Stories about: Societal Issues

Marathon pioneer Kathrine Switzer: How I celebrate International Women’s Day


Kathrine Switzer broke the gender barrier at the previous all-male Boston Marathon, won the New York City Marathon, and created women’s running events in 27 countries that spearheaded the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games. She is an Emmy Award-winning sports commentator, the author of three books, and is currently leading ‘261 Fearless’, a women’s empowerment movement through running.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. This day we celebrate the achievements of women with a day of action: more than talk, we will DO.

For me, it’s also a day I happily reflect on my mantra:

Be Fearless, Be Free, Be Grateful.

Our mantras are a reflection of own lives, and sure, mine includes the hard work, risks and the awakenings of many years. But this mantra also evolved from the contributions and collective spirit of many women’s lives, both past and future, and in the spirit of celebration, I’d like to share its evolution with you.

When I first ran the 26.2 mile/42.2 km Boston Marathon wearing bib number 261, I broke a huge barrier of women’s so-called limitation. Barriers are broken when myths are finally shattered, and that comes when women are given an opportunity to prove themselves. Talent and capability exist in all of us; we only need the opportunity to try. Social change and advancement, fearlessness and vision come by adding facts and inspiration, but the opportunity is paramount.

As I write this, I’m on a plane to the 261 Women’s Marathon in Mallorca, and it is most fitting that this event is being held on International Women’s Day, because the event was created as an opportunity for women to experience breaking the myth of their own limitation. Women need to prove to themselves they can take on a challenge and succeed; they need to DO it to understand. The spirit at this particular run is electric and life-changing, because when women run a marathon, they know they can do anything.

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The snowball effect of bullying

It’s no secret that the longer a person is exposed to situations that are harmful to her health, the worse the outcomes could be—like living with a heavy smoker or growing up in a home with lead paint. And according to new research from Boston Children’s Hospital, bullying should be added to the list of experiences that take a greater toll on health the longer a child is exposed to it.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics shows that children who undergo bullying over a long course of time have worse mental and physical health—including showing more symptoms of depression and a lower sense of self-worth—compared with kids who are being bullied for the first time, were only bullied in the past or those who have never been bullied at all.

While much has been done to prove the negative consequences of bullying, this is the first study to look at its compounding effects over many years.

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Three Digital Resolutions for the New Year

I love digital media. I love my iPhone and my iPad. And as much as I admire those (like Ariana Huffington) who go on digital vacations, I’m not going to do so anytime soon. But I had two moments recently that made me realize that we all need to take a closer look at our digital habits.

The first was when I was leaving work one evening. As I waited at the crosswalk outside the hospital, I pulled out my phone and looked at my emails—and suddenly realized that essentially every person around me was either talking in a phone or looking at one. Not just those waiting at the crosswalk, but all the people walking on the sidewalks—and some of the people in the cars, too. Everyone was in his or her own little world—and, let’s face it, being unsafe.

The second was when, for about the sixth time in a week, rather than hold a toddler still while I examined him, the parents held a cell phone in front of him—actually, during that visit, one parent held a cell phone and the other a tablet. Now, I see the value of distraction with these things, especially when people have to wait a while to see me. But can’t you just hold the kid—or teach them that sometimes they just have to behave?

There are two big problems these moments illustrate. The first is the problem of attention—we only have so much of it, just like there are only so many hours in a day. That whole multitasking thing (of which I’m the worst offender) is ultimately a myth: you don’t pay more attention, you just pay less attention to more things. And paying less attention has real ramifications for performance, not to mention safety and relationships.

The second is one that is a bit more nuanced and insidious: the problem of brain wiring and habits. This is particularly an issue for children, whose brains are literally still being wired; it truly matters how they use those brains. This is the time of life when they learn to pay attention, and plan, as well as control their emotions and be patient. If the solution to every moment of boredom or distress is to stick a screen with a video or game in front of their face, well, they may never learn to do those things.

So as we all think about New Year’s resolutions, here are three “Digital Resolutions” we all might want to make:

Don’t share—be there instead. I watched a really funny (but warning: raunchy, too) video of a comedian talking about how at his daughter’s dance recital all the parents had phones and iPads in front of their faces, literally blocking their view of their children. “The resolution on the kid is unbelievable if you just look,” he said. “It’s totally HD.” He has a point. Honestly, we don’t need to record or share every last thing. The people around us deserve our full attention. And our followers on social media don’t need to know everything we are doing—it’s not like they really care that much.

Have some designated digital-free times. Like when you are driving, obviously—but also during mealtimes, or when walking somewhere (How many people have you nearly hit?). And, of course (as an extension of the first resolution), when you are doing anything that requires (or is made better by) your full attention. Put yourself on a schedule. Turn off the alerts. Be in charge of the device, instead of having it be in charge of you.

Be thoughtful about how you use it, especially with your children. Like I said, it can be a useful distraction tool, and it can be fun and educational—but it has its downsides and limits. When you reach for a device, or your child reaches for one, stop for a moment and think: do I need to watch yet another cat video, as funny as they are? Is this video game the best use of my child’s time right now? Is this really what I want to be doing, or what I want my child to be doing?

If the answer is yes, go for it. But if it’s no, or maybe, then do something else instead. Digital media has the capacity to open the world—but the world will always be bigger than digital media, and we need to remember that.

If you haven’t seen this video, watch it. It’s a great perspective on how our phones (and all media, really) can get in the way of our lives:

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A year after Sandy Hook, our children aren’t any safer from guns

I still can’t think about the Sandy Hook shooting without starting to cry.

It hit me really hard, because when it happened, I had a first-grader whose classroom was right off the main lobby of his public elementary school. If a shooter like Adam Lanza ever stormed into his school, Liam wouldn’t have a chance.

I can’t imagine life without Liam. If he were to die, I can’t imagine how I would endure the pain—and yet the Newtown parents have done so, day after day. And now they have to endure the anniversary of their children’s brutal, unnecessary death. We should be able to say something meaningful to those parents; we should be able to show them how the deaths of their children moved us to action.

As Dr. McInerny, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), said: “Every child who dies due to gun violence is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister.” Every day, around seven children are killed by firearms.  Gun injuries are the second leading cause of death in our youth– they kill twice as many as cancer and fifteen times as many as infections. We owe something to these children—and their devastated families.

There was certainly a lot of talk about action after the Newtown shooting: everything from banning assault rifles to using assault rifles to protect schools.  And there has been some action. There are new gun safety laws in six states—but in most of those states, legal challenges have been mounted.

This isn’t about taking away the right to own and responsibly use a gun—and yet, somehow efforts to keep children safe end up being seen that way. I firmly believe that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible and know how to keep everyone around them safe from their guns. But a gun is different from most possessions: in the wrong hands, or used in the wrong way, it can cause incredible destruction.

Here’s what the AAP recommends:

  • Stronger gun laws, including an effective assault weapons ban (it’s just not necessary for the average citizen to own one), mandatory background checks on all firearm purchases (there are way too many loopholes) and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. (Again: there’s no reason for the average citizen to own one).
  • Research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. We know that mental health problems can lead to gun violence, but most people with mental health problems don’t go on shooting rampages. We need to understand better the signs that someone with mental health problems—or anyone–may become violent. We need to understand how we can intervene—and what really works when it comes to preventing gun violence, as opposed to what we think might work.
  • Strengthening the quality of mental health care and access to services for children. Actually, we need better care and access for everyone—which will cost us money, and involve fighting the stigma that can come with getting mental health care. But we need to make it happen.

While we are arguing over laws, there are steps all of us can take to keep our children safe. We can keep guns locked up, with ammunition locked separately. We can teach kids to be safe around guns. When our children go to other people’s homes, we can ask those parents if they have a gun—and if so, how they store it.

Please: let’s not let these children have died in vain. Let’s not let our fears and ideologies get in the way of keeping our children safe. Let’s concentrate on what binds us instead of what separates us.

If anything should bind us, it’s saving the lives of children.

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