Free to be You and Me


The USA Freedom Kids perform at a Trump Rally

I’ve been told more than once that I am opinionated. I struggle with that descriptive every time I hear it, because isn’t everyone opinionated? Don’t we all have views and thoughts and ideas and leanings?

How does one actually go about not having an opinion on something? It’s like when someone tells you, “Don’t think about a giant purple elephant.” You can’t help but think of a giant purple elephant, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. So unless you’re completely unaware of an issue—say, whether or not twerking should be an Olympic sport or water chestnuts are the food version of hell—it seems to me that forming opinions is an unavoidable, involuntary act.


“Just pretend like I’m not even here.”

Now that we have finally reached 2016, the year in which we Americans will elect our next President, I find myself with opinions coming out my ears. I have opinions on all of the candidates whose names I can remember (there are so many!) and opinions on all of the issues I can wrap my brain around (the debt ceiling still eludes me).

The problem with all these opinions is that I struggle to keep them contained. I live in Minnesota, where we all politely try to avoid making each other angry or uncomfortable, but that’s not the reason I hold back. The reason I work to keep my political opinions to myself is that I don’t want to turn my kids into Mini-Mes. (Sorry about the spelling there—I’m not familiar with the plural form of Mini-Me, so you get what you get.)

I screwed up this morning when I clicked on a news article in the Washington Post about the USA Freedom Kids, a group of five young girls who dance and sing to demonstrate their patriotism and earn a little cash. The article included a video from their recent performance at a Donald Trump rally in Pensacola, Florida. At the rally, three of the Freedom Kids (apparently 40% of the group had conflicts that day) donned shiny American flag ensembles and danced and lip-synced to a song about our country staying strong so our enemies don’t crush us and how we should never apologize for our freedom. They also managed to sneak in a line about “President Trump.”

When he heard the video, my 7-year-old leaned over to watch and said, “Ooh, I like the music.” I was so horrified, I completely forgot to stop and think before saying, “No, this music is bad. It’s really, really bad.” My response left no room for argument.

“Yeah, the song is bad. You’re right, Mom,” my son agreed, doing a total 180. “It’s horrible.” Confusion flitted across his face. “Wait, why is it bad?”

I didn’t know how to answer him. As I read through the lyrics of the song, I saw that they weren’t necessarily bad. We all want to live in a strong country, and freedom and liberty are nice, positive sentiments in their pure form. But my son is just learning the basic definitions of those words in second grade, so he has no idea how they’ve been used in the past, or how certain presidential candidates are manipulating them to fit their agendas. Should I have told him that freedom and liberty are wonderful when they apply to everybody, but terrible when they are used as justification for racist, hateful policies? Yeah, I don’t think he would have understood that answer. To be honest, the whole concept still baffles me a little.

So here’s what I said: “It’s a bad song because those girls are singing about a man who is not a good person, who doesn’t deserve to be our president.”


The hottest grade school fashion trend of 2016

Well, that’s not better. Now I’ve not only told my kid that his music taste is incorrect, I’ve also told him another human being is unequivocally bad. And though it’s important to me that he knows my opinions, it is also important to me that my son forms his own. Just like it’s important to me that those Freedom Kids are allowed to form their own opinions about strength, liberty, and men like Donald Trump. I find it hard to believe those kids can do that when they’re being paid to parade around in the colors of the flag, saluting and singing nuanced songs they can’t possibly understand.

The group’s manager, Jeff Popick, (who also happens to be the father of one of the girls) bragged about how he contacted multiple presidential candidates, and Trump’s was the only campaign to hire the Freedom Kids. That begs a few questions—does Mr. Popick even know what Donald Trump stands for? Does he agree with it? Would he have let the Freedom Kids sing and dance for any candidate, as long as they got paid? And most important: Do these girls have any idea what they’re doing?


This kid wants to ask Bernie Sanders what he had for breakfast

It’s hard to find a balance between educating our kids about politics and telling them what to think. It’s also hard to include them in the political process without turning them into precious little mascots for the candidates. A recent article in NPR raises questions about the legitimacy of the “kid questioners” that frequently turn up at Hilary Clinton’s events. I don’t know if the kids are “plants,” as some critics suggest, but many of the questions seem to have been coached or crafted by parents. And I get it—we all understand the urge to help our kids sound savvy and smart. But if we’re going to get them involved in politics, I believe we should be getting them involved on their own terms. I’d rather my 7-year-old asked his own question about Clinton’s pets than asking a question I’d suggested about plans for “connecting mental health problems and guns.”

But let’s be real for a second: You will NEVER catch me telling my kids that we should give Donald Trump a chance and that he probably has a lot of good ideas if we’re just willing to listen. I will not pretend my own views are anything other than what they are. If my kids want to know what I think, I’ll tell them what I think.

And then I’ll do my best to ask, “But more importantly, what do you think?”

Sugar Rush

Leading up to my kids’ dentist appointments last month, I felt serious anxiety. I had somehow let a year go between visits, and my four-year-old had never had his teeth professionally cleaned or checked. When we attempted his first check-up at age three, he essentially screamed and hissed at the hygienist, so she just showed him her “magic chair” and sent us on our way. He still hasn’t mastered the art of spitting out toothpaste, so we’d been using the fluoride-free kid stuff, and I was convinced he was going to have 37 cavities when he finally allowed someone to examine his teeth.

Imagine my relief when my son sat calmly and politely in the chair, mouth open as wide as he could wrench it, and the hygienist and doctor both reported that his teeth “looked good.” No cavities! I wasn’t a total failure as a mother after all! I beamed at my youngest as he picked out some stickers and a toothbrush, convinced I had the healthiest, best kids on the planet. I nearly pulled a muscle patting myself on the back.

Then it was my seven-year-old’s turn in the chair. No worries, the kid is really good about brushing, using his electric toothbrush most nights and every morning. He rarely drinks soda or juice, and we work pretty hard at keeping his diet generally healthy. We haven’t bought Pop-Tarts in years! Should be a quick in and out and a pat on the back, I figured.

So both my mood and pride in my parenting took a serious nosedive when my son emerged from the exam room with stooped shoulders and an awkward frown.

“I have a couple cavities, Mom.”


Chocomallow what???

He was on the verge of tears, embarrassed and defeated. The hygienist followed close behind looking apologetic and clarified that “a couple” cavities actually meant FIVE.

The blood drained from my face (a cliché, but I seriously felt it happen), and my son caught my expression in the brief moment when I forgot to hide my shock and horror. He moaned and buried his head in his hands, earning a look of sympathy from the hygienist.

A few of the cavities were in his adult teeth, and ALL of them would need to be filled, she explained to me. She said they’d talked about the importance of brushing morning and night, doing a really good job of getting those teeth clean. I nodded and looked at my son with raised eyebrows, waiting for him to attest that he’d heard her and would follow through.

But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “How on earth did this happen?”

Since the appointment, we’ve changed a few things at our house. Instead of drinking filtered water out of the fridge, we’re drinking water straight from the tap so we can reap the benefits of the added fluoride. In addition, we’re closely monitoring the timing of our son’s brushing—he had been eating a lot of bedtime snacks after brushing, which probably didn’t help the situation.

But the other day, I spotted an article on that has me convinced we’ve got a lot more work to do. The article detailed the release of “Sugar Smart,” a new app from Public Health England designed to help parents track their kids’ daily sugar intake. Kids in the U.K. (similar to their American cousins) are apparently taking in three times the recommended amount of sugar, eating an average of 50 pounds of the stuff per year.

You know what else weighs 50 lbs?  This guy:


This guy wants your kids’ sugar.

But do I really need an app to keep track of our sugar intake? Can’t I just keep candy and soda out of my house so I don’t have to worry about it? I wondered (foolishly, it turns out).

I dug a little more, but I didn’t have to go very deep to find a recent article in the Washington Post and about a hundred natural eating blog posts about how sugar has been added to virtually every processed food we eat. I had heard this before, and made some efforts at curbing the added sugar in our diet already, reading the label to make sure “cane sugar” isn’t the first ingredient in our jelly, skipping the flavored syrups in my latte, and steering clear of high fructose corn syrup at all possible costs.

But guess what? My son still has Five. Freaking. Cavities.

So what’s the deal? The BBC and Washington Post articles revealed to me that my kids are probably consuming way more sugar than I had ever realized, even when they’re eating foods we have labeled as “healthy.” We’ve worked hard to keep their candy and soda intake to a minimum, but we’ve never limited their yogurt, bread, or ketchup consumption. I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief when I discovered Z-bars (Cliff bars for kids), because they contain a whole bunch of vitamins and minerals, they provide my kids the energy to make it through the school morning until lunchtime, and they’re easily transportable. But Z-bars—like many other snacks my kids love— contain an insane amount of added sugar. Plus, they stick in the teeth like cement.


I would consider selling my soul for this doughnut.

A lot of people from my generation and that of my parents try to shrug off the added sugar problem. They make statements about how we consumed a ton of sugar as kids, but we all survived. But if we take a look around, we have to admit we’re not actually doing that well. We are obese, we have diabetes, and our teeth are rotting out of our heads. As an adult, I have a right to choose products with added sugar, to splurge on a candy bar and drink an occasional soda. Heck, I can base my entire diet on sugar, make it the main ingredient in everything I eat, if that’s what I want. And I’ll be honest—I love sugar. Sugar tastes good. Especially when it comes in doughnut form. But I digress.

What frustrates me is how hard it is to avoid sugar. I don’t want my family eating sugar just for sugar’s sake. I want them to eat bread that tastes like wheat, not molasses. I want them to eat ketchup that tastes like tomatoes, not syrup. I want them to eat snacks that taste like fruit, not candy. And I want it to be easy. So yes, there should be an app for that.

The Sugar Smart app is a great idea, but it’s not great enough yet. As a British app, it’s nearly impossible to download from the U.S., and reviewers say that it’s clunky and difficult to use. But at least somebody’s trying to fix the problem.

I just hope they figure it out before we have to fit my second-grader for dentures.

Don’t Let Them Go

Outdoor portrait of a sad teenage girl looking thoughtful about troublesEvery so often, I threaten to sell my kids on craiglist, give them to our neighbors, or donate them to science.

I usually make these threats after the limits of my patience have been seriously tested. Like when I walk in on the aftermath of a brutal stuffed animal fight and find the curtains down, Lego sets destroyed, and pillow stuffing strewn about the carpet. Or when my oldest throws a tantrum because I finally managed to beat him at a board game he’s won the previous four times. Or when the younger one tells unending knock-knock jokes about butts and bodily functions, regardless of whether anyone actually responds with the requisite “Who’s there?”

Of course, the only circumstances under which I am actually willing to give up my kids are those involving the loving care of their grandparents or the responsible teen babysitter down the street. And, of course, I only relinquish my boys in the short-term; Grandma understands that I get to take them back after I’m done having that meeting, enjoying a date night, or hiding from the world at the coffee shop. Because however much my little rugrats frustrate me, exhaust me, or defeat me, I can’t imagine my life without them.

But I’m not trying to parent a troubled teenager. Would my attitude still be the same if I were raising a 16-year-old with a drug problem? Or a 14-year-old who habitually cut herself and refused to speak to me unless hurling obscenities? How about a 17-year-old who was failing out of school and didn’t seem to care? I know I would still love my children fiercely, even if they did follow one of these unfortunate paths. But I think it would be hard for me to live with them.

Here’s what some parents are resorting to in order to manage difficult teens:

I can’t imagine resorting to public shaming of my kid, but I do know one thing I know for sure: I would be screaming for help. And judging by the insane amounts of money raked in by the “Troubled Teen” industry each year, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The Troubled Teen industry consists of a variety of services, some of which are legitimately helpful and therapeutic. Many clinical counseling services for emotional and behavioral problems, in-patient treatment units for eating disorders and drug problems, and rehabilitative support groups for juvenile offenders have positively impacted the lives of struggling adolescents and their families.


How I pictured life at a residential program

Most of us are aware that residential programs for troubled teens exist. I remember hearing about a place a few hours away from my hometown, a camp of sorts in the middle of the woods, where defiant boys were sent to chop wood. At the time, I pictured something lovely and wholesome, kids getting in touch with nature for a couple weeks, getting their frustration with the real world out of the system. I pictured them sitting around a campfire in the evenings, having therapy sessions with licensed professionals, working out their problems in a healthy manner. In all honesty, I sort of envied them.

And programs like the one I imagined do exist. A caregiver with the knowledge and resources to thoroughly research residential programs could certainly find one.

But in among the healthy residential treatment options, there are many programs that exist solely for the purpose of making money. Programs that are not accredited by the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs or any other organization, or regulated by any federal guidelines, or subject to any rules other than the whims and preferences of their administrators. And because many caregivers are unaware of the dangers—or so desperate for help they can’t see the warning signs—they make themselves and their children easy targets.

In fact, the caregivers are so desperate, they often pay thousands of dollars to have their children kidnapped in the middle of the night, dragged to remote locations far from home, and held against their will for months and even years at a time. Often spouting “Christian” mores as the basis for their methods, the programs focus on a cruel means of behavior modification that includes beatings, forced marches, isolation from friends and family and, ultimately, abandonment of free will.

EscuelaCaribeOver the past decade, the dangers of unregulated residential programs have been exposed through books like Help At Any Cost and advocacy groups like the Survivors of Institutional Abuse. These resources have provided a platform for stories of families who turned to residential programs for help in straightening out their trouble teens. In some cases, the teens had legitimate problems such as drug addiction, eating disorders, and mental illnesses. In others, caregivers hoped the programs would rid their teens of homosexual tendencies; they essentially paid the camps to make their kids straight.

Through her documentary Kidnapped for Christ, Kate Logan recently shed additional light on the potential dangers of unregulated residential programs. When she arrived at Escuela Caribe in the Dominican Republic, Kate was a young evangelical missionary aiming to document students receiving a positive Christian education. What she found horrified her. After being smuggled to a foreign country in the middle of the night without warning, Escuela Caribe students were repeatedly humiliated, forced to engage in grueling manual labor, and punished through severe isolation and beatings. They were brainwashed into believing that they deserved the torture and abuse they received on a regular basis.

More recently, Rolling Stone ran an article about a teenage boy named Bruce who died at Tierra Blanca, an unregulated residential program in New Mexico. The article details the inhumane work regimen the boy endured for the months leading up to his death, the emotional trauma he went through before ultimately perishing in a car accident on a lonely stretch of road outside the camp.

Bruce’s mother wasn’t a bad person. I wanted her to be a bad person, a neglectful mother who turned her back on her teenager and the problems he’d had since being abandoned by his father. Of course, she could have done more research, could have asked more questions, but she wasn’t a bad mother. She was just desperate. Desperate for her son to stop using drugs, to start attending school, to emerge from the seeming endlessness of his dark, angry mood. And like many of us would, she trusted the system, assumed that a program charged with helping teens would do just that.

teensadI shudder to think of my own children suffering an experience like those of the students at Escuela Caribe or Tierra Blanca or one of the hundreds of programs like them, living through the physical and emotional abuse they endured. But beyond that, I imagine the sense of abandonment and betrayal they would feel. How could I ever ask my children to trust me again, or trust anyone for that matter, after I had sent them away to be tortured? How would they ever feel safe again? How would they ever regain the months and years of their adolescence lost to malicious people whose only goal was to make money? Even if my children survived such a place, I doubt I’d ever really get them back.

The Troubled Teen industry needs to change, and it needs to change now.

Some motivated activists and lawmakers have already started the fight through efforts like these:

Aw, Crumb!

crumbrubberThe world is a bit terrifying right now. Between computer-savvy creepers hacking into our kids’ V-tech accounts, regular bombings around the world, and the fact that there’s no piece of duct tape big enough to cover Donald Trump’s face-hole, things just seem a bit out of control. Yes, we are dealing with some scary stuff. In the face of such threats, something like a little crumb rubber seems like a pretty minor issue. But what if it’s not?

tiresFor those uninitiated into the world of playground and athletic surfaces (who should obviously feel intense shame for not paying attention to such a fascinating topic), crumb rubber is that spongy surface at the bottom of the slide your kid just went down. It’s also the stuff underneath the artificial turf in the new soccer dome that opened just down the street. Crumb rubber and its close relative—poured rubber— are made of raw rubber particles, which usually come from recycled tires. Orthopedists like the rubber because it provides more cushioning for athletes than old-school artificial turf. Schools and communities like it because it requires less maintenance than real-life grass. Coaches like it because it extends the playing season and eliminates inconsistencies in the field of play.

And as a parent, I’ve always liked it, too. What a cool idea! I thought the first time I encountered the stuff at our neighborhood park. It seemed much more practical than the sand and pea gravel I was constantly emptying out of my kids’ shoes, and more sustainable than the mulch our city was forever having to dump and spread. It looked clean, and it felt good under my feet. Plus, I loved the idea of recycling tires for a positive use, rather than allowing them to linger for eons in landfills.

But as we often tend to do with new products and ideas, it seems we may have gotten ahead of ourselves with the crumb rubber craze. Over the past few years, parent groups have started raising concerns about the safety of crumb rubber. Sure, the surface provides their kids with more cushioning, thus leading to fewer injuries, but parents worry it may also be exposing their kids to carcinogens and toxins.


Poor B-Dub. He feels really bad about all the misremembering!

The concern stems from an October 2014 NBC News report (pre-bizarre Brian Williams meltdown) about an unusually high number of soccer goalkeepers who developed cancer after repeated, long-term contact with crumb rubber playing fields. The report offered no scientific evidence proving the rubber was emitting dangerous toxins into the air or water, but parents and lawmakers were concerned, nonetheless.

Over a year later, parents continue to demand answers, some states and communities have halted installation of new crumb rubber playing surfaces, and doctors and lawmakers are calling for independent studies on the safety of the rubber. Because—to the frustration of everyone who cares about the health and safety of our children and our planet—the studies published thus far on the topic have offered mixed results.

For instance, researchers in a 2007 Connecticut study stated:

“(The) study conclusively demonstrates that the tire crumbs and tire mulch release chemical compounds into the air and ground water. Thus, tire crumbs constitute a chemical exposure for humans and the environment.”

But authors of a 2010 study from that same state concluded:
“…outdoor and indoor artificial turf fields are not associated with elevated health risks from the inhalation of volatile or particle-bound chemicals.”  

So the scientists, synthetic turf companies, coaches and community members will continue to hash out the controversy and continue their back-and-forth bickering about who’s really protecting our kids.

soccerturfAnd amid all of it, my son carries on with his first season of indoor soccer played on a crumb rubber field. At this age, the teams don’t even have goalkeepers, but that doesn’t stop my son from rolling around on the ground in dramatic fashion after taking unnecessary dives. Plus, his little brother typically entertains himself during practice by lying full out on the crumb rubber and playing with his action figures (which, let’s face it, are probably also made of weird, toxic chemicals). In other words, they’ve definitely been exposed.

So what can I do?

I don’t want to be an alarmist, or spend my life fighting imaginary threats. After all, nothing infuriates me more than the “VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM!” argument still maintained by caregivers in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

So here’s my plan: Until the day when either 1) somebody proves that the crumb rubber surface is totally (or even mostly) safe or 2) my community finds an alternative to crumb rubber, I’ve decided to accept the risks, and I’ll let my son continue to play. But I will also take some precautions to minimize the danger, like shaking the rubber pieces from our clothes and bags before leaving the field, keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered, and having my kids bathe after contact with the field (which they’ll just love). And, of course, I’ll suggest they avoid eating the rubber. (It’s amazing what a 7-year-old boy is willing to put in his mouth).

Then I’ll wrap them in bubble wrap, lock them in their rooms with their hypoallergenic pets for company, and feed them vegan, organic food on BPA-free dishware. Obviously.

Related content:

Great Expectations

stressedkidMy dad still thinks I’m going to be an engineer someday.

Not the train-driving kind (although that would be sort of awesome), but the building things/solving problems/inventing stuff kind.

I enjoy writing, reading, working with kids and helping people, interests which relate to engineering in approximately zero ways. As I’ve mentioned before, I still have nightmares about math class, and I liked my physics and chemistry classes even less. Plus, I’m 35 years old with two children and a fully loaded schedule, so I’m not exactly a prime candidate for a return to college life.

engdummiesAnd yet, my dad continues to opine, “I still think you’d make a great engineer, Ang.” The man is completely delusional.

I get a little weary of pulling out my standard response: “Dad, I’d make a terrible engineer. I hate math. I hate science. Remember?” And it’s painful to watch the doubt and hurt cross his face as he contemplates my terse answer. I know it’s sweet that he’s convinced of my genius, nice that he still believes I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. Heck, if your parents don’t think you’re amazing, odds are nobody ever will.

It’s important for parents to believe in their kids. As the authors of a recent article from the American Psychological Association state, we’ve known for some time that children tend to achieve more when their parents have high expectations for them. According to the University of Minnesota Extension page on partnering for school success, this happens because parents with high expectations are often more supportive and involved with their child’s school and schoolwork, and because the children tend to adopt their parents’ beliefs that they can succeed, among other reasons.

Here’s one kid who says his parents’ expectations have helped him succeed:

It seems that this student’s family found an effective way to communicate their high expectations for their son. But sometimes parents can hope for too much.

In the APA article, the authors also report findings that parents who have unrealistic aspirations or over-aspirations can actually harm their children’s chances for success. Over-aspirations occur when parents want their children to achieve more than they actually expect their children can achieve. In this situation, parents are essentially driving their children to achieve the impossible.

At this point, the research hasn’t answered exactly why over-aspirations can be harmful, but the authors posit that excessive parental control or parental over-involvement could be factors. In other words, parents may be smothering children in an effort to help them achieve beyond their means. This, in turn, can lead to a decreased sense of self-efficacy among the children, who may start to believe they can’t do anything for themselves. In addition, the authors suggest that over-aspirations may lead to increased anxiety and frustration in children, because they are unable to meet the expectations set for them, regardless of their effort.

happyschoolSo what does this mean for parents and educators?

It means that we need to continue to have high expectations for our children and students. If we believe they can succeed, they will be more likely to succeed. But it also means we need to temper our hopes and dreams, that we need to ensure our aspirations are attainable and realistic.

So I guess I should stop expecting my 2nd-grader to speak fluent Spanish after a few weekly classes in the subject. I might need to pull back on my ungainly four-year-old’s early admission application for the Julliard dance program. And I definitely have to tell my dad that I’ll become an engineer when the proverbial pigs fly.

Additional related info:

Buck Up and Believe in Yourself

buckup2When my first son was born, I was terrified, as most new parents are. At that moment, I could imagine nothing more beautiful or prone to breakage than my new mini-me. And while I didn’t suffer from post-partum anything (thank God), I still struggled mightily to stay calm and enjoy the first few months of Liam’s life. I questioned every decision I made, convinced myself I was screwing him up, and told my husband we should probably send the kid back where he came from.

I just didn’t feel fit.

I’d like to be able to say that I’ve gotten over that feeling. That the past seven years and the addition of a second child have proven I am equipped to handle the job of Mom. After all, we’ve achieved a mountain of milestones at this point—the kids are done with diapers and diets of mush, they’re learning to read and ride their bikes, and they’ve developed their own little special interests and personalities. Plus, they’ve done it all with relatively few scars—a couple cases of pneumonia, some cuts and bruises, and a few cavities seem minor when you consider the panoply of possible childhood illnesses and injuries.

Sometimes I do this. I hadn't thought of a bullhorn. Hmm...interesting

Sometimes I do this. I hadn’t thought of a bullhorn. Hmm…interesting

And yet, I occasionally still worry that someone, somewhere made a mistake when they assigned me the care of two little humans. Because even though I am professionally trained to understand child development, manage behavior, and provide emotional support, I screw up a lot. Sometimes I yell. Or I neglect to follow through on promises I’ve made. There are times when I give in to my kids’ unreasonable demands even though I’m supposed to be setting boundaries. My husband doesn’t share my worries—he just figures we’re doing the best we can, and reminds me that kids are resilient. Thank goodness one of us is an optimist!

For the past seven years, I’ve been waiting for the whole parenting thing to get easier. As a culture, we’ve bought into the idea of the Terrible Twos, convincing ourselves that nothing is worse than a defiant, tantruming toddler with little capacity for speech. But now we’ve also admitted that Three-Year-Olds are Assholes, Kindergarteners can be bullies, and “big kids have big problems.” Taking that terrifying trajectory into account, it’s no surprise there are entire web sites centered on the theme of “Mommy Juice.” (Despite my own appreciation of a nice glass of red, I have to admit this term makes me cringe; it brings to mind drunk, giggly women who have been allowed to dress themselves, stumbling around an indoor park with sippy cups full of boxed vino).

Despite the fact that parenting is crazy hard and unrelenting, you won’t be seeing my boys up for auction on CraigsList anytime soon. I love them beyond all reason, and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. That is, of course, until they’re teenagers.

But wait; hold that thought.

Parenting teens isn’t actually much harder than parenting young children, according to developmental psychologists Terese Glatz and Christy Buchanan—we’ve just convinced ourselves that it is. In actuality, they say, the increase in difficult behaviors and negative emotions during teen years is quite low. But by convincing ourselves that teenagers are a nightmare, we’ve decreased our effectiveness as parents and created a self-fulfilling prophecy.


A 14-year-old who just needs a hug

We’re scared of our teenagers because puberty rears its ugly head, and suddenly our babies don’t look like babies anymore. They also begin to establish their own social lives independent of us, and we’re not sure how to talk to them anymore. We convince ourselves that teenagers are hormonal and crabby, so we start treating them like they’re hormonal and crabby. Needless to say, that doesn’t tend to go so well.

A recent study published by Glatz and Buchanan in Developmental Psychology suggests that people who believe they are effective parents are more likely to actually be effective parents. Parents who feel competent are better able to handle stress and stay involved when their teenagers challenge them, and they are less likely to see the teen years as a threat to be avoided. As a result, parents who believe in themselves are more likely to stay engaged with their teenagers through the difficult times, to continue setting boundaries and providing positive feedback, and to persevere when their teenagers struggle.

All of which means it is time for me to buck up and start believing in my effectiveness as a parent. If I don’t, I may end up with this mischief on my hands:

Where Did I Come From?

wheredidicomefromMy own education about sex came from a variety of sources, as I’m sure most of ours did. Back around the time I started laying Barbie on top of Ken for murky reasons (Were they sleeping? Doing yoga? Checking each other for ticks?), I came across the book, Where did I come from? at a friend’s house. I have such a clear memory of that moment: I sat cross-legged on the orange shag carpet at the bottom of the basement steps, flipping through page after page of cartoon characters asking questions that hadn’t even occurred to me, until I arrived at the illustration of some pale, doughy figures hanging out in a bathtub with a toy boat. The accompanying text said something about how the two people fit together like puzzle pieces, and everything suddenly clicked for me. From then on, Barbie and Ken didn’t just lie there together on their pink Murphy bed—now they had a job to do.

As the years went on, I continued to glean additional bits of info about sex here and there. The bus rides to and from school were particularly enlightening, an all girls’ breakout session in elementary school provided the necessary details about the dreaded topics of menstruation, body odor, and hair in strange places, and a high school health teacher demonstrated the old condom-on-a-banana trick, leaving me to wonder what Mr. F would have done had he left his fruit at home that morning. At various points in time, my mom checked in with me, making sure I had all the necessary information about sex in general, and safe sex in particular. I’m not sure whether she was relieved or horrified to find out that I’d learned the specifics from that picture book way back in first grade, but I’d guess she was a little of both.

barbiekenMy own son is seven years old now, and I keep waiting for him to uncover the whole sex thing (well not the whole thing—we can probably keep the Fifty Shades of Grey stuff quiet for at least another decade). He has circled the drain with some of his questions; he knows that boys and girls have anatomical differences, and we’ve explained to him how babies are born. But it doesn’t seem to occur to him to wonder how babies are actually made.

While I appreciate his innocence and naïvete, I know it’s only a matter of time before his friends start sharing stuff they’ve learned from older siblings, or from one of a thousand screens. And since elementary school kids tend to get their facts mixed up (no, Liam, your head won’t explode if you cross your eyes and sneeze at the same time), I’m hoping the teachers at his school will be able to help set the record straight. I also think my husband—who will likely be point man for the sex talk with our boys—would say he’d take all the help he can get.

But not everyone believes school is the place for children to learn about human sexuality, as a group of parents in Toronto has demonstrated over the past few months. When the province of Ontario recently adopted a new health curriculum, parents at some schools were so enraged they refused to send their children to class. At Thorncliffe Park—the largest elementary school in Canada—nearly 2/3 of students and their families boycotted the curriculum at the beginning of September; as of mid-October, more than 100 students still had not rejoined their classrooms. Parents who spoke against the new curriculum cited concerns that it would cause their children to become “more sexually oriented,” and some said they were worried about “homosexuality books.”


Students gather at a makeshift school outside of Thorncliffe Park/Photo courtesy of the Toronto Sun

Initially, these students did not transfer to other schools. They did not attend Thorncliffe during classes unrelated to health, such as reading or math. Instead, they held their own school sessions in a nearby park, relying on volunteers to teach them and parents to hold tarps above their heads on rainy days. Despite the boycott, school officials continued to defend the new curriculum and, in mid-October, the group finally discontinued their meetings at the park. But the 100 Thorncliffe students still have not returned to the school, and a parent spokesman for the group reported they are now all being home-schooled or have enrolled in private institutions.

In the case of Thorncliffe, the vast majority of protestors are non-native to Canada, and many of them practice the Muslim faith. While their religious background is cited as the main reason for their outrage, the Muslim families in Toronto are not the first group to protest sexual education in the schools, nor will they be the last.

According to Newsweek’s 2009 article, “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America,” sexual education first emerged within the military after WWI due to increased STD rates, and was adopted by schools shortly thereafter. Organized protests against the lessons began in earnest in the 1960s and 70s. While the protests ebbed in the 1980s and 90s as a result of the AIDS pandemic, protests continue to take place in developed nations across the world today. At the current moment, it just so happens that protesters of Muslim faith are the most vocal.

School officials face a difficult dilemma when making decisions about sex education. On one hand, sex is a highly personal topic, and beliefs about premarital sex tend to be heavily influenced by religious and cultural factors. On the other hand, schools have a moral imperative to keep students safe, and to provide them with facts and information. And since decades of research have shown that comprehensive sex education leads to a decrease in risky sexual behavior among adolescents (while encouraging abstinence does not), we know the best way to keep kids safe from STDs and unwanted pregnancy is to educate them about sex.

Still, families should always have a choice. They should be allowed to opt out of health lessons related to sex, and their children should be provided an alternative curriculum to work on during those times.

But I can tell you now that my own kids won’t be opting out of sex education. No matter what they their school teaches, it’s gotta leave fewer scars than this:

The Great McIntyre Allowance Experiment

money3Sometimes I wish I could forget everything I’ve ever learned about parenting. From the moment we announced our first pregnancy (though let’s be realistic here—it was MY pregnancy; Pat never threw up on the side of the road, choked down a gallon of unnaturally pink goo, or wore flip-flops in the snow due to swollen ankles), I inundated myself with books, research articles, web sites, and blogs about how to be the Best Mother Ever.

I didn’t expose myself to all of it intentionally—I’m actually kind of a slacker and procrastinator when it comes to studying, more of an A- student than an extra credit girl. In fact, most of my parent friends did way more research and reading than I did in order to prepare for their own little bundles of joy. But thanks to the digital revolution, I found exposure to parenting advice and information to be unavoidable. I couldn’t help but click on the BabyCenter link about choosing the best preschool, I felt serious peer pressure to research cord blood banking due to my Facebook feed, and I just had to read the breastfeeding article emailed to me by a well-meaning friend.

But despite all my involuntary research, I recently learned that we have failed in a major way on one parenting front—ALLOWANCE.

Giving our kids an allowance shouldn’t pose a huge challenge—one of us majored in economics and finance for goodness’ sake (I’ll let you guess who). And yet, we’ve neglected to even start the allowance process.

pleaseAt this point, the boys really haven’t complained, haven’t even noticed that they don’t get an allowance. I’d like to think that’s because they’re selfless kids who value family above material possessions, but I think that might be a hard sell. Especially since one of them looked at me the other day and said, “Mom, I just really want to get something new. I don’t care what it is, I just want it to be new.

So yeah, we’ve basically taught the little jerks to be consumerist vampires. The real reason they don’t care much about allowance is because they’ve found other ways to get what they want, mostly through begging and not-so-subtle hints dropped to their grandmas. All the more reason to teach them the value of a dollar.

So why haven’t we started allowance?

Because it’s one more thing. In addition to the daily grind of sticker charts, activity schedules, school events, and overdue library books, allowance is One. More. Thing. And it’s one more thing that I don’t really know how to do.

Everyone seems to do allowance differently, and no one seems to know if they’re doing it right. How much should the kids get? Does an allowance mean we never buy them anything outside of Christmas and birthdays? Should allowance be tied to chores? Does allowance teach kids anything, or does it just make them more money-hungry? If I make my bed, do I get an allowance?

Since these questions aren’t nearly as fun to research as our other favorite topics (e.g., What kind of pizza should we get? When does the next season of American Ninja Warrior start? Does red wine really prevent Type II Diabetes?), we’ve never endeavored to find the answers.

But I can only handle so much parenting guilt, and some recent articles on the topic put me over the top. So I decided to figure this thing out.


Suze Orman, giver of sage advice. Just not in this case.

First, I’ll tell you what we’re NOT going to do. We’re NOT going to follow the advice of Suze Orman, the financial advisor with the sassy haircut and the sacred blessings of Oprah Winfrey. Orman recommends that we don’t give our kids an actual allowance, but that we pay them for individual chores—three dollars for walking the dog, fifty cents for making the bed, etc. She also recommends that we require the kids to start out with low-paying chores, then allow them to work up to more complex ones, sort of like earning a promotion and a raise.

Ugh, Suze, are you serious? If I want to torture myself, I’ll ask Jenny McCarthy to enlighten me about her views on the causes of autism. Or start drinking decaf coffee. Or buy my kids a hamster. I’m trying to make this allowance thing less painful, not more.

Just imagine the complexity of managing Orman’s system, all the questions and challenges that would arise:

“But I cleared my dishes some of the nights, so can’t I get some of the money?”

“I did make my bed, it just got messed up when we were jumping on it!”

“I should get more money than he does because I picked up more toys than he did!”

Nope, Orman’s system ain’t gonna cut it.

Instead, we’re going to try a system suggested by Ron Lieber, a personal finance columnist for the New York Times. We will pay the boys their age-based allowance—the same amount every week—but we will NOT tie it to the chores they do. We will require them, however, to split the amount equally into three separate pots, one for spending, one for saving, and one for giving. Our Ayn Rand-loving friends will insist that’s Communist nonsense, but Lieber suggests the pots can teach our kids the qualities of thrift and generosity.

And fear not, we won’t let our kids become freeloaders. We will still expect them to help out around the house; they will just lose other, more salient privileges (screen time, treats, etc.) if they don’t complete their chores on time.

I have high hopes for the Great McIntyre Allowance Experiment. It’s clean, it’s simple, and it makes me feel like I’m teaching my kids something. And best of all, I’ll finally have someone besides my husband to hit up for cash.

Related Content:

Why you need to give your kid an allowance (Money Magazine)

Should you give your kids an allowance? (Psychology Today)

Halloween Isn’t Going Anywhere

IMG_1082I like Halloween as much as the next parent. It’s fun planning costumes with my boys (this year I’ll have a tiny Ewok and a very intense clone trooper with a specific name I can never remember), receiving them in the mail a few weeks later (I typically order them from a little boutique called, and discussing which neighborhoods we can cover trick-or-treating before the boys start asking for piggy-back rides (I’m the designated candy-hoarding monitor, while my husband mans the door at our house).

My son is in 2nd grade at our neighborhood elementary school, which has been celebrating Halloween during the school day for many years. On that day each year, students are invited to wear their costumes to school (sans masks and weapons to my son’s chagrin), classroom parties are had and treats are eaten. My 4-year-old’s preschool does it a little differently, inviting interested families to attend a Halloween gathering after school lets out.


What Halloween is really about

Because we have our own Halloween traditions at home, I don’t really care whether or not my kids get to celebrate Halloween at their schools. In fact, I find it to be sort of a hassle to send their costumes in their backpacks, and I imagine it’s a somewhat exhausting event for their teachers to manage. And while my kids have enjoyed the parties the last few years, their real focus is the nighttime trick-or-treating they do with their family and friends—I honestly don’t think they would miss the school parties much if they didn’t happen.

But a lot of parents feel different about it than I do. Like ANGRY different.

Recently, a school district in Milford, Connecticut, opted to remove the Halloween celebrations from their school day, sending families a letter stating the following:

“This decision arose out of numerous incidents of children being excluded from activities due to religion, cultural beliefs, etc. School-day activities must be inclusive. Halloween costumes are not permitted for students or staff during the day at school.”

Instead of a party during the school day, the district agreed to hold a Halloween party on campus after school hours.

In response to this letter, Rebecca Lilley—a Milford resident and mother of three—started an online petition to fight the decision. In her petition, entitled, “Bring back our AMERICAN traditions to our schools!” Lilley proclaimed she was tired of her kids “missing out on our traditional activities due to people crying they’re offended.” She wrote that she didn’t see any harm in Halloween parades and parties at school, and that people who don’t want to participate should just keep their kids home from school that day.

More than 5000 people have signed Lilley’s petition, many leaving comments explaining why they support her stance. Here are a few examples:

    “I’m sick of seeing our culture destroyed to appease outsiders.”—Ryan, WI

    “People coming to a new country should adapt to it’s (sic) ways or not partake in it’s (sic) traditional events. The host country should not have to change to accommodate newcomers.”—Michael, Manitoba

    “I’m sick of the pc idiots running this country.”—Don, CO


The appropriate age for whining and foot stamping

Whether you agree with Lilley’s stance or not, you can’t tell me that her arguments or those of her supporters are convincing. They’re essentially just stamping their feet and whining, “It’s not fair! You guys are stupid!”

But you know what? Their petition worked. The school administrators in Milford caved, and the Halloween parade is back on.

And that’s unfortunate, because when they made their initial decision to stop school-hours Halloween celebrations, the Milford administrators were just doing their job—they were thinking about the EDUCATIONAL needs of ALL students. District officials made the point that school celebrations need to be inclusive, and I agree.

As we know, many American families do not celebrate Halloween due to religious or cultural reasons, and—contrary to popular belief—these families are not all recent Muslim immigrants; some of them are Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christians whose families have been in this country for centuries. When teachers host Halloween parties in their classrooms, these children have two options: 1) Play along and pretend to be a part of something they’re not, or 2) Sit and watch in isolation as their friends have fun without them.

Of course, thanks to Lilley’s petition, they now have a third option—they can just stay home.

But wait, they can’t stay home because they’re legally required to attend school! And they shouldn’t have to stay home, because ALL children in this country have a right to a free and appropriate public education. Not just on regular school days, but on all school days. Children whose families don’t celebrate Halloween should not be expected to stay home just so everybody else can enjoy the holiday guilt-free; that option would mean missing out on a full day of education.

And there’s one other major group of students the school district in Milford failed to mention in their rationale for banning Halloween parties—those living in poverty. In many public school classrooms across America, there are children whose families can barely afford clothing, much less Halloween costumes that will be worn exactly once. These kids certainly can’t be described as “outsiders” or “newcomers.” And as for the suggestion that extra costumes can be donated and kept at the school, consider the fact that no kid wants to force themselves into a worn, used costume two sizes too small and ten years out of date—that’s worse than wearing no costume at all.

Fear not, residents of Milford. Despite the best efforts of “outsiders,” “newcomers,” and “pc idiots,” Halloween isn’t going anywhere. But it’s not because of your ridiculous petition. It’s because you and I, like millions of people across the globe, care about the holiday. Regardless of how our schools celebrate the day, we can continue to celebrate it however we want in our own neighborhoods, our own places of worship, and our own homes.

After all, that’s what being AMERICAN on Halloween is all about.

Well, that and laughing at kids who think their parents ate their candy.

Related content:

Cross Your Fingers

"Bullying" by KungFuPlum

Photo: “Bullying” by KungFuPlum

Imagine you are a fifth grade teacher at a public elementary school. So far, your day has been a relatively calm one; you artfully fielded some lingering questions about last week’s health lesson on puberty (No, Becca, tampons are NOT the things you put on your shoes when you mountain climb), remedied a situation involving a student’s left nostril and an eraser (No, Antoine, we can’t just wait for you to sneeze it out), and calmed a classroom full of panicked 10-year-olds after one of them accidentally stepped on the class chameleon (No, Michael, I don’t think the lizard’s head was that flat before).

Imagine you’ve made it to prep time. You log on to your email and discover you’ve received a message from the mother of one of your students. The message is tentative and anxious, but you detect undertones of anger and frustration. In her email, the mother says she believes her son is being bullied.

Oh no, you think, she used the B-word. bully2

The mother reports that her son has awoken with a stomachache every morning for the past month and saying he hates school, which is out of character for the typically happy, hard-working kid. She says she finally got him to admit that two of his classmates have been calling him cruel names and laughing at him during lunch and on the bus. The two have also convinced a bunch of their friends to ignore her son or tease him whenever teachers aren’t around. Her son, she says, is heartbroken and anxious, and you need to put a stop to the problem now.

Upon reading the email, your mind and heart shuffle through a catalog of reactions: Concern and compassion for a kind, bright kid who usually gets along with his classmates, despite a few awkward tendencies. Disappointment at the cruel behavior of two talented students who have never been in trouble at school before. Irritation at yourself for failing to pick up on your student’s suffering.

But the over-riding emotion is panic, because you know you don’t have time for this.

Suddenly, you are faced with the prospect of student interviews, plus lengthy email conversations and face-to-face meetings with three sets of parents and your principal. Your principal will launch an investigation, so you’d better have your paperwork in order. Action plans will be developed, discipline meted out, and all three students will need to be monitored for months to come.

You care about these kids, and you want to help them. You just don’t know where you’ll find the time. You also worry that nothing you do will actually solve the problem.

Bullying has developed into an issue that educators and parents can no longer ignore, thanks to the advent of social media and cyberbullying, reports of victimized teens committing suicide, and increased awareness of the long-term mental health impacts of relational aggression. Families are encouraged to talk to their children about bullying, check their kids’ social media activity regularly, and watch for changes in mood or behavior. Teachers are told to post rules about bullying, develop safety plans, and make time for prevention programs.

But parents and teachers are not alone, thanks to an increase in law enforcement’s involvement in the problem.

With all 50 states enacting anti-bullying laws (took you long enough, Montana), kids who bully now face more significant and long-lasting consequences than a note home, a few days suspension, or a session of peer mediation. Now they face potential arrest and criminal charges.

Back in 2010, for instance, six Massachusetts teenagers were arrested and charged with a variety of bullying-related offenses in connection with the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. In December 2014, eight students were arrested and charged after physically assaulting a 14-year-old outside their school in North Carolina. Last month, a high school student in California was arrested on suspicion of battery after punching another student with a visual impairment.

But are these arrests actually helping anyone? Do kids feel safer in school knowing bullies face potential legal consequences? Are teachers feeling any less pressure to solve the problem on their own?

First, it’s important to note that not all antibullying laws are created equal. Some states have followed the Department of Education recommendation to adopt specific policies for enforcing the law, while others have not. (Because why would you want to listen to people who know stuff when you can just make it up as you go?)

The good news is that the states with DOE-aligned antibullying laws have seen significant decreases in the rate of reported bullying (24% lower) and reported cyberbullying (20% lower) according to a study out of Columbia University.

The bad news is that we still have no idea whether the laws and policies actually caused the decrease in reported bullying—a host of other factors could be involved. In addition, critics of antibullying laws have raised concerns that legal punishments may be too harsh and could potentially lead to further isolation and additional antisocial behaviors; they also cite difficulties in defining what constitutes bullying behaviors.

Still, the results out of Columbia are positive, and the study’s authors believe that antibullying policies and laws are an important tool in reducing bullying behavior.

352px-Hands-Fingers-CrossedNow pretend you’re that fifth grade teacher again. The antibullying policies in your state did not prevent your student from being victimized–the problem has not gone away. You know you must continue to work with parents and colleagues, to focus on preventive strategies and vigilance. You commit to supporting the victims of bullying, while also supporting the perpetrators.

And you cross your fingers and hope that maybe, just maybe, the law will help you protect the next kid.

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