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

BTS-blog

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?

Preschooler

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?

July 19, 2013

Data-mad parenting

Measuring-child

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

She tracked her daughter’s feces as a baby, not only timing but texture and color. During the toddler years, she added metrics like word acquisition. Now that the child is 5, the mother proudly details her data-driven parenting in a national publication and declares that her binders filled with spreadsheets painstakingly recording her daughter’s every move, mood, and bowel movement makes her – get this – a better parent.

One pull quote for the scrap book:

It occurred to us that while our baby daughter couldn’t communicate directly beyond crying, we could have a deeply intimate, beneficial conversation with her through data. We realized that we could quantify and study her in an attempt to optimize all of her development.

Though her pediatrician gives her husband and her a “C” for parenting after they brandish their binders of spreadsheets and press him to grade their toddler on her development, she remains a true believer in data-based parenting. She concludes her essay with “proof” that she’s a good parent after a weird interaction at a ballet studio in which she compares her data-edified parenting to another mother who she deems “superficial.”

Sigh. It would be nice to think that this minor confessional – published this month in Slate as one of Amy Webb’s Data Mine columns - was a satire. (A partnership with the Onion perhaps?) Or at least one could file it away as one of those cunning, self-mortifying narratives – like Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom – perfectly designed to inspire a mommy war quickly followed by a six-digit book deal.   

My data, my child

But it’s not just Amy Webb who has fallen in love with the idea that you can control and improve every aspect of your life – even your parenting – through reams of spreadsheets and myriad data points to help defend against life’s uncertainties and complexities. The response to her column – over 1,000 comments that mostly run the gamut from horrified to mystified (eg: This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing article I have read on the Internet. Alongside your child's college fund, please, start a psychological/psychiatric fund.) suggests that data-driven parenting still lays beyond most mainstream notions of raising a child.  Still, this isn’t just one OCD stat-geek’s response to being a mother. Just as computer programmers recreated our culture through their digital tools in ways that have reshaped our very thoughts, so too will stat geeks change our most intimate endeavors – including parenting.

Data. We live in a moment when this word has taken on meanings once unimaginable. Before the digital age, it evoked a neutral mist of informational bits, the cloud of numbers that could lull you to sleep in your high school science class, or at best, make you smirk at a bad punchline by a nerdy sitcom character.

Now data is sexy, powerful, lucrative, not only for corporations but individuals. (Data analysis – employment experts say – is among the most highly sought after skills in the current job market.) It’s also controversial –thanks to the long arms of everyone from the NSA to Google.  Education experts have embraced it, too. In the search for silver bullets to fix our public schools, data-driven instruction remains among the most popular (and promising) of the new education reforms sweeping the nation’s K-12 classrooms. 

But parenting is one of the last sanctuaries from our quantified lives. We may be willing to attach a Fitbit to our belt, but most believe in letting their children learn to run without counting their steps. While many of us might spend our workdays pouring over graphs and spreadsheets, our parenting job usually means giving of care in a most tactile or emotional way: wiping a face smudged with tears, cutting an apple, and sitting, bereft of devices, and listening to the blow by blow narrative of a really boring dream.  

Industry for 21st century parenting

Logs for sleep cycles and crying jags have long been indispensable tools for parents of kids with disabilities and illnesses.  With the rise of big data über alles, however, subjecting even healthy babies to tracking and observation similar to laboratory rodents is gathering traction.  After all, it addresses one of parenting’s biggest challenges.  Every child is unique and deserves just the right thing at just the right moment.  Gathering unbiased information about your own child should ideally protect you from irrelevant generalizations provided by parenting experts (all 1-year-olds nap at least x minutes per day) or your own self-serving bias (my child is a genius). Of course, life is not a laboratory and no parent a disinterested observer.

Still, the market has responded with an app for that anxiety. Baby Connect allows parents and caregivers to record and track a baby’s feedings, diaper changes, sleep patterns, and medicine schedules as well as moods and activities. The app even includes messaging and photo sharing.  Trixie Tracker offers similar quantitative tools for feeding, diapers and napping.  Baby Sprout adds milestones, immunization, and medical records.

When it comes to child apps for older kids, the focus tends toward more life-and-death situations (Check out this round up of apps for paranoid parents from Parenting.com). There are apps using GPS to track your children’s whereabouts, mobile iCams, and FBI tools in case your child goes missing. There are apps that alert you to the good (your child returns home from school on time) and the bad (breaking into the liquor cabinet or hitting 80 on the open road). Such tools perfectly embody many parents’ impulse to control the wild mess of fears that attend all parents' waking days.  To attempt to off-load that anxiety into a machine seems deeply, well, human.

Amy Webb’s kid tracking may be making her a better parent in one area, while doing damage in another.  It’s impossible to know what her parenting really looks like because love – not knowledge, much less data –is the essential legal tender of parenting.  We only know that painstaking tracking takes time, as does parenting, and without instantaneous tools (not unimaginable in some future Orwellian world), there’s no way you can be the ultimate parent and the ultimate scientific observer of your child.  There aren’t that many hours in the day.

July 13, 2013

What are you reading with your kids this summer?

By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Reading in the park

If you ask me, reading with kids is one of life’s purest pleasures. But now that my kids are older (14, 17, and 18), reading together is a rare event. It’s hard to corral them all into the same room on a summer evening, and persuading them to sit down together to listen to a book is even more of a challenge. Last year we had a few exciting nights with Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson, followed later in the summer with the shivery delights of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And we recently listened to a couple of audio chapters of David Sedaris’s new book, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls , before everyone dashed off in different directions.

Why read?

I haven’t given up — I’m always on the lookout for books that will grab my kids’ attention. Of course, as we talk about a lot at GreatSchools, reading together isn’t just a cozy way to stay connected; it’s an essential learning tool — all year round. In a recent article in Time, for example, Annie Murphy Paul pointed out that reading just four to five books over the summer can stem summer learning loss. And reading expert Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, makes a powerful case for reading aloud, even to older kids.

No matter what age your child,  what to read is always a question. That’s why we launched a Twitter discussion, #readingwithmykids, and asked readers to send us their summer book ideas.

Superfudge, Purplicious. and other delights

Here are a few of the suggestions we received:

More book ideas from readers and friends: 

"We loved The One and Only Ivan and are now reading the amazing Wildwood"  @aarieff  

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler before our trip to #NYC this month”  @wisek8

Emily Windsnap series, when my 9-yr-old's not in the water like half-mer Emily”   @TriciaGalloway

"My son and I are reading books by #KathyReichs@2stepcannon

“My daughter is reading The Madness Underneath and I'm reading The Maze Runner”  @IngridDayton

"The Puppy Place series by Ellen Miles”  @BernadetteBytes  

“We are reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu (high schoolers) and The Borrowers by Mary Norton (5th grader)”  @TheUNEEK1  

Jacob Two-two Meets the Hooded Fang is a childhood favorite I love to read w my kids"  @gretared  

“My daughter is 15, so she's reading The Catcher in the Rye , and so am I"  @swamus 

Purplicious; A Wrinkle in Time, Junie B., First Grader: Toothless Wonder (w/ my 5-y-o)  @karissasparks

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman —such a great antidote to the medieval myths — even the ladies have fleas!” @Carol__Lloyd

Find the perfect book

Still on the hunt for the perfect book? Here are more read-aloud ideas for kindergartners, first graders, and second graders.  And check this out: kids in first through sixth grade can get a free book at Barnes & Noble if they read eight books.

This discussion is just starting! Tweet your book suggestions to us @GreatSchools using #readingwithmykids!

July 10, 2013

The summer schooling of a slacker mom

By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor 

Summer got off to such a promising start.

The sun was dappling ... dappling I tell you! We lounged, poolside, at a 7-year-old’s birthday party; the first Sunday after school let out. Parents sipped lemonade, children howled as they bounded into the sparkling water. I was so joyful. And why not? For the next 2.5 months: no homework! Goodbye, for now, to the grind of getting kids to bed at 8 pm and up at 6:30 am! I was feeling so relaxed, so relieved … until, without warning, a dark cloud eclipsed my bright, sunshiny day.

Blog-image2

School's out for ... summer school

“Oh yes, both our girls are starting summer school on Monday for eight weeks.”

“Summer school?” I muttered, trying to stifle any hint of the parental Molotov cocktail of envy, confusion, and anxiety this father’s comment stirred in me. I did a mental inventory of the spreadsheets I’d created for my two children’s summers: sleep-away circus camp, endangered sea animal camp, bike riding camp, cooking camp, and, so they can relax after a stressful school year, a few restorative weeks of free time (aka doing nothing ) at home. My self-recrimination stress level dropped a little when I reasoned that both were continuing their music lessons – piano for my teenage son, violin for my daughter. (Ha ha ha, Amy Chua!) Plus, my second grader is doing a week of science camp. Take that, you showboating parents: I’m pushing my daughter in STEM!

Perhaps picking up on my defensiveness, the father went on, almost apologetically explaining why he was making sure his daughters spend precious vacation months improving their reading and math skills, while my kids will be juggling and making flan. “We have to, really,” added the father who, like his wife, is from Mexico. He explained that since the girls are bilingual, school - particularly in the early years - can be especially challenging. Plus, as good as our school is, he said, it really isn’t preparing them well enough.

I groped for a hostile comeback – What's next, SATs training for 4-year-olds?... We value creativity in our house. … I guess can't kids be kids anymore when they're in training to be corporate drones but the truth is that their high standards have put an uncomfortable spotlight on my slacker standards.

Attack of the summer school parents

Indeed, this seems to be happening a lot lately. It’s as if parents are skulking around, at the ready to remind me that our public school system – at least my city’s public school system – can’t be depended on to properly educate our children and keep them competitive. I keep hearing foreboding stories. At the public library, I ran into Ed, a neighborhood electrician and second-generation Chinese dad, who all but staked a tent in the San Francisco Unified School District office until they moved his then kindergartner from a low-performing elementary school to one of the city’s highly sought-after Chinese immersion schools. “I have her in summer school,” he tells me. “She has to keep up.” Like my other summer-school-boosting friends, he doesn't feel his daughter is getting a strong enough foundation in math and English – even in one of the city’s best public schools. He also has her attending a weekend math program.

Then, at another recent birthday party (A tip for shirker parents: stay away from kids' birthday parties!), a mother – who turns out to be a district-employed reading specialist – confessed she'd been tutoring her son an hour in reading and math every day after school to supplement his first grade education. Right before summer started, she sat him choose the 12 books he’ll read – a book a week – so he’ll be ready for the increased demands of second grade. In every case, these parents have insights I lacked – some came from other countries and cultures, some had the added expertise that allowed them to see the gaping holes in their children's educations.

Education realities that'll ruin even the brightest summer

But what’s my excuse? As an editor at GreatSchools, I’m all too aware of the sobering stats: America’s schools area falling behind and superstar school systems like South Korea, Finland, and Shanghai that make our advanced students look just so-so. I also know that a majority of American parents defy logic in believing that their children’s schools are above average. But the educational disparity isn’t just a matter of one country excelling over another. From school to school, the quality of our children’s educations can be worlds apart, and even some of the better schools are at best mediocre. 

So why haven’t I taken these realities into my own home? Maybe, like so many parents I know, I shy away from the uncomfortable truth that I grew up in a different America, where so many middle-class kids sailed through meh public schools, earned so-so grades, and still got into pretty great colleges. It was a given for the middle-class children of a super power that had the best universities and no other choice than to admit it’s less-than-prepared high school graduates. It’s certainly not a given anymore.

July 06, 2013

Bully in the house

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

Siblings-fighting-blog

“Don’t touch that!”

“But— “

“Get out of my—“

“Ooooow!” A yelp punctuated by a crash followed by a long burble of sobbing.

“Mommmmmmy!”

This happens in my house too many times a week to count. The 13-year-old martial arts devotee fiercely protects her privacy and her property. The 9-year-old practices boundary testing in the form of intrusive questions and uninvited hugs.  Both girls, in school, are models of temperance. At home they are a perfect storm of stereotypical sibling warfare.

If this sounds familiar, you know that it’s supposed to be “normal.” You know that it’s just nature taking its course, allowing the survival of the fittest to work its logic via the Bratz dolls.

But sometimes you worry. At least I worry. Not just because my girls fight enough to drive my husband and me to spittle-flying stupidity. “You want to go to that fancy high school,” I sputtered during what should have been a perfectly idyllic berry-picking outing, but was peppered by mean girl fuselage. “How ‘bout you learn how to treat your sister with respect?”

I know how long these scars can last. I recall my mother – all grown up with three children of her own – talking vaguely about how she had to “get away” from her elder sister … by moving to another continent. I’ve listened as my younger brother – then in his 40s – explain why even as an adult he had to do certain things to avoid my older brother getting “mad” at him. (As the youngest child, separated by eight years, I got special amnesty from sibling conflict.) Somehow, the things that happened in childhood didn’t evaporate in the clear air of adulthood.  They burned on. 

So when a new study about the long-term reverberations of sibling aggression shot over the transom, it was like a train wreck: I couldn’t look the other way. Though our society has largely stopped explaining bullying as a healthy way for kids to learn about the real world, the sibling battlefield still has its proponents.

"If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if that happened between peers," explains associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire Corinna Jenkins Tucker. "It's often dismissed, seen as something that's normal or harmless. Some parents even think it's beneficial, as good training for dealing with conflict and aggression in other relationships."

But if Tucker's work has any effect, those days are numbered.  According to a new study led by Tucker, sibling aggression leads to significantly worse mental health outcomes in children and adolescents. In fact, there are instances in which the effects of sibling aggression are as powerful as those of peer aggression – i.e. bullying.

The study analyzed a national sample of 3,599 children, ages one month through 17 years, from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), tracking the incidences of physical assault (with and without a weapon or injury), stealing or breaking into a sibling’s possessions, as well as verbal aggression, including disparaging remarks and insults. The research, which appears in the July 2013 issue of Pediatrics, showed that children who suffered property and psychological aggression – such as stealing things or verbal abuse – at the hands of their siblings showed the same level of increased depression, anger, and anxiety as those children subject to similar kinds of aggression from peers.

In other words, sibling aggression can be as damaging as peer bullying – no matter what we call it. It's not a new idea -- parenting guru Christine Carter argues the same in a GreatSchools’ video interview -- but it's the first time the effects of such sibling aggression have been subjected to such scientific scrutiny.

Tucker argues that the findings should trigger a change in parental and educational attitudes. “The aggression among siblings should be taken just as seriously as that among peers,” she told the New York Times, adding that programs that address bullying in schools should add a focus on sibling abuse as well.

The problem for parents? Seeing clearly what is right before our eyes. They are our beloved children, after all. Our very gaze casts the gauzy light of bias. How do we know in the moment, is a particular struggle between our children harmless acts of competition and conflict – or are they incidences of sibuse?  

According to experts, the distinction comes from the power differential. If one child remains consistently the victim of the other’s physical or verbal aggression – even if it’s only name-calling – it’s abuse. It sounds very clear, but that's easier said than discerned. Sometimes I know I over react, othertimes I fear I under react – in the middle of the conflict, I rarely know who to believe.  Sometimes when I think my elder has crossed a line by lashing out, and I lay down the line with her, the younger one comes to her rescue and explains that she was actually exaggerating and pretending to be hurt. It’s an ever changing Roshomon tale of slammed doors and innuendo and stolen cookies. 

How do you deal with sibling rivalry?  I’d love to hear your stories and your struggles.  Have your ideas changed as your children grow older?  Does your own childhood experience influence your approach as a parent?   

June 17, 2013

Are kids today happy?

Happy-kids-430

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Being happy is so important, its pursuit is a founding principle of our country. The idea of perpetually unhappy (or even highly stressed) children makes me want to cry. An admitted softy, I know I’m not alone: we want childhood happiness to be a given, not a nice-to-have.

Thank goodness for a recent study of child happiness around the world: “Virtually all kids claim to be happy either ‘all of the time’ or ‘most of the time.’” Researchers report that being happy is a normal state for young ones, which is a resounding relief. (Full discloser: the study, the Global Kids Happiness Index, was conducted by the Marketing Store and from the “Implications” section of the write up, it’s plain that the intent is to better hone marketing messages to children – yikes!)

A world of happy kids

Researchers looked at child happiness across 12 countries and created an index gauging child happiness. Some of what they found is really promising – like being happy is the norm for kids, some is slightly heartbreaking – like the fact that kids’ happiness starts to wane as early as age 12, and some is, unfortunately, downright depressing.

Kids answered questions like “How often do you feel happy?” and rated statements like “I sometimes feel stressed out.”  When asked to name three things that make them happy, kids’ responses ranged wildly from teddy bears and warm baths to candy and video games. But there are two reigning influencers on kids’ happiness: family and friends*. When kids feel close to their family and friends, they’re happy. Hooray!

Surprised? American kids aren’t the happiest

Of the 12 countries, U.S. ranks fifth behind Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Germany. Researchers say this may have to do with the importance and proximity of family in Spanish and Latin American cultures.

Here’s the country-by-country breakdown:

#1 Mexico
#2 Spain
#3 Brazil
#4 Germany
#5 U.S.
#6 Canada
#7 China
#8 U.K.
#9 Australia
#10 France
#11 Japan
#12 Poland

I find this ranking surprising since Aussies repeatedly rank first in global happiness on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index. This twist, where Aussie kids rank below stress-case nations like U.S. and Germany, puts it in perspective: what’s great for adults isn’t always great for kids. The other surprise is Mexico. U.S. media coverage – especially TV news, which lacks context to the point of leaving us ill-informed – is devoid of even the smallest positive tidbit about Mexico. That children in Mexico are among the world’s happiest is an important, stereotype-busting stat.  

Do you think the world is a good place?

I read the news and I’m appalled by atrocities the world round – but my world view remains positive. One of the biggest downers from this study: by 6 years old, only 58 percent of kids strongly see the world as a good place. And by 12 years old, it drops to 41 percent.

Adults no longer corner the market on cynicism – nor do we hold all the stress. By age 12, school’s harder both academically and socially, and kids are under pressure to do well and fit in. Two-thirds of kids feel stress “sometimes” and 83 percent report having “too much to do.” Luckily, they report feeling such stress “a little” and not “a lot” – so that’s good news. German and Japanese kids reported the highest stress levels. Researchers note that the 2011 tsunami played a role in Japanese kids’ answers, and they point to an article about a new breed of kindergarten classes in Germany focused on reducing stress.  

Who’s happiest in the U.S.?

In the U.S., African-American kids are the happiest. Caucasian kids aren’t second or third – they rank a distant fourth behind Asian kids (#2) and Hispanic kids (#3).

Across the globe, family, friends, and play are the three primary sources of happiness. But researchers note interesting cultural differences in what kids rank beyond the top three. American kids tend to say animals (e.g. pets) make them happy; Japanese kids often pick music or arts and crafts; Chinese kids often picked one that U.S. kids rarely did: competition and accomplishments.

Comparing U.S. kids’ answers to parent data, researchers found moms tend to know when their kids are happy (which, happily, is a lot of the time.) Knowing you have a good shot of being right: do you think your child is happy most of the time? And if your children are older, have you noticed a dip in your kids’ happiness as they’ve aged?

*In Japan only, kids ranked video games and playing above family and friends.

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