Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Dress for success

It's not even fall yet, and already my daughter is having her first struggle with middle school rules and regulations. The issue at hand is the school dress code, which the principal thoughtfully mailed out in time for school-clothes-shopping season, and although it doesn't seem unusually restrictive to me, the fashion dictates have my usually passive girl stomping and fuming. It's not that she's all caught up in wearing the latest stylish thing or the coolest kooky trend. She's always preferred comfort above all, and that's where the rules get her goat — because along with the forbidding of too tight, too short, too high-heeled, too droopy-hemmed, and too offensive couture, the principal has outlawed oversized T-shirts, decreeing that said garments should end at the "high hip area." And my young student-to-be has never heard anything so ridiculous in all her young life.

You should have heard her and her friend squawking about having to wear neater-looking T's to class. You'd have thought the dress code mandated shirts and ties, dresses and nylon stockings, polished shoes and buttoned cuffs. Oh, the indignity, the cruelty, the extreme discomfort of wearing a T-shirt that does not fall to mid-thigh! She hates shorter T-shirts! They're not her style! They don't feel right! Woe is her. Me? Not so much. While I'm personally in favor of any clothing baggy enough to conceal the sort of body she's developing under there, I'm smart enough to know that if I'm going to pick a battle going into a new school, it's not going to be over shirt hems. I'm more likely to fight for the comfortable fit of student and classroom than the comfortable fit of her clothes.

Besides, when I was a kid, girls didn't even get to wear pants to school, much less baggy T-shirts. My daughter isn't interested in stories about the olden days, and it's just as well, because under cross-examination, I'd have to admit that the no-pants rule only lasted through the elementary school years, and that on my first day of middle school in 1971, I wore a very spiffy pair of crushed velvet hotpants. They were of a length that would not pass my daughter's principal's below-the-fingertips rule for shorts and skirts, but I believe my matching peasant blouse did indeed stop right at the high hip area.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Reading girl

Hey, my reading-phobic daughter has, as of today, read a total of seven books this summer. Seven! We know the exact number because she's been filling out a form picked up at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and when she gets to eight books she gets a free one. Free books aren't exactly a thrill for her, but I think she is proud to be filling in those blanks. To try to fan the flames of excitement over reading, I also bought a "reading log" from the Really Good Stuff Web site; meant for a classroom, it's a laminated log with paper leaves that kids can fill in with the title, author, and what they like about the books they've been reading. Our log's looking pretty fluffy, with her seven leaves on it.

Whenever my girl balks at reading, as she tends to do, I explain that reading is like exercise for your brain, and will help with her ongoing language learning disabilities. And darned if it doesn't seem to be working. She's been more and more able to express herself over the past couple of months, finding the words to ask questions she was never able to ask before. Including, interestingly, questions about her birthparents and her adoption. I've tried to engage her in conversation about adoption for years, and she's never been very interested, usually following up my sensitive openings with questions about what's for dinner. But now, suddenly, she's exploding with curiosity and fantasies about what life would have been like with her birthparents and plans for contacting them when she's a grown-up. So now it's my turn to get reading: Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, for starters. Now that she's becoming able to communicate in ways she never could before, I need to be able to communicate back.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Short, and short-tempered

Every child's right to use pharmaceuticals to attain perfect normalcy got another boost today when the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of growth hormone shots to help short kids become less so. Perhaps you will understand my consternation at this decision when I mention that the FDA approved the use of Humatrope for boys whose adult height is predicted to be less than 5-foot-3 and girls likely to be under 4-foot-11 — and then reveal that I myself, at a fully grown and much-advanced-adult height, am a growth-hormone-deprived 4-foot-10. Two of those inches, I gained in my 20s.

So I may not know from being ADHD or ODD or OCD or any of those other D's they give children drugs for, and I may therefore try to reserve my opinion on medicating kids for those problems ... just mumbling disgruntedly to myself, but not too loudly. But I know from being short. And while there certainly are some drawbacks to extreme lack of height — just try buying pants off the rack, for example — it's nothing worth subjecting your children to six shots a week for. It is eminently survivable.

Sure, I got teased a lot. I was short in kindergarten, I was short in junior high, I was short in high school. I spent years waiting for the growth spurt that never came. But I like to think that being short helped to toughen me a bit to the torment kids inflict on each other, because my height was so clearly something I could do nothing about, and so it wasn't something I internalized or spent a lot of time blaming myself for. Kids will always find something to tease other kids about. At various times, I got it for being overweight, for being a spoiled only child, for being lousy at gym, for being pushy -- all charges that stung. But my height was always such an obvious target that it was hardly worth making up other things to tease me about, and that was the one accusation it was easy for me to brush off. In the long run, I'm glad I grew up short.

Is it so impossible for families today to think of things the same way? Is normalcy so de rigeur that any departure from it is unthinkably painful enough to justify any remedy? Was Randy Newman right all along about short people having no reason to live? The drug companies would certainly like us to think so. My mom always used to tell me that good things come in small packages, but I guess the only small packages these days are the ones that contain our daily meds. Snippy little thing, aren't I?

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Wrap it up

Coming soon to a lunchbox near you: baggies you can eat. Chemists have come up with an edible food wrapping that you can gobble right along with your sandwich, and it may be on the market by the end of the year. The paper-like wrapping, which can also be used on frozen foods and then cooked, is made of compressed fruits and vegetables and is intended to cut down on the plastics and foils that get tossed in the trash. Even if your kids refuse to eat their broccoli-flavored wrap, the stuff is biodegradable, so won't last long in a landfill.

The well-meaning food chemists behind this are touting it as a nutritional as well as an environmental breakthrough, since the wrappings count as a fruit or vegetable serving, but you just know once these things are actually for sale, marketing departments will legislate that they be made in more kid-friendly flavors than carrot, tomato and papaya. Before you know it, they'll be neon-colored, sugar-packed, zingy-flavored and nutrient free, and kids will be eating the wrappers and throwing away the sandwich. Better living through chemistry! Or something like that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

New on Mothers with Attitude

After a bit of a drought, we finally have new entries from all three of our regular columnists. Julie Donner Andersen writes about spending some special one-on-one time with her kids, with mixed results, in her Therapeutic Laughing column. Ken Swarner's latest installment in his Family Man column examines the undeniable and slightly scary transformation that occurs when dad becomes grandpa. And April Cain reflects in Thinking It Over on how hard it is to give kids a little freedom, and how necessary.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Old habits die hard

I got myself into a pretty good tizzy the other day over a comment my mother-in-law made about the fact that my son, at the ripe old age of 10, is still sucking his fingers. Now, I know that's not exactly an appropriate behavior for his age. And in terms of personal hygeine and good dental care, it's also not ideal. But it's also true that sucking his fingers is a sure-fire calming technique for him, and that his other calming choices -- sucking on his shirt, blowing raspberries on his arm, putting his hands down his pants -- are at least as problematic. Picking at him constantly to take his fingers out of his mouth, take his fingers out of his mouth, take his fingers out of his mouth is a pretty good way to nudge his stress level up into the danger zone, not to mention my husband's and mine. So I haven't placed making him kick the habit anywhere high on my list of priorities.

The finger-sucking boy, therefore, was perfectly calm when we went for a visit with his grandma. My stress level, on the other hand, started creeping up when she started commenting on what a shame it was that he still sucked his fingers. It bugged me when she tried to get him to stop. It bugged me more when she asked my husband, "Don't the other kids tease him? He's 10 years old!" And it bugged me most when she turned to him and started in on how it's all our fault for not making him stop. I jumped right in and told her to leave it alone. And since her hearing's gone glitchy lately, I had to repeat myself. By the third time I said it, I was yelling. I grabbed the boy's spitty hand and took him outside for a walk, as much to give myself a time-out as anything.

The thing is, he's been doing so great this summer. He's been reading with me every day, doing worksheets on demand, practicing his piano, going to a mainstream camp without a problem, faithfully taking computerized typing lessons every day, working with a tutor once a week. He's doing so much, so calmly, and I'm so proud of him. I feel completely good and confident about saying that as long as he's doing so many big things so well, I'm not going to sweat the small stuff. So why does a little criticism throw me into meltdown mode? Why can't I just blow off the looks and the tsks and the implications of parental weakness? Why can't I be as oblivious as he is? Maybe I ought to give that finger-sucking business a try myself.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Looking for This?

I've finally found a search engine for Mothers with Attitude that should enable users to find anything that's ever been on it anywhere, from the very first "Boiling Point" essay in January, 2000, to the very latest entry in "Parenting Isn't Pretty." In addition to the link in the previous sentence, you can access it from the Pico Search logo in the bottom left-hand column on the MWA home page. Eventually, I'll work it into the template here and all throughout the site, but right now the thought of all that code-pasting gives me a headache. Do try a search, though, and see what you come up with.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Another reason to obsess over head circumference

I remember when we first brought our son home from Russia at age 21 months, what a big issue his small head seemed to be. He was small all over, to be sure, about 18 pounds at almost 2, but it was his head size that elicited the most comment. We seemed to visit the pediatrician a lot in the first year or so, and to see a different doctor at the large pediatric practice every time, and every one of them would take a look at my guy and say something along the lines of, "Boy, his head is really small." His head measurement was well below the bottom of the growth curve, but so was everything else about him. His head looked proportional enough to me. But apparently it looked freakish to the medically trained eye.

His neurologist concluded that his small head size might be a sign of FAE, or just a sign that very small heads run in his birthfamily, and eventually his head grew to a less comment-worthy size, or maybe he just passed the age at which doctors stop measuring. Looking at youngsters in the early toddler years now, I can see that they often have what look to me to be enormous heads, and so maybe that's why my boy's much more proportional noggin seemed so striking to those who look at kids all day. At the time, though, the doctors' constant comments just seemed like another annoying part of society's obsession with measuring and plotting our children's development and discerning who had the honor of being most glowingly average. Not my guy, for sure.

That pediatric preoccupation with cranial circumference is likely to increase if the findings described in this news report pan out. It seems that researchers in San Diego, California, found a correlation between a rapid increase in head size among infants and autism. Apparently it's been noted before that autistic children tend to have large heads, but what the latest research indicates is that they may have smaller than normal head size at birth, then have abnormal bursts of brain growth and head expansion between the ages of 2 and 14 months, ending up with a larger than usual head and a troublesome brain structure. The hope is that these observations may lead to identifying autism in much younger children and starting interventions earlier. And that's certainly a good thing.

But just to summarize now for you parents of very small children: You need to worry about small head size. You need to worry about big head size. You need to worry about head size going from small to big. And given the difficulty that doctors and nurses seem to have in getting that tape around a wiggly child's head and giving a good reading, you need to worry about normal head size because the next time the measurement is taken it could be proven wrong.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Is "good" bad?

Parentstages.com features an article on the ways in which a perfectly good word like "good" may not be good enough when it comes to encouraging children. The author proposes that, instead of letting loose with a simple superlative, parents and teachers should give specifics as to what merits applause. And I think he's probably right — the Nurtured Child Approach that's been so successful with my son suggests much the same thing, and it's the detailed positive comments that seem to have made the most difference.

At some point, though, doesn't your imagination just break down? I mean, when you have kids with multiple special needs, every day is filled with little opportunities to be extra-enriching. Every conversation should hit speech development points; every play time should offer sensory integration-targeted activities; every book should be read with a mind to asking questions and boosting comprehension. And now, you can't even end it with an exhausted, "Good job!" I'd like to be detailed and specific and supportive of my children in the most elaborate and effective way possible; but sometimes, goodness me, "good" is as good as it gets.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Book report

It's been a while since I've read any how-to special-needs parenting books, and it's been a nice break reading regular old nonfiction instead of nonfiction I'd have to follow through on. But the break's over — I went book-browsing today in a Barnes and Noble that has a particularly well laid-out parenting special needs section, and came away with two books on ADHD: Born to Be Wild: Freeing the Spirit of the Hyperactive Child by Kristi Meisenbach Boylan, and Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception by Thom Hartmann. Both seem to argue for an appreciation of ADHD as a set of different abilities instead of a disability to be fixed, and that's something I'm in the mood to read right now. I've been trying to convince my son's Child Study Team that his behavior would be much more manageable and his learning much improved if a more creative approach could be taken to classwork. This isn't a kid who will ever work at a desk job or take on work that requires calm, quiet and control, so why focus so much effort on getting him to sit still and shut up? He's got some very clear strengths; he's curious, creative, questioning, focused when he's interested and a hands-on kind of guy. Why not work with those traits instead of against them? Maybe these books will give me some ammo for that upcoming battle, or at least give me a little more courage in my convictions.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Educational software du jour

One of the goals I set for my kids this summer is to learn how to type (or what are we calling it in these typewriter-free days -- keyboarding?) I've tried to get them interested in this before with a "Lion King" typing game and "Mavis Beacon" software, but it never took -- possibly because the former was not structured enough and the structure of the latter was too daunting for language impaired kiddos. We're having much better luck with Read, Write and Type, a program designed for kids five and up that works in distinct short lessons and puts a strong emphasis on phonics, which my two can certainly always use reinforcement on. There's a little bit of story running through it, but nothing so daunting that my kids can't keep up with it, as often seems to happen with hip-and-clever educational software. I'm impressed to report that they've willingly done a lesson every day for the past 12 days, and are actually tapping out sentences now. I'd recommend the program to anyone who's looking for a low-stress way to teach learning or language disabled kids to type. Or, for that matter, read and write.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Department of second thoughts

Ah, well. My blogging record's not so great this week, is it? First I wrote about the conjoined twins who -- bravely? foolishly? -- determined that they'd rather die than remain connected. And in fact, after some 50 hours of surgery, they did indeed die, making me regret, at the very least, my somewhat flip title for that post. No matter how daunting the odds, one always imagines, going into such procedures or writing about them, that the results, in our age of medical miracles, will be positive. In this case, the medical was not quite miraculous enough. The New York Times has an interesting follow-up piece on the sad ending to this hopeful tale, including an interview with the twins' adoptive father, who had decided against the surgery as too risky when the girls were younger and remained opposed to it now. The girls didn't listen, of course, and pursued the surgery doggedly until they found someone who would give it to them. Certainly, there's not a parent who can't relate to that; in most cases, our children find less expensive and medically complex ways to risk their lives, but it's often in the pursuit of that same contradictory mix of the desire to be an individual and the desire to fit in that drove these doomed twins.

I also wrote recently about how positive I'm feeling about video games, just in time for a news story out of New Jersey that blames them for the actions of three teens who apparently plotted a Columbine-style massacre. The kids were caught with swords, guns and tons of ammo, and only a botched carjacking is thought to have thwarted their plan to kill a few classmates and then drive through town on a random killing spree. The boys are said to have been fans of the video game "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," and some of their paraphernalia and MO are apparently similar to situations in that game. So maybe I'm wrong, and video games really are the root of all evil, and will turn your sweet untroubled child into a merciless killing machine. And maybe I'm enjoying a false feeling of security, since my daughter's into games like "Monkeyball" and "The Simpsons Road Rage" that don't put a big emphasis on murder and bloodshed. But who am I kidding? Those little monkeys in "Monkeyball" plunge off the side of the track and into pits of fire if you make a mistake, and the Simpsons regularly mow down pedestrians in their pursuit of points. It's just a baby-step from there to bring a machete to your high school prom.

Come to think of it, maybe I better just stop commenting on news stories for a while.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Special delivery

Got my son's IEP in the mail today, which is something of a miracle. Usually they're processed on about the same timetable you'd expect if the Special Ed Office set up a bunch of monkeys with typewriters and eventually, inevitably, once of them happened to strike out an educational plan. The department's reputation is so bad that I have from time to time volunteered to stop by the office and type the darn thing myself, but no. Don't want to put the monkeys out of work. Maybe there's a union involved. So from my son's IEP meeting in March, we're usually lucky to get the thing to look at in August, sometimes by the first or second week of school. July is unheard of.

And I'm grateful, of course, because this stuff is my life ... but you know, it's been such a peaceful, sort of successful summer. As important as checking the plan and approving the plan and obsessing over the plan is, I just kind of hate getting sucked back in to all the drama and dispute and disagreement. Just like every year, it's bound to be mostly okay but planted with a couple of land mines that will raise my blood pressure and cause me to rant and rave at personnel who are on vacation for another month or so, long enough for me to become exhausted and resigned before I can actually have a chance to vent at them in person. At least the behavior plan I wrote is indeed included in the document, along with a couple of old outdated plans from the files. A few good plans are better than none, I suppose. Maybe I can just bury this one on my desk for a little while, and keep my teeth unclenched until August?

Monday, July 07, 2003

Let the games begin

Comforting news for parents of video-gaming youngsters: All that virtual virtuosity will not necessarily turn your child into some sort of anti-social misfit. A new study suggests that for the latest generation to grow up with their thumbs on a control pad, playing video games is a social activity that they are able to juggle competently with other important life activities, like studying and, you know, seeing daylight. For some, working video games into a workable routine has been a lesson in efficient multi-tasking.

And at least so far, by the evidence in my home, there seems to be something to that. My oft-warring sibling pair have never socialized so peacefully or for such prolonged periods as they have since we bought my daughter a Game Cube for her birthday. They often play "head to head" in a spirit of cooperation, and my son also oftentimes sits peacefully just watching his sister play. Anything that gets that guy to sit peacefully is tops in my book, as is anything that interrupts the flow of "Mooooom, he's bugging me!" So i've been inclined to feel pretty enthusiastic about video games, but it's nice to have some hard evidence in their favor. Especially after a weekend party at which another mom turned up her nose at the very mention of allowing kids to play such things. "We don't do that," she sniffed. Guess she wants to raise anti-social misfits.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Two Heads Are Better Than One

Parents of children with special needs have to make so many decisions for their kids without really knowing what their children would want if their children were in a position to say so. Would my son request medication if he could pull his head out of his own private little world long enough to understand all the implications? Would my daughter have rather stayed in self-contained special-ed if she were sufficiently language empowered to know her wishes, appreciate the alternatives, and express a thought-out opinion? As heavily as the decisions to forego meds for the one and force mainstreaming for the other have weighed on me, I know they're nothing compared to the decisions made by parents in life-or-death medical situations.

That's why, in a weird way, I've been relieved to read the news stories about the latest set of conjoined twins to be separated. The surgery is every bit as risky, life-threatening and medically complex as in other recently reported cases. The sisters are connected at the head, and there's as good a chance that one or both will die or become seriously disabled as a result of the separation. It seems there's been a lot of stories lately in which parents and doctors and religious advisors are called together to decide whether a procedure that so gravely risks the lives of otherwise healthy but interconnected babies can be medically, emotionally and morally justified -- or, on the other hand, if NOT performing it can be so justified. I can't imagine the crushing responsibility of having to make a decision like that for another person or persons.

And that's what's so different about this latest story: The twins in question aren't babies, and the parents aren't the ones making the choice. The sisters are doing it for themselves. At age 29, they've decided that they'd rather die separately than live together. While all the same debates apply -- made more complicated by the fact that 29-year-old brains aren't as flexible as months-old ones -- at least the people who will have to live or die by the choice are the ones making it. I hope my kids will one day be mature enough and strong enough to make their own life-shaping decisions, and I pray they'll never have any this serious to consider.

Friday, July 04, 2003

A good day

My son had a good day yesterday, after two weeks of pretty good days. It was the end of the nine-day, start-of-summer religious education program at our church -- a merciful substitute for weekly CCD classes -- and he went up on stage with his class and sang songs and did not call undue attention to himself. His aide has been giving me good reports after each of the four-hour sessions, noting that he seems more mature this year. Even the religious education director -- who years ago, when my guy started this program, insisted he leave early each day because the teacher couldn't take a full session of him -- called me aside to tell me that many people had told her how well my son was doing this year, how much progress he's made, and that I'm doing a good job. That's the kind of thing we live for, isn't it? It can be so hard to see change from up close; and hard, too, when you think you're seeing change, but not sure if anybody else is. I've felt since we started the Nurtured Heart Approach that it's made an enormous difference in my son's level of calmness and control at home. Maybe it really is branching out to other areas of his life now. On Monday, he starts again at the same day camp he attended last year. If they see a change, too, I'll be putting a gold star on my personal chart.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Never too early for Christmas shopping

Looking for a present for that hard-to-please child? What could be more delightful or expressive of your esteem than a gift of toothpaste? That appears to be the concept behind the Children's Gift Set from Tom's of Maine's online store. I'm a fan of Tom's of Maine and have been using their toothpaste for years, but I have to admit, it never occurred to me to wrap up a couple of tubes as a kiddie gift. The gift set includes a book on the making of toothpaste, a tube each of strawberry- and orange-mango-flavored paste, and a bottle of shampoo. Boy, won't you just be popular if you present this to a tot in place of the latest Toys 'R Us rage. While you're at it, why not gift the grown-ups on your list with a Toothpaste Sampler, with five small tubes of various flavors, or Tom's Gift Tote, a canvas bag filled with toothpastes and tonics. People may berate you for your peculiar taste in presents, but at least their breath will be fresh when they do.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Oh, my

Happened to glance today at the site statistics summary for Mothers with Attitude, and noted with some dismay that the search words most often used to reach the site are "hot mothers." Now, I have a pretty good guess that anybody who sets out to do a Google search for "hot mothers" and then thinks that "Mothers with Attitude" is a good choice is not looking to read humorous essays on parenthood and browse through Website links for adoption and special needs. Certainly nothing I live or write about would classify me as a "hot mother." A bothered mother, more likely. I don't quite have the nerve to do my own Google seach of "hot mothers" to see what kind of company I'm keeping, and how many pages of search results "hot mother" seekers had to wade through to find my somewhat lukewarm site. But if any of those searchers actually wandered far enough into the site to get to this page ... well, sorry. No hot mothers here. But your mother would probably get pretty hot under the collar if she knew what you were up to.