Category Archives: Blog

We Have to Stay Angry

I was a high school senior when the massacre took place. When I arrived home from school that day, I dragged my overstuffed backpack to the living room, flopped down on the couch and turned on the TV, searching for a rerun of Beverly Hills 90210 to provide background noise for my homework. But my regularly scheduled programming was nowhere to be found. Instead, I was accosted by helicopter footage of teenagers who were dangling from classroom windows and hunching over as they scurried away from their school, panicked parents searching for answers about the safety of their children and shell-shocked news anchors asking confused questions.

I don’t know how long it took me to understand what was happening on the television—that someone was killing kids at Columbine High School. Probably no more than thirty seconds. I do know I continued to stare at the screen for the next three hours, until my mom arrived home from work and convinced me to take a break from the coverage.

But I couldn’t unsee what I had seen, and I couldn’t shake the sick feeling in my gut or the unnerving anxiety buzzing from my head down into my fingers. Even after the screen went dark, I still saw kids my own age running for their lives, moaning and keening about their friends and teachers being shot before their eyes, clinging to their parents for dear life instead of pushing them away out of embarrassment. I saw a school in Colorado that reminded me of the one I attended in Minnesota. I saw terrified kids who dressed and talked a lot like my friends and classmates.

columbine

People embrace outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado

Before that day, I didn’t know the town of Littleton, Colorado, existed. I’d never considered the possibility I might be murdered in math class. I was unaware of just how much some people love and cherish their guns. I had no idea that mass murders in churches, shopping malls, and schools would become the norm in the United States.

More than sixteen years have passed since two teenage boys with a lot of anger and easy access to firearms terrorized this country. Since that day, a lot has changed. We elected our first African American president. We mapped the human genome. We figured out how to watch TV without commercials. But we still can’t manage to keep our kids safe at school.

I first learned of last week’s disturbing shooting rampage at Umpqua Community College in Oregon from my Facebook feed, when a friend posted something about “another school shooting.” I wish I could say I reacted with shock and disbelief, but I didn’t. In 2015, mass shootings in the U.S. are no longer a shock. Instead, I gave a tired sigh and a helpless shake of my head.

For the first few days after hearing the Umpqua news, my usual feelings of outrage, frustration and fear overrode everything else. Outrage at the NRA and the politicians who accept the group’s money and endorsements; frustration at the insulting, overly simplistic theory that mental illness is the reason children in this country are dying, as well as the suggestion that arming teachers is a solution to gun violence (thank you very much, Vince Vaughn and Donald Trump); fear that my kids might be targeted next.

In the past, those feelings have lasted anywhere between a few days and a few weeks for me after a mass killing spree; then I usually let them go in order to maintain my sanity.

But something about the Umpqua rampage feels different to me. The shooting itself was largely the same as those that preceded it: A young White man legally purchased an absurd number of guns and unleashed his frustration in a building full of innocent victims. No, the difference is not in the rampage itself, but in our reaction to it. Call me naïve, but a tiny, guileless part of me believes our outrage might actually stick this time.

What could possibly give me that sliver of hope?

It started with the reaction of President Obama. Our leader is wearing his fury like a stark white t-shirt fresh out of the package. He has voiced his rage with politicians who bend to the will of the NRA, and with reporters who ask inane questions like, “Can you use your bully pulpit to talk some sense into the young men of this country?” He has stated that he is no longer afraid of “politicizing” mass shootings; in fact, he recommends voting against any candidates who oppose gun control, regardless of their opinions on other issues. His anger helps me feel justified in my own.

2nd AmendmentI also feel hope because those close to the Umpqua rampage have reacted differently than some have in the past. The chief of police investigating the incident followed a recent trend by refusing to release the shooter’s name to the public, stating he would not “give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” The father of the gunman has spoken publicly on his feelings regarding gun control, telling reporters that it was too easy for his son to compile an arsenal of fourteen guns. While it’s entirely possible the shooter’s father has made poor parenting choices in the past, I take heart in his willingness to state that opinion, rather than hiding from the press all together.

But my hope over the last week has been sustained most by the reaction of everyday people. Even in my famously passive-aggressive home state of Minnesota, gun control supporters are no longer keeping their thoughts and opinions to themselves. Instead, I’ve seen and heard about strong-minded people standing up for the safety of our children, lobbying their elected officials, sharing statistics about gun violence, and begging Second Amendment supporters to act rationally.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that Umpqua will be the final straw in the gun control battle. I don’t expect that children will stop dying violent deaths tomorrow. I know the fight to keep them safe is nowhere near over.

That just means we have to stay angry.

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Let Girls Learn

I know a mom who has bravely picked the battle against Barbie Dolls, and I admire the hell out of her for it.

Despite the tantrums and pleas of her 7-year-old daughter, this mom has remained steadfast, refusing to allow books, toys, or activities related to that hot mess of a fashion plate into her home.

Dirty Barbie courtesy of moroaik on Deviant Art. (Note from Captain obvious: This Barbie scenario is not Mattel-approved).

(Note from Captain Obvious: This Barbie scenario is not Mattel-approved). Photo from Deviant Art.

Instead, her daughter plays with American Girl dolls.

Recently, my mom friend caused further upset by refusing her daughter permission to attend a cheerleading class with her friends. Instead, she suggested they head up the assembly of a float for the homecoming parade.

The latest topic of conversation at this mom’s home is female fashion. Her daughter is keenly aware of what her role models are wearing: Clothes that are too short, too tight and too revealing for a young girl in second grade. This mom has cleverly managed to retain veto power while still allowing her daughter to pick out her own clothes.

The unfortunate bowl cut in question

The unfortunate bowl cut in question

My mother raised me using a similar approach. She pulled me out of dance class at age three after discovering I’d have to wear makeup at the recitals, and put me in gymnastics where I could tumble my little heart out lipstick-free. She kept my hair short (to my chagrin), and she bought me navy blue Moon Boots and snow pants instead of pink ones. She encouraged me to study hard and do my best, and she was adamant I could do anything the boys could do, probably more.

I know my mother agonized over her decisions, just as parents and caregivers of girls do today. I admire those parents like her who make the tough decisions, the ones who encourage their daughters to value their achievements rather than their looks, to get things done under their own power instead of relying on the help of boys, to engage in life instead of watching it from the sidelines.

This past weekend, parents of daughters received a major boost of support when world leaders, activists and celebrities gathered in New York City to address the continuing problem of gender inequality throughout the world. On Saturday evening, Michelle Obama joined Beyonce and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai at the Global Citizen Festival, where they brought attention to the fact that more than 62 million girls around the world do not have access to formal education. The festival coincided with the U.N. General Assembly at which world leaders renewed a global commitment to end gender inequality.

Side note: If you’re unfamiliar with Malala Yousafzai, she’s the 18-year-old Pakistani girl who kicks ass and takes names. Exhibit A:

During her appearance at the Global Citizen Festival, Michelle Obama announced the 62 Million Girls Yearbook as part of the Let Girls Learn initiative. Obama asked people to support gender equality in education by posting their photos with a sentence about what they learned in school. So far, the site boasts posts by President Obama, multiple senators and members of congress, athletes like Caroline Wozniacki and Misty Copeland, and a host of celebrities including Kerry Washington, Stephen Colbert, and Usher.

The importance of education for girls cannot be overstated. According to UNICEF, one of the word’s leading children’s rights organizations:

Providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty: Educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will, less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.

As a child, and especially as a teenager, I certainly didn’t appreciate how fortunate I was to be in school. I remember moaning and groaning as I dragged myself out of bed at the crack of dawn, shoved a Pop-Tart in my mouth (the brown sugar cinnamon kind, obviously) and scraped ice from the windshield of my rusty ’87 Chevy Cavalier so I could make the brief drive to my high school. I remember rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I complained in the hallway with my friends about homework, projects, and tough exams. During all that, I never for a second thought to myself, “Wow, I’m so glad Woodbury High School is giving me the opportunity to survive childbirth and earn a living wage.”

I don’t think the average American teenage girl realizes how lucky she is to have access to education, either. I doubt she can empathize with girls whose families can only afford to send their sons to school, or those who face violence and exploitation at their schools. I’m not sure she understands the suffering of girls whose educations are disrupted by household chores, marriage and motherhood, or the ones who live in places that discourage or forbid them from receiving an education.

Let’s make her understand. Post your photo at 62milliongirls.com.

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Screen Time in the Nursery

If there’s one thing my husband and I fight over, it’s jellybeans. Just kidding. It’s our kids’ exposure to screens. We didn’t even have children back when we started the discussion.

At that time, Pat was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin (Go Bucky!) with long stretches of downtime that he filled with watching sports and playing video games, and I spent my fair share of time watching TV, too. I was hooked on the debut season of American Idol, back in the days of Brian Dunkleman and contestants who could sing like this:

But I had also just finished my undergrad coursework in psychology and journalism, a nasty mix that spoils the fun of screens. I’d sat through class after class and read article upon article describing how TV exposure was connected to a whole host of potential problems.

The main crux of the argument between Pat and me was whether or not we would allow televisions in our (as yet to exist) kids’ bedrooms. My answer was an unequivocal NO, while Pat insisted that it would be unavoidable; soon enough, he reasoned, people would be able to watch television on their computers. And since our kids would need computers for school, we’d just have to accept the idea that they would have screens in their rooms.

Friedcheesecurds

Cheesy goodness, an important topic of conversation

I remember rolling my eyes and sighing at the idea, then moving onto the more pressing matter of where we should go for cheese curds and beer that night (because, Wisconsin).

I had no idea how much the screen time discussion would factor into our lives once we actually had kids of our own.

I didn’t know a device with a name reminiscent of a woman’s sanitary product was on the parenting horizon. I had no idea Apple was creating the little machine that would become my family’s most schizophrenic possession. That in the same moment, the iPad would serve as reliable babysitter and educational tool, as well as thwarter of outdoor time and inhibitor of conversation. I couldn’t know that I would have to log extra time at the gym just to be strong enough to pry the tiny screen out of my kids’ clawing, manic little hands. That the removal of the tablet would result in behavior akin to withdrawal from crack, their eyes widening, their tempers flaring, their bodies flailing when screen time ended. Or that many American school districts would purchase such tablets for every student, and using them would become a major part of my kids’ education.

Screens in general and tablets in particular make parenting both easier and more difficult, the use of them among children a major source of confusion and doubt. But parents aren’t the only ones who are unsure—psychologists and child development experts also grapple with questions related to technology exposure, especially when it comes to the relatively new world of tablets and touchscreens.

In the latest edition of Nursery World, two experts weighed in on the issue, voicing their vastly different opinions on whether we should be allowing very young children to use touchscreens.

ipadkidDr. Annette Karmiloff-Smith, an expert in cognitive development at the University of London, kicked off the article by stating her support for early touchscreen use and recommending that we refrain from “indulging in emotional reactions about the potential negative influence of touchscreens.” Instead, she argued, we should explore their potential benefits.

Indulge in drama? Who, me?

Doc Karmi went on to say that toddlers love touchscreens because they encourage “active interaction” better than any other toy, and she proposed that tablets could increase cognitive activity and fine motor skills better than books and other toys. She cited empirical research that supports positive effects of tablet use on older children, as well as findings that educational TV shows can improve certain cognitive skills among young children.

Doc Karmi added a few caveats, hypothesizing that tablets are probably best for little ones when 1) they use them to play interactive games rather than passively watching videos, 2) they use them along with supportive adults, and 3) they use them to access age-appropriate educational content. However, she cautioned that empirical evidence for such claims does not yet exist. Lucky for us, the Doc and her buddies in London are working on such a study at this very moment.

In the other corner, weighing in at a meager 130 pounds (I have no idea how much he weighs, but he looked hungry in his picture), we heard from Dr. Richard House, a psychologist who specializes in early childhood. Talk about drama—Dr. House opened his argument by citing the “nuclear incineration of Hiroshima.” He used the event to argue that not all progress—especially untested, impulsively wrought progress—is good or necessary.

Dr. House’s main concern was that we don’t know how tablets impact young kids yet, that we’re playing with fire by allowing toddlers to use them. He cited research showing negative impacts of tablet use in adults, indicating that screens tend to 1) confuse users’ experiences of the world, 2) distract from the real world in favor of a technology-mediated one, and 3) lead to premature acceleration of learning beyond what is developmentally appropriate. He summarized his argument by stating that, “giving iPads to babies is tantamount to child abuse…akin to playing Russian roulette with children’s development.”

So there you have it. A total non-answer, another parenting question that has yet to be resolved. The beauty of the non-answer is that we get to decide what’s best for our own children. I have a gut feeling about screen time for my kids, and until someone can definitively tell me I’m wrong, I will continue to follow my gut. And if my husband’s gut says otherwise, I’ll just tell him it must be the cheese curds giving him a little indigestion.

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Hey look, I built a clock!

Ahmed Mohamed. I’ve seen and read so much news about his story over the past few days, I feel like my brain is swimming in Ahmed-related information.

I know Ahmed is a Muslim teenager living Texas, where his parents settled after emigrating from Sudan. I know he built himself a clock and brought it to school so he could show it to his teachers. I know the staff at his school and the police in his town decided his clock merited handcuffing and arresting him. I know that, while the police decided not to charge Ahmed, his school administrators still chose to suspend him for three days because of the “bomb hoax.”

Ahmed Mohamed under arrest; Image posted to Twitter at the request of his sister

As I read story after story about Ahmed’s situation, I desperately hoped for some shred of evidence that the school officials and police officers had some rationale for their actions. Despite knowing better, I really didn’t want to believe that people considered “helpers” could be blind enough or ignorant enough or angry enough to punish a kid for building a clock and being Muslim.

So I started thinking about the what-ifs.

Like, what if something in Ahmed’s past suggested that he was a troubled or violent kid? Maybe he followed the “profile” of kids who murder teachers and fellow students in a violent rampage. But he didn’t. By all accounts, Ahmed was a smart, happy, earnest kid with a passion for science, and he’d never given any indication that he identified with extremism or violence.

Well okay, what if Ahmed’s teacher and the school officials truly believed his clock posed a danger? After all, American schools have been ground zero for some of the country’s worst tragedies over the past few decades, and no one wants a repeat of Sandy Hook, Columbine, or Virginia Tech. Today’s educators are trained to be vigilant—above all, their job is to keep students safe. In fact, my son just participated in a school lockdown drill during which he learned that the custodial closet smells like feet. I’m okay with my son enduring five minutes of stinky mop water, because I know the practice is designed to keep him safe at school. And if someday his teacher suspects there might be a bomb in her classroom, I sure as hell hope she immediately reports it to someone and gets the kids out of the building.

But that’s where the problem lies for the staff at Ahmed’s school—their actions didn’t follow their claims. They say the clock looked like a bomb, but they didn’t treat the situation like a bomb scare. They never even evacuated the school. So either the school officials had little regard for their own safety and that of their students, or they never really believed that Ahmed’s clock posed a threat.

There’s one final possibility: What if the staff believed that Ahmed was playing an elaborate practical joke? A joke designed to scare his classmates and teachers, to trigger a school evacuation (or not), to earn him a boatload of attention and, ultimately, punishment under the law.

How I would hold up under police questioning

But that doesn’t work, either, because when Ahmed showed the clock to his teacher, he said, “Hey look, I built a clock.” I mean, you’d think a kid who wanted to execute a bomb hoax would have said something more like, “Hey look, I built a bomb.” But Ahmed continued to tell anyone who asked that the item he’d built was a CLOCK. Even after he’d been handcuffed. And arrested. And questioned by police. While I’ve never been questioned by the police, I’m pretty sure I’d be terrified, even if I was innocent. (And I’m not a Muslim kid in Texas). But still, Ahmed never wavered in his story that the damn thing was just a clock.

So in the end, I can find no justification for the actions of the staff at Ahmed’s school, nor for those of the police officers who arrested him. As a very wise boss of mine once told me, I need to stop being surprised and shocked by the racism and prejudice that exist in this country. Thank you, Ahmed Mohamed, for reminding me of that. Shame on me for forgetting.

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A little dander goes a long way

139HOne of the weirdest reactions I received after announcing my first pregnancy came from a very nice woman who suggested I immediately exile the family cat. She was convinced that said cat would curl up around the baby’s head and smother him in his sleep.

In an alarmist way, it made some sense—I’d read that putting a padded bumper in my baby’s crib would be on par with handing him a steak knife, so it made sense that I should keep small, furry animals out of his sleeping space as well. But instead of booting our cat out of the house, I figured we’d just keep the nursery door shut. We also had a huge dog at the time, and I wasn’t about to start offloading our pets just to make room for the new kid.

As it turns out, living with pets may be helping our kids stay healthy.

Miley Cyrus sans pants

In the past (like before Taylor Swift became a cult leader and Miley Cyrus stopped wearing pants) it was believed that living with a pet increased the risk of developing allergies in infancy and later in life. Parents were advised to protect their babies’ health by minimizing their exposure to animals.

But according to a recent article published by Reuters, the worry was all for naught. In fact, say researchers, living with pets may actually protect children against allergies and increase overall immune system functioning. Preliminary research coming out of Finland (home of cross-country skiing and, apparently, dog dander studies) showed that babies living with pets have more healthy bacteria in their stomachs than babies without pets. And as we’ve learned from Jamie Lee Curtis, certain types of “gut bacteria” are important for keeping our bodies healthy.

The whole issue reminds me of the peanut allergy obsession that started around the time I was in college and has only recently come to a rational end. When my first son was born, I was immediately warned (by doctors, books, and nosey people in the checkout line at Target) not to give him peanuts or peanut butter until he was three years old under any circumstances, because it might cause him to develop a severe peanut allergy. I knew peanut allergies were a serious matter, the cause of days filled with EpiPens, restricted diets, and constant worry, so I did my best to follow the advice. But I must admit, I gave up around my son’s first birthday, deciding a little mother’s guilt was worth the glorious ease of peanut butter and jelly.

And it turns out the peanut thing was bad advice, too. Instead of preventing peanut allergies, we now know that early consumption of peanuts actually decreases the likelihood of acquiring the allergy. Of course, parents are still cautioned to be careful when introducing new foods of any kind to babies, to watch closely for adverse reactions. But as far as peanuts are concerned, we’ve all relaxed a little.

So pass the peanut butter. Smear some on the cat. In fact, stick the cat in the Pack ‘N’ Play with your little one. They’ll both be entertained for hours, and you might actually get to take a shower. (But seriously, don’t do that. Really, it’s not a good idea).

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There’s Always the D.A.R.E. Bear

My husband, Pat, is not a worrier, which is a serious windfall for our family because I worry enough for everyone. My current obsessions include the shrinking polar ice caps, my guilt over staying home instead of using my graduate degree in the real world, and fretting about whether I spend too much time watching film clips from late night television (because there are things like this!).

Anyway, the other day when my generally easygoing husband mentioned that he worries about our kids and the potential dangers of drugs, I sat up and listened.

Pat explained that he wasn’t really concerned about our older son, who tends to be a rule-follower and a leader. Instead, he was nervous about our little guy, the one who likes to make everyone laugh and works so hard at fitting in.

My husband’s fears came to the surface after he read an article about a 19-year-old girl in suburban Ohio who had died from a drug overdose. According to the obituary penned by the young woman’s parents, Alison had led a happy life complete with friends, extracurricular activities, a high school diploma, and a brand-new job. Unfortunately, all those positives weren’t enough to prevent her using heroine and dying as a result. Pat’s reaction to the article was clear in the worry lining his face: “What if it that happens to one of our kids?”

My husband is right to keep the dangers of drugs like heroine top of mind—drug addiction is any parent’s worst nightmare. But according to a recent article published by CBC News, the drug we should really be worrying about is one that he and I (not to mention most of our friends and family, and millions of other Americans) use regularly and consider a totally acceptable part of life: alcohol.

I have a fuzzy memory of discussing alcohol as a drug way back in the early 90s, when I was treated to weekly sessions of the woefully misguided D.A.R.E. program. D.A.R.E. has apparently been revamped since I was in sixth grade, but my main memories of the sessions include swooning over the police officer instructor and learning an original rap (complete with choreography) about the dangers of PCP.

Yogi the D.A.R.E. BearI don’t think the message about alcohol being dangerous really got through to my fellow tweens and me.

After all, we’d seen our parents knock back a couple beers with the neighbors, toast each other with wine at nice dinners, maybe even splurge and have a margarita on vacation. And our kids can say the same thing; while they’ve never seen us drink alcohol to excess, they have certainly seen us drink it. They’ve also seen attractive, happy people consuming it in magazines, on billboards, and in loud, engaging commercials aired during the sports broadcasts we often watch as a family (Twins, Gophers, Wild, Vikings, and Badgers, in that order, in case you’re wondering).

In other words, our kids being raised in a culture that considers alcohol consumption wholly acceptable and, in some cases, essential to socialization. And while alcohol can be safe (and relaxing and enjoyable) when used by responsible adults, it’s incredibly dangerous for young people.

According to the clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics upon which CBC News based its article, kids who drink alcohol tend to drink a LOT of it-they binge drink. We adults, on the other hand, tend to have a better (though admittedly not great) sense of our own tolerance and how much alcohol is reasonable, so we’re less likely to binge drink than our younger counterparts.

That makes sense—young people are impulsive. They think they’re invincible. They’re incredibly susceptible to peer pressure. They’re just not good at quitting while they’re ahead.

And because young people’s brains are still so squishy and half-formed (technical terms for a technical blog) all the way up until age 25 years, the effects of alcohol—especially large amounts of it in short periods of time—can be huge. The report explains that, in addition to increasing the likelihood of alcohol addiction, binge drinking in young people can lead to serious developmental delays and cognitive impairments. In other words, binge drinking can seriously mess up kids’ brains. It can also lead to other scary things like drunk driving, long-term health problems, and serious accidents. Kids who drink are also more likely to be victims of violent crime than their non-drinking peers are.

That all sounds pretty terrifying. I guess I could add binge drinking to the list of things I should worry about. But worrying about it isn’t going to do our kids any good. Instead, the authors of the report suggest that we take steps to prevent the behavior.

In particular, they recommend talking to our kids about the dangers of alcohol at an early age, when they are as young as nine years old.

And so despite the fact that our oldest son still believes in the Tooth Fairy and thinks the heating vent is a good place to hide dirty underwear, we will be discussing alcohol use with him sooner rather than later. If (when) we don’t know exactly what to say, we’ll rely on well-researched resources like this one and this one for help.

Of course if none of that works, there’s always the D.A.R.E. Bear.

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https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=1924

A fight I can’t relate to

bathroom confusionI hated changing in the locker room after gym class. I remember contorting my body into highly unnatural positions in order to keep my underwear hidden while changing my shorts, to keep secret the fact that I still hadn’t fully figured out the art of shaving my legs, and to ensure that no one saw what I strove to hide every day—ME.

Though I felt vulnerable and watched during those changing sessions, I now realize the other girls in that locker room felt just as self-conscious as I did. While there may have been the rare exception—a girl or two who had found the secret to self-esteem and self-acceptance—the rest of us just wanted to get dressed and get the hell out of there.

NOT how I felt in the locker room

I imagine that’s exactly how 17-year-old Lila Perry and other transgender teens feel when they change or use the restroom in public. And not because their clothing doesn’t match their anatomy, but because they’re kids.

Lila, a high school senior, lives in the small town of Hillsboro, Missouri. Her story received national attention last week when she petitioned the school board for use of the girls’ bathroom and locker room, citing the fact that she identified as female. In previous years, Lila had been granted use of a unisex teacher bathroom away from other students. Lila’s school responded positively to her request, allowing her to use the student facility that matched her gender identification. Kudos to the school district.

girlsrightsmatter

Lila Perry outside Hillsboro High School

Since then, things have been less straightforward for Lila. During her first week of school this fall, her use of the girls’ bathroom led to an organized walkout by many of her fellow students, some carrying signs declaring, “Girls rights matter.” It also resulted in record attendance at a school board meeting, at which parents voiced their concerns about the issue even though transgender facility use was not on the docket. In addition, Lila has become the subject of public statements from community members such as, “The girls have rights, and they shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a boy,” and “There is nothing wrong with being different. But when you are different, there are sacrifices.”

I understand that parents feel a strong evolutionary urge to protect their children from things that are dangerous or confusing, to keep them safe and maintain their innocence. For instance, I think implementation of the Safe Passage program in Chicago schools is essential to protecting children from gun violence, even if it takes money away from academics. I believe parents of kids with special needs should fight extra hard to ensure their little ones receive the support and services to which they’re entitled. When I visit my son’s elementary school, I am happy to sign in and wear an ID badge so teachers know I’m a safe adult.

But I cannot wrap my brain around investing time and energy into fighting Lila’s use of the girls’ bathroom. I do not believe the argument that Lila is putting girls in danger by sharing their bathroom, nor the suggestion that the problem would go away if Lila had gender reassignment surgery. The protesters have taken on a fight I can’t relate to.

So thank goodness for the scores of people who have stood up and supported Lila over the past few weeks.  Thank goodness for the Hillsboro students who staged their own protest in support of Lila’s rights. Thank goodness for Lila’s friends, the ones who remind us that Lila is human with statements like, “She is choosing her life to better herself, to better accept herself.”  Thank goodness for the pastor who donned a rainbow stole and held a poster in support of Lila.

pastor

Lila Perry supporter

In the end, the notion that being different means making sacrifices seems all wrong to me. Rather, I think the sacrifice comes when we hide who we are, when we force ourselves to fit into neat but uncomfortable little boxes, when we pretend to be something we’re not.

Let’s hope that’s a sacrifice Lila Perry no longer has to make.

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You Do the Math

mathstressAt least once a month, I have a recurring nightmare about high school math. The dream always takes place the night before a crucial pre-calculus final, one that will determine whether I get into college or travel as unskilled carnival labor for the rest of my life. In the dream, I haven’t studied for the exam. In fact, I’ve phoned in the entire course, daydreaming through class, skipping the optional homework, and putting in no effort.

Although I’ve had the dream more times than I can count, I can’t tell you if I ever manage to eke out a passing grade on the test, or if I even make it to class on exam day. It seems my sleepy subconscious doesn’t find the actual test or my performance on it to be of much importance. Instead, my brain ruminates on the anxiety-inducing moments leading up to the test.

I’m actually not terrible at math. I’m not great at it, but I’m not terrible. Yet somewhere along the way, I decided math was not for me, that my brain just doesn’t “work that way.” My kids are too young to make such pronouncements. The older one is frankly a bit exhausting with his frequent demand for math “quizzes,” and the little one is just learning to trace his numbers and count groups of Wookiees, Stormtroopers, and Ewoks.

Star-Wars-Workbooks1

(Side note: I’m considering establishing a charter school with a Star Wars-themed curriculum, and I guarantee the waiting list will be a mile long. Admittedly, the school’s junior prom might be a little rough, but our chess team will be unstoppable).

starwarsprom

And according to a University of Chicago study published in Psychological Science, it’s up to me to keep my kids’ math-related confidence going, to ensure that they believe their brains do work that way. At first blush, this may seem like a problem for me, considering my complicated relationship with the subject.

As a stay-at-home parent, I am the main homework helper in my household. I don’t provide a ton of assistance, but I make sure to be present and available for questions when my 2nd-grader tackles his assignments. So far, I haven’t engaged in much explanation or teaching because the concepts have been fairly simple. But I can see a time in the near future when things might get more complex, when I may have to reinforce higher-level concepts.

Fortunately, it seems I can help my kids along their numerical road even if I can’t master the Everyday Math curriculum or calculate the square root of 55,225 in my head (it’s 235, in case not knowing will keep you up tonight).

Instead, I just need to be more Zen about the whole math thing. Or at the very least, I need to shut up about how much math freaks me out.

It turns out that the combination of my math anxiety and my role as main homework helper could pose a problem for my kids. Specifically, the authors of the article found that “children of math-anxious parents learned less math over the school year and were more likely to be math-anxious themselves—but only when these parents provided frequent help on the child’s math homework.”

In other words, the dedicated people who hate math, but love their children are actually causing more harm than good. Why? It turns out that we parents with math anxiety have a harder time explaining the concepts to our kids, and we also tend to be less patient and calm when our kids struggle with math. Our kids pick up on that tension, thus learning that math causes stress.

So if we really want to help our kids with math, we need learn to keep our cool. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

During my time in the schools, I attended dozens of meetings in which math-anxious parents made statements such as, “It’s not surprising my daughter is bad at math—I wasn’t good at it either,” and “I hate math, and I have no idea how to help him when he’s struggling with the homework.” Many of the educators around the table (myself included) would nod and chuckle knowingly, showing solidarity in our confusion and discomfort with math. Now I know these parents didn’t need my solidarity—they needed moral support.

The lead author of the study suggests that schools need to provide math-anxious parents with that support by teaching us “how to most effectively help” our kids with math. Specifically, she suggests giving us tools like books, games, and apps that could help us better understand and teach the concepts.

Games and apps sound pretty good to me. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just pop a Xanax and keep my inadequacies to myself.

Additional article related to this post:
Square root of kids’ math anxiety: Their parents’ help (New York Times)

Suffering the Consequences

boy-469153_1280I never got expelled from school. I was never suspended, either. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I received so much as a scolding from a teacher. Of course, we can only assume that my flawless disciplinary record was a direct result of the exceptional upbringing I received and the subsequent good choices I made. I certainly never considered sassing back to teachers, copying a friend’s chemistry assignment right before an instructor’s eyes, or taking extra long lunches off campus.

Actually, I did all of those things. More than once.

burnbookI also got busted (along with a bunch of friends) for writing mean, hurtful things about vulnerable classmates in a notebook, a la Mean Girls, in eighth grade. I still have guilt-induced nightmares about the last offense, for which I should have received severe consequences. Instead, my friends and I were instructed to engage in five random acts of kindness, a punishment we neither understood, nor took seriously.

I was obviously far from perfect.

But I was a girl and I came from a middle class household. Even more important, I was White. If my demographics were otherwise, my story may have been different. After all, the game was rigged.

Last week, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study of over 3,000 school districts in 13 southern states. They reached the following overall conclusion:

The rates of suspension and expulsion for Black students were disproportionately high.

In response to the New York Times article explaining the study’s findings, a number of readers voiced their frustration with unbalanced discipline practices, citing institutionalized racism. Others hesitated to draw conclusions, stating they felt more data was needed.

Then there was a third group, a vocal cadre of readers who argued that the higher rates of suspension/expulsion in Black students were fair and appropriate. The Black kids, they suggested, were simply getting what they deserved.

Janis of Ridgewood, NJ, commented:
“I don’t know why this is so surprising. There have always been more suspensions, expulsions, in tough city high schools vs the burbs, etc. Criminals do not develop overnight. Parents who are not there physically or emotionally breed trouble and then the teacher is expected to handle it. There is a ton of misplaced anger as evidenced in Ferguson Missouri, Detroit, South Chicago, etc. We don’t need a study.”

But that’s exactly the problem, Janis: We do need studies. Because people are, at the core of it, emotional beings. We try to think with our heads, but more often than not, we think with our hearts (or in the case of Ben Affleck, a wholly different organ). So we have to rely on objective studies by highly trained scientists to find out what’s really going on.

The argument Janis and many others make—that Black students deserve more suspensions/expulsions than White students—is inherently problematic because it only works if we’re willing to accept the idea that either 1) Black kids are inherently worse people than White kids are and/or 2) Black kids aren’t raised as well as White kids are.

And I refuse to accept those premises.

The premise I accept is the one about how Black kids are just trying to survive in a system that’s stacked against them.

For starters, Black kids face an implicit bias held by a large faction of their teachers. Though educators tend to be intelligent, well-meaning people who care about our students, many of us make judgments based on race without even realizing it. Because we don’t realize we’re making these judgments, we also don’t realize our judgments play a role in the decisions we make about discipline. That explains why, per the results of the Penn study, White students were punished less severely than their Black counterparts for the exact same offenses.

We also tend to forget that “disruption” is a highly subjective concept, a matter of opinion, a judgment call. What’s disruptive to me may not be disruptive to you. For instance, I find my kids’ insistence on speaking to each other in a weird alien language to be disruptive (i.e., insanely annoying), while you may find it charming. Neither of us is right or wrong—we are both entitled to our opinions.

I know some of you are rolling your eyes at me right now, but hear me out. This country’s public school system was started by White people for the purpose of educating White children, with policies and expectations befitting the values of that particular population. While our schools have changed significantly over the past few centuries, they also remain largely the same. Especially in secondary settings, we continue to expect our students to remain still and quiet for long periods of time with little opportunity for physical activity. We value a specific version of respect for authority. We define success through narrow measures of academic achievement in the form of culturally-biased standardized tests.

If a kid’s strengths and difficulties don’t fit neatly into that mainstream pocket, he or she faces an increased risk of becoming a target for counterproductive disciplinary practices like suspension and expulsion. While our protective parent hearts may tell us that such measures make sense, studies have shown time and again that removal from school is a fruitless and ineffective method of discipline, except in the most extreme cases.

In addition to being true for Black students more than White students, the increased rate of suspension/expulsion also holds for males more than females and poor kids more than wealthy ones. That can’t mean that boys and kids from low-income backgrounds are “less good.” It just means they have a harder time playing the mainstream education game, just like Black students often do.

So Janis, we do need a study. In fact, we need lots of studies. We need studies about promising alternatives to suspension/expulsion. We need studies about how to recognize and respond to our own biases.  We need studies that ensure all kids have access to a free and appropriate public education, regardless of race.

But in the mean time, I’ll settle for videos like this:

Additional resources related to this story:

Cafeteria Conundrum

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Though I graduated high school over fifteen years ago, I have never forgotten the powerful allure of Italian Dunker Day in the cafeteria. Even now, my mouth waters at the notion of the gooey, melty goodness of mozzarella cheese atop garlicky, overly-buttered white bread, dipped in a Styrofoam bowl of steaming marinara fresh from the jar. Every other Tuesday we’d beg our English teacher to end class just one minute early, to free us so we could be first in line for our favorite school entrée.

I’m sure the saintly lunch ladies also served something from the fruit and vegetable category alongside the starchy main act; I was probably offered a scoop of watery green beans, a waxy, pesticide-coated apple, or some mandarin oranges floating in corn syrup. I may have even taken one of the fruit or vegetable options on occasion. I just don’t remember doing so. All I remember are the dunkers.

Although I was pretty clueless then, still a decade away from full development of my frontal lobe (which is a big deal, I assure you), I wasn’t kidding myself—I knew foods like bread and cheese weren’t doing me any favors. They weren’t building muscles, increasing digestive health, or sharpening my brain for afternoon classes. They just tasted good.

dunkers

Since the late 1990s, a lot has changed in terms of our understanding of nutrition (not to mention our understanding of fashion—God, but I miss my HyperColor shirt). Obesity has been declared a major epidemic and its mitigation is First Lady Michelle Obama’s number one cause, fast food restaurants tout themselves as serving items that are all natural and humanely-raised, and Cookie Monster now refers to his favorite snack as a “sometimes food.

So when the lunch menu for my son’s school appeared in his Friday folder that first week of Kindergarten, I should have been surprised to see Italian Dunkers still on the menu. But I wasn’t surprised, because the menu looked eerily similar to those from all the elementary schools I’d ever worked in. In addition to the dunkers, the menus I’ve encountered typically included a number of similarly carb-loaded choices, most of which strongly flouted my mother’s sage advice: “Don’t fill up on bread.”

But as I moan and groan about my son’s lunch options, I have to ask myself whether I’m being fair. Surely our country’s school lunch program has improved in some capacity.

Enter Ariana Eunjung Cha’s story in the August 26th edition of the Washington Post. The article starts out in a most depressing fashion:

In the war to get America’s children to eat healthier, things are not going well.

Oh. That’s unfortunate. Tell us more, Ariana. (I’ve decided Ariana and I are on a first-name basis—I’ll let you know when we’re having Girls Night).

She continues:

Student E114…left the lunch line one day carrying a tray full of what looked like a balanced   meal: chicken nuggets, some sort of mushy starch, green beans and milk.

Really, Ariana? You consider that a balanced meal? Chicken nuggets that have been breaded, deep fried and cut out to resemble stars, a pile of instant mashed potatoes and a mountain of tasteless, overcooked green beans? Hell, if I were Student E114, you wouldn’t catch me touching those beans either. Bring on the chicken nuggets, I’d say, and hey, pass the BBQ sauce.

Ari goes on to detail the findings of a study published in the latest (hot off the presses!) edition of Public Health Reports. She explains that the study’s authors wanted to determine the effectiveness of one particular USDA mandate related to school lunch. Specifically, they wanted to know whether requiring kids to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch would lead to increased consumption of those foods. This mandate was part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which, incidentally, is up for reauthorization by September 30th of this year.

It all sounds pretty logical, the USDA must have thought. Put healthy food in front of kids and they’ll eat it. Against school nutritionists’ protests that the mandate would have no impact other than fuller garbage cans, the USDA reasoned that we should give it a try.

Unfortunately, the study’s results were pretty bleak. On its own, the mandate failed to increase kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables and, in some cases, kids ate even fewer of the foods in question. But while it might seem time for Ari to give up on the USDA and America’s youth all together, she should really give them another chance!

Because the study delivers some good news, too. For one, it shows that little kids (third grade and below in this case) actually listen to mandates from school staff. Hell yes, they do! My seven-year-old would believe the earth was created in one hundred days by fairies crying tears of hot lava if that’s what his teacher told him. Turns out the same holds true for healthy eating—consumption of fruits and vegetables actually increased under the mandate for kids in first through third grades. So perhaps targeting the youngest of America’s students would be the most practical means of effecting nutritional change.

Other positive information from the study includes ideas for improving the efficacy of the required fruit and vegetable mandate. For one, the authors suggest that lunchroom staff work to make healthy items more appealing. This makes so much sense! After all, we’ve taken the time to chop up our chickens, puree them, bread them, and form them into little star-shaped patties—can’t we at least slice our apples, maybe peel an orange or two? And while I have mixed feelings about the suggestion of serving ranch dressing with the baby carrots, I figure you’ve got to give a little to get a little.

Another suggestion by the study’s authors is one for us parents. They remind us that we would be wise to talk with our kids about healthy eating, and that we should regularly check in with them about what they consume at lunchtime. Additionally, they suggest the mandate could be more efficacious if parents set good examples at home by modeling healthy eating and serving balanced meals.I admit that I don’t love this part of the study as much because it means I’m supposed to eat more zucchini and fewer donuts, but I know the idea makes sense.

But please, Ari, just don’t expect me to set a good example on Dunker Day.