Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Standing ovation

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

My son stood still.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2000

Cold weather

How sick is too sick to go to school?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2000

Making a list, checking it twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Drug detective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, it worked with antibiotics.

Monday, December 11, 2000

Get smart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe she’s smarter than I thought.

Friday, December 08, 2000

Growing girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 06, 2000

Here's looking at you

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 04, 2000

Do you hear what I hear?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 01, 2000

True feats of daring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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