Please update your bookmarks to!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Females Down for the Count

How much is a victory worth if you didn't win?

On Thursday Cassy Herkelman had to confront this question as she became the first female to "win" a match in Iowa's state wrestling tournament for high school students.  Her opponent, Joel Northtrup, a favorite in the 112-pound weight class, defaulted rather than face a girl on the mat.  Northtrup cited his religious convictions (he is a student homeschooled by his evangelical minister family, but he wrestles on his local public school's team [the legal fight that allowed homeschooled students to participate on sports teams is interesting, if you are ever interested]).

None of Herkelman's other opponents refused to face her and she was eliminated after losing two matches. The other female competitor, Megan Black, also lost all of her matches, with no opponents declining to face her.  So it's possible Northtrup was afraid to lose to a girl and his religious beliefs were a convenient excuse (I am in no position at all to judge the strength of his convictions, I'm merely suggesting an alternative hypothesis in the tradition of Larry Summers).

Is this Title IX run a muck? Should males and females be segregated even if there isn't a separate but equal system in place?

Based on my research on gender, sports, and injuries, I believe that boys and girls should have separate competitive outlets when it comes to physical sporting activities.  This is especially true after puberty when male and female bodies start to drastically differ in their amounts of body fat and muscle (at younger ages I have actually observed, and some research has shown, a bigger advantage for girls because they tend to have more mental acuity to pick up rules of the game and teamwork than their male peers).  Sure in wrestling there are weight categories, so it is a fairer fight.  But a 112 lb. female body and a 112 lb. male body at age 15 usually look quite different.

However, I certainly do not believe that wrestling should be off-limits to females because it is a "violent, combat" sport-- as described by Joel Northtrup. On the contrary, I believe girls capable of impressive performances in any sport, developing physical strength and character skills that will help them compete with men in other arenas later in life.  When competitive outlets don't exist for females though, they need to face males to develop their skills so they aren't shout out completely, either in the present or in the future.

But as more and more girls hit the wrestling mats, female wrestling tournaments will develop.  Even before this Iowa wrestling story broke, this week the Daily News in Brooklyn ran a story on Wingate High School, which has eight female wrestlers. Their coach recruits females, touting the numerous benefits women get by participating in wrestling in high school.  Two of these young women won conference titles, beating out male competitors, and they will soon be able to compete against many other female wrestlers at the City's first all-female tournament.

By the way, no word if Black and Herkelman ever faced off in Iowa. Given that they were the only two females to qualify,  perhaps they could have wrestled for the female state wrestling title after their elimination.  That would have been a victory earned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

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?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Eight-hour (play) day?

In last week's post about sports injuries a reader commented, "But how do you regulate the number of hours a kid engages in these activities? For better or worse, it's kind of up to the parents, no?"  The answer to this question is, "Yes, but..."

It is true that in the US the family is recognized both legally and culturally as the institution with the most control over childhood. However, the state plays an important role in two areas--education and employment-- and it has done so for nearly a century.  The state mandates that children go to school (compulsory education in this country became law in 1918) and not work more than a certain number of hours each week (federal child labor laws passed in 1938), both efforts that came out of Progressive-era politics (along with labor protections like the eight-hour work day, passed in 1916). Time spent in these domains is almost always outside of the family home, subjecting it to regulation by the law and non-relative adults.

Child performers historically faced scrutiny, though they received an exemption in the 1938 child labor laws, and this scrutiny continues today-- especially as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work become more porous (I have written about this issue elsewhere as it relates to reality television shows).  The number of hours kids can be on-set is heavily regulated and monitored by on-set advocates.  Tutors are also provided to help them keep up with their studies.  Earnings are also partially protected, at least until a child turns 18.

Just as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work have blurred, so have the boundaries between education, work, and play for kids.  I argue that children's afterschool activities should be seen as a new form of child labor (you can read an academic article I wrote on this topic in Childhood), which then subjects participation to regulation by the state, protecting children from overwork, physical injury, or other forms of exploitation.

Knowing there is precedent to regulate children's involvement in activities outside of the family home, what can practically be done? Given the role of the educational system we might think there is some role schools could play. However, many children who are overly involved in a particular activity-- be it chess, academic bees, performing, music, or sports-- are educated outside of the formal school system, as their families opt for homeschooling or special academies (like Spring Creek Academy in Texas or IMG Academies, which I have written about elsewhere).

The onus then falls on those who run afterschool programs. These teachers and coaches would be responsible for proving they are creating a safe environment and that they are certified to run their programs. Currently some small insurance companies that insure sports clubs, gyms, and dance studios fill the void created by the legal radio silence on this issue.

That most athletic coaches and teachers in extracurricular activities often have no formal educational credentials or certifications in their area is deeply problematic.  This remains a stumbling block in legitimating many afterschool activities and should be part of any comprehensive reform of the afterschool hours and how this time should be safely spent.  I will get on my blog soapbox about this particular issue-- which puts children and families at risk in a multitude of ways and hurts those teachers who are superb and dedicated to their students-- about this soon!