Posts Tagged ‘children’

Kids raised in homes without TV, electronics, are burdening society, report suggests

October 21, 2011


Philadelphia- Parents of young children are now urged to allow unlimited TV time, a recent study suggests. Television, computers and other self-described zoning-out electronic devices, despite offering little to no educational value and leaving children and adults dull-minded and apathetic do have their benefits.

According to Rolfe Hamburger, PhD and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics,  most children are raised in front of the TV, which stunts their growth and leaves them virtually unable to interact socially with other children. “That’s OK,” Hamburger suggests, “because the bar for ‘normal childhood behavior’ has now been lowered dramatically.” What has become a concern, Hamburger and his team of constituents contend, is the relatively miniscule but growing number of children whose parents don’t allow their kids to watch anyTV.

“These new ‘superkids’,” Hamburger says, “have a strong ability to communicate, keen interpersonal skills and a capacity to remain focused on tasks for longer than a minute, most likely because they’ve never been propped in front of the TV for four hours straight while Mom takes a cigarette break and gabs on the phone.” But, he warns, “these kids are becoming a drain on society and all the other children who can’t seem to cope with them on the playground.”

According to the study, which was conducted among a group of 30,000 randomly selected seven-year-old boys and girls across America, and which rated their TV-watching habits, “one in seventeen American children is placing unreasonable and excessive demands on his classmates by expecting them to play, interact and engage in actual dialog.” The study determined that less than .00001% of the population of children in America are not watching TV or playing video games, but rather “playing outside,” “doing activities with their parents,” or “reading books.”

Hamburger and pediatricians like him are “disturbed” by the findings.

“This puts a growing rift in our society,” Philip Locklear, DO, a local pediatrician from Chestnut Hill says. “No adult wants to be confronted with his own self-deprecating sluggishness and ineptitude, let alone a child. And that’s what happens in the presence of these kids. They are a constant reminder of the shame we now endure as adults for spending so many hours watching The Dukes of Hazard when we were kids.”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

March 13, 2011

I’m hiding out in my bedroom with the door locked, pretending I don’t know anyone’s home. I don’t want anyone to bother me or tell me what to do. I just want to play my records and write in my journal. More than anything, I don’t want anyone to make me study for that test on Friday. Oh, but wait. That’s not me. That’s my son. I’m not the one in 7th grade. I’m not the one getting D’s in Math and Science, or having grumpy teachers send notes home telling me I better get my act together. I’m a grown woman. I’m the mother of two. Or am I? I’m starting to have doubts.

I remember well. I graduated high school back in the 80’s and when I did, I threw off my cap and gown and said, screw this shit. Thank God I never have to go back. I went on to college, then grad school, met someone, got married and had kids. I struggled and I overcame adversity. And when I had my very first, tiny little bundle of joy, I promised that things would be different. That he would not have to suffer through what I did when I was a kid. That he would never know the horrors of looking down the gaping mouth of a screaming teacher, telling him to “wise up.”

But sadly, that was a crackpot notion. I was promising to stop a runaway train with my bare hands. A feat that simply cannot be done.  Kids have to go through their own personal struggles and no one can protect them after a certain age. Lesson learned.

Or not.

My sixth grader brought home a D. So, I sit with him night after night after night trying to get him to understand how to multiply and divide fractions. But I’ve forgotten myself. How do I multiply fractions? I haven’t done it in years. The frustration of not getting it returns.

  1. Simplify the fractions if not in lowest terms.
  2. Multiply the numerators of the fractions to get the new numerator.
  3. Multiply the denominators of the fractions to get the new denominator.

I send him back to school on test day, sure that he will get an A. I wait. I wonder. I pace the halls. I Freudian slip and say, “I wonder what I got?”  But he returns with another D, and I’m crushed. How was that possible? The both of us went over this a million times. So, I do what any desperate parent does who lives vicariously through her kids: I yell at him and take away his video games. Maybe, by accident, it just slips out, I even berate him for not being able to understand the material. The guilt-laden words, “C’mon, what were you thinking?” make their way from deep inside my stomach, up my throat and out my mouth.

To top it off, I get the dreaded letter sent home about his performance. He’s not paying attention in class; he’s fooling around with his friends; he needs to be more respectful to his teachers; he needs to stop drawing cartoons in his notebook; this is his third detention in six months; if his behavior and his grades don’t improve he will likely be kept back.

Sure, it’s his behavior under scrutiny and they’re his grades. But really, they’re mine. It’s me back in middle school, floundering around, doggy-paddling to stay afloat. I was a rotten student. And every bad grade he comes home with is a blazing reminder of my own poor performance back in the day. Every detention he gets, it’s me who sits with the shame. And every parent-teacher conference or note sent home is not about his behavior, but mine. Of course, you could say this is narcissism at its finest. Whatever happens to others becomes internalized and thus, happens to me. The apple is the tree. It’s all about me, me, me. Yet, my children are an extension of me. There’s an interconnectedness there that cannot easily be disconnected.  And so, I empathize with their plight, particularly when I too have lived through the same. Isn’t it called compassion? At least that’s what I tell myself it’s called.

In fact, I sat through one of his conferences just recently and listened to all of teachers say the same thing. And I’m sure I heard it this way: you need to stop fooling around, Tracy. School is no joke. It’s time to get serious. And as I sat in my little 7th grade chair, so low to the ground, like a shrinking violet, with my knees knocking under the desk, I could feel my heart pound and my face get hot with humiliation for not being a better student.

It’s not just me. My sister-in-law is about to register her son for Kindergarten, but she’s in a panic. Once he gets on that bus, all by himself, she said, she can’t protect him. She was a shy kid too. She knows how rough it will be to take that twenty-minute ride to school, knowing no one, and having no one to hide behind or talk to.

Another friend of mine watches in horror as her teenage kids get into trouble, oftentimes with the law. “I was so bad when I was a kid,” she told me. “And now I’m watching my sons get into the same kind of mess.”

The wheel goes around for everyone. And yet, there’s a reason we as parents must shoulder our kids’ burdens. Isn’t it too much to ask a shy five-year-old to handle a bus ride by himself? Isn’t it too much to expect a seventh grader to perform flawlessly in every subject when, like his mother, he is a dreamer too?

I so often believe it is.

And so, is the lesson learned here to hold on for dear life? To live through things again and again until you get it right? Even at the expense of others? Or does the girl with zero confidence who is still holding on for dear life, need to let go of the death grip she has on her son who, by no conscious choice of his own,  reminds her everday of her own past failures? Perhaps the lesson is to remember  how rotten it felt to not be believed in or, to not be loved above all else, despite your limitations. Lessons, lessons, lessons. They are learned at all ages, And perhaps I need to let go. Not of my son, but me. I need to forgive the girl who made so many mistakes and lazed around the house without an ambitious bone in her body or a shred of self-motivation. I need to let go of that wasted time that I often foolishly think I’ll ever get back. Humans! The only animal on the planet capable of so many deep-rooted pschyological weirdness. Alas,  I did bloom. I was a late bloomer. And as Sharon Olds says, “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” But, in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s about the tree shaking the apple off its limb and letting it roll where it chooses. It’s about saying: I may be suffering right along with you. You’re not alone. But you’re free. You are your own person. And I love you unconditionally. 

Boob job

May 11, 2010

I’ve made peace with my breasts. This happened about five years ago in an Indian dress-shop in New Hope. I was flipping through a rack of Bandhani skirts, when I noticed my then two-year-old son groping the plastic bust of a naked mannequin. I whisked him away, a little disconcerted that I had given birth to a boob man. Not another one, I thought. Until I realized then and there, that an attraction to breasts is as inherent to the human psyche as food, water and shelter. And whether they be for the sake of sex, symbol or sustenance, I was blessed with the ability to provide all those things, not only to myself, but others. This realization, however, was a long time in coming.

A girl, who materializes Cs at age eleven, then Ds, then DDs at such a rate of growth as to portend alien-like peculiarities doesn’t look down one day and say, “well, hello there, aren’t you perky?!” Double Ds aren’t perky. And they don’t feel like the “gift” that smaller-chested women make them out to be. They’re cumbersome, they’re heavy and they draw far more attention than they should. They set their owner up for an existence of dodging spit balls to the cleavage, darting random and unexpected gropes and nipple tweaks in the hallway and bearing the unbearable when it comes to name-calling. “Nice rack,” I could handle. “Look at the jugs on her,” I couldn’t. Not to mention that bras are almost impossible to come by, especially if you’re only a 32 or 34 back. And running is completely out of the question. My survival in high school, for the most part, was therefore reliant on baggy clothes and walking around hunched over so as to avoid drawing any unnecessary attention to my so called “gift.”

Adult-life wasn’t any easier. I had my years of being overly sexualized because of my size. I suppose I let society define me, which can easily happen to a twenty-year old girl looking for approval. And then again, they were right there in front of me, unable to be ignored. So, why not make the most of them? When they were perfectly round double-Ds that hovered midway between the bra-line and my upper chest, I have to admit, I could look at myself naked in the mirror and say, not bad. I could cup them in the palms of my hands and they’d pour over my thumbs and forefingers like a push-up bra from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I kinda looked like a porn star back then. And when breast implants had become all the rage, I didn’t have to worry. There I was, naturally curvy and well-endowed with these, dare I say it, cantaloupes.

In a sexual way, I felt like I had been blessed, instead of cursed, the latter of which I normally felt. But the truth is, I was insecure. I didn’t have much confidence or self-esteem and so, I easily identified myself as a sex object- not because I believed I was sexy, but because I believed others expected me to be sexy. I mean, let’s face it. Big breasts do have their benefits. One tight little V-neck sweater with appropriately placed cleavage goes a long way. Never any speeding tickets. Never turned away from pretentious nightclubs. Never lost an opportunity to flirt my way out of a variety of trouble. You can’t beat that. And that’s not to say that big breasts gave me carte blanche, but I am a firm believer that they got me a heck of a lot farther than my flat-chested counterparts.

But imagine a lifetime of white, thick-strapped, old lady bras, (forget about matching panties); or bending over only to have a nipple pop out at a rather inconvenient time; or not being able to run or jog. Forget about jumping up and down in an aerobics class without proper support. And men, young and old, and even women rarely look you in the eye or take you seriously. Worst of all large breasts have a way of making horrible first impressions. Why is it that chesty women are automatically assumed easy, dumb, sex-crazed or superficial?

After my own personal sexual revolution, I segued rather clumsily into the other alternate purpose for breasts: breast feeding. My double-Ds turned to triple-Es overnight after I had my first child, and started doing insane things: leaking, spouting, spurting, turning lumpy, bumpy and veiny and other unspeakable things. I felt like a cartoon character; a tiny host of a body attached to and dragged around by these two massive life-giving blobs that just kept getting bigger and bigger and seemingly had minds of their own. I was trapped. Imprisoned by the cycle of supply and demand. Forced into the hard labor of lactating. It’s no wonder women are so tired after giving birth. It has little to do with the baby.

And God help the hubby if he approached me in any kind of sexual way or wanted to touch me. What are you, nuts? Back off. Go to hell. My breasts were for one thing and one thing only: food. There was nothing sexy about lumpy, bumpy and veiny. And while the act of feeding my newborn was a miraculous and beautiful affair, and I did feel rather delighted at the thought of sustaining a life, I was at times quite fearful that I would smother the poor child with the breadth of my bosom.

Shortly after I divorced, and long after breast feeding, and after experiencing my mother fight breast cancer and win, and after experiencing my friend’s mother fight breast cancer and lose, and after turning 40 and accepting that gravity and life had done more than their fair share of vitiation, I had come to the sad conclusion that my breasts no longer had any purpose. They took on the aura of two weather beaten domes upon a rocky shore and I figured their future was a decidedly catastrophic one: they would either sink below my knees like stretchy, warm silly putty, or they would succumb to a cancerous fate whereupon they would ultimately be removed, thrown in a red plastic bag and sent to an incinerator.

With such a fate before me there was but one option left: I would have a breast reduction, or a lift, or some sort of plastic surgery. I would avoid the inevitable, or maybe just postpone it. Isn’t that, after all, one of the perks of contemporary American culture? If you don’t like the way something looks, augment it. With that being decided, I began my plan: interview doctors, make appointments, look for new B cups (how exciting!); and then, start the process of saying goodbye to the two objects that, like it or not, stuck with me, through thick and thin.

What was inevitable was that I wouldn’t or couldn’t go through with it. And the reasons were quite simple: For one, I loved bragging that my breasts were real. OK, so they were never perky and they were starting to droop. But I hated fake-boob culture and prided myself on being au natural. Why anyone would want to go big was beyond me! And even though a reduction wasn’t as superficial and offensive as implants, in my opinion, augmentation was superficial all the same (save in cases of disfigurement). It was glaring and expensive proof that I hated who I was, and that simply wasn’t true. Frustrated? Yes. But I believed (and still do) that many who undergo surgery to permanently change the inherent structure of their bodies do not particularly like themselves, or perhaps they have been misled to believe that “once this aspect of me changes, everything will be wonderful,” which is rarely the case. I didn’t want to be branded as having subscribed to either of those beliefs. Above all else, I wanted to be able to accept myself as is.

Second, what message would I be sending my sons? That Mommy is superficial? That I wasn’t capable of growing old gracefully? Or that it is conscionable to spend $10,000 on a nice rack when there are children living in squalor all over the world? And I couldn’t forget my youngest son, groping the mannequin’s breasts in New Hope. What message would I send him who seemed to have a penchant for mammarian protuberances? How could I instill in my children the idea that breasts are beautiful, of all shapes and sizes, and that healthy sexuality, if I had any hope of fostering it in my children, meant that as a woman and a mother I have a responsibility to celebrate my body, not condemn it or try to change it.

My breasts have placed me on a pedestal and they have knocked me off. They have given me great joy and have caused me back pain, embarrassment and unsolicited attention. At times, they’ve been fun. They have fed two human beings, got me into a couple night-clubs for free and have given hours or pleasure to one husband, two fiancés and numerous boyfriends. And despite the fact that, for the most part, they’re retired from having to “work” as laboriously as younger women’s breasts do, they are all mine, they are very much loved and they are still (yes, I’m about to brag) one-hundred percent real.

The Visit

April 23, 2010


She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.

“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.

“Your whole life, huh?”

He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.

“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.

Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”

Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.

“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.

Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little.  How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them.  Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”

“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”

And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”

Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”

“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”

She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.

They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.

When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.

When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.

When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.

By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.

At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.

Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.

“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”

It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.

“Translation, please?” he says.

“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”

There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.

She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.

They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.

Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.

“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.

Swine Flu Blues

October 28, 2009

To vaccinate or not; that is the question, and one mother’s quest for the right answer.

There’s a medical form resting on the kitchen table that my son brought home from school yesterday. It’s asking me—his mother—to make the decision to have him vaccinated for H1N1. The form has been there for 24 hours, and if not for the word “URGENT” stamped across the front, it would take on the usual lifecycle of most forms that come into my house: backpack to kitchen table to trashcan; or, if it’s a particularly pressing concern, like the ten page form needing my signature and a note from the doctor, costing ten dollars, and a photocopy of shot records and checkups and probably even blood samples, okaying the fact that my kid had all his shots and won’t be infecting anyone with polio or rubella or any number of odd, extinct diseases, the form would be filled out within a couple weeks’ time and ultimately sent back to school.

I hate forms for two reasons: they’re printed on paper and thus, waste our natural resources, and they’re seldom of any relevance to someone who prides herself on dodging the frenzy of herd mentality that forms tend to confirm. Case in point: the issue regarding your child’s appearance in photographs taken by the school. I suppose with so many men, women and children in the witness protection program the idea of a teacher taking a photo of classmates and posting it on the school’s billboard had become a matter of contention. One person complained about it, didn’t want their child photographed and then another and then another. For weeks everyone was clamoring about schools violating and exploiting their children with one click of a camera. Shortly after, a mandatory form was sent home, requesting the signature of a parent or guardian, to authorize or deny the act of photographing each child.

It’s like that with the weather around here too. One severe weather alert from Action News on a Monday produces a slew of forms regarding school closing numbers, a list of what to include in a disaster preparedness kit and even a barrage of websites, links and contact numbers in case of emergency. The next thing you know there are mile long lines at the grocery store and bottled water is completely out of stock three towns away. And for what; usually two inches of snow that turns to slush by the end of the school day.

But this form in particular is causing me emotional, mental, moral and ethical strife. I simply cannot decide whether to get the vaccination for my kid or not. As a mother I am torn between doing the right thing for my child while avoiding doing something just because everyone else is doing it. In my mind, it should be this easy: if my kid has a one in a million chance of dying from the flu, as well as a one in a million chance of contracting some bizarre neurological disease from the shot, then either route I take seems statistically safe. I shouldn’t be worried. Right? But I am– so much so that I can’t stop weighing the facts, possibly because so many exist.

In typical culturally-savvy, liberal, progressive parent fashion, I did everything I possibly could to weigh the pros and cons. I posted a poll on Facebook. I watched the youtube video of a beautiful cheerleader who got a neurological disorder triggered by a flu vaccination. I listened to an NPR radio interview with some guy from the CDC. I read a “Short History of Vaccine Panic,” along with Amy Wallace’s, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” followed shortly by Dr. Kim’s Holistic Heath Blog. By accident, I even read some article online debunking vibrational strings and the theory that we are all made out of light until I realized that had little, if anything to do with swine flu. I asked friends, neighbors and family. I even asked my son’s pediatrician. And after all this, I can’t help but wonder how any of us are capable of making a personal, private, parental decision in the face of all this hysteria and abundance of information.

How, in fact, does anyone make a decision about their child’s health, and possibly life, with so many influences circling around? It makes me wonder how much of a threat something is, compared to the media’s propagation of it. And the bitter truth is, when people stop making individual decision and instead, base their actions on the common good of the herd, the best choice isn’t always made. Who remembers the old VHS versus Betamax war? VHS won dominance over Betamax despite being technically inferior. Why? Really good marketing and probably the fact that consumers were impressed with the recording time of VHS. In other words, consumers lost out on a better, cheaper costing product, for the sake of one flimsy feature. Even the sub-prime mortgage crisis and housing bubble is a reflection of herd mentality. Swine flu is no exception.

Frustratingly, when I polled my friends—and most are no dummies—there was a huge gaping divide. Some believed that it’s best to vaccinate and protect. Others believed the side effects of vaccination weren’t worth the risk. As for me—the form was still on the table this morning, heading to the trashcan, until my neighbor called asking me if my kid needed a ride to school. Yes, yes, yes, I said. He always needs a ride to school, or back from school, or to be picked up from soccer, or dropped off at fencing. For whatever reason, he needs to be stuffed into someone’s minivan, along with a gazillion other kids, for the sake of being taken somewhere. Going back to grad school and teaching has left me hugely dependent on “the village” to help me in times of need.

So, among small talk and neighborhood gossip, I asked her if she was getting her kids vaccinated. Heck, why not. I had asked everybody else by this point and nothing had influenced me either way. Seriously, what difference would her answer make? But the moment she uttered a resounding yes, two things occurred. First, I immediately thought, that’s just typical. And second, I thought, I must get my son vaccinated.

I hung up the phone. In a matter of minutes I speedily filled out the form: Name of child, Birth date, Address, Is the child presently sick? Does he or she have any chronic diseases? Has the child ever had a reaction to a seasonal flu vaccine? Has the child ever had a reaction to eggs?

I signed and dated it and stuck it in his backpack; I kissed him goodbye; and I waved, from my doorstep, to the pack of children crammed into the minivan that, along with my son, were being carted off to school.

Herd mentality or not, I am a member of a community. I depend on “the village” and the village depends on me. And sensationalism aside, (and the one in a million chance of getting some bizarre neurological disease from a flu shot), decisions based solely on me and my child cannot be made. We are not islands. We are not loners. We are part of something bigger than us and thus, have a responsibility to stay safe and healthy not just for our sake, but everyone’s.

Am I happy that I am following the herd? Not really. I have always prided myself on being an individual. Do I think the swine flu is so out of control that it could kill us? Nope. Do I think that mass-hysteria is influencing our better judgment? Yes, I do. Do I think that seasonal and swine flu vaccinations are the answer for everyone? No. That’s not what this story is about. It’s not about any of those “facts.” It’s not even about uncovering obscure information or taking polls of the general public or basing my decision on what a pediatrician suggests (because they’re all on the fence too). And it’s certainly not about being swayed by a form sent home in my son’s backpack. But it is about the bigger picture—my bigger picture, and the fact that all I really have to do to make the right decision is believe in it.

My son is a dreamer; deal with it

November 21, 2008

 

My boys’ conferences were yesterday and I was already preparing for a hard time from Dani’s teacher. It’s not that I dislike her. It’s that she just doesn’t  understand that her job is not about creating perfect kids, it’s about teaching. 

Dani will not conform. He plays around, is easily distracted, draws cartoon characters all day long, never knows where he is in the lesson, and can’t sit still. Classic A.D.D if you ask me. But it’s more than that and I think that this is where schools go terribly wrong. If the kid isn’t society’s definition of PERFECT, then he needs a label. A new label. He needs to be redefined to fit another perfect model. The perfect model of A.D.D. perhaps, or worse. Schools are horrible proponents of stripping children of their identities so that they may be taught in a specific way. And if they cannot be taught, they then become candidates for “behavioral modification” or drugs. 

So she says to me, as if I didn’t already know, “Dani’s not stupid, y’know. He’s very bright. He just doesn’t pay attention.” And if he paid attention, he’d be perfect. Right? And you’re job would be a hell of a lot easier.

So, I say to her, “from the time we had our last conference, I have reinstated the math tutor, I have reprimanded him, taken away the computer and all other electronics, I have hugged him when he gets an A, and sat with him nightly over homework to help fend off the Ds and Fs. I have preached the importance of paying attention and getting good grades and have admonished him for telling “lies” and trying to avoid work. On your part, you have made sure he takes all the right books home and you’ve gotten on him for not following along in class. I agree. He can be lazy. He is scatter-brained and he doesn’t have the capacity to remember what you asked of him two seconds ago. 

“But let me ask you, after all that effort on our parts to make him a better student and he is STILL the same, what then is the lesson here? Is it that WE are to blame for not getting on him enough? Is it that HE is to blame for being so lazy and not paying attention to US? Or is it something else? Might it be that no matter what, he is simply Dani and that it is his nature to not conform to our way of doing things? There’s only so much effort you can put into forcing the left-hander to write with his right hand.”

She wasn’t convinced. 

I told her about randomness and the theory written up in Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives. How the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, lectured to a group of pilots, years ago, on positive reinforcement and how it is supposedly applied to making better students. He initially said that positive reinforcement causes people to achieve and become better at certain tasks, but negative reinforcement does not. But when Kahneman mentioned this during the lecture some of the flight instructors said that it wasn’t true and contradicted their experience.

“‘I often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. ‘And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers and by and large the next time they improve.”

Kahneman took this contradiction and realized that it was, indeed, true. That the reason for it could be attributed to something known as “regression toward the mean.” That is, “in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely by chance, by a more ordinary one.” When we reinforce a good behavior or reprimand a bad one, it appears that our criticism or reinforcement is causing the behavior of the student to change. But in actuality, it is not. The student exhibits his own level of experience and knowledge at the rate he, personally, has the capacity to or, in my son’s case, the willingness. Of course, positive versus negative reinforcement will have an effect on the student’s emotional well-being, but not his ability to perform tasks or skills. 

 

In Dani’s defense, he is simply a Dreamer.  He’s dreaming up fight scenes, and animation moves, and traveling to Japan to save the kingdom. Obviously inappropriate behavior during class. And quite frankly, it bothers the hell out of me when I ask him to clean up his room or do the dishes only to have to remind him a MILLION times. And don’t think I don’t feel pain for him that he can’t understand how to divide fractions. But on the flip side, he is creating amazing things. He has self-taught himself a computer animation program and is making actual cartoons. His vision, skill and love of drawing is amazing. And his stories of adventure are characteristic of a soon-to-be writer or artist. 

What’s more, he has a huge capacity to learn. When he wants. He’s merely opposed to it as it is offered in this particular setting. 

He is ten years old. He is beautiful inside and out. He is creative. He is a dreamer.  And in my book, he is allowed to be all those things. I understand that schools must set a standard of behavior so that teaching and learning can occur. And I do understand that if Dani wants to go on to college some day or get along in the world, he will eventually have to play by others’ rules. But any teacher that is going to tell me that “he’s not stupid” as part of her description of him, is not someone with any sensitivity or knowledge as to who children are and what they’re all about, inherently.

Perhaps, I am just a disgruntled mother.

I secretly wanted to say, “Well, Mrs. M., it’s not that you’re stupid, but I just don’t think you’re cut out for this job.”