The Answer: Mostly nil.
The Question: What is the validity of the knee-jerk warnings our parents gave us and which we, in turn, give our children?
That’s the conclusion of a new book by Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, that fresh-faced whiz-guy who has the longest winning streak in the show’s history. After Jeopardy fame came in 2004, Jennings went on to write witty, quirky books that take full advantage of the author’s exceedingly fact-based perspective.
His latest is “Because I Said So! The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales & Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids,” (Scribner). In it, Jennings, a father of two, investigates the truths behind common parental admonishments.
Is it true that a child should keep a hat on in the cold because most of our body heat escapes from our head? Jennings lays out the evidence and concludes: almost entirely false. What about “growing pains,” do they exist? Nope. Will a kid hurt his eyes of he reads in the dark? Not a chance.
Jennings does, however, find truth in other favorite nags. It is, in fact, a good idea to avoid looking into the sun and, kids should keep their arms inside moving cars.
“For years I’ve been constantly warning my kids about all the world’s dangers, but they always responded with a wide-eyed ‘Why?’ or ‘Really, dad?’ And in those moments I realized I didn’t really know,” Jennings told me in an e-mail exchange we had about his book.
“I was just repeating the same warnings I had heard from my mom and dad 30 years ago. Don’t read in dim light, stay out of the raw cookie dough, put on a hat if your feet are cold… I thought: I bet there are answers to these questions. I should write that instruction manual.”
I asked Jennings which myths he was surprised to learn weren’t true.
“I have a hard time with the ‘sugar rush’ myth,” he wrote. “Apparently there are now over a dozen good, peer-reviewed studies showing no link whatsoever between sugar and hyperactivity in children. I think parents are really going to come at me for debunking this one. Nobody wants to believe, ‘My kid was the terror of the birthday party.’ It’s much easier to believe, ‘Hey, that’s what you get for filling my little angel up with cupcakes and punch.’ ”
On the other hand, he was also surprised to learn that some seemingly misguided guidance is actually good advice. “A lot of parental nagging about the common cold turns out to be true. Chicken soup, for example, has been found to be better at controlling cold symptoms like sore throat and congestion than other hot liquids. And some Welsh scientists have recently found that subjects were more likely to catch colds when their feet were soaked in cold-water baths for twenty minutes,” he said.
“So Mom may have been right about not wearing your galoshes, going outside with wet hair, and so forth. It’s easy to roll your eyes and say, ‘No, mom, it’s actually a virus that causes colds, not the weather,’ but exposure to cold may be a contributing factor after all.”
That isn’t to say that readers need to share all his research with their children. Even if an admonishment has no basis in fact, it can still be beneficial to family harmony.
Like the way I plan to continue telling my daughters that eating carrots will improve their eyesight, even that I now know it’s not true.
Or, as Jennings plans to do, continue to suggest that knuckle-cracking will cause arthritis.
“[It] doesn’t really cause arthritis, but it might just lengthen my kids’ lives if I never hear that sound in the car again.”
What advice have you gotten from your own parents that you’ve passed down to your kids without thinking about its accuracy?