Monthly Archives: January 2012

Kids and profanity

What’s your 3 year old’s favorite song?  Twinkle Twinkle Little StarB-I-N-G-O? Get Ready to Wiggle?  Here’s how my 3yo’s favorite song goes:

Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick
I wanna take a ride on your disco stick
Don’t think too much just bust that kick
I wanna take a ride on your disco stick

And that “kick’ in there – well, let’s just say I thought it was another _ick word until I looked up the lyrics on line.  I think that might be, shall we say, a charitable interpretation of the lyric.

My 8yo knows most swear words too.  (Yes, even “the most foul of foul words.“)  I really don’t see a problem with children knowing about profanity, as such.  Frankly, the song lyrics sail right over their heads, and now that the older one is finally twigging to the subtext of 80% of pop radio, she’s rejecting the racier stuff on her own.  Here’s a recent conversation we had when Pitbull’s Give Me Everything came on:

Chloe: I don’t like this song, can you change it?
Me: Sure, why don’t you like it?
Chloe: Because I know what he means when he says “Give me everything.”
Me: OK, but you realize most of the songs on the radio are about sex in some way, right?
Chloe: Yeah, I just don’t like that one.

She also knows it’s not appropriate for her to sing half of Last Friday Night and all of S&M, though she hasn’t asked for details about why exactly.  So I suppose that’s where my line is as far as bawdy songs and my children: OK to listen, not OK to sing.  And I will explain why they’re not OK to sing, if asked, but I try not to get more detailed than they’re interested in.  For now, “That’s an adult thing and not appropriate for children to sing” is all they want to know.

As far as the swearing thing – I explain the words as they come up, and once Chloe was mature enough to censor herself by situation, I told her she could say them.  On rare occasions she’ll say “damn it” or something at home, but has been very good about not cursing in front of friends or at school.  And really, that skill is what all kids eventually learn.  A 13yo is most likely not abstaining from swearing, even if his parents have forbidden it and never hear anything stronger than “crud” pass his lips – he’s just learned not to swear in front of his parents, as well as teachers, church leaders, etc.

The 3yo, on the other hand has no censoring skills yet, so if she busts out with a profanity, I inform her that it’s a rude word, and she shouldn’t say it.  Of course I also censor myself more around her, because they are like little recording machines, and no matter how much you discourage it, if you say “Damn it!” every time you drop something, your preschooler will do it too, as I learned the first time around!  (And god damn, is it adorable to hear a 2yo say “damn it” in that perfect annoyed intonation, so you have to stifle your laughter while delivering a stern lesson about appropriate language.)

Sometimes the song lyrics do give me pause, and I wonder if it’s OK to let my kids listen to the pop station, even the one that censors out Nicki Minaj saying the euphemistic “eff.”  But then I remember that I grew up listening to top 40, and singing along with such hits as Afternoon Delight with all the blithe naivete of a Bluth at a Christmas party.  I was OK, and my kids will be too.

Babywise: “assessment of real need”

Look at this manipulative bastard.

I’m still not past Chapter 2.  I’ve noticed a really disturbing underlying assumption.  First, let me provide the actual quotes (emphasis added).

“[In attachment parenting] the baby is offered the breast simply and immediately without regard to assessment of real need.”

“the single most critical element for all aspects of infant care . . . an acquired confidence to think, evaluate and respond to real need,”

“using parental assessment to decide when to feed based on actual need.”

“Feeding based on fixed times ignores legitimate hunger cues

Lest you think I’m combing the book and cherry picking, those quotes all appear on pages 33-38.  The chapter is dense with this concept.

If parents need to constantly assess whether a baby has “real need,” and whether his cries are “legitimate hunger cues,” that assumes that babies also express “fake needs” and “counterfeit hunger cues.”  It’s clear from his use of this language that Ezzo is worried that babies are just shamming when they cry for a parent’s attention, and unless parents are careful that the baby has a genuine need, they’re just suckers for the baby’s sly emotional manipulation.

That interpretation is borne out by additional language in the first two chapters:

“If she believes she is central to the family universe, her self-centered feeling will carry over into every relationship in her ever-expanding world.”

“[The baby should learn] from the start that giving is equally important as receiving.”

“The virtues [of kindness, goodness, gentleness, charity, honesty, honor, and respect for others] are not inherent in her or any new life.  Therefore, Chelsea’s parents must govern and monitor her . . .”

There you go.  Babies are sociopaths, and only constant vigilance by the parents will train the evil, conniving ways out of a newborn.  Attachment parenting is a huge mistake because those gullible parents are duped by their babies into thinking every cry is genuine, and not merely a bid for domination of the household.  Sure, sometimes babies have “actual needs,” but a lot of the time they’re just trying to assert their power over the family, and you have to learn how to tell the difference.  If you don’t start in the first two months, it’s all over – your baby will be a selfish, manipulative jerk for the rest of her life, and never have a fulfilling relationship.  She’ll probably go to hell, too.

I suspect that they actually believe that bit about hell, and that’s what’s driving all this suspicion of neonates’ byzantine motivations.  A while ago, a friend suggested that I look into the original Ezzo parenting program, Preparation for Parenting, an explicitly Christian guide on children and parenting.  Babywise began as a mere copy of PfP materials, with the overt Christian references expunged.  With this in mind, all this blather about assessing whether a cry indicates a legitimate need makes more sense.  In their own words, the Ezzos proclaim that they “clearly teach the doctrine of the depravity of man and original sin.”  More to the point, PfP materials maintain that “children enter the world in a depraved state.”  I definitely need to get my hands on the PfP materials and compare, as my friend mentioned.  I think it will be very illuminating.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of evidence here that Babywise is based on the idea that newborn babies aren’t just subject to original sin in a vague, eventual way, such that they will require forgiveness when they reach the age of reason.  Babywise assumes that babies are actively sinful from the moment of birth, and indeed, that their sin nature imbues them with a precocious capacity for subterfuge, manipulation, and possibly even mustache-twirling accompanied by maniacal laughter.

This is not just silly, it’s dangerous when they are pressuring parents to adopt this approach for infants who can only communicate their needs by crying, and who have “legitimate needs” far beyond that for caloric input.  In the rush to squelch the legacy of Eve, Ezzo ignores the growing research that babies actually require human touch and interaction, help organizing their mental functions, and sensory stimulation including sucking, rocking, and hearing human voices.  Remember, this guide is for babies less than six months old, and this advice is meant to apply from the moment of birth.  Ezzo isn’t talking about beginning to socialize a toddler, whose needs and wants have diverged to some extent.  The bottom line is that all of a baby’s needs are legitimate, and all of their cries are disingenuous, and Babywise recklessly ignores these facts to service its hidden religious agenda.

Science Fair!

Monday was the science fair at school.  Chloe had her project all ready (no last minute prep!), and it was pretty cool.  Her hypothesis was “Touching school books to do homework will make your hands just as dirty as coming home from school and not washing your hands.”

As I helped her with the experiment, we came to the conclusion that the only practicable way to compare the microbe growth was to simply estimate the percentage of the agar surface area covered by colonies.  Since she was going to be estimating, I suggested that we blot out the identifying information on each Petri dish photo, to avoid biasing the estimate.  Do you know how difficult it is to explain bias and blinding to an 8 year old?  Actually, if you’re a skeptic you probably do, because I think the general populace tends to have a similar uncertain idea of what it’s all about.  At first she thought I was talking about lying.  It took a while for the idea to sink in for her – we can perceive and remember things differently depending on our expectations.  (No, I did not have her read the Alexander Skarsgard post!)

In any case, I think the blinding served its purpose, since the results came up inconclusive.  In a way, I think this is better than the experiment coming out “right” and 100% confirming the hypothesis.  I’m so glad the fair guidelines emphasis that even a failed experiment does not equate with a failed science project, and students should analyze what happened and put it in the report.  In our case, the experiment didn’t fail as such, but the inconclusive results led her to think about ways we could redo the experiment and get a clearer answer, and what factors might have influenced the outcome.  She now has first-hand experience that a small sample size means you can’t really rely on the results!  She also had some great ideas about variables that might have influenced the bacteria growth, like how much homework she had, whether some of it was on the computer, and even whether she rode a different (perhaps germier) bus home from school on a particular day.

As it turned out, she didn’t win any prizes, and we were both a little bummed.  But this project has taught her so much – clearly she’s learning to think about things in a scientific way.  She’s been introduced to the idea that our perceptions can be tricksy, and science involves avoiding perceptual pitfalls.  She learned about translating her observations into concepts and sharing those concepts with others – probably the hardest part of the project.  She struggled with writing the report, but persevered.  And maybe best of all, she learned to work on a school project a bit at a time and get it done with plenty of leeway, so it wasn’t too stressful!

The other thing that makes me proud is that her reaction to losing was to be a little upset for a few minutes, then start planning for next year’s project, and pondering how to make it a winner.  She has great spirit!  Unfortunately her current idea is a hydroelectric generator that powers a “water volcano,” which will . . . power the . . . um generator.  Yeah, it’s a perpetual motion machine.  But hell, plenty of intelligent people have fallen into that trap.  I told her to write down all her ideas, and we’ll talk about them as we get closer to the next fair.  At some point I’ll talk to her about systems running on energy, and for instance sound being an emission of energy – so if the hydroelectric generator makes sound, that means energy is leaving, which means eventually . . . I’ll try to be all Socratic and let her figure it out.  It’ll be fun.

California Baby and sodium benzoate

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle about California Baby, a longtime champion of “natural” baby products, adding the preservative sodium benzoate to some of their shampoos and bubble baths.

According to California Baby, sodium benzoate is actually certified for use in organic products.  And in fact it’s approved for use in foods and beverages, never mind shampoo and bubble bath.  Now, some people are saying that it’s a carcinogen, but I’ve seen no evidence of that at all.  Others have mentioned that sodium benzoate can produce benzene when combined with ascorbic acid, especially when heated.  At first I thought that might be hysteria too, but it is actually true.  Wikipedia has a good rundown of sodium benzoate, benzene, and the old standby, “solely the dose makes the poison” in their article on sodium benzoate in soft drinks.  Basically, sodium benzoate can produce small amounts of benzene when it’s combined with ascorbic acid.  The effect is greater when the combination is exposed to heat.  But regardless, the vast majority of soft drinks that form benzene develop only tiny amounts that are probably not a health risk, and pale in comparison to the amount you inhale while you’re filling your car with gas or walking along a busy road.

So that’s the story on benzene in drinks.  In this case, people are concerned that sodium benzoate might be forming benzene in shampoos and bubble baths.  So right off the bat, the risk is much lower because babies won’t be swigging the bottle of bubble bath (well, not in most cases).  Even if California Baby’s products contained ascorbic acid (as far as I can tell they don’t), and might therefore contain traces of benzene, it would be in a product that’s briefly in contact with skin, then rinsed away.  But let me reiterate: California Baby’s products don’t appear to include ascorbic acid, so there’s no possibility of the chemical reaction that would convert sodium benzoate to benzene.

Now, some parents are reporting skin irritation with the new formulas, and that is more plausible.  According to this European Union report, sodium benzoate might cause mild skin irritation in some people.  However, if irritation is a concern, consumers should avoid California Baby products with lavender oil, which is a well known irritant, before worrying about sodium benzoate.  Luckily California Baby does offer fragrance free formulations without essential oils, which can be a rare find in a cosmetics industry that loves to market fragrant (but potentially irritating) products.

The bottom line is that California Baby shampoos and bubble baths are generally safe.  It is possible that a few children could develop skin irritation when exposed to sodium benzoate.  Of course, kids with sensitive skin probably shouldn’t be soaking in bubble baths anyway, so the only issue is the shampoo.  For any parents who are seeing this problem, or noticing irritation with other CB products (which don’t have sodium benzoate), my advice is to first check for any essential oils in the ingredient list.  Since California Baby has tweaked a lot of their stuff, it may be that your favorite formulation suddenly has more lavender oil or clary sage oil (which can sometimes cause skin sensitization).  Even calendula, which is typically used as a soothing ingredient, can cause sensitization and allergic reaction, and CB did just reformulate their calendula, so that could be the culprit.  Unfortunately, I’m having trouble finding any shampoos that are free of both sodium benzoate and essential oils, so if you have a child with very sensitive skin that reacts to sodium benzoate, it appears your choices are very limited.

To recap:  No benzene.  Probably safe for the vast majority of babies, and the essential oils are at least as problematic as the sodium benzoate.  And one tangential musing: it’s ironic that crunchy parents are worried about exposing their kids to benzene.  Sure it’s a carcinogen, but it’s completely natural, and more than that, it’s organic!

You’re not helping

Sometimes people hold the same basic beliefs as I do, but their presentation of this stance is so combative, so extreme and counterproductive, that I just cringe.

Case in point: Kathy Dettwyler is a talented and engaging anthropologist who has done some amazing work researching breastfeeding.  Then this week she responded to a Facebook conversation about feminism and mothering with this gem:

“But when it comes to children, if you want kids, but don’t want to breastfeed them, maybe you should reconsider why you are having them. It is not necessary to have children to live a happy, successful, fulfilling life. If you want children, and want to do right by them, you’ll figure out a way to be a good mother, which starts with breastfeeding.” 

When I read that, I grimaced and made the noise that Ralphie makes right after blurting out his wish for a Red Rider BB gun: “Oooooh!”

Similarly, I hear tell that one year at a La Leche League conference, one of the founders of the organization was a featured speaker.  During her talk, she told the crowd that anyone who goes back to work when their child is still a baby doesn’t really love their child.  (NB: this attitude doesn’t reflect the actual philosophies of LLL, and in fact went over like a lead balloon in that roomful of LLL Leaders and members.)

I’m very much against routine infant circumcision, but I still can’t believe that some intactivists responded to news of Michelle Duggar’s miscarriage with ruthless glee, opining that a child is better off dying in the womb than living to be circumcised.

I think homeschooling, bed sharing, and gentle discipline can be great ways to support your children as they grow, but too many advocates of these practices state loudly and repeatedly that their way is the ONLY way, and if your child goes to public school, sleeps in their own room, or experiences time outs, you are a failure as a parent, or at least patently inferior to them.

Every movement needs passionate people who aren’t afraid to challenge convention.  A lot of the time, these people are perceived as “militant,” but I think there’s a difference between unapologetically advocating for your cause and going out of your way to offend people.  Telling expectant mothers that formula is riskier than breastfeeding is appropriate and useful.  Telling moms if they really loved their babies, they’d move heaven and Earth to breastfeed is being a presumptuous jerk.

Let me try to rephrase Dettwyler’s message, keeping (what I hope is) the underlying intent, while changing the language so it doesn’t turn off the very people she’s trying to influence.

I think some people consider having children just because it seems expected in our culture.  Having children means putting other people’s needs above your own and being inconvenienced, and it will probably impinge on your career to some degree.  That’s not anti-feminist, it’s just reality, for both parents.  I hope that anyone feeling societal pressure to have babies will consider whether they really want to make those hard choices and have those extra burdens, and if they think it’s not for them, will remain happily childfree by choice.

There.  Now we’re addressing the issue of feminism, the legitimate burdens of motherhood, and supporting free choice, instead of implying that mothers who didn’t breastfeed are failures, and that women who, say, lost their breasts to cancer shouldn’t procreate.

Being involved in the atheist sphere online, I’m all too familiar with tone wars and concern trolling.  I don’t want advocates to feel they have to walk on eggshells and bend over backwards to protect the feelings of mothers, no matter what choices they’ve made.  But I think there is a zone between pussyfooted appeasement and vicious judgment, and most of us can land there most of the time if we put a little thought into what we say.  After all, if we alienate people who don’t agree with us, and prompt them to tune us out entirely, all we’re doing is building mutual self-congratulation societies where like-minded people get together to “tsk” at the poor benighted masses who don’t do as we do.  Aside from bolstering our egos, what good does that do?

Protesting SOPA/PIPA

Normally I’d be posting something new today, but instead, well here’s the short version, in graphic form.

Here’s the long version.

My biggest concerns are that whole sites could be taken down for one instance of user-posted material, that people will shy from fair use to avoid the draconian remedies, and that those remedies can be wielded by private entities.

Contact your congresscritter.

Contact your senators.

Feminism and mothering

Once upon a time, women didn’t have options.  We were expected to learn domestic arts while living in our father’s house, then to be “given away” by him to another man, whose house we would keep and whose children we would bear.  Our sexuality was tightly controlled through shame and restriction of freedom.  Clergy thought that the pain we often feel in childbirth was only our due as daughters of Eve, and to alleviate it was a sin.

Feminism started by asking, “Can’t women enjoy what men have?”  We’ve made huge strides toward that goal.  Women can get an education and choose a career path just like men.  Women compete in the job market and do work that was once considered only for men.  Women own their own property, make their own financial decisions, and are more frequently the primary breadwinners in their households.  We now have legal and social freedom to express our sexuality, along with the access to birth control that makes that freedom practical to exercise.  We’re still fighting for equality and freedom in many areas, from wage equity to abortion access, but we’ve come a long way.

And yet, it seems to me that “female things” are still considered second-best, even by many feminists.  Is it feminist to buy into the idea that the roles traditionally reserved for males are desirable, powerful, and of value, while the roles traditionally reserved for females are undesirable, disenfranchising, and without value?  As part of our (relatively) newfound freedom, women wear pants, work for a wage, and need not be shackled to our fertility – roles and behaviors that once belonged only to men.   But if a man wants to become a nurse, or be the primary caregiver to children, he’s laughed at, or assumed to be marking time until he can find real employment.  God forbid a man want to wear a dress or other traditionally feminine clothing – at best, he’ll be laughed at.

Is it possible we’re ready for a new wave of feminism that is about valuing traditionally female things as much as male things?  On one level, the availability of baby formula is feminist because it frees women from the need to be close to their babies all the time.  But wouldn’t it be more radically empowering to also have a default assumption that workplaces need to accommodate female reproductive biology by routine availability of long maternity leave, and on-site daycare and excellent pumping facilities to facilitate breastfeeding?  Shouldn’t we see going back to work and staying home with a baby as equally challenging and empowering options?  If femaleness is equal to maleness, caring for young children should be seen as just as exhilarating and valuable as being a high-ranking executive.

On one level, the availability of pain relief in labor is a decidedly feminist victory.  But even modern hospital practices can be horribly misogynistic, betraying an underlying assumption that a woman in labor is by definition a hysterical, dangerous, incompetent who must be managed and directed by the more capable medical staff.  Doctors and nurses all too frequently talk down to, bully, and even physically assault laboring mothers in the name of protecting their babies.  And that’s another problem – discussions of where and how to birth so often focus only on the outcomes for the baby, ignoring not only the comfort and autonomy of the women involved, but even their health risks.  The message is loud and clear: “Your needs are not significant; you are only valuable as a vessel for a baby,” and isn’t that an attitude we’ve been trying to do away with?

Nursing in public is a big debate currently, but I don’t think many in the “anti” faction appreciate how big a feminist issue this is.  Acceptance of nursing in public is about female empowerment on two levels.  First, it diminishes the objectification of women.  For so long, breasts have been all about sexuality and the male gaze.  To acknowledge that they aren’t just about arousing the prurient interest of men is to elevate women beyond being mere sex objects.  Second, nursing in public is vital to allowing mothers full access to social life.  As more women are nursing, trying to do the best thing for their babies, more women will be out and about and need to nurse.  Only someone who hasn’t nursed an infant would ever say, “Just time your excursions for when the baby doesn’t need to nurse,” or “Just pump some milk and use a bottle,” or “Just sit on a public toilet for 20 minutes and nurse.”  These are not practical solutions.  What is practical is to get over our societal perversion about breasts and allow mothers full access to life outside their homes by supporting, or at least ignoring, public nursing.

And that leads to my final thought – the Mommy Wars are largely due to a double bind women are put in.  Nursing is a great example.  All the experts say it’s important for your baby’s health to breastfeed.  Women get hammered with the message that they need to nurse to avoid exposing their babies to unnecessary risk.  But society leaves all the onus on the moms; when it comes to actual, broad-based cultural support for these allegedly vital behaviors, our institutions suddenly get very silent.  All the messages to moms are “YOU need to do this for your baby,” never “here is what WE’RE doing to help you help your baby.”  Those on-site daycares, pumping facilities, and welcoming places for nursing in public are few and far between.  This leaves mothers with all the burden of giving perfect infant care, without any of the necessary support.  So moms feel guilty, frustrated, and angry.  And then we accuse each other of being negligent or intolerant, selfish or holier-than-thou.

Is it possible to truly value women’s choices, no matter what?  To find power and worth in mothering just as much as we do in employment?  To give women real options, with any decision being greeted with respect and care?  To turn all that guilt-induced infighting into demands for societal support?  I think these goals are just as important as fighting for equal pay and safeguarding control over our fertility.

The Quest for the Zero-Risk Option

“Sleep training might be harming your child’s brain – why would you take that risk?”

“Drugs have so many side effects!  I’d rather use natural remedies.”

“Parabens are hormone disruptors.  I always use preservative-free cosmetics.”

“I’ve researched the risks of vaccines, and I just can’t expose my child to all that danger.”

This is a theme I’ve noticed in the reasoning of “natural family living” devotees.  Usually these folks are just genuinely concerned about exposing themselves and their families to unnecessary risks.  But they’re missing something very important – there is no such thing as a risk-free option.  Every choice we make is a choice between two different sets of benefits and drawbacks.  I can hardly think of a life decision that will have no downside.  (Perhaps the decision not to smoke.)  Even most benign choices that are generally recommended for our health do have drawbacks.  Exercise is almost always a good decision, but it’s not risk-free.  Exercise brings the risk of injury, as well as frequently involving monetary and opportunity costs.  A healthy diet full of unprocessed fruits and vegetables is of course highly recommended by just about everyone, but again, this can be expensive and time-consuming compared to processed starch and fat obtained at the drive-through window.  Maybe that’s not a significant drawback to most people, but it is a drawback.

With this in mind, let me revisit those quotes, with a more balanced look at the relative risks:

Sleep training can involve babies crying for minutes or even hours.  We know that cortisol levels rise when babies cry, and that in other circumstances continuously elevated cortisol levels can cause serious health effects.  On the other hand, adequate sleep is vital for the health of both babies and parents, and continued sleep deprivation can cause serious health effects.

Medications often have potential side effects, some of which are bad enough to make taking the drugs unhelpful for a particular person.  On the other hand, any remedy that can have a positive effect can have a negative side effect, whether it’s a capsule or an herb, and of course most natural remedies are not proven to ameliorate any health condition, so relying on them involves a greater risk of leaving the original condition untreated.

There are indications that parabens do get into our systems through cosmetics, and it’s possible they have endocrine-like effects.  On the other hand, parabens are used to prevent bacterial growth in cosmetics, and it’s not clear that their actual presence in human tissues or their hypothetical contribution to breast cancer is more dangerous than the potential for smearing a happily thriving colony of staphylococcus on your face every morning.

Vaccines have risks.  Frequent side effects include soreness at the injection site and fever.  More serious health problems are rare, but possible.  On the other hand, vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are even more risky.  Moreover, a child is at greater risk of injury when you drive them to Whole Foods to pick up some Oscillococcinum than they would be if you get them a flu shot.  (Seriously, more people die in car crashes each year than the total number of people who have even claimed to be injured by any vaccine over the course of 23 years of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.)

When you unpack the assumption that there’s a zero-risk option, suddenly it’s clear that the “natural” option in each case isn’t as superior as it first appears.  Of course, it’s easier to make a buck or get publicity by scaring the pants off people about toxins, “Western medicine,” and vaccine injuries if you don’t include all that pesky factual nuance.  Not only do we consumers have to do some research and hard work to find out about the relative risks of our options, but we have to tolerate the notion that there is no perfectly safe choice, and we will have to expose ourselves to one risk or another.  That’s not a mental place many people want to be, so they turn off their skepticism and simply embrace the notion that “natural is safe and good!”