379 posts categorized "News"

October 04, 2013

Why boys keep misbehaving


by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

What are we teaching our boys?

We keep hearing different versions of the same story: sexual assaults on girls by teen boys are captured digitally, then zapped far and wide through cyberspace. In Saratoga, California, for example, 15-year-old Audrie Pott committed suicide last year after photos of her — passed out and naked — went viral. Rolling Stone reports that, before her death Audrie told a friend, “My life is over…I ruined my life and I don’t even remember how.” 

October is National Bullying Prevention Month and as the occasion rolls around again, Audrie’s story is a reminder of how far we still have to go. There’s been an uptick in awareness of bullying in recent years and prevention programs have sprouted up in schools around the country. At the same time, slut-shaming incidents like the one in Saratoga keep occurring.

In Piedmont, California, athletes at the high school organized a “Fantasy Slut League” (They “drafted” girls without their knowledge and earned points for sexual acts performed). Other incidents include the rape of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio by two football players, the molestation of a Louisville, Kentucky teen at an alcohol-soaked party, and the gang rape in Nova Scotia of a 17-year-old who later took her own life.

What kind of boy would do that?

These ugly incidents make you wonder about the boys involved. Not only did the Saratoga teens, classmates of Audrie's who’d known her for years, allegedly molest the unconscious girl, they drew all over her naked body with Sharpies. Then, exhibiting a stunning lack of remorse (and not much intelligence, since charges were pending at the time) several of the boys took more pictures of nude girls after the incident; one even tried to sell the photos. And yet, according to a friend of a friend whose daughter had grown up with a couple of the boys, they were known in their community as nice, normal teenagers, not predators or delinquents.

Which prompts the question: what are we teaching our boys? Why do so many young men feel free to degrade girls in the most callous way — and then brag about it on social media? Laurie Halse Anderson, who wrote a book about a high school rape, told Rolling Stone’s Nina Burleigh that when she visits high schools and middle schools to talk about the issue, she’s surprised by how many boys consider sexual assault — and crowing about it after the fact on social media — just a harmless prank. 

Masterminds and wingmen

Clearly, we need to do a better job educating our kids about sexual exploitation. A big part of the problem is that we give kids such mixed messages about sex and how to handle this powerful human impulse.

In an Atlantic interview about her new book, Masterminds and Wingmen,  author Rosalind Wiseman talks about the conflicting messages boys receive:

“Great young men want to have rich emotional lives, but everywhere they turn, people are forcing them to live the stereotype of being a sexist, not-caring, emotionally disengaged, superficial guy. It's amazing because we turn around and get angry with them when they go over the line, without acknowledging what we do as adults that stifles and silences and shuts boys up from being emotionally engaged people.” 

Wiseman emphasizes the role fathers can play — positive or negative. A number of the boys she interviewed had experienced some version of this scenario: “A very attractive 18-year-old woman walks by and the dad nudges his son and says, ‘Go get that.’”

They just don’t get it

The media plays a huge role as well.  Rolling Stone, for example, sends mega mixed messages when it publishes a powerful story like Burleigh’s condemning the treatment of Audrie Pott — and the next month features former Disney-star-turned-train-wreck Miley Cyrus, leering and topless, on its cover.  It’s a great way to sell magazines, of course, and Cyrus may be a consenting adult (although that’s a questionable premise) but seriously?

Given that so many grown-ups who should know better don’t, is it any wonder that so many boys keep misbehaving?

Related articles

September 20, 2013

My daughter's high school search is killing me - what is it doing to her?

Preteen driving

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

"I'd like to explore my options. Public might work, but I'm also interested in private."

Yikes. Did that just come out of my daughter's mouth? Be careful what you wish for  – you may raise a child with just the same wishes.

My daughter just started 8th grade, so in the new world order of American cities with their plethora of public, charter, parochial, and private high schools, we're in full-throttle school choice mode. Like her mother, my daughter has become attuned to the value of finding *just the right fit* in a school. But unlike in the past when she knew we were ultimately the decision makers, this time she thinks she's in the driver's seat.

To be fair, we gave her the keys. Her middle school gave her a full tank of gas and a map, emphasizing that she'll be making this trip on her own: "This is your life, your mother isn't going to high school." Which is all very technically accurate, but last I checked we are still paying for it (or not), living within a bus ride of it (or not), embracing its values (or not). So whose choice is it really? It's a delicate balance – with every family winding their own path through the quagmire – and we are still swamp side.

But with the proliferation of school choice, the pressure on kids to make adult decisions is increasing in a way that makes be uncomfortable. With every new option, we're ratcheting up the time, energy, money, and anxiety burned. Awkward pre-adolescents who once had nothing more to think about than memorizing the meaning of pi and the latest dance moves, now are expected to: juggle homework, prep for standardized tests, file online applications, attend school shadow visits/tours/open houses, write essays narrating their greatest failure, compile portfolios – all packed into the last few months of childhood.

In some ways, I think it's a great coming-of-age experience for 13-year-olds. Like a bat mitzvah, the ritual encourages self-reflection, hard work, and behaving like an adult . On the other hand, it's just WAY too much. My husband and I had forsworn getting drawn into the high school vortex. We'll check out the options, we said, maybe apply to a private school or two and all the relevant publics. Yet here we are.

So far we have contemplated public and charter schools in four cities, as well as a collection of private and parochial high schools in three cities, some of whose price tags approach those of private colleges. Like many middle class families (who can't afford private school tuition, but are not shoo-ins for financial aid) our strategy – much to our own dismay – is to cast a wide net. This means more hoops to jump through, more decisions to make. Between the public, private, and parochial schools in our area, there are not one, two, or three, but four different standardized tests that may be required for admission. Some of the applications require not only multiple essays by the students, but also by the parents.

In preparation, we have already gone to briefings at our middle school, as well as a one-on-one meeting with a teacher about the process. Then we attended a citywide high school fair in which sweaty parents pushed and shoved to shake hands with admissions directors and introduce their budding social entrepreneur or baby-faced origami expert in a speed dating ritual that rivals the most agitated bee hive. Then just this week we attended another school meeting in which a professional high school admissions consultant (not kidding) advised parents on the do's and don’ts when filling out the parent application. (Don't lie about your child's learning disabilities. Do frame them in a positive way.) At the end of the night, these parents dove for her cards, not so much I’m guessing because they're gunning to give their kid an edge at the mini-ivy leagues (our school attracts remarkably low-key parents), but just the prospect of anything making the process a little more manageable.

"I don't remember doing anything like this for my daughter who is 26," whispered a mother sitting next to me. "This is almost like applying to college!"

As I survey our calendar of the weeks ahead jam-packed with open houses on the weekends, shadow visits during the work week, essay writing, financial aid forms, and if we're really committed, attending various high school performances to get to know the school, I realize we have only just begun. Over the last few years, I've watched parents navigate the process with varying amounts of savvy and bewilderment. Some worked the process like they were launching a start-up: investing in coaching, pulling personal strings and networking like mad to boost their child's chances of admission at a given school. Some parents left the decision almost entirely to their child – with only the simplest limitations – an easy commute, say, or a free education. Most parents in my experience do as much as they can, involving their child as much as possible but attempting to temper their hopes. Ultimately, it's not just a matter of choosing but of being chosen – whether by the luck of a lottery or a selection committee. This is a process that adults invented – presumably in the interest of the child's education, but let’s face it the whole circus also pumps fresh cortisol into their growing brains, undermining the very learning we’re trying to cultivate. 

In my experience no kid is immune to this stress. It can affect the academic strivers as well as the jocks, the artsy kids as well as the those deemed well-rounded. It can even take its toll on the ones who don’t face so much as a wiff of disappointment. I remember the response when one 13-year-old daughter I know gained admission to every high school she’d applied to, and I mentioned to her parent that she must be thrilled.

"Actually, for the last two days she's been weeping and locking herself in her room."

September 07, 2013

The fourth “R” that makes all the difference in school


By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

“Could you give her some advice?” I ask my teenage son.

“Sure,” he says, and heads in to talk to his 8-year-old sister, who’s had a tough day at school.

These days, I find myself doing that more and more as my almost 16 year old is becoming more like an adult, less like a child, and my daughter is metamorphosing into a big kid. With a new school year and new grade, my daughter’s navigating ever more complicated waters at school. She’s on track with the three r’s. For both my children, it's school’s other “r” that elicits no end of daytime turmoil and evening tears: recess. If you’re a child whose struggling socially, the very worst time of the day is recess, when you have to either risk rejection by approaching other children, or simply play – or sit – alone. 

Slow going with friends

Last year, it took my daughter half a school year to make two good friends – and then this year they ended up in the other classroom; so once again, she’s on her own. At dinner, when I ask who she played with, she’ll tell me, night after night, in a very calm way (Why is it worse when they’re calm about it?) she sat alone. She tells me, so adult-like:

 “It’s slim pickings. All the girls already have a best friend.”

“I’m not so good at making friends.”

And the zinger:

“Nobody will play with me.”

This is one of those gut-wrenching parenting moments that can come as a shock when your child starts school. No one warns you that there will be times when your exquisite child is friendless – often for no obvious reason.

To be clear, I’m not talking about bullying – or even bullying in the form of exclusion. But some kids just don’t pair up easily or quickly. Instead, they sit on the benches and stand against walls while everyone else is screaming with joy, happy to be in the thick of it, on the playground. My daughter is slow to warm up and waits for people to come to her. In preschool she sat in a tree every day during recess for about three months, looking down at the group of girls playing doll and family – games she didn’t want to play. Finally, I suggested she ask the girls if she could be the family dog. Incredibly, that worked and she came down from her tree for the rest of the year.

The days of match-making are over

But the older the child, the more difficult it is for a parent to fix. I can’t match-make friends the way I could when she was in preschool, setting up play dates in the hopes that one will create an instant friend. My maturing child suddenly has a say in the matter – “Mom, she’s just not my style of person.” Plus, the advice I offer – “Why don’t you just ask so-and-so to play at recess?”– often falls on pre-tween ears as nothing but my cluelessness about the complicated lives of second graders.

So I was thrilled when my teenager confidently agreed to offer his advice. Fifteen minutes later, my daughter emerged from her room smiling that, once again, her big brother came to her rescue.

The next evening, I tried to keep the anxiety out of my voice when I asked her how recess went.

“It was great!” she announces. “Olivia asked me to play.”

I try not to gasp because Olivia (her name has been changed), as all the moms know, is the “It” girl in her class. Everybody wants to play with Olivia.

“Olivia? That’s nice,” I say. “How did that go?”

“Good!” she answers, and happily explains that she took her brother’s advice about making friends. Look at that, I thought. He’s become so wise.

“What did he tell you to do?”

“He told me to play it cool. He said that I shouldn’t act desperate. Nobody likes people who are desperate.”

“Hmmm, how did you play it cool?”

“When we were in the middle of playing squirrel, I walked away.”

“You walked away in the middle of playing?” I ask, trying to mask my rising sense of panic. “Did you ever come back?”

“Yes,” she said with a shrug, as if she didn’t care in the least that she walked blithely away from the most popular girl in her class! 

“Was Olivia still there?”


“Sweetie, I think Olivia might have been confused by what you did. Next time when you’re playing, you shouldn’t walk away.”

She looks at me, semi-stunned. “Really? Was that bad?”

“Well, no, not bad, but you can be a good friend by just being yourself. Leaving might not be the best way to make a friend.”

“So I’m a bad friend!” Now she’s on the brink of losing it. “I ruin everything!” 

Reliving junior high miseries

I’m quietly bashing myself over the head: Bad mom! Bad mom! Why do did I go and harsh her second-grade happy-buzz? It takes awhile, but then I get it: I’m so worried about her ruining any chance she gets at friendship because, having been a parent for 16 years, I’ve been through this time and again: being the helpless observer when your child doesn’t get invited to a birthday party, a play date, a slumber party.

What’s more, parents’ worries over their children’s social lives often have to do with their own jumbled history that, even if it had gone well for elementary school, can without warning implode somewhere around junior high, when suddenly having a good, true friend seemed as impossible a feat as waking up with straight beautiful brown hair and ridding yourself of your freckles and retainer. I don’t want my children to suffer social wounds that stay with you for life, but of course I can’t. I also know that, even though a good teacher can make all the difference for a great learning year, the deal breaker for kids – when it comes to thriving at school – is whether or not they have a good friend. One is all it takes.

But if all these years of parenting have taught me anything, I know that as painful as it is, I have to step back and let my child figure most of this out on her own. My daughter has always done it in her own way, in her own time. I just have to wait for her to come down from the tree.

She makes this clear the next night when I suggest, again, that instead of benching herself at recess, she could ask so-and-so to play – she looks at me in the eye – again, very calmly (who’s the adult here?), and asks, “Mom, would you rather play with somebody who isn’t really your friend or would you rather be alone? I’d rather be alone.”

I’m curious to hear from other parents: do you have a child who is slow to make friends? If so, what do you do that may, or may not have, helped? I’d love to hear your stories.


August 24, 2013

Keep talking to your teens -- even if they're not listening

by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Mark Twain famously wrote: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."

I’m on the receiving end of that kind of teenage condescension these days, so I have a lot of sympathy for Mark Twain’s dad. I’m constantly saying wrong-headed, cringe-inducing, or just plain moronic things. My fashion sense and vocabulary are often the target of humor — and I’ve been instructed to never, ever, dance. It’s hard to believe that the teen who eyes me with contempt used to weep passionately when I left the house — and then joyously wrap her arms around my legs when I returned home.

Words with teens

I’m exaggerating, of course, and of course I know that my kids love me — and even respect me some, too. I also know that they're doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing: separating and figuring the world out for themselves. They can’t help being obnoxious at times; it’s part of their job description. Experts would tell me that I shouldn’t take their behavior personally, and most of the time I don’t.

But I often wonder if anything I say gets through to them — even when they’re not wearing earphones. I suspect they tune out the sensible (admittedly sometimes tiresome) ideas and advice I offer about school, values, and staying safe — but that doesn't stop me from offering it anyway.

“Get out of my life”

Then, just yesterday, my oldest son, who just got his driver’s license, shocked me by saying that when he’s behind the wheel he often thinks about the driving advice I’ve given him. He told me that he suspects I imagine him driving like this: eyes glued to his phone as he texts, changes his playlist, and shifts gears. “But I’m actually really careful, and I remember all the things you’ve told me.”

His comment sent me back to one of my favorite teen parenting books (and certainly the one with the best title): Get Out of My Life — But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?  The author, Anthony E. Wolf, writes:

“One consequence of teenagers’ turning away from their parents is that they no longer really hear us. Instead they hear a little voice in their head that they think is ours but is not. It is their version of us. Actually, it is their new teenage conscience, only they don’t know it yet. This conscience doesn’t talk with their own voice, as it will by the end of adolescence, but with ours… Part of adolescence is the development of one’s own set of values. It is a sorting-out process, deciding what to accept and what to reject. The finished product at the end of adolescence is a set of values that are distinctly the teenager’s own.” 

So even if your kids are tuning you out in real time, they hear your voice inside their heads — even if they don’t want to. 

Handing over the keys

My son’s version of my vision of his driving has some truth to it — it represents my worst fears, anyway. But I actually trust him behind the wheel: he’s a cautious and responsible driver. And it’s heartening to know that some of the many things I’ve said over the years — advice that I visualize wafting up into the nethersphere unheeded, like thin wisps of smoke — actually sticks. In the end, our kids create they own values and ways of being in the world, but our words do make a difference — which can be hard to believe when they're so often met with eye rolls and world-weary shrugs.

As I handed over the car keys yesterday for his first solo drive, I felt a wave of worry, because that’s part of my job description, and a lurch of sadness, because it’s one more example of the countless ways he’s moving away from me and into adulthood. But I felt a huge measure of pride, too, in the adult he’s becoming.

Which reminds me: I need to tell him that, because I finally get it that he’s listening — even when he’s not.


August 18, 2013

7 things I wish they’d told me about the first day of kindergarten


By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

I don’t know why, but nobody tells you, the parent, anything about kindergarten. Or at least the things that matter.   

For each of my children, one now an entering high school sophomore and the other an entering second grader, when the first day of school arrived, it felt like an enormous slap from the universe. Over-sized monster youth looming over my tiny child. Bureaucratic rules. A sea of unfamiliar faces. Your child’s strange new symptoms: tummy aches, insomnia, sudden preoccupation about matching hairclips. It was more difficult in ways I hadn’t expected. Here are a few things I wished someone had told me on how to make the first days easier:

1. Sneak a peak

If you say that someone at GreatSchools told you to do this I’ll deny it, but show up the week before school begins. That’s the lovely, calm time when teachers are setting up their classrooms and the loud hoards haven’t arrived. Give your child the insider tour: shaking the teachers hand and maybe even locating her coat hook, the bathroom, and her desk. Take time to stroll around the playground and talk about all the fun she’ll be having on the monkey bars.

2. Talk about school…but not too much

Don’t overtalk and get all anxiousy and blathering, filling their heads with your worries or anxieties that would never occur to them (“Don’t be nervous about all those big kids…”) Do talk through what their day might be like and how to make friends. Read books about the first day of school. Tell them stories about your own spectacular first day of kindergarten or a good detail from some first day experience.

3. Celebrate...but don’t overdo it

Few rites-of-passage, aside from graduating high school and college, are as big academic markers as the first day of kindergarten, so you want to mark it for your child to signal the importance. The night before, have a family dinner with cake. Cake is important. Give a little speech about how proud you are about this new adventure. But don’t go overboard: we’re not sending kids off to battle. A few photos the first day of school are OK. But curb the extended emotional farewell. And when the moment comes to say goodbye? Do. Not. Cry. And if you must fall apart, hide behind the flagpole. Your kindergartner gets to cry, you get to provide comfort, not confusion.

4. Be a kindergarten matchmaker

You might have done this when your child was getting ready to go to preschool and this technique is a keeper. Unless your child has buddies in the same class, don’t wait to set up a couple of play dates. You could even email the teacher and tell her a bit about your child and ask if there might be kids who might be a good match for your child. (Extra tip: If you know an older child already attending the school, ask him if he can look out for your child and be his school buddy.)

5. It’s not over after the first day

Hate to be a downer, but the first day of kindergarten is in no way the hard part! In fact, your child might come skipping out of school, sporting a “First-day-of-school” glittery crown, chattering about snacks he never gets at home and how everyone loves his new light-up sneakers. The hard part is the seventh day of school (statistically proven) when it’s sunk in that he’ll be going to school for the rest of his life. It’s also by the seventh day that he’ll be utterly exhausted because he still hasn’t adjusted to waking up early and getting to bed early (unless you prepared your child for back-to-school maximum health). Your child needs your extra support as he builds up his school muscles to deal with the emotional and physical demands that big-kid school entails.

6. This isn’t your kindergarten

Chances are that your child’s kindergarten is a lot different from when you were a kindergartner. There are no naps. For better or worse, academic pressure and standards have increased at most elementary schools since the days when you were blithely smearing paint and playing dress up. Today’s kindergarteners spend more time learning to read and write and do math. Most have homework. So do your best to learn what your teacher expects from your child so you won’t be blindsided from the rigors of kindergarten, circa 2013.

7. Don’t be shy…make new friends

It’s a dirty little secret few parents are privvy to until school begins, but it’s all too easy to experience total school recall so you’re terrified of the parent cliques. Time to be the confident grown-up you now are and introduce yourself to that little circle of laughing moms over there, no matter how intimidating they look. These people will be your support system for the next few years and just as you child will be adapting to a new world of people, it’s inevitable that you will too. The sooner you do, the better.


August 16, 2013

Teen sex under your roof

Teensex_blog_BBy Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

“Mom, they’re asleep in the same bed!” My 23-year-old brother, eight years my senior, had come home from college in the middle of the night to get some maternal succor after seeing his girlfriend kissing another guy. His romantic crisis happened to coincide with a night that my 16-year-old boyfriend and I had a “sleepover,” with my boyfriend camping out in my brother’s former bedroom, now our guest room. When my brother went in to occupy his room’s second bed, he found me asleep in bed with my boyfriend, instead of in my own bedroom.

Alarmed, he woke up my parents. “I trust Carol to do what is right for her,” my mother responded. My father rolled over between sleep cycles to mutter: “She’s in there with no contradiction.”

I was 15.

Now that I have a daughter who is pushing 14, who still calls me Mommy and requests to be “put to bed,” I find myself regarding this once amusing tale from my youth with increasing consternation. Last week Henry Alford’s New York Times column about the etiquette and ethics of allowing teen children who have girl friends or boy friends to sleep together (or some don’t-ask/don’t-tell version my parents ascribed to) reignited a debate that has swung back and forth since the 1960s. How should parents respond to their teen’s sexual relationships? What’s kosher? What’s out of bounds? And what do you allow under your own roof?

For many parents this is a no-brainer. Religious or moral guidelines lay down a clear line: no sex until after marriage. Or for parents who don’t want to disown their children, no sex under our roof until after marriage. Or for parents who don’t want to condone teen sex but don’t adhere to marital litmus tests, no sex until you move out of our house… and so the variations continue with each family sorting out their own set of spoken and, just as often, unspoken rules.

Alford explored the trend among some families where parents go out of their way to make their children’s flames feel especially welcome – one woman went so far as to buy her daughter and her boyfriend a new bed. Angelina Jolie has recounted how her own mother allowed her at the age of 14 to live with her boyfriend “as man and wife,” which Alford deems far too young, as opposed to 16 when he argues kids in a committed relationship should reasonably be allowed to spend the night under the parental roof as long as they do so with consideration, discretion, and help out with household chores.

In the Huffington Post, Soraya Chemaly also weighs in on the "sex is awesome” side of the debate, citing the comparative study of Dutch and American families around this issue where Dutch children end up having closer relationships with their parents and bringing their boyfriends/girlfriends home versus the American teens who also have sex, but end up keeping it a secret from their families and creating more boundaries. Chemaly encapsulates this argument with a rhetorical question: “Why would you create a situation where your children are forced to hide, sneak around, be dishonest, be uncomfortable, take unnecessary risks and make uninformed decisions about their physical and emotional health?”

This was my mother’s position. After raising my older brothers with more old-school 1950s rules (and it not working in the sense that they engaged in risky activities like drinking, drugs, sex with inappropriate partners, and one even moving out before he was really ready), with me she cleaved by the Alfie Kohn school of parenting: focusing on internal motivation, building personal responsibility, and nurturing a sense of inviolable trust between us. As a serious student who regarded risky activities like drinking, drugs, smoking, and driving carelessly with abject horror, I needed little behavioral management. At least, that’s my version of events: my mother’s version was that I was remarkably strong-willed from a young age and so she had to learn to cultivate my cooperation rather than my obedience.

Now as a parent, I realize I haven’t nailed down my attitudes on teen romance and sexual activity, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be following in my mother’s permissive footsteps. It’s not that anything really negative came of my early (and sanctioned) romance. I was cautious with birth control and developed deep emotional ties before engaging in so much as a kiss. After this first relationship, which lasted two years, I decided I was too young to be having sex and drew stricter lines with future boyfriends.

If I hew to more old-fashioned mores with my two daughters, it will be an attempt to allow them to be children for a little bit longer, to not have to make so many decisions about things they shouldn’t have to worry about. Call me an educational prude. Given the global reality, our teens need to focus, focus, focus. Romance and sex – like drinking and drugs (and, to a lesser extent, teen social drama, excessive screen time, obsession with fashion or sports or pop culture) – is a huge distraction from where kids should be pouring all of their powers of concentration, and what children in high-performing countries around the world do focus on: their education.

In the olden days (before it became clear that America was lagging behind a lot of other countries in preparing its high school students), American high school was considered the time when individuals were expected to explore romance, mad social fun, and yes, even sexuality. But I think that antiquated thinking is passé. In countries where high school students regularly outperform the United States (and not just cutthroat cultures like South Korea, but liberal meccas like Finland), high school students focus on school first – not social life, sports, or jobs.

Now I wonder if even parents who want to teach their children that “sex is awesome” shouldn’t rethink their sex-under-my-roof guidelines. Now that getting into college requires more hoops, higher standards, and more rigorous classes, it’s my job to help my daughters keep their line of sight clear towards distant aspirations not immediate (and possibly perilous) pleasures. It may not make me as popular as the mother who folds down her daughter’s pre-conjugal bed sheets, but someday I’m betting they’ll thank me.

August 08, 2013

The kindness of strangers: help a kid gear up for school


by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Back to school may be the second biggest shopping season of the year, but my family usually doesn’t join the stampede. My kids aren’t big shoppers, and neither am I; besides, times are tight. Someone will inevitably need a new pair of shoes or a hoodie; I’ll pick up socks, a few shirts, the school supplies their teachers request, and leave it at that.

But I’m bracing for this year to be different. My daughter grew at least six inches over the last year, and she’s starting high school – a combination that amounts to a back-to-school perfect storm.

It’s only the beginning of August, and I’ve already heard comments like these:

“I don’t have one pair of shoes that isn't falling apart.”

All my jeans are too tight.”

And this mournful wail: “I have nothing to wearrrrrrrr!”

She’s exaggerating of course — although it’s true that she’s outgrown many of her favorite clothes, and she badly needs a warm jacket. But it makes me wonder what it would be like if I couldn’t afford to get her a pair of jeans that fit, or a backpack to replace the one with the torn strap. Or the family budget was too tight to purchase the binders and pencils and notebooks she’ll need on the first day of school.

Back-to-school season of giving

This is the case for many school kids — 16 million, by some estimates — in the U.S.  This crisis has turned the back-to-school season into a season of need — and, fortunately, of giving.  Around the country, organizations, schools, churches, and individuals are donating clothing and school supplies so low-income kids can start the school year with plenty of pencils and notebooks — and maybe even a brand new outfit or two.

A few examples:

How you can help

To give a child a backpack full of basic school supplies, contact Feed the Children.  You can learn more about similar projects in your area by searching “back to school donations” and the name of your city in your Web browser.

These back-to-school efforts are inspiring; they’re also a poignent reminder, if anyone needs one, of how many children in the U.S. live in poverty — 16.4 million or 23 percent in 2011 (and remember that "poverty" is defined as income below $22,811 for a family of two adults and two children; many more Americans who don't fit this definition are, by any measure, very poor) — not just during the back-to-school season, but all year round.

July 29, 2013

Your genius baby vs. my dumb darling

Baby genius
By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

At the core of so many parents is the yearning to be the DNA source behind the greatest child ever born. (Hey, even if I’m not all that, we think, my child is the best.) We want them to shine, to excel, to astound the world as much as they astound us. Then one day we accept that our wunderkind is a garden-variety human being who got third place in the school science fair or plinks Für Elise pretty darn well.

When hearing stories of g-word children, it can give us pause (or a severe case of parental envy). It’s all very well to read our children Matilda, the tale of a profoundly gifted 5-year-old girl who thirstily consumes Dickens and whose parents are mean-spirited, TV-addicted nitwits utterly befuddled by their genius girl. In real life, there often seems to be adult puppetry pulling strings behind these wee prodigies: parents who announce their children’s giftedness, media outlets searching for a story, and organizations that stand to gain from the miracle child phenom.

Toddler brainiacs on the rise

So I did a virtual eye roll when first I read the headline about a 3-year-old Mensa inductee, curly-haired cherubic Selena Janik, who scored in the top one percent on an IQ test. (Adam Kirby, a 2-year-old British tyke who potty-trained himself at 1 after reading a book about it, holds the title as the youngest MENSA member with bragging rights of a 141 IQ.) But I’m in no way comparing Selena’s parents, who come across as quite warm and humble, to Matilda's small-minded parents. It's heartening to see them appear to have their priorities in order for their toddler, who has stated she wants to be a scientist who studies molecules when she grows up. Says her dad: “I just want her to be happy, whatever path she chooses.”

In the meantime, young Selena – now having been branded one of the smartest toddlers not just in town, but in the world – must be tested yearly to keep her Mensa membership card. Will she still be a genius at 4? At 5? At 6? (If she doesn’t test well every year, how early to let such a bright young star burn out.) It’s worth questioning Mensa’s role in announcing to the world they’re inviting an ever younger roster of inductees (there have been a string of them over the past few years). Does this help the children – or perhaps does it give Mensa a means to promote their organization, a wily way to attract a bit of media attention?

“You’re so smart!”  

When it comes to helping (or harming) the child, according to Mindset author and Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, fixing children with a "smart" label – at whatever age – risks doing them a great disservice. “Parents might say my child is a true prodigy,” Dweck says in this video. “Don’t praise the genius,” she warns. Why? The child, says Dweck, falls into the mindset that, “‘You value me because I’m gifted.’”   

There’s also the troubling notion of administering an IQ test for children who aren’t even in kindergarten yet. As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in Nurture Shock, giving intelligence tests to young children may be pointless since in the very young IQ isn’t stable. They quote Dr. Donald Rock, senior research scientist with Educational Testing Service: “The identification of very bright kids in kindergarten or first grade is not on too thick of ice … The IQ Measures aren’t very accurate at all.”

Bronson and Merryman cite the research of Dr. Hoi Suen, professor of education psychology at Pennsylvania State University, who published a meta-analysis of 44 students that looked at how well tests administered to preK and kindergartners could predict achievement test scores two years later. “Analyzing them together, Suen found that intelligence test scores before children start school, on average, had only a 40% correlation.”

It's worth asking: is identifying a genius still in diapers (or in precocious Adam Kirby’s case, not) more about adults’ motivations and society’s appetite for miracles than about what’s in the best interest of the child? Here’s hoping Selena’s parents will be savvy enough to know the risk factors associated with super high IQ children and be aware of Dweck’s findings that qualities like grit and hard work may help children as much, if not more, in being successful in life than biological brain power.

July 26, 2013

Kids or smokers: what side are you on?


By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Here’s a no-brainer: would you rather give more kids the chance to succeed in school, or give smokers access to cheaper cigarettes?

That’s what is at stake with the White House's plan for early education for all Americans. The proposal, which would make quality preschool available to all four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families (that is, families with an income of about $46,000 a year for a family of four), would be funded by a boost in taxes on cigarettes.

U.S. behind on early learning

There are countless reasons that all kids should have access to preschool; here are just a few:

Political stalemate

So why would anyone oppose  preschool for all — except, perhaps, the tobacco industry?  In fact, the preschool plan could easily become the latest casualty in Washington's tedious, ongoing brawl-athon: whatever one party proposes, the other side blocks. To date, not a single Republican lawmaker is supporting the plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explained his opposition by saying he opposes tax hikes, but it's important to note that the plan won't increase the average American's tax bill; it will boost fees on a product that causes 443,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. (Moreover, taxes on cigarettes have been shown to reduce smoking, particularly among young people.) 

But  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is optimistic: he told education reporters recently that he's in conversation with a number of Republicans, and is hopeful that some will ultimately back the plan. “This is a bipartisan issue,” Duncan insists. “Other nations aren’t stuck with political gridlock and dysfunction; they are investing heavily in early childhood education. I want our kids to have the same opportunities.”

Conservative support for preschool

In fact, a number of conservatives reject the notiion that increasing access to preschool is a partisan issue.  Ed Source reported recently that military leaders, prominent business groups, and faith organizations, swayed by research demonstrating the value of early education, have thrown their support behind the plan.

Writing in the New York Times, Gail Collins  pointed out that, even though preschool for all  is a popular idea, its supporters are no match for lobbiests funded by the tobacco industry and other special interests. So — it’s up to us. Are we going to protect smokers — or give more kids a better shot at a brighter future?

July 23, 2013

Teaching kids to look out for #1

By Jessica Kelmon

What do you think of people who take candy from children? Or who don’t stop (or even slow) for pedestrians? Or who tend to boss others around rather than communicate more cooperatively?

Collectively, I think we frown on these “bad” behaviors. They’re not deadly sins, but they’re undesirable, icky, and generally what we’re trying to teach kids not to do.

But as role models, parents may be unconsciously modeling some of these behaviors – and according to research out of University of California, Berkeley, it may depend greatly on your relative position in our rapidly diverging rift between the haves and the have nots.

Social psychologist Paul Piff, along with other researchers at Cal, has conducted a series of studies about people’s everyday behaviors. The PBS NewsHour report, above, highlights a variety of Piff and his colleagues’ findings that indicate people who feel affluent tend to act less charitable and, in some cases, are just plain bossy and self-centered. These studies showcase our daily little behaviors – the kind our kids see and mimic. No one calls these teachable moments. But now we may reconsider.

People behaving badly

In one study, 90% of drivers stopped for pedestrians in a crosswalk. But people driving luxury cars were three to four times more likely to just keep going. Technically, that’s breaking the law. But it also shows a pattern of impatience and placing more value on your own time over others’.  In another study, participants were told the candy dish on the table was filled with treats for kids – but they could have a piece or two if they wanted. Wealthier participants took twice as much candy from the bowl. A funny segment of the video shows a woman quickly stuffing candy in her pocket! In yet another experiment, people’s honesty was put to the test with a dice game. Participants were to self-report the results of their dice rolls with the possibility of a $50 cash prize. Shockingly, people in the study’s highest income bracket (those earning $150K-$200K a year) were four times more likely to lie about their rolls to collect the prize.

Wait! Before you jump to conclusions about rich people, consider this: it’s the feeling of relative wealth that elicits this behavior. Using the ultimate money-lover’s game, Monopoly, researchers were able to see the wealth-effect transform people’s behavior before their eyes – regardless of actual means. The wealthier Monopoly players started out with more cash, a ritzier playing piece, and established rules rigged in their favor, such as getting more turns and collecting a higher salary each time they pass Go. No matter their economic status in real life, the “rich” game players who start with more cash and get more turns, though they’re “winning” an obviously rigged game, nevertheless start feeling and acting entitled. Snacking during the game, these "winners" slovenly start chewing with their mouths open, conceitedly start acting and speaking a bit more aggressively, and actually feel they deserve to win.

How can this be?

Putting a magnifying glass to these small, seemingly inconsequential routines, researcher Paul Piff says we get, “a really incredible insight into what the mind does to make sense of advantage or disadvantage.” In our rich-poor divided world, this matters. For parents trying to raise kind-hearted, socially conscious children, it matters all the more.

Doubling down on discussions of empathy can’t hurt, but as the Monopoly game scenario so aptly shows, it’s crucial to help children experience both the winning and losing sides of this sort of Monopoly game. It can call into question bigger decisions about where to live and where to send our kids to school. For instance, making typically admirable sacrifices to send a child to the best possible school could backfire, creating a top dog who feels entitled – or worse, who doesn’t think the rules apply to her. In our efforts to protect kids from losing, getting their feelings hurt, or being treated unfairly, are we robbing them of the insight it takes to consider others’ feelings, experiences, and rights, too?

I wonder. A question haunting me since I watched this video: if my own daily interactions were put under a microscope, how would I fare? On my morning coffee run, am I polite, even when I’m late or tired? On my daily commute, am I giving up my seat when I should?

As parents, what do you think? With little eyes watching and learning from your every move, what behaviors should parents reconsider to set a better example?


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