are mixed, but we had a noteworthy meal and a wonderful night there, so I have only good things to say about it.  A great date night spot.

8.  Sai Ying Pun – Ping Pong Gintoneria is clever and great style, but you have to get there early, as last call is at 10 even on a Friday night.  When I’m feeling really wholesome, I’ll go for an organic, vegetarian meal at Grassroots Pantry, but trekking to SYP for healthy food on a weekend night is a stretch.  A good mid-week bet, or girlfriend lunch, especially if you have something to do at HKU, or combine it with Ping Pong and have a little devil/angel night.

9.Sheung Wan – Dozens of restaurants have come and gone in the time it’s taken Yardbird to settle in as a HK fixture.  No reservations and a line every night, swing by Yardbird and put your name on the list.  They’ll give you a buzzer and call you in an hour or so when you can finally get a table at this delicious yakatori style chicken place that never disappoints.  Head to Aberdeen Street Social at the PMQ for a cocktail first.  Ronin (Japanese) and Cocotte (French) are two other perfect date night spots off Gough Street in the same neighborhood.  We recently hosted a party at Cocotte and the sweet and earnest manager made our party just what we had hoped.  He has just opened a nightclub across the staircase from Cocotte, so you can make a night of it.

10.   Central Classic-  While they go without saying, how can a HK restaurant list not include Sevva (the Dosa!), Mott 32 (the Iberico Char Siu!) and the China Club (the Peking Duck!)?  It seems cliche even to mention them, but they truly are excellent.  Service, food, decor are impeccable at all three.  For discerning out of town guests, these places are a must.

11.  Central New – Start at On Dining on the 29th floor of 18 On Lan Street.  Giancarlo Mancino will make sure your drink is the best you’ve ever tasted from his signature Negroni with his own Mancino vermouth to the margarita made with bergamot and Himalayan pink salt shaved over top.  I hear the cheese plate is great too.   Or, if you want upscale delicious, NUR by chef Topham Nurudin is the best.  Another fun night out in Central includes Chom Chom, Chi Cha and Chachawan.  I just like saying that!   Chom Chom in Soho has the best Vietnamese street food (no reservations, but hang out on the precipitous landing outside until you get a table).  Chachawan has great cocktails and the flank steak salad is delicious and Chi Cha just fits with the other two.

12.  Wanchai –  Burgers are the name of the game in the Star Street neighborhood.  22 Ships, Beef and Liberty, The Butcher Club, The Pawn all compete for your attention for the best burger.  While I love a burger the much as anyone, for a truly special Chinese meal, try Michelin starred Guo Fu Lou tucked away in the basement of the Empire Hotel.  It could be because I had a culinary genius and dear friend order for our group, but this was one of the finest dining experiences I had my whole time in HK.   

Bon Appetit!!

Modern Family Easter

I hate Easter.  Wait.  Before you judge, it’s not the message I hate, but my total epic parenting fail each year as I attempt to create a meaningful experience for my non-church-going family and instead end up disappointed with myself and angry at all of them.   This year was the most ridiculous yet.   When my teenage son accused me of channeling my inner-Claire and labeled it the “Modern Family Easter” I had to admit he was right.

Easter was my favorite holiday when I was a kid.   The few years dad and I were on our own were lean.  A private school music teacher didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we were happy and I didn’t really know how poor we were.  My clothes and our furniture came mostly from hand-me-downs and the Encore Shoppe on Route 1 in Kennett Square.  I loved combing the thrift store to find treasures for less than a dollar, and putting together funky outfits. It was the ’70’s, so thrift store chic wasn’t so far off the mark.

But Easter was different.  Every Easter I got to pick out a brand new outfit.  Dad would take me to Sears or J.C. Penny’s and I could pick out a dress and shoes.  The night before Easter felt like Christmas Eve.  I couldn’t sleep in anticipation.  Easter morning I awoke to a lovely Easter basket (much bigger once my dad married my wonderful stepmother).  My stepmother headed to Church, but dad and I went to our Quaker Meeting.  After the close of meeting, the children handed out pansy plants to each member to take home and plant in the garden, heralding the approach of spring.  Fourth grade members of the First Day School  received their very own monogrammed bible, and 7th graders got a copy of Faith & Practice.  Dad would often play a few songs on the piano then the whole meeting would retire out to the yard to watch the Easter egg hunt and sip lemonade.  I loved hunting for eggs among the gravestones and later cut my teeth in leadership roles by organizing the hunt for the younger kids myself.  After meeting (and a few years later) we went to Easter lunch at Grandma Skip’s place.  She would make a feast and use the fancy china.  Our Easter had the perfect combination of religious piety, community, childhood indulgence, family, beautiful food and seasonal reverence.  It was perfect.

Fast forward a few decades and a few countries and our family hasn’t been able to settle into a Sunday church routine despite more efforts than I can count.  In lieu of church we usually resort to hiking, the farmer’s market, brunch, or a solitary run for me while the others sleep in.  I have resigned myself to the state, but on Easter and Christmas, I really suffer the lack of tradition and religious community.

Last week I saw a sign at the school that advertised a beachside sunrise Easter service at 6:30 am.  I reasoned that we could get up and out, join a casual outdoor service and check the box on worship before we were really awake – thereby appeasing my restless yearnings – then get on with the day.  I prepped everyone that this was the plan the night before and they grumbled, but didn’t refuse.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 Easter morning, all but the youngest protested.  My husband, already begrudgingly up and showered, didn’t appreciate my last minute attempted acquiescence and I think I might have said something about not being his mother (apologies to his mother!) when he asked if he had a choice about going.  The teenager was the hardest to rouse, but I was on a mission.  Un-showered and with headphones firmly ensconced in both ears, he shuffled to the car with a “what the hell” thrown in for good measure.

I parked at the wrong end of the beach, so we took off our shoes and skirted the surf to the other side.  Arriving after the service had begun we found about two dozen people happily singing along to the guitar as the children ran around.  All the park benches were accounted for, so we sat on the ground.  The nice minister was enthusiastic and happy, declaring over and over, with a sportsman-like whoop, that “Jesus has risen!  Yea!”  “Woo-hoo!”  Communion emerged from a screw cap roadie and a ziploc baggie and was awkwardly decanted into more fitting vessels.  My youngest, accustomed to receiving communion in other churches, was bummed when he was passed over in lieu of a blessing and asked loudly if he and I could split the host I was offered.  I don’t think the teen took the ipod out of his ear the whole time as he sat propped against the beachside trash can.  The minister was afraid to approach him for a blessing and so air blessed him from three feet away.

As the group sang an impossibly falsetto contemporary Christian song we didn’t know, an elderly Speedo-clad Chinese man wandered through the group, stretching his arms and clapping to the tune.  Surprisingly he didn’t really look out of place in that setting, but picturing my husband showing up to that service in a similar outfit made me chuckle.  Just as the service ended and the minister offered his carton of OJ and paper cups to stick around and get to know everyone, a completely naked female swimmer emerged from the sea and strode up the beach, entirely unburdened by her public nakedness.  Watching the churchgoing men try to avert their eyes over OJ was hilarious.

We headed home.  I took the younger two for brunch and a swim while my husband and teenager went back to bed.  Later, my son’s lingering cold wasn’t improving, so we headed to the hospital for a check and everyone else puttered for the rest of the afternoon.

The day would have been a total write-off were it not for a dear friend who knows how to celebrate holidays and every day with style, kindness and fun.  She invited us for Easter dinner and it was as perfect as could be.  An egg hunt for the kids, beautiful flowers, hand-blown eggs painted with chalkboard paint for our place cards at the table, beautiful food, drinks, friends and individual bunny cakes for dessert.  We told the story of our morning, and somehow telling it made me laugh and let it go.  Maybe some year I’ll be able to make my kids feel as excited about Easter as I was when I was a child. Until then, I will feel grateful for the blessings of friends who can do what I cannot and try not to take it all too seriously.

Reflecting later, I realized that my son’s Modern Family moniker for our day really was astute, as even though Claire and Phil and their family can be ridiculous, neurotic, silly and selfish, the one message that rings true in each episode is that family comes first, no matter what happens.

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Helping Teens Pick “Just Right Books”

My latest SCMP Between the Lines article appeared while I was out of town.  Here’s a link to the SCMP website, or the full text below:

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When children are little, part of the process of learning to read involves finding “just right books.” A just right book is one that interests a child, and that can be read fluently without struggling over more than a few words on a page. This is an important step toward reading fluency, and the process is relatively straightforward.

But once children are older finding “just right books” becomes trickier. Just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean she or he should yet. When children begin to read fluently parents often encourage more advanced books, but sometimes that can backfire, either ruining a book for a child, or exposing them inadvertently to inappropriate content.

Some parents have this idea that pushing young children into chapter books earlier and earlier makes them more accomplished or is an indicator of high intelligence. On the contrary, it’s actually robbing them of an extraordinarily rich world of content in picture books. Sophisticated parents understand that there’s a richness in picture books that doesn’t exist in the trendy, but rather straightforward popular young adult fiction. Oftentimes the language, vocabulary and humor in picture books are more subtle and advanced than in chapter books, and can help children develop critical thinking skills.

This is just another in a long line of inflationary pressure put on children. I recently spoke with a mother who told me her second grader was reading Percy Jackson to himself. An eight year old who can read Percy Jackson is superficially impressive, but how can an eight-year-old emotionally relate to a story told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy? What’s the point?

As children move into the teen years, finding appropriate books gets even more challenging. Because they can read everything, navigating a library or bookstore is akin to a minefield of unsuitable content. Keeping up with a voracious adolescent reader can be a full-time job.

So how do you help your burgeoning reader find the right books? Your school librarian is a great place to start. Most librarians have an extensive knowledge of and passion for books and once they get to know your child, can help match kids and with great books.

“To pick a good book you need to know your child, what mood he or she is in, his or her temperament and a wide range of books,“ says Maureen McCann, Hong Kong International School’s Middle School librarian. She suggests listening for “appeal terms” when you talk with your kids. What did they like about the last book they read? Try to determine if it’s the pacing, drama, exciting plot, or strong female character, for example, and that can help guide your next selection.

Think of your school librarian as your child’s book stylist. McCann likens book selection to buying clothing. “Everyone wants the well-edited closet. There’s an art to working a book shelf similar to a sale rack at a clothing shop.” McCann offers the library version of boutique shopping with a suggestion shelf of her favorites right in the front of the library. Some of her students select books exclusively from that shelf. Similarly, she has initiated a suggestions wall where children recommend books to their peers, and a special display for books about problems like bullying, eating disorders, divorce and other issues that teens might want to explore.

She suggests that children be allowed to browse with some autonomy. Let them discover the books on their own rather than hovering and deciding for them. She also uses a food analogy for picking books. Kids need nourishing literature and fun reads, or “snacks” – as she calls the lighter fiction books – for a healthy literary diet. Once you’ve selected a book, she suggests opening it to any page and reading a paragraph. Does it grab your attention? Do you like the character? These small investments in selecting the right book can save a lot of time in the end.

McCann also advises families to have a lot of books around the house. To be a good advisor, you have to be a good reader. You must model reading for your children, and not just on your iphone. If you’re not as familiar with a wide range of young adult literature, reading guides, essays and annotated book lists, like those by Bring Me A Book, Diane Frankenstein, Jim Trelease, and Paul Jennings for example, are great resources too.

Being a great reader is not about tackling the thickest tome you can plod your way through, but about curating your reading selections as carefully as you do your art and closet.

Redefining safety for children in a technology-obsessed world. An interview with Cris Rowan

Last week I sat down with Cris Rowan, Occupational Therapist and CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. to discuss the impact of technology on children.  A short article was published in the South China Morning Post today.

For the full interview, keep reading…

Q: Most families in Hong Kong live in apartments and have very limited access to outdoor space.   Add to that crowds and an air pollution index (API) that is currently at the maximum measurable level, and taking children outside to connect with nature and to move has its own challenges and dangers.  In urban areas like Hong Kong, the appeal of technology is partially situational.  How does a parent weigh potential dangers and determine what is truly harmful for their children?

ROWAN:  I appreciate the concerns about potential dangers out of doors and can’t speak to the harms of air pollution specifically, but I do know that the consequences of keeping children indoors, disconnected from nature and attached to video games and other technology is causing real problems in the physical and mental health of children. The ways in which we are raising and educating our children with technology are no longer sustainable. Parents have the illusion of safety when their children are inside, but if they inform themselves about the alarming increase in attention problems, poor academics, aggression, impaired sleep, developmental delays that are directly linked to sedentary indoor lifestyles, they will definitely reconsider how to define safety for their children.

Being in nature and physical movement are attention restorative, sensory calming, and essential to healthy growth and wellbeing. For example, the act of swinging is not only fun, but has real impact on core physical strength and the development of the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and attachment systems that are needed for paying attention, printing and reading. Urban children are three times as likely to present with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) as are rural kids.   The good news is that as little as 20 minutes a day of green space time, time spent outdoors in nature, can alleviate many of the symptoms of ADHD in children.

In some urban areas efforts are underway to create green spaces where children can play safely without traffic and congestion. In New York City, the High line park on a former rail line is now a popular attraction and well used park, and plans are underway to repurpose defunct subway tunnels into indoor low line green spaces with light and air circulation and beautiful plants and gardens. This is an example of an effort to carve out green space even in densely populated areas.

 Q: It seems intuitive that technology is having a negative effect on society in the ways you cite (behavior problems, obesity, depression, lack of attention etc), but are these hypotheses or is the research definitively linking cause and effect?  Which are the most compelling studies upon which you base your conclusions?

ROWAN:  The truth is that we don’t know what the health impact of technology will be, as it is still so new. Remember that three years ago, the ipad didn’t even exist yet. But the research is growing. I spend my time collating research from thousands of studies that are increasingly showing evidence of causal relationships. We can now say definitively that playing violent video games causes childhood aggression. Increases in acoustic neuromas and sperm DNA fragmentation linked to cell phone and laptop use are only the first compelling twenty-year studies, and sadly indicative of more to come.

Another scary area is video game addiction. I implore parents to regulate video game use by their children before it becomes an addiction. Avid video game players experience the same physiological response as sex and gambling addicts. Their heart rates race and blood pressure escalates as their bodies release high doses of cortisol and adrenaline in anticipation of, and during, play. After awhile they achieve a state of Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) fatigue and require more and more of the stimulus to get the same feeling. Online games that are competitive and social with high immersion and realistic graphics are particularly insidious as addicted players are sometimes so reluctant to take a break they would rather wet their pants then get up to use the toilet. Video game designers call this the “pee factor” and strive for it. Remediation of video game addiction is an arduous process with only a 50% success rate The US military is processing 400 recruits each month with video game and pornography addictions. China has more than 300 treatment centers throughout the country for youth with video game addiction.

 Q: What about other experts who claim emphatically that video games are not harmful and sometimes even good for certain skills development like sharpening focus, reasoning and decision making skills?  Do you completely discount their research, or think it’s a matter of age/circumstance?

ROWAN:  I don’t disagree that this kind of limited positive effect is possible, but it’s all in context of who, what, when, where and why of the child’s overall health. Factors like age, duration of play and the general overall mental and physical health of the child are key determinants in the likelihood of healthy technology use turning into a harmful addiction.

Q: How can you tell if behavior problems in children are the result of technology?  If you take it away, the behavior often gets even worse.

ROWAN:  As an occupational therapist for the past 27 years, I began to see significant changes in my clients about fifteen years ago.   Increasingly, children demonstrated alarming rates of aggression, depression, ADHD, obesity, impulsivity, poor self regulation, and declining function of ocular motor skills to name a few. As I considered what might be causing the shift, I turned to a growing body of research related to technology use and children. I identified two primary areas of concern, the addictive nature of video games and the impact of technology use on children’s health, behavior, and ability to learn.

Recently I was in a classroom observing a child. He had fixed, dilated pupils and was playing on an imaginary ipad. After asking him to help the other students clean up the room, he responded that he had his ear buds on and couldn’t hear me. I decided to play along, so I pretended to take away the ipad which resulted in a tantrum rage, kicking and screaming for me to return what didn’t really exist. A child like this is most definitely demonstrating symptoms of addiction directly linked to his technology, as well as a dissociated state.

 Q: In a perfect world, parents and children would interact without technology, but are there any instances that you think technology is better than nothing, like books on tape if a parent is not home to read to a child, for example?

ROWAN:  I do believe there are wonderful resources in some educational technology, but I caution parents and educators that “What they watch is who they become.” Pro-social media, where characters are nice to each other, can have a positive impact on children when limited to roughly one hour per day for an otherwise healthy child. On the other hand, anti-social media, where characters intentionally harm others, can cause anti-social behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero exposure to technology for ages 0-2, one hour for ages 2-5 and 2 hours for those 5-18.

Technology in schools has great potential, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of learning without a teacher. For example, e-readers are effective in helping to create early readers, but once the “wow factor” wears off, children who have learned to read early on e-readers perform worse in school than those who learn to read with books. Furthermore, screen reading results in poorer concentration and memory than book reading. Teenagers are demonstrating a new level of impaired memory, concentration and a lesser ability to learn new information which is being coined “digital dementia.”  These are cautionary tales.

 Q: Do you think parents are as much a part of the problem as the technology itself?  

ROWAN:  Most definitely. We don’t have statistics on Asia, but we know that forty percent of North American adults are addicted to technology. Children watch parents and follow their lead. If we want to see any change at all, we have to change our own behavior around our kids. I suggest parents disconnect from technology, and reconnect with their children as a first step toward managing technology family over use.

 Q: Beyond the couch fort, can you offer any additional creative suggestions for what to do with children indoors that will engage their attention in the same way technology does?

ROWAN:  As a first step I suggest families start by reading one book per night, sharing one meal with the family per day, planning one game night and one family outing per week, and taking one technology-free holiday per year. Creating safe zones where there is no technology including the bedroom, bathroom, in the car and in restaurants is a good way to start creating boundaries to keep technology from taking over the household.

For further research and facts supporting this article, check out Cris Rowan’s excellent website  

For a link to her presentation and photos from her visit to Hong Kong, check out  

Fiction Story: Opalescent

An NPR ‘Three Minute Fiction’ prompt, “a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning” inspired me to write a story… 

On the eve of her departure from Nairobi, Maeve sat on the nubby sofa as Theo awkwardly fished in his pocket and pulled out a small box.  Her stomach lurched in anticipation of the uncomfortable moment ahead.  Was he really about to propose after only six months of what she thought of as a fleeting romance?  He was beautiful, and their month-long safari had been a glimpse of an enviable life of adventure and passion, but marriage?   No, she wasn’t ready for that. Opening the box, Maeve was relieved to see a pair of lovely, gold-rimmed, opal stud earrings.  Theo held tightly to the box, removing one earring and looking her directly in the eye.

“Maeve,” he said longingly,  “I love you.  I know you feel the need to return to America now, but I want you to come back to me and to your home in Africa.  I bought these earrings for you, but you can’t have them yet.  For now I am going to keep one, and you take the other.  Come back and reunite the pair when you’re ready.  I will wait for you.”

With that, Theo kissed her gently and returned the box with the lone earring to his pocket.

At the airport the next morning, Maeve clutched the earring in her fist.  The post made a dent in her palm that hurt almost as much as the lump in her throat as she bid farewell to Theo and the life she had built in Kenya.   But there were weddings to attend, a job offer in LA and anyway, she was only 22 years old.  She couldn’t possibly just live in Africa, could she?

Maeve spent the summer at her family home in Delaware.  How strange it was to be back in the same house she grew up in after all she had experienced in war zones in Africa.  At the end of the summer, Maeve boarded a plane for Los Angeles with two suitcases. Single, idealistic and slightly pudgy, Maeve found Los Angeles to be harder than she expected and she longed for her adventurous and earnest life in Africa.  She almost called Theo.

Then, one evening out with her new friend Tessa at a beachside bar filled with cute guys in backward baseball caps, Maeve met Matt.  A world traveler as a child, Matt stood out from the crowd because he knew that Africa wasn’t a country and had even been to Nairobi. Maeve and Matt started dating and eventually married and built a life together.  The more years went by, the further Africa slipped from Maeve’s memory.

They were living in Prague when Maeve got the call that her father had died.  Maeve quickly gathered the children and returned to her family home in Delaware.  Maeve’s stepmother had loved the home she shared with Maeve’s father, but the memories of his illness weighed heavy on her and she decided to sell the house. 

Maeve’s room had been kept a shrine to her childhood, so as she sorted and discarded decades of various sundry mementos, Maeve reached in the bowels of her closet and uncovered a damp canvas tote.  Shoving her hand to the bottom, her finger was pricked by a pin.   She recoiled her hand and dumped the tote.  There on the carpet the little opal earring glinted in the sunshine for the first time in 15 years.  Maeve picked it up and, turning it over in her palm, she squeezed hard.  The pain of the stud in her flesh made her flinch, but not with regret, only gratitude for the love she had felt at the time that had prepared her for the life she now lived.   She knew that she had no intention of returning the earring to Theo, but she did wonder if he still held its mate?