Friday, December 30, 2011

Farewell Post

As my posts have grown more sporadic with more and more time elapsing between them, I have come to a somewhat depressing realization: I don't have time for this blog.

My son has reached a very demanding stage in his development, craving the kind of constant interaction that makes it difficult to even form a coherent thought, let alone write a coherent blog post. I still have his nap times to look forward to (and I really, really do), but I've been spending that time working on other writing projects like novels and short stories. And since those will potentially lead to much-needed revenue, I'm afraid they've taken priority over this, my anonymous "mommy blog".

So it is with a touch of sadness that I announce that this will be my last Lucid Parenting post. I appreciate those of you who have followed along and participated in the comments. Writing these posts has been a learning experience for me, and I hope other parents also found them educational, or at least thought-provoking.

Those who simply can't live without my scintillating prose can visit my writing blog, where I may mention parenthood from time to time, among other things (mostly related to writing).

Farewell, and thank you all for reading.

--Sane Mom

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Casa del Viejo

I love going for morning walks with my son. It's become a part of our morning routine over the past few months; I load up the stroller with my Kindle, cup of ice water, smartphone with fitness-tracking app (I've lost fourteen pounds since the summer), and last but not least my very excited two-year-old. Han loves seeing the same houses, dogs, people, and occasional cluster of chickens every morning. It makes him feel like he lives in a safe and interesting place, and up until recently, I felt that way too. That was before the old Mexican man moved onto the block.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say that there are many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who live in my neighborhood. I'm (mostly) white but grew up in heavily Hispanic New Mexico, so the mere presence of Mexicans doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I go out of my way to be friendly to all my neighbors, whether they look like they understand English or not. I've found that with a smile, wave, and friendly "good morning," I've managed to make nice with most of the people who I see out watering their lawns or working on their cars and I feel safer knowing that they know that I'm out there.

But this kindness came around to bite me in the ass with the arrival of el viejo (Spanish for old man, and since I don't know his name this is how I think of him). When I first walked past el viejo, he was out in his driveway glowering at a utility worker across the street. The worker, who looked like a contractor for the city, was standing near a utility pole writing something on a clip board, looking up from time to time as if wondering why he was being glared at so fiercely. I smiled at the worker, as is my wont, and then turned to the old man with a wave and wished him a good morning. His scowl dropped and he smiled delightedly. My unexpected greeting had obviously made his day and I went on with my walk feeling like a good, decent person.

Unfortunately, el viejo couldn't leave it at a friendly greeting and before long he was walking out to the driveway and stopping me for a chat in Spanish. I didn't really mind, at first -- I like to meet people from other countries, and I was grateful for the opportunity to practice my rusty Spanish skills. But then he asked if he could take a photo of us. That seemed a little weird, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he had a digital camera or one of those disposable Fun Savers that old people seem to love, and he just wanted to show people back home that he was making friends in his new neighborhood. A somewhat naive assumption, I know, but at this point I still thought he was a lonely but harmless old man. He asked if I would be walking by the next day and I said I would.

But I had forgotten that the next day was Saturday and I was scheduled to attend Dale McGowan's Parenting Beyond Belief workshop. I actually felt guilty all day Saturday, imagining the old guy standing in his driveway holding his camera, forlorn, staring up the street and wondering when I would come. On Monday I walked by again, and the old man glared at me and said, "un foto?!" in an accusatory tone. This should have been my signal that the guy wasn't right in the head -- after all, was I really obligated to take a walk on a day I usually stayed home, just so a stranger could take my picture for some mysterious reason? -- but my guilt won out and I tried to explain (in Spanish) that I only walk four or five days per week, and not at all on the weekends. I finished my spiel with "Lo siento," ("I'm sorry.") and continued on my way.

Big mistake. After that, he stopped me every day, blathering about the alleged "foto" (yet he never produced a camera) and asking questions about my husband, whether I believe in God and where I go to church. I found these questions intrusive and rude, so I did my best to extricate myself politely from the conversation and just go about my walk. But the next time, he put his hand on the stroller handle as if to prevent me from leaving, picked up my Kindle and asked a bunch of questions about it (a real challenge for my limited Spanish) and then, as I tried to push on down the road, he asked if he could kiss my cheek. Now, if anyone ever asks me this again I will firmly say, "No." But I didn't want to hurt his feelings so I gave him a kind of cringing shrug that he apparently interpreted as a "yes". As his leathery lips grazed my cheek (I was leaning away with a look of horror), I decided that enough was enough. I don't take my daily walks so I can stop for long, uncomfortable, boundary-pushing conversations with a weird old Mexican man. I take my walks for exercise and so my son and I can have an enjoyable time together in my neighborhood. El viejo was interfering with all that, and it was because I was letting him.

I asked a couple of friends for advice and thought over the best way to handle the situation. Clearly, I couldn't go from chatting politely to yelling, "No me molestas!" if he tried to talk to me again. But I had to make it clear that he wasn't in control of my walk -- I was. And I don't have to stop for anyone if I don't want to. I felt good about my decision, though I was dreading having to be rude to someone who thought I was a friend. But I knew it was something that had to be done, so the next day I went out walking again. Sure enough, el viejo walked down his driveway to intercept me. But instead of stopping, I started running, passing him by with a wave and a "good morning," just like I do with all my neighbors. His eyebrow went up and I could tell he wasn't pleased, but I didn't care. I felt great. I had taken back my walk and with it, my power to say no.

The next day he was out there again, glaring as we drew near. Once again I smiled and waved, and he reflexively raised a hand in greeting. I hoped he understood that this was how things were going to be from now on, and wouldn't push it any further. But the next day, not only did he glare at me, he also glared at my child. Han was waving happily, saying, "Hi, man!" as we went by. But el viejo stared daggers at him, projecting malevolence at us both until we were past.

Now, that pissed me off. Be a dick to me all you want if it makes you feel better, but for crying out loud, why do you have to be a dick to a two-year-old? I shook my head and said, "What an asshole," loud enough for him to hear. Then I said to my son, "That man is rude. He should have waved back." I resolved to ignore the old man from then on -- if he couldn't be content with casual friendliness, then that was too fucking bad for him. He was a stranger and I owed him nothing.

I thought about changing my route to avoid him, but that really stuck in my craw. Was I really going to let one grumpy old man stop me from walking down my own street? Was I going to change up our comfortable routine, stop saying hi to the people and dogs I was already familiar with, just because an old man had taken it upon himself to make me uncomfortable? No. Fuck that. I've lived in this neighborhood for almost seven years and by god, I will walk down my own street. I talked to a sensible friend about it (she has done wonders making her own neighborhood safe while staying within the confines of the law) and she told me that as long as he stayed in his yard, he was probably best ignored, but if he pushed things any further I should file a report with the police. I felt good having a plan, and was resolute that no old man was going to frighten me off my block. The next day I headed out with a palpable sense of dread, armed with a contingency plan I hoped I wouldn't have to use. Maybe he wouldn't be out there. Maybe we could have a pleasant walk, undisturbed.

But no. As we drew closer to la casa del viejo, I saw him coming down the driveway to intercept us. I sighed and kept going, but then the old man continued out into the road, where he stood blocking my path, hands on his hips. I was still a good block away and I stopped, unwilling to get any closer. Clearly he was going to talk to me whether I liked it or not, and considering his posture and previous behavior, it was likely to be a confrontation. I shook my head in an exaggerated fashion. No, I would not be stopping to talk. He started gesticulating wildly. He may have been saying something, but I couldn't hear him from where I was.

I got out my phone and called the sensible friend, hoping that the sight of me calling someone would be enough to send him back into his house. No such luck. She was of the opinion that it was time to call the police, and I agreed. I dialed 911 and told the dispatcher that I was being harassed by a neighbor while attempting to walk down my block. They said a unit was on the way and I hung up to wait for the cavalry.

That was when el viejo started walking down the road in our direction. Oh, hell no. I turned and walked the length of a few houses, keeping the distance between us constant. I turned to look at him. He was waving one arm in a shooing gesture and I realized he was telling me to go back the way I had come. He was trying to chase me off my own block, preventing me from returning to my home along my chosen path. I couldn't resist: I raised my arm and flipped him the bird. No, old man. Fuck you. He flapped his own arm harder in reply, then leaned on a neighbor's van and crossed his arms, prepared to wait me out if I persisted on walking up the street.

I've never been so happy to see a cop car in my life. They pulled up alongside me and I gave them a quick, concise, and calm (which always wins you points with the cops) version of what had been going on. One of the cops suggested that he may be emotionally disturbed (ya think?) and that his house might be one of the city's designated mental health houses. They assured me they would take care of it and drove up the block to talk to him. I continued my walk (while on the phone with the sensible friend, who was on her way to my street with her husband to help me out -- what friends!) and went by while the cops were still talking to him. He sounded agitated but I tried to ignore him the best I could. A few minutes later the cop car pulled up alongside me and said that he had agreed not to bother me any more. I thanked them and they took off.

I admit it felt like a victory, for a little while. After all, the old man didn't get what he wanted (to force me to talk to him) and I did get what I wanted (to pass through my own neighborhood without being forced to talk to someone I didn't like). But still ... I haven't taken my son past his house since then. In fact, I devised a whole new walking route, one which bypasses my own street almost entirely. I was sick of the dread, the creepiness, the potential for confrontation. So in a way, el viejo won -- I will not be passing by his house any more, at least not without my husband or a friend. But in another sense I won, because I haven't let it deter me from doing something that makes me healthier and enables me to spend pleasant time with my son.

So, what do you think, fellow lucid parents? Should I have done something differently to avoid escalation? Was I right to change my walking route or should I have stubbornly insisted on using my right to walk down my own street? What would you have done?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Take Me To Your Secular World!

As you may have guessed from the tone (not to mention the content) of my blog, I am not a religious person. But unlike more militant non-believers, I try to refrain from converting others to my world view. What goes on in other people's minds is none of my business or concern. They can believe whatever mumbo-jumbo they like, or believe in nothing at all. Most of the time, this live and let live attitude works well for me.

Unfortunately, the more devoutly religious folks out there do not share this attitude and they live to judge, condemn, and convert. These are the people who want to tear down the wall between church and state, change school curriculum to reflect their religion's worldview, and act as though those with "immoral" lifestyles have forfeited their civil rights and are deserving of ridicule and harassment. Even more unfortunately, there are lots of people like this, scattered throughout every level of society, and they have a disproportionately loud voice when these issues are raised. And our kids will be influenced by these people and their ideologies regardless of our personal beliefs or lack thereof.

This state of things can leave the secular-minded parent feeling hopeless, confused, or worse, all alone, adrift in a sea of irrationality. Luckily, this loneliness is an illusion, and there are like-minded people out there, working toward the common goal of keeping civil life secular. One of those people is Dale McGowan, whose Parenting Beyond Belief workshop I attended this weekend. For those looking for practical solutions for how to raise free thinkers in a religious world, this workshop is (please excuse the pun) a godsend. I feel more secure in how I will handle questions and situations when they arise (my boy is only two, but I'd like to be prepared) and have established some connections with free-thinking parents in the area. Best of all, I found the workshop surprisingly engaging and entertaining. I tend to space out as soon as I start to get bored, but I never got bored once, and the time just flew by. If your goal is to raise free thinkers, and you have the opportunity to attend one of these workshops, I highly recommend that you do so.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dr. Oz Scares Parents for No Good Reason

Dr. Oz has given worried parents yet another thing to freak out about. According to a recent episode of his daytime talk show, the apple juice our children have been innocently chugging from sippy cups is contaminated with a really scary poison: arsenic. The show's audience was horrified, angry, and above all, guilty that they had been unknowingly poisoning their children for years. And now everyone's talking about it, causing even reasonable parents to cast a suspicious eye at the jug of apple juice in their own fridge.

But if you take a big step back and evaluate what Dr. Oz actually said, you'll find that this is a completely manufactured panic. I won't go through step-by-step debunking, as many other bloggers have already beaten me to it, explaining it more clearly than I would have been able to. But I will sum up why this arsenic scare is bullshit in the following three points: 1) Dr. Oz made no distinction between organic and inorganic arsenic, the latter of which is far more deadly and less common than the former. 2) The lab Dr. Oz used reported an arsenic level that was much higher than that found by the labs of both the manufacturer and the FDA. Despite the discrepancy, he did not have the same batches of juice re-tested by an independent lab. 3) The FDA practically begged him not to go ahead with his planned show, going so far as to call it "irresponsible and misleading." But Dr. Oz, Brave Maverick Doctor that he is, did it anyway.

Evidence and professional consensus isn't enough to convince Dr. Oz, and it isn't enough to un-scare his audience. The comment threads of articles about his claim are filled with conspiracy theories and paranoia. What is arsenic doing in anything we eat or drink? How can any amount of poison be safe? They conjure up images of the jackbooted FDA thugs, spewing propaganda to the sheeple so they can keep raking in that Big Orchard money while reducing the world's population through a contaminated food supply. They imagine sinister, faceless men in lab coats tipping a bottle marked Arsenic (with a skull and crossbones on the label, for dramatic effect) over an industrial sized vat of processed apple juice, the better to intentionally poison the children of America.

In reality, arsenic is one of the most ubiquitous elements on the planet, meaning it is everywhere. A lot of it comes from the earth's crust and is released through volcanoes and deep water wells. It's also in rocks, dirt, water, wind, and is the byproduct of microbes in soil and sediment. Humans also contribute quite a bit of arsenic to the atmosphere, mainly through mining, metal smelting, burning of fossil fuels, and preservation of timber. It finds its way into the food chain through the soil and water used to grow crops (and orchards). Make no mistake, too much arsenic can definitely kill you, and efforts should be made to keep its presence in our food chain and atmosphere to a minimum. But getting rid of it altogether is impossible. That's why there are limits in place to ensure arsenic stays below acceptable levels. Believe it or not, the FDA (which is composed of real people, all of whom are members of families that contain children, who probably also drink juice) has our back on this one. If any other lab besides the one Dr. Oz used had measured alarmingly high levels of arsenic, they would have been all over it.

The world is full of poisons, both man-made and natural, but freaking out over trace amounts in apple juice is a waste of time and energy. Despite our frantic attempts to keep them safe, our kids are not going to live forever. They are lucky to have been born into a time and place when surviving childhood is taken for granted, and growing old in good health is the norm rather than the exception. They are also profoundly lucky to have fresh, sweet, cold apple juice readily available to nourish them and quench their thirst. Please don't deny them that pleasure based on one TV doctor's attempt to increase ratings. On this subject, as on so many others, Dr. Oz  full of crap.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Terrible Twos, Terrible Moms

I apologize for the lengthy delay between posts, but my summer was surprisingly busy. For the first time ever, I got a short story published in a literary magazine, and just a couple of months after that, the same story won first place in a writing contest sponsored by my hometown's arts/culture newspaper. This means my parents, friends, and former teachers all get to read it. Finally getting published after years of feeling like a phony has felt good, to say the least, and it has given me the kick in the pants I needed to make some serious progress on the novel I've been a slave to since 2006. The downside of all this acknowledgement of my "real" writing is that it's left me with little time and energy for working on this blog.

There's also been another problem keeping me from getting anything done outside of nap time:  Han has entered the terrible twos, with a vengeance. Voices are raised, objects are thrown, and unreasonable demands are made. And not just by Han; I can be pretty terrible, too. I find myself on the verge of full-blown rage way more often than I would like and the stress is eating away at my insides (thank FSM for Pepcid). Now, I was a preschool teacher for quite a bit of my twenties, and I have plenty of skills and techniques for acknowledging his feelings and correcting his behavior. I've dealt with kids who were far, far worse (including one who I'm pretty sure was a sociopath) and have rarely been goaded into losing my cool. But it's different when it's your own flesh and blood. It feels more personal somehow. The one you love most in all the universe, the sun around which your planet orbits, is being a complete and total asshole to you. That hurts.

I did a cursory internet search for "terrible twos" to see if I could find any reasonable advice for how to help me get through this developmental period. After all, I'm a person too, and being abused constantly is aggravating and demoralizing. How do parents cope with the shitty behavior without feeling shitty themselves? Unfortunately, my search only yielded information that focused on the child's feelings and behavior. Don't get me wrong; this is important information that a lot of parents may not know, particularly if they were raised in a "traditional" household. Any strategy that minimizes physical punishment and enhances a child's understanding of right and wrong can only be a good thing. But it would be nice if we parents could acknowledge how crazy our kids can make us without feeling like we've failed at something.

Most of the Supermom types, the ones who make the rest of us feel like failures whenever possible, seem to use a strategy of phoniness and repression, at least if this blog post, Terrible Two's? Not!, is any indication. This mother emphasizes being "polite" when your two-year-old starts acting up. For example, if her little snowflake doesn't want to share, this mother-of-the-year would say: "It's hard to share, isn't it? You want to keep the toy all to yourself. Do you see how sad Anna is that she can't play with it too though? Do you think you could both use it so you could both be happy?" Do you know what her child hears? I do: "Blah blah blah? Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah? Blah?" Or maybe just that muted trumpet noise from Charlie Brown TV specials, the one that stands in for all grownup speech. The point is, this lady's talking to herself. This sort of lecture is far more likely to have an effect on any adults watching than on an irrational, possessive two-year-old.

Another example this bastion of motherhood uses is her kid throwing a fit in the checkout aisle because she wants candy. Once again, this saint among mere mortals knows exactly what to say to diffuse her little angel's wrath: "I know that looked like neat candy, but now we're going to be having supper and do you know what we're having for dessert? Ice cream!" or "I know you wanted that but we're not going to buy candy today. I think pretty soon we're going to be passing the fishies though! Do you want to see the fishies? Yeah?! Which colors are your favorites?!" Sorry, but no way, lady. I'm calling bullshit. I've been dealing with a similar issue every time I go to Target and we pass the toy aisle. When Han sees the awesome shit that he could be playing with, he loses his mind. He starts trying to lunge from the cart, and when that doesn't work, he flings his pacifier and Bevo (his stinky little lovey companion) onto the floor and shrieks his lungs out. Not cool. I could waste a lot of breath explaining how, "We don't always have to buy a toy here and I know we did last time but this time we just made a mortgage payment and we have to stick to the budget and hey, you want me to get you some ice cream later, huh? Do ya?"  Or I could just pick up his Bevo and paci and keep walking. When he stops for breath I say firmly, "It is not okay to scream in Target." Then I hand him his shit back and he shuts the hell up. His little freakout gained him nothing.

People always watch these little interactions, I've noticed, ready to judge mommy's actions and respond with either a brisk nod of approval or a condemning shake of the head (often with some pursed lip action). You know whose opinions I don't give a shit about? That's right, those people's. Because ultimately, Han and I are the ones who are going to have to live with the parenting choices I make, and the pressure is huge enough without everyone judging my performance against how they think I ought to be acting. I think if we could acknowledge how the terrible twos make us parents feel, and how close our children can push us to the edge of sanity, it might be little easier to keep our cool, to make the right decisions and vent the anger appropriately (like maybe talking to each other about it) instead of pushing it down into a hard little ball somewhere deep inside.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

She Got Away With It?

Like most of you, I was shocked by yesterday's verdict in the Casey Anthony trial. First I thought it was impossible, then I was angry at the jury for letting us all down, then I just felt sad for poor little Caylee, whose death will likely go unavenged as her mother becomes the focus of our collective attention. It was quite the range of emotions, made more acute by my own two-year-old running around the house, making noise and being adorably irritating.

When the emotions receded, I started thinking. What, exactly, did Ms.Anthony get away with? Murder? Maybe. But maybe not. There is plenty of evidence to suggest she was at least complicit in her daughter's death, and she for sure lied her ass off when people came looking for the little girl. But the evidence against her was just too thin, and I don't blame the jurors for not wanting to go ahead with a conviction that would probably send Casey to an early death. Unlike the jurors, however, a lot of people are absolutely certain that Casey Anthony is guilty, guilty, guilty.

I'm sure I'm not the only parent who has nightmares that their child is missing. I wake up from these dreams frantic, out-of-breath, and relieved to be back in mundane reality. Not knowing where Han is, whether he's hungry, or scared, or crying out for me--this would be unbearable. I have profound sympathy for parents who find themselves in this position in real life, who don't get to wake up from their own nightmare and may have to live with the agonizing uncertainty for the rest of their lives.

Casey Anthony, apparently, had a very different reaction: she just didn't give a shit. She went out partying while her baby was missing (maybe even driving around with her daughter's body in the trunk), got a tattoo to celebrate her awesome life, and actively lied to those attempting to locate Caylee. Maybe that's because she did it herself, or knew that someone else had done it. Or maybe she just shrugged it off because it didn't seem important. This is the behavior that has so many people convinced of her guilt. How could anyone be so callous and unfeeling, especially toward their own child?  In the minds of many, any woman who doesn't love her own child is a monster who deserves everything bad that's coming to her. She's a psychopath, fundamentally flawed and capable of great evil without a shred of remorse.

But is being a psychopath against the law? Should those among us who are incapable of empathy or love (and, according to Jon Ronson's new book, there are a lot of those types out there) be stripped of their rights and labeled as murderers, even if the evidence leaves room for doubt? I think this would set a dangerous precedent where someone's personality alone is enough to get them convicted and sentenced to death.

I'm not saying Casey Anthony is innocent of this horrific crime. In fact, I rather suspect she had something to do with it. But she is the only one who knows for sure what happened, and she is a complete fucking liar (on this count, the jury had no doubt, reasonable or otherwise). Ultimately, the jury's verdict is irrelevant, because Casey has been tried in the court of public opinion and found guilty of being a shitty mom, which to some people is even worse then being a murderer.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pow Pow, You're Dead: Kids and Gun Play

Several parents in England are upset over their children having been disciplined by school staff for doing nothing more than pretending to shoot each other with their fingers. School officials call this sort of play "unacceptable" and break it up whenever they notice it occurring. But a lot of people may not realize how common this attitude is among those who work with children, even here in the gun-lovin' US of A. Every preschool I ever worked at had a "no gun play" policy. Teachers were expected to quickly pull aside the pretending child, remind him or her of the rule, and apply a time out to repeat offenders. As with most policies I think are stupid, I only enforced it when someone was watching.

One mom at the laid-back hippie school where I taught a class of  3-year-olds, seemed to catch on to my rather lax attitude about gun play. She cornered me in my classroom one morning and said that she noticed that children had been pretending to shoot each other on the playground. Since I wasn't even out there and thus had absolutely no control over what the kids were doing at that moment, I just said, "Oh really?" and shook my head in a those crazy kids kind of way.

But it wasn't over. She put her hands on her hips and said, "Aren't you going to stop them?"

Biting back what I really wanted to say (I think the rule is stupid, you're a huge pain in the ass, your precious Eli is usually the one pretend-shooting people), I simply stated, "I stop it when I notice it." and went back to what I was doing.

Later in the day, when she came to pick Eli, she managed to trap both me and her son on the back porch during play time. The kid and I exchanged a glance like, Holy shit, we're in trouble. But she had apparently decided on a passive-aggressive approach.

"Eli," she said in a falsely chipper tone, "Don't you just love pretending to blow bubbles at your friends?"

"Uh..." Eli said. "Yeaah. Blowing bubbles is fun." He pulled out a pretend bubble wand, puffed his cheeks, and blew into it. "Pop pop," he said.

There was a long moment where the kid and I just looked at each other. "That's great, Eli," I said, utterly without conviction.

"Redirection," his mom said, as if I had never heard the word before. Then she flounced away, apparently having made her point.

Over the next few weeks, every time Eli saw me seeing him playing guns, he would quickly switch to bubble mode, transforming his "pow pow" into a "pop pop." Whatever buddy he was playing with would look around for the buzz-killing adult before switching to his own "pop pop" until they were safely out of sight again. Eli's mom's "redirection" had ultimately accomplished nothing except to help him better bullshit the lame-ass adults in his life, which, thanks to our little meeting on the porch, now included me.

Although Eli's mom was uptight and misguided, I can sympathize with her ultimate goal. After all, she didn't want her precious baby to grow up and hurt someone. She didn't want to be responsible for the kind of kid who would shoot up the school or go on a crime spree. After all, just a few years before this happened, two teenagers in Colorado had forever changed the connotation of the word "columbine" from that of a lovely mountain flower to that of grainy surveillance footage of boys committing acts of unspeakable brutality.  People wondered what kind of parents could be responsible for such monsters; surely someone had dropped the ball when it came to monitoring the music they listened to, the video games and movies they enjoyed. How far back did this savagery go? What were the earliest warning signs? Parents resolved that their kids wouldn't become the next Harris or Klebold and took a much more active interest in what they were doing for fun with their friends, searching for violent tendencies that they could lovingly nip in the bud.

What they seem to overlook seem is that criminals and murderers aren't the only ones using guns. We live in a world full of soldiers, policemen, hunters and marksmen. Whether or not you agree with these people's motivations, it would be hard to argue that every single person who uses a gun for any reason is evil. How can we simultaneously support the troops and believe in complete disarmament? How can we get our children to trust policemen if they're terrified of being shot by one? Like it or not, human beings and guns have evolved side by side. And as long as guns have existed, children have pretended to kill each other with them. We cannot control children's imaginations. And in my opinion, we shouldn't even try.

Lest you think I'm a card-carrying member of the NRA, in real life I've always been scared of guns. They're loud and they're specifically designed to maim and kill. I prefer to avoid contact with them and have never actually fired one (though I've been nearby while others have fired them). But as distasteful as I find actual guns to be, I'm drawn to works of fiction in which they are prevalent. My favorite TV series is Breaking Bad and one of my favorite writers is Elmore Leonard. It's fun to empathize with both the cops and the robbers, to imagine a life of drama and danger that is way outside of your comfort zone. That's what playing pretend is all about.

A lot of my favorite childhood memories involve gun play. My friends and I would roam the trails and dry washes of our little corner of southern New Mexico, fighting off imaginary enemies and occasionally turning our weapons on each other. Little did we understand that the very ground we played upon had been host to extreme acts of violence, settlers versus Apaches in brutal fights that left scores of people, many of whom were women and children, stone cold dead. The story of westward expansion is intimately intertwined with that of guns, to the point where children are still acting out that drama several generations later. We can't undo brutal acts of the past by attempting to inhibit our children's understanding of history.

So how can we allow our children to have truly free play while ensuring that they don't grow up to be remorseless killers? Well, we can start by adopting a more nuanced view towards firearms instead of clinging to the absolute notion that they are always bad. We may prefer not to keep guns in our homes, but plenty of responsible, non-murderous people do, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We can also be sure to emphasize the difference between reality and make-believe. In real life, unlike in play, shooting at people has serious consequences and often leads to death, injury, or loss of freedom. Most importantly, we can let kids give us the opportunity to correct their behavior. Children tend to have a strong sense of morals from an early age and they know when "play" has veered into "attack" (for example, if two boys bust into the playhouse and open fire on some girls who are having an innocent tea party). Under circumstances like these, an adult is usually called upon to intervene (often after a crying girl yells, "I'm telling!"). This opens up a teachable moment for the grownup, who can make sure the boys understand why the girls are so upset and to emphasize the concept of fair play. Hopefully the shooter will take this lesson to heart and, if he finds himself in Iraq or Afghanistan someday (as he very well might), he will choose to spare those who are not "playing" the real-life game of warfare.

Guns aren't going anywhere, no matter how much we wish our children could live in a world free from violence. Boys and girls (but mostly boys) will play out the world's dramas on their own small stages, in the playgrounds and backyards of our relatively peaceful homes and schools. With a few tragic exceptions, children will confine their killings to those in the virtual worlds of gaming, fiction, and imagination. And to me, that really doesn't seem so bad.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Failures of Memory, Not of Love

Every parent fucks up.

Even the most devoted, loving, attentive mommy or daddy in the world can drop the ball occasionally when it comes to his or her kids. Sometimes kids go to bed unwashed or with dirty teeth. Sometimes lunches, homework, and backpacks, can be utterly overlooked in the rush to get out the door in the morning. Kids were occasionally dropped off in my preschool class with clothing inside out and/or backward, sometimes with mismatched socks or even shoes. Most of these occasions are met with amusement or, at worst, irritation as the parent frantically tries to undo his or her error while still juggling the myriad tasks that must be completed that day.

But there is one awful fuck-up that can never be undone--leaving your infant or toddler in a hot car to die.

You're probably thinking, No way that could ever happen to me. Those parents were stupid and negligent and never should have had kids in the first place. Well, I have bad news for you. You, too, are capable of accidentally killing your own children, not because you don't love them, but because you are at the mercy of a faulty organic computing system known as the human brain. You may think you've got your shit together and are an awesome multi-tasker, but you can screw up just as easily as anyone else.

Last summer, before I even started this blog, I read this Pulitzer Prize-winning article: Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of the Car Is a Horrible Mistake. Is It a Crime? Once I stopped crying, I started thinking. I had always assumed that this only happened to "bad" parents and there was no way I could ever make such a stupid mistake. Since reading this article, however, I have been vigilant about always checking the back seat before I leave the car, even when I know Han isn't with me. And that is why I encourage all parents to read it, to share the pain of grieving, guilt-stricken, tormented people and to imagine themselves in those parents' shoes. As agonizing as it is to imagine one of your fuck-ups leading to your child's death, doing so could potentially save your child and spare you and your family from a real-life tragedy.

The worst mistake we can make as parents is assuming that we are incapable of mistakes. Once we acknowledge that our brains are not perfectly-functioning machines, and that stress, exhaustion, and a full to-do list can weaken our functioning even further, we can start to compensate for our mental shortcomings. This flier lists simple things you can do to ensure that you don't end up like the parents in the article linked to above. Please, take a moment to look it over and think about what you can do to compensate for your faulty brain. Your child's life could depend on it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ow, My Freakin' Ears!

I love bad words.

Not to the exclusion of all other words, and not in every situation, but holy fuck how I do love to swear. I can't help but respect any word or phrase that has the power, completely removed from context, to make people gasp, cry, or laugh (or better yet, all three at once). Such is my fascination with naughty words that I once wrote an English term paper on the origins of the big three: fuck, shit, and bitch, the building blocks that provide the structure for many a creative curse. I had such fun perusing the dusty old volumes of the library's comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, tracking down the origins of these words (an archaic practice--I just found the same information in five seconds on Wikipedia). It turns out that people have been saying and writing swear words since the dawn of modern English, and the fact that these words have cognates in other Germanic languages suggests that they are even older than that. These venerable words are old school and they are here to stay. Try as we might to wash them from our children's mouths, sooner or later our offspring are likely to let out a "Fuck you, you fuckin' fuck!" in response to some insupportable outrage, thus carrying on an ancient linguistic tradition.

And yet...the other day Han let out an appreciative, "Daaamn!" in response to his own guitar playing prowess (if you can call rhythmically banging on a guitar "playing" it). It was a perfect imitation of me, right down to the look on his face, but I did not feel a flash of motherly pride. Instead, I cringed, wondering how long it would be until my other favorite swears crept into his lexicon, such as my habit of referring to bad drivers as "dildos," calling people on TV "assholes," or my favorite all-purpose exclamation of dismay, "Fucking shit!" As funny as it is (to me) when I say these things, hearing them come out of my son's cherubic face is alarming. After all, he doesn't know that these words are considered "bad" by the world at large. If Han drops an F-bomb in the toy aisle of Target, both of us will have to deal with the disapproving stares of strangers. If, in a few years, he tells one of his classmates to quit being such an asshole, he's the one who'll have to take a time out. Arguing that these words only have power because they're taboo will probably not win him any favor with the parents of his friends or with the school principal. As much as it pains me to admit this, until he's old enough to use these words mindfully and in the appropriate context, he probably shouldn't be using them at all.

But two-year-olds are like parrots with Tourette's Syndrome when it comes to language. They love picking up and trying out new words, especially when those words get a strong reaction from adults. And it can be very difficult not to react when a little kid says "shit." Go on and try not to physically react the next time you hear a toddler let an expletive fly. I dare you.

So, reluctantly, I must learn to curb my natural impulse toward creative swearing, at least while my son is in my presence. To that end I have devised a list of stupid, alternative "safe" swears that will hopefully have the same tension-diffusing effects as the real thing, if not the satisfaction of being truly vulgar. Feel free to use them if you like, or to add your own in the comments. They are, in no particular order:

  • Oh, for the love of cake! instead of For the love of God/Christ! --Not that these words themselves are profane, but to Christians it is highly offensive to hear their lord's name taken in vain. I don't want my son to go around randomly pissing off Christians, at least not until he is old enough to be doing it deliberately.

  • Mother Hubbard! to replace Motherfucker!-- Thanks to Andy Barker, P.I. for that one (I am one of the literally dozens of Andy Richter fans).

  • Fiddlesticks! instead of Fucking shit!-- It's just corny enough to make me laugh.

  • Bozo instead of Dildo-- To call out idiot drivers, who are, after all, clowns. I'm also bringing back, Smooth move, Ex-Lax! and I like to encourage people to Pick a lane, Poindexter!

  • Son of a biscuit eater instead of  Son of a bitch-- This one is harder to stick with due to the three extra syllables, but it is an old Southern favorite and it reminds me of having fun with my friends at church.

I'm sure I'll come up with more, as time goes by and I become the kind of mom I used to make fun of. And, despite me selling out completely to lameness, my son will probably grow up to enjoy swearing just as much as I do. But at least I will have taught him a very important lesson: that words have power, some more than others, and should always be used with consideration to other people in earshot. And anyone who has a problem with that can suck my toe, all the way to Mexico.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's In a Name?

My son's name isn't really Han Solo. It's just that I don't feel right identifying him on the internet since he is only two and has no say in the matter. Plus, I don't want people to make fun of his real name.

His name isn't even particularly unusual, comparatively speaking. It was ranked #242 in popularity for the year he was born. It's the name of one of our favorite actors, as well as an astronaut who hails from my hometown. It's a handsome name, one that I feel connotes strength and intelligence. And yet, every time I holler it in public I feel a stab of self-consciousness. Does it sound pretentious? Quaint and archaic? Just plain weird?

So I gave him an out--a perfectly normal, mundane middle name that he can choose to go by if he hates his first name. Because, after all, people will be calling him by that name for the rest of his life. His teachers, friends, girlfriends (or boyfriends) and employers will all know him by a name I chose for him before he was even born. It will be a fundamental part of his identity, influencing every aspect of his life.

Picking a child's name is a huge responsibility. So why the recent trend towards unique and sometimes bizarre baby names? This is particularly prevalent among celebrities--Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon named their twins Monroe and Moroccan. One of TV chef Jamie Oliver's daughters is named Petal Blossom Rainbow and the other one's name is Poppy Honey. Lisa Bonet gave her child the unwieldy (and borderline incomprehensible) moniker Wolf Manakauapo Namakaeha Momoa. The list goes on and on.

But it's not just celebrities getting in on the weird name action. In New Zealand in 2008, a judge ruled in favor of a 9-year-old girl whose mom and dad had stuck her with the horrendous name "Tallulah does the Hula." She was allowed to change her name to one that does not reflect her parents' "poor judgement". And speaking of poor judgement, there is now a child named "Facebook" in Egypt and one named "Like" in Israel.

Why are we so eager to give our children unique names? Are we worried that they won't stand out in the world, that ordinary names will condemn them to ordinary lives? Have reality TV and internet fame soured us on the idea of living outside the glare of the spotlight? I honestly don't know the answers to these questions. But one thing is for sure: every name more unusual than my son's makes me breathe a sigh of relief because, as uncommon as his name is, at least it won't be the weirdest one in the classroom, workplace, or even among his friends. Maybe he'll even grow to love it, and his "normal" middle name will stay sandwiched between his first and last, forgotten. Then and only then will I breathe a sigh of relief, and know for sure that I made the right choice.

 What are some of the weirdest baby names you've ever heard? Do you think parents are helping or hindering their children by choosing something unique? 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Let's Get This Potty (Training) Started!

When it comes to figuring out this parenting stuff, I draw heavily upon my six years of experience as a preschool teacher. Taking care of 9-12 toddlers for 8-9 hours a day is not just exhausting--it is also highly instructive. Most of the children who have been in my care over the years have been between the ages of two and three. This period is a critical one in early development, when the baby gives way to the child and the unique personality emerges. It is also a time when lifelong hangups can be formed.

Using the potty can easily become one of those hangups. Toddlerhood is when kids realize that they have some control over their lives, in particular their bodies. This is the age when they figure out that they don't have to eat anything they don't want to, they don't have to fall asleep if they would rather stay awake, and that they can pee and poo whenever and wherever they choose. Parents who refuse to respect this autonomy are in for a bumpy ride, as they are continually reminded of the limits of their own power over their little ones. Ultimately, the child must decide for him or herself that the potty is the appropriate place to do one's business.

It is not my intention to patent my own "method" or to promise success if my advice is followed to the letter. Instead, I'd like to use my experience to help others navigate the tricky waters of potty training by providing a set of guidelines I developed over the years. I encourage parents to experiment with the guidelines they like, ignore the ones they don't, and to add their own suggestions and stories in the comments section. So, without further adieu, here is the Sane Mom approach to potty training.

Guideline #1: Start when the child is ready.

I prefer to wait until the child can have a conversation, usually between the ages of two and three. Sure, you can plunk a pre-verbal child onto the potty seat and maybe he or she will learn to poo or tinkle on command, but potty training is about more than just getting rid of diapers. It's also about learning the valuable life-skill of being responsible for one's own waste. It is impossible to get this concept across to a child when he or she doesn't know what the hell you're saying.

Guideline #2: Use equipment you are comfortable with.

This can either be a standalone potty or a small padded seat that fits over the adult toilet seat. Personally, I prefer the latter--nothing makes me gag harder than the sight of urine-soaked shit in a plastic container (until I tip it over the potty and hear the mess plopping into the water, that is). The upside of the former design is that your child may feel more comfortable being closer to the floor, and may also be more likely to use the potty if it's located in a play area close to the toys. As for me, I never conquered my gag reflex when it comes to runny, smelly human waste, so we'll be sticking with the flushing toilet.

Guideline #3: Be cool.

It's tempting to make a big deal out of beginning potty training and either start cheerleading (You're such a big kid now! You'll never use diapers again!) or castigating (You can't start preschool or play with big kids until you learn to use the potty!) your child. But the truth is, the more pressure you put on the kid, positive or negative, the more hangups he or she will develop. Why? Because being relaxed is a key ingredient to being able to "go". Think about how hard it is to take a dump in a public restroom, or even at home if people are standing outside the door impatiently awaiting their turn. Using the bathroom is not something that requires audience participation. Just stand by and stay calm.

This doesn't mean you can't bring it up. When I was supervising children on the playground, I would often point out (conversationally) that the big kids wore underwear instead of diapers and went inside to use the potty. Little kids are fascinated by what big kids do and they expect that, in time, they will do the same things. Another good idea is to keep potty books mixed in with the "fun" books. Seeing potty-related imagery on a regular basis can help demystify the process and can reinforce the idea that it's not such a big deal.

Guideline #4: Be consistent.

Taking care of a group of children would be impossible without a strict schedule. This is especially true in a preschool setting, where many groups have to share limited space and resources. I find that the habit of scheduling has carried over into my parenting, as well. While my home schedule is not as strict as my classroom one was, my boy's day is still structured by specific things (like meals and naps) happening at specific times. I plan on making potty training just another part of the day. His mind and body trained to eat, sleep, and play at certain times; now he can learn to poop when it's time.

This may sound rigidly authoritarian, but think about it. When do you go number two? If you have a steady job, chances are you feel the urge at roughly the same time each day, usually correlated with your pre-work ritual or around your break time. This is because your body "knows" when the time is optimal for it to go. Deviations from this schedule often result in embarrassment or dismay. This same biological time-keeping process is at work in children; we just have to wind the clock.

Guideline #5: You don't ask. You tell.

The quickest way to derail the process is to ask your child if he or she wants to use the potty. 95% of the time, the answer will be a resounding No. Kids love having the freedom to opt out, and given half a chance, they will abuse that power. Even if it means shitting their pants.

Instead, just say, "It's time to sit on the potty." That way, it isn't you making the kid do something; it's time. Potty time is like meal time, bath time, and bed time; it's just something that happens. This is where having a schedule really helps--instead of having to interrupt play or a meal to whisk a child to the potty, it can be an "in-between" activity (for example, between nap and snack).

In addition to these set times, toddlers should be brought to the potty any time they ask to use it.

Guideline #6: Have realistic expectations.

There's a reason I say, "It's time to sit on the potty," instead of, "It's time to use the potty." As I explained earlier, kids don't have to go poop and pee just because their caregivers want them to. Each time they sit on the potty, they choose whether they will go or not (unless their bladders are bursting). If we want potty training to succeed, we have to respect this choice.

When I started training a particular group of children, I only expected them to be able to sit on the potty for one minute (having a digital clock in the bathroom helps--kids love watching the numbers count down). If they achieved this goal, I said, "Good job." and went on to the next kid. That minute was enough time to get the first child's hands washed and get him or her seated with a snack before moving on. People looking into my classroom were often amazed at how efficiently I managed to get through such a difficult task, but the truth is, low expectations yielded high results.

As the kids got more comfortable on the potty, I would increase the number of times per day and the amount of time spent. Sooner or later, I would hear the glorious sound of water tinkling on porcelain, and I would return to the bathroom to find a ecstatic, proud child.

Guideline #7: Rewards work; bribery fails.

I kept a bag of gummy bears in my up-high, off-limits teacher cabinet. I never mentioned them, but all the kids knew they were there. They also knew that peeing in the potty was worth one gummy bear, and that pooping was worth two. So, not only did they get lots of praise from me (often in the presence of their parents, an added bonus), but they also received a small bit of sweetness to enhance the memory. This positive association, reinforced over time, led the kids to look forward to the opportunity to use the potty and earn their reward.

However, this is probably the trickiest guideline to follow without letting it spiral out of control. Firstly, it's tempting to trot out the candy beforehand to use as incentive. Bad idea. You're essentially offering to pay the child for something he or she should be expected to do regardless. Kids are shrewd little manipulators, and once they realize their poop and pee is worth something to you, they want to negotiate the best possible deal for themselves (such as: full-size Snickers, up front, then we'll see what happens). The other problem is knowing when to cut the treats off. In my preschool classes, this wasn't a problem: the kids moved on to another teacher, who may or may not offer potty rewards. Problem solved. But deciding when to stop rewarding my son with sweets will be more challenging, and there will probably be conflict involved.

Also, if you feel strongly one way or another about sugar (meaning you either avoid it like poison or constantly pacify your child with candy) then this option is off the table.

Guideline #8: Buy lots of undies and be ready to throw them away.

Over time, the diaper will stay drier longer and successful potty times will become the norm. I recommend waiting to switch to undies until this point, mostly because cleaning up accidents sucks (especially when you suspect it was no "accident"), but also because I don't own enough clothing to change my son's entire outfit several times a day. Your child will still occasionally have accidents, but they will be fewer and farther between depending on how comfortable he or she is on the potty. It helps to get the child involved in the cleaning up, both because it deters future accidents and because it reinforces the idea of taking responsibility for one's own messes.

Sometimes the messes will be horrifying--even a well-trained child is no match for the sudden onslaught of diarrhea. This is why cheap underwear is your friend. If you can't bear the thought of your child's cherished undies getting thrown away, it's probably best not to use them to cover his or her butt. Hang them on the wall or something, if they're so important.

This is neither a quick-fix nor a one-size-fits-all approach. Following these guidelines takes time, commitment, and patience. But it worked for me with dozens of other people's children, and it's the approach I intend to take with my own.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Another One Rides the Bus

We are a one-car family; my husband and I share an economical, sensible vehicle that is no larger than what we absolutely need. During the weekday, the car is with my husband at work, leaving Han Solo (my new internet pet-name for my boy because yes, we are geeks) and I sans personal transportation. You may be thinking how noble we are to make such a sacrifice for the environment, to reduce our entire family's carbon footprint to that of just one person. If you spotted me and my boy waiting at the bus stop, his stroller laden down with groceries in reusable shopping bags, you might nod approvingly as you sped by in your air-conditioned SUV, thinking, now there's a true environmentalist.

I wonder if you would think the same thing about the Mexican lady sitting on the bench next to me, who is also toting children and groceries. The thing is, she's probably there for the exact same reason I am--her family cannot afford for her to have a car. Like me, she's probably grateful to have any transportation option at all, and considers a walk (it's a half mile from my front door to the bus stop and I'm guessing that's about average) followed by a five to fifteen minute wait in the sun and humidity while traffic whizzes by just feet away, to be a reasonable price to pay to be able to leave the house and go somewhere. Yet my hypothetical SUV driving environmentalist would probably not notice her at all, relegating her to the background, just another expected part of an everyday commute.

I say this not to point out what a racist a-hole the SUV driver is (though I am starting to dislike this pretend person), but to illustrate how unusual it is for a white woman my age to take her young child on the crosstown bus. Sometimes I catch people looking at us with a quizzical expression, as if wondering what the hell happened to put us in such a position.

For the most part, my bus-riding experiences have been positive. People smile at my son, help me lift my stroller if it's obvious I'm having trouble juggling all the crap I'm carrying, and switch seats just to give Han a better view. But there are also some unsavory characters on the bus, young guys who swear loudly and holler at the young ladies on their way to the community college, folks who are clearly a little deranged, and rundown types who smell like they just crawled out of a bottle of Night Train. Some of the bus drivers are surly cranks who gaze at my son with undisguised hostility, seeing us as yet another in a string of time-consuming hassles putting everyone behind schedule. It's a mixed bag, is what I'm saying, and I never know what to expect.

There are two ways of looking at this. One, it is terrible that I have to subject my son to potentially frightening strangers just to get to the grocery store. It sucks that buses are not only designed without regard to mothers transporting young children, but they seem to actively inhibit them. It blows that it may be up to a year before we get our finances to the point where a second car is even possible. It bugs me that buses are exclusively the domain of poor people, and that the SUV environmentalist will never truly understand the situation that I and the unnoticed Mexican lady share.

All of these things are true, but I still prefer to look at this from a second perspective: every bus ride is an adventure. This sounds stupid at first (at least it did to me) until you remember that "adventure" is not synonymous with "fun." Think about the great adventures of movies and literature--they were each a series of tests, designed to educate and toughen the characters. The heroes of these stories learned from, and were often made better by, the trials and tribulations they overcame while trying to reach their goals.

Now, our goal is just to get to the grocery store and back, and we are rarely tested by anything we can't easily handle. But there's a sense whenever we walk away from the house, of setting off, of knowing where we're going but not everything that will happen between here and there. I want my boy to know that we can handle whatever comes, that we are no better or worse than the people around us, and that fear is normal but you can't let it stop you from going where you need to go.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Circumcision: Let's Talk About Dicks

These days, parents of baby boys are faced with a tough decision: whether or not to have their sons circumcised. Just a generation ago, it was a no-brainer--circumcision was widely known to result in a cleaner, more attractive, and socially acceptable penis. Boys with foreskins were the exception, the freaks in the locker-room covering their crotches in shame while the "normal" boys pointed and laughed.

But the world is moving on, and as the years pass and my peers flood the earth with their children, the practice is becoming less common. In fact, only 56% of baby boys born in the US were circumcised in 2008, down from more than 80% in the 1960's. And thanks to the growing intactivism movement, that number is likely to continue decreasing. Parents are becoming more aware of their choices, as well as the potential risks and benefits to accepting or declining the procedure. We've realized that whether or not to circumcise really and truly is entirely up to us. Unfortunately, this means that we get to take the blame if, someday, our boys decide that we made the wrong choice. With all the shouting surrounding this issue, it can be hard to decipher hyperbole from fact. Here's my attempt to cut through the bullshit and help you make a choice both you and your child can be comfortable with.

What does the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) have to say about circumcision?

AAP policies reflect the current medical consensus among pediatric practitioners based on the most recent evidence. In the case of circumcision, however, they're not much help. While the AAP acknowledges that "existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits," their official policy statement concludes that "...these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision." In other words, the decision is left to parents and their pediatricians. However, the AAP plans to update this policy in light of new evidence about potential health benefits of the procedure. Whether or not this will affect their recommendations remains to be seen.

Why do people have their boys circumcised?

According to this article on PubMed, circumcision reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections (which are especially dangerous in infants), lowers the risk of many types of STD (including HIV and HPV), has a protective effect against penile cancer, eliminates the medical need to have the procedure performed as an adult (well, duh), and improves "sexual function and creativity". One study found that circumcised men enjoy "...a more elaborate sexual lifestyle," and their female partners report being "...more pleased with the aesthetics of the circumcised penis."  (I'm not sure if that last part counts as a health reason, but hey, I didn't write the article.)

However, the health issue is kind of a red herring, because most parents make this decision for cultural reasons, such as religion or family tradition. One study found that circumcision status of the father, as well as the parents' education level and ages, are the most important factors in the decision. In this same study, mothers-to-be were given an informative brochure put together by the AAP which outlined the health benefits and potential complications. Not one woman changed her mind after reading the brochure.

What is the history of circumcision?

The oldest documented evidence of circumcision comes from ancient Egypt. Many historians believe that the Jews acquired this practice during their period of enslavement to the Egyptians, though competing evidence suggests that it has been a custom in Semitic tribes going back much further than that. The tradition also has roots in Islamic culture, tracing back to the tribal practice of circumcising both boys and girls. It is still a common cultural tradition among orthodox Jews and devout Muslims.

Circumcision didn't catch on in the United States until the late nineteenth century. Doctors who advocated for the procedure recommended it to curb masturbation, or in the words of  John Harvey Kellogg, as a "PREVENTION OF SECRET VICE" (apparently cranks have always had a love affair with caps lock). Kellogg, who helped popularize the practice in the US, believed that masturbation was an act of evil and that the inability (or refusal) to abstain from it constituted a disease. In addition to performing circumcisions (without anesthetic, so the pain would have a "salutary effect upon the mind,")  he encouraged parents to force their children to work long and hard during the day so they would be too exhausted to "defile" themselves at night. For younger children, he suggested tying their hands, or, more effectively, "bandaging the parts" to prevent access. Fortunately, his more extreme ideas did not catch on (such as applying pure carbolic acid to the clitoris if a woman proved unable to "exercise entire self control"), but other doctors of the era took his anti-foreskin fervor and ran with it. To this day, many Americans still consider circumcised penises to be cleaner and more civilized than their intact counterparts.

How is circumcision performed?

I always imagined it to be rather neat and precise: the doctor pulls the foreskin up from the penis between his fingers, the way a barber prepares to trim a lock of hair, then pulls out a specialized penis guillotine that resembles a cigar-cutter, and snip snap snip, the penis is circumcised. The nurses dab off the tiny amount of blood with a soft cloth, and the smiling baby boy is delivered safely to his mother's arms.

But it's not like that at all. The Wikipedia page on circumcision goes into graphic, gory, detail on how it really happens (warning: pictures!). There is a clamp involved, used in conjunction with a "restraining device". The inner lining of the foreskin is "bluntly separated" from the glans so that the clamp can be forced into place. Sometimes this requires a dorsal slit, and sometimes the frenulum band near the urethra needs to be "broken or crushed" so the foreskin can be cut. The clamp stays in place until the penis has healed, at which point it should fall off on its own (the clamp, not the penis).

Most boys have pediatricians (or mohels) who follow AAP recommendations and use local anesthtic, either in the form of a topical cream or by a series of injections. But not all practitioners believe that babies feel pain (or perhaps, like Kellogg, they believe the babies deserve pain), so sometimes the procedure is performed with no pain relief at all.

Do the benefits make it worth doing anyway?

In sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the studies showing a positive benefit were conducted, it probably is worth doing. AIDS and other STD's are rampant, people have limited or no access to contraception, rape is commonly used as a tactic of warfare, and access to clean water and adequate medical care is scarce. In conditions like these, medical interventions that even slightly lower the risk of passing on infectious disease make perfect sense.

Here in the US, it makes less sense. The typical American man has the luxury of plenty of hot water and soap in the comfort of his own home. He can dry off with a clean towel and put on freshly-laundered underwear. He can waltz down to the CVS and pick up a box of condoms any time he likes. He is unlikely to force himself upon an unwilling woman.

However, health issues aside, some people do prefer the aesthetics of the circumcised penis, seeing it as cleaner and more streamilined. Plus, circumcised men don't get smegma (which is not a health risk but is still pretty gross.)


Though circumcision's popularity in the US is fading, it is unlikely that the intactivists will get their wish and put an end to the practice altogether. I personally feel that the procedure is unnecessary and opted out for my son, but I also don't buy the more extreme claims of men feeling violated by their parents and mourning the loss of their foreskins. I'd imagine the average guy doesn't give it much thought; his dick is as familiar to him as the contours of his own face and, as long as it works like it should, he should be happy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Open Letter to Mayim Bialik: Why Can't We Be Friends?

Dear Mayim,

I hope you'll forgive me for calling you by your first name, but I can't help but feel like I know you. You see, you and I grew up together. No, we didn't live in the same neighborhood or attend the same schools. This relationship is purely one-sided: to me, you will always be the girl who played Blossom. This isn't a bad thing--Blossom was by far the smartest, hippest, savviest, and most confident girl on TV in the early 90's. They just don't make girl's role models like that any more, to the detriment of Miley Cyrus fans everywhere. And it wasn't just your TV persona--judging from what I saw in interviews, you were pretty hip and savvy yourself. I admired your unwavering, uncompromising, you-ness. You didn't wait for others to hand you your self-esteem. You took it as your birthright, and nerdy, insecure girls like me were inspired and emboldened to do the same.

But we arrived at adulthood along very different paths. You went on to gain a Ph.D. in neuroscience while I delivered pizzas, taught preschool, and went into debt to finance my liberal arts degree from a state college. I'm not saying that my way was "better" or gave me some profound insight you are lacking. I don't begrudge you your good fortune or opportunities in the slightest. I'm just pointing out that our respective paths taught us each very different lessons and, as a result, we approach parenting from different perspectives. Yet I'd like to think our core values are still in alignment--we both care deeply about the earth and preserving its resources, we both want humane treatment for all animals, and we share the belief that children are our most tangible investment in the future of our planet and the survival of our species.

So why do we find ourselves on opposite sides of an impenetrable wall when it comes to parenting? Do our families' respective sleeping arrangements and meal habits really matter so much that they would strangle a potential friendship before it is formed? Does the fact that I had a C-section while you had your babies at home make us the Capulets and the freaking Montagues?

It hasn't always been like this. In a past interview you said, " ...everyone does things differently and that’s OK. It’s very important to us to raise nonjudgmental children who don’t go finger-wagging." You were also self aware enough to acknowledge that "...a lot of people hear that term [attachment parenting] and automatically get turned off or automatically assume that you think you're doing things better than them."  Based on statements like these, I think we could get along despite our differences as parents.

But then I read the intro to your new blog on TODAYMoms. You start out by condemning labels and distancing yourself from the term attachment parent...but then you go on to state all the ways in which you are, indeed, a full-on attachment parent. You say you don't want to judge anybody, but you also say that "natural" childbirth should be the norm and that "almost all women should [emphasis mine] be able to...successfully breast-feed, barring rare genetic conditons." Mayim, when you say things like these, women who prefer to give birth in a hospital  or who choose to bottle feed feel like you are attacking their parenting choices. Your attitude has changed from: "this is how I choose to raise my kids" to "this is the right way to raise all kids, everywhere."

I think I know how this happened. When you first started revealing your particular, somewhat peculiar, parenting choices, the sanctimommies piled on. I'm sure there were plenty of fingers wagging at you as thousands of moms felt it their duty to tell you every little thing that was wrong with every little detail of your parenting plan. No doubt you felt a bit defensive; after all, you made these decisions consciously, with your children's best interest in mind. What right did these people have to judge you? So you did what anyone in your position would likely have done--you looked for support from like-minded people. And, thanks to the internet, you found it in spades. Not only are your choices acceptable, your support group assured you, they are deeply, fundamentally, right.  But by this logic, people who make different choices are simply, flat-out wrong. Such is the danger of the echo chamber, where extremism is born.

Mayim, I respect your right to make the choices you feel are right for your family. But if you refuse to extend the same courtesy to others, you run the risk of alienating readers like me, with whom you may have more in common than you realize. I have a feeling that if you and I met as total strangers, in a park with our children perhaps, we would strike up a lively and enjoyable conversation. Let's not let the sanctimommies of the world ruin our chance to get along, and to model for our kids a very important lesson: that just because we're different doesn't mean we can't be friends.


Sane Mom

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hot Saucing: Hurting Kids for Christ?

Sometimes I worry that I'm coming up short as a mom. Does my son eat enough healthy food? Are his toys stimulating and age-appropriate? Should I really let him wile away the afternoon watching Dino Dan, or should I bundle him up and drag him outside to play in the howling wind?

Then I see videos like this one, and I feel much better about myself.

This video is all over parenting websites, leading people to debate furiously in comment sections. The majority, thankfully, sees this as a clear-cut instance of child abuse (and the state of Alaska agrees) but an alarming number of commenters are rushing to this horrible lady's defense. Apparently, a large subset of the population still practices "hot saucing" as a disciplinary technique. But why? Who are the defenders of this practice, and are they, in fact, torturing children?

What is hot saucing? 

Hot saucing refers to placing a drop of hot sauce on a child's tongue as punishment, usually for offenses such as lying, talking back, and swearing. The idea is to have the child associate the pain with the misbehavior in order to deter the behavior in the future. This is more commonly practiced among Christians (though by no means do all of them do this), who believe that children need to learn respect and obedience for parents so they will learn to respect and obey God. They claim this will lead to a more "moral" society, one which is being threatened by permissive parenting and the disrespectful, entitled children it produces.

Who is encouraging people to do this?

Blair from The Facts of Life. No, seriously. Though she didn't invent the practice herself, former actress turned born-again Christian Lisa Whelchel heartily endorses hot saucing in her parenting book, Creative Correction. The book is published and endorsed by the hugely influential Focus on the Family, a evangelical organization that works to promote socially conservative social policy. While this book isn't exactly mainstream (it's ranked #55 in popularity among books focused on parental discipline), it does appeal to a significant portion of the population, and does influence the day-to-day discipline strategies of many, many parents.

It's just a drop of Tobasco. What's the worst that could happen?

For the record, the makers of Tobasco Sauce condemn the use of their product as a disciplinary tool. They are wise to distance themselves from hot saucers, whose children can suffer severe consequences such as burned esophagus, swollen tongue, and anaphalaxis. A third of the adult population has no tolerance for capsaicin and has a severe negative reaction to ingesting it. Children's palates are even more sensitive than that--for a capsaicin-intolerant child, a dab of hot sauce goes beyond mere pain, creating a sensation as agonizing as a lit cigarette being ground out on the tongue.

Is hot saucing always abusive?

In my opinion, yes. If we accept the notion that pain is a necessary part of punishment, then why not just squirt children in the face with pepper spray? What about tasers and shock collars? They work for subduing criminals and dogs, so why not kids? Should we bring back the hair shirt? If the ends (obedience) justify the means (pain), then where do we draw the line?

Hopefully, the controversy caused by this video will cause some hot saucing parents to renounce their ways, or at least consider alternative forms of discipline. Unfortunately, this pattern of abuse goes beyond mere hot sauce. As the above video shows, hot saucing is part of a larger disciplinary strategy, one by which the parent rules through fear and intimidation. Pain and humiliation are the desired outcomes of this form of discipline. Even if we outlaw hot saucing, abusive parents will still do it, or just find another form of torture to take its place.

How can we influence hot saucing parents to change their ways?

I don't know any parents who admit to doing it (and I kind of doubt any of them are readers of my blog), but I have a couple of arguments handy in case I find myself debating a hot saucer.

The first argument is one based on  their own Christianity. I'm not a religious person myself, but I was raised as a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church and I'm quite familiar with the Bible. I would ask the abusive parent why he or she chooses to model the behavior of the vengeful, cruel god of the Old Testament instead of after His representative here on earth, the benevolent and kind Jesus Christ. Did God intend for us to act just like Him, or was Jesus meant to provide an example of idealized human behavior? Personally, I think Jesus would have made a great dad, always ready to listen with an understanding heart, reacting to his children's misbehavior with love and gentle guidance. I have a hard time imagining the Prince of Peace shouting in a child's face, taking pleasure from inflicting misery onto one of God's most helpless and sensitive creations.

If that argument didn't get through, I would try a more practical approach. The world is an uncertain place and we're all getting older, fast. Chances are, the economy will not have significantly improved by the time our generation gets too old to work. We can't count on Social Security to still be in place, and most jobs nowadays offer no hope of pension or comfortable retirement. Who will take care of us when we are, ourselves, helpless and frail? Who will ensure that our deaths are tender and meaningful, that our memories endure after our bodies are long gone? How we treat our kids is an investment, not just in their future, but in ours as well. We have the right to expect them to be as respectful and loving as we once were. And something tells me that the poodle-haired lady from the video will die bitter and alone.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Prescriptive Parenting, Part 2: What's the Deal With Babywise?

A while back I noticed something puzzling a friend had posted on Facebook. It was a screenshot of an iPhone sleep-training app. The idea is that app helps the weary, stressed-out parent keep track of how many minutes have actually passed  (usually less than they think, I'd imagine) since the last time they were in the nursery attempting to lull a fussy child to sleep. The app itself wasn't puzzling, but the comments under the picture confused me. I don't remember them verbatim, but essentially people were scandalized that Apple would allow its users to purchase an app that facilitates child abuse.

Child abuse? Holy shit! I've never had to use sleep training myself, but I think it's a potentially useful tool for parents who are too overwhelmed by their children's crying to make sensible sleep decisions. Calling it child abuse seemed a little extreme. I commented: I don't get it. What's so bad about this? My friend commented back with links denouncing a series of parenting materials called Becoming Babywise. Apparently, a large part of this strict, Christian fundamentalist approach to parenting is devoted to structuring a child's sleep schedule, which is what got my friend so worked up. The man behind the Babywise series, an evangelical minister named Gary Ezzo, believes that babies should be sleeping through the night by eight weeks. This is among many unrealistic beliefs being promoted by a man whose only child-care expertise comes from raising his own children. But just how bad could Babywise be, and was it possible that my friend (who practices attachment parenting, breastfeeds exclusively, and considers circumcision to be genital mutilation) was just overreacting?

Trying to find unbiased sources of information on this topic was surprisingly difficult. AP advocates like Katie Allison Granju describe Babywise as a sinister right-wing Christian agenda with potentially serious consequences in terms of children's mental and physical health. But Babywise parents and members of Ezzo's GFI ministry emphasize just how normal and common-sense the approach is, especially when compared to those who take attachment parenting to extremes. Now, I admit I haven't read these books myself (nor have I read Dr.Sears's attachment parenting book), but I've tried to figure out his basic approach to parenting by finding the answers to the following qustions.

What is the Babywise stance on sleeping, and can it be considered abusive?

Like attachment parenting, Babywise is focused on the way things ought to be. In Gary Ezzo's view, children should be sleeping through the night from a very young age. Parents should expect this and plan the infant's schedule accordingly. If a child wakes up crying, the parent should let him go at it for a while before checking on him. Ideally, the baby falls back asleep on his own. This is where sleep-training apps can come in handy. Time becomes extremely relative in the wee hours of the morning, and to an exhausted, aggravated parent a minute of crying can seem like an hour.

What this method doesn't take into account are the variability of a baby's cries. Sometimes fussing and whimpering can smooth out on its own as the baby shifts position or drifts back into sleep. But if he is uncomfortable or has a wet diaper, ignoring the problem only lets him get even wider awake as he waits for help. This can be stressful for him as he wonders why you are not responding to his cries. Plus, newborns get hungry every few hours, regardless of the time of day. Trying to ignore his hunger cries can be agonizing for mom and dad (and I doubt there is a mom alive who could sleep through such a sound), but can also be distressing to the baby, who is completely overwhelmed by the intense biological need to nurse.

So, while sleep-training itself is not abusive, using it in lieu of common sense can be. If you and your baby are both utterly miserable, then what you're trying is not working. Some parents who have refused to back down from Ezzo's expectations have ended up with children that are malnourished, dehydrated, and failing to thrive. Some babies really do sleep through the night starting at eight weeks or even younger. But to expect that of all babies is wildly unrealistic and potentially harmful.

What advice does Babywise offer about feeding?

Babywise emphasizes Parent Directed Feeding (PDF), which is just what it sounds like. Unlike attachment parenting, in which the baby's hunger cues determine when he is fed, the Babywise parent decides when, how often, and how much a baby should eat. Even breastfeeding (which the program encourages mothers to do) is to be done on a strict, carefully timed schedule. The idea is that you can "train" your child to only eat at appropriate meal times, even if it means they get very hungry between meals.

As children get older, the meals get even more controlled, to the point where kids as young as eight months are expected to have impeccable high-chair manners. They are to be discouraged from playing with their food, making a mess, throwing food on the floor, or rubbing it in their hair. This discouragement is often physical, in the form of squeezing a child's hand or swatting him. Based on the way my own toddler eats, I'd imagine it is an uphill battle for parents to get their children to behave the way they "ought" to at meal times.

So, Babywise condones parents hitting their children as a form of discipline?

Yes, but only in "appropriate" ways. While information in the more secularly-oriented Babywise series doesn't go into much detail on how to spank, the more openly fundamentalist Growing Kids God's Way (which Ezzo also wrote and published, previously to Babywise) has more specific instructions. Starting when the child is 14 months old, the parent should use "a somewhat flexible instrument (that) stings without inflicting bone or muscle damage…if there is no pain, then the instrument is probably too light or too flexible." Pain is the natural outcome of bad behavior and the parent must induce pain to ensure that the child understands this life lesson.

This belief is contrary to virtually any advice given by experts in the field of child care or child psychology. Physical punishment like spanking more often than not leads to angry, troubled children. The short term, fear-based improvement in behavior can lead to more serious behavioral problems down the road.

Is everyone who follows Ezzo's advice abusing their children?

Not at all. As with attachment parenting, most people who read these books do not follow Ezzo's advice to the letter. Many people (myself included) feel that the parent should be in charge of the child's schedule concerning eating and sleeping, at least after the baby has grown out of the feeding-around-the-clock stage. And a lot of parents, especially when harried and worn-out, have let loose with the occasional swat or firm grab of a misbehaving child. This is by no means effective behavioral management, but it is a far cry from actual child abuse.

However, those who are already inclined to hurt children may see Ezzo's books as justification for their violent tendencies. Instead of feeling guilty for losing their tempers, they feel vindicated and, in some cases, holy. There is also the problem of the insecure parent who trusts Ezzo's advice over their own experiences. I imagine a young Christian first-time mother trying to ignore a wailing child, crying because she believes something must be wrong with either her child or her. This is a tragic yet plausible outcome of committing fully to Babywise.

I realize this isn't the most topical post--after all, Babywise was denounced in 1997 in a "letter of concern" to the AAP signed by approximately 100 health-care providers. Since then, it has fallen out of mainstream popularity. But I think the damage from Babywise is still being felt by parents who attempt to structure their child's eating or sleeping habits, especially when other parents are so quick to label something as abusive.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Safe and Effective Cough and Cold Treatment for Children Under Four

Watching your young child suffer through a cold or flu virus is a particularly insidious form of torture. The snot, the ragged breathing, the pervasive crankiness. To add to the misery, the primary caregiver and snot wiper (in our family's case, me) often catches the same bug. The caregiver, however, has the option of taking drugs to alleviate the symptoms. A couple teaspoons of Tussin and I'm good to go, or at least able to breathe again. Not so for my little guy. The warning labels on children's cough and cold medicine have changed since my days in child care, strongly advising us not to administer doses to kids under four.

If you're anything like me, you wonder why. What happened in the past few years to change these products from helpful symptom relief to little-kid poison? Don't these things help children to sleep, breathe, and just plain feel better? What prompted the American Association of Pediatrics to change their guidelines  and what can we do to help our little sickie-poos feel better?

Which cough and cold medicines are affected by the new guidelines?

Antihistamines, decongestants, antitussives (cough suppressants), and expectorants. These active ingredients are found in a wide variety of products marketed for relief of cough and cold.

Pain relievers/fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) are still okay for use in infants and small children, provided doses are measured properly.

Why did the AAP make these changes?

According to an FDA advisory panel, these products are ineffective and potentially hazardous when given to small children. There is not enough evidence of efficacy to justify the risk of adverse reaction or overdose.

Ineffective? But doesn't it make kids feel better, or at least help them sleep?

Intuitively, this seems to make sense. The caregiver doses the miserable, crying, phlegmy child with medicine and, usually within the hour, the child becomes drowsy and seems to breathe more easily. The medicine must have worked, right?

Not necessarily. The caregiver has fallen prey to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy--in other words, he or she has confused correlation with causation. I admit I've fallen for this one myself; it's easy to attribute the seeming regression of symptoms to the administration of a drug. However, viral illness is not a fixed, static state. Symptoms fluctuate, with peaks of misery followed by valleys of relative improvement. Chances are, the kid would have calmed down and fallen asleep regardless, with or without the medicine.

In fact, one study comparing dipenhydramine (Benadryl) and dextromethorphan (cough suppressant) to a placebo found that cough and cold medicines are not effective in providing nocturnal symptom relief for children, nor do they improve quality of sleep for their parents. In other words, the family of a sick kid will be awake and miserable whether the kid is medicated or not. But there is a silver lining to this bummer of a study--all families in the study reported significant improvement on the second night, regardless of whether the children were given placebos or drugs.

Are cough and cold medicines really dangerous? 

Not if administered properly; most adverse reactions are due to dosing errors and accidental ingestion. If parents are diligent about measuring doses (and can tell a mL from a tsp), and always keep medicines out of reach, that shouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, a recent study shows that parents are quite likely to incorrectly measure a dose (especially with the little plastic measuring cups--oral syringes are far more accurate), usually giving more than the recommended amount. In fact, emergency rooms visits for "adverse events" (i.e. overdoses) decreased substantially after the withdrawal of infants' cough and cold formulas from the market.

What about alternative remedies? Are they safe and effective?

While many people swear by Airborne, Oscillococcinum, and Zicam, there is no credible evidence that these products work as advertised.  Not only are they ineffective for symptom relief beyond the placebo effect, but they can also have serious side effects. Airborne containsVitamin A, which is toxic in high amounts. The makers of Zicam were sued and settled out of court after their product caused more than 130 people to lose their sense of smell. And a homeopathic remedy like Ocsillococcinum poisoned children after manufacturing errors led to an excess of an active ingredient (usually active ingredients are diluted until not a trace molecule remains, as in all "true" homeopathic remedies). Considering the typically high price of these products, there seems to be very little benefit to justify the risks.

What can I do to help my poor baby feel better? 

Medically speaking, not much. Cool-mist humidifiers can help ease congestion. If you're brave (and your child will let you), you can use a bulb aspirator to suck snot from the nostrils (be sure you're using it correctly so you don't puff air up there). You can also use saline drops to soothe and loosen the sinuses, and children's Vapo-Rub to help the child breathe (though this is not recommended for children under 2 because of the toxicity of camphor if ingested and the possibility of skin irritation).

Mostly, you just need to be patient. Kids get 6-10 colds a year on average, which tend to last up to two weeks at a time. That's a lot of snotty nights and grouchy days. But if you keep your child hydrated, well-fed, and comfortable, he or she will get better in a reasonable amount of time. Short of keeping children in a plastic bubble, there is no reliable way to prevent or cure occasional viral outbreaks. We just have to get through them the best we can. Children under four should be doing that without the aid of medication.

It's tempting to head to the drug store to buy something, anything, that will help our sick kids. It makes us feel in control, like we're being proactive and doing something to make what's wrong right again. But beyond that fleeting feeling of being a "good" parent, very little is gained from the purchase and administration of over the counter cough and cold remedies.