Happy Parents, Happy Kids

Perhaps one of the fastest ways to pick a fight with a stranger is to comment on their parenting style. Around the country, let alone around the world, each culture or region is convinced only their way is right. Yet, American education has been in decline for years, currently ranking 27th in the world.  On the world happiness index, the US only ranks 18th. How do we, as parents, raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted and productive children? Let’s take a look at a few approaches to child-rearing from beyond our shores…

Strict Helicopter

Parenting books number nearly as high as the number of parents, but several have made headlines. At one end is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.  China, with more than a billion people vying for jobs, education, and housing, is perhaps the most cut-throat parenting system of all: children seen with potential are removed from homes as young as three, and raised by the state to become champion athletes, mathematicians, scientists. Parents are relentless in ensuring their child’s excellence, demanding study or practice eighteen or more hours a day in a method most Americans would label sheer abuse. Imagine the pressure on an entire class where being #2 is not an option. Chua has no qualms about pushing her daughters into being virtuosos and Ivy League scholars.

Don’t Bug Me, Kid

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman focuses on the ways the French raise their 

children. “The result of raising children French style, Druckerman writes, is “a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters and reasonably relaxed parents.””  French parents have a me-first attitude – if the baby won’t sleep through the night by four months, let him cry. They don’t like to breastfeed, because it interferes with intimacy. They don’t speak to their infants in baby talk, treat patience and waiting as the highest virtue after social manners, and feed their infants table food, resulting in children who like to eat normal food. Are French children perfect? Bien sȗr, non, but they seem to have far fewer struggles than Americans.

One Big Happy

The Danish Way of Parenting, by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl may just have a little more power behind it. The Danes often score #1 on the list of Happiest Country in the World. They have high taxes, but they get free education, healthcare, paid maternity leave, and more – those things that are crushing us. To discuss Denmark (and many of the Scandinavian countries), one has to first understand the concept of Hygge, which rules everything the Danish do: Hygge (pronounced hue-guh or hoo-guh) is that warm, huggy feeling of comfort you get when you’re doing something with your family: sitting by the fire drinking cocoa, playing a board game, or maybe decorating cookies together, in one of those commercial-like scenarios where everyone is happy and the kids aren’t fighting and the dog isn’t chewing the game pieces – except, in Denmark, this is actually reality. It’s the land where Norman Rockwell must have taken notes.

The Danes rear their children with this mindset, which transforms them into happy adults. In (very) short:

  1. Don’t overpraise. Find something specific and praise that one thing instead. “What a nice, straight line!” Encourage growth; don’t let your child think s/he’s perfect.
  2. Let your child play. Play. With sticks, rocks, toys, not electronics. Play builds thinking skills, motor skills, social skills, and spatial relations a child needs for education.
  3. Promote togetherness. Family game nights, dinner, movies, puzzles, walks or sports or just playing in the park. Do it together, or with friends. This promotes strong social ties and models appropriate behavior. 40% of American families eat dinner together less than three times a week – 10% never do.
  4. Reframe negative thinking. Dwell on good things, not bad. If your child says they hate school, remind them of the things they do like.
  5. Practice empathy and compassion. Talk about emotions, and help your child learn to recognize them in themselves and others. Compassion for people and animals makes for a caring society.
  6. Let children figure things out for themselves. Don’t hover. Let preschoolers settle their own squabbles (within reason. If Agatha is beating Bjorn with a shovel, you might want to step in). 

There are no absolutes to child rearing. Some children are just darling; others seem to come out of the womb looking for trouble. But in a time when Americans are fracturing at the seams from stress, when schools are failing, children are parenting themselves, and society itself seems to be tearing apart, perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere for advice. Considering the Danes were terrorized by two World Wars and are still the happiest people on Earth, maybe we should listen.

Also try:

        

 

50 Years of Apollo

On July 21, it will be FIFTY years since mankind first walked on the Moon.

Although the Russians – with superior rocket power – managed to get not only the first satellite in space, but the first man in orbit, first woman in orbit, and smash the first man-made object into the moon, it wasn’t until May of 1961 when President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech, challenging America that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

United for the Cause

Perhaps no other statement since Roosevelt’s “Date which will live in infamy…” speech has done more to stir an entire nation in a single united direction. Congress allotted funding. The infant technology industry ramped up. Mylar was invented. Velcro found a use. Manufacturing learned to miniaturize (in a time of bulky tubes and transistors, when each reel of magnetic computer tape could hold a whopping 184 Kilobytes of memory [for reference, an MP3 recording of the Star Spangled Banner runs around 900 Kb – half your memory]). The entire country surged forward with that dream, no doubt spurred on as an homage to Kennedy following his assassination. TV picked up the dream with serious and non-serious programs like Star Trek, Lost in Space, Dr. Who, and more. Movies gave way to huge spectacles, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and a few thousand campy pulp films. Food wasn’t left out: the need to eat in space gave us the use of TANG, dehydrated ice cream, and Pillsbury Space Food Sticks.

The Final Frontier

The road to the moon was littered with failures – we didn’t even manage to smash a probe onto the moon until 1962. We made it through the Gemini program, only to learn that some things couldn’t be rushed or corners cut when the Apollo 1 crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – burned to death in an oxygen fire in a test module, because the pressurized doors opened the wrong way. This led to a pause – there was no Apollo 2 or 3, and 4-5-6 were all unmanned. If ever there was a lot of pressure on a crew, Apollo 7 was the first 3-manned crew to blast off Earth, period. Missions 8-10 looped the moon, giving us the famous Earthrise photo.

Apollo 11 pulled it all together. With less computer capability than an Apple watch, the lunar lander settled on the moon,  Armstrong sent out the famous words, “The Eagle has landed,” followed shortly by Armstrong’s historic “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” At the end of an incredibly violent, divisive, depressing decade, the entire world came together for a few brief moments to rejoice.

Fifty years later, we sit back on our Tempur-pedic cushions with our cell phones, tablets, LED lights, and flat-screen TVs, watching through scratch-proof lenses or LASIK-fixed eyes (all outgrowths of the space program),  and marvel at a time when space exploration was our future.

Deniers

How do we know it wasn’t faked? Like everywhere Man goes, we left our garbage behind – landing modules, rovers, flags and plaques – more than 400,000 pounds worth, and though they can’t be seen by any telescope on Earth (you’re talking a 10-foot object from 239,000 miles away), they can by orbital satellites around the Moon.  The path to space is far too complex for a blog post, so grab a good book, watch a good film (join us for a viewing of the documentary Apollo 11 at CPL on July 18), and think on just how different our lives would be if we never tried to reach for the Moon.

             

                       

                           

Inconceivable! An Interview with Wallace Shawn

Legend has it “It” girl Lana Turner was “discovered” at a soda counter in 1937. Outside of perhaps Hedy Lamar, who invented some heavy military tech in WWII, most of the actors in the “glory days” of Hollywood were not known for smarts but for looking glamorous. Hollywood was the way for good-looking people from the back fields of America to break free and become wealthy and “cultured.” They had to speak well, dress well, stay thin, know their lines and marks, and obey the studio.

Times have changed. While good looks are nice, there are plenty of successful actors who have never been considered heart-throbs (Steve Buscemi, Clint Howard, Vincent Schiavelli, Mike Smith, Linda Hunt, etc). Hollywood may have its mega-cash flow (A-listers make $15-20 million per film; Dwayne Johnson had 9 films 2016-2018), but many stars aren’t afraid to flaunt their smarts and get that college degree, knowing how fickle the acting business is. Jodie Foster has a degree from Yale, Natalie Portman from Harvard, Emma Watson from Brown, Mayim Balik has a PhD in Neuroscience, Gerard Butler a law degree, James Franco is finishing a PhD from Yale, and more.

Smart AND Talented

Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting actor Wallace Shawn, listening to him speak and interviewing him briefly. Never heard of him? I’ll bet you have. Perhaps most famously he is known for the Inconceivable role of Vizzini in the cult classic, The Princess Bride. Currently, he plays the Professor on the TV show Young Sheldon. He’s had roles in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, Bojack Horseman, and if you had children any time in the last 20 years, he’s the voice of Rex in Toy Story. You might not know his name, but you probably do know his face and voice.

And what an interesting man he is!  Soft spoken and humble, he loves to chat, and was charmed by all the happy faces he met. Shawn graduated from no less than Harvard, with a degree in history and the hope of becoming a diplomat – so far as spending a year in India teaching English. Acting was never on his radar – in fact, he was known far more for being a playwright, with such well-received plays as Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Marie and Bruce, My Dinner with Andre, A Master Builder, and Evening at the Talk House. His acting career came about due to a friendship with play director Andre Gregory, with whom he collaborated on the semi-autobiographical My Dinner with Andre, and he’s never stopped working since.

He’s also published books of essays, including one titled simply Essays, and his 2017 collection entitled Night Thoughts, which he admits is a bit political. Although biographies will give more clues to his opinions, in person Wallace treads a neutral line, doesn’t give many clues as to his feelings, and tries to keep many of his opinions private. Originally he considered writing to be selfish and self-indulgent, but then realized it was a satisfying creative outlet.

Heavy Reader

photo: Dawn Swingle

So what does a highly educated actor and playwright like to read? What authors does he favor? Wallace preferred to side-step the question a bit, citing that he likes to keep those things private. In the past, his favorite book was The Idiot by Dostoevsky, because it contained just about everything you could ever want to know about the human condition – not the kind of answer I expected, far heavier than I would have imagined. He admitted to liking Japanese literature, including Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami. The man is far deeper, and a deeper thinker, than I ever would have imagined.

Time with Wallace Shawn is like spending time with a favorite uncle who comes to Sunday dinner. While his movie and television roles may portray him otherwise, he’s sweet, personable, and down to earth. He admires Woody Allen, spent much time with him, and does not believe the accusations against him. His environmentalism showed when asked what he would have liked to have told his younger self, and he remarked he never realized “when he was young that the most destructive animal on Earth was ourselves, that what we put into our cars would destroy everything not only locally, but globally, that butterflies and bees would be dying, and only a handful of people would even care about it.”

Wallace Shawn: actor, voice actor, playwright, author. If you can’t catch one of his plays, check out his movies and TV shows. Truly, a man who is much greater than the sum of his roles!

  

Planting Your Garden

Spring is here! As we put those tender seedlings into the ground, up sprouts the constant question: should I go Organic, or should I show up my neighbors by using Miracle Grow? Will I poison my children if I use it on my tomatoes? Is my neighbor’s cancer due to Round Up™, and did it blow over into my yard? If a lawncare company treated my grass, are my grass clippings poisoning my compost?

So many questions for such a busy season!

“Organic” is a shady term to start with. We think of hippies and happy sheep, and fields strewn with mulch and recycled orange peels, when in reality it just means the land cannot have been treated with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers (including Miracle Grow), or GMOs for three years. Sounds nice, right? Except that two of the three companies licensed by the USDA to certify organic farms are for-profit (Oregon Tilth is not). The farmer wanting to be certified pays the company to license them. That’s like paying a teacher to give you a grade. The problem is worse overseas: 100 countries export “organic” produce to the USA, and though they are supposed to abide by US law, the countries inspect and license their own. And let’s not forget that a good percentage of “organic fertilizer” in many countries is human in origin.  (The E. coli that keeps poisoning lettuce is usually animal in origin).

Won’t chemical fertilizers like Miracle Grow poison me? No. Plants don’t care where the nutrients come from, horse manure or a green and yellow box. Plants use them the same way. The issues with Miracle Grow are 1) the concentration of ammonium phosphate may be too high for some plants. MG makes different formulas for roses, tomatoes, azaleas, etc. Choose the one you need. 2) The greatest issue for chemical fertilizers is that heavy rains can wash a recent fertilizing away. If twelve homes get washout, and it flows into the brook behind them, too high a concentration in water systems can cause algal blooms that suck up oxygen and kill wildlife.

Okay, but what about Round Up™? If I kill the dandelions in my walk, won’t I die?

Uh, that’s a loaded question. Yes, more than 14 countries have banned Round Up (chemical: glyphosate), and while the courts have said yes, Round Up causes cancer, the US maintains it does not. And there’s the difference: In Europe, you must prove a chemical is safe before it hits the market, and that’s hard to do. In the US, chemicals are presumed innocent and you must prove they’re harmful – which is really easy to sidestep even with math and science. In America, it is up to the manufacturer to show their product is harmful, not the government (Got that? The man making and marketing the product must show that what he’s selling is harmful.) When the people with highest exposure to Round Up were studied (ie, farm workers), they had a 41% higher risk of a type of cancer called Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. People with heavy, frequent exposure over time. NO risk was found in people who go outside three times a year and spritz a weed. If you want to use it, do so sparingly, wear rubber gloves, and wash with soap immediately after, and whatever you do, don’t inhale it. 

But if those chemicals wind up in my compost bin, won’t they pollute my compost? Mm, depends. According to John Reganold, Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University, “The heat and microbial action of most compost piles break down many produce pesticides.” So don’t feel bad throwing that non-organic banana peel in the pile. BUT: some pesticides (like clopyralid – Reclaim) can become concentrated. Things like termiticides bind to the soil and last a long time.  And even treated and composted animal/human waste can still contain parasites. If in doubt, buy local, where you can ask what might have been sprayed on the food.

But rest easy: Miracle Grow has never been shown to cause cancers.

So, is organic worth it? Depends on what you’re willing to pay. The most chemical-contaminated foods in the grocery store are strawberries, peaches (more than 57 pesticides on one sample), celery, lettuce and greens (and that’s not counting the E. coli risk), and most other fruit. If you want to reduce your pesticide ingestion, consider buying organic just for fruits (or grow your own), and wash, wash, wash what you do bring home.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are about the best thing there is for your body, and growing your own, organic or not, is a fun (and tasty) experiment anyone can do anywhere. Try growing some popcorn, or a yellow or brown or purple heirloom tomato. Pole beans are great for kids, because they grow incredibly fast and are very prolific, as are grape tomatoes (so why are they so expensive?).

No matter which method you use, read further on gardening in these topical books:

Starter Vegetable Gardens : 24 no-fail plans for small organic gardens by Barbara Pleasant

Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

101 Organic Gardening Hacks : eco-friendly solutions to improve any garden by Shawna Coronado

Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, edited by Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W. Ellis

Organic Gardening for Dummies / by Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn,

The Organic Lawn Care Manual  by Paul Tukey

Vegetable Gardening : from planting to picking by Fern Marshall Bradley, Jane Courtier

High-Yield Vegetable Gardening : grow more of what you want in the space you have by  Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Northeast Fruit & Vegetable Gardening : plant, grow, and eat the best edibles for Northeast gardens by Charles Nardozzi

The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible by Edward C. Smith

 

The Spectre of Gender Inequality in Children’s Books

Someone posted a video online, and it made me steam.

A mother and daughter protest the lack of female leads in children’s literature by removing books to underscore various statistics, until few are left.

And my head exploded.

Anyone can cherry-pick books to fit any given criteria. AND it devalues wonderful books for no reason but gender (anyone scarred by not reading Harriet Potter? Or Curious Georgette?). The facts felt skewed, I HAD to investigate this.

The video, and most relevant articles, stem from a single study by Janice McCabe in the sociology journal Journal of Gender and Society (2011) which studied 5600 US children’s titles from the 20th century and found that males are twice as likely as females in titles, and 1.5 times more common as central characters. Among animal characters, only 7.5% of titles had female lead characters. They also found that in periods of high feminism (60’s, 70’s) this gap lessened, as opposed to low periods of feminism (40’s, 50’s).  Of 69 Caldecott award winners since 2000, just four have female animals. 25% of sampled titles had NO female characters. In children’s media, less than 20% showed women with a job, vs. 80% of men. Even when characters were neutral – an unnamed bear, a building, a car – parents tended to call the character-object male. In many books that do include females, they are a token character – who really cares about Kanga in Winnie the Pooh? Who cares about Wendy, when it’s the Island of Lost Boys? (Disney is hardest on girls, even when they’re the lead).

We Like Kindergarten - a Little Golden BookSo what does that mean? Are books working against girls? Do we perpetuate female stereotypes and patriarchal archetypes starting with early board books? Do we as parents set our children up for failure by gender-typing from an infant’s earliest days?

Yes and no. The first thing to remember is that video WAS AN ADVERTISEMENT. It’s intentionally made to sell a book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It’s SUPPOSED to make you angry so you will buy their product, or from similar publishers of inclusive stories like Zubaan Virago, and A Mighty Girl, which highlights books for girls. But the actual facts are a lot more complicated:

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky1) The original study was small. It didn’t look at Newbery winners, or Pura Belpre winners, or Coretta Scott King winners. They picked 5,000 books from a century of literature – when 22,000 children’s books were published in the US in 2009 alone! Every report on the subject admits greater research needs to be done.

2) Language. English has just two pronoun genders to refer to living things – Little Blue Truck by Alice SchertleHe and She. If you do not know the sex of the duck, the bear, the cat,  you automatically assign one (and somehow dogs are always male and cats are  female). Inanimate objects (despite what you named your car) are referred to as It. But It doesn’t work when the It is a character (ie, The Little Engine That Could, or Little Blue Truck). We don’t speak that way (though we try with an incorrect singular Their). Other languages have gender-neutral pronouns; English doesn’t, and He has been our default pronoun for centuries.

3) Reading abilities World wide, the reading ability scores of girls surpass those of boys. Doesn’t matter if it’s Africa, the US, China, or Finland, the star of world literacy. Adjust for gender, and Finnish girls lead the world in reading, not Finnish boys. It’s harder to get boys to read, and harder to keep them reading. Around the world, boys slowly stop reading for pleasure by 11-13 (in general). When you switch to older (12-18) readers, female protagonists shoot up to 65%. Even in intermediate readers (9-12), boys drop to 48% of lead characters. Now we’ve opened up a separate can of worms as to whether books are being geared toward boys to attempt to keep them reading, or assuming boys won’t read and letting girls win.

Absolutely One Thing (featuring Charlie and Lola) by Lauren Child4)  Publishers. In the end, it’s the publishers who release titles and illustrations. As Lauren Child (of Charlie and Lola) states: “…If you write a book that has a lead character that is a girl, publishers want you to slightly ‘girlify’ it, to make it ‘look more like a girl’s’ book.”

5) Quality vs. quantity. “… Are the central female characters empowered or do they reproduce stereotypes? Is there conflicting subtext – are the females punished or rewarded for their actions?” Joan of Arc may be a famous teen who did amazing things, but she was burned alive for it.  Not inspirational to all.

In a quick check of CPL’s shelves, I randomly pulled 112 picture booksThe First Step : How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman (no title peeking). Of 52 with people, 21 had male leads, 23 had female leads, and 8 had both. Of animal/objects, 22 were ‘male’, 9 were ‘female’, and 19 were neutral – somewhat more balanced. In the end, yes, books may be skewed toward male characters – for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t make them bad books. You can find just as much to be admired in Hermione Granger or Luna Lovegood or Molly Weasley as Harry Potter. Books on strong girls are out there, in increasing numbers, and the more women are politically empowered, the more books there are. Don’t buy into one misleading advertisement, but look around. Ask your library if they have a certain book. Ask a publisher if they’re planning on anything in a specific category.   Still want books with lead girls? Check out these timeless classics for children,  teens, and more:

Pippi LongstockingJunie B. Jones is a Beauty Shop Guy by Barbara Park

Madeline

Junie B. Jones

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games 

Divergent

Maisy

Little House on the Prairie series

OliviaEloise by Kay Thompson

Eloise

Matilda

Coraline

The Golden Compass by Philip PullmanIvy and Bean

The Golden Compass

Matched

Mandy

Ella Enchnted by Gail Carson LevineElla Enchanted

Cinder

Beka Cooper series

Blueberries for Sal