Sunday, May 25, 2008

They DID NOT Just Say That!?!

A recent email advertisement for PBS Kids entered my mailbox, and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. It said in part:

The last time you asked little Johnny to stop “exploring” the neighbor’s
garden, he pretended he didn’t understand English. But that curious monkey
and the big red dog in the box with the remote control? He seems to really
respect them. Let the characters at
PBS KIDS supervise your kids’ adventures with a block of educational and entertaining programs featuring Curious George, Clifford the Big Red Dog, SUPER WHY!, and Dragon Tales. The preschool shows feature beloved characters who encourage kids to explore everything from geography to gardening to geometry.

There is an aura of the "non-commercial" around PBS, but don't be fooled, just because there aren't the conventional commercials that one is used to seeing on the network and cable channels, doesn't mean that there isn't a hook in there somewhere. I was just so surprised that they were so blatant about it! There is a tiny bit of cheekiness here to give a feeling of nudge nudge, wink wink, we're kind of joking about their ceding their parental role to a "box with the remote control," which by the way they respect more, but just barely.

For a really eye opening discussion of this disturbing trend of marketing to younger and younger children, pick up Buy, Buy Baby by Susan Thomas. These things may seem innocuous, even inevitable, but parents should not make it that easy for marketers.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Eighth Diaper, and Eight Billioneth Synapse for the Day

There is a lot of joy, but also a lot of female angst on a daily basis when you have decided to stay home with your children. After being a professional for years, I have the benefit of knowing what the relentless pursuit of professional success and accolades brought to my life; the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. In many ways it has made me appreciate this time in my life all the more, and I learned a thing or two about myself and the world that I feel do and will make me a better parent. But there is unease as well. I also know the risks and prejudices that women today have to factor into their future working life for making such a choice. I know from talking to those who chose, or have to work, that the feelings are very similar. Their careers are changed, and their upper management forever watches for signs that they are distracted by mommyhood. Added to that is the angst that their children will suffer for their decision. There are few debates more heated, and more prone to bring out the, let's face it, nastiness of the competitive female culture. There are no easy answers, and it still remains a very personal decision. But we distract ourselves from the real issues in the battle between camps.

My former professional colleagues never thought I would make this decision, and actually I think they didn't expect me to want children at all. But I understood that to show this desire in my professional life, was to raise a red flag. I repeatedly heard a particular upper manager counsel their management group about the importance of having a clear succession plan and a strong staffing bench because you just never knew when one of your best assets (the unspoken, not so subtle intimation being a female asset) would "have a baby." I could appreciate on one hand the brutal reality of this statement, because whether you are the most consumed, or even ambivalent of new mothers, you can not deny the top to bottom alteration to your mind, body, and indeed soul, once you add a new child to your life. But the blatant sexism of the statement still takes my breathe away. It just never would be said in relation to men in the workplace.

For me, however, another brutal reality got my attention, and made my decision if not easier, at least more clear cut. On the days I have changed the eighth diaper of the day, and craved an intelligent conversation that did not include "poopy," and "please don't pull the kitty's tail," I also remind myself of the sheer wonder of my young son's development, and the short window of opportunity that I have to nurture his body and spirit before he becomes one in the world. In an article on chronicling the emerging awareness of the toddler, I am struck by the absolutely cataclysmic changes that take place between the ages of one and two, known as "synaptic exuberance:"

Between ages 1 and 2 the cerebral cortex adds more than 2 million
newsynapses — the connections between brain cells — every second, according to
Zero to Three, a nonprofit educational group. By age 2, your toddler willhave more than 100 trillion synapses — the most she'll ever have in her life,and part of the reason why she has such an incredible capacity to learn. Thisperiod of "synaptic
exuberance" can last until age 8, but it's also accompaniedby the constant
pruning of unused synapses. By the time your child reachesadulthood, more than
50 percent of those neural pathways will be gone.

From: Your amazing child: 'Wow!'-worthy development facts by Dan Tynan andChristinaWood

What an amazing and ephemeral moment in the life of your child, that will literally lay the neurological framework for their future! Even in the mundane details of daily life, I am reminded that this time is crucial and fleeting, and so I make the tough choices that in my family have meant redirecting resources, reevaluating our goals and needs and re imaging what my life, working and otherwise will look like. But it's not easy, and the pressure of the culture weighs heavily on me some days.

It is a sad travesty that our culture has gotten to the point of pushing parents into a corner, forced to make untenable choices between their livelihoods and the quality of life of their families. But change can come from a collective "push back." Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner have been there, and they have articulated the dilemma and needs of today's mother in their book The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want-And What To Do About It. Together they founded, an organization dedicated to educating, and harnessing the power of the voices of mothers to advocate for the changes needed to support families. They point to the need for improved maternity and paternity leave policies, more open and flexible work, products that are safe, health care for kids and families, available and quality childcare options, and realistic and fair wages.

The argument between choosing to stay home and whether to work needs to shift to meaningfully address the real issue of enabling a balance of healthy family and productive and fulfilling work. Instead of tearing each other down to defend and justify our choices, we need to unite to support the needs of our children and families, and the aspirations and contributions of talented women who are also mothers. We may be changing our eighth diaper for the day, but we are also literally growing the brains and bodies of the youth needed to carry our legacies and aspirations forward. It's important work, and needs to be treated as such with more than just meaningless platitudes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The shifting sands of the philosophical parent

Catching up with my New York Times, I skimmed the headlines of my digest version (which I highly recommend for busy mom-newshounds by the way), and I could not resist the teaser headline for a column by David Brooks, entitled The Neural Buddhists. Brooks usually shows up as the token conservative pundit on my must-see political junkie weekend program, Meet the Press with Tim Russert, and I generally enjoy his observations, and I can't resist a teaser that promises a science religion juxtaposition. Yes, now I reveal the depth of my nerd-dom, I know!

It is a really interesting commentary on what Brooks is perceiving as a philosophical and cultural shift precipitated by the current phase of a scientific revolution, akin to the Darwinian shift. He writes, "researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment. " So, the debate is seemingly shifting from if there is an animating spirit, to how it emanates and manifests, as an aspect of the Self, both physiologically and psychologically, and what the implications are for the culture in which this self finds itself.

The last assertion of the isolation of common instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment really got my attention, and ties into why I think this little tidbit is worthy of mom radar. The cultural shift Brooks speaks of is becoming evident in modes of parenting. These common instincts are guiding principles in a growing alternative parenting philosophical movement. I follow an example of one manifestation of this trend through a message group devoted to exploring and implementing "consensual living." A current thread has been discussing anarchy, and whether their mode of parenting is chaotic without the guiding norms of "good" and "bad." The overwhelming response from the community seems to be that there are guiding norms, just not a model based upon top down, conditional management approaches to shaping the family dynamics and values.

Brooks asserts that there is a newly emerging definition of the Self as, "not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships," and for these parents it seems that acceptable or unacceptable behaviors and attitudes in their families also falls under this emerging sense of Self. For these parents, a common family disagreement, say about taking out the garbage, is approached with the goal of acknowledging, understanding and validating each persons feelings and preferences in the situation, and coming to a consensual mode of action through respectful and inclusive dialogue. If your eyebrows just went up, I identify with your exasperation, and I'm thinking that I do not want a debate, consensual or otherwise, about how the garbage gets taken out! But, I do see their point about modeling respectful and inclusive behaviors, which they hope will engender peaceful kids that will go out and make for a more peaceful world. I sigh heavily, but still keep reading to try to grasp where they are coming from, where they are going, and what impact it will have on the world that my kid(s) will inhabit in the future.

I agree with Brooks in his assertion that a possible sea change event is occurring due to the "unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other." I also see it in the closely connected parenting realm. After all, parents are in many ways the cultural gatekeepers to what is normal for a child, that is until they hit puberty, and then all bets are off! I think the implications are that the concepts of a proper way to parent, indeed a proper way to educate as well will be increasingly assaulted with an argument based in what Brooks identifies as "self transcendence," in which the source "moral" norms of the culture (like The Bible) will be marginalized in favor of a far more self actualizing truth from moment to moment, family unit to family unit, community to community, and on and on.

Ultimately, I think the danger of the shift Brooks is observing, and it's implications for parenting, is that if there is no source of Truth, just a common personal and cultural experience of truths, indeed no ultimate Meaning, how do we equip our kids to lead a meaningful and connected life?
If you feel like you've hit a patch of quicksand, you're not alone, and I don't know that I have a rope handy for you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Listen to Mr. Friedman!

I don't always agree with Thomas Friedman, but on this particular piece of wisdom in the New York Times we are in complete agreement. I can only hope that one day my son will hold me in similar regard.

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