Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Make up your mind

It's one week until the start of school. You'd think this would mean that every teacher had a classroom, every classroom had a class list, every person had an assignment, every kid had a place to be. You'd be wrong.

For our district, anyway. And not even our entire district--for the special-education department. Children in regular education have the luxury of knowing all summer what school they'll be going to and at least an idea of which teacher they'll have; not the specific one, perhaps, but they likely know from the previous year which teachers handle the next grade up, and where their classrooms are, and which one is nice and which one gives too much homework.

But special-ed kids, well, they can get bounced anywhere, with anyone, right up to the day before school starts. Teachers move, classes move, classifications transfer. Last year, the child study team was in agreement that my son should stay at his familiar school and have a particular teacher who was very experienced, very good with children like him, and had been at that school for years. Wording was put in his educational plan to ensure that he would stay at that school and have that teacher. During the summer, I spoke to the special-education director, who confirmed that indeed, he would stay at that school and have that teacher. All summer, I told him about that school and that teacher. As we walked into the school on the first morning, I told him how much he would like his new teacher. And then, surprise! Different teacher. The one we wanted had been transferred two days before school started, and her class taken over by a new, inexperienced teacher who had about a day of prep time to get ready for this very difficult class. We then had to decide--while school was on, when changing would be most disruptive--whether we wanted the familiar school or the right teacher.

The ironic thing about all of this is that children with special needs are the most in need of predictability, routine, and steadiness in their school experience. These children more than any need to know well ahead of time where they'll be, who they'll be with, what they'll be doing. In a perfect world, these placements would be figured out by the beginning of June, and the children would be introduced to their new teachers and shown their new classrooms. They would have a secure summer knowing what was coming up. They would be afforded the same rights as their non-special-ed peers.

Maybe in some school districts this happens. Not in ours. As I walked into school with my son last year, firm in the faith that I had done everything right and knew just who he would be with, I spoke briefly with another mom who was bringing in her daughter, another special-ed student. The girl had been nervous all summer, worrying about who her teacher would be. She was particularly apprehensive that morning, scared and reluctant to enter the building. As it turned out, she had the same teacher she'd had the year before. They couldn't have told her that in June?

Again this year, I think I know what's going on. But I've learned not to relax until the kids are actually, finally, securely in their classes. Only one week to go.

Monday, August 28, 2000

Natural selection

There's a new movement afoot in America, Land of Many Movements. It's the anti-period movement. And no, they're not trying to ban that little particle of punctuation at the end of every sentence. Instead, this group of doctors and promoters of women's health are seeking to end menstruation as we know it. Have the Kotex people heard about this?

The argument, as laid out in the book "Is Menstruation Obsolete?" by Brazilian gynecologist Elsimar Coutinho, is that if women would just take their birth-control hormones all the way through the month instead of taking a placebo for seven out of 28 days, they could do away with all that mess and bother without doing themselves any harm. Proponents envision a world with no bloating, no cramps, no PMS, no painful complications--and, presumably, no peppy cheerleaders on TV commercials talking about their tampons. We can all certainly get behind that.

To those who say that suppressing this wondrous monthly event isn't natural, the anti-period patrol responds that it isn't natural for women to be bleeding so bleeding much in the first place. In the past, women started menstruating later, had more babies, and stopped sooner. Died sooner, too, but that's beside the point. In ancient Persia, a woman might have had 100 periods in her lifetime. In modern America, it might be 480. Think of the pain and suffering. Think of the inconvenience. Think of the money spent on super-jumbo packages of Always pantiliners. Oh, the humanity.

So if you could cut your menstrual rate down to that of an ancient Persian, without having to have additional babies or die young, why wouldn't you? Well, for one thing, because the jury's still out as to whether taking more estrogen than you really need is always a good thing. As with virtually everything in life, that which takes away risk in one area often adds to it in another, and though taking the pill and avoiding periods may cut one's chances of getting ovarian cancer, the extra estrogen may increase the likelihood of breast cancer. Then, too, let's think about that PMS for a minute. Is there not some value in having an excuse to be cranky once a month, as opposed to the rest of the month when we're cranky for no good reason at all?

Personally, I'm waiting for the counter-campaign that the sanitary-product industry must necessarily be plotting even as we speak. Expect much New Age-y talk about the glorious ebb and flow of life and the wholesomeness of nature and all of its ways. Let's hope they leave the peppy cheerleaders out of it.

Friday, August 25, 2000

Growth spurt

I love going to the neurologist. That is, taking my children to the neurologist. The pediatric neurologist, to be specific. This is an annual event for my daughter, semi-annual for my son, and I always look forward to it as my ritual gauge of where and how and how much they are progressing. As long as there is forward movement, we are not discouraged. And since it can be hard to see that movement when you're watching it in real time, it's always nice to go see Dr. Patel and have her tell us they're doing well.

Can't say the kids look forward to the visits the way I do. To them, a visit to the doctor means shots, no matter what kind of doctor it is. "I get a shot?" my daughter asks, and is not entirely convinced when I say no. "I don't want a shot! I don't want a shot!" my son whines, despite my repeated assurances that the doctor just wants to watch him play. This is apparently a scenario so inconceivable, though indeed he has been through it many times before, that he continues whining right up to the doctor's door.

But there are no needles at the neurologist's. There are toys, and paper and crayons, and a bag full of medical tools and other assorted goodies. There's a big desk and a small table and chairs and a table to sit on and a measuring stick to see how tall you got and a window to look out of and see our car in the parking lot down below.

Going to the neurologist gives me a chance to sit and talk about my kids, which is of course one of my favorite things to do. I get to fill the doctor in on all our little challenges and triumphs, at school and at home and out in the world. And then I get to watch the kids take their various tests, and see them do things they couldn't do six or 12 months before. My son sat still and concentrated and drew shapes like a champ--a circle and a square, a triangle and a diamond, and various combinations of the four. He cut out a half circle like he'd been doing it all his life, and wrote his name with panache. "He's showing a lot of progress," said the doctor. The mama had to agree.

My daughter is balancing on one foot just fine now, and I remember when it seemed that would never happen. She's acing all the little neurological tests, like counting her fingers against her thumb or flipping her hand palm up, palm down. The doctor said she would no longer call my girl neurologically impaired, just learning disabled. The fact that she couldn't answer fairly simple questions about what she watches on TV (and goodness knows it's not because she doesn't watch TV) or repeat more than five numbers back indicates that we still have ground to cover, but she's certainly grown a lot in 12 months.

And how: Comparisons to last year's exam show that my girl has shot up four inches and gained 15 pounds. This puts her within one inch of me, and she's only 10. How delightful it will be to have a teenager who towers over me. My son grew, too, but at a somewhat more modest rate: one inch and four pounds in six months. That's a healthy increase, but he's still pretty petite--three-foot-nine and 40 pounds at age seven. Hey, somebody in the family's got to be short like mom.

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Don't bug me

The big health news this summer, here in the New York metropolitan area, is mosquitos. And not just any mosquitos: mosquitos who are carrying the West Nile virus, that staple of nightly newscasts and inspirer of public panic. The virus is transported from infected crows to humans by those little needle-nose nuisances, and can cause encephalitis. Or not. Though seven people died after being infected last year and 62 more were sickened, most of those bitten will just experience a bad case of the blahs (and just how would I distinguish these from my normal everyday blahs?). It's a serious health hazard for the elderly, the weak, and the immune-system-impaired. For everybody else, the itching is probably worse.

Yet of course, since there's no news like scary news, all we hear and read is DEADLY VIRUS and PUBLIC HEALTH RISK and MUST SPRAY POISON! That poison would be malathion, which is something of a public health risk all by itself. Still, we can't be having no virus-carrying mosquitos flying around, so some counties are choosing airborne chemicals as a lesser evil. At the very least, residents are being advised to take major precautions: No standing water in your yard! No going outside without your own personal chemicals liberally applied! No going outside with any skin exposed, even if it's chemical-coated! No going outside in the evening at all!

Now, personally, I'm more afraid of a Lyme-disease-filled deer tick than a West Nile-virus-bearing mosquito, though I'll be happy to steer clear of both. And that's where I'm finding some small compensation in this whole thing. I've never much liked the outdoors. I've entered it grudgingly. When my children insist on playing outside, I stall them as long as I can. Can't let them go out by themselves, of course--between their developmental delays and judgment problems and the predatory strangers one hears about on nightly newcasts when there's no mosquito news, I watch those kiddos like a hawk. But I can whine and complain and delay and cut their outings short for arbitrary reasons. And I do.

Previously, this has made me a bad mom who for her own selfish reasons will not allow her children to frolic in the great and health-filled outdoors. Now, though, I'm a good and alert mom who is keeping her children safe from danger. Really, if you subtract the hours of the day you're advised not to let children outside because they could get sunburned, and then subtract the hours of the day you're advised not to let children outside because of mosquitos, there's only about five minutes in the early morning and five minutes in the late afternoon that are safe. By the time you slather on the sunscreen and bug repellant, that five minutes is gone. Can't put out a little backyard swimming pool, because mosquitos will lay eggs in it. Can't go hiking, because there are deer ticks out there. Can't leave toys in the yard, because the insecticide sprays will collect on them. Can't go outside when it's hot, because the clothes you have to wear to block out the sun and the bugs will give you heat stroke. Why not just stay inside, in the air-conditioned house?

And if that makes you just feel blah--well, see? You've already been infected!

Monday, August 21, 2000

Now cut that out!

Are "today's parents" trying too hard or not hard enough? That's the question that keeps parenting books filling up, and flying off of, bookstore shelves. From the virtual shelves of, here are two new tomes that exhort us to do more, do less, do different. I haven't read them--heck, I'm still just halfway through Stanley Greenspan's The Challenging Child, which I bought months ago, and I have a stack of such scintillating titles as Assessment of Communication and Language, Teaching Children With Autism, and Reaching Out to Children With FAS/FAE waiting for me when I'm done. No mere garden-variety parenting problems for me! But if you're not rushing out to buy these titles, then you must be a bad parent. Or so their publishers would have you believe...

Taking the "try harder!" tack is How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! by the aptly named Sal Severe. Does your child throw wild, humiliating tantrums in public places? Maybe it's not his behavior you should be worrying about. Severe's take is that it's your behavior that causes junior to act up--your inconsistency, your ineffective disciplinary techniques, your willingness to give in to get a little peace. As Amazon's review explains: "Solidly putting the responsibility for a child's behavior on the parents, "How to Behave" addresses a wide range of issues, such as how children learn to push their parents' buttons, why children misbehave, and how to motivate kids to behave using simple rules and consequences. Push aside all the nitty-gritty advice, however, and several themes emerge. Over and over, Severe emphasizes that raising a child requires total parental consistency, that it takes awhile to get results from new parenting techniques, and that overall, parenting is a very tough job." Well, thanks. It's nice of someone to say so. Especially someone bent on making it tougher still.

But does it really have to be so tough? From the "don't try so hard!" school of thought comes Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard? by Alvin A. Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise. What the two are specifically targeting is the overabundance of activities parents run their kids (and themselves) through in an effort to provide a rich, varied, and full childhood experience. Bad parents! Says Amazon: "If you've just sat down after a day that included taking your very intelligent child to a Kumon math tutoring session, shuttling another to soccer practice and piano lessons, supervising the homework of both to make sure it's perfect, and making a midnight trip to the grocery store to pick up the organic grapes for tomorrow's nutritionally balanced lunches, then "Hyper-Parenting" is for you.... This parenting style can be loosely defined as one that attempts to control everything in a child's environment with the aim of achieving a perfect outcome. It's not realistic or healthy, say the authors. Chapter by chapter, examining everything from parents' reliance on "expert" opinions to the huge impact of media messages on parent behavior, Rosenfeld and Wise make a compelling argument for their premise. They encourage parents to turn the lens inward and ask themselves what messages they are sending--not with their words, but with their behavior." Personally, I think that teaching children how to juggle a full schedule of activities is probably about as valuable a skill as anything, and teaching them that the best way to handle their lives is by reading a book (particularly one that then tells you not to listen to experts) is somewhat less productive. But then again, I've carefully perfected a hypo-parenting style by which I park the kids in front of the TV for endless hours of Nickelodeon so that I have plenty of time to sleep, answer e-mail, and read parenting books.

Hey, it works for me.

Friday, August 18, 2000

Ill-conceived conversation

What is it about women getting together that forces them to talk about childbirth? Seems every time I go to a wedding shower or a baby shower or just a party where the women congregate in the kitchen, the conversation invariably veers toward pregnancy and labor and all their attendant discomforts. The mommies-to-be and the moms-that-have-been compare notes on who had the worst morning sickness, or the largest weight gain, or the most uncomfortable weather, or the least competent spouse. Sometimes someone will hold forth with a long involved story of delivery difficulty that everyone has heard before but listens to admiringly again.

At such times, I might as well just fade into the woodwork, or fall through the floor, for all the contribution I’m going to make to the conversation. As an adoptive parent and someone who never got very far with fertility treatments, I don’t begrudge fertile folks their ability to bear children, but sheesh, do I have to hear about it all the time? I’m usually not the only one falling silent—there’s usually an unmarried woman or a married woman who hasn’t had kids yet in the crowd, and we stand there like children listening to their father tell war stories, waiting for it to be over so we can go play.

You'd think that it might occur to someone that childless people in the room might be uncomfortable with all this talk. But then again, I suppose I blather on about my kids without considering whether people might be uncomfortable with that. Now, of course, my kids are wonderful and endlessly fascinating and who wouldn't want to know their every move? I suppose, though, that for someone having trouble having children, hearing about childish exploits might be as saddening as hearing about childbearing ones.

So maybe we should all just start talking about the weather. Or maybe I should just stop being so sensitive. In truth, there is one good thing about listening to endless stories about epidurals and episiotomies: They make me appreciate adoption all the more. I mean, we had a miserable time in Russia, and got stuck there far longer than we anticipated, but in the end, it was only a month, and I think I might have actually lost weight. No surgery, no hospitilization, no morning sickness (though the food did sometimes make me a little nauseated). And through it all, my husband was suffering just as much as I. Clearly these pregnant people are going about it all wrong, and next time I hear them go on I shall just sit back and gloat. Give me my kids ready-made, you bet.

Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Presidential psychology

Want your kid to grow up to be president? He or she won't have to run against one of mine; since they were born in Russia, they're ineligible, at least under current law. And given the reputation-scarring, gray-hair-inducing, crucible of fire the presidency has become of late, it's hard to know why anyone would wish that on their offspring. A White House staffer who could quit and write a best-selling book, maybe. But president? Why not something a little safer, like snake handling or fire-fighting?

Still, if you have second-generation political aspirations, a team of psychologists has helpfully outlined the traits that great presidents have had in common, as well as those shared by their less-than-effective brethren. The losers tended to have qualities that would make for great neighbors, but didn't do much for their leadership potential. Here's what to start teaching your children well:


Presidential pros like Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and JFK tended to be:
* Smart
* Energetic
* Assertive
* Concerned about others
* Open to experience
* Extroverted
* Constantly striving for achievement
* Broadly capable
* Disorganized
* Disagreeable
* Not above tricking, cajoling, bullying, or lying


So-so chief execs like Grant, Harding, Taft, and Coolidge were found to be:
* Agreeable
* Straightforward
* Likable
* Tidy
* Cooperative
* Easily led
* Innocent
* Pleasant
* Passive

So the next time Junior says he cleaned his room when he really didn't, or sneaks off to do some new thing you've forbidden, or insists on his own way, or talks back, don't punish him--get that boy a campaign manager. He's presidential timber.

Monday, August 14, 2000

We're back

I report back to you from the land of airplane travel that yes, it is still possible to go to an airport, get on a plane, and arrive at your destination in a reasonable period of time. This is news because on every channel, in every paper, you'll read about people who have not had such luck. Everywhere are reports about delays, canceled flights, people trapped in terminals, people trapped on runways, disgruntled pilots, deceptive airline personnel, dejected passengers. And yet my little family managed to sneak through without incident.

Of course, most of the bad reports have been about United, and we were flying American. This was just dumb luck, because I wasn't thinking about pilot strikes and mechanic strikes when I made the reservations. American's crews are apparently happy campers, and not prone to leaving customers stranded and steaming, and for that I thank them. Now, on the return flight, they did arrive at the airport late enough to bump our departure time by a half-hour, but arrive they did, and the pilot politely made up most of that time in the air. No complaint from me; hey, I'm late to work all the time.

It may also have helped that we were on non-stop flights between Newark and Los Angeles, with no time whatsoever in Chicago. The Windy City appears to be the root of all airline evil these days. People speak of it in hushed tones. "If it's bad in Chicago, it's bad everywhere," a steward told a passenger, shaking his head in rueful amazement. Things must have been happy at O'Hare the last two Saturdays, because badness did not trickle down.

Well, there was a little badness, but it wasn't schedule-related. It was seat-assignment related, and it was just stupid. Why, do you suppose, would they scatter a party of four, with two children, all around the cabin? We gave the children's ages when we made the reservation; doesn't that information reside somewhere? On our flight out to L.A., we were assigned two seats together, another seat seven rows away, and the last seat seven rows farther still. On the way back, we had three seats together--but one was across the aisle from the other two. Now, I have one highly hyperactive seven-year-old who requires constant supervision, and one quiet 10-year-old who will throw up if she doesn't have her head in my lap for most of the flight. Which of my unaccompanied children would you like to sit next to?

In both cases, the nice lady at the gate was able to switch things around to at least give us two-and-two. Going out, those two-and-two were many rows apart, giving me a long peaceful ride with my mostly sleeping (and mercifully not vomiting) daughter and my husband a long lively ride with my mostly not sleeping son. Going back, we had the best arrangement possible: Two-and-two, with my son and husband directly behind my daughter and I. Or, more specific, my son right behind me, so that we did not have to yell at him for five hours to STOP KICKING THE SEAT. It is impossible to get him to stop kicking the seat in front of him because his feet don't reach the ground, and his knees don't reach the end of the seat to bend, and in the super-spacious coach section the seat in front of him is about an inch away, and his feet have to be somewhere. It is impossible, but people expect you to try. The best I can usually do is take his shoes off so it's at least a softer kick.

My advice, then, for people traveling with children, is to sit short kicking kids behind one of their parents, or at least behind a stranger who is a parent and knows that there are much worse things a kid could be doing. Arrive at the airport two hours early so that your children can actually be seated with you (I know you are thinking that being seated away from your children would make for a much nicer flight, but think of your legal liability toward the other passengers). And most important of all: Stay the heck away from Chicago.

Friday, August 04, 2000

Is it Fall yet?

One more month of summer before school starts. One more month. Thirtysomething days. Four long weeks. A short time, and yet an eternity. It will fly by, I know it will fly by. But will it be quick enough to keep me from suffering kid overload?

The summer so far has been manageable, barely. We've had our big month o' camps--two weeks of church camp for both kids, then one week of basketball camp and one week of our city-run camp for my daughter, four weeks of special-needs camp for my son. After today, there's no more camp of any sort. We're camp-free. Just hangin' out at home. Relaxin'. Havin' fun. Playin' games. Buggin' mom.

My daughter has actually been home-bound for these last two weeks, and we've survived. Of course, she's easy--if there's a TV set with Nickelodeon on hand, she can amuse herself for hours. These past weeks she's broadened her show selection, adding Regis's and Rosie's morning shows. A "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" fan, she often declares her deep and abiding love for Mr. Philbin and her intention to marry him. Finding out that he had a morning show, too, was a treat. Seeing him co-hosting with his wife this week may upset her plans, but she's enjoyed watching her Regis all the same. And Rosie is "so cute." I've made sure the TV got switched to kiddie fare before "The View," though, 'cause they discuss things there I don't want her to, well, view. Then again, maybe I should save myself the trouble; she's been spending more and more time downstairs with Grandma watching soap operas, and we all know how discrete and chaste those programs are.

It keeps her busy, anyway. But from here on in, it gets complicated. Next week we go on vacation, which will be a week of relaxation surrounded by two extremely stressful, overly long airplane rides. When we get back, it's straight into three weeks of under-occupied children, and though my daughter just wants to watch, my son will want to play. Play outside, play with me in his room, play Candyland, play recycling with odd objects from around the house, play with the newspapers by distributing them all over the floor, play with the beanbag chairs by dropping them down the stairs, play with the drawers and doors by opening and shutting them over and over, play with his skin by picking off scabs, play, play, play, play, play.

Where do you go to get that year-around school, anyway?

Wednesday, August 02, 2000

Bed head

Here's the kind of news to drive a conscientious parent nutty: Putting infants to sleep on their backs, as is now the conventional wisdom to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, can leave them with flat heads. Not flat hair--a flat head. We're talking a plane from the nape of the neck to the top of the noggin.

The problem appears to be the extreme malleability of the newborn skull; like anything else soft, if you place it agains a flat surface for long periods of time, it will take on a flat surface itself. This is okay if you're talking about, say, a ball of Play-Doh, but not so cool when it's your baby's head. Remedies for this radical form of bed head range from making the child wear a plastic helmet to reform the skull (yowch!) to plastic surgery to reshape the head and reposition the ears, which sometimes end up skewed.

If all this makes you want to plop baby back on his or her stomach, the American Academy of Pediatrics says--Don't! A little skull rearrangement is a small price to pay for stayin' alive, and that organization is so proud of the decrease in SIDS since it started recommending back-sleeping that they're willing to risk some deformities. They do recommend moving baby's head from time to time, presumably to get a nice faceted effect instead of one big flat surface.

But here's the thing: You can go along being a good parent, following the pediatrician's orders, observing the latest advice, doing everything you can to keep your baby safe, and still end up disfiguring the kid. How on earth do parents of infants keep from being complete nervous wrecks? If you ask me, this is just another good reason for bypassing infancy altogether and adopting children who are well past the newborn stage. Their heads may be small, but at least they're round.