Friday, June 30, 2000

He's the tops

Call the Guinness Book of World Records! Notify the medical journals! Wake the newsmagazines! The most hyperactive, most distractible, least focused, most impulsive, least containable, most unmanageable boy on the entire planet Earth has been found in the state of New Jersey. In fact, right here in my home. In the bedroom full of stuff he's picked up from all around the house and put in his room on the pretext of recycling. Yes, there, behind the pile of shopping bags and shoeboxes. It's him! The world record-holder for jumpiness. A child of unprecedented motility. The king of chaos. My sweet son.

It's not like a mother to be modest, but I have to admit, my boy doesn't seem like any sort of record-breaking creature to me. He's a busy boy, to be sure, and I certainly don't deny his many challenges, but--the most uncontrollable boy in the world? How can that be? At home, he's generally manageable, unless of course we ask him to do something like homework or eating neatly, and then all bets are off. Given the nature of his neurological problems, firm resistance to things that are difficult is to be expected. A wide range of annoying behaviors is to be expected, as a matter of fact. And yet I'm constantly told that his particular behaviors are unexpectedly disruptive, even in contexts where I would expect them to be the norm.

He's been rejected from two different groups designed to teach social skills to autistic children because the therapist thought he would distract the other kids. A therapist who just evaluated him for a therapeutic horseback riding program specifically designed for autistic, Down syndrome, and ADHD kids told me flat-out that I couldn't expect him to have as long a session as the others because he was so all-over-the-place. A child psychologist who specializes in behavior problems asked me within ten minutes of meeting my son whether he was always so annoyingly active. These are people who work with active, distractible, unfocused, impulsive, uncontainable, unmanageable kids every day, yet my son stands out as someone they don't want to deal with. So he must be exponentially more of all those things than even his most impaired comrade in brain damage.

I'd like to think that the problem lies not in my son, but in the so-called professionals. Obviously they are not skilled enough, or they would be able to engage him. Obviously they are lazy, or they would want to take on his challenge. Obviously they are inexperienced, or they would know that kids like him are like this. Obviously they are so used to seeing children who are medicated that they're too spoiled to deal with the real thing. How can you, say, bring an inquisitive and curious boy into a stable, with horses and dogs and strange smells and sights galore, and be peeved when he doesn't focus on you, a boring old human who is after all a stranger? How can you interview a child in a room full of knickknacks, as one therapist did, and be put off when he checks each one out? Are "typical" kids so different? Is this boy really so odd?

Yet I've heard the same verdict so many times that there must be something to it. He must just be Active Boy 2.0, the new improved version, faster and more frustrating. And isn't that what people want these days--to be the most, to be extreme? Perhaps I should embrace his uncontrollable nature and start exploiting it. Tell the talk shows we're ready! But make sure they bring in a few more cameras to catch all that extra action. My boy knows no boundaries.

Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Snack attack

Wake up, they're fat! That's the message about our kids that's blaring from the cover of this week's Newsweek, and I'm starting to get an idea as to why that may be. On snack-room duty at my kids' half-day church camp this week, I'm seeing what people are sending in for their first- to fifth-graders to munch on. And I'm wondering if possibly they think the camp is on a desert island and they have to save their little ones from eating rats.

I'm shocked by the amount of food these kiddos are bringing in. To me, snack means "small amount of food to sustain child through a morning's learning." To some folks, it apparently means "lunch." I see sandwiches and chips, I see elaborate Lunchable ensembles, I see thermoses and jumbo-sized lunchboxes packed full. Cartons of yogurt. Tubs of fruit salad. One girl had a pre-fab kit of silver-dollar pancakes, syrup, and a leather-like item that was undoubtedly supposed to represent sausage. Did she skip breakfast? Will she eat lunch?

What makes all this worse is that the kids have a very brief amount of time to chow this stuff down. "Recess" is fifteen minutes, and that includes snack time. So they have about ten minutes to eat and five minutes to run around the parking lot "playing." Someone needs to send a memo home to moms and dads letting them know that this is not a 45-minute lunch break, like in school, and they should pack snack bags accordingly. The memo should also mention that this break comes about one hour into a four-hour day, so far from being starved from all their hard work, the campers are probably still digesting their Lucky Charms.

Poor scheduling, to be sure. Speaking for my own personal kids, they have a hard time putting away even a tiny snack in ten minutes, my son because he so enjoys playing with his food, my daughter because she eats at a pace that makes glaciers look breakneck. And even I would have difficulty gobbling down some of their campmates' brown-bag extravaganzas in the alotted time. I don't think I could even drink some of the enormous containers of juice before the bell.

Since this is after all a church function, perhaps we should be collecting all the uneaten snack items and sending them to a soup kitchen. We'd be offering the homeless the very latest in snack-food technology, that's for sure. The little packages of cookies that you dip in frosting seem to be popular; now there's a healthy snack. Crackers with a raspberry-jam dip might be a bit more nutritionally sound, but just a bit. Fruit roll-ups now come in flavors and colors I never knew existed; one girl had a rainbow number that looked awfully purty. She finished it and then took a large roll of fruit "tape" out of her bag and proceeded to peel and eat that. A balanced snack--two forms of flat fruit! One boy had one of those mini-pizza kits where you squirt tomato sauce, sprinkle cheese, and pop pepperoni on top of a crust the size of a jar lid. I think he about got one assembled before the bell rang.

On the beverage front, it appears that foil juice-bags have bested juice boxes as the container of choice. This I will never understand: You hand your child a bag full of juice and you expect him not to squirt his neighbors with it? I haven't caught any bad behavior, but there do seem to be puddles left behind when the snackers are gone. I have enough trouble avoiding squirting when holding a full juice-box firmly. There are no juice bags in my family's future. But other parents have no such qualms; one mom sent her boy in with three juice bags. One to drink, two for food fights?

Monday, June 26, 2000

Parenting by the book

Do modern parents overanalyze the parenting process? Do they make a simple job complicated? Do they spend too much time reading parenting books and not enough time actually parenting? So says a...well, a parenting book that caught my eye today on the Barnes & Noble shelf: Parents Who Think Too Much: Why We Do It, How to Stop It. According to the publisher, author Anne Cassidy "talks about why all that thinking hasn't worked. She tells you why it is time to drop out of parenting class ... adjust your priorities so life does not revolve around a 6-year-old's soccer schedule ... and trust your instincts. With much humor, some outrage, and great wisdom, she discusses: what's wrong with a kid-centered society; why we are making the world too safe for our kids; why 'feel-good' discipline is a bad idea; why raising a happy, average kid is a terrific goal; how to find your own parental voice and style ... and more. The only thing she won't do? She won't tell you how to raise your child." And presumably, she won't tell you to stop buying parenting books until after you've picked up hers.

Frankly, I have trouble believing that a parent who doesn't think is a better parent. I have trouble believing that parenting books are the root of all evil. And I mostly have trouble believing a parenting book that tells me that. I mean, really, Anne, a sign in every Borders and Barnes & Noble in the land saying, "Hey, you! Stop reading this crap!" would have done just as well. Did you really need add another tome to the bundles o' books crowding the shelves? Books about protecting kids, protecting boys, protecting girls; disciplining kids, educating kids, entertaining kids; giving kids a moral sense, financial sense, a sense of humor; adopting kids, birthing kids, toilet-training kids, getting kids to sleep; being more stern, being more free, holding on tighter, letting go; being a mom, being a dad, being a single parent, being a grandparent, being a stepparent; dealing with hyper children, sensitive children, out-of-sync children, explosive children, challenging children, gifted children, spirited children, children with every special need imaginable but mostly ADHD children. Are parents obsessing because there are so many books, or are there so many books to feed the obsession?

And does it really matter? For each trend in parenting, there will be an equal and opposite trend. You see it on parenting e-mail lists--somebody asks a question, somebody else gives an answer, and then yet another somebody completely contradicts it, often implying that the original answer was ignorant, harmful, or indicative of a wholly inadequate parenting mindset. Why should we expect authors to be any different? Glancing at bookstore shelves or Amazon Web pages lately, you can see that for each book touting a foolproof set of parenting rules, you'll find a book that advises you not to listen to those rules, listen to these rules, and a book that says you shouldn't be following any rules, and a book that says that not following rules is what caused the problem in the first place. No wonder "parents today," as the books like to call us, are so completely confused. Every child and every family is different, and nobody has all the answers, but that sure doesn't shut anybody up. Parenting may be one of the few areas in which even people who have never done it and never will consider themselves experts.

And what the experts seem to be saying these days is that we're idiots for listening to experts. In addition to Parents Who Think Too Much, there's the enjoyably titled I'm Okay, You're a Brat!: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You from the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood. Says the Amazon blurb, "In this refreshingly honest book, bestelling author Dr. Susan Jeffers breaks the 'conspiracy of silence' and pulls no punches when detailing just how difficult parenthood can be. With humor and compassion, she reveals the insidious guilt that some child-care experts cause parents to feel. She questions many myths and half-truths that make parents feel inadequate and offers valuable 'survival' tools to cope with it all." Notice only some child-care experts are indicted here; present company excepted, no doubt.

But lest we be empowered to shed guilt and admit that sometimes kids are brats no matter how hard their parents work, here comes America's favorite feel-good shrink, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, with a bucket of cold water. In Parenthood by Proxy: Don't Have Them If You Won't Raise Them, the good doctor "entreats parents to involve themselves in their children's hearts, minds, and souls, to cherish and protect them, and to commit to the essential task of teaching them right from wrong. She acknowledges that parents no longer get much support from neighbors or public and private institutions, but she urges mothers and fathers to work even harder to counteract the prevailing culture of selfishness and irresponsibility."

So...what? Are we trying to hard or do we need to try harder? Are we overthinking or behaving thoughtlessly? Are our kids brats because of us or in spite of us? And while these folks are out writing, promoting, and speaking about their books, who the heck is watching their kids? Perhaps one of us hapless parents should write about Parents Who Spout Off Too Much, and advise would-be know-it-alls to just run their fancy-pants theories by their mothers and mothers-in-law before commiting them to print. The bookshelves would quickly be barren.

And I'd have to find something else to read.

Friday, June 23, 2000

Give me a break

Mamas, watch what your daughters drink. If they're sippin' the wrong beverages, they could be apt to cause themselves bodily harm. In fact, there's one devilish concoction popular with our young people today that quintuples the likelihood of breaking a bone. To drink it indicates such a lack of regard for one's personal health and safety that parents would do right to be concerned.

It's likely, though, that Mom and Dad are drinking the stuff themselves. And it's not alcohol that puts young bones in such danger. No high-octane cocktail or drug-spiked brew. This viper in our midst is found in refrigerators across the land, in vending machines and mini-marts and fast-food palaces and picnic coolers.

That's right, the culprit is cola.

According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, girls who drink the demon cola are practically begging for a bone fracture. Researchers surveyed active freshman and sophomore girls at a Boston high school and found that, while only five of 57 girls who just said no to Coke and Pepsi suffered fractures, a whopping 38 out of 107 cola-chuggers experienced that injury. Simply sipping soda of any sort made a break three times more likely, but the nectar of the cola nut raised that to five. And yet this hazardous substance is sold in high school cafeterias throughout the land! Alert the media! Let loose the politicians!

What is it about cola that makes bones so brittle? The problem may not be what's in the can, but what's not: calcium. The theory runs that girls who are drinking soda aren't drinking milk, and milk, as we all know, builds strong bodies 12 ways. No, wait, that's Wonder Bread. Milk makes strong bones, anyway, but you're not likely to find a high school girl who'll be caught dead drinking it. Cow juice is kid stuff, and if they weren't drinking cola they'd probably be drinking coffee, or sports drinks, or designer water, or beer.

There's also speculation that the phosphorus found in cola actually weakens bones, but let's not let that get out, because while no amount of ads of milk-mustached celebrities is likely to make moo juice cool, imbibing harmful chemicals most certainly is cool, and kids will start quaffing more cola just for the kick of turning their bones to Jello. Besides, the lack of calcium caused by deficient milk-drinking seems to be the strongest factor in weakening bones. "Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease," says Dr. Neville H. Golden, director of the Eating Disorders Center in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. Which means that those healthy young active girls will soon be racing us old, stooped women for those bottles of calcium supplements. Unless we stack a few cans of soda nearby as a decoy.

Not surprisingly, the cola industry is taking a defensive stance on all of this. A spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association was quoted as saying, and I'll paraphrase here, "Aw, go squeeze a cow." But I think they're missing the boat. Why not just fortify all those yummy carbonated colas with calcium? It's a whole new market niche. It shouldn't be hard--calcium is turning up in all sorts of products these days where it has no business being. Why not pop? Just think of the ad campaign possibilities--beautiful young celebrities lounging about with their cans of soda, talking about how calcium-spiked cola is responsible for their rock-solid bone structure.

Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Logic problem

I hate standardized tests. I think they're a poor way to measure schools' effectiveness and harmful to the educational process. I think they try to quantify something that is not truly measurable in such rigid terms. I think they put pressure on teachers to teach to the test instead of teaching what students need to succeed. I think they take creativity out of the classroom and put conformity in.

Unless my child scores well, in which case they're a wonderful measuring device for proving that she's learning, she's really learning.

I especially hate standardized tests for special-needs kids, who must necessarily learn in different ways. I think they're skewed against kids for whom English is not the first language. I think they're skewed against kids who spent formative years in another culture, or in a deprived or neglectful setting. I think they make teachers fearful of inclusion, lest the teacher's effectiveness be measured by the progress of kids for whom learning is hard. I think they're a poor indicator of a child's actual ability to cope in real-life situations.

Unless my child scores well, in which case they're a true and accurate portrait of her abilities, and should be accepted by everybody as proof that she can be successful.

This year, my child scored well. Her numbers were above average in language, math, science, social studies, and total score, and I take those as proof that I was right in wresting her from self-contained special-ed and putting her in a regular-ed class with an instructional aide. Ha, that's right, I was right, right, right! Look how much she's learned in this new setting! Her scores were triple or more what they were on the same level test last year. Take that, you naysaying Child Study Team members!

Of course, her score for reading stank, actually lower than the very-low level it was at last year, but that's clearly a statistical glitch. Probably a misprint or something on the test form. Reading comprehension questions are often confusingly worded, and frequently fall into areas of knowledge that my girl doesn't possess because she spent her first 4.5 years in a Russian orphanage. Don't confuse me with low scores. Low scores are inaccurate. High scores are true and meaningful. It's parent's logic. Don't confuse me with the facts.

Facts are things that parents of special-needs kids moving through the special-ed system are bombarded with all the time. Facts and test scores, evaluations and estimations, all those formulas and numbers that attempt to sum up our children's potential. We sit in rooms full of professionals and hear that our seven-year-old is functioning as a five-year-old in this and a four-year-old in that and a three-year-old in the other. We hear that our ten-year-old is in many ways like a seven-year-old, and not the sharpest seven-year-old, either. It's horrifying to hear your child's abilities summed up in months and years, such low months and years. And so you've got to grab for the good news when it comes along, however dubious it may be.

When my son was evaluated last year upon leaving the school's pre-K program, he miraculously scored as close to his actual age level in cognitive skills. Close to his actual age level! He'd never been close to his actual age level in anything before. Height, weight, head size, motor skills, language skills--all significantly lagging, years and years behind. But damn, he thinks like a seven-year-old! High fives all around! Now, if he'd scored low, I'd have had a million excuses--doesn't test well, tester couldn't engage him, yada yada yada. But my boy scored high! He showed what he can do! That's the sort of thing to which we parents cling.

That, and positive standardized test scores. There's a million excuses for why my daughter did well and a million reasons why her doing well means nothing--after all, she's a ten-year-old scoring above average for an eight-year-old; among kids her own age, she'd be a cellar dweller for sure. She's also on her second time through second grade, so she darn well should be showing some improvement. Do her higher scores mean that a) we've finally found the right level for her, and as she follows along in her two-years-behind course she will continue to perform well; b) regular-ed teachers do a better job of prepping kids for stupid standardized tests than do special-ed teachers; c) my daughter needs two years in every grade to actually learn something; or d) coloring the bubbles in the shape of a smiley face turned out to yield the right answers this time around?

I'm choosing answer A. And if you say I'm wrong, well, tests like this are for the birds.

Monday, June 19, 2000

Dealing drugs

I've only just gotten used to seeing prescription-drug ads in magazines, like the one with a little cloud on one page and a little sun on the other page and a little plug for Prozac. It seems odd to see Prozac hawked along with the booze and cigarettes and CDs and cars. It's odder still to see non-over-the-counter meds advertised on TV--people going on about their allergens and allergy medication, people dancing and singing the praises of their heartburn medication, people swearing by the latest weight-loss drug. I must not have gotten the memo about this sort of thing being legal all of a sudden, but clearly the floodgates have been opened. Drug companies are marketing directly to consumers, and though they haven't started giving us free pens and pads and all-expenses-paid conventions the way they do with doctors, that time may well be coming.

In the meantime, we get Web sites. That's right, those same pill peddlers who've been telling you in print and on the tube why you should nag your doctor to prescribe you their product are now setting up cozy little internet offices. Feeling sniffly? Surf over to, where you can sign up for a daily e-mail pollen alert, get a personalized allergy profile, subscribe to the monthly "Blue Skies Newsletter" full of seasonal allergy tips, even customize Claritin's home page so it suits your own specific allergy needs. And--surprise!--get a $5 rebate on your next prescription.

Similarly on call to meet all your personalized health needs is, the online site for heartburn helper Prilosec. Here you'll find, among other helpful things, a quiz, a glossary, a list of food triggers, and an offer for a free information kit containing a brochure, a questionnaire, and a personal heartburn diary (but hey, what about a Prilosec pen?) If you just can't wait to start documenting your acid reflux, though, the site offers an online diary in which you can record those painful moments, take note of what may have caused them, and then print out a detailed report for your doctor so that he can treat you properly and, oh, I don't know, maybe give you some Prilosec?

The site for the anti-depressant Paxil, currently advertising heavily on TV as a cure for "social anxiety disorder," is set up as a Mental Health Weather Station, with panic disorder pictured as a violent lightning storm, depression as a driving rainstorm, obsessive-compulsive disorder as a threatening cyclone, and social anxiety disorder as...well, the picture for social anxiety disorder shows a guy banging his head against the wall, maybe because he forgot his umbrella and is afraid to ask anyone for a loaner. In addition to clinical info on each of these afflictions, personal accounts are offered: Supermodel Beverly Johnson talks about her panic disorder! Professional baseball pitcher Pete Harnisch takes about depression! Some guy you've never heard of talks about OCD! But the centerpiece of the site is the Social Phobia Inventory Test, which invites you to select your relative degree of agreement with various statements ("Parties and social events scare me" "I am bothered by blushing in front of people") and then offers an assessment of how likely you are to have social anxiety disorder. I scored 12 out of a possible 68, which even the Paxil people had to admit did not sound like much of a problem. But the mere fact that I had taken the test at all seemed suspicious to them, and they urged that if I even thought I might have a problem, I ought to go see my doctor at once. And, um, is there any particular medication I should ask about?

Prozac, no less concerned about our well-being, offers an array of "Recovery Tools" to make sure your treatment is working the way it should (and if you're not taking Prozac, undoubtedly it ain't.) At, you can follow your progress with the Zung Depression Tracking Tool, plot your recovery on the Kupfer Curve, sign up for daily e-mails that remind you to take your medication, or forward the page to a friend so that they can be depressed, too. Of course there's a diagnostic quiz, this one called the Zung Depression Self-Assessment Test. Now, this isn't to be used if you're really, really, really depressed--the opening disclaimer clearly states that if you are feeling suicidal at this very moment, you really ought to skip the quiz and go straight to the ER. Those who are still somewhat short of the ledge can go ahead and agree or disagree with statements like "I enjoy looking at, talking to, and being with attractive men/women" or "I feel that others would be better off if I were dead." I can't tell you what my score was on this one, because although I answered every question, the computer kept telling me I didn't. A plot to send depressed people screaming for Prozac? You be the judge.

Wondering what fun your own medication of choice has to offer? In most cases, you can just plug it right into an url and see what comes up., the site for the contraceptive Depo Provera, offers a detailed description of what to expect from a pelvic exam and instructions on how to do Kegel exercises. helps you assess whether or not you've got influenza; please try not to vomit on the keyboard as you review the symptoms. I tried, but was bounced to a search engine that warned me many of my results were adults-only. Even worse, when I entered the name of my decongestant, Duratuss, I wound up at a porn site which professed to specialize in bikini-clad babes. Maybe that stuff would clear somebody's sinuses, but not mine. And speaking of porn sites, one of the offerings on is "Success Stories." Do any of them involve bikini'd babes, I wonder? At any rate, I'm not going near that self-test.

Friday, June 16, 2000

It's a hoax, folks

When most people talk about Internet junk mail, they're talking about spam--unsolicited solicitations from businesses, lone entrepreneurs, or porn peddlers that pop up unbidden in your inbox. There are ways to control your spam intake--employing filters, for example, or dumping AOL. But there's not much to be done about that other form of Web refuse, the Internet Hoax, because it's usually sent to you by somebody you know, for your own good. Seems some story or other turns up on one of my e-mail lists on a daily basis, always submitted by a goodhearted member, always about some horrific hot-button issue, always suggesting the recipient e-mail it like crazy. They may not officially be viruses--in fact, more often than not they're about viruses--but they sure replicate like one.

Mostly, I disregard and delete. Sometimes, if the subject is particularly inflammatory and I've got some time on my hands, I'll hop on over to the Urban Legends Reference Page and check it out. This site is a treasurechest of bunk, and you're likely to see things you never thought to question disproved in forthright fashion. HIV-filled hypodermic needles lurking in theater seats, pay-phone coin slots, and gas pumps? False. Virus-soaked sponges being sent through the mail? False. Cockroach eggs in envelope glue? False, though CBS is probably thinking of planting some on envelopes given to letter-writing contestants on "Survivor." Bill Gates giving people $1,000 for forwarding an e-mail? Alas, false. Asbestos in crayons? Well, that one's true, but only in miniscule amounts, and manufacturers are currently changing the formula.

Then there's the one about atheist poster-girl Madalyn Murray O'Hair trying to get "Touched by an Angel" taken off the air. That one turned up in my household today in rare hard-copy form: a handout my mother-in-law brought back from her church meeting. "Stand up and be counted!!!" it read. "CBS will be forced to discontinue 'Touched by an Angel' for using the word 'God' in every program." (Well, hey, I'll bet "NYPD Blue" uses the word God in every program, too, though admittedly not in a religious context.) It goes on to inform us about petition No. 2493, currently before the Federal Communication Commission, that seeks to ban all religious programming on TV. No more Christmas specials! No more televised church services! No more televangelists! Wait, why are we supposed to be upset about this? Oh, yes, because that O'Hair woman, having single-handedly banned prayer from schools, is now trying to ban it from the airwaves and Must Be Stopped! We're asked to fill out a form indicating our desire, as God-fearing people, to keep TV safe for has-been pop stars with yuletide albums.

Now, if you ask me, anyone who's trying to get "Touched by an Angel" off the air is doing us a tremendous favor. That show offends my deeply held faith that angels wouldn't be caught immortal in hair like Della Reese's. In fact, all these angel shows, on the air and on the movie screen, are mixed blessings indeed. I caught part of "City of Angels" on a movie channel the other day, and an angelic being was willing to fall to earth just to have sex with Meg Ryan, who was promptly hit by a truck. (Those of you who would like to see Meg Ryan hit by a truck in all her movies...well, that's a different petition.) Surely we Christians would like to believe that God's messengers have better judgment than that. Entertainment that glues on religious themes just to seem deep winds up trivializing religion more than Madalyn Murray O'Hair could ever have hoped to. I imagine her someplace watching this stuff and having a good old laugh.

That someplace would be well hidden, because the woman disappeared in 1995 with her son, granddaughter, and a heck of a lot of her organization's money. She's not been seen since, which will make it difficult for her to argue her alleged case before the FCC. But as the Urban Legend folks explain, petition No. 2493 has already been before the FCC, and rejected by that body--in 1975. It had nothing to do with O'Hair, or with banning the mention of God on TV. It merely asked that religious groups affiliated with universities not be granted licenses to broadcast as educators when in fact they mean to broadcast as religious groups. The FCC said, and I'll paraphrase here, "We wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot pole." For their defense of religious tolerance, the FCC has been rewarded with about 30 million missives in the last 25 years asking them to just say no to something they were never asked. They wish you'd cut it out, by the way.

Sadly, it seems that people will believe and act on anything. Even more sadly, it seems that nobody is trying to get "Touched by an Angel" off the air after all. Can we appeal to the FCC on the basis of taste? It's time to stand up and be counted!

Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Why Mommy can't play

Good news for lazy parents: Turns out playing with your children, directing their activities, encouraging them, and helping them decide what to do is actually a bad thing. That's right, it's better to leave the kids alone with those asbestos-laced crayons and let them do what they will than to suggest a direction or a color or even so basic an endeavor as staying between the lines.

Aiding kids in that way stunts their creativity--or so suggests a new study by the American Psychological Society. Children whose parents were actively involved in their play felt pressured to perform and judged on that performance. Whereas children whose parents could care less what they were up to presumably felt free to be wildly creative and original and true to their unique little selves. One can hope that their muse did not lead them to actually color on the walls, but one would hardly want to tell them not to.

Still, I applaud this new information, since it supports my selfish theory that children should know how to play and just leave me alone and go do it already. At last, now, I know I'm right to sit like a lump in front of the computer screen, reading my usual 487 pieces of e-mail, while my young ones learn spontaneity and initiative and how to amuse their own little selves. Lately, my son's imagination has led him to play Recycling Man; this involves going around the house and filling plastic shopping bags with various items that I will one day miss. He has a toy shopping cart in which he puts these bags and transports them about the house. I could tell him that what he's really playing is Homeless Man, but that would be applying my own rules to his creativity, and fie on that.

My daughter, on the other hand, has always had a tough time coming up with a play plan and has relied on me to tell her how to occupy herself, but no more. If I keep giving her ideas, how will she ever become a creative, free-thinking adult? And if what she freely thinks is that she'd like to watch Nickelodeon until her eyes fall out, well, who am I to hamper that self-determination? Keeps her out of my hair.

Yes, it's a happy day. No more showing the kiddos how to put together Legos into the impossibly complex forms detailed in the instructions, or putting play-doh through the intricate permutations suggested in the kits it comes with. If they can't figure it out themselves, let them figure out something different. And if it involves major clean-up--and tell me, what unsupervised children's activity does not?--well, perhaps its time to let the young people channel their own inner Hazel and learn to clean in a spontaneous and imaginative fashion that does not involve mom. If they don't judge me by my previous performance in this field, I won't judge them on theirs.

Monday, June 12, 2000

It's the thought that counts

The end of school is two weeks away, which is a good thing because it means the kids have successfully navigated another year through the educational system, and a bad thing because I am responsible for successfully navigating them through another understructured summer. But the hardest thing about the end of school isn't figuring out how to handle all those end-of-year half-days, or figuring out where to send them for camp, or figuring out how to keep their brains running for three months so they won't be stalled in September--it's figuring out what to give the teachers for year-end thank-you gifts.

Gifts are a good thing because they give you a chance to show your appreciation to the people who have taken the little ones off your hands for nine grueling months and actually taught them something in the process, and a bad thing because you know whatever you buy will wind up on the big heap of useless junk the teachers get from similarly thoughtful but clueless parents. I look at the racks and racks of little apples and little schoolhouses on the Hallmark shelves and wonder how many of each the teacher will be getting. I try not to obsess about this; I want to get something nice, but I don't want the choice to take over my life. In the end, it's the thought that counts, though I don't suppose that's much comfort when she opens her fifth or sixth desktop bell or wooden apple calendar.

I'll admit, I'm also pretty cheap when it comes to teacher gifts, which does not reflect on my esteem for those individuals, but mostly reflects on the sheer number of individuals involved in any one year of special education. At times, when both kids were in special ed, we might have had two teachers, four aides, two bus drivers, two bus aides, two speech therapists, one physical therapist, and two occupational therapists. Even getting all those folks an inexpensive gift adds up fast. I'd think about ranking the personnel in terms of time and effort spent with each child and then giving each a class of gift that corresponds with their relative investment, but pretty soon I'd need to quit my job in order to work through all the various permutations. And then I'd have even less money for gifts.

I remember the first Christmas I had a child in school, I brought the teacher and aides and therapists pumpkin bread for a gift. I thought that was a nice thing, from the heart; not a big deal, just a thoughtful gesture. Then I happened to get a look in their back room, and saw piles of huge gifts. I've never felt comfortable just gesturing since. Though in fact, they may have enjoyed the pumpkin bread more than the contents of those boxes. One teacher friend tells of receiving one year, from a young pupil, the gift of a bra. And not just any bra, but one that was well-worn and sweat-stained. His mom is probably still searching the washing machine for it, wondering where it went.

I figure I can do better than that. And if not, I won't be alone out there on the big heap of useless junk.

Friday, June 09, 2000

Trials and tribulations

My husband has jury duty week after next. This would not be a problem--doing his civic duty and all--except that 1) he had already taken that week off for vacation and 2) the reason he had taken it off for vacation is because it's the last week of school and the kids have four half-days in a row. Two days of that week I go into work, and he was going to be available for 1 p.m. pick-up. But now the court's got dibs. This problem became clear after it was too late for him to plead child-care needs and try to ditch his duty, so we just have to wait and hope they decide at the last minute that he's not needed.

I've actually never minded jury duty much myself; it's like a paid vacation from reality. I rarely get on a case, so it's a nice time to catch up on some reading in the waiting room, if I can ignore the Jerry Springer episodes somebody always turns the TV to. The one time I was actually chosen for a jury, we wound up hung. It seemed like an open-and-shut case, but the prosecuting attorney was so inarticulate and inept and the defense attorney was like something straight out of "L.A. Law," and the latter ran rings around the evidence so successfully that he formed reasonable doubt in the mind of one very stubborn juror. The protestations of her 11 colleagues meant nothing, and so we made no decision. Not exactly a satisfying way to spend a week.

The most satisfying jury-duty experience I've ever had was my spell on a Grand Jury--one day a week for ten weeks. We heard multiple cases each day, and the great part was that we weren't deciding anyone's guilt or innocence, just determing whether there was enough evidence to go to trial. A majority could do that; didn't need that pesky unanimity. The legal eagles in charge of the proceedings were highly articulate and often funny. Some of the cases were unpleasant, which made me glad that I didn't have to live with them for weeks. Clearly, if one has to be on a jury at all, this is the way to go.

But not the way my husband has to go; he's scheduled for a solid week, and the kids aren't quite. Whose idea is this half-day school stuff anyway? Why have a last week of school if it only works out to half a week? And speaking of working, don't they realize that a lot of parents do? Are they just trying to phase the kids out? My two are going straight from that week into two weeks of half-day camp, so we have a lot of empty afternoons in our future. Let's hope there are no protracted jury trials in Papa's.

Monday, June 05, 2000

New kids on campus

An interesting thing about having children in special education is that you never can tell what school they're going to be in. Instead of their home school, the kids are bounced to whatever campus happens to be hosting their particular program that year. Ironic, of course, that the children who most need stability, structure, and predictability in their school environment are the least likely to get it. In our district, anyway, it's often not decided until a few weeks before classes start where a child will end up, much less with whom.

My kids have never gone to our neighborhood school, though my daughter has been lucky enough to stay in the same cross-town school for five years. My son has been in two different schools, but for the last three years has been in the same school as his sister. That school has come to feel like home to us--the kids know their way around the building, I know my way around the system. I've let myself get more and more involved in the Home and School Association in the hope that this would be the place where my two would continue through their elementary years.

But now, there's talk of moving them both. And, surprisingly enough, it's to our own neighborhood school. No more explaining to people why they go to the school they do. No more driving cross-town for playdates. The sheer normalcy of it is exciting. We drive by the building every day now, thinking about it. It's a nice-looking, all-American kind of school, two stories, vaguely colonial architecture, welcoming sign out front. Different from the school they've been going to. On a main street instead of a side street. Next to a restaurant instead of an apartment building. Across from a church instead of electrical towers. Bigger, but more contained. Will my kids like it? Will the kids there like them? The first day of school is a summer away, but we're already feeling the anticipation and anxiety.

Them, and me too. I wouldn't say I've made a lot of friends at that other school in that other neighborhood, but at least the people are familiar to me and with me. I'm comfortable there. The school my son went to before joining his sister was a school I emphatically didn't feel comfortable at. It was in one of the ritziest neighborhoods in town, and the moms were all well-toned and Spandex clad with big hair and good tans, and I'm this little schlumpy thing with two special-ed kids and no darn time to sell tickets to the fashion-show fund-raiser. I couldn't get my guy out of that school fast enough.

What if the moms at the new school aren't nice? What if the Home and School is cliquish, and has all sorts of rules I won't know? The moms there will be my neighbors, so I truly do have to live with them. And what about the principal? I pretty much had the old one figured out, and now I'll have to get to be known all over again. Hard as it is on the kids to be bopped around from school to school, it may be harder on moms like me, who try to get involved and get to know the staff and be part of the school scene. I've been promised that if we make this move, the kids won't have to move again until junior high. Don't think I could take any more than that.

Friday, June 02, 2000

Is Celine Dion a houseplant?

Call me sensitive, but the headline caught my eye. There, on the list of stories on my personalized Yahoo! page. "Celine Dion Fertilized."

What is she, a farm?

Bad enough to have your difficulty conceiving made fodder for tabloids. Bad enough to have your every infertility-clinic visit documented. But to have your efforts to have a child described in terms that make people think of cow manure--is this really necessary? Are there no limits to the news media's insensitivity?

Wait, don't answer that.

Now mind you, I'm no great fan of Celine Dion. I'd almost rather have my 10-year-old listen to hardcore rap than play "My Heart Will Go On" one more time. I find her vocal stylings to be so over the top as to make my fillings ache.

And to be even more honest, I'm no great fan of infertility treatments. We stopped fairly early in the process and went for adoption, with no regrets. I suppose I respect every woman's right to do painful and bothersome things to her body in the pursuit of parenthood, but I'd say that when news organizations refer to you as though you were the Back 40, or perhaps a limp houseplant, it might be time to call Tom and Nicole's adoption attorney and get yourself a baby who's already been fertilized, so to speak. Or better still, an older child with special needs who could benefit from the kind of help that Titanic-size record sales could provide.

But that's just me. If Celine and her husband want to harvest a crop they planted themselves, far be it from me to judge. In fact, I wish them all the best in their efforts. I wish them more thoughtful headlines. I wish them many, many babies. And most of all, I wish that Celine's sabbatical would go on and on and on. Gotta save that voice for yelling at the kids.