Modern MythologySkepticism

Moms Say the Darndest Things

Wait thirty minutes after eating before you swim or you’ll get stomach cramps and drown. Don’t read in low light or you’ll ruin your eyes. Eat your carrots! They’ll improve your vision. Feed a cold; starve a fever. Once you start shaving, the hair will just grow back darker and thicker.

Moms and grandmothers have for generations been our primary source for gems of wisdom such as these and oh so much more. (And trust me—eating your weight in carrots while reading in low light is not an acceptable compromise to mom logic.) Some moms (and certainly dads) espouse these with a wink and a nudge, but others believe them wholeheartedly. And of course, some moms aren’t the old wives’ tale type at all. But the question I’m concerned with is whether any of these admonitions are true.

Wait thirty minutes after eating before you swim.

This belief had credibility at one time. In the 1950s, the American Red Cross warned against swimming too soon after eating (1956 Life Saving and Water Safety) because it could supposedly cause stomach cramps that could lead to drowning. But no drowning has ever been attributed to this cause, and stomach cramps themselves aren’t as common as once believed, so this advice is no longer considered valid.

Reading in low light (or in the dark) will ruin your eyes.

Everyone tells me this, not just my mother. I worked in an office once where I had a huge window that let in lots of sunlight, so I didn’t bother turning on my overhead light, and my boss and his mother would constantly come in and say, “Don’t you want the light on so you can see? You’re going to ruin your eyes.” Sometimes, they would just turn the light on without asking. (This caused glare on my computer screen that did make it more difficult to see what I was doing.)

So did they (and my mother) have a valid point? Not really. At most, reading in low light or in the dark can cause eyestrain and dry eye, which may be why people think some kind of permanent damage is being done. But reading in low light doesn’t affect the structure or function of the eye, so any effects are temporary.

Eating carrots will improve your vision.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this one until I started looking into it for this post. Turns out, it’s a myth, apparently started by the British air ministry in World War II. Not wanting the Germans to know they had radar, they claimed that their pilots ate a lot of carrots and that this improved their night vision so much that they were able to easily spot Nazi bombers.

Part of the endurance of this myth stems from the vitamin A in carrots, which does helps maintain healthy eye function (as does vitamin A from many other foods, not just carrots). But unless you have a vitamin A deficiency, it won’t improve your vision, and getting more than your daily allowance doesn’t have any added benefit (and can do harm because vitamin A can be toxic).

Feed a cold; starve a fever.

This was another one I wasn’t sure about until I looked into it more, partly because for some reason, I associate a fever with throwing up (so it makes sense not to eat what you can’t keep down), even though the two don’t automatically go hand in hand at all.

The truth is, starving a fever is a very bad idea. Your body needs nutrients when sick. You should eat what you can when you can, and get plenty of fluids, whether you have a cold or a fever.

Hair grows back thicker and darker after you shave.

My mom told me this one when I wanted to start shaving my legs. Of course, if it were true, Rogaine and Hair Club for Men would have no clientele. The illusion of thicker and darker hair growing back stems from a couple of factors. Shaven hair has a blunt end that is the thickness of the hair shaft, unlike the taper of unshaven hair. Also, the hair growing out after a shave hasn’t had time to get bleached by the sun or exposed to chemicals.

These are just a few of my favorite mom-isms. Mindy and Beccy have covered other lies our parents have told us in previous Modern Mythology posts: Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Parents Lie.
It all kind of makes you wonder if our moms told us anything that wasn’t complete BS. But really, moms are no more or less susceptible than anyone to believing in something that isn’t true. We tend to associate these types of beliefs and advice with moms in part because they are so often in the unenviable position of having to constantly think on the fly while being responsible for the life and safety of another being. Moms often don’t have the luxury of researching all the advice they give or decisions they make in a given day. Dads are in this position more and more, but even today, the responsibility for children tends to fall unevenly on the mother’s shoulders.

This is all the more reason, in my opinion, for all of us to develop critical thinking skills. Whether you are or ever become a mother or not, odds are you’ll frequently be in the position of having to think on your feet, with no time (at least at the moment) to fully research whether something is true or not. (If you’re working and going to school right now, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

The more thinking critically becomes an automatic habit, the less likely we are to embrace myths about our bodies, our health and safety, and the best course of action to take. At the very least, we can reserve judgment and avoid repeating myths as though they’re true. In other words, we’ll have learned not to put something in our mouths when we don’t know where it’s been.

 

Image credits: George Marks, wikimedia, BaldlyGo.com

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

3 Comments

  1. May 14, 2012 at 10:57 am —

    Spending more time in natural light correlated with less progression of myopia in this study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21251384

    And the correlation between near work / reading and myopia progression seems to be established by several studies so I wouldn’t claim reading in the dark is harmless, unless one wants to be pedantic and claim developing myopia isn’t equal to ruining ones eyes.

  2. May 14, 2012 at 11:19 am —

    The study you cite has both groups spending equal time reading (near-vision activities). The difference between the control group and the intervention group is that the intervention spends more time outside as opposed to middle-vision activities (watching TV, etc.). So it doesn’t support the idea that reading by dim light can be correlated with myopia or permanent damage to the eyes.

    In my research, I did not find several studies establishing a correlation between reading in dim light and myopia. On the contrary.

    And myopia has increased in incidence. Considering people in the past used to read by much dimmer lighting than we do (candles, etc.), you’d think myopia rates would be decreasing, not increasing, if there were a strong correlation or any correlation at all.

    • May 14, 2012 at 2:51 pm —

      You’re right, it does say both groups did equal time on near-vision and that the correlation was with more natural light, and not with less work in dim light.

      People in the past did a lot less reading, and the stereotype of the bookish person with glasses is an old one, but of course those who didn’t read did a lot of other near work in dim light without apparent damage.

      I just felt… a correlation between light related eye strain and myopia wasn’t that far fetched since there apparently is one between near-work and myopia, and I picked a reference I had at hand without considering it carefully enough.

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