Alpha Mom » Alice Bradley parenting and pregnancy opinions and information Thu, 13 Aug 2015 17:13:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Should we all lighten up about Barbie? Fri, 16 Jan 2009 10:45:20 +0000

By Alice Bradley
Photo by Picklepud
Recently in Babble, there was a Smackdown on the topic of Barbie: Yay or Nay? Both writers ended up on the same side, which made the Smackdown decidedly… un-smackdowny. No one was smacked down, in other words. There was no smacking. Down. Jeanne Sager and Mike Adamick both gave Barbie, in the end, a reluctant yay. Actually, more like an naaaa-okay.
Like most of us modern feminist liberal parents, Jeanne Sager never expected to buy her daughter a Barbie. And she didn’t. But then her daughter received one as a gift—and fell in love. ” I didn’t even know she knew who Barbie was,” Sager writes. But she did, and she knew it was something to covet.
So her daughter showed a moderate level of interest in Barbie, undressing her and dressing her over and over. Eventually she moved on to other toys. And in the end, what happened to her daughter? Nothing. “It’s a doll,” observes Sager. Just a doll that doesn’t have any more hold over her daughter’s psyche than her other toys. “She seems no more attuned to her own body after playing with a Barbie, no more obsessed with hair, clothes, make-up or weight.”
Mike Adamick’s daughter also received a Barbie for Christmas, much to his consternation. He worried that Barbie was a less than exemplary role model for a girl’s evolving notion of herself. He knew of a young girl who wanted to diet, to be more like her Barbie. “Some young girls see Barbie, want her body and then destroy their own. After all, isn’t Barbie a model for the perfect female?”
But then he, too, found that Barbie didn’t have much of an impact on his kid. Eventually, he realized there’s a lot more that influences a girl (or a boy) than just a single toy. “It dawned on me,” observed Adamick, “that I, her father, probably have a lot more sway over how she will one day view herself and her body than some stupid doll.” So it turned out that Barbie wasn’t the evil soul-killing machine out to destroy their daughters’ fragile self-identities—she was just a doll. A doll with exceedingly weird proportions, sure. But at least she wasn’t a Bratz. Those are insane.
I’m interested to hear what you guys think about Barbies. I don’t have a daughter, but I was a girl—a girl besotted with the world of Barbie. I had the Barbie Dream Boat and the Barbie Airplane and the Barbie Corvette. I had an entire tiny Barbie wardrobe filled with numerous Barbie outfits. I can still remember picking out those tiny get-ups in the toy store, with their eensy shoes. I just salivated a little. Over tiny plastic shoes.
I don’t ever remember feeling that I had to look like Barbie. I didn’t gaze into Barbie’s face and dream of someday being that beautiful. Barbie didn’t really do it for me, looks-wise. I was more into the Barbie accoutrements than the doll itself. First of all, she had feet that left her permanently on tippy-toe, the better to fit her high heels onto. Her hair was way too big for my tastes. And she didn’t even have nipples. Barbie was a blank slate, waiting to be clothed and sent off on an adventure. Barbie often interacted with the Hulk and the Green Lantern or visited my doll house, where she walked amongst all the stubby doll house figures like some benign, mute super model. Barbie was part of a much larger imaginary world, for me.
I have plenty of friends who were forbidden Barbie, and if you were to look at us all together, I don’t think you would pick out the Barbie owner among us. I don’t wear heels. I am unlikely to dress as a flight attendant. My hair is not bleached blonde. I have never suffered an eating disorder. I don’t think Barbie inflicted any lasting damage.
But Barbie today is different from the Barbie I grew up with. I couldn’t help but notice, on a recent visit to Target, that the Barbie wardrobe had taken a definite turn for the, well, trashy. I might feel less comfortable purchasing a Barbie for my daughter if it meant that she would parade around my house in fishnet stockings, a yellow mini, and a silver tube top. I don’t know what the current Barbie accessories are, so if they’ve moved away from vehicles and toward, say, princess castles, I would be less than happy. This is where I defer to the current parents of daughters. What’s your stance on Barbie? What have your experiences been? Is Barbie dangerous, or benign?


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Parenting resolutions for 2009: what are yours? Fri, 02 Jan 2009 12:11:24 +0000

I’m not usually big on New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’m coming up with a few. It seems like a good idea to step back, look at how this last year has gone, and focus my attention on making some changes. What better place to start than with some of my less-than-exemplary parenting habits?
And I was thinking about them—really, I was—when I saw that already came up with 50 resolutions for me. Before I even glanced at them, though, I resolved to come up with my own. New resolution for 2009: Do my own thinking first. (I just made that up, right now.)
So, without further ado, here are my Parenting Resolutions for 2009:
Maintain a unified front. Henry has become extraordinarily adept at playing Scott and me off each other. Usually this occurs when I disagree, either loudly or with violent eye-rolling, with some parenting decision of Scott’s. This year, however, I will maintain a dignified and solemn appearance no matter how much I disagree with my husband’s pronouncements. (And I only mean in front of the kid. When he’s not around, readers, al bets are off.)
Teach more, do less. It’s easy to do everything for Henry: get his breakfast ready, tie his shoelaces, spell “poop.” This year, I’m going to focus on teaching him how to do all these things and more on his own. It takes more time and energy, but that’s the point.
Let him make mistakes. Alternately, let him do things his own weird, idiosyncratic way. So when he decides he wants to warm up his Cheerios and milk in the microwave , I’ll let him try it out. He might think it’s gross, but on the other hand, he might be proud of his new (disgusting and soggy) breakfast invention. There’s nothing wrong with Hot Cheerios, as long as I don’t have to watch him eat it.
Model frustration management. Like most six-year-olds, Henry’s not especially adept at handling frustration, and like a few adults, neither am I. This year I’m going to take any opportunity I can find to model maturity and composure in the face of frustration. So when we’re running late for school and I can’t find my damn keys, I might take a minute to talk through where I saw them last, instead of, say, cursing and stamping my feet. Not that I ever do that. Ahem.
More celebration. More using the fancy china for mac ‘n’ cheese. More toasting of Wednesdays. More board-game marathons. More sit-down afternoon teas. More birthday parties for his favorite bear. Not every day can be special, but more of them should be.
So those are mine.

And here are my favorites from
Teach kids this bravery trick. Tell them to always notice the color of a person’s eyes. Making eye contact will help a hesitant child appear more confident and will help any kid to be more assertive and less likely to be picked on.
Show your child how to become a responsible citizen. Find ways to help others all year. Kids gain a sense of self-worth by volunteering in the community.
Give yourself a break. Hitting the drive-through when you’re too tired to cook doesn’t make you a bad parent.

Of all of these, giving myself a break might be the hardest resolution to follow, but the most important one in the long run.
So, readers, what do you think? What are your resolutions for 2009?


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Is bribing your child ever a good idea? Fri, 26 Dec 2008 08:59:30 +0000

By Alice Bradley
Another parent at Henry’s school approached me last week with an invitation. Her son Nicolas, Henry’s classmate, would turn 6 the day after Christmas. They had just moved here from Colombia, where they always threw lavish birthday parties that involved the entire neighborhood. Now they only had a handful of friends, she told me, and she didn’t want to have a sad little party for him; it would mean a lot to her if all of Nicolas’s classmates could come. Was Henry available?
Well, with a story like that, how could I say no? And to be honest I didn’t think anything of it. Nicolas is a sweet kid, and he and Henry often played together in the playground. Of course he’d want to go! Right?
Wrong. Shortly after I happily accepted the invitation on Henry’s behalf, I told Henry, and he flipped out. He would never go to Nicolas’s party. Nothing would make him go.
I figured he was just in a bad mood, and I dropped the subject. Surely he’d change his mind. I mean, he’s friends with this kid. What was the problem?
But every time I brought it up—all casual-like, to see if his attitude had shifted—his response was the same. No birthday party, no way. Tears generally ensued.
So today, I cheerfully announced that we’d be going to the party in a couple of hours, and once again, out came the tears and the refusal. I told him the story about how lonely Nicolas was in his new country, but Henry wouldn’t be swayed. For whatever reason, this party was the worst idea ever and there was no way he would go. I told him that going was the right thing to do. How would he feel if no one came to his party? “I WOULD FEEL FINE,” Henry yelled. Appealing to his sense of compassion was going nowhere.
I even tried guilt. I told him I would be disappointed if he refused to go. Let’s just say that he decided that he would live with my disappointment.
What else could I do? For any other kind of obligation—doctor’s appointments, errands—I would just wield my mighty parental authority and tell him he didn’t have much of a choice. But dragging an unhappy kid to a party isn’t doing anyone any favors—least of all the birthday boy. Who wants the King of all Party Poopers dampening the cake with his pitiful sobbing?
So I consulted my sister, who has two grown children who are remarkably well-adjusted. “Bribe him,” she told me. “That’s what I would have done.”
I’m not a big fan of bribery. No one wants the kid whose response to any request is, “What’s in it for me?” We don’t employ a reward system for good behavior; there’s no star chart on the refrigerator; Henry doesn’t get a dollar for every homework assignment he finishes. For most chores or obligations, his pride in his work is reward enough.
On the other hand, I was basically asking him for a favor. This wasn’t something that had to be done; this was a nice thing to do for someone else, and if he did it, was there harm in doing something nice for him in return? And besides, I rationalized, bribery’s such a rare occurrence around these parts that this exception wouldn’t exactly turn him into a greedy monster.
So I did it, Internet. “Look,” I said to him, “I know you really don’t want to go, so how about we do something nice afterward? We could go out for hot chocolate.”
He wiped his tears. “How about ice cream?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. “Ice cream it is.” And so it was agreed.
I’m still not feeling 100% great about this. He could go to this party and refuse to interact with anyone, demand that we leave after fifteen minutes, and then argue that he deserves his ice cream because we never said he had to stay or be nice. On the other hand, he might realize when he’s there that doing the right thing wasn’t so bad after all, that it was fun to see his classmates and that being nice can be its own reward. (In addition to, uh, the ice cream.) Not to mention, it’s not easy to be torn away from your presents on the day after Christmas—that sacred time when you’re supposed to stay in your pajamas all day and only have your play interrupted with meals and the occasional bathroom break. So why not a little ice cream to make his sacrifice that much easier?
What would you have done, dear readers? Have you ever employed bribery, or do you think it’s setting a dangerous precedent?


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Prop 8: Where do you stand? Fri, 24 Oct 2008 08:45:00 +0000

Remember June 17, 2008? That’s when gay marriage was made legal in California, and thousands of gay couples were finally allowed equality under the law. Now, a little more than three months later, there’s an initiative on the election ballot called Proposition 8. Proposition 8 will take away the right of same-sex couples to marry.
California has long been a vanguard of social equality; In 1948, it became the first state to allow interracial marriage. The State Supreme Court concluded that ” the right to marry is the right to join in marriage with the person of one’s choice.” In fact, it was the only state to grant interracial marriages, until the United States Supreme Court made interracial marriage legal in all states in 1967. I’m sure there were many people, at the time, who thought that marriage between a white person and a person of color somehow threatened to destroy the sanctity of marriage. But nonetheless, the law was passed, and marriage as an institution was not affected.
It would probably seem outrageous to most of us that interracial marriages were ever illegal. So why is allowing same-sex marriage still so hard for some people to swallow?
People argue that marriage is a sacrament, and the Church doesn’t recognize same-sex union, therefore these unions can’t be given that kind of sacrament. But the state is not qualified to issue a sacrament. What they can give is a license. If you want to argue that gay marriage is unholy, go right ahead; if you want to disallow same-sex unions in your church, you have that right. I got married in front of a judge, so my marriage is pretty unholy as well. If we’re going to declare that marriage is a sacrament, than what is granted by the state should be called a civil union, no matter who you’re marrying. A marriage granted by the state accords the married couple, beyond the legal rights, a solemn and unquestionable recognition of their union, and if the state recognizes the equality of all people, than all people should be granted the right to marry whomever they choose.
The Prop 8 proponents are misleading the voting public with their ads, claiming that churches could be negatively affected and schools forced to teach students about same-sex unions. I’m not sure what the problem with teaching kids about same-sex unions is—you’d think most kids, by the time they’re in school, would have some inkling that some couples are a man and a woman and others are the same sex—but either way, there’s no truth to this argument. California law expressly prohibits teaching anything to kids that conflicts with their family’s beliefs.
So by now you’ve probably deduced that if I lived in California, I’d vote no on Prop 8. (Because I don’t, I’m just going to contribute to the cause.) What about you, readers? How would (or will) you vote, and why? Please keep the conversation respectful of others, as always.


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Kids and weight issues: what can we do? Fri, 12 Sep 2008 09:19:50 +0000

Despite the fact that Henry eats only American cheese and yogurt, his weight remains average—neither too high nor too low. This is actually kind of amazing considering how much yogurt he can consume in one sitting, and how much he prefers playing with Legos to, say, moving. My friend Jennifer’s daughter, on the other hand, has similar food issues, and her weight, according to her pediatrician, is too high. With a BMI in the overweight range, she’s at risk for future obesity and all the health problems that accompany the condition—not to mention the social stigma of being overweight. Jennifer doesn’t know what to do. Unlike Henry, her daughter is already quite active; besides all the hours she spends in the playground, she’s usually enrolled in either a dance or a gym class. The only other piece of the puzzle is her diet, but that’s already a thorny issue. Is it a good idea to tell her daughter to watch what she eats—especially when she already eats so little?
Picky eaters are hardly the only kids facing weight issues these days. More children are dealing with weight problems, and they’re dealing with them at younger and younger ages. 14% of children ages 2-5 are overweight—a percentage that has doubled over the last two decades. More children over the age of 5 are dealing with what were once believed to be adult consequences of obesity, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. One ailment increasingly being seen in children is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a life-threatening ailment that can lead to liver failure or cancer. Only a couple of decades ago the disease was almost never seen in children; fatty liver disease was associated with alcoholism almost exclusively, to the point where patients who claimed not to drink were assumed to be in denial. It’s predicted that by 2020, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease will be the number one cause of liver transplants.
But why are so many children obese? A recent study has linked childhood obesity with prenatal exposure to pesticides. The study measured umbilical-cord levels of hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a fungicide, and found that those babies who had the highest levels of HCB were more than twice as likely to suffer from obesity later in their childhood. This research is fairly preliminary, however, and doesn’t take other factors, such as activity level, into account.
Speaking of activity levels, yet another study concluded that children typically get much less exercise than parents think. Parents who were questioned on their children’s exercise habits estimated that they were active for over two hours a day, but the real number was somewhere around twenty minutes. It’s not hard to see how our perception of our kid’s activity levels can differ from reality; after all, we don’t know how active they are at school, and they certainly wear us out.
Diet, of course, plays a huge role. But many parents simply don’t know enough or don’t have the resources to provide their children with enough nutritious, low-fat choices. (And school lunches are not, typically, the most stellar culinary offerings.) And if you emphasize diet and weight control with your young child, are you risking creating an eating disorder? This is the concern of some nutritionists, who believe that overemphasizing weight loss with your child is a mistake.
All of which leaves parents, more or less, at a loss as to what to do. The advice experts give is the standard stuff: make sure your children get plenty of exercise and encourage them to eat right. Easier said than done, and with most parents working full-time, it’s hard to keep track of what your kids are eating and how active they are.
So, my readers: what’s your take on childhood weight gain? Do you face this problem with your children, and if so, how are you dealing with it?


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The picky eater: how do you deal? Fri, 05 Sep 2008 09:03:52 +0000

People often ask me what Henry’s eating these days, and in response I typically let out a series of high-pitched shrieks. Because oh, my friends. Oh, dear. It’s not good.

This is a topic I have avoided bringing up because it tends to elicit strong opinions. Either I’m a helicopter parent for fretting overly about my son’s dairy-only diet, or I’m guilty of near-criminal neglect for not shoveling more nutrients into him, or I’m too indulgent for failing to take away the few foods he will eat and force him to consume the foods he won’t.

In other words, too often judgment is heaped on the parent whose child will eat only three foods. (Okay, probably more like six. And yes, that’s fewer than what he used to eat, back when I first publicly bemoaned his teeny-tiny food repertoire.) Many many people who have never lived with the child who presents these food challenges seem to know exactly what’s best for the child, and they’re sure that if they had been the one in charge, they would have fixed that kid right up.

So in other words, advice isn’t what we need. We’ve tried everything there is to try. We tried to buckle down and only feed him what we were all eating, but that resulted in one screaming match after another, and after a while all the pleasure of dinnertime was destroyed. Then we brought him to a feeding clinic ,where they determined that he was, well, a picky eater (duh). They provided us with a routine to follow every day—a “game” in which we would gradually get him accustomed to new foods, little by little. They insisted it would work, so even though he hated it, we played on—every night, week after week, month after dreadful month, I lured him to the dining room table and “played” this “game” with him. Then came the day when the game progressed to actually eating the new food—and he put his head to the table and pretended to sleep. Next night, it was the same thing. And the next, and the next. What could I do? He had figured out the power of civil disobedience. I packed the awful game away and never called the feeding clinic again.

After that, I read every book by nutritionist Ellyn Satter there is to read, and then I actually spoke with Ellyn—who is lovely, by the way, and if she came here to live with me I am sure she would solve all our problems like that. She agreed that Henry was a difficult case, but in the end, she essentially told me to stay the course. Keep offering him new foods, keep watching him turn them down. Eventually he would outgrow this.

A story in last year’s New York Times backed up Ellyn Satter’s assertions. Picky eating is a genetic trait, according to the story. If you or your husband were picky, there’s a good chance your kid will be, as well. (For the record, neither Scott nor I were picky in the least. And yet.) And it’s a phase, says the Times. A phase. Oh, how I want to believe that.

Still, though, I wonder. I wonder if these habits don’t become ingrained for life. At the feeding clinic they seemed to think so, but then, they’re sort of supposed to say that. If everyone outgrew pickiness, there would be no reason for the clinic’s sadistic games. And I do know plenty of grown-ups who outgrew their limited palates; on the other hand, I know several adults who didn’t, including one young woman whose diet is almost as disturbing as her grayish pallor and listlessness. Her face haunts my dreams.

Our pediatrician insists that we leave it alone—Henry’s not losing weight, after all, and what he eats is in fact fairly nutritious. But we’re not comforted by this. We don’t want our son to greet the idea of new food with terror and anguish. His new-food aversion seems to have reached the level of a phobia, and I’m not so sure that fear like this can simply go away.

Your turn, my readers. Do you have a picky eater in your house? A seriously resistant eater, such as my own? Do you give them their favorites, to keep the peace—or do you forge ahead with new and strange foods, peace be damned?

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The art of losing (and winning): how do you teach your child to compete? Fri, 22 Aug 2008 11:51:06 +0000

Henry is in one room. I’m in the other. Two outfits lie before each of us. We’ve been waiting for this moment for seconds, if not minutes. And now the moment of truth has arrived.
“Ready,” I call out.
“Set,” Henry yells.
The race is on.
And just like that, within seconds, it’s all over. Henry has won by a landslide, after I a) tripped over my skirt, b) forgot how a shirt works, and c) couldn’t find my shoes. As both timekeeper and competitor, I was already at a disadvantage, but no one expected me to lose quite that spectacularly.
Henry enters the room, and places a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “You’ll win next time, Mom,” he tells me. I shrug and nod. “Good game, good game,” I mutter, fumbling with my zipper. We both know I’m not going to win next time.
Henry and I compete every morning. Of course it’s all a ruse to get him dressed. He knows it, but still he humors me, and the bottom line is, he can’t resist the thrill of a race. Most of the time I let him win, because if I was the victor he would enter the room to congratulate me, his pants still around his ankles, and it would take me another half-hour to convince him to hike them up to his waist. I do make a point of winning occasionally, though. I want to keep his competitive juices flowing—if he always wins, what’s the point of the race?—and I also want him to know that losing isn’t the end of the world. And I must say, for several reasons, I feel like our morning races are a small triumph in my own private Parenting Olympics. In addition to getting him dressed without all that pleading and cajoling, he’s getting some excellent practice in being a gracious winner and loser.
We compete a lot around here. Whether we’re racing to the front door or playing Zingo, we trade off being the winner and the loser quite often, and I truly think he’s better for it. Meanwhile, though, it seems like schools are embracing the “everyone’s a winner!” mentality, where everyone gets an award just for participating, and the spoils do not necessarily go to the victor. This strikes me as a huge mistake. It denies kids the joy of competing, of trying to be the best; it denies the winner the joy of winning, and it denies the others the opportunity to find out that losing isn’t the end of the world. As a decidedly non-athletic sort, I spent my formative years competing in spelling bees and math-athons. And I really think that if I hadn’t received any special accolades for TRIUMPHING over all those BOZOS, I wouldn’t have been half as motivated to learn how to spell “enthusiastic.” (Look, I can spell it now! Without my 3rd-grade-spelling-bee championship plaque, I might be typing “enthoozasm” and figuring that’s close enough.) The reality is that life presents people with races of all kinds—for jobs, for grades, for a place on the team—and kids have to get used to that. They need to master the art of both losing and winning.
It’s an art that, if you’ve been watching the Olympics, some experienced athletes need to work on. The Olympic committee was none too pleased with the antics of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who appeared to flaunt his record-breaking victories as he shouted “I am number 1!” at the cameras. Not exactly getting with the Olympic spirit, he failed to acknowledge the efforts of his fellow competitors and even slowed down as he neared the finish line, just to emphasize how far ahead he was. Wow.
Then there was the controversy over tennis player Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, who (if you believe his competitor as well as the video replay) failed to call a point against himself when an out-of-bounds ball brushed his racquet. The umpire didn’t see it, and because tennis doesn’t rely on video replays for final decisions, it was up to Gonzalez to admit to his error—but instead he played dumb, thus guaranteeing himself a place on the medal podium. A place, it appears, he doesn’t deserve.
The most infamous case of Olympian poor sportsmanship occurred in wrestling, where a member of the Swedish team, Ara Abrahamian, refused the bronze medal, throwing it to the ground and storming off during the awards ceremony. The Olympic committee took back the medal and rebuked Abrahamian—a move they didn’t make, as one article pointed out, toward their hosts, when China admonished one of their own competitors, pistol shooter Tan Zongliang, for winning a bronze. “Instead of congratulating Tan, they publicly berated the Olympian for placing ‘only’ third, leaving him to bow his head in shame on national TV and admit he’d ‘let his country down.'” Whew. China probably doesn’t give their third-grade spelling bee participants awards just for showing up, either.
Fortunately there were enough examples, during the Olympics, of gracious winning and losing (or coming in—gasp—third place!) for our kids to see. Henry decided (much like plenty of other kids, I’m sure) that he wants to be Michael Phelps—a role model for gracious winning if ever I’ve seen one—when he grows up. He’s almost there. You should see how fast the kid can put on his socks.
And you, dear readers? How do you teach your kids about healthy competition?

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When is it okay to leave your child alone at home? Fri, 15 Aug 2008 10:36:34 +0000

If we have learned anything from the film classic “Home Alone,” it is that leaving a child by himself (accidentally or on purpose) for any period of time can result in all manner of shenanigans. Also, Joe Pesci will show up. However, at some point, the parent must make the leap and let her child (who should be at least a little older than HA-era Macauley Culkin) stay at home without a sitter.
But when, exactly, does that point arrive? I asked my mom, as she is wise in all matters. “Never,” she said. “Now go to your room, your sitter will be here in fifteen minutes.”

Let’s try that again. “Thirteen,” she replied, without hesitation.”Liar,” I responded. “You left me alone well before the age of thirteen.”
Turns out she doesn’t take kindly to being called a liar. Lesson learned. Eventually she copped to 12, and then 11, but she insisted that I was an incredibly mature young child, a fact I happen to know is also a (sorry, Mom) lie. I was a big baby. If the oven had suddenly caught fire I would have hid under my bed.

I suspect my mom crossed her fingers and hoped for the best. And luckily nothing did go terribly wrong at our house. Of course, don’t want to depend on luck, when it comes to their child’s safety. But at some point you have to make the leap, and too often it can feel like a leap of faith. An article in the Times this week highlighted the many variables that underlie this seemingly simple decision. How comfortable are your kids with the idea of being alone? Is there an older or younger sibling? Do you have a doorman, or do you live in a close-knit community?

Very few states specify what age a child can legally be left alone. Given that maturity and anxiety levels vary wildly by child, leaving it up to the parent seems, at first glance, reasonable. The states that do provide guidelines offer numbers as low as eight (Maryland and South Carolina) to as high as thirteen (Illinois). But what do they even mean by “alone”? After all, there’s “alone” in the sense of “I’m just going to run out for some milk while you watch cartoons” and “alone” in the sense of “Honey, we’re going to Antigua for a few weeks! Don’t forget to feed the fish, and also yourselves!” (The latter scenario has occurred more than once; in one infamous case, the vacationing parents lost custody of their children, who were 9 and 4 when they were left to fend for themselves for nine days. )

Most parents, of course, have their child’s best interests at heart—but even they too often leave their kids alone despite their own misgivings. According to a recent poll, many parents who leave their tweens home alone don’t feel certain that their kids are knowledgeable or skilled enough to stay safe. Which suggests that some parent/child conversations are in order—and maybe some training. Experts recommend that kids take the Red Cross babysitter course, even if the only child they’re babysitting is themselves.

The absence of state law on this topic ignores a growing problem: parents who have no choice but to leave their kids alone, even well before the children are ready. Too many parents can’t afford afterschool care and are forced to make an impossible choice: leave the children by themselves, or lose their jobs. According to Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, if states were to institute laws governing minimum ages for being left alone, “it would bring a hidden problem out in the open, which is all of the parents who leave children home alone not because they want to, but because they have to.” If there were laws in place, there would also need to be affordable afterschool programs to meet the needs of working parents. Without a law, no one has to make sure latch-key kids are safe—but of course states can and will hold the parents responsible if something goes wrong.

But even if you have a choice, dear readers, how do you decide when your child is ready to stay alone? What factors influence your decision?

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Only children: will they grow up to be selfish, lonely, self-centered, homicidal maniacs? Fri, 08 Aug 2008 10:15:18 +0000

Scott and I have been torturing ourselves over the question of trying again for a second child. We share an urge to embiggen the family, but we also like our little club just the way it is. Henry certainly seems happy enough on his own. True, he has occasionally asked for a little brother, but I think he does that just to hear my heart explode. Practically speaking, our lives heavily favor the three-person-family scenario. So maybe we’re okay as we are. (Maybe.)
Now, if we were making this decision a century ago, we would know that we were duty-bound to procreate again, lest we warp our son forever. “Being an only child is a disease in itself,” stated G. Stanley Hall, turn-of-the-century child psychologist. ( Hall, a grim-looking bearded fellow, is largely credited with starting the anti-only prejudice that has lingered lo these many years. ) And according to olde-timey psychologist Alfred Adler, “The only child has difficulties with every independent activity and, sooner or later, they become useless in life.” (Oh, Al, you’re adorable .) Freud wrote that only children had sexual identity problems. But what do you expect from Freud?
Fortunately, modern research has debunked these expert’s questionable opinions. Henry, it seems, is more likely to be warped because he thinks “olde-timey” is a valid adjective (seriously, he uses it all the time) than he is by his only child status. In fact, hundreds of studies have shown that only children are no different from their peers. If anything, they’re, shall we say, superior. A landmark 20-year study showed that the only child’s increased quality time with his or her parents results in higher levels of achievement, academically and professionally. And according to a Newsweek story, “only children tend to be friendlier and more communicative, to get along well with adults and to have exceptionally close relationships with their parents.”
Still, there’s a lot of guilt associated with the decision to stop at one. Is it a selfish choice? Will my child be lonely and wish he had siblings, down the road? A quick Google search showed me that I’m hardly alone with my questions. Ask Moxie fielded questions similar to mine, and the comments she received from parents of only children were, by and large, reassuring. One potential problem kept cropping up: the only child being forced to take sole responsibility for aging parents. One commenter wrote, “If there is a compelling reason to have another sibling ‘for the sake of’ an existing child, then it’s not because it will necessarily make the kid’s childhood better, but because it will save the child from having to care for elderly parents by himself or herself, which is actually a pretty big burden. Is it enough of a reason? I’m not sure.” I’m not sure, either. But if the parents of an only child are that concerned, surely there are steps they can take well before they become too infirm to make their own choices.
Practical matters aside, the only child is left to bear alone the emotional burden of his parents’ aging and dying—and that’s a sobering thought. When my father had heart surgery and then suffered one complication after another, my siblings and I provided each other support, information, and lengthy bitch sessions. I don’t know what I would have done without them. And there’s something invaluable about a sibling who can agree that Event X really did happen in the way you remember, or that your mother (for instance) really did act as crazy as you think she did at Easter dinner. Siblings can help you feel less insane. (Unless they’re crazier than you are, in which case I don’t know what to tell you.)
If we lived in Italy, I might really be torturing myself over this issue. Across Europe, the average family size is shrinking, with birthrates plummeting to dangerously low levels in countries such as Italy and Greece. This trend, along with the population’s increased longevity, could spell disaster down the road: imagine countries populated by retirees, with no one to run, well, anything. It’s not a pretty picture.
Fortunately us American people are still birthing like crazy, so our only-child status won’t destroy the United States’ future economy. So maybe we should have another child and then move to Italy, to help Italy’s population. But what will we do in Italy? Questions, questions. While we mull these over, please feel free to provide your own thoughts on the only child in your life (or your imagination, as the case may be).

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Writing about your kids: a few thoughts on parent blogging Fri, 01 Aug 2008 08:35:49 +0000

When Henry was four, I wrote on my blog about a meltdown he had at Ikea, and what I felt were the insensitive comments of the strangers around us. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: readers and bloggers on other sites mocking Henry, wondering if he was autistic, if he needed medicating, or if he was just a brat.
It had honestly not occurred to me until that moment that anything Henry did in that scenario would be up for public scrutiny and evaluation. Don’t other kids have temper tantrums, after all? Aren’t parents always encountering jerks who stress them out when their kids need their full attention? I could see my behavior coming under attack, but Henry’s? Who would call a four-year-old names?
Plenty of people, it turned out. And I realized then that I had crossed a threshold, that there was a certain amount of information I now had to keep private from the Internet. Henry was no longer the universal Everybaby; he was becoming his own quirky little being, vulnerable to attack just as much as the rest of us. I had to protect my son–for my well-being probably more than his. After all, he couldn’t read yet. He didn’t feel like tearing the heads off of the people who diagnosed my kid based on a single blog entry.
I asked some other writers how much they feel comfortable revealing about their kids, and—what do you know—other parenting bloggers also think hard about these issues. Above all, they all agreed, we have a responsibility to protect our children. As Danny Evans from Dad Gone Mad put it, ” Parent first, writer second. ” (I would add “spouse” somewhere in there as well. Probably fighting for second place with “writer.”) What story might open your child up to criticism? What might embarrass them down the road? These are questions that parenting bloggers have to ask ourselves with every post.
That said, the universal stuff that kids do is, by and large, considered fair game for material. After all, no child is going to be upset that you revealed that he cried a lot as a newborn, but if you talk about the time he was five and he [REDACTED] with his [REDACTED] all over his [REDACTED]? Even if it was comedy gold, you’re now officially violating his privacy. It is the sad truth of the blogging parent that the more entertaining your kids become, the less license you have to use their stories. What material might push your child’s buttons down the line, however, isn’t always clear. As Mir from Woulda Coulda Shoulda says, “Sometimes what happens here has to stay in the cone of silence, because I feel strongly that sharing would be painful for the kids, down the road. (I’m fresh out of crystal balls, too, so I’m always guessing. Always. And this is why God invented guilt, and therapy.)” Chris from Notes from the Trenches may have already mildly traumatized a kid or two : “I try not to embarrass my children, which let me tell you becomes much more difficult when they ‘re preteens and teenagers, since the very fact that I EXIST is cause for embarrassment.”
It’s a tricky dance to execute, but the concerns about embarrassing your kids are often outweighed by the rewards they might reap from your writing. There are amazing moments I have tried to capture, that otherwise would be lost forever. And if I share the times when I’d like to leave him outside with a packed suitcase and a sign that says “free boy,” I really believe that acknowledging those feelings is going to benefit him in the long run. As Rita from Surrender, Dorothy puts it, “…I think my love for [my daughter] and my pride for her comes out in my writing, but also that I’m just a fallible human being, and she should never ask herself to be any more than that.” Susan from Friday Playdate concurs: ” I don’t think I really saw my mother as a person until I was grown up and had left home, and now I am endlessly curious about her life when she was my age, and when my brother and I were Henry and Charlie’s age. My kids won’t have to wonder, because it’s all right there.”
Kyran from Notes to Self has a different perspective, having grown up as the child of a prominent writer: ” I lived among artists and writers who often drew inspiration from their friends and families. …As a kid, it was actually pretty wonderful. I felt that my family was special. Our friends, our lives, seemed interesting and noteworthy. I might have engaged in a little “poor me-ing” about it when I was in my early teens, but I was being entirely, age-appropriately disingenuous. If I hadn’t been whining about how hard it was to be my father’s daughter, you can bet I’d have been whining about how hard it was to be somebody else’s daughter.”
It will be interesting to see what happens down the line, as our children grow up accustomed to being the subject of someone else’s narrative. Right now Henry’s aware that I write about him sometimes, but he doesn’t think about it too much; he seems to think that all grownups write about their kids. Beyond that, we don’t talk about what I do for a living. (He told a friend of his that I’m a dentist. He seemed pretty sure about it, too.) He knows that, whatever I do, it doesn’t make enough money. “Maybe some day your web site will be successful, Mom,” he said to me the other day. Some day, son. Now go do something funny for Mommy.

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