Friday, September 26, 2014

Pediatrics and the NFL

So much starts at the beginning. As a pediatrician I'm used to looking at the long curve of life, and trying to help people adjust that curve for their kids at the beginning. We promote physical health – exercise! – and we prevent physical disease – immunize! But beyond the body, we try to promote and prevent with behaviors as well as physical health.

So as a pediatrician, I looked at the recent NFL problems of personnel misbehavior off the field with a weary familiarity. Yes, athletes tend to be spoiled by adulation and indulgence by organizations that hope to benefit from their skills. Yes, their sport is violent. But no, these are not just “dumb athletes.” They are people of good intelligence and character who just didn't get the early training – and pediatric guidance – that they should have.

I looked at the Ray Rice video and cringed along with everyone else. It was clear that Janay was coming at him – she had a lot to say, and it didn't look complimentary. She appeared pretty verbal even in a silent video. I saw Ray's bottled up fury. What could he do? I wanted to yell out to him: “Ray, use your words!”

I know that sounds all touchy-feely and nerdy, and to some ears it sounds unmasculine. Women talk and talk and we men drink beer with each other and grunt and laugh, right? Well, no, not right. Women might be naturally more verbal on average, at least in our society, but men can and should learn to use language instead of physical strength. This can be learned! It needs to be learned.

Parents teach kids to use words instead of fists. Even if the parents themselves lack the verbal and personal skills needed, they can send the kids to preschools to learn to use their words. My own children got a full dose of using words at a preschool that was decidely unacademic, but instead stressed social skills and talking with one another, and conflict avoiding strategies. If Ray Rice had been my kids' classmate, he would have had his teacher's voice in his mind. He would have heard her saying, “Ray, use your words!” And he would have had those words to use right there in his mind.

Then we got the grim news about Adrian Peterson, that wonderful running back whom I had always thought a fine man. My God, hitting his four year old with a tree branch? And then Charles Barkley saying that that's just the way of the South? Did your families never go to a pediatrician? Did you never hear about not hitting children, and in fact not hitting anyone? Hitting with a switch? My pediatrician (OK, also Northern and Jewish) mind just boggles.

Gentlemen, hitting begets hitting. Hit a kid and he will kick a dog, and when he gets older, he will in turn hit a kid and who knows whom else. Do you think fear of bodily harm is what keeps people in line? I'm not advocating guilt and shame, understand, but there are other things that work. Most people turn out like their parents, so setting an excellent example is the most important job of parenting. Discipline can be exacted by direction and attention and by setting proper incentives. The most important of all is positive reinforcement. Catch your kid doing something good, and praise him! Show him. Set expectations, set up consequences of bad behavior that withdraws privileges, give him a time out if you want. There are lots of things to do. But Adrian, and Charles, please, hitting is not the right way.

As pediatricians we try to get things right at the start, to set the curve of life in a positive direction. We try to direct our parents and their kids to positive interactions, to positive child rearing, to verbal self defense and explanation. Maybe it seems wimpy, maybe it does. But maybe some wimpiness is just what the doctor ordered. It sure beats cold cocking the girl you're going to marry.

Budd Shenkin

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