Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Choosing Whoppers Over Cheeseburgers

I learned today that those Nutri-Grain frozen waffles I give my kids are actually less heallthy than the low-fat toaster waffles and that we should be eating Triscuits not Wheat Thins.

I also found that glazed doughnuts at Dunkin’ Doughnuts have 330 calories and we should instead be choosing cinnamon doughnuts without the goo (or no doughnuts at all).

All this useful information was in a book called “Eat This, Not That For Kids,” by David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding, the kid’s version of the adult book by the same name minus the kids.

The book rates kids meals at a bunch of fast food restaurants and gives them letter grades, so Wendy’s gets an A- because it offers some healthy foods like chili and mandarin oranges, while Burger King gets a C- for having only a few kids’ items on the menu, none of which are healthy.

I was turned on to this book by a huge group of fifth graders who gathered around the book at my younger son’s book fair. I started reading it while I was working at the book fair and when I brought it home my sons loved it too. My older son loves telling me that I should be giving him chewy granola bars instead of the Nutri-Grain bars I’ve been buying.

I especially like the fact that they rate the fast food places but of course the true solution is to avoid fast food except for special occasions. So, while it’s useful to know that the Whopper Jr. is more healthy than the cheeseburgers my kids favor at B.K., the underlying idea that we can find truly healthy food in the drive-in line is just way off.

Then again, most of us do resort to occasional fast food. At my house, pizza is a weekly ritual – so much so that I’ve taken to eating salads at the pizza parlor.

Much of it is also common sense. Ben & Jerry’s gets a C- because of all the fat and sugar and the book tells me that the ice-cream with all the candy and goo (like my beloved New York Super Fudge Chunk) is a no-no and I should opt for the sorbet and frozen yogurt instead. I have always known as I stood by the ice-cream refrigerator that sorbet would be healthier and I still choose the Super Fudge Chunk or the Vanilla Heathbar.

I make most of our meals at home and we try to eat healthy. We don’t have many snacks and we don’t allow soda and I’m happy to see that many of the “Eat This” choices, like Frosted Miniwheats and Skippy Natural are my choice anyway. We skirt the line between organic and meat and potatoes at my house.

Then there’s my thin, low-weight children who look like they skip most of their meals and who seem destined to remain under 100 pounds forever. I was a tall, knobby-kneed youngster myself but here’s what the doctor told me: “Feed them everything you can’t eat: butter, cheese, oils, nuts.”  He added that we shouldn’t binge out on junk and we haven’t but I’m not so worried about fat and calories for my kids. I’m more worried about teaching them healthy eating habbits for life.

Still, “Eat This, Not That,” is a good read for kids and adults. If nothing else, it reinforces that we can make better choices even if it’s just a Whopper over a cheeseburger.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Organization: The Blind Leading the Blind


  I am trying to help my son become more organized but it’s like the blind leading the blind.  I’m sure he can see that someone whose desk looks like mine does shouldn’t be handing out tips on organization.

            My heart goes out to him because he has many of the same struggles I had as a kid: He forgets his homework, he does his homework but then he can’t find it, he doesn’t always know what the assignment is.

            So he and I are going to spend some time tonight putting his papers in their various subject areas in his looseleaf notebook. It took me about a week to convince him that this is a better system than keeping his papers in folders .

            The other problem he has in school is harder to fix: he simply isn’t engaged when he isn’t interested and so he spaces out in math and doodles in reading/writing workshop. This is understandably frustrating for the teachers and doesn’t help him much either.

            Someone told me recently that kids with attention problems like R. have real trouble engaging their brains when they’re bored. When kids with ADHD are given brain scans as they do a task they find boring, their neurons simply don’t fire.  This would explain a lot.

            The solution has been for me to hound him all day from morning until night and for me to keep in constant touch with his teachers so I know if he’s falling behind

            I got some words of wisdom from someone who told me that you can’t let these kids fail and you have to get on their team, so I’ve really been trying to get on his team and be patient. I’m not always successful.

            Meanwhile, R. is showing signs of some independence. Today, he took out a timer to time his reading and piano practice.  OK, maybe this is actually a sign that he doesn’t want to read or practice any longer than he has to but hey – I’m happy to see him being proactive.

             I’ll go on helping him to develop skills that I lack. At least, I’m well aware that it won’t happen overnight. It’s a lifetime process and we’re both learning.



Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No Flu Shots For Kids

           I finally got around to calling my pediatrician about flu shots the other day. I was pretty sure I knew the answer and there it was: no flu shots and no swine flu shots and no appointments or waiting lists for the future.

            My older son R. applauded when he found out.  But I’m concerned. In the past, my kids have always been at the top of the list for the shots because they have asthma. But not this year.

            Mind you, it’s an ordeal giving them flu shots. When they were younger, they screamed their heads off and they’re still far from stoic about getting the shots.

            We always have a conversation that goes like this. Me: “You’re going to the doctor today.”  Them: “Are we getting shots?”  Me; “Um – yes.” Them: “No, we’re not.” Me: “Yes, you are.”

            I win that argument but only after all but carrying them into the waiting room. One year I got my husband to go with them and he never wants to go again.

            Still, I worry about my kids getting the flu this season. They both get those terrible coughs that won’t go away. W. is worse. He gets really sick and just a couple of years ago he had pneumonia.

            I asked the cranky nurse at my pediatrician’s office whether there was any exception for kids with asthma. I figured it was worth a shot. But she was clearly tired of talking about it. When I asked if there was a waiting list, she just told me to go to the website.

            When I went to the website, it explained that they are out of shots and that they are not taking appointments until they get the shots. I guess the nurse got tired of explaining that to me and I don’t blame her.

            Mostly, I feel a little guilty about not jumping to get the shots a month or so ago. Now I’ll be berating myself if my kids get sick this winter.

            I feel a little better knowing that thousands of other parents are in the same boat and if I’m honest, I have to admit that part of me is glad to put off doing something that makes my kids act like I’m sending them to the torture chamber.

            But when those shots come in, we’ll be among the first to line up. I’ve spent the winter with sick kids for weeks on end and if there’s any chance I can avoid that fate, I’m taking it, screaming kids or no screaming kids.



Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Parent -Teacher Conference All Over Again

It was the same old story at the parent-teacher conference. Disorganized. Not working up to potential. Having problems with math.

It was very disappointing but I’m over it now. After all, it was decades ago when I was in junior high. My parents were concerned but I remained clueless about what my parents and teachers wanted from me until sometime in high school.

Today I found myself sitting in a parent-teacher conference hearing the exact same phrases from my older son’s teachers, proving once again that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

And here I am the organizationally challenged mom who struggled through algebra, trying to throw my son a lifeline as he sinks beneath an ocean of failed expectations at his middle school.

I finally turned around my grades when my parents hinted – threatened really- that I wouldn’t get into college. I know now that they lied. But it did succeed in scaring me into studying and when I started doing well in school it was much more satisfying than hearing that I wasn’t working up to my potential.

My son is no different than me in that respect. When he’s on a downward spiral, he feels bad about himself and he does badly. When he does well, he feels good about himself and does well.

It sounds so simple. But getting him on an upward trajectory isn’t so easy. We have to monitor his progress all the time and now I’m emailing his teachers to check up on him I discovered recently that he is apparently using his assignment book as a paper weight because he hasn’t written in it in weeks.

I had deluded myself into thinking that maybe I should let him be in charge of his work and take a step back. But it turns out you can only step back if your child is a self-starter and mine isn’t, at least not in school.

So now we’re getting him a high school tutor and he’s going for extra help after school and tonight he organized his folders and we spent a lot of time figuring out a better system. If we can help get him more organized, maybe he can go back to working independently sometime at the start of his freshman year in college.

I insisted that he sit in on the conference with his teachers because I wanted him to hear himself what they were saying about his worik. But when he came in, he looked like a deer caught in the headlights and I felt a pang of regret. I’m sure that his guidance counselor was right when he said that all R. heard was, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Having been there myself, know that when R. heard “You’re not working up to your potential,” he was as annoyed and baffled as I was. ‘What exactly does that mean anyway?’ he’s thinking.,“ and what do they want from me?”

Poor kid. I wish he had inherited something else – my red hair or my green eyes. Instead, I’ve passed on both my poor math skills and my “potential.”

Illustration from

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Epic Morning Battles

Epic battles! Dramatic face-offs. A race against time to achieve the impossible and a noble quest.

No, it’s not Dan Brown’s latest novel. It’s my house in the morning where we are engaged in an epic battle with my son R. with daily face-offs, a race against time to get him to school on time and a noble quest: - an impossible dream - to get everyone moving while still maintaining our serenity.

You can stop laughing now.

We have been trying to achieve this since kindergarten when R’s kindergarten told us gently that she’d like to see our son sitting in his seat when school started rather than racing for the doorway. It’s been downhill ever since.

Now that my son is 12, you would think that he could get himself up in the morning,, get himself dressed and make his own breakfast and lunch but you would be wrong.

First comes the wake-up call. We give our sons a five-minute warning and then call or them to wake up. My younger son is groggy but willing. Not so my older son, who burrows deeper into his blankets until I finally give up in frustration, grab his feet, and put them on the ground. Talk about enabling.

Next, R. usually tries to curl up for a few more zzs on the couch so we grab his blankets again, roust him from the couch and start trying to get him dressed. This is where we practice our broken tape-recorder routine. Get a clean shirt, get a clean shirt, get a clean shirt. Put on some pants, put on some pants, put on some pants. Put on your socks, socks, socks.

And so it goes. We push him through breakfast where he inevitably asks for what we don’t have. Me: “Do you want toast or cereal?” R: “Waffles.”

And then there’s lunch. “Do you want ham or turkey?” “Peanut butter and honey.” Ahhhhhhh.

This morning, R. informed me that his friend’s mom makes his lunch every day. That might be true, I replied, but your friend does all his own laundry. Score one for Mom!

The show-down this morning came because of R.’s very poor, extremely disrespectful attitude in the morning and his screaming at me. In fairness, he might have been reacting to my raising my voice several times but that’s no excuse! This kind of escalation is how wars are started.

Everything had cooled down by the time R. got back from school and had transformed from demon child back to my sweet boy. We agreed that we would list all his morning jobs and he would sign a contract agreeing to do them. Then we would offer him a quarter a day if he succeeds and would take away video games if he melts down.

We’re also going to buy another alarm clock. The last one died after being dropped on the floor one too many times but maybe the next one will be sturdier.

All I want is a truce in our epic battle. I want fewer face-downs and more face time in the morning. I have a new impossible dream: a child who peacefully gets himself ready while I meditate or read the paper or something. All that I’m asking is we give peace a chance.

Image from

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

For those of us who never or rarely spanked our kids, it’s nice to have more ammunition: a study that says that spanking actually lowers kids’ IQS.

The study by Murray Strauss, of the University of New Hampshire, found that the children ages 2 to 6 of parents who don’t hit their kids had IQ scores that were 2 to 5 points higher than kids who were spanked.

This makes sense, Murray explains, when you consider that parents who don’t spank their kids are probably talking to their kids about their misdeeds instead of hitting them. Studies have also found that the children whose parents talk to them also have higher IQs.

The study also found that children who are spanked throughout childhood show signs of chronic stress.

The study tested the intelligence of children ages 2 to 5 and ages 5 to 8 and then went back and tested them again four years later. The younger group of kids who weren’t spanked scored an average of 5 points higher in the younger group and 2 and a half points in the older group.

A Duke University study of more than 2,500 toddlers from low-income families found that young children who were spanked were more aggressive and had worse cognitive abilities than kids who weren’t spanked.

The study focused on low-income families because previous research showed low-income families are more likely to spank children. Researchers aren’t sure whether this is because of the stress of money problems or because of what researcher and lead author Lisa Berlin calls:”cultural contagion” of behavior that pressures parents to follow the crowd.

Research has found people who spank tend to be younger, less educated, single and depressed or stressed. It’s more common among parents who were spanked themselves, it’s more common in the south and parents who spank are more likely to identify themselves as born again Christians It’s more common among African-Americans than whites or Hispanics.

One-third of the one-year=olds and half of the two and three-year-olds were spanked within the past two weeks.

All of this seems very depressing because the parents who believe in spanking probably aren’t going to be convinced that they should spare the rod. But maybe the studies represent a cultural shift in our society that’s been taking place over the past couple of decades.

I’ve spanked my kids a couple of times – once when my son ran into the street and another time when he put his brother into the sandbox, shut the lid and sat on it. But even then I didn’t feel right about it.

It’s never made sense to me that we should discourage bad behavior by doing something that is clearly bad behavior itself. How can we tell them to stop smacking each other if we smack them?

It’s also disturbing as a punishment because we punish our kids when we’re angry and we don’t want to be smacking our kids when we’re angry. We’ve all had that experience of feeling ourselves lose control but when that extends to spanking, it can’t be good for either the parents or the kids.

So I’m glad to hear that researchers are against spanking too. Maybe someday parents will look back on spanking like we might look back on putting people into the stockades. “Can you believe they used to do that?” these future parents might say. “Didn’t they know what it was doing to their kids?”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Parental Intervention In School

How much should you intervene in your kid’s schooling?

I have this dilemma with my oldest son who wants to switch out of a reading and writing workshop in middle school and take art or shop instead.

I think his writing skills are fine but he suffers from lack of motivation. I suspect he ended up in reading and writing workshop because he doesn’t like to write and writes as little as he can. I’m not convinced he needs remedial help as much as he needs someone to light a fire under him.

But word came back from his guidance counselor that she thinks he does need the class and should stay put.

Now I have to decide whether I should overrule her and I’ not sure I want to be one of those parents. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I do know best.

I listened to two moms talking about their high school kids the other day and they were fretting over whether their kids were in advanced or introductory algebra. Both were saying things like, “I want my kid to go to college,” as if this math course would make or break their kids’ chances to get into Harvard.

They too thought they knew best for their kids when they switched them to a more advanced class and they were probably right. Still there’s something a little wrong-headed about parents deciding things like what level math their kid should be in.

Back in the dark ages when I was a kid, parents rarely intervened in what went on in the classroom and they would never think of deciding to switch their kid out of a class.

My parents went to bat with me with a couple of teachers but they would no sooner think of switching me out of a class than they would think about sending me to beauty school. They had four kids and they were too busy to be that involved.

Now I wonder whether I’m in danger of being one of those helicopter parents if I take my kid out of this class. I’m going to talk to the teacher first, of course, and then make my decision. But why do I feel that I have one foot already on the helipad?