Increase Kids’ Exposure

School shootings galvanize people’s views on gun control, violent video games, aggressive lyrics, security systems, and mental health care.

It's time to think about what we SHOULD be exposing our children to.

As Leon Siegel, my professor of international relations, used to say: “Crisis brings about change.” Or does it?

However Week-Ender readers feel about guns, games, songs, security, and sickness, they can probably agree on one thing: Restricting young people’s exposure to pernicious content is only half the picture.

The national conversation we are currently not having is about intentionally exposing young people to wholesome, healthy content.

Many parents, for example, limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even come out with the guideline that children should spend no more than one or two hours a day in front of a screen.

If that guideline seems generous, consider the 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found young people ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes in front of a screen each day, 4:30 of which is television. Given those stats, 1 to 2 hours starts to seem more reasonable.

Why limit screen time? According to research summarized by the Mayo Clinic, too much screen time has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavior problems (including attention deficits and bullying), impaired academic performance, desensitization to violence, and--most relevant to leaders of youth programs--less time for play.

So, there’s the restriction. Where is the exposure? There is no official guideline by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, or the Mayo Clinic on what kids should be doing if it’s not watching or interacting with a screen.

Why wait for someone else to devise the guidelines? Here is my own official guideline on What Kids Should Be Exposed To:

1. Content that their caregivers watch or read with them.

2. Face-to-face contact with caring, empathic role models.

3. Reading, as much as possible, but at least 30 minutes per day.

4.Unstructured play, whenever possible, to let the imagination roam free.

5. Physical exercise, infused with as much fresh air and fresh water as possible.

6. Spirituality, via outdoor experiences, reading or an organized religious event.

7. Music, art, or theater, performed by the young person’s favorite artist or practiced and performed by the young person him- or herself.

Nothing on this list is terribly controversial. In fact, it all sounds like a great camp. The trouble is orchestrating a child’s non-camp time in a way that satisfies this set of seven criteria can be challenging.

Common fails--corresponding to their numbered guideline--include:

1. Neglecting to watch and read things with children, thus missing the opportunity to contextualize events and interactions--including interpersonal violence--for them.

2. Not getting to know a child’s teachers, coaches, friends, and camp counselors…and thus subjecting the child to the perils and whims of unknown influences.

3. Forgetting to buy and borrow books that will teach children about themselves and their world.

4. Overscheduling children to the extent that their creativity is stifled or decimated.

5. Substituting video play for the kind of real play that curbs obesity and teaches lifelong skills.

6. Sidelining any kind of transcendent experience (such as hiking, traveling, volunteering, or attending religious services) that teaches children something about their culture and provides a connection with a higher power and/or an essential value, such as unselfishness.

7. Silencing song, performance, or any other artistic expression of joy and humanity in the name of “peace and quiet.”

We all drop the ball sometimes, as parents and youth development professionals. Nobody is perfect. But by focusing exclusively on what not to expose young people to, we are chucking the ball away for good.

It’s time to come out of the shadows and into the light by rekindling the national conversation about all the healthy experiences we can engineer for our youth.

Most of all, we need to listen carefully to the young people we serve. How else will we know about any pain or unique needs?

These days, I’m reminded of the words of shock rocker Marilyn Manson, who was interviewed by Michael Moore in Moore’s documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”.

Moore asked him, “If you were to talk directly to the kids [who shot and killed their classmates] what would you say to them…?”

Manson’s response: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say…and that’s what no one did.”

Gulp. Let’s keep talking about the good stuff we can expose our kids to, starting with adults who listen.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy and the co-founder of . Learn more by visiting .