Tag Archives: research

All the single ladies

“In Defense of Single Motherhood,” Katie Roiphe, New York Times, August 11, 2012

Besides stopping once in awhile and wondering in total bewilderment how single moms do it, I also frequently wonder why they get so much negative publicity when people have no idea why they are single. In this article, which is long overdue, Ms. Roiphe writes:

Studies like those done by the Princeton sociologist Sara S. McLanahan, who is one of the foremost authorities on single motherhood and its impact on children, show that conditions like poverty and instability, which frequently accompany single-mother households, increase the chances that the children involved will experience alcoholism, mental illness, academic failure and other troubles. But there is no conclusive evidence that, absent those conditions, the pure, pared-down state of single motherhood is itself dangerous to children.

Professor McLanahan’s studies over the years, and many others like them, show that the primary risks associated with single motherhood arise from financial insecurity. They also offer evidence that, to a lesser extent, particular romantic patterns of the mother — namely introducing lots of boyfriends into children’s lives — contribute to the risk. What the studies don’t show is that longing for a married father at the breakfast table injures children.

And Professor McLanahan’s findings suggest that a two-parent, financially stable home with stress and conflict would be more destructive to children than a one-parent, financially stable home without stress and conflict.

The money quote, no pun intended, however is:

The real menace to America’s children is not single mothers, or unmarried or gay parents, but an economy that stokes an unconscionable divide between the rich and the not rich.

The world looks very different for the children of single moms with good jobs, supportive friends and family who in turn have good jobs, than those kids who are not so fortunate to have those things. If you try to define familial success by the presence of two in-house parents you not only force relationships that are destructive for parents, discriminate against parents who were left or widowed, but you set bad precedents for the future generation who may have more flexible ideas about what a great family looks like to them.

The End of Parenting?

There have been a steady stream of articles and studies published lately about how the current generations of parents have somehow lost the ability to parent effectively, spoiled their kids too much, not found the balance they need, can’t have it all, given up their identities to their children, and other damning conclusions.

“Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost,” by Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker
“Mother Madness: How motherhood became such a prison for modern women,” by Erica Jong for The Wall Street Journal
“The Man who Remade Motherhood,” by Kate Pickert for Time’s “Are You Mom Enough?” Issue
“How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods,” by Lori Gottlieb for The Atlantic
“Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest” by Sally Koslow (Viking).
“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” by Ann-Marie Slaughter for The Atlantic
“With Grown Children, What am I Besides ‘Mom’?” by Risa Doherty for the Motherlode blog at The New York Times

My sleep-deprived brain is starting to synthesize something from all of these topics. I had written a very long and rambling post about the debate between “motherhood is a prison” and “you can never do enough for your children” approaches to parenting. I had started mixing in issues of work-home balance, childhood happiness versus adult happiness, modern attitudes changing vis a vis parenting and childhood… It was becoming a beast of a post.

Rather than trying to take on the hydra that is these topics, embodied by the articles above, head by head, I’d like to start hacking away at what I feel is the neck where all the heads meet. Or hopefully where several of them meet, anyway.

As part of the current group of parents that many of these writers address, I can’t help but be slightly offended when so many suggest that I have it all wrong, that I’ve lost sight of the right way to make my kid successful, self-sufficient, happy, and furthermore how to do so without losing my mind in the process. So many parents are just trying to get by, like they have for all time, with what they’ve got, in the world that they find themselves, all the while trying to keep their eyes and ears open for better ways. So before we get all blame-assigning, it is important to remember that one thing that unites virtually ALL parents is that they want their kids to be happy and have great lives.

The suggestion that modern parenting has become lazier, sloppier, more rushed, way too happiness-driven, or somehow lacking compared to historical parenting, French parenting, parenting of subsistance farmers in the Amazon, is a bit short-sighted. There are several reasons why we don’t want to hold up one particular type of parent as the model for all, why we always hedge when any expert tells us “just follow this example and you’ll be all set.” Imagine for a moment that we raised our children to the standards of the affluent families in the late 19th-century England. Our children may behave very well, they may be able to recite long poems, and they may keep their clothes clean, but they won’t know how to do very many survival tasks (cooking, building, gardening) nor will they be able to dress themselves, talk intelligently about politics, or show far-reaching creativity with their art projects. Similarly, parents in the Matsigenka, a tribe of farmers in the Peruvian Amazon (discussed in “Spoiled Rotten”) may teach their children to be helpful with household and agrarian tasks at very young ages, but their children will not know how to use the internet, form a complex social web with many other children from a variety of backgrounds, use algebra to problem solve, or make things out of legos. And learning how to use online social networking intelligently, for instance, is very much a valuable skill–just take a look at all the careers that are centered around media use.

Much like the argument that our kids are going to have weak immune systems because we are too clean and we don’t let them get really filthy anymore, the comparison between parenting now and “then” or here and “there” only has a tenuous basis in reality. We have different strengths; sure we’ve lost our resistance to some things, but we have gained a lot too. And better to be vaccinated with the dead virus than dig up the live one outside and risk real and lasting harm? People forget how tragic history was. Kids died. All the time. The world was a very cruel and different place. Are kids more comfortable now? Sure, but isn’t that what we wanted? To protect them from harm? Get them to adulthood and we’ve at least done that much?

Parents are raising their kids in an all new context where we are simultaneously being instructed to protect them in increasing ways while being surrounded by a culture that is whittling away at childhood. On one hand, parents are taught to fear the statistically minute and terrifying what-ifs — for example, there is a merciless campaign against crib bumpers, those padded borders that surround your baby’s crib to keep them from hitting their head on the sides. If you find the central study on this subject, you will discover that there were 25 deaths associate with bumpers and their ties over 20 years. How many children then, used bumpers safely? Any death is tragic, but compared to motor vehicle statistics this seems like a waste of fear. Parents are being encouraged to worry about so many low-probability threats and yet we take the high-risk situations for granted. Getting in the car is the most dangerous thing you can do. Yes, we have better and better car seats, but most people wouldn’t think twice about speeding, checking their voicemail, or driving in bad weather with their kid in the car. We go to great lengths to protect our kids from many harmful things, as we should, but the world around us is dangerous in ways we only are starting to understand. Unless you live in a few places in the world, our kids won’t be sent to war, experience famine, or epidemic disease. But they face advertising and media that wants to herd them into a narrow view of cool, early adolescence and adulthood, foster consumerism, and tie their sense of self worth to material wealth or at least good looks. First world problems? Perhaps, but nonetheless, serious problems if what we’re worried about is the health and success of our kids vis a vis our job as parents. As a parent, I can take concrete steps to fight against illness but I can’t fight the media.

For better or for worse, our children frequently are prepared for the society they live in, regardless of our intentions as parents. You can only do so much to control your greater environment, short of removing yourself to an isolated dwelling with little interaction with the outside world. See how well that works for the Amish? Yeah, not really a great solution. Aside from geography, your contemporary influences and biases as a parent will continue to shine through your actions. No parent is an island, or something like that.

While how we parent is scrutinized, how MUCH we parent and to what expense, is also under fire. Parental absenteeism is met with disgust, yet so is over-involvement, though perhaps less so. There are constant conflicting messages. Kids are over scheduled. Kids without after-school activities get into more trouble. French kids don’t misbehave at dinner. Well, you know it’s because they expect good behavior, right? And how do they get this good behavior? By being more distant and less indulgent? You don’t say. In “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” the psychologists discuss how they meet these young adults who feel depressed because they aren’t as special as they’d been led to believe throughout their childhood. What’s the solution? Make our kids feel less special? Ignore them more? Article after article on modern motherhood preaching the dreadful concept of “balance” as if we could snap our fingers and find a way to bend the working-world to our true needs to be at home more. The favorable climate for mothers who WANT to work and spend more time at home lies at the end of a very long cultural shift involving some pretty amazing legislation and different attitudes on profitability and human resources. What are moms supposed to do right now? Telling us we’ve got it all wrong, reminding us of all the ways we are not doing enough or doing too much or we need to do everything differently is to suggest that SOMEONE has the answer or that some past generation of parents got it perfectly right.

I look around me at the parents I know. Are they doing too much in general? Maybe. Spreading themselves thin? Probably. Are they overprotecting their kids? Not really. They are doing a lot for them, they are worried about aspects of childhood that generations before didn’t have to consider. They are raising kids in a new age and trying to make the best of it. They are good parents who are trying to overcome the obstacles that they and their kids face. And they love their kids like crazy. Isn’t that the most important thing?

If I ask these parents that I know about their childhoods, if they got enough from their own parents, enough attention, enough support, enough material possessions, they almost all say they did. What they seek to improve isn’t some cushy-comfort level of their kids, but their safety, their relationship-forming-abilities, and their future opportunities in this ultra-competitive economy.

While there will always be examples of extremely over-indulgent parents, absent parents, helicopter parents, and spoiled Veruca Salts who refuse to do anything to help their families, I hesitate to conclude this is the direction we are all moving. Each of us can point to some people we’ve met and say “they are spoiling their kids, they are always working, they are correcting their kid’s every mistake” but not only is it really hard to know from the outside what the real issues are, it is also impossible to draw a direct conclusion about what this means for a child’s future. We look to these studies to help us find our way, but know that childhood is fast and research slow. In the end, it’s just you and your kids and whatever it takes.

Determination vs Cooperation

Now that I’m in the midst of two toddlers, at the height of their frustrations in their own inability to verbalize all that it is that they are feeling, I have been thinking a bit about the problem of determination versus cooperation.

One of the things that makes toddlers so hard to manage is that they are all about instant gratification. They don’t understand waiting. In some senses, this makes them extremely determined individuals (granted, with relatively short attention spans). However, so much of what we ASK of our little kids in terms of “good behavior” is really based on delayed gratification. You want to go the playground? Okay, but you have do get dressed now and THEN we can go. You want to play with that? Okay, but you have to wait until it’s your turn.

How do you encourage your kid to be persistant and determined when it counts but also understand cooperation and being patient? Sometimes determination is all about patience, but understanding that requires a lot of experience and feeling confident in the outcome. A toddler doesn’t really have either. They may understand OUR promises to give them what they desire, but they have no framework for holding us to it or knowing that waiting patiently will result in anything better than simply whining about it and maybe getting it sooner? What is sooner or later to a toddler?

The shaky ground we are on, Julia and I, is having kids who know what they want but can’t tell us what it is. They are old enough to have all these complex thoughts, but haven’t pick up on the tricks of the tongue that will let them unleash the contents of these thoughts on our bewildered selves, standing in front of the fridge trying to guess what they’re pointing at or following them around the house trying to make the whining stop or subvert a tantrum.

They say that “communication is key,” and I’m hoping, in this case, it is. The pointing is only going to get us so far. But even when the words start flowing, there are going to be plenty more instances where verbal exchanges won’t be enough to negotiate cooperation. Demonstrating consistently the rewards of cooperation is helpful, but at the same time, kids still learn that it’s sometimes more beneficial to stubbornly demand and be appeased. Is this wrong? Do we stop fostering determination when we require cooperation all the time?

I read about a study at the University of Virginia (Child Development, Dec 2011) where they found that teens who “talked back” to their parents were 40% more likely to resist peer pressure on such issues as drugs and alcohol. This is obviously a study of teenagers, a different species altogether, but Joseph Allen, the psychologist leading the study told NPR during an interview: “We tell parents to think of those arguments not as nuisance, but as a critical training ground.”

I like that idea, so that’s what I’m trying to think of these toddler confrontations. Hopefully, I can stay sane long enough each day to show my kid the benefits of sticking with it and when the greater mutual benefits of playing along nicely exceed them and how to know the difference.

Kids and E-books

Catching up on some links I missed over the holidays, I found this tidbit:

“Why Books Are Better than e-Books for Children” by KJ Dell’Antonia over at the New York Times’ Motherlode Blog.

A study of electronic books and how they are “read” to kids over at New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative showed that parents tend to skip over a lot of the normal interactions they have when they use printed books. They tend to focus more on the device showing or even reading aloud the story, swiping pages, showing the child how to tap certain images for hidden features, etc. It’s interesting and maybe it has more to do with how e-readers are cool new gadgets for us adults than how the experience is actually different. Maybe when we are more accustomed to electronic books we will use them differently? It’s too soon to tell, but it is fascinating to see these differences.

Another point made was that e-readers don’t give young children as clear a sense of a story arc. With a paper book, you see very plainly that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even with electronic books that have “page x of y” features, it’s less obvious. What implications this has on early stages of reading, it is not yet clear.

More and more parents are buying more and more children’s books on their ipads and Nooks so, there is sure to be more research into how this shift will change things. And it’s amazing to me that my 16 month old has a pretty good grasp on how to use an ipad “book” with almost no coaching. I know some day these technologies will be obsolete and I can’t imagine what will come after them, but in the meantime, what an interesting generation our kids will be!

Confuse a Cat/Baby

A study by researchers here at Concordia was featured in this month’s “Infant Behavior and Development.” They found that babies learn can learn a person’s “trustworthiness” pretty handily.

“Infants normally mimic sounds, facial expressions and actions they observe but if an adult tricks them, they will no longer follow along with that person. Like older children, infants keep track of an individual’s history of being accurate or inaccurate and use this information to guide their subsequent learning,” said researcher Diane Poulin-Dubois, a professor in Concordia’s department of psychology. “Specifically, infants choose not to learn from someone who they perceive as unreliable.”

This was tested by having experimenters look inside a container with excitement then inviting infants (13-16 months) to look themselves and see what was in the box (toy or no toy).
These experimenters, using their forehead instead of their hands, pushed a button to turn on a light, to see if the infants would copy the action. 34% of infants with “unreliable testers” performed the trick but 61% of infants with “reliable testers” followed along.

Fool me once shame on you, fool me… you can’t get fooled again!

What I’m wondering, is if babies learn to trust the adults that they perceive to be reliable (which makes perfect evolutionary sense), why do they enjoy being confused so much? One of the first games I used to play with my daughter when she was a baby was “which of my hands is that thing in?” I would hide an object in my hand and offer her both closed fists to choose from to find it. She learned pretty fast that if the object was in neither hand, that I had hidden it under my leg or something (I’m not a very good magician).

Anyway, this reminds me for some reason about the Monty Python “Confuse a Cat” sketch. See for yourselves:

Toddlers and TV: A Tragic Love Story

Some experimenta data of my own.

Oh, Television. Ever since you entered our homes almost 100 years ago, you have brought delight and discord to our lives. I imagine the first TV set, with its blurry gray images, sitting in the parlor of a family home being watched by a mesmerized young tot in short pants. His parents probably marveled at this new technology, knowing that it would change things forever, but unaware of what those changes would look like. I imagine this was a pretty special moment.

About 15 minutes in, I bet that mom noticed her kid had become a catatonic noodle. And I bet if she were a woman with her wits about her, for a second, her mind flashed, “I wonder if this kind of thing is good for kids?”

Ever since that day, concerned parents everywhere have wondered about the moth-flame relationship between kids and television.

It is impossible to escape the dilemma. Even if you get rid of your TV, you will be at other people’s homes, in public and there they are: little liquid crystals dancing to the tune of “hello my baby!” And even if you can forestall the day their eyes meet, eventually your kids are going to watch TV at their friends’ or family’s homes. And then, will they be that kid who can’t stop watching whenever they get a chance? Will they hate you for making them miss all the fun? Will their friends in college marvel at how many classic TV-show references they don’t get?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended basically no TV for children under 2 years old, back in 1999. They restated this past October, with a new set of guidelines, suggesting that parents limit TV to as little as possible, recognizing that tv screens are so much more prevalent and the issue so much more complex. With laptops, iPads, phones, screens are everywhere and we as adults get so much more information in video format. Parents needed more clarification on the earlier simplistic “no TV” recommendation.

The new report (“Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years” Pediatrics 2011) highlights that children under two derive absolutely no educational benefit from watching TV. They simply do not process even educational concepts in this format. Even language acquisition is accomplished by face-to-face interaction. Their take-away message is that every minute children spend in front of a TV takes away a minute from constructive play where they are forming connections and learning stuff.

I’m not sure that whining and crying counts as constructive play, but I get where they are going with this. Yes, it’s better for our kids not to stare mindlessly as a puppet dances around in HD, it would be far better for them to be constructing small architectural experiments with Froebel blocks or banging on their xylophone. But how about when they’re not? Like if they’re instead standing in front of you going “waaaaaah” because you are trying to do something important and not paying attention to their every whim or in our case, not letting them watch Sesame Street videos on YouTube? Or what if you are in the car and they have thrown every toy provided on the floor and are screaming, crying, and generally making you want to give up and never go anywhere again?

My toddler is fixated, FIXATED, on my laptop when it’s open. She knows what it can do, she knows that there is a world of whimsical and musical furry creatures ready to entertain her at the click of a few buttons and all I have to do is click them for her and WHY WON’T I DO IT?!! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MOTHER, WHY WON’T YOU LET THEM COME ENTERTAIN ME?!!!!!” Today, she even took my hand and put it on the keys and whimpered.

It’s a battle. I pretty much lose 75% of the time. Even my best distractions are becoming less and less compelling to her. She knows about TV, she has even figured out how to turn on the TV so we have to hide the remote. She knows what iPhones can do. She thinks the laptops exist to amuse her. She has only met an iPad a few times, but she is enthralled. Video technology is wrapped up in her life as much as eating and sleeping. It’s inextricable. Barring a sudden move to our very own Walden Pond, it will always be so. So what is a mother to do?

This issue of course doesn’t stop here at toddlers and “to watch or not to watch.” As kids get older, and TV becomes a familiar habit, how do we decide how much is too much, when and how often?

Watching “fast-paced” cartoons or even educational shows for 9 minutes has shown to decrease the kid’s competency at tasks requiring memory, problem solving, and patience. In this October Pediatrics study of 4 year olds, the effect is described as “temporary” but it’s nonetheless unnerving. It’s being called the “Sponge Bob Effect,” since that was the show used in the study for the “fast-paced” example. Also tested, PBS’s “Caillou,” which did not result in as extreme a shift from the control group (those kids drew with crayons for 9 minutes). Sponge Bob changes “scenes” every 11 seconds. Caillou changes them every 34 seconds. The authors suggest that not only the pacing may play a role in hampering executive function but also the fantastical content of the show, though this was not directly tested.

This 2007 study (Landhuis et al. Pediatrics), followed 1037 children, born between April 1972-March 1973, to determine the relationship between hours of TV watched during childhood and adolescence and attention problems in adolescence. The study subjects ages 5-11 watched an average of 2.05 hours of TV, and 13-15 year olds watched 3.13 hours a day. There was a strong correlation between the amount of TV in childhood and in adolescence as well as attention problems in both. Their linear regression models show that childhood TV-viewing could predict adolescent attention deficiencies.


The picture is coming in 3D-HD now… there should be less TV, all around. Very little TV. Whatever your kids are watching, it should probably be significantly less. Their time in front of the screen is like a long mental yawn. Sure it’s nice to tune out and drop in for awhile, but at least for very young kids, it steals precious learning time from them, makes them overstimulated, and becomes a bad habit.

The new world of video, internet, and games makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between “TV” and “video,” and none of these studies have distinguished between these formats. Is a video game “TV?” Is a cell phone app “TV?” There is one recent study to suggest that there is a shift towards younger kids playing games on iPads and phones, creating an “app gap” between those children and low-income kids who don’t have access to these gadgets. A study by the Non-Profit, Common Sense Media, found that almost half the families with incomes over $75,000 had downloaded apps for their young kids and babies, whereas only one in eight families earning less than $30,000 downloaded kids’ apps. The full study (found here) contains much more information, also highlighting media use in kids from birth, which is something not previously studied. They found all kinds of things, for instance, that young kids are already learning to multitask with their media, have exposure earlier and longer than previously thought, and that a whopping 42% of kids under 8 have a bedroom TV (one in 3 under 2).

One of the better comprehensive reviews on media targeted to children by Kaiser Foundation, specifically videos and DVD’s, estimated that it was a $4.8 billion industry in 2004. Futhermore, the market for “developmental” videos/DVD’s for infants and toddlers was about $100 million at that time. Both markets have only grown. The educational claims of many of these products is pretty direct. But are there any educational benefits for kids over 2? The answer is complicated, in part because it’s hard to find any kids that HAVE NOT watched any videos or played any educational video games by these ages. The available studies mostly rely on distinguishing between groups of kids who watch certain amounts of these types of media relative to one another and then statistically controlling for other environmental and social factors. After that, one study (Wright et al, “Words from “Sesame Street” Developmental Psychology), found a significant positive impact of Sesame Street viewing on learning. However, no benefit was observed with kids who watched cartoons without an educational message. The researchers confirmed that this educational benefit from more Sesame Street was also seen in improved grades in High School. But there was really no control group, so it’s hard to know whether or not watching the show actually helped.

There are Many Many more studies, reviews, and surveys if you are willing to delve into this subject. And there is sure to be more coming soon. Sifting through the literature is quite disheartening, I will warn you. The trends all point to what I think we all organically know: TV/video/electronic media has become epidemic. For all kids, for longer times, at younger and younger ages, and it’s not typically promoting their well-being. I grew up with a certain amount of TV, but it was very little compared to many of my peers and the generation of kids growing up today. My mother was very anti-TV, annoyingly so. I remember even as a teenager having to go to heroic lengths to watch shows I liked. My dear mom liked to unplug the tv from the back, and then tilt the huge set forward and wedge the cable under the vent in the floor under the back of the TV. Like this would stop me. I would just plug it in when she was out and quickly disconnect when I saw her car pulling in. But we also had BIG picture windows in the front of our house, so I then had to hit the floor and basically crawl out of the living room so she didn’t see me walking from there to another room. It was an elaborate ritual. I also think she started feeling the screen to see if it was warm at one point. And that’s when I started keeping a bottle of windex and paper towels hidden in the living room to wipe it down and thus cool it off. Like I said, heroic measures. I don’t want to be that mom and I don’t want to have this kid.

I think it’s good for older kids to have time to take a mental “yawn” and zone out in front of the TV. We as adults aren’t going to give up our electronic media, so it’s futile to expect our kids not to learn to appreciate it in the ways we do. I think what many of the new studies are trying to do is figure out where to draw the line, since the AAP recommendations leave a lot of questions about real-world usage. Almost no TV, you say? Pediatricians of the Academy, have you spent 15 consecutive months at home with a baby/toddler? You obviously don’t care about maternal mental health. But I get it, we’re all supposed to be martyrs for the cause.

Where does this leave us? Oh yeah, the tantrums. My daughter loves her YouTube clips and I don’t think there’s any going back at this point. I am attempting to detox her from all the extra video she has been watching lately because she was sick and then do whatever I can to prolong the times she isn’t thinking about watching something. I am going to use video more wisely and with great discretion. Hopefully, I can endure the whining when I finally refuse to click on a new clip. And soon, she will know how to click on them herself, figure out how to open a laptop, go to a website, and I’ll have to come up with a new plan. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy my occasional and precious minutes of Sesame Street-fueled peace and freaking quiet and hope that my sanity is good for my daughter too.

Wait, babies think?!

“What Babies Think” by Alison Gopnik at TED Talks

My take away from this talk:
Oh god, twenty-three?!!