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Ken Jennings, Jeopardy! Champion And Author Of 'Because I Said So!', Discusses Parenting Myths And Legends

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Courtesy of Ken Jennings
Courtesy of Ken Jennings

Most parents won't accept lies -- even those of the little white variety -- from their children. And yet "lying is a huge part of parenting," as Ken Jennings, the former Jeopardy! champion and father of two, put it in a recent interview with HuffPost Parents.

Sometimes parents tell lies on purpose (it is Santa season, after all), but other fibs are unintentional. According to the trivia wiz, things like "sugar makes you hyper" and "cracking knuckles causes arthritis" are the product of a big ol' "game of telephone."

For his new book, "Because I Said So!", the dad to 6-year-old Caitlin and 10-year-old Dylan researched 124 of parenting's oldest and proudest legends. The myths he addresses may have been festering in the back of your brain since you were a child yourself. Perhaps you've trotted them out to your own kids already. But Jennings takes a peek below the veil of parental "omniscience" to evaluate each claim on scientific and legal grounds. Did you know, for instance, that possessing most types of feathers and birds' eggs is illegal?

Still, "this is not Dr. Spock," Jennings assures us. It's "more of a conversation starter" for parents and their kids -- and parents and their parents, and maybe even people and their childhood selves. HuffPost spoke to him about why so many moms and dads fall back on these myths, the reason his kids don't believe in Santa anymore and his own "Peter Pan syndrome."

What do your kids think of the book?

My son grabbed the galley without even asking, and apparently read it cover to cover. I thought that was great, but now every time his mom tells him to do something -- "It's too dark to read in there, turn on the light" -- he won't even look up; he'll say, "Wrong, that's in dad's book."

The book opens with a story of you telling your son that he could be injured by a lollipop stick puncturing the roof of his mouth. Was this the first time it occurred to you that you might be misleading your kids without meaning to?

I think I'd been gradually aware for some time that I was probably lying to my kids more than you should. Lying is a huge part of parenting, don't get me wrong. But this seemed like the kind of stuff I should be an authority on. Not just because I'm a long-term Jeopardy! champ, but because I'm a parent -- you feel like you should be authoritative on this stuff. And I really wasn't. I was just parroting stuff that my mom had told us 30 years ago. Dylan asked, "Is that really true? You could get a lollipop in your brain?" He was, like, overjoyed by this idea of dying by a lollipop to the brain. And my mom was right there, and she said she didn't know. So that was the moment when all three generations were there together confessing to one another that it was all a huge sham.

Of course, a major part of this equation is that many young kids think their parents are, or should be, omniscient...

Yeah, kids will believe anything. We've been thinking about this this month, vis-a-vis Santa. In our house, Santa collapsed because the Tooth Fairy was such an overreach. Right around the time when kids are old enough to start figuring this out they start losing teeth, and you add one more impossible myth -- a magical person who takes teeth from under your pillow -- and then the whole house of cards just collapses because they realize mom and dad are actually not omniscient, you know; they're sometimes screwing with us.

So neither of your kids believes in Santa anymore?

I think this is the first Christmas when my daughter might not. My son sort of clued in a couple years ago; he's been a good sport and played along. But the Tooth Fairy just sort of collapsed my daughter's ability to believe in magical bunnies and men coming down chimneys.

Can you talk a little about the process you used to gather all these phrases? Were these all myths that you had personally heard or said before?

That turned out to be the hardest part. In the Google age, finding academic studies about a subject is not a problem anymore -- but nobody had a good list of parental nagging. I had very well-intended, naggy parents, and when I pitched the book I put together a spreadsheet that had about 50 of them. It turned out that I had already gotten the low-hanging fruit and now I needed to find the ones that either I didn't remember from my childhood, or that my parents had skipped. That meant asking friends every time I saw them, Hey, have you thought of any new ones yet?

Even with friends and family I was still a few dozen short of a book, and so I crowd-sourced it to the Internet. I got a lot of great response from Reddit -- there are maybe 20 or 30 myths in the book that came from Internet helpers.

What would you say are the main reasons parents rely on myths? Some ("breakfast is the most important meal of the day") seem genuinely well-intentioned; others ("don't cross your eyes or they'll stay like that") sound like scare tactics. And some (the "five-second rule") seem, frankly, lazy... What's the breakdown?

I don't know if we're scaring kids; I think it's our fear, the parents' fear that you've got to do everything right. Parenting is so hard and so relentless, and there's famously no instruction manual, so you always want to err on the side of caution and cross every "t" and dot every "i" and warn your kid about every single thing you can think of that might be bad. That's where the vast majority of the book comes from: "This seems like this might be harmful, and I don't really know, so why don't you just cut it out?"

There's clearly an element of parental annoyance there, too. You know, it's irritating when kids pop their knuckles in the car over and over. You don't want to say, "It's driving me nuts;" instead, you say, "Cut that out -- you'll get arthritis!" You say everything that's annoying is bad for you.

And I think the "five-second rule" is an interesting example, because that's sort of the opposite: a parent saying, "This will simplify my life if you just pick that meatball up off the floor and eat it and leave me alone."

I would say most of these come out of the stress of raising kids and feeling like it's just such a tough row to hoe and you don't want to get anything wrong.

And wanting them to be safe.

Yeah -- you mean well. I think in the long run you don't do your kids any favors by being paranoid about every little thing. But you want them to be safe and that's totally normal and understandable.

What did you warn your own kids about most before writing the book?

I was always telling my kids they couldn't have something because the sugar would make them hyper. Parents are very invested in this idea that it wasn't their little darling kicking up a fuss at the birthday party, it was because they had too much punch or something. I just assumed that one was true until I actually started to look at some of the academic research.

And I definitely get annoyed when my kids sit too close to the TV; I guess I'm still annoyed, but I can't pretend it's medical anymore.

What other findings were unexpected?

A couple of things related to colds really surprised me when they turned out to be true. There's some evidence that chicken soup is uniquely good for improving cold symptoms -- better than other warm liquids -- which is sort of funny because that seems like such a silly kind of "old world mom" kind of superstition. I think in this experiment they put people's feet in cold water for extended periods of time, and those people were more susceptible to getting sick during cold season. This is the first time there's ever been any evidence like this, to suggest that your mom was right: it's not just that winter weather is good for the cold virus, it also makes your system more likely to catch a cold. So your mom was right all along about going out in the cold with wet hair or without your boots on.

In your section about stranger danger, you mention Lenore Skenazy and the Free Range Kids movement. Do you agree with her "commonsense" philosophy on avoiding parental paranoia?

That really resonates with me. We're not doing our kids favors in the long run by trying to cushion them from every little thing.... I really did benefit as a kid from just being able to ride my bike around the block, walk to school every day, climb trees and skin my knee and run around barefoot. You could literally get arrested today if you let your kid walk to soccer practice. And I think what gets me about it is just that it goes back to risk assessment. Out of ignorance, we're assuming that things are much more dangerous than when we were kids.

In terms of risk assessment, how good or bad do you think people are at identifying what they should actually be worried about, as opposed to things that really aren't a threat?

I think we focus on the things that are easier to picture -- maybe the menaces we see in movies or in our nightmares. So parents will fixate on the idea of a mad Halloween poisoner putting a razor blade in an apple or injecting a Three Musketeers bar with something -- or a stranger in a van kidnapping their kid from soccer practice. These are the things that we see in movies, but again, we're not good at risk assessment; you look at the numbers and these things are incredibly rare. And yet these things are cinematic somehow. There are thousands of car accidents for every one kid actually getting kidnapped by some creepy guy in a van, but that's not how we think.

Would you say having kids of your own has directed your interests as a writer?

Absolutely. But also, I'm a Peter Pan syndrome kind of guy who still remembers childhood very fondly and loves the same kind of goofy stuff I loved then. I get to read a bedtime story to my son every night, but that's like a treat for me. I'm rereading some book that I loved at 8 years old and deep down still do... So the kids are probably more of an excuse than anything else.

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