Monday, April 26, 2010

How to raise a Spartan child

A group of retired military leaders issued a report recently called "Too Fat to Fight: Retired Military Leaders Want Junk Food Out of America’s Schools."

The report cited Department of Defense data showing that 75 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old are ineligible to join the military. "Being overweight or obese turns out to be the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service."

Healthcare experts say the obesity crisis is now so bad that it threatens national security.

The report's recommendation focuses on removing junk food from schools. That's a great recommendation, but it doesn't go far enough.

It a nutshell, we're growing so soft and weak as a nation that we may soon be incapable of defending ourselves.

Most people don't know this, but ancient Sparta faced a comparable crisis.

In Ancient Greece, wars were fought mainly by aristocrats -- wealthy land-owners who could afford helmets, shields, spears and swords and the leisure time to train. Because of Sparta's many geographical advantages, Spartan aristocrats grew very rich and the country was very hard to invade. The fighting class grew soft, so soft that Sparta faced what we would call a national security crisis.

A series of events lost to history resulted in the total transformation of Spartan society into the awesome war machine we remember even today. History credits a reformer named Lycurgus, who sparked a revolution of Spartan government, society and culture.

Plutarch wrote:
Lycurgus’s laws meant wealthy Spartans "could no longer spend their lives at home, lying on their couches and stuffing themselves with unwholesome delicacies, like pigs being fattened for slaughter. No longer could they ruin not only their minds but also their bodies, becoming so weak by lazy overindulgence that they needed long sleep, warm baths, and about as much care as if they were constantly sick."
As part of the Lycurgan reforms, land was taken from the rich, and re-distributed equally among citizens. Each male child was given a huge farm at birth (although women could own and inherit property, too).

In traditional ancient societies, the wealthy became unhealthy because they ate too much fatty foods and didn't get enough exercise, while the poor became unhealthy because they often suffered from nutritional deficiencies caused by a lack of variety in the diet. (Only in the industrial age do we have both: People get too many calories and also suffer nutritional deficits.) Sparta completely ended both extremes. The rich were no longer able to eat delicacies. The poor were fed the same foods as the rich -- plain, varietal, fresh, whole foods in very measured quantities. In fact, the richest Spartans (with the biggest and best farms) were required by law to feed the rest their best foods.

At the age of 7, boys entered the famous Spartan agoge for 23 years of military training, which involved hours of daily outdoor exercise, among other things. The "herd," as they called the boys, were hardened against heat, cold, hunger, pain and fatigue.

Less is known about the education of girls, but we do know they trained hard also, even in Olympic events like wrestling, javelin, discuss, running and so on. Spartan women scandalized Greece for centuries. Disparaged as "thigh flashers," because they wore short skirts (unlike the head-to-toe garb required of proper Athenian women), Spartan girls and women were famous for singing, dancing and for an exercise that involved jumping straight up and kicking one's own butt with the heels. (The picture top right is of a statue of an amazingly fit Spartan teenage girl from about 550 B.C.)

Unlike aristocratic women from other wealthy Greek city-states, who were invariably soft, white and a little sick from wearing toxic make-up, Spartan women were famous for being ripped, tan, muscular and beautiful even though they didn't wear any makeup.

It's likely that obesity was non-existent in post-Lycurgus Sparta. Among men and boys, even minor chubbiness probably didn't exist. The combination of constant exercise, incredibly healthy food and a conspicuous "frugality of the diet" prevented that.

Ancient Sparta faced a similar crisis to our own. And they solved it so completely that 2,600 years later they're still famous for physical fitness.

What can we learn from them about raising healthy children?

Clearly dragging 7-year-olds out of their homes and into boot camp is out of the question. Our society is based on individuals and families, rather than on Spartan-style, state-sponsored collectivism. And we like it that way. Still, Ancient Sparta has much to teach us about lifelong fitness.

We don't know much about the daily lives of Spartan families. But we do know that Spartan parents didn't pamper their kids. Plutarch tells us that Spartan children "grew up free and active, and without any sort of cry-baby ways. Spartan children were not afraid of the dark, or finicky about their food."

It's also worth pointing out that Spartan children slept all night (boys mostly slept outdoors under the stars), and didn't even have torches, let alone Xbox, to keep them up late. Of course, Spartan kids never ate processed food, junk food, white sugar, preservatives, artificial flavors, soda, candy bars or any of the other junk foods that wouldn't be invented for more than 2,000 years. Instead, they ate fruit, vegetables, whole grains, wild fish, seeds, goat cheese, and meat and poultry in very small quantities (all "free range").

This is the opposite of how American children typically grow up -- un-free, inactive and being crybabies about everything. They're afraid of the dark and finicky about their food. Worse, they live in a world of media, with a lot of their interaction with the world taking place through TV, computer, video-game and cell phone screens.

Instead of indoctrination in martial virtues and devotion to the nation, American kids watch hours of TV every day and are indoctrinated in the "virtues" of consumer culture and personal gratification. The most heavily advertised children's products are incredibly unhealthy foods. The average child is bombarded by thousands of ads per year designed to imprint on them a strong desire to eat packaged breakfast cereals (some of which are more than 40 percent sugar), snacks, candy, soda, and fast food laden with ingredients proved to promote cancer, heart disease, hyperactivity, obesity and a long list of other maladies.

We can and we must fix the problem. We have to dismantle the industrial junk-food complex, and replace public school cafeteria junk food with real food. But most of all, we have to change the culture of parenting in America.

Ancient Spartans achieved incredible physical fitness by obeying laws written by Lycurgus and enforced by the state. But you can achieve the same thing for your children by following and enforcing some common-sense rules that will make your kids a little more Spartan:

1. Never ask children what they want to eat.

The best way to engender bad food habits is to invite kids into the decision-making process. That gets them thinking of the world of junk foods they'd rather be having, and focuses on personal immediate gratification. Instead, get them used to the idea that parents decide what they eat, and kids eat what they're given.

2. Limit screen time.

Kids keep spending more and more time sitting and watching TV and movies, playing video games, using the PC or using a cell phone. This passive "activity" has displaced sports, exercise, personal social interaction and outdoor time. Take 24 hours in a day, and subtract 9 hours for sleep, the time they're in school and doing homework, the time they should be doing physical activities, meal times and other activities, and arrive at a number, which is probably one or two hours. Enforce that number as the maximum amount of time each day they can sit there watching a screen.

When schedules get tight, screen time should be the first to go.

3. Maximize outdoor time.

My cousin goes running with his kids almost every day. Why not? Build solid outdoor family time into your daily life. Kids need sunshine, exercise and interaction with trees and plants in order to be healthy. Make them go outside.

For kids younger than, say, 10, just turning them loose outside guarantees that they'll exercise. That's what kids do: They run, climb, wrestle, goof around. Kids are naturally physical when they go outside.

4. Make meals from scratch, and get kids to help.

We've experimented on kids to find out what happens if they eat a lot of processed, industrial junk food. What we learned is that they get fat, sick and weak. It's time to learn from that failure and embrace what we know: Real food, made at home from scratch is the healthiest kind.

Sure, we've forgotten all the knowledge our great-grandmothers knew about food. But you can learn anything on the Internet. Re-embrace home-cooked meals and make your kids help fix it. That way, when they go out on their own they won't rely on packaged junk food.

5. Teach kids to be cynical about advertising.

Food companies are programming our children for failure and suffering. The least we can do is constantly remind kids what's going on with advertising. Nearly all ads aimed at kids are for junk foods known to cause heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions. Constantly tell them what you know about what certain advertised foods do to the body, and why they even show ads in the first place. Make your kid media-savvy.

6. Don't let kids eat foods "designed" for kids.

Any food that's aimed at children -- Happy Meals, Froot Loops, SpaghettiOs and all the rest -- is bound to be incredibly bad for health. If it's targeted at kids, don't let your kids eat it.

7. Never let kids snack on "products," only produce.

The corporations have trained us through advertising to believe that snacks come in the form of packaged products. Instead, all between-meal eating for both kids and adults should be produce, not products.

If you're going to let kids snack, let them snack on fruit, raw nuts, seeds and other whole foods. Never let them eat snacks that have been manufactured.

8. No screens in bedrooms.

Kids stay up too late because of TVs, computers and cell phones in bedrooms. They don't get enough sleep, which causes them to be too tired for physical activity. They copy adults, and use caffeine as a pick-me-up. The whole cycle that results in fat, weak and sick kids starts with bad sleep.

Recent research has shown that looking at the illuminated screen of a TV, PC, cell phone or iPad just before going to bed triggers insomnia, because it confuses the brain about whether it's daytime or nighttime.

Simply ban anything with a screen from being brought into kids' bedrooms. When you make them go to bed at night, they'll have nothing to do but read -- or sleep.

9. No cell phones in bedrooms at night.

If your child carries a cell phone, their friends may be calling or texting at random hours in the night. When this happens, kids tend to wake up and respond. All this interrupted sleep causes all kinds of health problems. Don't allow it.

Give your child or teen a cell phone only on the condition that they hand it over every night.

10. Ban all soda.

Americans now get hundreds of calories per day in beverages, often sodas. It's not the calories per se -- diet soda is bad, too. Get your kids in the habit of drinking filtered water when they're thirsty.

These simple, common-sense rules will make your child far healthier, smarter, happier and more successful in life than allowing them to become just another depressing statistic.

You probably wouldn't want your child to grow up in Ancient Sparta. But we can all learn a thing or to about raising healthy children from a culture that produced so many incredibly healthy citizens.