The Catholic School Difference

The Wall Street Journal

A new study shows the benefit of demanding student self-discipline.

Students cheer for preschoolers during the annual Preschool Kentucky Derby at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green, Ky., May 4.
Students cheer for preschoolers during the annual Preschool Kentucky Derby at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green, Ky., May 4. PHOTO: BAC TOTRONG/DAILY NEWS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
For the thousands of nuns who have served as principals at Catholic schools, their emphasis on self-discipline must seem like common sense. But a new academic study confirms the sisters are on to something: You can instill self-discipline in students, a virtue that will help them in their studies and later in life.

The study was conducted for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by University of California-Santa Barbara associate professor Michael Gottfried and doctoral student Jacob Kirksey. The authors analyzed two waves of national data on elementary school students collected under the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study for the National Center for Education Statistics. They compared children in Catholic schools with those in public schools and other private schools, religious and secular.

The authors found statistically meaningful evidence that students in Catholic schools exhibited less disruptive behavior than their counterparts in other schools. “According to their teachers, Catholic school children argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively, and disturbed ongoing activities less frequently,” the authors write. Specifically, students in Catholic schools “were more likely to control their temper, respect others’ property, accept their fellow students’ ideas, and handle peer pressure.” In other words, they exhibited more self-discipline.

The authors concede their findings aren’t causal, meaning there might be unobservable differences between students in different schools that account for the striking differences they have found. But the correlation is strong between the focus that Catholic schools put on self-discipline and better student behavior. We also know that, especially in urban areas, black and Latino students who attend Catholic schools show higher achievement, higher graduation rates and higher college enrollment than those at nearby public schools.

At a time when the different suspension rates between minority and non-minority students has become a toxic debate, the authors offer three key judgments:

First: “Schools that value and focus on self discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children.” If other schools “took self discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they wouldn’t have to spend as much time, energy and political capital on penalizing students” for bad behavior.

Second: “Assuming that these results reflect a ‘Catholic Schools Effect,’ other schools might consider both explicit and implicit methods to replicate it.” The report notes that some “no excuses” charter schools are already doing this, through the curriculum or the way students interact with adults and teachers who model self-discipline themselves.

Third: “Don’t underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior.” Religion isn’t the only way to foster self-discipline, the authors emphasize, but it’s effective compared to most of the alternatives in channeling youthful energy into productive self-control.

Though the authors offer no easy prescriptions, they do say it is a “tragedy for the nation” that so many Catholic schools continue to close when they are most needed. Their lessons are worth preserving.

How Tech Experts Monitor Their Teens on Social Media

The Wall Street Journal

How can parents keep up with smartphones? Tech executives take various approaches to managing their children’s social-media use

While investor protests about smartphones’ harmful social effects began making headlines only recently, Silicon Valley parents have struggled with the issue for a long time.

Tech executives with children share many of the same concerns other parents have about tweens’ and teens’ social-media use—that it will disrupt sleep, homework or face-to-face socializing, or expose their children to bullies or predators.

Those who are experts on the internet and information security also wonder: What hidden security threats lurk in the latest social-media app? Which of many possible paths might hackers take to invade their children’s privacy?

The routes tech-savvy executives choose to protect their tweens and teens online vary, from close monitoring to guiding them in managing the hazards themselves.

Teaching Decision-Making

Steven Aldrich foresees his 16-year-old son Jackson constantly surrounded by apps and devices designed to grab his attention.

Mr. Aldrich, chief product officer at GoDaddy Inc., a Scottsdale, Ariz., provider of internet domains and websites to businesses, and his wife, Allison, shun the parental-control apps and filters with which some parents control their children’s internet and social-media use. “No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment,” Mr. Aldrich says. “The kids have to learn to live in a world where that’s the reality.” Instead, he and his wife “focus on, how do we create an environment where Jackson has the chance to learn judgment, by participating in setting limits and creating boundaries for himself.”

Steven Aldrich, GoDaddy's chief product officer, says ‘No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment.’
Steven Aldrich, GoDaddy’s chief product officer, says ‘No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment.’ PHOTO: GODADDY

They started early, letting Jackson decide as a child, with parental coaching, how much candy to eat from the pantry. This has evolved to teaching him to finish a homework assignment before checking social media. Mrs. Aldrich sometimes asks Jackson to let her know when he takes breaks from homework, Jackson says, making him aware of whether he’s diverting his attention too often.

They’re helping him learn time management, such as scheduling homework, sports practice, dinner and sleep in advance so that social media doesn’t crowd them out. “We’ve seen it start to pay off in how he prepares for tests or projects,” Mr. Aldrich says.

He and his wife also encourage Jackson to think about everything he posts as part of his permanent personal brand, Mr. Aldrich says, asking him: “Think about what you might have chosen if you’d gotten a tattoo when you were 3? What if you got a Barney tattoo, and now you’re in middle school? Would you want to be walking around with a Barney tattoo?’”

They’ve used examples from Snapchat of mistakes other teens made in oversharing, and asked Jackson to imagine how the sender felt afterward.

Jackson, who uses Snapchat and Instagram and also has a YouTube channel of his own about videogames and soccer, says he has learned to ask himself before posting anything to consider how it might affect his image. “Would I want the principal, a future employer, my teachers to see this?” he says. “Once you post something, it will be out there forever.”

Keeping a Watchful Eye

The powerful allure social media holds for teens has led Michelle Dennedy to take a hands-on approach to monitoring its use by her two daughters, 11 and 16. “Once you hand that phone to your child, that is the beginning of a million micro-decisions for you as a parent, and for the child,” says Ms. Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose, Calif., networking company.

 

She checks privacy settings every six months on all the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones. If social media distracts them from homework, “the Wi-Fi goes off and the books come out,” Ms. Dennedy says.

She teaches them how marketers use free apps to get personal information. “Do you know the difference between free and paid music?” she recently asked her younger daughter. “What do you think an advertiser would want to know about 11-year-old kids?”

She refrains from making judgments about teens’ social-media habits. “Apparently if you don’t respond with a selfie fast enough, people get upset. I respect their culture. I can’t just say, ‘That’s dumb, these people are ridiculous,’ and walk away,” Ms. Dennedy says. Instead, she asks, “What is this doing to your self-esteem?’ And I have to be quiet and listen. It’s an ongoing struggle.”

She also requires her daughters to get permission before downloading apps. “Sometimes they’ll send me an app that is just ridiculous. My older daughter asked for a celebrity app, with a lot of pictures of body parts,” Ms. Dennedy says. “ I asked her, ‘Write me a memo about what this will do to improve your life, and then we’ll have a conversation.’ She wrote the memo, tongue-in-cheek, with a lot of eye-rolling, saying, ‘I like the Kardashians because they annoy my mom.’ She still didn’t get the app.”

Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems, checks privacy settings every six months on the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones.
Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems, checks privacy settings every six months on the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones. PHOTO: CISCO

She steps in when social media ignites too much teen drama. “One problem for my older daughter a couple of years ago was when friends were using FaceTime while doing homework,” she says. “Walking into her room, I’d see another student talking about how stressed out she was, how hopeless it was, how awful parents were to force them to get good grades.

“I had a long conversation with my daughter later: I know you want to help your friends, but some of these students may need professional help. And I ask her, is this helping you get the grades you could get and want to get?”

She encouraged her daughter to talk with her friend and tell her: “I’m worried that this conversation isn’t productive. What can we do about this?” Or, “My weirdo mother is going to call your weirdo mother. Maybe we should stop.” Ms. Dennedy does sometimes call other parents in such situations. “That can be an awkward conversation, but it’s one you have to try to have.”

Monitoring Closely

Eight-year-old Jack Arkin’s online activity so far is limited to watching children’s videos on YouTube and sending email. But his father, Brad, who is chief security officer for Adobe, the San Jose, Calif., cloud-software company, has already begun shaping his attitude toward social media.

Adobe’s chief security officer Brad Arkin says, ‘I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.’
Adobe’s chief security officer Brad Arkin says, ‘I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.’ PHOTO:ADOBE

Mr. Arkin and his wife, Carolyn, closely monitor everything Jack does online. They restrict screen time for Jack to 30 to 60 minutes on most days. They read Jack’s emails over his shoulder and stream his children’s videos on the family TV, setting YouTube on restricted mode and keeping an eye on content. “He gets zero privacy and zero expectations of privacy,” Mr. Arkin says.

Jack will probably get his first phone next year, but it will be an old-fashioned flip phone, so he and his parents can call or send texts while he’s walking to and from school.

Mr. Arkin doesn’t plan to rely on parental controls when Jack, and his two younger brothers, ages 6 and 3, eventually get smartphones. “At my day job as a security guy, I know that software controls can be circumvented by determined adversaries,” he says. Instead, “I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.”

That includes the hidden hazards of social media: “If you post a photo, people can figure out where the picture was taken, and at what time,” Mr. Arkin tells his son. “When you think about posting something, the questions are, ‘What do you hope to achieve by publishing it? Why does this need to be viewable to the world?’”

“I’m doing my best,” Mr. Arkin says, “to make my kids savvy but not over-fearful.”

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

The Secrets of Resilience

What does it take to conquer life’s adversities? Lessons from successful adults who overcame difficult childhoods

The Secrets of Resilience
ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN STAUFFER

Does early hardship in life keep children from becoming successful adults? It’s an urgent question for parents and educators, who worry that children growing up in difficult circumstances will fail to reach their full potential, or worse, sink into despair and dysfunction.

Social scientists have shown that these risks are real, but they also have found a surprising pattern among those whose early lives included tough times: Many draw strength from hardship and see their struggle against it as one of the keys to their later success. A wide range of studies over the past few decades has shed light on how such people overcome life’s adversities—and how we might all cultivate resilience as well.

In 1962, the psychologist Victor Goertzel and his wife, Mildred, published a book called “Cradles of Eminence: A Provocative Study of the Childhoods of Over 400 Famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women.” They selected individuals who had had at least two biographies written about them and who had made a positive contribution to society. Their subjects ranged from Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie to Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.

Louis Armstrong grew up in poverty, and left school at fifth grade to support his family.
Louis Armstrong grew up in poverty, and left school at fifth grade to support his family. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Goertzels found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting. Of the 400, a full 75%—some 300 individuals—had grown up in a family burdened by a severe problem: poverty, abuse, absent parents, alcoholism, serious illness or some other misfortune. “The ‘normal man,’ ” the Goertzels wrote, “is not a likely candidate for the Hall of Fame.”

If the Goertzels were to repeat their study today, they would find many more examples of women and men who rose to great heights after difficult childhoods—Oprah Winfrey, Howard Schultz, LeBron James and Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few. Today, we often use the word “resilient” to describe such people.

But resilient people are everywhere, not just in the ranks of celebrities. They are ordinary women and men, in every walk of life, who meet the definition of resilience set forth by American Psychological Association: “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother and her father, an alcoholic, died by the time she was 10.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother and her father, an alcoholic, died by the time she was 10. PHOTO:STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES

Across nearly two decades as a clinical psychologist and an educator, I have worked with many accomplished people who grew up in difficult circumstances. One thing I have learned from them is that the way we tend to talk about resilience is too simplistic. In everyday conversation, we say that people who are resilient “bounce back” or “rebound.” The dictionary defines resilience as elasticity, that is, the ability to recover quickly and easily—to snap into shape again, like a rubber band stretched and released.

These images are fine for describing recovery from short-term problems, like the flu or a career disappointment, but they don’t capture how resilience truly works and feels. The most common childhood adversities aren’t one-time events but chronic sources of stress: bullying, neglect, physical or sexual abuse, the death of a parent or sibling, addiction or mental illness in the home, domestic violence.

Such problems are recurring threats to a child or teen’s safety and well-being. Resilient youth do not just rebound from them. What they do is much more complicated and courageous. For them, resilience is an ongoing battle, a way of approaching life, not a restorative bounce.

John D. Rockefeller’s father was a con man and often absent.
John D. Rockefeller’s father was a con man and often absent. PHOTO: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Physiology plays an important role. In the face of danger, our bodies respond with fight-or-flight. The brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart rate increases, we become more alert and focused, and blood flows to our muscles for extra energy. When we think of the fight in fight-or-flight, we may imagine physically harming someone. But in the modern world, fighting back can take many forms.

Consider the Kauai Longitudinal Study, an ongoing project begun in 1955 by psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith, and summarized most recently in their 2001 book “Journeys From Childhood to Midlife.” The Kauai Study’s subjects are the 698 babies born on the island that year, with assessments so far at ages 1, 2, 10, 18, 32 and 40.

Of the children in the study, Drs. Werner and Smith identified 129 as being at high risk for future problems, because they faced four or more adversities at birth, ranging from poverty and family discord to alcoholism or mental illness in the home.

Two-thirds of these high-risk children went on to have difficulties of their own, such as delinquency, unplanned pregnancies and underemployment. One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with. They became, as Drs. Werner and Smith described, “competent, confident, caring adults.” How did they do it?

They were active problem solvers who, over a period of decades, fought for better lives for themselves. Though they weren’t necessarily gifted, they used whatever strengths they had to their advantage—a particular talent, an engaging personality, a ready intelligence. They sought out friends, teachers, neighbors or relatives who cared. They made plans to better themselves and set ambitious but realistic goals for the future. In early adulthood, they seized opportunities to move forward in life, by way of higher education, the military, a new job, a supportive partner or parenthood.

When the researchers asked these resilient adults how they understood their own success in retrospect, the majority reported that their most important asset was determination.

“I am a fighter—I am determined—I will survive,” said one woman who made her way out of an abusive childhood. “I give it 100% before I give up. I will never lose hope.”

Howard Schultz of Starbucks grew up in a housing project.
Howard Schultz of Starbucks grew up in a housing project. PHOTO: SAKCHAI LALIT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“When things have to be done, you just do it. I am not the type of person to run away—no matter how difficult the problem,” said another subject who became a bookkeeper.

And another who became aerospace engineer put it this way: “I don’t let problems take control. I just pick myself up and start all over—you can always try again.”

Other research has suggested the importance of the fighter within. In a 2010 paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Anke Ehlers of the University of Oxford reported on 81 adults who had formerly been held as political prisoners in East Germany. They had been subjected to mental and physical abuse, including beatings, threats and being kept in the dark. Decades after their release, about two-thirds of the former prisoners had, at some point, met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while about one-third of the prisoners had not.

What made some more likely to suffer from PTSD? Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.

This sort of inner defiance is, in part, how one man—an officer in the military who came to me for a consultation—told me he survived years of bullying as a child and teen: “I refused to accept what they said about me was true.”

Oprah Winfrey was sexually abused by relatives.
Oprah Winfrey was sexually abused by relatives. PHOTO: VERA ANDERSON/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES

Of course, there is enormous variability in terms of how individuals respond to adversity. Social scientists rightly argue that resilience isn’t a single quality that someone does or doesn’t have, or a single action that a person does or doesn’t take, but rather it is a phenomenon—something we can see but may never be able to neatly explain.

A minister once shared a parable with me that neatly captures this point: Two brothers are raised in a home in which the father is a violent alcoholic. One brother grows up to be a drinker and an abuser, while the other becomes an abstinent man and a model parent. When asked how they came to be who they were, both brothers gave the same answer: “Given who my father was, how could I not?”

My aim here is not to say that resilient people are winners—or that those who are suffering have allowed themselves to be defeated—but, rather, to say that overcoming childhood adversity is a phenomenal struggle indeed. It is a heroic, powerful, perilous, often decadeslong endeavor, yet one that, over time, can lead to both ordinary and extraordinary success.

Coping with stress is a lot like exercise: We become stronger with practice.

Back in 1962, the Goertzels’ finding that so many prominent people had grown up with hard times may have seemed counterintuitive but, given what we now know about stress and coping, it isn’t so surprising. Coping with stress is a lot like exercise: We become stronger with practice. University of Nebraska psychologist Richard Dienstbier explains how this works with his “toughness model,” first published in 1989 in the journal Psychological Review.

Dr. Dienstbier gathered evidence from a wide range of human and animal studies demonstrating that exposure to intermittent stressors, such as cold temperatures and aerobic exercise, made individuals physiologically “tougher.” They became less overwhelmed by subsequent difficulties, and by their own fight-or-flight arousal. This makes a difference because when a stressor seems manageable, we perceive it as a challenge, and adrenaline—which boosts energy, focus and coping—is released. When a stressor seems unmanageable, however, we perceive it as a threat and our cortisol levels rise too, suppressing our immune system and making us more vulnerable to disease.

What’s more, Dr. Dienstbier wrote, toughened individuals increasingly seek out experiences that stimulate them and provide opportunities for more mastery and success. It is a virtuous circle.

Although I would hardly consider childhood adversities to be desirable difficulties, many who grow up with hardship do say they benefit in precisely this way. The military officer who was bullied in his youth—and who, besides resisting on the inside, also toughened himself up as a teen through running and judo—described the impact that early adversity had on this life this way: “I see myself as stronger and more capable than most people around me because of the treatment I lived through. I see myself as an optimist, not because I think bad things don’t or won’t happen but because I believe I can overcome whatever comes my way. I feel independent and confident. I feel tested. I feel brave.”

Poet Dylan Thomas said, “There’s only one thing that’s worse than having an unhappy childhood, and that’s having a too-happy childhood.” I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that too many women and men feel lesser somehow because of the adversities they have grown up with, imagining they would be happier or more successful people if they had enjoyed stress-free upbringings. This isn’t necessarily the case.

In a multiyear study of more than 2,000 adults aged 18 to 101, published in 2010 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University at Buffalo psychologist Mark Seery and colleagues found that those who had known some adversity were both higher-functioning and more satisfied with their lives than those who had experienced extremely high levels of hardship—and compared with those who had experienced no adversity at all. They also coped better with more recent problems they encountered, leading the study’s authors to conclude, in partial agreement with Nietzsche, that “in moderation, whatever does not kill us may indeed make us stronger.”

So where does that leave those of us who would like to be more resilient? It helps to take on long-form projects that feel like challenges rather than threats. Whether taking up crew or judo, studying for an advanced degree or mastering an instrument, hard things that aren’t emotional or unexpected help us practice for those that are.

And when life inevitably becomes difficult, own the fighter within. Resist defeat in your own mind by a schoolyard bully or an alcoholic parent. Fighting back on the inside is where battling back on the outside begins.

Reach out to family, friends or professionals who care. It is a myth that resilient people don’t need help. Seeking support is what resilient people do.

Engage in active coping. Most serious adversities are neither quickly nor easily solved, but taking control where we can is empowering. Make a realistic plan to improve your situation, and work toward it day by day. Progress shores us up and calms us down.

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong. Too often we remember what has gone wrong in life rather than what we did to survive and thrive. Think back on a time when you were challenged and give yourself credit for how you made it through. You may already be more resilient than you think.

Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of “Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience,” to be published on Nov. 14 by Twelve Books.

Appeared in the November 11, 2017, print edition.

Kids Are Logged On—and Tuned Out

From The Wall Street Journal

  • By DEMETRIA GALLEGOS

Columnist's name
 

image

Lars Leetaru

I’ve been listening this month to the conversation at our house, and it is deflatingly predictable: “Have you finished your homework? Then why are you playing computer games?” “Your room is still a mess, put that down until it’s done.” “Have you gotten off the couch today?” And this recent favorite, “You are banned from playing games until the end of the school year.”

We have a bad case of digital distemper, but it has been hard to find a solution. As with going on a diet, you still have to eat. Our girls have hours of computer-based homework almost every night. We have a terrible time knowing when the work is done and when the play has begun.

On one infamous Sunday in December, we watched 14½ hours of Netflix. I knew it was bad but didn’t know how bad until I looked back at the log and spotted a dozen episodes of “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.” I immediately canceled Netflix. But that’s like cutting the head off the hydra.

What would Hercules do?

John isn’t the least bit interested in the shows, games and websites that the children are drawn to. He feels that they’re big time wasters, and that our lives would be improved if the girls had zero access. I have a less-draconian attitude—in part because I see no harm in some online entertainment, and in part because I think spending leisure time online helps prepare children for tomorrow’s workplace.

Still, I know something has to change. But what?

Some parents I know have taken the tough approach. My friend Suzanne has simply banished the iPads her 12- and 14-year-old daughters brought home from their dad’s house. “They were immediately completely addicted,” she says. In addition, other devices must stay in common rooms and can’t be taken to bedrooms. She insists her children finish everything else before relaxing with computers. And between community service, sports, music and schoolwork, she says, “they never get to the place where they have spare time.”

Convinced there was something between Suzanne’s approach and mine, I decided to call a family meeting.

***

My opening proposal: hats for each child, festooned with colorful feathers to signify homework done, room cleaned, workout accomplished, so that we wouldn’t even have to ask when we spot them lying around like unblinking zombies.

The children immediately countered.

Isabella, 11, thought everyone should be limited to one hour of goofing around on the computer every weekday, with a higher limit on weekends. Using the honor system, time would be logged on a notebook near the computer, and could be saved up for longer sessions.

Anna, 13, wished we could set a time limit on every device, so that it would just shut off when the time was up.

Emily, 14, suggested I change the passwords every day and only give them to the children when homework is demonstrably done.

Jamie, 16, wastes the least time among us online, but she does miss the documentaries she used to watch for her history class. She agreed it would be nice if we knew exactly who on shared accounts is doing all the watching.

Jamie’s boyfriend, Daniel, pointed out that computers already have parental controls along the lines that Anna was suggesting. He told me how to turn off the desktops at 10 p.m., for example.

 

Daniel offered himself up as an example of someone who, until recently, was addicted to PlayStation 3. He said he would play for hours every day after school until his parents got home at 7 p.m. Just last fall, as his junior-year workload intensified, he began to recognize “the fact that I need to worry about college rather than beating my friend’s high score.”

“After a while you get used to not having it, and it becomes such a minimal thing in your life that you don’t think about going back to it that much,” Daniel said.

We kicked all these ideas around, really digging into Isabella’s honor-system idea, but acknowledging we would all be mentally clocking each other, leading to more tiresome nagging. Emily objected most strenuously to the bedtime curfew, pointing out how frequently her homework takes her past 10 or 11 p.m.

I had looked into getting an automated report on the time each family member was spending, broken down by website. Apps can do this, but we have so many disparate devices, we’d have to manually correlate the data. The idea of entering personal ID codes for every session seems onerous and nanny-state-ish.

In the end, it was John who put out the winning solution.

“The key is not to lock them out—having them learn to decide what’s right and what’s wrong is 10 times more important,” he said. John proposed that grades decide the access issue. If a child is holding a 95 or higher average, we simply won’t interfere with her digital consumption choices. Between 90 and 95, as long as report cards show an upward trend during the six grading periods our school uses, again no interference.

Anything below a 90 will merit restrictions on discretionary computer time, including a girl losing the privilege of working in her bedroom.

Additionally, the girls are willing to be more clear with us about where their work stands before they shift gears. They’ll be more on top of their chores and the chaos in their rooms. They agreed to look for things other than screens to entertain them.

Otherwise, they know I’ll be measuring their heads for feathered hats.

Part II

It’s been about three months since we began confronting the electronic elephant in our living room: the huge amount of time our girls spend online, captivated by games, shows and web surfing. After much brainstorming, we settled on a grade-based solution, which I wrote about last month, ultimately letting the girls’ performance in school decide how much freedom they’d have in using computers.

I can’t say that we’ve completely solved the problem. In fact, our confrontations over this have turned a peaceful home into a bit of a battleground. One child initially lost unsupervised use of her laptop in her room and has since lost use of her laptop altogether and now must queue up with the other girls for use of the main family computer.

But on the positive side, not only are we talking about a problem everyone seemed happier ignoring, we’re also pushing each other to solve it and planning some even more ambitious experiments.

Here are a few things we’ve learned—from our own experience so far and from readers—which may help others trying to get their arms around this problem.

imageLars Leetaru

Don’t be oblivious: Parents need to be in a position to understand how much time is being sucked away from their children. That may simply mean being home more often and in a position to monitor when the child is in front of the device. Or it may mean doing an occasional audit through the browser history or Netflix viewing log (which may alarm you as much as ours did me—we ended up canceling our subscription).

Frank Seldin, a reader in Dutchess County in New York, says he warns friends not to get their children tablets because they’ll lose control. “When the girls play videogames, it is on my wife’s and my iPad/Fire, and we know exactly what is on it and what they are playing,” he says. “All computer use is in the kitchen (where homework is done as well), and it will stay that way.”

Find individualized solutions: Every child is so different. My kids are at different levels academically, different ages, and have varying amounts of maturity around the concept of self-monitoring. You don’t have to solve this for all time. Instead, you want to stay tuned in to where your child is and what motivates him or her.

Insist on clearer communication: I’ve learned it’s first a process of educating the child about which activities constitute work and which are better defined as play. That distinction may not always be obvious to them as online chats about homework turn into silliness and become a big time waster.

As I suggested in my original column, the best way to minimize nagging is when a child learns to send very clear signals about where he or she is in the continuum of work and play. My kids now say to me, “Mom, I’m going to take a half-hour break because I’ve been working for the past two hours on homework.” That kind of communication on the child’s part makes all the difference.

Another reader, Bob Larson of Folsom, Calif., insists on honesty from his kids. “If we catch them abusing any of these privileges, they automatically are banned from all electronics for 2 to 4 weeks depending on the severity,” he says. “We have had some of our kids banned for 6 months when they told blatant lies to our faces when they were old enough to know better.”

Give kids a chance to earn autonomy: This may be the grade-oriented solution we found, or, as suggested by Brian Verhaaren, a reader in Salt Lake City, Utah, it could mean letting your children actually pay the cost for their computer devices, their game memberships, their Netflix subscription. Ultimately, you want kids to be able to police themselves.

Consider a router “kill switch”: This solution comes from an online commenter, who literally is remodeling her home to put a router kill switch in the master bedroom. You don’t have to take that drastic a measure, but there are easy ways to get devices powered down at bedtime, including parental-control settings on PCs and Macs, and simply taking the router power cable to bed with you.

Own the problem: What kind of example are you setting? How much time do you spend with your own nose to a screen at home? Mine has been excessive—I’m always finishing work or catching up on personal email or doing computer-intensive school volunteer work. Lately, as we’ve been pushing the girls to shift their own gears, they’re pushing me, asking me to read aloud or snuggle or play a game. I sometimes have to say no, but I say yes whenever possible, so grateful that they’re asking.

A few weekends ago Emily, 14, suggested to me that we have a computer-free day. I was so refreshed that the idea came from her, I hugged her. It wasn’t possible because of another daughter’s homework load, but it got us thinking about spring break, and even more time in digital detox this summer.

—Demetria Gallegos is community editor for WSJ.com. Write to her at SundayJuggle@wsj.com. You can also join the conversation at WSJ.com/Juggle.

“Stop Panicking About Bullies”

An interesting article from The Wall Street Journal on bullying.  The author claims that there are actually many fewer cases of bullying in schools than in previous years.

Childhood is safer than ever before, but today’s parents need to worry about something. Nick Gillespie on why busybodies and bureaucrats have zeroed in on bullying.

By NICK GILLESPIE

[BULLY]Getty ImagesIs America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim?

“When I was younger,” a remarkably self-assured, soft-spoken 15-year-old kid named Aaron tells the camera, “I suffered from bullying because of my lips—as you can see, they’re kind of unusually large. So I would kind of get [called] ‘Fish Lips’—things like that a lot—and my glasses too, I got those at an early age. That contributed. And the fact that my last name is Cheese didn’t really help with the matter either. I would get [called] ‘Cheeseburger,’ ‘Cheese Guy’—things like that, that weren’t really very flattering. Just kind of making fun of my name—I’m a pretty sensitive kid, so I would have to fight back the tears when I was being called names.”

It’s hard not to be impressed with—and not to like—young Aaron Cheese. He is one of the kids featured in the new Cartoon Network special “Stop Bullying: Speak Up,” which premiered last week and is available online. I myself am a former geekish, bespectacled child whose lips were a bit too full, and my first name (as other kids quickly discovered) rhymes with two of the most-popular slang terms for male genitalia, so I also identified with Mr. Cheese. My younger years were filled with precisely the sort of schoolyard taunts that he recounts; they led ultimately to at least one fistfight and a lot of sour moods on my part.

As the parent now of two school-age boys, I also worry that my own kids will have to deal with such ugly and destructive behavior. And I welcome the common-sense antibullying strategies relayed in “Stop Bullying”: Talk to your friends, your parents and your teachers. Recognize that you’re not the problem. Don’t be a silent witness to bullying.

Is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis”? That’s doubtful, says Reason.tv’s Nick Gillespie. He tells WSJ’s Ryan Sager that over-protective parents and a rising wave of laws and regulations don’t really reflect a boom in meanness among kids. In fact, they may be safer and better behaved than ever.

But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.

I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like…a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school.

How did we get here? We live in an age of helicopter parents so pushy and overbearing that Colorado Springs banned its annual Easter-egg hunt on account of adults jumping the starter’s gun and scooping up treat-filled plastic eggs on behalf of their winsome kids. The Department of Education in New York City—once known as the town too tough for Al Capone—is seeking to ban such words as “dinosaurs,” “Halloween” and “dancing” from citywide tests on the grounds that they could “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students,” it was reported this week. (Leave aside for the moment that perhaps the whole point of tests is to “evoke unpleasant emotions.”)

And it’s not only shrinking-violet city boys and girls who are being treated as delicate flowers. Early versions of new labor restrictions still being hashed out in Congress would have barred children under 16 from operating power-driven farm equipment and kept anyone under 18 from working at agricultural co-ops and stockyards (the latest version would let kids keep running machines on their parents’ spreads). What was once taken for granted—working the family farm, October tests with jack-o-lantern-themed questions, hunting your own Easter eggs—is being threatened by paternalism run amok.

Now that schools are peanut-free, latex-free and soda-free, parents, administrators and teachers have got to worry about something. Since most kids now have access to cable TV, the Internet, unlimited talk and texting, college and a world of opportunities that was unimaginable even 20 years ago, it seems that adults have responded by becoming ever more overprotective and thin-skinned.

Kids might be fatter than they used to be, but by most standards they are safer and better-behaved than they were when I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. Infant and adolescent mortality, accidents, sex and drug use—all are down from their levels of a few decades ago. Acceptance of homosexuality is up, especially among younger Americans. But given today’s rhetoric about bullying, you could be forgiven for thinking that kids today are not simply reading and watching grim, postapocalyptic fantasies like “The Hunger Games” but actually inhabiting such terrifying terrain, a world where “Lord of the Flies” meets “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” presided over by Voldemort.

Even President Barack Obama has placed his stamp of approval on this view of modern childhood. Introducing the Cartoon Network documentary, he solemnly intones: “I care about this issue deeply, not just as the president, but as a dad. … We’ve all got more to do. Everyone has to take action against bullying.”

The state of New Jersey was well ahead of the president. Last year, in response to the suicide of the 18-year-old gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the state legislature passed “The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.” The law is widely regarded as the nation’s toughest on these matters. It has been called both a “resounding success” by Steve Goldstein, head of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, and a “bureaucratic nightmare” by James O’Neill, the interim school superintendent of the township of Roxbury. In Congress, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt have introduced the federal Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has called the Lautenberg-Holt proposal a threat to free speech because its “definition of harassment is vague, subjective and at odds with Supreme Court precedent.” Should it become law, it might well empower colleges to stop some instances of bullying, but it would also cause many of them to be sued for repressing speech. In New Jersey, a school anti-bullying coordinator told the Star-Ledger that “The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” has “added a layer of paperwork that actually inhibits us” in dealing with problems. In surveying the effects of the law, the Star-Ledger reports that while it is “widely used and has helped some kids,” it has imposed costs of up to $80,000 per school district for training alone and uses about 200 hours per month of staff time in each district, with some educators saying that the additional effort is taking staff “away from things such as substance-abuse prevention and college and career counseling.”

One thing seems certain: The focus on bullying will lead to more lawsuits against schools and bullies, many of which will stretch the limits of empathy and patience. Consider, for instance, the current case of 19-year-old Eric Giray, who is suing New York’s tony Calhoun School and a former classmate for $1.5 million over abuse that allegedly took place in 2004. Such cases can only become more common.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t kids who face terrible cases of bullying. The immensely powerful and highly acclaimed documentary “Bully,” whose makers hope to create a nationwide movement against the “bullying crisis,” opens in selected theaters this weekend. The film follows the harrowing experiences of a handful of victims of harassment, including two who killed themselves in desperation. It is, above all, a damning indictment of ineffectual and indifferent school officials. No viewer can watch the abuse endured by kids such as Alex, a 13-year-old social misfit in Sioux City, Iowa, or Kelby, a 14-year-old lesbian in small-town Oklahoma, without feeling angry and motivated to change youth culture and the school officials who turn a blind eye.

But is bullying—which the stopbullying.gov website of the Department of Health and Human Services defines as “teasing,” “name-calling,” “taunting,” “leaving someone out on purpose,” “telling other children not to be friends with someone,” “spreading rumors about someone,” “hitting/kicking/pinching,” “spitting” and “making mean or rude hand gestures”—really a growing problem in America?

Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.

When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of “Bully” say that “over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year,” and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).

The most common bullying behaviors reported include being “made fun of, called names, or insulted” (reported by about 19% of victims in 2009) and being made the “subject of rumors” (16%). Nine percent of victims reported being “pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on,” and 6% reported being “threatened with harm.” Though it may not be surprising that bullying mostly happens during the school day, it is stunning to learn that the most common locations for bullying are inside classrooms, in hallways and stairwells, and on playgrounds—areas ostensibly patrolled by teachers and administrators.

None of this is to be celebrated, of course, but it hardly paints a picture of contemporary American childhood as an unrestrained Hobbesian nightmare. Before more of our schools’ money, time and personnel are diverted away from education in the name of this supposed crisis, we should make an effort to distinguish between the serious abuse suffered by the kids in “Bully” and the sort of lower-level harassment with which the Aaron Cheeses of the world have to deal.

In fact, Mr. Cheese, now a sophomore in high school with hopes of becoming a lawyer, provides a model in dealing with the sort of jerks who will always, unfortunately, be a presence in our schools. At the end of “Stop Bullying,” he tells younger kids, “Just talk to somebody and I promise to you, it’s going to get better.” For Aaron, it plainly has: “It has been turned around actually. I am a generally liked guy. My last name has become something that’s a little more liked. I have a friend named Mac and so together we are Mac and Cheese. That’s cool.”

Indeed, it is cool. And if we take a deep breath, we will realize that there are many more Aaron Cheeses walking the halls of today’s schools than there are bullies. Our problem isn’t a world where bullies are allowed to run rampant; it’s a world where kids like Aaron are convinced that they are powerless victims.

—Mr. Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America.”