Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Grape's diabolical plan for world (or at least family) domination

I've always rolled my eyes at families whose toddlers appear to run the show.

You know, the people with children who over rule their parents' dinner and even restaurant suggestions. The ones who determine when their families visit friends and when it's time to leave. The kids who dictate that the entire clan must wake before five and crash too soon after dusk to conduct any semblance of a healthy social life. The tots who refuse to sleep anywhere but in their parents' bedroom.

I don't remember much from my post-operative fog during the Grape's first week on earth, but I remember Dr. Dave, an old school pediatrician in Rhode Island, impressing upon me and a bleary-eyed R., the baby is not the CEO of the family.

R. and I have tried to repeat this incantation as needed. Lately, though, I've noticed the Grape make a subtle play to step up the management ranks of our little family unit. He doesn't make a charge for the chairmanship, but rather picks small, winnable battles to chip away at our grip on power. I fear R. and I might fall for his strategy because it's stunning in its simplicity: the Grape knows we think he is cute.

Take last night, for example. The Grape was in the tub. R. and I, stricken by a chest cold reminiscent of the plague, were discussing what takeout to order for dinner. I listed the usual choices. When I paused, the Grape interrupted his mission to eat all the soap suds and piped up, load and clear, "Picco!" Picco is our go to pizza place, and they also feature fantastic ice cream - a fact not lost on the Grape.

I said it sounded fine to me and R. conceded he didn't need the burger he had been craving. Presto, the Grape got his way. The Grape watched our exchange intently and didn't return to his bath toys until he heard R. call in the order. For a margherita pizza at that. Not the neapolitan his mom would have preferred.

It's not just food. The Grape frequently decides when we walk the dog. Now that I think of it, I believe he's recruited Lila the Dog to support his takeover campaign. You'd think that turncoat mongrel would be loyal to me, her great rescuer and feeder. But no. Since I reluctantly put her on a diet three weeks ago, she's aligned herself firmly in the Grape's camp.

He festoons the leash on her and sings, "Lila! Let's go." The dog runs to the door, whining as if she might need (not just want) to go outdoors, and I find myself hanging up with the gas company after holding for forty minutes, turning off pasta water a minute before it boils or making us late to some doctor appointment.

The Grape also asserts his rank in the family by pursuing a campaign of imposed ignorance. He is desperate to keep us in a news blackout. Whenever R. and I are home to catch the five to ten minutes of real world news, the Grape makes sure to divert our attention by all means necessary.

He brings us books and asks us sweetly to read Goodnight Gorilla, over and over, until the news goes to commercial and/or Lindsay Lohan. At that point in the broadcast, he abandons his interest in literature and snuggles angelically on our laps. He might even close his eyes and coo, ever so quietly.

If he's in a more contrary mood, or R. and I have the audacity to tune in to the dreaded NPR newscast, he'll skip the books and assault us with an array of plastic vehicles, musical instruments and dog toys. Again, only until the world headlines pass and NPR cuts to its ceaseless fundraiser. As soon as they're on about the flowers they can send mom if you pledge a hundred bucks right now, the Grape dusts off his halo and listens to the radio like it's about to impart the secret to life.

Some of you might laugh and call this all cute, right? But I think not. He's 21 months old. If he's this demanding now, what happens in a few short years? Will he want to redecorate the apartment with a firehouse theme? Bring a goat to live with us? Serve popcorn as the main course at dinner parties? Will R. and I find our shares in the family corporation so diluted by the Grape and the dog that we'll be powerless to stop such events?

Probably (hopefully) not. We're actually decent at putting our feet down when something matters. Still, I'm concerned that the Grape knows this, and is working tirelessly to nudge that line between what matters and what doesn't in his favor. So while I hope we don't morph into total chumps, I cannot swear it won't happen.

Here's what I can promise: One of these days we will run into Dr. Dave. He will size us up, roll his eyes, and say, "I told you so."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Kitted out like little Evil Kneevil

One Step Ahead, those catalog purveyors of baby toys and gear ranging from the fun to the ridiculous, have outdone themselves.

Amongst the monogrammed swim diapers, whimsical dress up clothes, and cheep and cheerful bath toys, I found this gem in their April catalog: a baby/toddler CRASH HELMET. No, it's not a bike helmet. Nor is it one of those orthopedic prescription helmets (available in a variety of delightful patterns) worn to correct flat head.

This beige monstrosity features "light and breathable" foam. It's sized for little skulls aged "8 to 20 months" and promises to protect your newly mobile baby from the myriad dangers of existing in a (presumably already baby proofed) house.

The baby in the picture looks like a crash test dummy. Or perhaps like the littlest member of some obscure, second rate circus family. Unless you plan to shoot your baby from a cannon, I fail to see why you would buy such a product.

I'd love to see the sales figures on the baby crash helmet. Somehow I doubt they're abysmal. Products like the infant crash helmet probably appeal to that subset of crazy parents who clamp all their toilets shut, but fail to install a fence around their swimming pool.

But it's not just the outliers buying into the bubble wrapped baby craze. An entire industry has sprung up to exploit the unfounded anxiety so rampant among the current generation of helicopter parents.

I'm all for reasonable safety measures. I don't let the Grape guzzle bleach, play in the knife drawer or dig around in the cat box. I'll probably make him wear a bike helmet, even though I never wore one as a kid. (I rode my bike on a country road that saw roughly three cars and a tractor per day; the Grape lives in the city.) Though I allow him to Skype with the sitter, he's not plugging into any social media network anytime before the end of this decade.

The One Step Ahead crash helmet is one (literally) ugly reminder that my generation of parents has endangered much of childhood as we knew it. How many of the Grape's contemporaries will never get to do previously ordinary kid things like climb trees, jump off high flying swings, traverse the top of monkey bars, ride bikes to each other's houses, play in the surf, or even dig in the dirt for that matter? (Let alone run amok in the local woods - an activity that kept my brother, our friends and me entertained for countless hours. If I allowed the Grape such freedoms as a first grader, I'm sure some busybody bystander would call the cops.)

But seriously: What kind of message are we sending our kids if they're taught from toddlerhood that the house is too dangerous to face without kitting oneself out for a rugby match?

Put differently, if you're too scared to let your kid crawl around the living room bare headed, but under direct parental supervision, I think you need to consider seeking professional help.

Kids pick up on parental fears, even before they cannot articulate them. If I teach the Grape that everything is dangerous and scary, I'm afraid he'll fail to distinguish a real threat when faced with something truly perilous later in childhood.

We can't protect kids from everything. Nor should we want them to live in a constant state of lock down, because that chips away at their inherent sense of wonder. To some degree, I also subscribe to the out of vogue notion that the things that don't kill you make you stronger.

So we'll pass on the helmet (incidentally the most hideous item ever made in Italy).

But I would like to thank the former occupants of our apartment for today's material. Since moving in November, we've received a daily deluge of catalogs in the mail. I've spent hours online trying to cancel them, to no avail. Evidently the previous occupants of our unit single handedly kept hundreds of retailers in the black. As evidence, I offer our crestfallen UPS man, who upon seeing me for the first time, stammered sadly, "But what happened to K?"

Me: "They moved to the suburbs."

UPS man: "Really."

Me: "I'm afraid so."

UPS man: "Where in the suburbs?"

Me: "No idea. Sorry."

UPS: "So you live here now? K. moved out?"

Me: (suppressing bitchy urge to ask whether UPS man was dropped on his head as an infant) "Yes. K. moved out. I live here now."

UPS man: (wistful, but with an undertone of panic) "But I used to come here, like three or four times a day. I saw K. every day."

Me: "Uh, I'm sorry for your loss, but can I please have my package now?"

Because I was frazzled and sleep deprived, I closed the door on this encounter actually feeling guilty about my lack of initiative in the mail order department. Is my high level of resistance to catalog sales pitches going to put the poor UPS driver out of his job?

It just might, if the catalogs keep trying to sell us atrocities like the baby crash helmet:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Your baby cannot read

"Your baby can read!" If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

In a bit of rare good news this week, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood asked the Federal Trade Commission to halt deceptive advertisements for a video and flashcard program aimed at anxious wanna-be alpha parents who somehow missed the memo that their newborns are, for lack of a better word, babies.

The complaint states that ads for Your Baby Can Read are false and misleading because the products do not teach babies to read.

The company, Your Baby Can LLC, hawks its products with claims that the optimal time to learn reading is during infancy. It urges parents to start the program with three-month-old infants. "Seize this small window of opportunity!" the website says. Or what? If you don't overstimulate your infant with videos and numb their nascent brains with flashcards they won't grow up to be readers?

Anyone else smell something really, really rotten?

Seriously: Is the way to make someone excited about reading to plop them in front of the television? The Your Baby Can Read video is thirty minutes long; the instructions tell parents to have the child watch it twice a day for several months. (Yes, that's what it says. My eyes were not playing tricks on me.)

Pediatricians around the developed world are stunningly unanimous in their belief that any screen time is less than ideal for the under-two-year-old set. Dr. Stephen Novella, a clinical neurologist at no less a university than the Yale School of Medicine, reviewed the Your Baby Can Read program. Here's what he had to say:

"Forcing children to learn a task before their brains are naturally ready does not have any advantage... The whole 'baby genius' industry for anxious parents is misguided. This [the Your Baby Can Read product] is just the latest incarnation of this fiction."

Indeed. And I love the phrase "baby genius industry." Years ago, a friend who teaches violin and viola at the New England Conservatory told me, "If you have to ask if your child is a prodigy, he isn't." Obviously everyone doesn't become a world renowned violinist, but most of us learn to read. Still, his basic point that geniuses are born and not forced resonated with me.

I don't fault parents who pop in a video show for the kids once in a while so they can get some household tasks accomplished. If a half hour of Curious George or Sesame Street means the family gets a home cooked dinner, or the bills get paid, or mom gets to shower, then I say go for it. We all do what we need to do.

But going out and spending money on a program that mandates hundreds of hours of television time for a baby seems like half witted parenting. At best.

So what about the kids in the advertisements? Or the sleep deprived saps who swear it worked for their babies? Memorization, says Dr. Nonie Lesaux, a child development expert at Harvard University. "It's rote learning, it's memorizing words... It's a very clear misuse of the term 'reading.'"

Is that so bad? Yes it is. Some things in life must be memorized. One's address. The order of the alphabet and numbers. The names of one's immediate relatives. In my view, context-free words on flashcards don't make the list.

I wrote recently about the folly of pushing early reading on toddlers and my belief that little kids should be allowed to be little kids. Their job as pre-schoolers is to play and learn life skills, such as lining up for the bathroom and not biting other people. Most children still learn to read in early elementary school, and I see nothing wrong with that. Before that stage, the majority of toddlers are too busy discovering the world (including books) at their own pace.

The Your Baby Can Read products also do nothing to foster intellectual curiosity or imagination - the two absolutely necessary attributes for any lifelong voracious reader. I'm hopeful that the FTC will shut their ad campaign down soon.

Robert Titzer, the founder of Your Baby Can LLC, which produces the products and sells them for about $200 a pop, defends his company's claims. He's just like any snake oil salesman in the history of free enterprise. He will swear his special tonic works, grudgingly admit that it won't work for anyone when cornered, and wave his credentials like a banner professing his legitimacy. And he's laughing at parents' idiocy all the way to the bank; he's sold more than a million of the videos.

For the record, Mr. Titzer holds a Ph.D. in something called human performance. Not from an especially auspicious academic institution. Maybe if his parents had forced him to watch more "educational" television as an infant, things would have been different for him.

You can support the complaint against Mr. Titzer's company here:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Martyrdom? Mental abuse? Both?

Last week the Grape and I went to a program called Kids' Jam at the Berklee College of Music. Students led the group of kids (who ranged widely in age, from about one to six or seven years old) in songs and games. They showed them saxophones and clarinets and gave a little spiel about wind instruments. The event lasted forty-five minutes and did not feature a snack.

For anyone but a first grader who lifted her mother's shirt three times during the class to help herself to mom's boobs.

At first I thought I was seeing things. I've heard urban legends about people nursing older children, but I thought they meant early nursery schoolers. This tableau was just disturbing. And weird. She made no attempt at discretion. It was as if the woman wanted to make some kind of statement.

I'm still struggling to understand what that statement might have been. I am my own organic dairy? I never leave my children for even an hour? I don't want my children to grow up? I am a martyr in the church of la leche?

First of all, the simple fact that a group of college boys led the music class should have given pause to any grown woman seeking to expose herself. One mom who nurses her newborn said she'd never nurse without covering up in coed company. I tend to agree that basic politeness dictates such decorum when in public. Yes, feeding your baby is natural, but unaffiliated bystanders don't necessarily desire a closeup of the proceedings. You don't need to buy a designer nursing cover; the pink and blue blankets everyone steals from the maternity ward do just fine.

Second, if the Grape (at the tender age of twenty months) can make it through the music group without pausing for refreshments, I am confident a significantly older child could duplicate his remarkable feat of self denial. But no. The little girl yanked her mom's shirt up and helped herself every fifteen minutes like clockwork.

Third, many people will wail that breast is best. But once a child eats table food, drinks from a cup and rides her bicycle (one without training wheels) to class, doesn't it seem odd to justify nursing as a health conscious choice?

Here in the first world, we are fortunate to have a balanced diet available year round. Nursing a child who's old enough to dine in restaurants without a booster seat seems like a surefire way to stymie that child's blossoming independence as well as infantilize her palate.

Nutritional arguments notwithstanding, the girl at the music class wasn't nursing for nourishment; mom's boobs were her special comfort thing. Some kids clutch teddy bears; this girl latched onto tits. The mother had evidently failed to teach her offspring more age appropriate ways to self soothe. Plus her attempt to keep the apron strings as secure as possible opens her child to peer ridicule. For no good reason.

I went home wondering if I was over reacting. R. assured me I wasn't, and added that calling social services might be a reasonable course of action.

Though I agree that nursing an elementary schooler constitutes psychological abuse, I doubt the state would do anything. The kid in question was clearly clean, clothed and well fed enough; this wasn't a case of some unstable mom depriving her school age child of all nourishment besides breast milk as happens in certain religious cults, occasionally with fatal results. I opted to mind my own business.

But I certainly don't look forward to the day when the Grape registers such a sight and asks me why a big person is eating like a baby.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Can't we all just get along? Apparently not.

I have an enormous problem with adults who actively encourage bad behavior.

My feelings apply equally to kid parents and dog parents.

The Grape loves to accompany Lila the Dog to our local dog park. It's the only place he will happily sit still in his stroller - sometimes for up to an hour if the dogs' antics are particularly engaging.

I understand that I assume a reasonable risk by taking him there. I also understand that the Grape smells interesting to Lila's canine friends. Dogs swing by his stroller to take a good whiff, root for stray crackers in the basket under his seat and sometimes one of them manages to sneak a wet puppy kiss onto the Grape's face.

Once in a while, despite my vigilance, some eager doggie manages to jump up on the stroller, only to be shooed off by its person.

Until this Saturday. A woman we vaguely know from the neighborhood encouraged her puppy to jump up on the Grape. Repeatedly.

Excuse me, but what the f--- is wrong with people?

I told the dog to get off and knocked its muddy paws out of the Grape's lap.

"But he can't reach to say hello!" she protested.

"He doesn't need to say hello," I replied icily.

(Full disclosure: Maybe I had a shorter than normal fuse. Before this happened, I'd already identified this woman as a total twit. She'd earnestly explained to me during one of our many winter storms that "you don't need to clean up after your dog when it snows." Nice one. That's the kind of behavior that gets all our dogs banned from outdoor recreational spaces that the Grape, Lila and I would like to enjoy together.)

But going back to the stroller jumping: What I wish I had said is, "Don't you realize you're setting up the puppy to fail?"

Because if you reward the puppy for jumping on the Grape's stroller, the puppy might think it's a good thing to jump on other random strollers.

Which I can promise will not end well for the dog every time.

Many moms and dads aren't as indulgent of our four legged friends as I am. When I related the incident to my mother, she assured me that I (for once) under reacted. Had a dog jumped on my niece's stroller, she said, my sister-in-law would have called animal control.

I grudgingly agree that, in such a hypothetical, she'd be within her rights.

I also think there's such a thing as karma. Another woman occasionally visits the same dog park with her labrador. She is a thrity-something visibly pregnant with her first child; the dog is an un-neutered adult male who likes to mark things.

"Such as strollers and bicycles," she explained with a laugh as the dog lifted his leg and hosed down the Grape's lap. "He marks every bike on our street everyday." She said this almost proudly, in the manner of a mom boasting, "Junior ate forty-seven jelly donuts today and barfed them up all over Great-Great-Grandma's Louis XIV chaise."

Um, excuse me? You let the dog do that?

Are you going to let your kid burn down your house if the urge strikes him? Or throw mud at other kids? Or finger paint on other people's furniture?

Or, God forbid, run up to strange dogs? Because that can turn into a disaster. Even a mild mannered dog on a leash can startle when approached by a speeding, flailing mini person whose squeals of delight stir up visions of wounded prey. If you ignore everything else I ever write, please remember this:

Do not ever let your kids bound up to an unknown dog. It sets the poor dog up to fail. You need to ask the owner if the child can say hello. Yes, even if the critter in question looks like the mellowest mutt on the planet.

I didn't ask the woman any of those questions out loud. Given my last post, I didn't want to risk being on the receiving end of a hormonal meltdown.

Suffice to say, her pup never gets within striking distance of my kid or his conveyance anymore.

Still, the karma in her case might turn out to be a bitch. I can't wait to see if mom-to-be finds it cute when someone else's precious four-legged darling soaks her baby's buggy.

It won't be Lila, though. I'm not about to set her up to fail just to make a catty point at the dog park. But I'm no saint. The Grape and I will laugh heartily when it happens.