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.