Why Parenting May Not Matter (A Casual Rebuttal)

An article published on the 1st of December titled, Why Parenting May Not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research is Probably Wrong, is making it’s way across the interwebs in viral fashion. I saw the article the day after it was published and had a lot of issues with it. But when it showed up in our Revolutionary Parenting Facebook group only 2 days later, it motivated me to respond.

I know you’re busy, as am I, so I going to make this casual. If you like minimal fluff, you’ll enjoy this format…

I want you to consider the possibility that your parents did not shape you as a person. Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood.

Right off the bat the author struggles with their use of grammar and rhetoric. The act of “shaping someone as a person” is never defined. What does that mean? The same mistake is made with the word “personality.” What’s a personality, to this author?

It’s tough to come to conclusions when foundational terms aren’t defined. But he does end up alluding to what he considers parts of a personality…

The knowledge that some people are more trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive than others is essential to navigating life. It’s simply not a good personal policy to assume that everyone you stumble upon in life has your best interest at heart.

So from this allusion, I’m expecting the article to make the case that parenting does *not* have a meaningful impact on these things. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

In terms of compelling evidence, let’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 Tinca Polderman and colleagues just completed the Herculean task of reviewing nearly all twin studies published by behavior geneticists over the past 50 years.

It’s interesting that the setup for the opening argument is a meta-analysis (basically an analysis of a collection of studies in order to create more statistical relevance). For the sake of time, I’ll direct you to an external explanation of the problems with meta-analysis so I don’t have to list them all here.

Before progressing, I should note that behavioral geneticists make a finer grain distinction than most about the environment, subdividing it into shared and non-shared components.1,2,3,4 Not much is really complicated about this. The shared environment makes children raised together similar to each other.3 The term encompasses the typical parenting effects that we normally envision when we think about environmental variables. Non-shared influences capture the unique experiences of siblings raised in the same home; they make siblings different from one another. Another way of thinking about non-shared environments is that they represent the parts of your life story that are unique from the rest of your family. Importantly, this also includes all of the randomness and pure happenstance that life tends to hurl in our direction from time to time. Returning to the review of twin research, the shared environment just didn’t matter all that much (that’s on average, of course, for some traits it mattered more than others). The non-shared environment mattered consistently.

While this paragraph contains a lot of words, it only ends up making one argument: [Shared environments don’t do much while non-shared environments influence children most].

And don’t forget, that argument is made based on a meta-analysis, of twin studies no less which are problematic in and of themselves. Hang on to that argument…it’s going to matter shortly.

You’ve read that twin studies contain an insidious flaw that causes them to underestimate shared environmental effects (making it seem like parents matter less than they do). The assumptions of twin research, however, have been meticulously studied. The methods of twin researchers have been around for decades and have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and (perhaps most importantly) cross validated with other techniques that rely on different assumptions entirely.3,4 They work, and they work with impressive precision.

Man, nothing like dismissing opposing views with nothing more than an appeal to antiquity (“the methods…have been around for decades”) and a pseudo-argument (“they work” is not an argument supported by, “they have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and cross-validated”).

In other words, you can’t reasonably say that the research methods are valid because “they’ve been around for a while” and “have been scrutinized” (especially when you don’t list the arguments against the methods). If that’s not problematic enough, suggesting the methods “work with impressive precision” is exponentially problematic.

Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think.

The author apparently wants us to dive into the studies to look at the data ourselves rather than using the data to make specific arguments. In other words, the approach here amounts to nothing more than, “take my word for it.”

What’s very problematic here is that the important terms still haven’t been defined. We still don’t know what “personality” or “shaping” or “development” mean in specific terms, nor do we have detailed examples.

And now we’re throwing a very convoluted term, “parenting,” into the mix. Were different types of parenting analyzed, or just parenting in general? It seems the detail has been limited to “permissiveness” (and by whose analysis were these parents permissive?), reading to children, and “whatever else.”

One logical explanation for this is a lack of parenting influence for psychological development. Judith Rich Harris made this point forcefully in her book The Nurture Assumption (an absolute must read). 6 As Harris notes, parents are not to blame for their children’s neuroses (beyond the genes they contribute to the manufacturing of that child), nor can they take much credit for their successful psychological adjustment. To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group (a fascinating topic, but one that merits its own separate discussion).

Again, the author is sharing conclusions without sharing data, details, or examples. Your choices are: take the authors word for it or go read The Nurture Assumption yourself and analyze the data yourself.

What’s the point of writing an article that makes the argument, “parenting doesn’t matter,” if you’re only going to provide conclusions without arguments or examples while simply referencing where the data can be found?

This is fundamentally important. We don’t even know if the author is talking about children raised full time by their parents (perhaps, home educated) or if we’re talking about children who are sent to school for 8 hours a day and who do 2 hours of after school activities.

Obviously, if you don’t play much of a role in your child’s life, it’s going to appear that you don’t play much of a role, isn’t it? Where are those key details?

Now, the astute critic will respond with their own research in hand, papers centering on the deleterious impact of child abuse and severe neglect. There is a wealth of evidence linking child abuse with all sorts of developmental delays, and Harris fully acknowledges this. Mercifully, child abuse is not pervasive in the population, meaning that most kids don’t experience it and it is unlikely that it explains large swaths of why some kids are more extroverted or intelligent than others.

The failure to define terms is an epidemic. The author now introduces the convoluted term, child abuse, without defining it.

You can’t say, “child abuse is not pervasive in the population” when you haven’t defined the term. What is child abuse? Is that hitting kids with belts? Starving them?

What about spanking? I consider spanking to be child abuse (and the research on brain development would tend to agree). Since spanking is approved in America by a 2-1 margin, can we really say that “child abuse” is not pervasive?

What about chopping off a boy’s foreskin? I’d consider that child abuse as well. And since 81% of American boys are circumcised, it seems we have pervasive child abuse occurring inside our borders.

Was the trauma from spanking or circumcision included in this analysis? And let’s keep in mind that those are only two examples of dozens.

That said, consider an analogy shared with me by the psychologist Steven Pinker: dropping your iPhone from six floors up is guaranteed to ruin it—iPhones don’t bounce. The impending destruction awaiting your phone as it plummets toward the Earth is assured, and the fact that you played no part in designing or building your phone will not atone for your slippery fingers. The same analogy applies to parenting, in some respects. It is possible for parents to wreck something that they did not construct (i.e., their child’s healthy development, language growth, cognitive ability, etc.) if their parenting style is harsh enough. Hopefully it is evident that this type of “parenting” is not the topic at hand.

In other words, “we’re ignoring, for the sake of our argument, that destructive parenting practices can have major negative consequences on children due to the false premise that destructive parenting practices aren’t a widespread problem.”

False premise, meet false conclusion.

Children who are spanked (not abused, but spanked) often experience a host of other problems in life, including psychological maladjustment and behavioral problems.8 In a study led by my colleague J.C. Barnes, we probed this issue in more detail and found some evidence suggesting that spanking increased the occurrence of overt bad behavior in children.8 We could have stopped there. Yet, we went one step further and attempted to inspect the genetic influences that were rampant across the measures included in our study. What we found was that much of the association between the two variables (spanking and behavior) was attributable to genetic effects that they had in common. The correlation between spanking and behavior appeared to reflect the presence of shared genetic influences cutting across both traits.

And there we have it. Spanking, to this author, is not abuse. And again, he’s going to make an argument without citing specific evidence, details, or examples, leading you to yet another study that you have to read and interpret yourself.

This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.

Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics.

One glaring issue with not providing specific examples to back up arguments is that it makes your “case” hard to argue against. 

“This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.” — How do I argue against this without an example?

“Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics.” — Can we have an example to work with?

CAN WE HAVE AN EXAMPLE PLEASE? OF ANYTHING? <tap tap tap…is this thing on?>

All fluff and claims. Little evidence. Little substance.

Is it possible that parents really do shape children in deep and meaningful ways? Sure it is. In line with the phrase often trotted out by my ilk: “it’s an empirical question.” The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors. What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children. So, why the dogmatic adherence to the idea that parents are the “puppet masters” in our lives? The are many reasons, some of which are explicitly religious (the whole “spare the rod spoil the child” bit) and some are more secular, rooted in dubious research, but we should nevertheless let them all go.

Oh boy. “What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children” is a blend of straw men and red herrings.

Who is arguing that parents are responsible (in some direct fashion, I assume) for their kids having autism? It’s certainly not the majority making that argument. So this is a rebuttal to an argument that was never presented.

But wait…he threw in ADHD there. That complicates things. Are we sure that parents have no hand in their child developing ADD/ADHD? Gabor Mate, MD seems to think they do.

Any time someone starts a sentence with “What we do know…” it’s time to get skeptical. Do we really? Who is “we?”

“…and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children.”

Since we still haven’t defined “personality,” it’s hard to come to this conclusion isn’t? This conclusion is especially problematic when we include the early allusion to how personality is defined: “trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive.”

The ACE study has shown quite clearly a distinction between adverse childhood experiences and negative physical and psychological outcomes in life, including the use of coping mechanisms in addictive ways (of which Gabor Mate concludes that ADD is a coping mechanism).

If we’re going to be assessing the outcomes of honesty and trustworthiness, for example, we would need to first assess the honesty and trustworthiness of parents. This is highly complex. Every parent who tricks their child into believing in Santa Clause is presenting one blow to honesty and trustworthiness. That’s just one example of thousands. Was any of this analyzed? We don’t know, because the author provides no details.

He also mentions intelligence. And again, he doesn’t really define the term. Intelligence by what measure? IQ? What about emotional intelligence? What about the capacity to love and have deep, lasting relationships? What about social intelligence?

And again, this talk about parents as “puppet masters” in our lives is difficult to assess because we still haven’t been told how much time the kids in the studies were spending with their parents verses with other people and in other institutions.

It’s also problematic that the focus on genetics in this article did not mention the study of epigenetics and the ability for genes to be turned on and off by…tada…the environment in which children are raised in.

Going back to Gabor Mate on this:

It’s a common mistake to think that everything that’s biological is genetically caused. Biology is greatly affected by what happens in a person’s life, in her family, in the society around her, and so on. For the most part genes don’t predetermine or “cause” anything that happens – they just lay out a set of potentials that might happen, given the right (or wrong) environmental inputs. Especially in early childhood, our brains are very much affected by social and psychological relationships. And, in fact, for its lifetime the brain is in constant interaction with the environment. So something can absolutely be biological without therefore being written in genetic stone.

Why was the capability of genes to lead to different “expressions” (outcomes) not highlighted in this article? The entire argument seems to be founded on the premise that genes are just genes and they create outcomes regardless of environment factors. At least, that’s the feeling I got from it.

Natural selection has wired into us a sense of attachment for our offspring. There is no need to graft on beliefs about “the power of parenting” in order to justify our instinct that being a good parent is important. Consider this: what if parenting really doesn’t matter? Then what? The evidence for pervasive parenting effects, after all, looks like a foundation of sand likely to slide out from under us at any second. If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development in order to treat them with the dignity afforded any other human being, then perhaps it is time to recalibrate your moral compass; does it actually point north or just spin like a washing machine (see Pinker’s work for this same point made more elquently10)?

So, we’re getting down to the “lesson” this article offers. But again, it leaves us only with disappointment in the form of yet another straw man argument.

“Why parenting may not matter and why most social science research is probably wrong” has nothing to do with “If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development…”

That seems like it came out of left field. So all people who pay attention to social science research and parenting advice are being defined as people who want god-like control over their kids?

What an absurd notion.

If you want happy children, and you desire a relationship with them that lasts beyond when they’re old enough to fly the nest, then be good to your kids.10 Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.

So here we have a prescription with, again, no details. What does “be good to them” mean? What are people supposed to glean from this article and this advice? What action can they take or stop taking to better the lives of their children?

None. Nothing. Nada. And the same conclusion, which no real evidence has been provided for, is reiterated at closing: “Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.”

No, we don’t know that. In fact, all of the actual evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth

To hear your child make such a fuss.

It isn’t fair—it’s not the truth—

He’s fucked up, yes, but not by us.

The real conclusion here: Parents will do and say anything to not have to take responsibility for the negative outcomes of their children.

Secondary conclusion: I’m very sad now.

How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy

I recently received this question from a Total Body Reboot member and wanted to address it because it falls into the category of “How can I get my kids to eat healthy?” It’s a question I receive almost daily at this point, so I think it’s time to address it with an article.

Do you have any advice on how to implement the program with children? We are thinking about just doing it all together as a family. We have six children ranging from 13 years old down to 1 year. We are thinking we should just dive in, cutting out all ANTI foods, to give our bodies a chance to heal themselves, learn about what our bodies want, and later personalizing our long term lifestyle according to what our bodies need and want. Eliminating grains and dairy and sugar will be the hardest. Is cutting all of it out at once a good idea? And with children who are going to have a rough time giving up their favorite and comfort foods? Just wondering what your advice would be in these situations.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes within. If I find math interesting, then I’m intrinsically motivated to engage with math. Extrinsic motivation comes from something external. If my mom threatens to spank me if I don’t get in the car, I’m extrinsically motivated to get in the car.

Intrinsic motivation is typically viewed as the most powerful form of motivation. It’s also the most authentic motivation. The core of Authentic Parenting is recognizing your child’s intrinsic motivation and working from that starting point while trying your best not to color the relationship with the use of extrinsic motivators. That strategy holds true for eating.

The optimal way to approach healthy eating is to introduce it from day one. First breastmilk, then baby-led solids (real food-based), and then full meals. Prior to the age of two, there’s no reason for children to have much experience with processed foods.

Children are normalized to consistent environments. If you commit to real food from day one, they’ll be normalized to real food. This is both physical and psychological. Their tastebuds will be physically different. Their gut biome will be physically different. And their mindset will be programmed a certain way.

When the child turns two and starts to have more preferences, is verbal, and is exposed to a wider range of situations where processed foods are likely to be served, then I recommend switching over to the health bank account philosophy and teaching children how to create balance with eating.

Using the Five Pillars During Transition

Alas, that’s not most people’s situations. As the email says, there are six children involved and the transition to real-food is new for everyone. This scenario may seem more complicated, but it’s really not. It just requires a different strategy.

Where strategy one requires only one of the five pillars (patience), strategy two—dealing with kids whom you want to transition—requires all five.

Empathy: It’s important to understand that your children are physically different if they’ve been exposed to a diet that is predominantly processed foods. And a diet that’s predominantly real food is going to seem foreign to them. Connecting with their feelings and needs (the need for both consistency and autonomy being top of the list) here is critical.

Integrity: The only way you can authentically commit to real food as a family is if both parents are completely on board and can consistently model the behavior. Remember, “Do as I say, not as I do” represents a complete breakdown in authenticity. Real leaders lead by example, not by fiat.

Self-Awareness: It’s important to acknowledge the road you’ve led your children down thus far. Take responsibility for it in direct communication with your children. Instead of trying to sell them on the benefits of eating healthy or trying to make decisions for them, talk about how important healthy eating is to you and take responsibility for not introducing it to them sooner. Kids don’t care about their health because they don’t have enough life experience to know why it matters, so talk about your health in a way they can relate to. Perhaps tell them you want to eat healthy because you want to be around for them as long as possible.

Patience: Making big changes like this isn’t going to happen overnight. And you’re certainly not going to achieve buy-in from kids overnight. If you’re not willing to play the long game, don’t make changes at all.

Negotiation: There’s going to be some negotiating required. This is especially important to help kids retain autonomy over the transition. The more you’re willing to come to the negotiation table, the more authentic buy-in you’re going to achieve.

What Transition Might Look Like

I want to stress that every family is different. Kids have different personalities. While I can lay out some steps, it doesn’t mean it’s a hard and fast blueprint for success. It’s more of a suggestion-based strategy. The only things that can’t be changed or over-written are the five pillars above—those are values-based principles that should always be respected.

  1. Family Meeting Part 1. This is your chance to discuss your goals and some upcoming changes with the kids. Remember, this is not a meeting where you issue a decree. It’s a meeting where you lay out your thoughts and ideas. The less technical you are, the better. Focus on connecting with your children—keep the discussion focused on communicating needs and feelings.
  2. Family Meeting Part 2. Once you’ve communicated needs and feelings, you want to invite the children to give their perspective and communicate their needs and feelings. Ask them if they have any goals related to their health (or ask if they’ve ever thought about it before). Listen intently. If there are any objections, default to validation and consideration rather than argument.
  3. Family Meeting Part 3. Game plan. Talk about what steps to take, such as rebooting your kitchen and pantry (throwing away all the junk and restocking with real food) or planning DWYLT activities. Get everyone’s input on who can help with meal planning, grocery shopping, food prep, cooking, etc. See if the kids want to take part in picking out recipes. Make sure everyone is heard and included.
  4. Execute. Follow through with the plan that everyone helped make. If someone doesn’t want to be involved, don’t force them to be.
  5. Circle back. After a week or two, regroup and assess how things are going. Take time to get more feedback from everyone. Make adjustments where necessary.

Some random thoughts…

If you have questions, leave them in the comments and I may end up addressing them here.

What if some people don’t want to throw out the processed food? It’s not a problem. Let them keep what’s already in the house until it’s finished. Just be clear, as the financier, that you won’t be buying any more on a regular basis. Of course, the kids are free to use their own money on whatever they want.

What if my kids are picky eaters and don’t like any of the new foods? First, it’s important not to label kids as picky eaters. It’s also important to understand the biology behind pickiness. But this is why it’s important to invite the kids to get involved with meal planning. If they choose it, that usually means they’ll try it. Especially if they helped cook it. But go slow, be empathetic, and be inclusive.

Play the long game, commit to the process, and remember your goals. Transition isn’t easy. There’s a learning curve. It takes a big time investment on the front end until the new behaviors become habits and routine. Is it worth the work? Absolutely. Just be patient and allow for mistakes and setbacks.

Trigger or support intrinsic motivation. If you can trigger intrinsic motivation by getting your kids authentically interested in some part of this process, it’ll help tremendously. You can start with books geared toward real food for kids, such as Eat Like a Dinosaur. You can get your child cooking lessons if they show an interest in cooking (or just teach them yourself if you’re a good cook). You might even let your kids experiment and try to create their own recipes. Building a small garden is a fun activity for kids as well that helps them nurture their relationship with food.

Healthy living is not Dieting. There should be no talk of calories, fat, carbs, scales, weight, or anything else. Absolutely none of these tactics either. This is about nourishing everyone’s bodies, moving in ways that inspire, getting plenty of play and sleep, and connecting as a family. For more on authentic healthy living, check out the work we’re doing over at Rebooted Body.

Don’t be come a health Nazi. Don’t aim to control what your kids eat outside of the home. Even though you’re the finance department for groceries, it would be unfortunate for everyone involved if you let perfectionism drive your purchasing. Set an example for authentically healthy eating by modeling things like balance, non-obsession, and calmness.

You can transition the parents first and the kids later. There are no rules here. You don’t have to transition everyone at the same time if you don’t want to. We have a world-class program at Rebooted Body called Total Body Reboot. It’s the perfect process for rebooting mom and dad first. We’ve rebooted men and women in over 30 countries around the world now—it’s a proven blueprint.

Hopefully this helps you transition your kids and your family to healthy eating. As I mentioned before, leave questions or challenges in the comments below and I’ll address them.

26 Challenging Activities That Will Make Your Child More Physically Competent

Parents are always looking for new activities for kids to do, especially activities that gets kids moving or thinking. While kids are participating in sports at astronomical rates, I suggest balancing that out with individual activities. Bonus points if kids are doing challenging activities that require self-mastery.

There’s a lot of adults walking this Earth who have no idea how to use their body. They lack coordination, their motor skills are pitiful , and they’re weak (both physically and mentally).

Strength of body and mind comes through the practice of engaging in physically and mentally challenging activities on a regular basis. Health is intricately linked to this. Actively using your body and mind is a state of living. Not using your body and mind is a state of dying.

When is the last time you spent a lot of time mastering some new challenging skill? Most adults feel they don’t have the time or patience anymore. That’s unfortunate.

We need to teach kids from a young age to take on challenging activities and conquer them. That should be a habit that kids carry with them into adulthood.

While mentally challenging activities are good, I think it’s best to combine activities that are physically and mentally challenging at the same time. This improves gross motor skills, coordination, speed, strength, balance, and agility while offering the mental benefits of patience, problem solving, overcoming failure, and perseverance.

So here’s 26 ideas to get your children started that fit that bill. Depending on your child’s natural ability, these could give them goals and “something to do” for years to come. And they’ll pick up a ton of great skills in the process.

  1. Hop on a pogo stick. it’s difficult. It requires balance and coordination. It’s frustrating. It’s a great challenge.
  2. Walk on stilts. Like the pogo stick, walking on stilts is challenging in many ways and requires developing some unique balance and motor skills.
  3. Alternative Cycling. Avoid training wheels. Teach kids using a balance bike, then a real bike, and then migrate to a unicycle for complete balance and motion mastery.
  4. Walk a slack line. Slack-lining is becoming really popular. It’s basically a bouncy line attached to two trees or polls or whatever is handy. First you learn to balance on the line, then to walk across it, and then to do some really fun and crazy things.
  5. Rock climb. Not only does rock climbing require a lot of strength, agility, and technique, but it’s mentally demanding. It also can teach kids about overcoming fears (such as heights) and putting trust in others (such as the person on the other end of the rope).
  6. Martial Arts Sparring & Grappling. Martial arts requires significant strength, speed, agility, body mechanics, mental toughness, and technique mastery. Of course, the side benefits are that your child learns how to defend themselves and assert confidence. I published a list of the top five martial arts for self defense fitness at Rebooted Body.
  7. Ice skating and rollerblading. Ice is slippery and the skates are skinny. Rollerblades are similar. Don’t let your kids escape childhood without learning to manage their body on thin moving tools attached to their feet.
  8. Jumping rope. This one is a given in most households, but I didn’t want to leave it out. Jumping rope requires good stamina, timing, and coordination.
  9. Do an unassisted pull up. An unassisted pull up is a pull up where there is no machine or person to help you. It requires significant upper body strength as well as core strength.
  10. Perform a muscle up. Once your child masters pull ups, encourage them to graduate to muscle ups, an exercise that very few adults can do.
  11. Climb a rope. Rope climbing requires a lot of strength but there’s also good technique involved. It’s also requires facing a fear of heights.
  12. Do tricks with a yo-yo. Learning to use a yo-yo and do tricks with one is fun, but can be extremely frustrating as well. It requires coordination and a lot of practice. It’s also a great way to teach physics lessons.
  13. Do a kip up. A kip up is where you lay on your back and spring to your feet without the use of your hands or knees. It’s wonderful for teaching the concept of momentum while making your child more physically competent. It also requires great perseverance and agility.
  14. Do a backflip. Lots of kids do cartwheels. Very few can do a backflip. Not only does it require a lot of explosiveness in the legs, agility, and spatial awareness, it requires a lot of trust in your teacher, spotter, and yourself.
  15. Navigate a hike with a map and compass. Great life saving skills can also be fun and unique challenges. Teach your kids how to read a map and use a compass and then go get lost in the woods together. See if your kids can get you home alive.
  16. Juggle. So frustrating. And so beneficial to coordination. Great stuff.
  17. Start a fire without modern tools. Again, teach kids how to survive. Make it fun. This takes a TON of physical and mental stamina.
  18. Hit a target or hunt with a bow and arrow. Even if you don’t hunt, teaching kids how to use a bow and arrow is beneficial. It requires strength and coordination. It’s also a great opportunity to teach about flight.
  19. Hit a target with a spear. A spear isn’t quite as sophisticated as a bow and arrow. But it’s great fun for kids and teaches them a classic survival technique. Bonus points if they make their own spear.
  20. Swim using a butterfly stroke. Lots of kids can swim. Not lots of kids can properly do the butterfly stroke. It’s all coordination and strength. It’ll make your kids amazing swimmers.
  21. Float on top of the water. This requires a lot of self-trust and is a great way to teach the concept of buoyancy. It’s also a great survival tool.
  22. Dead Man’s Float and drown-proofing. Once they’ve learned to swim and can do the basic float, progress to the dead man’s float and drown-proofing. Great survival and water-competency skills!
  23. Shoot pool. Another wonderful way to teach physics, coordination, patience, and touch. And it’s fun. And if your kids are ever chronically unemployed because you suck at unschooling, they can get rich hustling people in pool halls.
  24. Throw a football (properly). There’s a very specific technique to this that requires a lot of coordination and patience. If you have a daughter, take note: girls that can throw a football can throw anything.
  25. Do an unassisted handstand. Learning to walk on your hands is is physically demanding and requires advanced spatial awareness, core strength, and body control. Fun stuff.
  26. Surf. Surfing has a very steep learning curve. But the joy that comes with succeeding at it is well worth it and will provide a lifetime of enjoyment for your child.

You get bonus points for doing these things with your kids rather than just trying to teach them or send them to someone to be coached. For many of these you’ll have to be the student right along with them. Fun times!

This is just a list to get your kids started. I’d love for you to add any ideas you have to the comments section!

Because this is the internet, I have to write a disclaimer statement: Don’t be an idiot. Don’t teach your kid how to do a backflip on concrete. Don’t drown-proof your child who can’t swim and hates the water, scarring them for life. Know your child and their limits. Make sure they’re completely engaged, having fun, and participating voluntarily.

11 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

Let’s open this one with an awkward story.

Our next door neighbors (who have since moved) once left their two kids playing out in the front yard with my wife and our daughter. My wife wasn’t asked to supervise, I guess it was just assumed she would.

Anyway, their five year old daughter climbed onto the hood and then the roof of their minivan. The father saw her from inside the house and came out to tell her to get down and then proceeded to chastise my wife for allowing her to climb on the van.

Interesting, huh? You leave your children unattended and suddenly the only parent left is to blame for your child doing something my wife would have let our two year old daughter do.

Side note: my wife said his daughter told her, “don’t tell my dad I’m doing this.” That’s how effective authoritarian, coercive parenting is, ladies and gentlemen.

I digress.

There are inherent problems with not allowing children to do anything dangerous. Instead of learning to navigate the world around them (and yes, learn some hard lessons), they are completely unable to handle their own bodies in space and have a difficult time judging the safety of different situations on their own. That, by the way, is a much more dangerous proposition as they get older.

I come from a household of gasps. You know the ones — you trip over your own foot and everyone gasps because they live on egg shells and safety has to come first. It’s enough to give you a complex.

Because of that, letting my daughter do dangerous things creates natural anxiety inside of me. But I know that my daughter is better off exploring the world to the edge of her natural limits, so I purposefully work to stand down.

It’s something I’m a fan of everyone doing. So here’s 11 dangerous things you should let your kids do. If you have one to add, the comments section is open.

  1. Play with fire. There’s nothing like controlling one of the elements that completely changed the course of human history and the one thing that’s key to survival in nature. Let kids play with matches, build fires, ignite stuff, squirt lighter fluid on open flames, cook over fire, and so on.
  2. Climb. Climb trees. Climb minivans! Climb on furniture. Climb on stuff that’s sturdy and stuff that’s not. Climb, climb, climb. And if kids get stuck and are afraid to descend, coach them through it rather than rescuing them.
  3. Stand on chairs (and other unsteady objects). When my daughter stands up in her high chair everyone in the restaurant’s hands start getting tense and their knuckles turn white. You can cut the anxiety with a knife. Look, there’s only one way to learn about physics, folks. Let the bad thing happen. 90% of the time you’ll watch them successfully balance. 10% of the time they’ll learn that standing on things requires special consideration.
  4. Throw rocks (or other hard things). Obviously, if your child is throwing rocks in a crowd of people, you need to keep the crowd safe. But parents are notorious for setting “zero tolerance policies” for not throwing things. Instead of rules, teach your children to be aware of others, aware of natural consequences, and empathetic for the safety of others. Those are skills they’ll use to make the right decisions without you.
  5. Go in water without safety devices. I had a hard time with this when I took our daughter to the beach. I wanted to get her some sort of vest just in case the undertow was strong. But, I didn’t. Flotation devices give children a false sense of security and dampen their natural fear of the water. She was naturally afraid of the undertow. These devices also make parents more at ease, meaning they pay less attention to their child in the water. If you can’t swim well, bad things can happen — let your kids figure that out.
    Edited later: I’ve since changed my outlook on floatation devices as they can allow children to be more independent and get a richer experience, especially on vacations and the like. I’m still a proponent of also being in the water with them at times without these devices to avoid the false sense of security. Sometimes children don’t realize they don’t have the devices on and go into water thinking they do. This type of mistake must be avoided by not getting them totally reliant on the devices.
  6. Carry a pocket knife. Another hard and fast rule parents tend to set is, “no knives/sharp objects.” That’s not to say you should give Johnny a knife for Christmas and let him run rampant with it — it’s about exploring the benefits and dangers and best practices with your child. Teach (that’s your job, by the way) and then trust.
  7. Shoot a gun. Tragically, a lot of firearm deaths are related to children shooting themselves. But these are children who find guns who don’t know what guns do. Even if you don’t have a gun in the house, your child could be going to friends’ houses where firearms can be found. The best way for children to understand the benefits, dangers, and best practices of firearms is to be introduced to them and experience them until the novelty wears off and the implications are well understood.
  8. Use things in ways they weren’t designed. There are parents at the park that I go to who won’t let their kids climb up a slide (those are for going down only!). I’m sure you’ve heard parents tell their kids (and maybe you’ve said the same), “that’s not what that’s for” about a myriad of things. What you think it’s for and what they’re doing with it don’t need to jive. Kids learn by pushing buttons and pulling levers. They don’t need to only push the buttons you want them to push and pull the levers you think they should pull.
  9. Sleep outside/camp/walk in the woods. It’s a shame that most adults are so out of touch with nature and the wild. The more kids can be outdoors and be allowed to explore, the better. If they decide one day that they want to sleep outside, let it happen. If you’re worried, join them at first and then offer more and more autonomy. The same goes with camping and generally exploring the wilderness in your area.
  10. Spar. Most large and somewhat intelligent animals spar and roughhouse. This type of play is built into human genetics. Let your chid wrestle around with other kids. I’m also very pro-martial arts practice, provided you can find the right school/leader (this is very important because martial arts can easily be introduced to children in harmful ways — maybe that’s a good idea for a future article).
  11. Be barefoot. I’ve written and talked extensively about the dangers of wearing shoes. Yes, you heard that right. Kids should be barefoot 99% of the time. Whatever risks there are to being barefoot pale in comparison to the destruction shoes do to developing feet (and all of the side effects that come with that). With that said, common sense is still a great thing (I think if I ever go back to New Orleans, my daughter will be wearing shoes in that city, ha!).

I want to clarify that there’s no set age where these things become appropriate. Some of the items in this list should be extended to children as young as one year. Others might not be age appropriate until five, six, or twelve. It also depends on the personality of your individual child, but you need to assess without a bunch of emotional bias.

Keep in mind that you shape your child’s personality and if you fail to trust them, they’ll suffer for it. If you want to introduce something in the list, but you’re unsure, start by cooperating in their exploration.

This is especially true when the risks heavily outweigh the reward. When something is too dangerous (there’s a few items in the list) for kids to explore completely alone, then you cooperate in the activity and slowly offer more and more autonomy.

Some parents hold the idea that dangerous things should just be avoided altogether and that’s the kind of thinking we need to avoid so kids’ growth isn’t needlessly suppressed by our — often overreaching — fears.

Have something to add to the list? Comment below. I love your input, feedback, and additions.

5 convincing reasons to let your kids be barefoot

“Get that child some shoes!”

A random grandmother shouted at me across the parking lot at the grocery store. She was concerned at the apparent neglect of my child — the fact that she wasn’t wearing shoes.

That’s probably the thought of many of the people who pass us by, but only the old, withering grandmother is fed up enough to say something.

So, am I neglectful?

Actually, I’m well versed in the damaging effects of modern footwear. And by neglecting to put shoes on my child, I’m actually doing her a huge favor.

To be clear, she does wear minimalist shoes when conditions call for it, when there are obvious hazards. But that’s very infrequent. Whatever risks there are in not wearing shoes, they pale in comparison to the risks of wearing them often.

I hope to get you and your children on the same page. So here’s five convincing reasons to let your kids be barefoot.

1. Shoes destroy feet.

The human foot is one of the most complex skeletal-muscular systems in the body. And it works perfectly for what it was designed for.

Without dragging you back to biology class, here’s what you need to know: putting shoes on feet completely changes how they function. And over time, it causes permanent damage to the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and low back.

That’s what shoes do to adults — people who have fully developed feet. When you put shoes on children with developing feet, the outcome is hopeless.

There are four main problems with shoes:

  1. Toe Spread. Most shoes have a tapering toe box that prevent the toes from spreading to their natural width. This causes a physical deformation of the feet (which is so prevalent that almost all feet in modern society are deformed when compared to hunter-gatherers or native tribes disconnected from civilization) and interferes with healthy foot function.
  2. Toe Spring. Many shoes have a toe box that’s elevated above the ball of the foot. When the toes are artificially elevated from years of shoe wearing, the tendons on the top get a bit of a pulling advantage over the tendons pulling on the bottom and sides of the toes. This causes further deformation of the foot and interferes with proper function.
  3. Heel Elevation. The cushioning in the heel of the shoe raises the heel and causes a shortening of the muscles and tendons in the back of the leg. This shortening affects arch function and causes significant pronation — a fault that leads to the majority of injuries in the foot and lower leg.
  4. Torsional Rigidity of the Sole. Modern shoes don’t bend or twist. This is in complete contradiction to how the human foot is supposed to work.

These aren’t minor details, they’re major issues. If you want to dive deeper, check out my interview with foot expert Dr. Ray McClanahan on Rebooted Body Podcast Episode 66 (click here for iTunes | click here for Stitcher Radio).

2. Shoes prevent proper movement development.

Besides physical deformation, shoes cause kids to move in unnatural ways. It’s well known that modern shoes promote damaging heel striking during running. But it goes way beyond that.

During my 15 years as a martial arts instructor, I watched child after child come in and display massive movement faults. In layman’s terms, that means they move in ways that are counter to how their body was designed.

Some of these faults are due to the fact that nobody around them (including the majority of sports coaches) knows how to teach proper movement or correct faults. But a main reason is likely due to the deformation and manipulation we talked about with shoes being a root cause — they can’t physically get into the right positions to move correctly because of limitations.

One movement most of my students couldn’t perform is a butt-to-heel squat (with feet straight or nearly straight). This is the squat you’ll see common in asian cultures and hunter-gatherer tribes. It’s a range of motion that humans are born with (babies do it naturally).

This range of motion is murdered in just a few short years of shoe wearing (and pathological sedentism and excessive sitting). Kids go from squatting this way naturally to being completely unable to squat by the age of 5 or 6.

These are just two of dozens of examples of movement faults that are extremely common now. It’s tragic because it’s limiting kids and leading to a skyrocketing injury rate (especially with knee injuries, which are always due to movement faults outside of freak accidents).

3. Going barefoot enhances proprioception.

One of the greatest benefits to going barefoot is the direct connection between kids and their environment. There’s no longer a buffer that prevents them from feeling the ground beneath them.

The nerves in the feet are sensitive for a reason. It makes you more aware. It makes you more careful. It makes you focus and keep yourself safe. When the ground shifts or you step on something that requires rapid adjustment, it’s easy to adapt when barefoot.

Shoes block all this from happening and inhibit other movements like safe climbing, cuts, and pivots.

Now think about how active kids are and how often they’re in these situations. They’re missing out on one of the most primal aspects of life and failing to develop sensory pathways that program healthy movement function.

Shoes are setting them up for failure. Going barefoot is setting them up for success.

4. Going barefoot makes the feet stronger and the body more agile and less prone to injury.

Recently, Vibram — a minimalist shoe company that makes the popular FiveFingers shoes — settled a class action lawsuit waged by people who claim that FiveFingers led to injuries.

What was the problem? Runners who wore traditional running shoes for thousands of miles and dozens of years of life switched to Vibram FiveFingers and kept up their running and got injured.

That’s not Vibram’s fault, it’s the fault of the traditional shoes these runners were wearing! Because the shoe tries to do many of the jobs the foot is designed to do, the foot stops doing work in many ways. This leads to a massive loss of strength and agility.

Couple that with all the deformation and movements faults I’ve already talked about and of course the outcome is injury. It’s a no-brainer.

Vibram FiveFingers are basically a cover for the foot. They don’t manipulate the function. It’s like being barefoot, but protected.

Only in this day and age can we sue a company for our feet not working the way they were designed! Why aren’t we suing the traditional shoe manufacturers for messing up our feet in the first place?

This is the culture your children are growing up in. And you have the ability to save them from it while raising them to have an evolutionary advantage over every other human being stuck in the shod-is-great mentality.

5. Small scrapes and cuts build their awareness (and their immune system).

I alluded to this earlier: when kids are barefoot, they pay more attention. They’re more aware of their surroundings and their body. They’re less likely to injure themselves.

Of course, if you take a child who has worn shoes for years and have them go barefoot, it’s going to be uncomfortable for them. They won’t know how to navigate properly.

But over time, they’ll get the hang of it. The cuts and scrapes they get will be minimized. And they’ll enjoy all the benefits of barefoot life.

Besides, the cuts and scrapes aren’t a big problem. Kids need to experience these things. Their immune system is built to be strong precisely because of this type of interaction with their environment.

It’s also a built in safety feature. Kids won’t run full speed on concrete when barefoot because it’s not comfortable. Thus, they won’t fall when running full speed on concrete (like they do in shoes).

When it’s grass, they’ll run full speed and if they fall it naturally won’t be as bad. Plus, they’re less likely to trip and fall when barefoot in the first place. Climbing is safer when barefoot too.

Want to adopt a barefoot lifestyle for your kids?

You can easily transition your kids to a barefoot lifestyle. However, the longer they’ve been wearing shoes, the slower I’d ease them into it. Start in very safe areas (indoors, grass in parks, your yard, etc.) and then slowly migrate to more complex situations (concrete, the woods, etc.)

Yes, they’ll have less protection from “the elements” but I promise that’s nothing compared to the consequences I just told you about. When you get down to it, the human foot is not supposed to have anything on it — it’s simply a return to the way life was intended to be lived.

When your kids must wear shoes (like to conform to society’s standards in certain situations or when circumstances are obviously dangerous), I’d highly recommend getting minimalist shoes from companies like Lems, SoftStar, Merrell, and Vibram.

I’d also recommend that you transition yourself — just do it with patience and the understanding that your feet are no longer look or behave like they’re supposed to — take it slow. A barefoot family is a healthier family.

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