The Concussion Discussion

[Note: This article was originally written for a parenting blog.]

My cell phone vibrates, and I look to see who’s calling me. A picture of my 23-year-old son peers at me from the screen. He doesn’t call that often, so my thoughts immediately start scurrying into dark corners of my mind.

Without any cheerful greeting or preamble, he says, “I thought I should call someone so you’d know where I am. I’m on my way to the Emergency Room. I had another bike accident, but I’m not hurt as bad this time.”

It has been about ten months since I had received a similar phone call from him, also on the way to the Emergency Room, also following a bicycle accident. In that previous accident, he had broken his jaw.

This is getting to be a habit I don’t particularly like. Sure, I’m glad he stays in touch, but I much prefer the kind of phone calls where he has a question for me about cooking or needs help with his resume.

“Were you wearing your helmet?”

He hadn’t been wearing one last year. And though it might not have protected him in that particular accident, he had learned his lesson about wearing a helmet—I hoped.

“Yes. And it was a good thing, too. My head left a big dent in the car’s window, and my helmet is cracked. But I think my head is fine.”

Feeling relief, I close my eyes and let out the breath I had been holding.

I’ve been thinking about helmets, safety and parenting a lot recently.

In early January, when I went downhill skiing for the first time in a decade, I didn’t even consider wearing a helmet. However, after I took a hard fall in the morning (my fault) and was sideswiped from behind in the afternoon (a reckless teenager’s fault), I realized how foolish I was not to protect myself. Next time (if there is a next time), I’ll wear a helmet.

In February, my local newspaper reported that the brother of Minnesota icon Garrison Keillor had died from head injuries suffered in a fall while ice-skating. I remember thinking, with a combination of worry and frustration, “Do we have to wear helmets while skating now? What next?”

And then, in mid-March, there was the Natasha Richardson accident. The award-winning actress fell during a ski lesson on the beginner’s slope—on the beginner’s slope!!—hitting her head. She seemed fine for several hours, but soon she was in the hospital, and she died a day later from severe head trauma.

As a parent, and as a sports participant myself, these stories scare me. How can I even consider letting my children participate in potentially dangerous sports? How much should I insist on protective wear? What are the standards these days? When is protection not enough—or too much? As a father, do I err on the side of allowing too much adventuresome behavior?

When my children were young, I always insisted that they sit in their child car seats. As they got older, I required that they always wear seat belts. It was a simple rule, and no amount of fussing, arguing or crying on their part could sway me. It’s still a rule in my car. And now they’ve made it a rule in their cars, too.

When it came to helmets for bike-riding or skateboarding, however, I wasn’t so strict. I insisted they wore helmets when they were younger, but, as they entered adolescence, I wavered. I’d remind them to wear their helmets, but I wasn’t adamant. And I didn’t impose consequences if I learned later that they went without helmets. I regret now that I hadn’t been more resolute.

Wondering about my teenagers’ current perspectives, I discussed the issue with them this week. They told me that they’d wear a helmet if they expected to be doing tricks on a bike, skateboard or snowboard (i.e., “grinds,” “grabs” and “360s” using half-pipes, rails and ramps). However, for routine occasions, they found helmets to be “uncomfortable” and “awkward.”

“If you board to McDonald’s with your friends, it’s not cool to have a helmet,” said my 15-year-old son.

How can we make it “cool” to wear helmets? Should we pass laws requiring helmets? For all children? For all adults? (Different states currently have a variety of laws when it comes to requiring helmets for bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards and skates. No state currently requires a helmet for skiing or snowboarding.)

What are our responsibilities as parents to protect our children as they get older? At what age do we start to turn the responsibility over to them? What did you (or will you) say when you talk to your child about safety, helmets and head injuries?

Have you had the concussion discussion with your child?

Published in: on May 1, 2009 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

College Admissions: Acceptance or Rejection?

A blog article in today’s New York Times‘ parenting blog, “Motherlode,” has provoked some strong comments from readers–and raised a whole host of feelings and questions in me. In the article, “Waiting for College Decisions,” a father discusses his complex set of feelings and hopes for his only child on the day she receives her decision letters from various prestigious colleges on the East Coast.

Because two of my children (a high school senior and a college senior) are going through the very same process right now for college and medical school, I know that the decisions stir up strong emotions in both children and parents.

I admire the author of the blog article (his name is Charles Whitin) for his honesty and for his self-reflection.  I especially admire his final point that we should appreciate our children at this moment in time, while also being aware that change and growth is inevitable.  (For me, a similar moment happened when my oldest son started college.  Here’s a link to an essay, “Suddenly,  It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” I wrote about that experience.)

I’m sorry he got lambasted by several early comments.  I hope he has thick skin and keeps writing.

Here are some of the questions that come up for me on this college admission issue:

1) Is it wrong for parents to want the best for their children? (No)

2) What is the “best for their children”? (That’s a much trickier question.)

3) Which type of college provides the best education? For what kind of student?

4) Does a “big name” college make a difference in the direction of one’s life?

5) How much money and how big a financial sacrifice is a college education worth?

6)  As parents, we take pride in our children.  Isn’t that OK?  When does “taking pride” turn into “getting enmeshed”?

7)  Where are the boundary lines between caring too much, caring, and not caring enough?

I’m glad there is a place online where people are debating and discussing these issues.

Published in: on March 31, 2009 at 10:09 am  Comments (2)  

Don’t Forget the Boys

Don’t forget the boys.  That’s the message in Kathleen Parker’s op-ed piece, “Bring the Boys Along: The White House Council Obama Forgot, in the Washington Post.

Although she makes a few snarky comments along the way (that’s one of the things that columnists need to do to keep up their readership), I agree with the main theme of her article.

As a society, we’ve done an excellent job in the past generation of increasing opportunities and expectations for girls.  Now it’s time to realize that boys need our help, too.

Parker refers to suicide rates, which are much higher for boys than girls, as one indicator of the need for attention to boys in our society.  She could also have pointed to graduation rates, incarceration rates, and lifespan statistics.

The author who has done the best job documenting this issue is Dr. Warren Farrell. His books, such as The Myth of Male Power, are thought-provoking and should be required reading in any class that addresses gender issues in American society.

The topic is fraught with political correctness, myths, and ideology, so it’s one that I rarely bring up.  As the father of four boys and as a man who’s spent quite a bit of time in a non-traditional role (i.e., primary parent), I have strong opinions on the subject.

However, it really would take an entire semester-long class to begin to explore the issue in a way that does justice to the topic.   It would take an entire lecture to just lay out the caveats, the apologies-in-advance, and the careful definitions of terms.  Only after that opening lecture would many listeners begin to put aside their ingrained beliefs and open their ears and minds.  (Just remember what happened to Larry Summers, then-Harvard-President, when he clumsily raised some questions about women-men differences in math and science.)

As a scientist who’s written frequently on the subject of women in chemistry, I’m well aware that there are many subtle societal messages that represent barriers for girls and women in science.  And some of the barriers aren’t so subtle.

Any good discussion needs some statistics, so here are a few for the chemistry profession:

  • The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry earned by women has risen from 29% in 1981 to 55% in 2007 (statistics from the National Science Foundation and  Chemical & Engineering News, 12/3/07). During the same period, the percentage of Ph.D.s earned by women increased from 16% to 38%.
  • The median starting salaries for women and men bachelors-degree chemists are essentially equivalent ($36,300 vs $37,000), as are the salaries for women and men masters-degree chemists ($49,000 vs $46,000).  (These 2007 statistics come from Chemical & Engineering News, 6/2/08.) The data for doctoral-degree chemists are more difficult to interpret, with some years showing parity and some years showing significant disparity.
  • These significant increases in the number of women studying chemistry have not yet translated into comparable numbers among the leadership of the chemistry community, especially in academe. According to 2007 statistics, just 15% of chemistry professors at the top 50 universities are women. (The breakdown by rank is 11% full professor, 22% associate professor, and 22% assistant professor).

Another good place to go when starting a discussion is to consult some of the scientific leaders who have thought deeply on this subject.  Among the scientists who have impressed me with their thoughtfulness and shaped my thinking are Geri Richmond, Dick Zare, Helen Free, and Jo Handelsman.  If you get a chance to hear or read their thoughts on women and science, I highly recommend it.

While there’s still plenty of work to be done in making the world of science more friendly for women (and for men who want to be involved parents), an even more important issue in the coming years is going to be finding ways to advance the education and opportunities of both girls and boys in American society.

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Parenting: It’s Not Rocket Science (Or Is It?)

In an essay I wrote several years ago,
“Parenting: Maybe It Is Rocket Science” (in The Chronicle of Higher Education), I listed some of the ways my Ph.D. in chemistry prepared me for parenting.  In the intervening years, the list has grown, and I could add a number of new items to the original list of four lessons.

Here’s one that seems especially appropriate this week, when my four children (ages 23, 20, 17, and 15) are all together for the first time since last Christmas break:

Lesson 1:  It’s very challenging to find a solvent that works for four different chemical compounds.

One of my goals for the next few days will be to find activities and interests that will “dissolve” (i.e., actively engage) all four boys at the same time.  With their diverse interests, it’s going to be a challenge.  Here are some of these activities/solvents I’ll be trying:

  • Food (Feeding three omnivores and one vegan will be tricky.)
  • Music (Their favorite musical genres include trance, indie, “noise” and “nerdcore hiphop.”   I like Baroque.  Can you say “generation gap?”)
  • Board games (“Cranium” worked last year.  I’m going to try “Apples to Apples” this year.)
  • Road trip (We’re driving 200 miles together next Sunday.  Enforced togetherness will either be a big success or …)

Synthetic chemists believe that finding the right solvent is both an art and a science.

Wish me luck.

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 8:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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