- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

Don't cross your eyes they'll get stuck that way. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. If you're chilled, have a shot of whiskey to warm up.

These folk myths (all untrue, by the way) are contained in a vast imaginary reference book of well-meaning advice. Despite higher educations, common sense and best intentions, most people probably believe at least a few.

Folk beliefs might have been developed by people who didn't have access to doctors or money and were seeing some remedies that seemed to work for one person or another, says Margaret Yocom, a folklorist and associate professor of English at George Mason University.

"My guess would be that as soon as there were people, they began to think of ways to take care of themselves, and that would include the passing on of information," Ms. Yocom says.

Now, people might continue to propagate home remedies and information "not for the information itself, but also for a remembrance of the person who first gave it to them so it's almost in honor of them," she says. "Thinking about how to cure a child of the croup may also be to sort of call up your grandmother, who's now dead, to remember how they took care of you."

Grandmother wasn't always right, however, and some of these myths, cures and curiosities might be better left to storytellers. Here are a few of the more compelling:

Whether a baby's belly button is an inny or an outy depends on the way the doctor cut the umbilical cord at birth.

Not true, says Dr. Christina Johns, an attending physician in the emergency department at Children's National Medical Center in the District.

"The doctor cuts off the umbilical cord up near the placenta, not out by the skin, so that has nothing to do with whether someone has an inny or outy," she says.

Within a week or so following birth, the stub of the cord remaining on the child's belly falls off, usually leaving a concave scar. The variances of fetal development and the healing process sometimes leave people with an "outy," however.

As with nearly anything that can be quantified in the universe today, belly buttons are a topic of great interest for some people: Check your favorite search engine under "belly button" and find out.

Touching toads will give you warts.

No way, Dr. Johns says.

Warts and the bumps on frogs do look very much alike, which probably fostered the connection hundreds of years ago. Even so, there's just no link between these amphibians and skin problems in humans, she says.

"Warts are caused by a virus," Dr. Johns says. "To the best of my knowledge, no toad carries that virus."

Some "cures" were fashioned from what some folklorists have termed "some kind of magical, spiritual worldview, so that you believe that doing one thing in one sphere of your life will cure you in another sphere of your life," Ms. Yocom says.

"An example is the removal of warts. There were people referred to as 'healers' of warts and other diseases. It was believed that if this person would touch your wart, the wart would disappear and reappear on the healer's skin magically transferred."

Final eye color is achieved in infancy.

Will your child have baby blues like her daddy, chocolatey-brown pigment like Mom's, or perhaps violet like Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Taylor's? Good question, and it has an easy answer.

"Unless you wear special contacts, your eye color is determined genetically," says Dr. Robert Adler, a professor of pediatrics at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. "The final color is determined by six months of age, but it might change slightly [during those months] as the iris matures. The reason you might notice some changes in the first couple of months of life is that the iris is very thin at an early age; the color often darkens as the iris gets thicker."

Children should not share shoes because it's bad for their feet.

False, Dr. Adler says. "There's no danger in that. People spend an awful lot of money on shoes, and they don't need to. Save your shoes and give them to the younger ones. It's not a problem."

In addition, he says, it's a myth that wearing shoes with a lot of support helps children's foot development.

"Shoes don't promote normal foot development they just protect feet," Dr. Adler says. "Children who wear no shoes at all are the same. My recommendation is to buy the cheapest shoes possible to protect their feet. Any of the stores that sell shoes at a discount are fine. Kids will outgrow them before they ruin them."

An only child is lonely and spoiled.

That's false, says Dr. Adelaide Robb, a child psychiatrist at Children's National Medical Center.

"I think that only children, if they have parents who get them involved in activities and with friends, can be not lonely," Dr. Robb says. "Also, they can learn to entertain themselves and in some ways can be less lonely than the youngest child when his oldest siblings go off to college, because they've learned to entertain themselves in ways that children in sibling groups might not have learned."

Also, she says, spoiling depends on whether parents can set limits.

"You can have three kids, and they can all be spoiled," Dr. Robb says. "Sure, only children are the big focus of their parents' attention, but that doesn't mean they're spoiled. It just means they get more attention. In fact, sometimes I think only children wish there was another child in the family so they could hide from some of the focus once in a while."

Sitting too close to the television will hurt your eyes.

Yes, get your children to back off, Dr. Johns says.

"TV and the bright colors can cause some significant eyestrain, which can lead to headaches which can be felt behind the eyes which really does hurt your eyes," she says. "Eyestrain can cause problems with visual acuity, so in that sense, sitting anywhere that is causing eyestrain is really going to give you problems."

Forget it you can't always be fair.

That's absolutely true, Dr. Robb says.

"I think it's an important issue for parents to work through with their kids," she says.

A lot of kids will fight over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car, for example, in just one of many trivial battles that drive parents crazy.

"I think the issue is more 'Is it fair over time?' instead of each instant in time of whether the children are being treated exactly evenly," Dr. Robb says. You just take turns, she says, and everyone gets a chance.

Then there's the big picture.

"I think that parents need to explain to their kids that life is not always fair," Dr. Robb says. "It's more about how you handle the disappointment instead of spending time being upset about it. It's not fair you have to wear glasses. It's not fair that all the other kids are taller than you. It's not fair that a plane hit the Pentagon. But those are the cards you were dealt in life, and you have to learn to deal with it."

Put butter on skin burns.

"Oh, please, no," Dr. Johns says keep the butter in the refrigerator.

"I see it all the time," she says. "People love to put butter on burns. They believe that it will act as some kind of soothing salve. In fact, it does not. It just lends to the level of contamination to the wound."

Instead, she says, apply a cool washcloth to the wound or run cool water on it.

"Putting butter on a burn makes my job a lot harder because I have to scrub that painful wound to get all the butter off first," she says.

Don't worry, baby teeth aren't important anyway.

"You don't personally believe that, do you?" asks Dr. George Acs, a board-certified pediatric dentist and the spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. "Actually, we don't hear that as much as we used to; it used to be a very common belief."

Baby teeth act as templates for permanent teeth, Dr. Acs explains. Children who develop cavities in their baby teeth also will develop cavities in their adult teeth, he says.

"Cavities are really an infection," Dr. Acs says. "Once they set up shop, they're pretty much there for the long term. And if baby teeth are lost prematurely because of cavities or abscesses, [the baby teeth] no longer are there to act as a guide to grown-up teeth to grow in the correct position."

Each year, American children lose more than 52 million hours of school because of preventable dental problems, he says.

"It's only early [in the day], and I've already today seen three kids who were pulled out of school this morning because of abscesses in baby teeth," Dr. Acs says.

Cheese is binding.

No, says Dr. Johns, cheese is not known to be a constipating food.

"There are foods that help the bowels run smoother than others, but cheese is not one we put in either category," she says.

"Cheese?" Dr. Adler asks. "Oh, I don't even know. Certainly some foods are more constipating than others. It's one of those folklore things people say. In generalities, foods do affect people in certain ways, so people have to know their own bodies. It's good to know what foods will cause more firm stools than others. If you're constipated, emphasize the veggies with as much roughage as possible."

You can catch diseases from a toilet seat.

Generally, no, Dr. Johns says.

"If you had an open sore on your bottom, there may be a possibility, but it wouldn't just be from a toilet seat," she says. "If you had a sore like that, you'd be at risk just walking around to get an infection. So the real answer is that unless you have gaping wounds on your bottom, you won't."

So why do people use tissue toilet-seat covers? Well, that's just for general hygiene, Dr. Johns says.

"Some people don't sit on the toilet and there are urine drops on the seat. Even then, it's probably more of an issue of hygiene than of infection. You just can't get AIDS or sexually transitted diseases or anything like that from a toilet seat," she says.

Babies always look like their fathers.

An answer to this myth comes all the way from sunny San Diego, where a professor by the name of Nicholas Christenfeld studied what he calls a "little tiny question."

It's true most babies do look like their fathers, says Mr. Christenfeld, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego.

In the mid-'90s, Mr. Christenfeld, with help from a graduate student, assembled 24 photographs of children, each with three photographs featuring potential dads. More than 100 test subjects were asked to match the real father to his actual child in each set.

"I was quite surprised to discover that people chose the real dad well above chance," he says of his findings, published in 1995 in the science journal Nature.

"My guess is that it has to do with paternity uncertainty," Mr. Christenfeld says. "The mother loves the baby no matter what it looks like, and she knows it sprang out of her body even if it doesn't look like her. From an evolutionary standpoint, dads didn't have that luxury, so it would help you to look like dad to reassure dad that you're actually his.

"Those babies would have an adaptive advantage and will grow up stronger and healthier and have healthier children of their own, who then would grow up with the same traits."

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