Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Open Post

by Stacey

My son Sage is convinced we’re getting chickens. We’re not. But despite our tiny backyard, our three cats, and the fact that we live in a city, he thinks any day now the chickens are coming home to roost.

You can’t blame him. It all started when we visited my husband’s parents over the summer and Sage saw the chicken coop where my husband raised chickens while he was in high school. Don’t ask me. No, he wasn’t a farmer. He lived in the suburbs. But somehow he convinced his parents to let him turn the shack in the back into a chicken coop and there he raised his flock. Until he left for college and the chickens left for the “farm.” Sage thinks those chickens still live out there on the “farm.”

Which, as far as I learned it, is where chickens are supposed to live. But now our neighbors and good friends have chickens and Sage went over this weekend to collect eggs. Some good clean fun. Well I don’t know how clean it is and frankly I don’t want to know. But the point is, now he thinks that everyone in the world raises chickens and so of course, we will too.

I don’t want chickens! I have enough problems raising children and keeping my sanity. My plan is to keep him at bay until he discovers lizards or turtles or some other reptilian creature. Just no snakes. I won’t do snakes.

So what’s up with you all? Anything interesting happening in your world?

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Dad Sings a Funny Song

by Stacey

Thanks to my friend Cristina for sending this very funny video my way. I’ve been singing this song to myself all day.

It’s called “Pachelbel Bedtime.” Enjoy!

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More Toys RECALL

by Stacey

Another toy recall to report. According to this AP story, it involved over 600,000 toys and children’s jewelry made in China, including five more items from the Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product line, because they contain dangerous levels of lead.

RC2 Corp.’s “Knights of the Sword” series toys and some of its Thomas and Friends items, along with floor puppet theaters and gardening tools and chairs for children, were among the more than 601,000 toys and children’s jewelry announced in the recall by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The recalled toys contain high levels of lead in their surface paint, and the necklaces and jewelry sets contain excessive lead in some of their metal parts.

The AP story has all the details with links to the companies involved. Also you can go to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for information. Expect there to be more recalls coming. CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese said, “I don’t think consumers have seen the end to lead paint recalls.” We can’t wait.

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Filed under baby, children's health, kids, lead paint on toys, parenting, safety, toddler, toxic toys

Mercury Fears Allayed (sort of)

by Stacey

A study published in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine shows that early childhood exposure to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines, does not lead to a host of neurological impairments.

Researchers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention examined mental acuity and behavioral problems in over 1,100 children immunized in the 1990s. At the time of study, the children were between seven and ten years old. They were tested for 42 neuropsychological outcomes including fine motor skills, attention, speech and language skills, verbal memory, behavior regulation and tics, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal.

The researchers did not examine the link between thimerosal and autism, which is the most controversial of concerns. That will be the focus of another research project to be published next year, the WSJ article says.

The results of this week’s study showed “few significant associations with exposure to mercury from thimerosal,” according to an abstract from the original study. The results were kind of a mixed bag with all the associations considered to be small.

Here’s what they found:

Higher prenatal exposure to mercury was associated with better performance on one measure of language and poorer performance on a different measure of attention and executive functioning, the abstract says.

(I was curious about executive functioning. What is that? I looked it up online and found this explanation: “Executive functioning is a set of processes that include ‘planning, organizational skill, maintaining a mental set, selective attention, and inhibitory control – for which the prefrontal regions of the brain are specialized.'” Someone else described it using the metaphor of an orchestra conductor.)

Increasing levels of mercury exposure from birth to 7 months were associated with better performance on one measure of fine motor coordination and on one measure of attention and executive functioning. In addition, increasing mercury exposure from birth to 28 days was associated with poorer performance on one measure of speech articulation and better performance on one measure of fine motor coordination.

The researchers concluded: “Our study does not support a causal association between early exposure to mercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines and immune globulins and deficits in neuropsychological functioning at the age of 7 to 10 years.”

However they did find an increase in motor and phonic tics in boys exposed to thimerosal. According to the WSJ article, “boys in the study who had been exposed to higher levels of the preservative faced twice the risk of having motor and phonic tics — including noises caused by an involuntary tongue movement — than boys who received a smaller dose.” This finding prompted the study authors to say there is a potential need for further studies.

Still, Anne Schuchat, an assistant surgeon general with the CDC, called the results of the new study “very reassuring for parents” whose children were immunized in the 1990s, the WSJ article says. The government asked manufacturers to remove thimerosal from vaccines in 1999, after the public bombarded federal offices with complaints.

I know that people get very passionate about the issue of vaccines. I have always fallen on the side of getting my kids vaccinated, both for their own health and for the common good. I kind of doubt that this study will change the way anyone feels about the issue. According to the WSJ article, the study’s advisory panel included a woman named Sallie Bernard, who is the executive director of SafeMinds, a consumer-advocacy group focusing on mercury’s link to disorders.

The WSJ article says that Bernard dissented from the conclusions, in part, because of the concern over tics in boys. The results, “are inconclusive and the interpretation of the data is too sweeping,” said Ms. Bernard, an Aspen, Colo., parent of an autistic child.

It’s interesting to see that the scientists were willing to include a consumer advocate on their advisory panel. As it turned out, it doesn’t sound like it did much to quiet down the debate.

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Cuckoo for Cupcakes

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(drawing by Mario Zucca)

by Stacey

You know grown-ups have veered too far into the world of children when they are seriously arguing over the merits or detriments as it may be, of the very serious topic of…cupcakes. Last Sunday the NY Times ran an article that laid out the pros and cons of the debate.

As we know, cupcakes have had a whopping resurgence: they are retro-food chic, the thing to eat for people in the know.

But cupcakes have also recently been marched to the front lines of the fat wars, banned from a growing number of classroom birthday parties because of their sugar, fat and “empty calories,” a poster food of the child obesity crisis. This was clear when children returned to school this month to a tightening of regulations, federal and state, on what can be served up between the bells.

And it has led some to wonder whether emotional value, on occasion, might legitimately outweigh nutritional value.

Of course it does. Life is pretty, pretty good when someone hands you a cupcake. And if it’s your birthday and you’re the one to hand them out, then everyone loves you, on your birthday, which is exactly what you want on your special day.

But people are afraid that too many sweets in school only contributes to the obesity epidemic among our nation’s children. Marion Nestle, the media go-to nutritionist from NYU, calls it “the cupcake problem.”

When included on lists of treats that parents are discouraged or forbidden to send to school — and when those policies are, say, put to a vote at the P.T.A. — “cupcakes are deal breakers,” Professor Nestle said. “It sounds like a joke, but it’s a very serious problem on a number of levels. You have to control it.”

Why not control the fact that kids don’t get recess anymore? Why not give them physical education a number of times a week? I have an idea. Why not get the PTA to have a bake sale to raise funds so the kids can get a chance to run around for an hour every day at school? Don’t blame it on the cupcakes! Those kids need to move.

Despite the controversy, the article says that cupcakes have grown in popularity in recent years.

Until the late 1990s, the cupcake often shared the mental dessert pantry with canned peaches and ambrosia; it was nostalgia food, mom-in-an-apron food, happy food.

But then cupcakes took a very chic turn. Trend-setting bakeries like Magnolia, the Greenwich Village cupcake empire, arrived on the scene; by 2005, a parody music video on “Saturday Night Live,” which was later viewed more than five million times on YouTube, included the lyrics, “Let’s hit up Magnolia and mack on some cupcakes.”

And now the new cupcake, having drifted so far from Betty Crocker, is facing fierce competition from the retro cupcake, which is the new, new cupcake that is really the old cupcake.

Whatever. That’s confusing. And here’s where it gets a little nuts.

Americans still find time to whip up some batter and slide a tray in the oven. It’s easy, and the appeal is multifaceted. Cupcakes are portable, cute and relatively inexpensive. They are also “feminine and girlie,” Ms. Kramer Bussel [a cupcake advocate] said, so the majority of cupcake bakers and fans are women.

Cupcake is a term of endearment, but it can also be a rather mean-spirited word. “Cupcake teams” in sports are said to be soft and easily crushed. As food, though, cupcakes are democratic; everyone gets one. And they are libertarian; individual and independent compared with communal cakes, which may not have enough slices for everyone.

Seriously? Okay, I’m done. I’ve got stuff to do. See you at the next PTA meeting. You know how I’m going to vote.

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Mix It Up

by Stacey

Separating students into groups based on ability may actually impede learning, according to a new study from the University of Sussex in England. Researchers followed 700 American teenagers for four years and found that children in mixed ability mathematics classes outperformed those grouped by ability, according to this press release issued by the university.

Students in mixed ability classes also were better behaved than those who were grouped by ability. “Children who are put into low sets in school quickly learn to view themselves as unsuccessful and develop anti-school values that lead into general anti-social behaviour,” said Jo Boaler, the lead researcher and a professor of education at Sussex.

The study, which analyzed the results of different methods of teaching math in three American high schools, found that an approach that involved students not being divided into ability groups, but being given a shared responsibility for each other’s learning, led to a significant improvement in the achievements of high and low achieving students. The approach had further benefits in that it taught students to take responsibility for each other and to regard that responsibility as an important part of life.

“Many parents support ability grouping because they think it is advantageous for high attaining children,” said Professor Boaler. “But my recent study of a new system of grouping in the US showed that the system benefited students at high and low levels and the high attaining students were the most advantaged by the mixed ability grouping, because they had opportunities to learn work in greater depth.”

Professor Boaler was also the author of an earlier study in England that found that mixed ability classes achieved at higher levels than those put into sets. Her earlier research is reported in her book, Experiencing School Mathematics. Her recent study, ‘Promoting “relational equity” and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed ability approach’, was presented at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference earlier this month and is to be published in the British Educational Research Journal in the coming months.

Soon after I graduated from college I taught first grade in a Baltimore City public school for two years. It was a large school with five first grade classes. Because I was a first-year teacher, I got all the low-scoring students in my class. It was explained to me that having students who were all at the same level would make it simpler for me as a teacher.

It was not. Since none of my students understood what I was trying to teach them, they all goofed around instead. It was a behavior management disaster and I couldn’t wait for the school year to end. I’m sorry to say that I probably sent most of those children off to second grade with few reading skills.

The next year I had a great class with children of mixed abilities. It was like night and day. The smartest ones picked up on the material right away, the middle ones watched and listened and then caught on, and then me and all the other kids in the class could help the remaining few with the independent work. All my kids learned to read that year.

Now my son Sage goes to Montessori preschool where there are mixed-aged classrooms. His class has children ranging from three to six years old. The next class has six to nine year olds and so on. This allows the older students to teach and model for the younger ones. That helps them solidify what they have learned and it gives the little ones a chance to learn from someone who isn’t an adult.

So I say, mixed ability, mixed ages, whatever it is, mix those kids up!

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Let It Rip

by Stacey

The silent treatment you give your husband during a marital spat may make him squirm, but a new study shows it could ultimately lead to your demise. According this article in the LA Times, “Married women who keep silent during marital disputes have a greater chance of dying from heart disease and other conditions than women who speak their minds.”

Right on! I’m so relieved they didn’t find the opposite to be true. I’d be dead in two weeks if keeping quiet was the healthy thing to do. Sad to say for my husband, the same isn’t true for men. “But the same can’t be said of married men who keep disagreements to themselves,” the article says. “They had the same life expectancy during the 10-year study as men who spoke out.”

Researchers from Boston University surveyed over 3,500 men and women ages 18 to 77-years old, starting in the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s. The study set out to examine the relationship between marital stress and coronary heart disease or death.

When it came to dealing with conflicts, about 30% of men said they usually or always kept their feelings to themselves, compared with about 20% of women who said they stayed quiet. But women who “self-silenced” were four times more likely to die during the study than women who said they always spoke out, the article says.

The study was published online in the July issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (I kid you not.)

Studies of the health effects of marriage are not new. In general, marriage is good for your health, especially for men. “Married men live seven years longer, and married women live two years longer, than single men and women, respectively,” the article says. “Married people as a group have better psychological health than never-marrieds.”

But when happy couples are compared with unhappy couples, the impact on health becomes more complicated. The article says studies have linked marital discord to a higher risk of recurrent heart attack in women 30 to 65, although for the life of me I can’t think of a single woman in the world who suffers from recurrent heart attacks in her 30’s. Marital problems also increase the severity of congestive heart failure in men and women, the article says.

Here’s one study of specific behaviors among married people that can impact health, especially for women.

Michael J. Rohrbaugh, co-director of the University of Arizona’s Family Research Laboratory, who is conducting a study of heart patients, said the pronouns that couples use in speech — whether “me” or “us” — seem to predict the course of a spouse’s heart disease during the subsequent six months.

“There is something about ‘we talk’ — the collective or communal idea that ‘we are in it together’ that is important,” Rohrbaugh said. Although that study is not completed, Rohrbaugh said the connection between the phrase “we talk” and health appears to be stronger in women than in men. For women with heart disease, repeatedly using the words “I” or “me,” he said, “is like the kiss of death.”

The kiss of death? Isn’t that a bit strong? Smoking cigarettes? Kiss of death. Driving drunk? Kiss of death. Eating McDonald’s everyday for a year? K. of D. But saying, “I” or “me” instead of “we”? Kiss of death? Hmmm. I hope the NIH isn’t pouring too much money into funding that particular study.

Here’s another one that looked at marital discord and immune functioning.

And a 2003 study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found that after marital spats, blisters generally healed more slowly, a sign that stress interfered with immune system functioning.

In hostile couples — those who hurled insults or rolled their eyes when arguing about such topics as in-laws or money — healing was 60% slower than in couples who didn’t display antagonistic behaviors, the study showed. Women tended to take longer to heal than men.

You know, this all sounds a bit silly to me. Healing blisters? Who has time to monitor how long it takes for your blisters to heal? Maybe it’s a watched pot never boils problem. Stop looking at it so much and the damn thing will go away.

That’s not to say that this kind of research can’t be useful. The next time my husband and I are arguing and he tells me to stop yelling at him, I can whip out the data from Psychosomatic Medicine that says it’s good for me to yell. Bad for him perhaps, but good for me.

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