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From the archives: Nine pet parenting peeves

I have been cleaning out the files on my computer and found this piece that I wrote when my daughter was in preschool…. she’s nine now. So it’s old news, but what’s amazing is how fresh it is. I still agree with all of it! I think I stopped writing because I’d called the piece “10 Pet Parenting Peeves” and just couldn’t find a 10th. So I publish it here in its original form.

1. Your child is in constant danger from strangers

A well-meaning friend of ours once expressed shock that we allowed our son to play alone in the front yard. “Aren’t you afraid of someone coming by and snatching him?” he asked. “Well…no!” we answered. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about .01% of abductions “stereotypical” kidnappings, i.e. stranger abductions. That leaves us with the sad fact that if you want to take care of your children, you should be most suspicious of the people around you. Most children are kidnapped because of a messy divorce or by a mentally unstable relative or friend. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “The most important thing you can do to prevent abduction is to maintain healthy communication with your children and spouse.” None of this means that you shouldn’t be aware of your children’s surroundings and prepare them to take care of themselves if they need to. But a sensible family can come up with sensible rules that allow your children some freedom. Resources: missingkids.com

2. Anti-bacterial soaps keep us healthy

Study after study proves the same two facts: First, antibacterial soaps do not clean any better than normal soaps. As long as you wash with appropriate soap for the appropriate length of time, you will be just as clean. And toys treated with antibacterial coatings? Pretty much useless against the daily onslaught of little critters in our environment. The second reason is much more important: antibacterial soaps are contributing to resistant bacteria. How big of a problem is this? Well, you’ve probably read lots of scary front-page articles about bird flu, but most doctors are much more concerned about the fact that they can no longer cure some of the most common infections with anything but the strongest antibiotics. According to the FDA, “About 70 percent of bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used to treat infections.” Resources: fda.gov, niaid.nih.gov

3. SUVs and bigger cars in general are safer for your family

Again, the information is there if you want it. In fact, the New Yorker ran a fabulous—and scary—article on this topic not too long ago. Bigger, heavier cars are not necessarily safer. I found myself biting my tongue one day when I heard a friend tell another person that his wife got their car because it was “safe”—when I knew it to be rated one of the more unsafe vehicles on the road. SUVs are top-heavy, which gives them a tendency to turn over. Also, they are generally harder to control, and more likely to be involved in accidents because defensive driving is more difficult. If you want to protect your kids, get a good ol’ safe and boring minivan, or even a smaller car that handles well and performs well on crash tests. Resources: consumerreports.org, The New Yorker

4. Watching TV can be good for your child

Let’s be clear about this. TV is entertainment. When we watch entertainment, most of our brain is turned off. We are experiencing pleasure. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t experience pleasure, but like most pleasurable activities, it’s best to do it in moderation. People try to defend their children’s TV-watching by saying that they try to get their kids to watch educational TV, or that they are afraid their kids will be social outcasts, or that their kids whine and scream if they aren’t allowed to watch. But none of that changes the facts. First, babies should never, ever watch TV. Children under two who watch regular TV score lower on IQ tests for a reason—researchers have found that their brains pretty much cease development while the TV’s on! Older kids who watch TV can absorb a fair amount of knowledge, but not any more than a kid given a choice of good books. And they are much more likely to be exposed to things that cause them anxiety, aggression, and depression. I remember reading about a study that showed that American kids who watch lots of TV show traumatic stress similar to kids living in war zones. (Wish I could find a citation for that study…) You need to turn on the TV in your house the way you should put out food. Look at it and decide if you really want it to become part of your child’s body, because they are sucking it all in. Resources: limitv.org, aap.org (ps: We do watch some TV in our house!)

5. If a package says “healthy,” you should feed it to your child

Parents are the second-best suckers in a field of gullible consumers. (Kids are the best, that’s why advertisers spend so much money on them.) We are so happy to buy things because they are easy—you can just throw a package into the lunchbox and you’re done. But we really can’t believe what labels say. A good rule of thumb is this: If something is marketed toward kids, it’s probably not a good idea to feed it to your kids too often. There are some healthy foods that are marketed to kids, but they aren’t the norm. The food issue ties into the TV issue. Without ever watching a single program, our daughter recently found out about Dora. Now when she sees things in the store with Dora on them, she must have them, regardless of whether I think they are appropriate things for her to buy. The cross-marketing of entertainment and foods is a huge business, and even PBS is in the act. Resources: commercialfreechildhood.org, kidshealth.org

6. A school’s test scores are important, and the corollary argument, private schools are by definition better

Even the best-educated people I know are starting to be worried about their school’s test scores. The campaign to make us fear our schools and second-guess our teachers is having success at the most fundamental level: it has started affecting how we think and make our decisions. We did “due diligence” when we chose a school for our son. We visited all the public and private schools that were an option for us. What we saw and heard from the many parents and educators that we talked to is exactly what we expected: test scores say very little about whether a school is the right place for your child. Anyone who has studied the theory of standardized tests knows that there are two qualities that standardized tests test most accurately: the socio-economic status of a child’s parents, and the child’s natural ability to think in the way that the test rewards. English language learners, tactile learners, physically active children, children with ADHD, children from homes without books, and even children whose families don’t sit down for regular family meals all score lower on standardized tests. None of these attributes is anything your school has any control over. Private schools can weed out the low test scorers, and public schools suffer when the parents of higher test scorers are suckered by the myth that their schools can’t serve them. But what it comes down to is this: is your child happy at his school? Does she want to go there and learn? Do his teachers know him and care for him? Are you involved with the school so that you can help to fix problems when they start? If we all ignored test scores and paid more attention to the schools themselves, our kids would be better off. Resources: alfiekohn.org, rethinkingschools.org

7. The age when your child starts to read reflects future success

Continuing from our current obsession with high test scores, we find the associated obsession with trying to “make” our children read at an earlier and earlier age. No matter that in the most literate country in the world, Finland, kids don’t start reading instruction till second grade. No matter that any parent of a normally intelligent child will tell you the same story: he resisted and resisted and suddenly, as if by magic, he started to read. Reading skills are developmental and thus come at different ages. The mother of a child in my son’s first grade class was infuriated that her child hadn’t started reading by December. But by May, she was doing just fine. Any parent knows that kids never do things on our schedule! There are many wonderful things we can do to support a child’s readiness to read, including having books in our homes, reading books to our children, reading books in the presence of our children so that we model the behavior, pointing out the letters they know on signs, playing reading readiness games with our preschoolers, and more. But nothing good is going to come of this mania to have “the earliest reader on the block.” The kids who are ready to read will read, and the kids who aren’t are going to be stuck with the stigma of being a slow reader right from the start. Don’t parenting books always tell us to set up our kids for success? Forcing kindergarteners who aren’t ready to start reading is setting many of them up for failure.

8. Active children are “hyper-active” and need to be medicated

I have a very active preschooler. I have to admit that recently she found a bottle of sunscreen and sprayed it on each and every article of her clothing, removing each piece from her drawers and reveling in a job well done. She had a great time. I was furious, of course. But what makes me even madder is that even I, someone dead set against medicating kids for normal behaviors, pondered the ease of putting her on a drug that would “calm her down.” Our society is into easy fixes, and this easy fix, I’m sure, will turn out to have some serious complications down the road. The ease with which people are choosing to medicate their kids these days makes a mockery of the pain and difficulty faced by parents with kids who actually have real problems, who aren’t just extreme examples of normal kids. As mad as I got at my daughter for the sunscreen incident, I could only be thankful that she hadn’t done many of the worse things that I know a child with a serious disorder might do.

9. Boys will be boys and girls will be girls

By chance we got one of each of them. And by chance, I can assure you that I have learned that sex stereotypes may be true for many kids, but they aren’t true for all of them. Our little boy loved pink and sequins and anything beautiful. He hated getting dirty and gravitated toward the girls in his play. Our little girl is feisty and headstrong. She’s one of the toughest kids in her preschool (following in the steps of another girl of our son’s class who was also the toughest kid). When you say things like, “aren’t little girls so sweet?” and “boys just never stop running,” you create a world in which kids who don’t fit generalizations are misfits rather than part of the lovely continuum of humanity. Our son could grow up to be a sports announcer and our daughter Miss America, but we’re going to give them the chance to be something else. And you should too.

Posted in Culture, Education, Parenting, Psychology.


8 Responses

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  1. susie says

    As a parent of a child with autism, I do believe that number 4 can be misleading. There are quite a few current, well supported studies about how our kids learn and that tv and video games can be a valuable tool. Because our children have such a different learning style, the visual input and stimuli can be very important and quite effective…..our kids often times can immerse themselves in a single subject for a long time, so computer games are also valuable. …..so the tv and computer are on at our house more than some would think is appropriate….

    • Suki says

      I totally agree that it’s a broad generalization! Our kids with special needs are always going to differ from the norm in some ways. Even within my generalization of our household’s approach to screen time, we have big variations between our kids. (This piece was actually written years ago before I let my youngest have much screen time at all.) Our son gets more computer time because he uses it as a tool for creativity and learning, whereas our daughter just wants to play mind-numbing games. Our daughter gets more video time because she has a greater need for the calming effects of passive watching, and our son only likes watching if it’s a movie he really wants to see. But in general, people are all too willing to make excuses for screen time (it’s educational!) and unwilling to admit that it’s just an electronic babysitter.

  2. Holly says

    The sunscreen spraying by your especially active gal really interested me. My now 18 year old daughter had a great time during a time-out at my sister’s house spraying nasal spray on every piece of fabric available till the bottle was empty when she was 3 or 4 years old. She had been sent to a closed bedroom. She struggled with her need to move more at school than appreciated throughout the years and now has been recruited to play collegiate volleyball! Her teachers hold her in high regard. My teaching peers roll their eyes when a student is taken off of medication, but I think it is a very individual decision and have seen students that can make it through without meds. with the teacher’s support.

  3. Suki says

    I applaud her choice to use something a bit more washable than sunscreen! 🙂 We talk these days so much about which characteristics are liabilities for kids and way too little about how their particular strengths might serve them as adults. I will quote our wise pediatrician On our intense, headstrong toddler with him: “These are all characteristics you will want her to have when she’s 30!”

  4. shelli : mamaofletters says

    I agree with everything on your list, but I admit I am one of those touting T.V. as educational. I have seen how my five-year-old gets so many ideas from his shows, and sometimes he comes to me with ideas for us to do or to make something after watching it on T.V. As for my two-year-old, I think I wouldn’t be a very good mother if I didn’t let him watch some T.V. because the rest of the day he tends to cling to me, and I need the break! We watch quite a bit in this house because my husband likes to watch it too. As much as I’d like to watch less, I just don’t have the energy to keep going with my kids all day long. But after keeping track of their T.V. viewing over a couple of weeks, I was relieved to see that they watch less than I thought they did.

    • Suki says

      Of course, every family has different limits, but as long as you are doing it consciously that’s better than just letting the TV be a babysitter all day long!

  5. Meg says

    I know darned well when I am using a show as a babysitter, and make no bones about it. Right now, my toddler is watching Bo on the Go. He LOVES that show. I feel guilty about him watching anything at all, but only sorta kinda. I don’t pretend it’s educational. I just insist that it does no harm (so, for my kids, nothing that is crass, sarcastic, violent, etc). And then I give myself an hour here and there to have a beer and come online. And then we make sure to have screen-free days.

    Actually, I find our homelife is a lot more vibrant when we are screen-free, because instead of being plugged into something external and impersonal, we are plugged into our family life in a way that makes it an investment, and over time, the investment becomes really enjoyable.

    But I still don’t beat myself up over the bad days when the toddler is sick and likes, in addition to nursing marathons, a lot of Bo on the Go, and I give myself a get-out-of-housework-free card and a couple of beers.

    So far, my kids aren’t idiots and I’m doing ok. 🙂

    • Suki says

      Well, I’m not going to criticize you from where I sit: My 9yo is watching videos about Minecraft, and I’m getting some work done! It sounds like you have a great point of view on it, and thank goodness your kids aren’t idiots! (Though I’m a bit worried about what a show called “Bo on the Go” will do to their future potential as poets!)



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