Mommy/Daddy, It Hurts

Please note that this was syndicated on BlogHer on April 8, 2010: Check it out! April is National Youth Sports Safety Month, according to the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation (NYSSF). I've been thinking a lot youth sports injuries-- last week I presented some preliminary findings from my research on youth sports injuries and the relative-age effect (which is joint with Rebecca Casciano and Children's Hospital Boston). One of the NYSSF's "Tips for Athletes" is especially relevant: "Some children grow faster than others and some have better coordination earlier than others. Everyone catches up eventually. Be patient."

I've mentioned my interest in age cut-offs here before, but today I want to highlight a different set of findings about how parents deal with youth sports injuries, which are especially timely.  Last week Gatorade released a study of "Sports Moms," a group they estimate is about 13 million strong.  Based on a poll of 900 mothers of middle- and high-school age athletes, Gatorade reports that these sports moms spend more money on, and time with, their kids than parents whose children don't play sports.  To do so they sacrifice their own personal time like sleep, exercise, and leisure.

It's not at all surprising that Gatorade chose to focus on sports moms, as they tend to be more involved in children's afterschool lives.  Dads are getting more involved, especially with girls and sports and coaching, but for the most part moms are still the ones who do the "dirty" work of washing uniforms and schlepping to and from practices.  I've always thought that the title of this book, by an Australian academic, pretty much sums it up: Mom's Taxi: Sport and Women's Labor

So it didn't surprise us that moms were much more likely to be with kids when they visited the doctor for a youth sports injuries.  What did surprise us is how many dads were present as well. Out of 989 office visits, dads were at the appointment 44.7% of the time.

However, dads are significantly more likely to be at an appointment if it is their son who is injured, irrespective even of a child's age.

(Note that there are more injured girls in our sample-- 54.3% of 2291-- which is higher than expected based on the sex ratio for girls this age born in the state of Massachusetts).

We have several possible explanations for this, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts! Is it that dads are simply more invested in their sons' athletic careers, or that boys play sports that are more likely to interest men (unlike, for the most part, the girls who dance, do gymnastics, or figure skate)? Other thoughts?

Randomized Chilhdoods

Parents, especially first-time parents, have all kinds of worries and questions. Is it best to breastfeed? Does Baby Einstein really make a difference? The list of anxieties goes on and on as various "experts" bombard parents with mixed messages about vaccines, sleeping positions, parental work, etc.

Last week's New Yorker featured an article by Jerome Groopman, former surgeon general, on food allergies- another anxiety-ridden topic.  The Peanut Puzzle discusses the decision of the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise mothers to limit their young children's exposure to nuts, eggs, and even dairy, to help prevent their kids from developing an allergy.  That 2000 recommendation has now been overturned.  One expert is quoted as saying, "I try to emphasize with my patients not to feel guilty that they did or did not do something that would have resulted in their child having a food allergy.  Even the experts are not certain what to advise."

Why is it that medical experts are not able to offer better advice on important childhood health matters? Shouldn't we be able to establish guidelines, to the best of our current scientific knowledge, on these important questions around childhood development?

As I have studied children and education over the past several years, and child health more recently, I have been dismayed by our lack of knowledge on questions like food allergies, or how children learn best in a classroom.  A big part of the problem is that it takes many, many years to sort out whether a particular situation or action helps or hurts a child in the long-term.  That type of research is costly both in terms of money and in terms of time (especially in a system of higher education that rewards researchers for publishing as many journal articles as quickly as possible-- but that's a discussion for another time!).  It also is quite difficult-- what defines someone as successful and healthy in their twenties? Income? Educational attainment? Marital status?

A group of economists (shameless plug, this group includes my husband, John Friedman), have recently been able to investigate the long-term effects of being in a small kindergarten classroom on all kinds of measures at age 27.  The quick answer is that your kindergarten classroom size, and your teacher and peers, do indeed matter later in life (for the long, academic version of the paper, which is forthcoming, click here; for a condensed NYT version, click here).

But the type of data they have don't come along every day. It is rare to be able to track individuals on so many measures over time. More importantly, especially when it comes to children, it is rare to have such a large number of kids participating in a randomized experiment.  I think this is especially true when it comes to health and education issues. What parent is going to voluntarily enroll their child in an experiment that could place that child at risk in some way? Most parents, with few exceptions (perhaps many economists though!), are going to be willing to take the chance to jeopardize their child's health, even in a small way, or their education.

While much of life, and childhood, is random, we still turn to medical experts and education scholars to guide or decisions, even if their recommendations are based on limited data. Would you be willing to take a chance to advance (social) science?  Even if it turns out 25 years later that your child was randomized into the less effective group, potentially hurting their life chances?