Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Standing ovation

Yesterday was the holiday concert at my children’s school. The songs were pleasant, the performances generally tuneful, the performers cute as could be. Grades Kindergarten through 5th took the stage one at a time, sang three songs with accompanying hand gestures and dance moves, and got off. As school holiday concerts go, it was painless and prompt. But what pleased me most about it wasn’t the music or the costumes or the moves. It was this:

My son stood still.

I think he sang, too, though from our seat in the way-back it was hard to see if his lips were moving. But easy to see that he stood in his place, without jumping, without screaming, without wandering away. He did suck his fingers between songs, but otherwise he was, in all senses, with the program. And this is an achievement even greater than getting 50 1st-graders to stay on-key.

Standing still and staying in one place are not my son’s strengths, by a longshot. And the sort of constant disruption to his day presented by program rehearsals have been a problem in the past. Last year, the rehearsing got so out of hand that he didn’t want to be in the show, and I told the teacher to yank him. His behavior took such a notable dip during the weeks of daily concert drills that it took him a month or more afterward to recover. I thought that he’d probably rise to the occasion and behave for the actual concert, but they burned him out way before it ever got to that point.

I’ve nothing against holiday programs, but I do wonder why the planning for them has to take so very much time. Rehearsals weren’t as out of hand this year at his new school, but they were still having practices on the stage more than a week before the actual event. With so many days lost to holidays in the first part of the school year--sometimes it seems that weeks go by without five days of school in a row--one wonders if there aren’t more important things for kids to do than rehearse. Like, maybe, study? I don’t mean to deny the educational value of music, or the disciplinary value of learning to perform as a group, but unless I’m sending my kids to the Elementary School for the Performing Arts, I don’t expect it to monopolize their time.

For most students, maybe, it’s not a big deal. But for my special-ed son, the practices are a problem. They’re disruptions in his carefully memorized, dependable routine. They’re opportunities for overstimulation. They’re chances to misbehave in front of the whole student body. And, Grinch that I am, I haven’t always felt that the payoff of being in a show was worth all the stress and strain to get there.

But yesterday, at any rate, the payoff sure was sweet. He stood where he was supposed to, he did his hand motions, he probably even sang. He didn’t wander around, as he did at his preschool graduation ceremony, or bat at the decorations, or kiss the kid next to him. He stood still and did what needed to be done. And though that’s probably a small victory in the greater scheme of things, it’s one I’m pretty proud of.

Monday, December 18, 2000

Cold weather

How sick is too sick to go to school?

Tell me now, because my son is coughing and I’m going to have to decide within the next hour whether he’s ailing sufficiently to earn bedroom time or whether he’s well enough to go to school and cough on his classmates.

If it was up to me, I’d rely on the equations that have defined illness for me since I was 7 years old myself: Fever = sick = stay home. No fever = well enough = get your butt out of bed. I know I’m not alone in this understanding of what it means to be sick, because there have certainly been enough movie and TV scenes of kids doctoring thermometers in order to attain the magic 100+ figure that allows them to cancel class. And considering how many days of snotty, sniffling grossness a kid can amass of a winter without actually breaking 98.6, the fever benchmark has seemed essential in keeping children in school long enough to actually learn something.

But it’s felt at times as if school personnel have not shared my zeal to keep my mildly ailing kids in their seats. One winter, when my son’s snottiness had reached biohazard levels, his teacher asked me to keep him home when he had a cold. I pointed out that he had had a cold since October, and would probably have it until February, and did she want to come to the house and tutor him? Moreover, being as he’s in special-ed, he gets all his much-needed physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy at school. How could I keep him home if he was alert enough to attend, ooze or no? I did keep him home a few days, then sent him back. Our pediatrician’s advice was to not panic or bring him to the doctor unless he’d been oozing for weeks. Then again, seeing the SRO state of the waiting room that winter, she may have had her own agenda.

And I may have mine. I like sending my kids off to school. I like it a lot. I need the break. I need to work, and whether I’m working at home or working in the office, a kid-free state is preferable. Even when my son was only in school half-days, those half-days were gold to me. I don’t give them up easily. If the kids are really, debilitatingly, feverishly sick, there’s no question I’ll keep them home and care for them. But it’s those days on the borderline, where they’re not quite well and not quite sick, where judgment comes into play. I judge them well enough. The school judges them gross and disgusting.

I don’t suppose I can blame them. They’re concerned for the health of the other kids (who in fairness probably gave the cold to mine) and for their own as well. My feeling is that if you don’t want to be around snot, you probably shouldn’t go into early childhood education, but that’s just me. Truth be told, I don’t particularly want to be around sickish kids either. That’s why I send them to school.

Friday, December 15, 2000

Making a list, checking it twice

I’m sure I’m not the only parent who wonders if the holiday season of amassing new toys should be preceded by a purging of all old, broken, unused toys from the home. In that spirit, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has come out with its annual list of 12 toys that it would like you to seek out and get rid of right now. Go! Do it! They’re not kidding!

The toys in question have been recalled from stores, but since the CPSC can’t actually come to your house and rifle through your toy box, they have to rely on parents to stay informed and zealously pursue safety. To this end, they’ve posted detailed information on their Web site about the disgraced toys, and are releasing a public service TV spot in which folksinger Tom Paxton will sing about them.

I can’t quite imagine what a recalled-toy folk song might sound like, so I’ll have to reveal the terrible twelvesome in somewhat less poetic form. More information is available at the CPSC’s site.

Item recalled: Pokemon Balls given out in Burger King kids meals.
What’s wrong with it: Suffocation risk--half the ball can fit over small child’s nose and mouth.
Where to return it: Any Burger King restaurant.
What you get: Free small fries.

Item recalled: Tangled Treeples Toy given out in KFC kids meals.
What’s wrong with it: Suffocation risk--container can fit over small child’s nose and mouth.
Where to return it: Any KFC restaurant.
What you get: Free individual-sized food item.

Item recalled: Fazoli’s Pasta Pals given out in Fazoli’s kids meals.
What’s wrong with it: Suffocation risk--container can fit over small child’s nose and mouth.
Where to return it: Any Fazoli’s restaurant.
What you get: Free lemon ice.

Item recalled: Kent Kickin’ Mini-Scooters and Kash ‘n Gold Racer X20 Scooters
What’s wrong with it: Crash risk: Handlebars can unexpectedly break off or break apart.
Where to return it: For the Kent scooter, call 1-800-451-5368; for the Kash scooter, bring it back to the store.
What you get: New handlebars or a new-and-improved scooter, respectively.

Item recalled: Toy Basketball Nets from Ohio Art, Little Tikes, Today's Kids, Fisher-Price, Franklin Sports, Huffy Sports, Lifetime Products.
What’s wrong with them: Strangulation risk: Small child’s neck can get caught in net.
Where to return it: Call the manufacturer; numbers are on CPSC Web site.
What you get: Newer, safer nets.

Item recalled: Sky Dancer Flying Dolls
What’s wrong with it: Collision risk: They don’t always fly where they’re supposed to.
Where to return it: Call Galoob at 877-598-5599 for instructions.
What you get: Product of equal value.

Item recalled: Wiggle Waggle Caterpillar
What’s wrong with it: Choking risk: Small balls can come unattached and stick in little throats.
Where to return it: Call Child Guidance at 877-586-1006 for information.
What you get: Another toy of similar value.

Item recalled: Battery-powered toy riding vehicles from Tek Nek Toys, Empire Industries, Fisher-Price.
What’s wrong with it: Fire risk: Battery charger on the Tek Nek and Empire vehicles can overheat. And an inability-to-stop risk: Foot pedals on Fisher-Price motorcycles can get stuck on “on.”
Where to return it: Call Tek Nek at 877-446-7719, Empire at 800- 872-1869, or Fisher-Price at 888-289-9292.

What you get: Replacement battery charger or foot-pedal repair kit.
Item recalled: Busy Poppin Pals
What’s wrong with it: Choking and laceration risk: Small springs inside toy can come loose.
Where to return it: Call Playskool at 877-518-9743.
What you get: Free redesigned toy.

Item recalled: Klackeroo
What’s wrong with it: Choking risk: Small pieces can break loose.
Where to return it: Call Playskool at 888-671-9764.
What you get: Redesigned replacement toy.

Item recalled: Leapfrog Alphabet Pal electronic pull-toy
What’s wrong with it: Choking risk: Small piece on pull string can come off.
Where to return it: Don’t; just cut the piece off.
What you get: Apparently nothing but a mutilated toy, though you can call Knowledge Kids Enterprises Inc. at 877-477-6641 and complain.

Item recalled: Xylophone Mallets from Stand-Up ‘N Play Tables
What’s wrong with it: Choking risk: Mallets can stick in a child’s throat.
Where to return it: Call Shelcore at 800-777-0453.
What you get: Free replacement mallet.

Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Drug detective

Here’s a bulletin from the Food and Drug Administration: Don’t trust your doctor.

Well, they didn’t put it quite that way. Instead, in an effort to defend themselves from accusations that they approve new drugs too quickly, administration officials are warning that your doctor may not be reading all the fine print before prescribing the latest miracle medication. And that it’s doctors’ heedless ignorance of precautions--not the FDA’s heedless, drug-company-urged rush to put drugs on the market--that causes people to die from side effects. And then the drugs have to be banned, though they might have helped so many.

Drug tests are necessarily limited, the FDA admits, and it’s not always clear how millions of people will respond to new drugs until millions of people are taking them. But often new medications do come with advice on who they should not be prescribed to, and, apparently, often doctors just can’t be bothered to read that advice. So whose job is it to make sure the wrong people don’t take the wrong pills? Why, us, the patients! As if we don’t have enough to do.

Now I know we all feel sorry for our doctors, poor overworked and underpaid wretches that they are, and don’t expect them to actually read the reams of material that comes with...oh, wait a minute. These are the folks that charge us $75 for ten minutes and keep us waiting an hour for the privilege. Surely sometime in their busy schedule of golf and conferences, they could find time to actually find out what it is they’re prescribing. Or at least hire someone to figure it out.

But no--we expect too much. We are to take that prescription slip home, hit the internet, and figure out if it’s right for us or not. The FDA recommends questioning doctors about new prescriptions--Why are you giving this to me? Why is it better than what I was taking before? Do you have a clue what you’re doing? Hey, where are you going with my clothes?--but there are of course two problems with that. One: If the trouble with these new prescriptions is that doctors don’t know what their prescribing, how is asking them going to help? They don’t know! And two: Doctors don’t like to be questioned. Particularly if they don’t know. But even if they do. Sometimes I think Nike got its slogan from the medical profession: Just do it.

Amusing as this carping between the FDA and the doctors is, I know where it’s going to end. The next time you hear about this dispute, the doctors will have an answer: It’s the patient’s fault. They come in here clamoring for some medicine they saw on a commercial, and though we haven’t had time to fully investigate it, we have to give it to them to keep them happy. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Hey, it worked with antibiotics.

Monday, December 11, 2000

Get smart

The other day in the paper, I saw an ad for one of those after-school tutoring places that’s guaranteed to raise your kids’ grades and diminish your savings account. In big letters, it said something like, “When smart kids can’t learn.” And it made me wonder: Is everybody smart now? Is no kid allowed to be average, or less than? Are we all smart but for various reasons just can’t get with that smartness? The thinking seems to be, if a kid’s getting a C, it’s not because he’s a C student, it’s because he’s an A student with issues.

And that’s fine, I guess. Good for the self esteem--of the parent, if not of the kid. But sometimes, I feel like I’m living in a giant Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. And since my daughter clearly isn’t, where does that put us?

Smartness seems to be the gold standard of international adoption. How many e-mails have I read on Russian parenting lists that start with, “She’s really smart, but...” and go on to list any number of dire problems. Maybe they’re RAD, maybe they’re OCD, maybe they’re sensory-integration impaired, maybe they have a host of ills that post-institutionalized kids are heir to, but at least they’re smart. One mother recently lamented that they could accept all the other problems her child brought, but now it appeared that he was just not intelligent, and she didn’t know if she could deal with that.

That sort of thinking rankles me, but in truth I have been known to hold out my own son’s smartness as a point of honor, though his behavior and developmental delays put his smarts in a pretty big shadow. Until he can control his impulses, his intelligence is kind of a moot point. He can’t be in a regular classroom, he can’t do regular work, he can’t be with kids his own age, he can’t be with mainstream kids at all in any productive way. But hey--at least he’s smart.

And then there’s my sweet, friendly, pretty daughter, who can be competent and who can acquire skills and sometimes retain facts, but who is hardly on her way to being a leading intellectual light. She can appear smart; the teacher says she’s a whiz with math facts, and her classmates probably notice that she always calls out the right answer more than they notice the really basic mistakes she makes on tests. She is certainly hampered by learning disabilities--and yes, we have her at one of those tutoring factories--but I wouldn’t characterize her as a smart kid who can’t learn; I’d characterize her as a hardworking kid who’s eager to please and is doing the best she can with the brain she’s got. And what’s so bad about that?

We all like to believe that smartness is what counts, that brains will get you ahead, and that therefore lack of smartness--or at least the appearance of smartness--will be an insurmountable hurdle. But you don’t have to look too far to see that there are many successful people for whom “smart” would not be the first or second or fifthieth thing you’d say about them (insert your own George W. Bush joke here). And there are undeniably smart people whose smartness tends to work against them (okay, insert your own Al Gore joke here).

Can’t we restore some glory to being average? Are we so snobbish that we can’t acknowledge and appreciate averageness--in our children, or in ourselves? Being average may not be the most glamorous of jobs, but somebody’s got to do it. Maybe the reason those smart kids can’t learn is that they’re just not that smart. And as my daughter the philosopher would say, “It’s not the end of the world.”

Maybe she’s smarter than I thought.

Friday, December 08, 2000

Growing girl

For years, people have been telling my daughter that “Pretty soon, you’re going to be taller than your mom!” I got tired of hearing that pretty quick. Soon even she got tired of it. Other people did not, and we’ve heard it constantly.

So the good news, now, is that we’re not going to hear it anymore.

And the bad news is, it’s because she has finally passed me by.

It’s not unexpected for a daughter to eventually be taller than her mother, but age 10 seems to me to be a little soon. By the time she’s a surly teenager, she’ll be towering above me. Goodness knows I’ve still got the advantage in the weight class, and can push her around if need be, but that won’t last, either. She has all the makings of a big, strong, sturdy woman. And I have all the makings of a weak little shrimp.

I suppose nobody really expects adopted children to have the same body type as their adoptive parents, but to have a daughter who so clearly did not come from my stock is a little disconcerting. It’s one of those things that forces you, in the course of casual conversation, to choose between giving out private details of your child’s life or lying about it. It surely will not be long before people, innocently, will look at tiny me and towering her and wonder about recessive genes in my family, or statuesque siblings, or height hidden somewhere in our roots. Perhaps I can get away with a smile and a “Yes, there sure must be some height in her family tree somewhere!” without specifically mentioning that it would have to be in her birth family tree. Just nodding and allowing the implication that my genes somehow hold the secret of hers seems dishonest; but do I really have to say “Well, she’s adopted” every time someone comments on our size disparity? Surely not.

My son actually does have a body type that looks like it could be all in our family--short like me, skinny like his dad. It almost makes me grateful for the developmental delays that stunted his growth. My daughter is delayed in everything else, but her physical growth just keeps on keeping on. It will be interesting to see where it ends. In the meantime, I’ve got to start wearing higher heels.

Wednesday, December 06, 2000

Here's looking at you

A recent report on the intellihealth Web site has got me thinking. It concerns a new high-tech system for neonatal intensive-care units that allows parents of premature infants to visit their little ones via the internet when they can’t be at the hospital, check on the child’s status at any time, access information about any medical conditions their baby may be suffering or prone to, and videoconference with doctors, nurses, even the tiny patient.

I think this is just an awesome idea. And I think it should be expanded. Specifically, I think such systems should be installed in every school in the land. Now. Today. I’m waiting.

This is the sort of constant access to information on my children I’ve been craving. What does my daughter look like when she’s taking a test? Is she really resisting the urge to peek at the paper of the person across from her? Turn on the camera, and I’m there. What is my son doing to warrant those sad faces on his daily chart? How precisely is he torturing the music teacher? Let’s have a look. Six hours is a long time to be away from my kids (though don’t get me wrong, I NEED those six hours), and it’s not like I can count on them to give me anything more than a one-word answer to “What did you do today?”

Some day cares have been offering parents live internet views of their youngsters at play for years, so the technology does exist. But I do so like the extras that the NICU parents have had access to. No more hassles about scheduling meetings with the teacher; we’ll just videoconference. No more waiting for report cards; daily progress reports can be posted. No more wondering about third grade math; tutorials online, anyone? No more failing to bring home homework assignments; it’s all there on the Web site.

Now, I suppose this would probably raise my property taxes. Technology is cool, but it’s not cheap. And the schools would of course have to hire teams of techies to keep it all going. But I don’t care. I’m consumed with curiosity. And they do so discourage parents from hanging around outside the school and peeking in the windows. Give me the hidden cameras. Now. My daughter’s got a test today.

Monday, December 04, 2000

Do you hear what I hear?

Here’s a new medical study from the ‘But we already knew that’ file: Men, researchers have found, only listen with half their brain.

Women, when listening, show activity in both the left and right temporal lobes. Men, in only the left. Since the left lobe is the one most closely associated with language, one wonders what women are doing over there in their right brains. Empathizing? Intuiting? Judging? Exercising telepathic abilities? Thinking about what to have for dinner? Silently willing small children to be quiet so she can keep listening?

Maybe women’s brains are just organized better, so that they share the load evenly. Everybody knows that if you use one side more than the other, the other gets flabby, and who wants a flabby brain? Keeping things even is more efficient, and leaves you more brain left over to think about other things. Researchers noted that women can listen to two conversations at once, and maybe it’s because they give over more of their brain to the task. Of course, the researchers being male, they also posited that women use more of their brain to listen because listening is harder for them.

Their wives probably told them that was hooey, but they weren’t listening. Perhaps the most surprising part of this study was that men listen at all. No wonder only half their brains were active--they were forced to actually sit in a lab, with earphones on, and do nothing but listen. What torture! No newspaper, no ball game, no distractions, just pure unadulterated listening! Half their brains were probably in shock. And it’s not like they had to pay full attention anyway--they knew they could always ask their wives later, “Hey, what was that stuff we were listening too, anyway.”

And maybe that is the ultimate reason why women use more brain to listen--they’re listening for two.

Friday, December 01, 2000

True feats of daring

Much hype in the media recently about some magician fellow in New York City trapping himself in a block of ice for days on end as a test of survival and endurance. New Yorkers could allegedly walk by and watch him freezing in there, and be awestruck. Or more likely amused--confinement in a cake of ice is hardly the height of physical challenge for New Yorkers. You want endurance? Try a long subway ride in a crowded car. You want to live in a block of ice? Try an apartment with a chintzy landlord. You want survival? Try jaywalking.

Or, I’d suggest, try being a parent. I don’t know if this David Blaine has children, but his rather unimaginative notions of what constitutes survival in tight spots indicates not. Therefore, I’d like to help him out by proposing a few more frightening stunts for his next foray into feats:

* One car. One parent. Two kids. One Sesame Street audiotape. (May I suggest the one where Grover sings “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea”?) One long drive. Can he survive with his sanity intact?

* One pediatrician’s waiting room. Fifteen sick children spraying germs. No ventilation, no air-conditioning, no way out. Can he survive with his immune system intact?

* One set of Chuck E. Cheese tubes, high overhead. Trapped in a cylinder barely big enough to move in. Toddlers to the left. Toddlers to the right. Puddles of unkown origin. Can he escape without injuring small children?

* One small schoolbus-shaped playtent. One determined child who wants you to PLAY. Endless scenarios that make no sense. Extreme heat and discomfort. Cramped muscles. Numbing boredom. Can he endure the ordeal without injuring anyone’s self esteem?

* Many noisy children. One harried mom. One dad who goes off to perform silly stunts and leaves her with all the work. He’s never seen a block of ice like he’s going to see when he gets home. Can he thaw her out, or will he run down to the basement and hide in his old glass coffin?

Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Death by spelling

I’ve watched the Olympics and thought about how much stress that sort of intense training and competition places on young people. I’ve read about parents behaving badly at Little League games and wondered how their children survived the pressure of being expected to perform perfectly. I’ve generally considered that athletics as it stands today in America may be a mess best avoided. But I’m rethinking that now, because over Thanksgiving, I witnessed a competition more grueling, more stomach-churning, more devoid of childish joy than any I have ever seen.

And it was a spelling bee.

The National Spelling Bee, to be specific, shown on a cable channel that must have been pretty desperate for programming. I’m pretty sure it was actually last spring’s National Spelling Bee, or else all children engaged in spelling activities are in grades a year below their proper age level. I’d be overjoyed, as the mom of a daughter who’s two years behind her age group, if all those 12-year-old sixth graders were really starting out the year instead of finishing it, but why would you have a national bee in the fall? Surely you give them at least half the school year to memorize all those ridiculous words.

And these children certainly had them memorized. Words that I would have sworn the moderator made up on the spot, just for fun, they spelled. Words that no one has ever used in actual written matter, they spelled. Words that made grown-ups sitting at home, grown-ups with college degrees and careers as writers, say “Huh?”, they spelled. But they didn’t look too happy about it.

Indeed, most of them looked like their deepest desire was to have a sniper in the balcony shoot them and put them out of their misery. One girl bent over double every time she heard a word, then straightened up briefly and with a terrible grimace asked for a definition, a sentence, a clarification of some sort, then doubled over again. I wondered if losing your lunch onstage was grounds for disqualification. I wondered if she’d been checked for ulcers. But mostly I wondered how her parents could sit in the audience and watch that and not immediately tell her “Sweetie, I don’t care how much you want it, your spelling bee days are over.” Perhaps the problem is that she’s not the one who wants it so badly.

I’d certainly be proud if my kids could spell well. I might encourage them to participate in competitions if it was something they were good at, and certainly a little nervousness is to be expected. But most of these children looked to be in genuine, soul-scarring agony. I could smell the tension and fear in the air through the TV screen. And for what? Presumably there’s money or maybe a scholarship for the winner, but it’s not like there’s a future in spelling. Pressure your kid to excel in sports, and maybe there’ll be pro prospects or Olympic glory or a spot on a Wheaties box. What kind of box would spellers go on--AlphaBits? Perhaps there’s a lucrative Campbell’s alphabet soup contract that I’m not aware of.

No matter what, though, there’s no way any of that is worth putting a child through such torture. Give those kids a dictionary and an electronic spell-checker and send them outside to play already.

Monday, November 27, 2000

Stuff happens

Christmas, as any television commercial will tell you, is just around the corner, and what frazzles me most about the oncoming holiday is not the rampant commercialization or the cards to be sent or the gifts to be shopped for or the in-laws coming over for Christmas dinner or even the kids off school for a whole looooong week. No, it’s the thought of all that stuff descending avalanche-like on our already stuff stuffed home.

Don’t get me wrong--I like presents as much as the next person. I love getting new stuff. And I’ll certainly need some new stuff for the kids to keep them occupied through their endless school-less holiday. It’s just that we’ve got more stuff than we know what to do with just now, and how on earth will we handle more? Where will it go? We’ve tried keeping the tree up through, say, March or so to avoid putting presents away, but eventually the day must come. And with every closet, corner, and cubby currently covered with stuff, stuffing in still more can be the stuff of nightmares.

The logical thing to do, of course, would be to clear out a bunch of the old stuff to make way for the brand shiny new stuff. In the case of our house, this would require a steam shovel, but never mind. Frankly, if I had time to sort through all the stuff and separate the stuff we need from the stuff we might one day use from the stuff we’ve outgrown and the stuff we’ve lost interest in, we probably wouldn’t have so much stuff piled up now. That sort of thing takes patience I haven’t got--certainly not in December, when there’s stuff to be bought and stuff to be wrapped and stuff to be mailed. It’s ever so much easier to just let the stuff pile up and think about it tomorrow, which as we all know is always a day away.

Besides, you never know when you might need some of that stuff, all evidence to the contrary. My husband chides me for holding on to every paper the kids bring home from school, but I have actually needed to refer back to those classroom papers from time to time...well, okay, just once, but it was nice to have it there. Even the most neglected toys get played with now and again, if only because my son sticks them in his bags and pretends they’re items for recycling.

And so somehow, some way, somewhere, we’ll have to find a way to wedge all the new stuff in. All I want for Christmas extra room? five more closets? a storage shed out back?

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Harmless for the holidays

As we gather together for Thanksgiving, the thoughts of health-care advocates naturally turn to all the ways that the holidays could be dangerous. And amazingly, they’re not even thinking about the toxic combination of too many relatives in one room. That alone has probably done more lasting damage than all the salmonella in the world. But no--they’re worried about things like choking toddlers. The easy stuff. A recent report on the intellihealth Web site helpfully outlined several of the ways your little one could find trouble during holiday events, to which MWA would like to add our own helpful comments and suggestions:

* Hard candy and nuts. By all means, keep them off low tables. Thousands of small children choke to death each year, and the fact that your son can stuff an entire soft taco into his mouth at once does not mean he won’t choke on a peanut. Put the munchies on a high bookcase; it’s good exercise for the adults to have to stretch to get them.

* Visiting medications. Don’t let folks staying at your home keep their medications in their suitcases on the floor, where nosy little ones can find and partake. Forty-one percent of all poisonings involving children also involve pharmaceuticals. Find a safe place for all those pills. And if doing so allows you to completely check out the personal medication needs of all your visiting nearest and dearest, well, you’re not being nosy, you’re being pro-active.

* Silver cleaners and household products. Beware of toxic substances, and we’re not talkinga bout Aunt Mabel’s perfume! Almost 12 percent of poisonings involving children were caused by household products, so clearly you’re better off keeping that stuff out of your house and never cleaning at all. Dust, dirt and tarnish are certainly a small prices to pay. Alternatively, you could keep the stuff in a locked cabinet. Don’t forget to throw away the key.

*Cosmetics. Another 12 precent of child poisonings are made possible by makeup. Again, we’re not talking about the poisonous looks your preteen daughter gets when she comes downstairs in blue eyeshadow. No, we’re talking about her little brother eating the stuff. Right into the locked cabinet it goes!

* Electricity. More than 3,000 children under 10 are treated for electircal shock each year, and it’s all because their parents forgot to put those little plastic doohickies in the outlets. Or maybe because--and I know you’ll be as shocked by this as I--they keep their blow-dryers and curling irons in the bathroom, where they could fly across the room and fall into a tub. Surely any reasonable person would know that you’ve got to keep those things in the garage, or in a shed out back, or possibly a locked cabinet.

*Raw eggs. Poor little kiddies, they’re so susceptible to salmonella. No cookie dough for them! Mama will have to thoughtfully eat it all to protect their delicate digestions. What we won’t do for our children!

Monday, November 20, 2000

Stupid math tricks

I got a note on Friday from my daughter’s teacher. It expressed concern that our girl was having trouble with a couple of exercises in her math book. Since the teacher has given us a set of textbooks to use for incessantly drilling arithmetic, I was able to flip to the pair of problem problems. What was it, I wondered? Addition? Subtraction? Were they finally starting on multiplication? Did it involve counting money, as they had earlier in the chapter? The teacher mentioned my daughter’s difficulty in working in steps: Perhaps it was some involved word problem requiring addition and then subraction.

And then I found the questions in question, and this is what they were:

“I am a 3-digit number less than 300. My tens digit is less than my hundreds digit and my ones digit is less than my tens digit. Who am I?”

“I am a number between 600 and 700. My ones digit is 4. My tens digit is the difference between my ones and hundreds digit. Who am I?”

I am confused and befuddled by the sort of things that are considered math these days. I am disturbed that a simple ability to add and subtract is put on an even track with the ability to do parlor tricks. Who am I?

I am the parent of a 3rd grader.

I thought that maybe I was the only one having trouble with this stuff, but on Friday night I ran into the mother of a girl who was in 2nd grade with my daughter last year at a different school, and we got to talking about how hard 3rd grade was, and specifically how hard the math was, and she said in exasperation, “This front-end estimation! That’s where you round everything down, right? What is that?” Who knows? The various techniques our kids were taught for estimation made approximately no sense to me. After going to the trouble of teaching how to round to the nearest ten a few chapters before, the textbook was now telling them to estimate by either rounding both numbers of an equation up or both numbers down. Why, oh why? It seems designed to be confusing, and to make you forget how to round properly. Plus, you don’t get a very accurate estimate.

Apparently we two aren’t the only ones confused. This mother mentioned that one night, her daughter brought home both a math worksheet and her math textbook. When asked why she needed both, the daughter reported that the teacher told them to bring the book home too, in case their parents didn’t get it. Frankly, I doubt the book will help much. Perhaps they need to set up night-school classes.

Now, parental confusion with the way children are taught arithmetic has been going on at least as long as the “new math” movement when I was in school, so there’s no reason I should expect to be on top of this. But as the parent of a learning-disabled child, I do have to have a clue, because she so needs me to give her one. I find myself giving advice and instructions on concepts I don’t understand, and I wonder if I’m re-teaching it wrong--or making it even more befuddling, if that’s possible. And I also wonder if a lot of this stuff, including “who am I” number games, is worth reteaching at all. At any rate, I can’t begin to imagine how I would go about showing her the right way to figure it.

Personally, I can’t wait for multiplicaiton. That, I know how to do. I think.

Friday, November 17, 2000

You must remember this

The human brain is an amazing, complex, and sometimes perverse instrument. It’s capable of astounding calculations and leaps of creativity and thought, but can also be a black hole where important bits of information--from high-school algebra to your ATM number--can vanish without a trace. Whenever we feel we have it figured out and can predict somebody’s capacity for learning or growth, we’re liable to find that we don’t know as much as we thought. The brain is unpredictable, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And memory is perhaps the most treacherous aspect of all.

Think of the way you can remember the lyrics to every chart-topping song you heard in high school, but nothing you learned in class. Please tell me I’m not the only one. Think of how your moments of glory fade, but your moments of extreme humiliation run on an endless tape loop, ready to rerun in any idle hour. Think of how two witnesses to the same event can remember it entirely differently, and be entirely certain they’re right. Think of how my daughter can retain the name of all 22 classmates, but not the result of 17 + 5.

The condition and potential of my daughter’s brain has been an item of interest to doctors and educators since we brought her home from Russia six years ago. And of dispute, since it always seemed to me that the potential part was greater than anyone wanted to admit. We could always agree that she had learning disabilities, and language delays, and a not particularly stratospheric IQ (though with the learning disabilities and language delays, it’s hard to tell). But were these a result of brain damage at birth, and more or less intractable? Or more a combination of damage and neglect and lack of stimulation and late-starting therapy, and could she make up the difference, though maybe at a snail’s pace? I tend toward the latter, though the jury is still out; there are nights when I’m doing homework with her when I feel we should just set up the reservations at the group home right now, she’s never going to make it out of 3rd grade.

But consider this conversation I had with her at bedtime last night. We’d just finished studying for a reading test, in which her comprehension of the text was mostly based on getting me to give her hints and then making lousy guesses. The ideas of stories are slippery stones that slide instantly out of her memory banks. Then, when the lights were out, she asked: “Do you want to know how many different kinds of pencil boxes we have in our class, and who has the same ones?” And she proceeded to detail which kids had which box in common, and moreover which color each one of them had. If her teacher ever gives a quiz on pencil boxes, my girl will get an A+.

So why can she remember that, and not anything useful? Maybe this just proves that her brain is more normal than we thought. A thorough grasp of trivia seems to be worth more these days than solid academic information, and our heads all seem to be more full of it. It’s clear, anyway, that she does have the capacity to absorb information and memorize it, when it interests her. Too bad math facts and grammatical irregularities are so much less colorful than plastic boxes.

Wednesday, November 08, 2000

They're smokin'

They’re hot, they’re cool, they’re irritating. They make the user look trendy and with-it, and make non-users whine about selfishness and pollution and space violations. They’re easy to carry around, and are handy for passing the time. They may be bad for your health, but once you get used to them, it’s hard to go without. Are cell phones the new cigarettes?

For teenagers in Great Britain, anyway, the answer may be yes. A study has found that smoking among British teens has gone down at the same time that mobile-phone use has gone up. Coincidence? The researchers think not, reasoning that the phones satisfy the same craving for coolness, rebelliousness, and adult annoyance as cigarettes. And as an added bonus, you can use them to surreptitiously send text messages to your pals in class. Smoking in class tends to be somewhat less easy to pull off.

Will the same trend hold true in the States, where cigarettes are cheaper and cell phones more expensive? I guess we should hope so, though we’re probably just trading second-hand smoke for second-hand conversations and lung tumors for brain tumors. It’s somewhat amusing to imagine bad-seed teens hanging out by the lockers, talking on their cell-phones. Will some new band be remaking “Smoking in the Boys’ Room” as “Calling from the Boys’ Room?” Will tough guys start rolling up cell phones in their t-shirt sleeves?

Maybe not. But one thing that’s sure to change is the way cell phones are marketed. In Europe, it turns out, they’re sold more as fashion accessories than as communication accessories. “Mobile phone marketing in Europe promotes self-image and identity, which resembles cigarette advertising,” wrote the researchers, and that can only mean one thing: Look for the Marlboro man to be tucking a phone in his saddlebags.

And look for advertisers to target younger audiences with flashier phones. If it means that phones will be touted more on MTV than on my TV, that’s a good thing. If it means that cell-phone-service companies will stop calling me on a daily basis because I’m no longer in their prime demographic, that’s a very good thing. If it means that mobile phone use will switch from long-term contracts to quick-fix, allowance-minded pay-as-you-go plans, that’s a thing that’s good enough to maybe get me using the darn things. Hey, you know, I may be over 40, but I can still be hip. Just don’t ask me to smoke.

Monday, November 06, 2000

'Riting + 'Rithmetic

The new trend in education, at least here in Northern N.J., where the standardized tests strike fear in the heart of administrators, is writing. Writing about everything. Writing about reading, yes, but also writing about science, writing about math, writing about writing. It’s not enough simply to learn something--you must also be able to write about how you did it.

And on the face of it, that’s not a bad thing. Goodness knows, the state of writing amongst adults today is not good. My former boss was always stunned at her assistants’ inability to write a simple business letter. Copy-editors on e-mail lists I’ve belonged to could not believe how unable alleged college graduates were to string together a proper sentence. The newspaper where I now work receives press releases and letters to the editor from the general public, and they do give one pause. So the idea of teaching children from a young age to explain themselves in a clear and rational way has some allure.

But man, it makes it hard on the kids with language delays and disabilities. My daughter can’t explain how she does anything. She couldn’t tell you how she ties her shoes. The thought of putting things she can’t put into verbal words into written words fills her with dread. And it was bad enough when we were just talking about book reports and reading comprehension.

Now, she can’t even have math as a safe haven. She got an A in math last year, when all she had to do was memorize math facts and work problems. It was a blissfully word-free place in the day. But now we’re in 3rd grade, where you have to work problems and then write a paragraph about how you did it. Well, who the heck knows how they do math? Am I the only one who coasted through school learning how math works but not why? Is she? In the end, does it matter? And if it’s so important, why can’t the textbook even state it very clearly? I’m paging through looking for the answers she’s supposed to be writing, and it’s about as clear as trigonometry.

Since she’s still classified as special-ed though in a regular-ed classroom, I could probably ask for a modification and exempt her from the writing requirement for subjects like math. I’m particularly tempted because I know the only reason they’re making a big deal of all this writing is because the 4th-grade standardized test is full of it, and although most educators I’ve talked to think the test is exactly that--full of it--they have to teach to it or risk looking like they haven’t taught anything. But I’ve been trying so hard to give her a non-modified year, and working at home to keep her caught up with what’s going on in the classroom, that I hate to fall back now. If she gets all the pure math questions on a test right, and misses all the writing questions, she can still get a passing grade. We’re working toward that.

Ironic, I guess, that although I’m a writer by trade, I can’t teach my child to write. But I don’t think I ever could have written very convincingly about math. I was always too good at faking it to really deeply understand what I was doing. I’m glad I’m not in 3rd grade now, that’s for sure.

Monday, October 30, 2000


Yesterday, my daughter went to play at a schoolmate’s house. We don’t know the family. I’ve met the father briefly, when I dropped her off the first time she went to play there. I’ve never been in the house. I don’t know who else is there; my daughter mentioned a grandmother and a brother last time; the dad was home but the mom was at work. This time she mentioned a lady who was there talking to the dad. I don’t know anything about any of these people. But I sent my husband to drop our precious daughter off anyway. He left her at the door, picked her up two hours later. And we’ve heard virtually nothing about what went on in between.

By current parenting wisdom, this makes us awful parents. Don’t we know what a dangerous world it is? I hear of people who won’t let their kids play at other people’s houses period, or insist on going to the house, checking it out stem to stern, meeting everyone who might be there when their child is, checking child abuse registries to make sure the names don’t turn up, poring over America’s Most Wanted re-runs for familiar faces, and so on. Simply send your child unsupervised to a stranger’s home? Scandalous!

And I can see their point. The world’s a scary place. Yet I can’t quite bring myself to require reference checks of anyone who might make so bold as to invite my daughter over. I feel awkward just peeking through the doorway. Just introducing myself. Perhaps its weakness on my part to not be an avenging overprotective guardian angel who cares not what people think but only wants to ensure her offspring’s safety. Personally, though, I’m just so pleased for her to have friends, I’d hate to mess things up.

Then, too, I know that there are people ever so much less careful than I. In past years, my daughter has invited friends over whose parents are too busy to drive them, and so I have picked these children up and brought them home. These are parents who don’t know me and don’t know where I live. They probably don’t know my phone number either. Yet the kids run out the door and into my car, which may or may not have seatbelts or springs sticking out of the seats or a safe heating system, and off to somewhere. I don’t think I’ve ever sent my daughter off with strangers to a place I don’t know--though I did once let the parents of a camp friend take her to an amusement park a few hours away, and I really had only met them a few times. They brought her back.

In a perfect world, of course, all of my children’s friends would live on the same block, and I would know all their parents, and they would know me, and I would turn them loose and they would play in each other’s yards and everything would be open and safe and sweet. But there are no children on our block, and I really don’t know the neighbors anyway. School friends always seem to be driving distance. And so play dates are logistically tricky, and you take what you can get.

So far, we’ve been lucky. My daughter has visited her new friend twice without incident that I know of. I suggested maybe one time her friend could come to our house, so I could avoid two hours of hysterical worry. But no, my daughter informs me--her father doesn’t let her go to other people’s houses. So we know he’s a good dad. And what must he think of us?

Friday, October 27, 2000

Mom v. Dad

Circumcision continues to be a subject of much dispute, in internet chat rooms, on Web sites, on e-mail lists, anywhere people feel the need to spout off opinions. Now it’s a hot topic in the courtroom, too. A New Jersey couple, unable to agree on whether to perform the procedure on their 3-year-old (egads! have they been arguing that long?), have done what any red-blooded American parents with a problem to solve would do--they’ve given it to a judge to decide.

Mom feels that the boy’s repeated infections in the foreskin area are enough to merit its removal. Dad feels the infections are no big deal, but circumcision is. The first judge agreed with Mom, but Dad appealed and won a stay of...well, execution. By the time this case gets to the Supreme Court, the kid will be 18 and able to decide for himself, but there’s principle involved here. I’m not sure what principle that is, exactly, but there must be one.

Not surprisingly, Mom and Dad in this case are in the midst of divorce proceedings. I’ve heard of arguing about houses and cars and custody and child support, but are penises now going to be fair game? There’s plenty an outraged wife who would probably like to court-order a procedure on her husband’s appendage, but surely we could keep the children’s out of it? Can you just imagine what fun the rearing of this child is going to be? Every milestone--should we start him in kindergarten at 5? should he go out for Little League? what should he wear for Halloween?--will be argued before the court. If the kid needs special education, the child-study team won’t know what hit them; they’ll have to deal with Mom, Dad, Mom’s lawyer, Dad’s lawyer, and a closed-circuit connection to a judges’ chambers.

One thing’s for sure: You’ll see this circumcision scenario popping up on a future episode of “Judging Amy.”

And in related news: Does putting disposable diapers on your baby boy reduce your odds of having grandchildren? That’s the much-disputed finding of a team of German researchers, who found that the temperature surrounding the scrotum of baby boys wearing plastic-lined diapers is higher than it is for their cotton-clad counterparts. And anyone who’s followed the great briefs vs. boxers debate knows what that means: the higher the temperature, the lower the sperm count.

Now, of course, sperm count is not a big concern for the pre-potty-trained set, and most researchers outside of this particular German team scoff at their findings. In general, I’m guessing the overall self-esteem of members of this German team is none too high. At the very least, it’s a sure thing any parents on that team are not getting asked to their kids’ career-day assemblies. “My daddy measures the temperature of babies’ balls!” Not exactly a glamour profession, is it?

At any rate, let’s hope the couple in New Jersey never gets wind of this. Because if that mom ever put a plastic diaper on that boy, his dad’s gonna see her in court.

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Give him the fingers

“Send in the wet wipes!”

The note I’d been dreading since school began finally came home last week. My son’s aide wanted wet wipes, and that could only mean one thing: His finger-sucking had finally ticked someone off. When that happened last year, we found that wiping his fingers with wet wipes cut the habit off cold. He couldn’t stand the smell. The mere mention of wet wipes would cause him to pull his fingers away.

I had argued against cutting his finger habit off because it was his one quiet comfort activity, immensely preferable to jumping and shouting and banging his head against the wall. I had predicted that they would see an increase in these more disruptive habits if they made him stop sucking. I was wrong. There were no cataclysmic consequences. But his overall frustration level seemed to increase. His meltdown point came sooner. His scores on in-class tests plummeted, even though we all agreed he knew his stuff. Everyone felt it had been a successful behavior modification, but to me it seemed a clear case of putting behavior management above learning. I expect better from a special-ed class.

So this year, when he was in a class with children closer to his age and behavior level, when he had a teacher who did her master’s thesis on fetal-alcohol syndrome, when he had an occupational therapist and a speech therapist who were both trained in sensory-integration techniques, when he seemed comfortable and capable in his schoolwork, and when I didn’t get daily admonisments about his behavior, I had high hopes--perhaps these people would get it. Perhaps they would see that something that helps him sit and pay attention is not something to be toyed with. Perhaps the finger-sucking (which he had resumed over the summer, because his lazy bad mother didn’t mind it) would be no big deal.

But now, here comes the note. And Mama slips into full battle gear. I e-mailed the teacher. I buttonholed her when I dropped him off the next morning. I had her call me at her break time. And I expressed the notion that if our goal is to get him to fully function in class, we ought not to remove something that successfully helps him do that.

The teacher agreed, as is wise to do when you’re talking to a crazy person. And she explained her concerns: The other kids don’t like being touched by my boy’s spit-covered hands, and the nurse is concerned about germs. It’s a clear case of individual vs. group rights; I acknowledge the teacher’s responsibility to the group, she acknowledges my defensiveness of the individual, and that puts us at an impasse. We’ve left it that she will check with the sensory-integration experts on her team and try to come up with an alternative to finger-sucking that will give my son the input he needs but not gross out the class. For now, no wet wipes. But the time may come.

Since it is an individual-rights issue, maybe I should just demand that a finger-sucking area could be apportioned off at the school, and every so often he can go off to suck, perhaps in the company of a teacher who needs a smoke. Bad habits aren’t that easily broken.

Monday, October 23, 2000

Parental guidance

I saw a sign at our local movie megaloplex (yes, I went to the movies!) that stopped me in my tracks. There, by the ticket sign, in bold capital letters: “For the comfort of all our patrons, no children under 5 will be allowed into R-rated movies.”

I don’t know what unsettled me more: That people would try to bring children under 5 to an R-rated movie, or that it was perfectly okay to bring a 6-year-old. With all the flap lately about teens sneaking into shows to which they are supposed to be accompanied by parent, it’s odd to consider what sort of choices accompanying parents may be making. Does Senator McCain know about this? Maybe this is why movie execs are marketing R-rated films to kiddies: They’re hoping they’ll come and bring mom and dad!

Come to think of it, I have seen people bring a child under 5 to an R-rated flick. The child was an infant, but the film was “Pulp Fiction.” The comfort of this patron would certainly have been increased if those parents had just found a babysitter, for goodness sake. The baby slept through the whole thing, but seeing that stroller in the foreground with so much violence, obscenity and depravity playing on the screen...well, it sure took some of the fun out of it. What could they have been thinking?

Probably that the baby wouldn’t know, or care. But what of a toddler, or a 5-year-old? Do parents really bring in children old enough to enjoy “Toy Story” or “The Tigger Movie” and say, “Today, kids, we’re gonna go see ‘Scream 3’!” Do the youngsters really sit still for this stuff? Even if they aren’t scared out of their little shoes, aren’t they bored out of them? Is the patronly comfort the management is concerned about marred by little ones having to crawl in and out of the aisle to go to the bathroom, go to the snack bar, go to the waterfountain, go to the lobby to look at posters for Pokemon movies, and so on? Do irate moviegoers begin to hope the slasher’s next victim will be those parents?

It’s certainly wise of the theatre to set some rules for this sort of thing, though I bet they get some arguments about it. But why set the bar at 5? Will 6-year-olds behave any better? Perhaps, in addition to setting upper limits, the MPAA needs to think about lower ones, too--since clearly, some parents aren’t up to the job. Ratings, MPAA head Jack Valenti keeps insisting, are to inform and protect parents from exposing their little ones to sex, violence and bad language--but who protects kids from their parents? Surely, for those sense-challenged souls who would bring a baby into a movie where someone gets their head graphically shot off and someone else gets a needle plunged into her chest (and that’s not the half of ‘Pulp Fiction’s’ inappropriateness for the infant set), there need to be guidelines. I wouldn’t want my 10-year-old seeing that stuff. I’m not even sure about most 17-year-olds. And of course there are many, many R-rated movies that are way too intense for ME.

As long as they’re fiddling with the rating system, maybe they should add an R-13--no one under 13 allowed even if their idiot parents think it’s appropriate. Let those people dragging kids to the movies sit through “Thomas and the Magic Railroad” like all the rest of us poor souls. Or do like my husband and I do: Never go to the movies at all!

Friday, October 20, 2000

Playing dress-up

If I needed any evidence that I’m an inadequate mother, it’s come in the form of Cinderella Day at my kids’ school. Some bright-eyed educator came up with the idea of celebrating Cindy by letting everybody dress up in some form of fairy-tale finery. The elaborateness required was nonspecific, so I figured maybe we’d go to Burger King the day before and pick up some cardboard crowns with our Whoppers. But then I got to talking with a mom of a kindergardener during library duty, and it turns out the kindergardeners are going to town. One mom bought a $60 costume, another spent $40, and now pressure is on the kindergarden moms to outfit their baby girls right.

Will the 3rd grade moms of my daughter’s classmates be so insane? Will the parents of kids in my son’s small special-ed class? Will my little ones be the only peasants in rags among all the princes and princesses? Do I care?

No, which of course is the problem.

I’m just not a costume mom. I’m not busily making their Halloween outfits. We haven’t even decided what they’re going to be. Last year my daughter was a ghost, wearing a sheet with holes, and I even screwed that up; she couldn’t walk in it, and the eyeholes kept slipping out of place. As for Cinderella Day, who needs it? Can’t they just get dressed, go to school, and learn without accessories?

It’s bad enough that today is picture day, and I had trouble putting together ensembles glamorous enough even for that. My daughter has a couple of skirts and a couple of shirts to go with them that she alternates for church, but no dresses that are nice for pictures but not to restrictive for recess. No cool-weather dresses at all, come to think of it. And shoes--her best dress shoes are an old pair of suede lace-ups that had been sitting in the back of my closet unworn for years. We share a shoe-size now. Too bad she’s too skinny for my dresses.

So she’s going the casual top-and-skirt route, and will probably be surrounded by kids in full finery. My son will be wearing what he wears to school every day, a crew-neck shirt and cords, because he doesn’t have proper dress-up clothes either, and I’m not going to buy some for one day a year. Besides, he’d just suck on the shirt collar and look like a rumpled mess. Might as well be a rumpled mess in something comfortable.

Fortunately, I did see some kids running around in jeans and sweatshirts when I dropped the kids off this morning, so neither of mine will likely be picked out of the picture as the one with the mother who doesn’t know how to dress them for picture day. And that bodes well for Cinderella Day, too. Why go to all the effort of elaborate costumery unless you’re sure that everyone else will be fairy-tale-perfect, too? The only thing worse than being the only one who isn’t dressed up is to be the only one who is.

Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Measuring up

Well, now, here's the annual Newsweek “Birth to 3” supplement, come into our homes to make us feel badly about our children’s development. Oh, I’m sure there are some people who read it and feel great about their children’s development, or smug--those whose kids measure up perfectly against the magic yardstick, or have sprouted ahead--but most of us surely must look at it with dread, hold our breaths while reading the lists of milestones, panic at each mark that our youngsters haven’t hit.

When, exactly, did childhood become a race? Surely, on some level, everyone acknowledges that every child is different, every one of us develops at our own pace and in our own ways, faster here, slower there. Look at any group of children, and you’ll see diversity. Some are bigger, some are smaller; some talk a lot, some stay silent; some run easily, some lurch about; some are confident, some are shy; some are overachievers, some couldn’t care less. It’s abundantly clear that humanity is not one-size-fits-all.

Yet we’re constantly shown these milestones, in parenting magazines, in parenting books, in Newsweek supplements, on daytime talk shows. How does your child measure up? Should you worry? How can you not? The implication is that every other child at the day care or the nursery school will be running and jumping and skipping and doing advanced algebra, and your child will be sitting in the corner playing with his toes. And though intellectually we may know that there will probably be other toe-players keeping him company, that doesn’t stop the hurt and the worry and the guilt.

It’s particularly hard for parents whose children are decidedly not with the developmental program, those with what are charitably called “special needs.” On a day to day basis, you can love your child, enjoy your child, dote on each hard-fought word and cheer each wobbly step. On a day to day basis, within the reality that is your child, you may not even be aware of his differences. But then comes the IEP meeting or early-intervention evaluation that measures his worth in months instead of years, that puts in concrete how very off the beaten path his development has strayed. Then comes the doctor’s appointment when you have to check off milestones, and find yourself checking very few. Then comes the Newsweek supplement with all the pictures of happy healthy babies who are eating solid food and speaking in full sentences and managing their parents’ stock portfolios. And your undersized toddler’s major achievement in life is producing prodigious amounts of drool. It makes a parent discouraged.

Thankfully, my kids are out of birth-to-3 range, so Newsweek has no hold on me (though I’m sure if I leafed through, I’d see that my 7-year-old is still missing some 3-year-old milestones. I’m sure not going to look.) Still, I wish they’d knock it off. All these inchworms measuring the marigolds that are our children aren’t stopping to see how beautiful they are, in all their permutations of talent and ability. I’d guess that if you looked at any representative group of the most successful, talented, famous grown-ups around, you’d find a fair amount--maybe even a majority--of folks who weren’t the most on-target, on-pace, developmentally adept youngsters. Some of them aren’t all that on-target now. There’s something about the human spirit that can’t be measured. So we should just stop trying.

Or at least stop reading magazines about it.

Monday, October 16, 2000

Baggers with attitude

It was bad enough when supermarket checkers started giving us the choice of paper or plastic. I mean, after you spend an hour choosing between 10 or 12 permutations of every simple product, you shouldn’t have to make a choice about what to put them in. And especially not such a thorny choice--kill a tree, or choke a landfill? Whichever one you pick, you will immeditely read somewhere that it was a bad idea. Do I really have to deal with this after wading through 150 types of cereal?

The choice got simpler when my son developed a whole world of pretend play around plastic bags. He enjoys roaming the house with them, putting things inside them, moving the things to another part of the house, emptying the bags and filling them with other things. He pretends to be playing recycling, but nothing ever gets recycled, just rearranged. He hasn’t quite gotten the idea yet that of all the things you put in plastic bags, your head should not be one of them. Nor does he understand that if you tear one of those bags in little pieces and your mother does not pick them all up and your baby cousin swallows one, that will be a bad thing. So safety issues and clutter issues now trump environmental issues, and my answer to “Paper or plastic?” has become a resolute “Paper!”

Which makes it all the more annoying that our supermarket seems to have selected plastic. Oh, they still offer a choice. They still have the stacks of brown paper bags ready to be popped open and filled. But when you ask for paper, you’re likely to get a response somewhere between benign ignoring and outright attitude. Yesterday, we asked for paper. We bagged as many groceries as we could in paper. The checker, as if to race us, started filling plastic bags, whether we wanted them or not. Finally, in the spirit of compromise, she put a paper bag inside a plastic bag and filled that. Two environmental disasters for the price of one!

I don’t understand how she could hear our choice and see our choice and yet insist on using plastic. Maybe those soft little plastic bags, already pulled open on their little wire rack, are easier on the fingernails than those big old clumsy paper numbers. But at least she was quiet about it. Another time, we had a checker actually argue with us. We asked for paper, and she pointed out that it was raining, and the paper bag would get wet, and we really should use plastic. We said no, paper would be fine, and she got huffy. She was just looking out for our best interests, after all. And since she knew what was good for us, she went ahead and bagged our groceries in plastic, though we begged her not to. Is there some sort of “For the customer’s own good” directive among supermarket employees? It made me want to invent some story of hideous plastic allergies at my home just to make her feel bad.

I guess I should be glad to have the decision made for me. But if they’re going to make it, then just get the paper bags the heck out of there. Make it an all-plastic emporium. Admit that you’re getting kickbacks from landfill owners. And dispense with the illusion of choice. While you’re at it, just go down the aisles and pick one of everything, so we don’t have to stand staring at the shelves stunned by so many selections. We’ll be in and out of the store in a minute.

Or maybe we’d stay out entirely. But that would be our choice.

Friday, October 13, 2000

Friday night fights

Playing now at my house, every morning, every evening, every waking moment: It’s the Sibling Rivalry Wars! The excitement never ends, nor does Mama’s pounding headache.

In this corner, weighing in at a skinny 40 pounds, is The Little Brother. He’s small but quick, darting in to slug or scratch his sister before the referee can intervene. He attacks with stealth, while peacefully watching TV, while passing in the hall, out of nowhere. He apologizes with a jaw-dropping lack of sincerity. His tiny lungs hurl insults and provocations at ear-piercing volume. When his dreaded rival emerges from school with her classmates, he shouts “You’re Stupid! You’re Stinky!” If anybody else said such things to this girl, the referee would have to report him to the principal. But The Little Brother operates under a cloak of impulsivity and family immunity that makes it difficult for the referee to exact appropriate punishment. She hopes his speech impediment renders his words indecipherable to the other children. They are not indecipherable, however, to...

...the competitor in this corner, The Big Sister. Weighing in at a whopping 80 pounds, her superior size and strength would give her the upper hand in any physical confrontation, but she is forbidden to exercise that advantage. So she wields her superior skills at sarcasm to wound her opponent. Whatever he says, she greets with “Whatever” and a roll of the eyes. Whatever he does, she downgrades. When he weaves some plans for a game of pretend, she points out he’ll still be in his room the whole time. Words like “Liar!” “Fraidycat!” and “Copycat!” roll of her tongue, precipitating endless bouts of “Am not!” “Are too!” and “I’m right and you’re wrong.” When her brother retreats to his room and tells her to “Go Away,” she must necessarily stand in his doorway and glare at him, forcing him to shout “Go Away” yet louder and louder still until the referee cries for mercy. When her enemy is being too loud or too annoying or simply too present, she brings out her ultimate weapon: the Hand Before the Eyes. She is able to obliterate his very existence simply by blocking her vision of him. Or so she hopes.

In the middle, having a really bad day, is the referee, otherwise known as Mama, or more commonly as “Mooooooooooom, he/she’s bugging me!” She knows that this sort of rivalry is perfectly natural and normal, and not expressly designed to drive her batty. These are developmentally delayed kids, they are siblings by adoption, they are speech impaired, all this interaction and on-target kid-stuff is good. It’s good. It’s good. She repeats this over and over, hoping it will block out the sound of the skirmishes. It does not. She is happy they are doing something right. Really she is. But she wants them to CUT IT THE HECK OUT anyway. Be nice to each other. Be nice to their mama. Be quiet.

The referee is dreaming.

Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Java jive

The newspaper yesterday confirmed the sad truth: There will be no Starbucks in our newly renovated downtown. The Starbucks people were polite, but we are just not their kind, dear. Which is to say, middle class. Which is to say, not as likely to pay $2 for a cup of coffee as the folks in the tonier neighboring towns. Thanks, but no thanks.

The city planners, intent on making our Main Ave. a shopper’s magnet, had hoped for the upscale coffeehouse to set the right sort of tone for their development. Now, instead, they’re going for a drugstore and a post office. Probably more appealing to our city’s large and vocal senior-citizen population than a Starbucks, but you know, we already have a lot of drugstores. A LOT of drugstores. But we don’t have a Starbucks. And we never will.

Oh, you can still get a $2 cup of coffee within the city limits, but you have to hop on the highway and drive to monster-mega Barnes & Noble out on the edge of town. The coffee bar there uses Starbucks beans, and they charge Starbucks prices, but the execution is somewhat wanting. For one thing, the counter is staffed by humans who have been genetically altered to move more slowly than would normally be possible. There are always many, many of them on staff, and yet it takes 15 minutes for them to pour coffee into a cardboard cup. Time stands still. The line wraps around to the best-seller table. If it weren’t for the fact that the people on line were logy for lack of caffeine, there would be riots.

The atmosphere is similarly lacking; an open area of tables in the corner of a bookstore does not a coffeehouse make. Plus there are patrons who believe that if they can take reference books off of shelves and bring them to a table, they are in a library. A few weeks ago, my friend and I chatted over latte under the increasingly irate gaze of a man who just COULD NOT CONCENTRATE with all this yapping going on. Poor fellow finally lost it entirely when folks at two neighboring tables got into an inter-table confab and distracted him beyond all remedy. This would never happen at a Starbucks. He would know he’d have to listen to the annoying conversations of strangers, and he would have never come in.

But we’ll never really know that, because we’ll never have a Starbucks. The city council is looking for another magnet to add to the mix, but I’m not hopeful: Something that goes with a drugstore and a post office is not likely to draw me in. My personal choice would be a fast-food joint, so at least it would be a magnet for my kids, but no--our town may be too lowbrow for Starbucks, but we’re too highbrow for Micky D’s. One council member sniffed that they try to keep that stuff out on the highway, not in the bosom of the town. So we have one Burger King on the northern border of town, one Wendy’s on the southern, and in between--lots o’ little delis and diners and no-name greasy spoons. There was some discussion about whether a mini-mart slated for the new downtown would be allowed to sell sandwiches, because that would qualify it as a fast-food joint and we can't have that. Interestingly, though, I haven’t heard a peep about the Dunkin’ Donuts that’s been on Main Ave. for years. Donuts are fast, and they’re food, but...oh, heck, you’ve got to get your coffee somewhere.

And we won’t be getting it from Starbucks. I suppose I should say “Good riddance,” because really, where do they get off dissing us like that? But on the other hand...well...hey, guys, I’d pay $2 for a cup of coffee! And I’d bring a friend! Can’t we talk this out?

Monday, October 09, 2000

Surprise! No school

My kids are off today. No school for them. Nice little three day weekend. Once upon a time, they might have been getting off for Columbus Day, but honoring that guy who cheated the Indians out of their land is now kind of un-PC, so they’re getting off for Yom Kippur. When I was a kid, I remember being jealous of my Jewish classmates because they got days off for their holidays while everybody else had to go to school. Now I guess the kids are jealous of their Muslim classmates for the same reason. At my kids’ school last year, the place was always half full on Ramadan and whatever other days the local Islamic community felt were appropriate. But everybody gets off on Yom Kippur.

Except, of course, parents. Presumably Jewish parents get the day off for the holiday, or have reason to take a personal day, but the rest of us are left scrambling. These little random one- or two-day breaks are killers. First off, unless you’re super-organized, you forget about them until shortly before they occur. Then, you have to find coverage. Schools seem to wilfully ignore the fact that to many, many parents, they are day care. Working parents count on having their kids taken care of from 8:45 to 3. What are we supposed to do when the place randomly closes down?

The first few months are full of these inconvenient pauses. Upcoming days off include a staff development day (can’t they develop themselves on weekends?), a day off for election day (what’s a few strangers roaming the halls? Keep those kids in class so their parents have time to vote!), two days off for a teacher’s conference (again: What are weekends for?), followed by the more traditional half day and two full days off for Thanksgiving. December, of course, contains a whole week off for Christmas, as well as--in this part of the country, anyway--assorted snow days.

And given those snow days, you’d think the school would be more conservative about all its other, more marginal days off. There have been years when school had to go longer because unexpected, weather-induced days off caused the students to attend fewer than the mandatory number of days. Last year, at least, the days off for flooded classrooms came before the day off for staff development, so the staff went undeveloped for the year. But usually, by the time a few snowflakes fall and the school board panics and shuts down, those silly little unecessary days off have already gone off. And so the school starts to threaten that they’ll take days off spring break if necessary.

You know spring break. That’s the week that parents plan for their kids to be off, and so schedule vacations. Those days, the school feels free to reclaim. It’s only days when it’s inconvenient that they set the kids free. It makes you wonder: Are any of the people making these decisions actually parents?

Friday, October 06, 2000

Parenting poll

Just in case you were starting to feel like you had a handle on handling your kids, a new survey confirms once again that parents don’t know how to parent.

Funded by the nonprofit child-development organization (since when is child development organized?) Zero to Three, the nonprofit group Civitas, and the toymaker Brio Corp., the survey checked in with 3,000 parents, over a thousand with children six and under. The sponsoring organizations were shocked, shocked by the findings:

* Spanking was an accepted form of punishment for more than 60 percent of the parents polled. Babies and toddlers were not immune.

* Nearly 60 percent felt spoiling could start early, so wouldn’t indulge even a six-month-old child.

* Many parents were unrealistic in their expectations of developmentally appropriate behavior, punishing their children for doing things that they should not be expected to do yet.

A concerned Dr. Kyle Pruett, professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center and president of Zero to Three, told the Associated Press "We're potentially raising overly aggressive children who react to situations with intimidation and bullying, instead of cooperation and understanding; children who won't be able to tolerate frustration, wait their turn or respect the needs of others.”

Yet you can go to any monster-mega-bookstore in any monster-mega-mall in America and find books that will tell you that, indeed, the above parenting practices are perfectly sound, and if you don’t do them, you will be raising, well, just about exactly the same type of child Pruett describes above.

What we need here, more than polls, is consensus. Perhaps these organizations with spare change for surveys could get together and hammer out one parenting technique that will work with all children and meet the approval of all parents, grandparents, teachers, doctors, and casual observers. It should work for all kids, with all different personalities and challenges and neurological makeups. It should create model citizens who will be respectful, obedient, and good to their parents. And it should be simple to understand and implement.

Now that would be a public service. And about as easy to do as raising a child in a hypercritical world. I wish them luck.

Wednesday, October 04, 2000

What's for lunch?

So tainted corn has been found in prepackaged lunchbox-sized Taco Bell tacos. The corn, bioengineered to contain its own insecticide and approved only for animal feed, is not supposed to come anywhere near human comestibles. Yet the government has now confirmed that the stuff has indeed turned up in those taco shells.

Is it a plot by the corn’s manufacturer to bypass FDA approval? Is it an example of the sort of lazy regard for consumer’s health that urban legends accuse Taco Bell restaurants of regularly? Or is it, as I suspect, just a plot to make moms who send prepackaged luncheon packets to school with their kids feel guilty about it. Well, too bad: We moms are a lot hardier than insects.

I mean, it’s not as if a little insecticide is the worst thing kids are going to eat in those Lunchable-like assemblages. Has the FDA ever taken a look at that liquidy nacho cheese? If there’s any cheese in there, I’ll eat a bioengineered taco shell. Exactly what chemicals do they use, and which toxic waste sites do they get them from? Then there’s the super-processed meat products, which can withstand lack of refrigeration and all manner of lunchroom abuse. What’s a little insecticide with all of that? Keeps the flies away from the food.

That said, we’ve been going the Mom-made sandwich route this year. Every night, I make them up and lovingly slip them into zip-lock bags: One hamburger roll, lots of margarine, two slices from a brick of cheddar cheese. Every night I make them, every morning the kids toss them in their lunchboxes (along with carrots, applesauce, cookies, and juice boxes), and every afternoon the lunchboxes come back empty. Whether this means they’ve eaten the food, traded it, tossed it, or thrown it at classmates, who knows. But I’ve done my duty.

Last year, we went with the school hot lunch, which still costs less than a bioengineered-taco kit. But toward the end of the year, my son’s aide mentioned that he was playing with the food more than he was eating it, that he was eating with his hands instead of his fork, and that the other kids were talking. So we started sending finger foods in instead. This made his teacher upset, because she felt he should learn to eat with a fork. But all kids who bring in their lunches bring in finger foods. You don’t see kids toting filet mignon in a paper sack. So why should he not have a sandwich like anybody else? He has plenty of opportunity to gross people out with his lack of fork skills at home.

So far, they both seem happy with their same-every-day lunchbox lunches. No pleas for tacos, insecticide-fortified or no. My daughter did ask to up her cookie count from two to three, and I complied. My son did ask to change from boxy 100% juice boxes to sleek silver pouches of 100% who-knows-what, and I denied; never mind all the sugar in those things, anything that makes it easier to squirt juice product on your neighbor is not going in his backpack. And they’ve both requested more creative sorts of applesauce, but really: What do they put in that Blue’s Clues applesauce to make it so glow-in-the-dark blue? Has the FDA looked into it? Does it at least kill bugs?

Monday, October 02, 2000

Natural high

Feeling depressed? Take a hike.

That’s the advice suggested by recent study at Duke University Medical Center, where researchers compared the benefits of exercise and the medication Zoloft on major depression. Turns out those who walked briskly for a half-hour a day felt about as much better as those who just took the drugs. After four months, 60 percent of the exercisers saw their symptoms lifted, as opposed to 66 percent of the Zoloft users. Six months after that, the fitness freaks still felt better, while those on the drug were more likely to have suffered a relapse.

Now personally, I find this surprising, because having to exercise would just depress me more. But apparently, if you’re already depressed, working out gives you a lift. The researchers aren’t sure why. Maybe it’s endorphins. Maybe it’s getting out with a group of people (since the study exercisers exercised together). Maybe it’s the sense of control subjects felt when they relieved their symptoms through hard work instead of drugs. One thing’s for sure, though: It’s bad news for whoever’s trying to market Zoloft. If you’re making an antidepressant, it should sure as heck work better than half an hour of jogging. I know how I’d feel after half an hour of jogging, and I sure wouldn’t take a pill that made me feel like that.

If this research gets much publicity, you can count on some subtle changes in ads for antidepressants. They’ll start to mention that their little pill makes you feel better than a stationary bike. What I’d choose is a pill that makes you feel like you do when you’re laying on your bed reading magazines and eating chocolate. That’s what would cheer me up. But inevitably, you’ll also see mention of these findings in ads for exercise equipment. Chuck Norris will mention that his exercise gizmo flattens abs, fattens pecs, and relieves depression 25% better than competing gizmos.

Now there’s a depressing thought.

Friday, September 29, 2000

Whatever happened to fall?

I don’t know what the weather’s like where you’re at, but here in the northeastern U.S., it’s cold. Not as cold as it’s going to get, to be sure, but colder than it should be in late September. This is a continuation of a trend that’s been going on at least since summer. I can’t say I missed the usual endless days of 90 and 100 degree temperatures, but there was something odd about the not-so-hot hot season. And now, we seem to have lost fall.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, where people pretend there are seasons but it’s mostly a formality. Some parts of the year are hotter than others, some are colder, some rain more. But you don’t have the extremes of 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity in the summer vs. 20 degrees with a foot of snow in the winter. And so you don’t get those delicate gradations in between--the gradual warming of spring, the growing awareness of a crispness in the air in fall. Fall has been one of my favorite parts of living in this part of the country. The month or so of hanging between weather types--too cold for a t-shirt, not yet cold enough for a jacket--where you could run around in a long-sleeved shirt and enjoy the clear light and the crunchy leaves and the lack of sweat. It’s a cool time of year.

Especially cool this year, unfortunately. Downright blustery some mornings. Usually I stash a few transitional outfits in everybody’s closet and they’re good for about a month of procrastinating in bringing out the winter clothes. Usually I can wait until late October to haul out the heavy sweaters. Usually we don’t need the down jackets on Halloween. But here in late September, I’m already rummaging through storage bags in the morning looking for something warmer to wear.

Isn’t there supposed to be some global warming going on? Can we get some of that over here? Because I’m freezing, and I’m not ready to be freezing yet. Scientists will tell me that the warmer winter will be a sign of that warming, but it won’t be warm enough, and it needs to be warmer now. Temperature perception is definitely a matter of what you’re used to--I’ve worn essentially the same winter clothes for frigid 50-degree winter days in L.A., -20 winter days in Kansas City, and +20 winter days in New Jersey--and what I’m used to now is a little more temperate fall.

Come to think of it, I guess we already had it. In June.

Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Back to school

Last night was my kids’ back to school night, finally, fact is, I have nothing to report.

This is in marked contrast to last year, where a group of unhappy parents attacked my son’s special-ed teacher and made her cry. They had a legitimate grievance (well partly; they were right to be upset that their sons were in the same class as the year before, but they were wrong to be upset that my small son was in there with them), but they hauled off an attacked the wrong person, a young and inexperienced teacher who had only found out she would be teaching the class a few days before it started. She certainly wasn’t responsible for class placements, and couldn’t really even be expected to have a complete plan for the class laid out. But the parents lit into her anyway, and we felt the repercussions from that evening for the rest of the year, as many students were transferred out and the remaining kids’ parents dictated a much more strict atmosphere than I would have liked for my guy.

I’d never seen anything like that before at a back-to-school night, and I didn’t see anything like it this year. We’re at a new school, and everything is just exceptionally...nice. The teachers are nice, the parents are nice, the staff is nice. Parents seem to be treated with somewhat less distrust than at our old school. My son’s teacher this year is experienced and in control, teaching a class she’s taught before, and the parents are happy the kids are there. My daughter’s teacher went to the school herself as a child, and nobody had any arguments about how she planned to run the class. I spoke to the gym teacher by the baked-goods table after the presentations, and she knew who both my kids were and said they were doing fine. She had a hard time getting my son to stand still, so she put a hula hoop on the floor around him and told him to stand in the hoop. And he does.

That’s the kind of thing parents of special needs kids have every right to expect, but seldom get. Last year, I had the feeling that my son was a problem to be gotten rid of. Here, he seems to be a challenge to solve. No one seems too shaken up by him, and that’s great. The child-study team has been working with me to come up with the right plan for my daughter, who’s in a mainstream class and is supposed to have an instructional aide. Since she’s the only classified kid in the class, this would have made it an individual aide, and I don’t want that for her--she doesn’t need that. So the teacher and case worker came up with the idea of having the Basic Skills teacher, who will be coming in to help other general-ed kids, help my daughter too. It’s a nice, non-typical solution, and the case worker set it all up herself. Last year, whenever I needed anything, I was told to call the special-ed director myself. So this is all a welcome change.

Everything’s going smoothly. It’s going too smoothly. There’s bound to be a collision sooner or later. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the ride.

Monday, September 25, 2000

Smoke-free schools

Joe Camel is no longer Joe Cool. According to a recent survey of more than 15,000 students conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high-school smoking has finally begun to decline. On the rise for most of the 90s, the percentage of teens who light up has gone from 36.4 in 1997 to 34.8 in 1999. That’s a whopping one and six-tenths of a child out of 100 now refusing to follow in the Marlborough Man’s footsteps. We are to feel enthused about this.

Well, it is the first time the total number of smokers has gone down instead of up, anyway. But there's some variation in those statistics. The number fell in overall totals. It fell at a greater rate for black students (22.7 percent to 19.7) than for white students (39.7 percent to 38.6 percent). It fell the most for freshmen, who were 17 percent less likely to be smoking in the boy’s room. But seniors in high school are actually smoking more--a rise of 39.6 percent to 42.8 percent. And the kids who are smoking are smoking more; the number who smoke 20 out of 30 days has risen by a third in the past decade.

So does this overall decline mean anything? And if so, what? The government, whose goal is to halve the number of high-school smokers by 2010 (why not wipe smoking out altogether? If you’re going to have a goal, why not have a big goal?) would like to think that any decline is due to all the education programs it’s been running. All that money spent must be making some difference, right? But analysts also credit the rise in the cost of cigarettes, and that seems more on the mark to me. All those incoming, allowance-dependent frosh can’t afford the habit, but by the time they’re seniors, with lucrative after-school jobs in the food-service industry, they have money to burn, so to speak.

The answer then, clearly, is to keep raising cigarette prices until they are out of reach of the average fast-food slinger. Then you’ll see teen smoking plummet (and convenience-store thefts rise, no doubt). Alternatively, adjust the educational programs to include endless replays of the recent tobacco settlement commercials being paid for by the tobacco companies. You know, the ones where they outline what good, law-abiding citizens they are and how they aren’t going to do bad things anymore. How they’re dropping funky ads and paying for boring education. Can you imagine anything more uncool? Would any self-respecting teen want to ally themselves with those bozos? Your average juice commercial is more hip.

Can you see it now--a generation of teens hooked on Gatorade? Tell the CDC to get ready.

Friday, September 22, 2000

A word in Spanish

I knew things were going too well this year. My special-ed daughter is in a mainstream class, without an aide, doing well with only a round-the-clock study effort at home that is exhausting her poor mama. She remembered enough to get a B on a reading test, an A on a spelling test, a 100% on a social studies test. She’s happy, the kids appear to be friendly toward her, the teacher has been sending notes home to tell us what to study, and not complaining that my girl is a drain on her resources.

Math, English, Science--she’s getting along quite well, all things considered. But then there’s Spanish.

The foreign-language program in our city is still in its early stages, gradually complying with the state’s mandate to teach languages to kids when their brains are young and sponge-like, not later when their heads are full of rap lyrics and plans to shoot the student body. Only a few schools are currently giving the language lessons. Our old school didn’t. Our new school does. My daughter, who only started speaking English at age 5, is now being presented with Spanish words which mean nothing to her. (Better than English words that mean nothing to her, of which there are plenty, but still.) The other third graders have been learning this stuff for a year or more. She hasn’t. She’s clueless. And when she’s clueless, she cries.

I heard about this not from the teacher, and not from her, but from our new child-study-team case-worker, who called all concerned to find out if we wanted an aide for our daughter because she cried. (To what, tote tissues?) I’ve been explaining to all these people since the beginning of the year that if you give her work she is unfamiliar with, and she doesn’t know what to do, she will cry. If you give me the work ahead of time so I can show it to her at home and she is not surprised in the classroom, she will not cry. It’s so simple. It’s much simpler than putting an aide in the classroom. The teacher has sent me a few notes and a full set of textbooks, but not the sort of detailed advance warning I’d hoped for. And apparently the Spanish teacher hasn’t been clued in at all. Would it be so hard to send home the Spanish worksheets so that the language-disabled girl who has never had Spanish before will not be broadsided by them?

I’ve been requesting meetings since the beginning of the year, too, and everybody’s been too busy. Now that there are tears on the table, though, we suddenly need to talk. And I’ll have to make a decision. Do we want her to have an aide? (No. She is enjoying being like everybody else.) Do we want to demand that, as a classified child, she be released from the Spanish requirement and sent to do something else during that time? (Maybe. She still has such grave deficits in English, I hate to give over any brain cells to another language. She’s pulled out for speech twice a week, and maybe the speech therapist could switch her sessions to coincide. Or maybe I could request the resource room teacher work with her during those segments.) Or do we really want her to be like everybody else, and stumble through her language lessons? (When she cried, one boy admitted that Spanish made him nervous last year, too.)

I’m inclined toward the latter, though I think my daughter would just as soon give the whole thing a skip. But it’s not going to go away. As long as she’s at this school, there will be Spanish, and pulling her out now will mean that we have to pull her out always. So perhaps it’s time to get a Sesame Street Spanish tape, and find a teach-your-child Spanish workbook, and get cracking. There is some hope: After going on and on about how she doesn’t know Spanish, my daughter did manage to sing a little song she’d learned in class. It took a little time and some salvaging of my rudimentary junior-high-school Spanish to figure out what the heck she was saying, but we finally got it: “Buenos dias! Good morning! Como estas? How are you? Buenos, gracias. Very well I thank you. Y tu? And you?” Or something like that. As I said, my Spanish is rudimentary. But she is learning, emotional outbursts or no.

So I’ll go into battle to get some Spanish early warning, and I’ll hope that keeps her from panicking. I’ve told her a million times that it’s really much better to say “I don’t understand. I need help.” than to burst into tears. But desperate times call for desperate measures. This time around, I’m just going to teach her to say “No habla EspaƱol.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Risky business

Have the folks who do the parent advisories for TV shows been watching the Olympics? Because I think they need to put a warning label on this stuff. Maybe: “The following program contains scenes of people doing things with their bodies that, if you tried to do them, would result in significant emergency-room and/or chiropractic bills. Kids, don’t try this at home.”

The disturbing thing is, most of these Olympic atheletes, the pinnacle of their sports, are doing things I’ve been trying for six years to stop my son from doing. Things like slamming his head against hard objects. In the early days home from the Russian orphanage, he used to whallop his head against the wall, slam it into the floor, bop it back on my nose if he was sitting on my lap. There was a hole in the plaster next to his crib from where he periodically hit. Since he felt no pain, we had to persuade him that really, there were more interesting things to do than inducing concussions. But now, let him get one look at those soccer players stopping flying missiles with a head butt, or those female gymnasts hitting the balance beam with a crack in mid-maneuver, or the male gymnasts practically bouncing on their heads against those unforgiving mats, and he’ll know that head-hitting is not a bad habit, it’s a sport!

Or let’s look at inappropriate vocalizations. Now, my guy has a habit of yelling out annoying words or phrases over and over. So does the man who’s calling the soccer games. I dread the moment when my son hears the word “Gooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll.” Because I will then be hearing the word “Gooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll” 20 times a day for a month. Do we need this? Then there’s the incessant chatter of the commentators, trying desperately to make things up to make the pre-taped events seem interesting and suspenseful, and they clearly don’t know when to shut up, so why should my kids? It’s supposed to be bad when people talk on and on and on with nothing really to say. Isn’t it?

Crazy risk-taking is a hallmark of many neurological troubles, and I've long had an eye on my boy to make sure he doesn't, say, run out into the street or use a banister as a balance beam. But watching some of these atheletes, it looks like crazy risk-taking and a disregard for consequences are necessary qualities for sports superiority. Could they all have FAS/E? There was a time, I suppose, when you’d watch the Olympics and hope that your child could someday be like one of those glorious atheletes, but these days... I look at what these atheletes are attempting, and I don’t want my kids to even think of doing that.

I suppose you have to keep striving to go farther, higher, stronger, but especially in fields like gymnastics (and ice skating in the winter) that are largely subjective, I think it’s possible to push the human body too far. The things they’re doing are just impossibly hard and complex and punishing, and you can see by the injuries and the screw-ups that perhaps human bodies were not meant to do this. Call me a philistine, more interested in good TV than the glory of sport, but I liked it better when the routines were easier and the performances were better. And you could let the kids watch.