The Open Post

by Stacey

Hello from New Jersey! On Saturday we flew out for a week-long visit with my family. Trekking across the country with two small children is never any fun at all,  so we usually try to steel ourselves with lots of books and toys and always, always armfuls of diapers. Just in case. You never know. You might need fifteen diapers in five hours and what would you do if you didn’t have enough? Well, we found out.

As we stood on the curb at the airport at 5:30 in the morning gathering our wits and our belongings I began to look around in panic for the diaper bag. Long story short, I forgot to pick it up as we were running out the door. There it was all nicely packed full of diapers and wipes and extra clothes and some more diapers and a few extra wipes. There it was, in our living room. Very far away. This was bad. We were all set to get on a five hour flight with a ten-month old baby who was not accustomed to “holding it in.”

Luckily the woman standing next to us had a baby with her and she kindly unzipped her bag to reveal her stash of three hundred diapers and ten packs of wipes. She gave us two diapers and wished us luck. I felt like Chris McCandless, the young man in “Into the Wild” who ventured into the wilderness of Alaska with a ten pound bag of rice and a plan to live off the land. He didn’t fare so well. I was hoping for a better outcome.

My plan was to beg for wipes and more diapers once we got on the plane. There’s always at least one other baby on board. I spotted a woman with a baby soon after we settled into our seats and my spirits lifted. As it turned out, Sascha needed only one diaper change during the trip and let’s just say, it wasn’t the messy kind. We actually walked off the plane with an extra diaper from the nice, well-prepared lady back at curbside check-in.

Definitely dodged a bullet that time. So what’s up with all of you?

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A Sucker’s Game?

by Stacey

Over the course of their life, kids cost parents a fortune. More than you may realize. More than you might want to know. So if you don’t want to know, start singing la-la-la and skip on down to the next post.

According to this special report on the cost of kids (ooh, a special report!) in Business Week magazine, parents with some cash to spend will shell out about $300,000 on their kids by the time they turn 18 years old. That doesn’t include college tuition. Say what? Thanks to Salon’s Broadsheet for the tip.

The Agriculture Dept.’s latest survey found that households in the top-third income bracket (with average pretax income of $118,200) will spend $289,380 by their child’s 18th birthday—or about $17,000 a year (in 2006 dollars).

The largest expense is housing, according to an article in the report. A USDA survey found that housing makes up about a third of expenditures for parents, given that people often seek out more space and good schools. Health care is also sucking up more of parents’ hard-earned cash given that premiums and co-payments have been rising, says USDA economist Mark Fino.

Indeed, the USDA survey is probably understating the cost of raising kids. Considering extras like sports equipment, summer camps, private school, Disney vacations, and a full-time nanny, raising a child through age 17 could cost $1 million or more. Some parents throw extravagant birthday parties and won’t hesitate to buy their kids the latest video games and cell phones and splurge on Spanish and painting lessons.

It gets worse. There’s a whole bunch of additional expenses that the survey left out, including, ummm, college tuition. Hello? “According to reports from the College Board, a private four-year college runs an average of $23,712 per year (up 6.3% from the 2006/07 school year), while a public four-year college costs $6,185 (up 6.6% from last year),” the article says. “The ‘good news,’ says the College Board, ‘is more than $130 billion in financial aid is available.'”

Then, after college, many parents are welcoming their children back home until they find a job. In fact, 25% of employed parents have kids aged 18 to 29 living in their home at least half the time. Parents contribute $2,200 annually (on average, in 2001 dollars) to children aged 18 to 34, according to a 2003 University of Pennsylvania study. This transition to adulthood “is a very risky period,” says Arlene Skolnick, a visiting scholar at New York University and research scholar at Counsel on Contemporary Families.

Parents live in fear that their children will not acquire the skills they need to earn at least a middle-class salary, the article says. “Children that earn a bachelor’s degree stand to earn over 60% more than those with only a high school diploma, the College Board says. Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between a high school diploma and a B.A. is more than $800,000, it says.”

Then kids go on to have their own kids and some decide not to work, (ahem, like me) so they can stay home with their children and spend even more money. “Studies have estimated that indirect costs, such as foregone earnings, oftentimes exceed direct costs, especially if one parent has to drop out of the workforce,” says Fino at the USDA.

On top of all that, growth in wages for U.S. workers has been minuscule or stagnant, while inflation has crept higher. Average hourly earnings rose just 0.7% last year after declining in 2005 and 2004, versus the peak annual growth rate of 4.1% for 1972, according to the Labor Dept. Meanwhile, prices for food, energy, and other goods keep rising, as measured by the 3.2% rise in the consumer price index last year.

It’s information like this that just might make some people think twice before having kids. Everyone tells you about the sleep and the tantrums and the runny noses and you don’t believe it will actually happen to you or at least that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as they say. But when it’s written down in dollars and cents, it’s hard to deny.

It’s costs such as these that make 28-year-old Bahar Zaker in Syracuse, N.Y., want to put off having kids, maybe forever. “We can’t imagine how we would manage the costs of kids,” says Zaker, who has been married for three years to a philosophy professor and is finishing her thesis on French surrealist art at the University of California. One big hurdle for her is the price of education, and she questions whether it pays off. “The costs of education are going up, and you’re not always sure the value of the education is going up with them,” she says. But she also admits that not having kids is a lifestyle choice. “We both like to travel,” she says.

Yeah, well so did we. The article ends with the hope that the government or some other “savior” as the writer puts it, will help families with all this financial burden.”Everyone who wants to may join the paid labor force, but almost no one gets a family wage or enough help from government to defray the costs of raising children,” says Phillip Longman, author of the book The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It (Perseus Books Group, 2004). He figures the critical moment will emerge during the next decade, “as millions of Baby Boomers start crashing past the boundaries of old age, and as today’s teenagers find themselves saddled with massive student loans, rising taxes, and growing frustration over the difficulty of forming or affording a family.”

Until then, as Longman puts it bluntly: “Child rearing is fast becoming a sucker’s game. Though the psychic rewards remain, the economic returns to individual parents have largely disappeared, while the cost of parenthood is soaring.”

For more:
Here’s a debate on whether or not it’s worth the cost.
Here are some tips on how to make ends meet.
Here’s an article on great places to raise kids for less.
Here’s one on how to go to college for free.
Here’s another on entrepreneurs targeting parents.

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Behavior Problems and School Success

by Stacey

Two new studies shed some positive light on irksome behavior problems in young children. According to this article in the NY Times, one study showed that kindergartners who are identified as troubled do as well academically as their peers in elementary school. The other study found that children with attention deficit disorders suffer primarily from a delay in brain development, not from a deficit or flaw.

In one study, reported in the journal Developmental Psychology, an international team of researchers analyzed measures of social and intellectual development from over 16,000 children, the article says. Kindergartners who interrupted the teacher, defied instructions and even picked fights were performing as well in reading and math as well-behaved children of the same abilities when they both reached fifth grade, the study found.

In the other study, researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and McGill University, using imaging techniques, found that the brains of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder developed normally but more slowly in some areas than the brains of children without the disorder, the article says. The disorder, also known as A.D.H.D., is by far the most common psychiatric diagnosis given to disruptive young children; 3 percent to 5 percent of school-age children are thought to be affected.

Doctors said that the report, being published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps to explain why so many children grow out of the diagnosis in middle school or later, often after taking stimulant medications to improve concentration in earlier grades.

[G]overnment psychiatric researchers compared brain scans from two groups of children: one with attention deficit disorder, the other without. The scientists had tracked the children — 223 in each group — from ages 6 to 16, taking multiple scans on each child.

In a normally developing brain, the cerebral cortex — the outer wrapping, where circuits involved in conscious thought are concentrated — thickens during early childhood. It then reverses course and thins out, losing neurons as the brain matures through adolescence. The study found that, on average, the brains of children with A.D.H.D. began this “pruning” process at age 10 ½, about three years later than their peers.

The article says that about 80 percent of those kids with attention problems were taking or had taken stimulant drugs, and the researchers did not know the effect of the medications on brain development. Doctors consider stimulant drugs a reliable way to improve attention in the short term; the new study is not likely to change that attitude.

This all seems like good news for kids. It’s good to know that kids are learning what they need to know even if they’re wiggling and protesting along the way. As for ADHD, seems like it would be a relief to know there’s a good chance your child will outgrow it over time. The article says that three out of four kids with the disorder grow out of it.

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Pregnant in a Bubble

by Stacey

The pressure on pregnant women to protect a growing is fetus is mounting, according to this story in the LA Times. Pregnant women should not only avoid alcohol, illegal drugs, and smoking, but pesticides on fruits and vegetables, pollution in the air, life stress, and even the flu.

In other words, if you’re pregnant you should wrap yourself in organic cotton, carry a bushel of organic produce wherever you go, breathe only filtered oxygen, and exist for nine months in a healthy, blissful meditative state.

What women eat, touch and breathe during pregnancy now appears to be more important to their babies’ health than anyone ever imagined. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that fetuses are surprisingly susceptible to outside influences, such as food, environmental chemicals and pollutants, infections, even stress. Under this theory — called fetal programming — babies are born not just with traits dictated by their parents’ genes, such as brown eyes and olive skin. They may be born with a tendency to develop asthma, diabetes or other illnesses based on what their mothers ate and were exposed to during pregnancy.

Right there I’m beginning to suspect this article is going to scare the bejeezus out of people. And if you’re not scared, you can at least feel mighty guilty that somehow you are responsible if your child is less than perfect.

For example, the article makes an interesting point: there seems to be a link between a pregnant woman’s diet and childhood obesity. “[R]esearch has shown that pregnant women with diets high in fat and sugar give birth to children who are more likely to become obese, perhaps because their fat cells are “programmed” in utero for later obesity.” But the writer can’t leave well enough alone, so she adds: “In short, the daily experiences of a pregnant woman may be far from benign.”

Sigh.

The article says that scientists who study adult conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, schizophrenia and infertility are now becoming interested in fetal programming. By understanding the origins of susceptibility, they hope to understand how such diseases might be prevented. “People are realizing that maybe they’ve been looking at the wrong time frame for the role of environment and disease,” says [Jerry Heindel, a biochemist and scientific program administrator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences], who developed a program at the institute to study the fetal basis for disease.

Contamination of fish with very high concentrations of methylmercury from industrial sources has caused clusters of severe birth defects in several places around the world. But more recent research, including three large epidemiological studies, suggests that even methylmercury concentrations commonly found in the United States can cause subtle changes in the fetus, such as lower IQ and decreased cognitive performance in childhood, [Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City] says.

I don’t doubt that methylmercury could be problematic. But I do wonder, how do they know what the baby’s IQ would have been if the mother had not eaten the contaminated fish? And as for decreased cognitive performance in childhood, are the kids mentally disabled? Or are they just acting like my son who sometimes mumbles unintelligibly to himself?

Other studies have linked low levels of the vitamin folate and increased levels of the amino acid homocysteine with an increased risk of schizophrenia. In a study published in January in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that high homocysteine levels in the third trimester doubled schizophrenia risk in the offspring, perhaps by altering brain structure or function or through subtle damage to the placenta to reduce oxygen delivery to the fetus.

I don’t even know what homocysteine is. I don’t know how to get it and I certainly wouldn’t know how to get rid of it if there’s too much of it at the end of my pregnancy.

And increasingly, scientists fear that fetuses and young children may be harmed by pesticides and pollutants that, at the same level, cause no measurable harm in adults. For example, some common pesticides are thought to be so-called endocrine disrupters, chemicals that change hormone function in utero and can affect reproductive organ development and function later in life.

Okay, eat organic food whenever you can. I can get behind that. But air pollution? Not sure what you can do about that besides move if you live in a city with a lot of smog. Or try not to breathe too much.

A study in the March issue of Human Reproduction found that women who ate more than seven servings a week of beef during pregnancy had sons who were more likely to have poor sperm quality as adults — possibly due to the hormones fed to cattle.

More than seven servings of red meat in one week sounds like a lot. But then how much is safe? Three? Two? None?

And then in case you weren’t already feeling utterly in despair…

Some aspects of fetal programming seem almost beyond anyone’s control. Infections from particular viruses, bacteria or parasites are known to cause birth defects. But studies even suggest that getting the flu while pregnant might be harmful (it’s linked in several studies to a higher risk of schizophrenia in offspring). And a pregnant woman’s emotional trauma from such events as job loss, divorce or the death of a loved one has been shown in several studies to increase the risk of birth defects and autism.

Advising pregnant women is difficult, the article laments. Landrigan advises people to think about which chemicals to use and store in their homes and whether to buy organic foods and nontoxic products. “This is all about empowering people with information,” he says. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

That’s not to say that Heindel and other fetal-programming experts are suggesting pregnant women take every possible precaution for fear of dooming their children. Such research is in its infancy, and many questions and controversies remain, Heindel says. And he adds: Diseases are caused by a combination of genes and environment or by many factors that collude.

No, no, of course we don’t want women to freak out if we tell them that maybe their unborn child will develop schizophrenia if they stand at the bus stop too long every morning or eat non-organic saltines instead of whole grain wheat toast every day to combat nausea. We’ll just write a big, splashy article about it in the newspaper.

Look, I’m not against being cautious while pregnant. I think most of us know that prescription drugs could pose a risk to a developing fetus and for that reason pregnant women generally try to avoid medications. Most of us don’t drink at all or severely cut back our alcohol intake while pregnant and we don’t do things like ride unicycles or race cars while carrying a fetus.

But in this new world of fetal risk research where everything from eating fish to catching a cold could potentially harm a growing baby, the advice to pregnant women seems to be long on caution and short on facts.

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The Open Post

by Stacey

Last week I went to a lecture on parenting by Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” which I am now reading. She was funny and insightful. Here are some quotes I jotted down in my notebook:

“Effective parenting feels like neglect and overcontrol.”

This may sound like some backward, barnyard, messed up parenting advice, but I actually think she’s right. For some time now I’ve had the sense that somehow, we’re doing this whole thing wrong. Our kids are overprotected, overindulged, and overscheduled. We obsess about their every emotion and fear that if they don’t master some obscure skill, they’ll never get into college. We drive them hard and exhaust ourselves in the process. We do this because we love them, but is this what parenting is really all about?

I think her point is that we’re mistakenly getting too involved in matters that aren’t our business, such as our kids’ social lives or their experiences in school. And we’re not doing enough to make sure our kids do the right things, like show us respect and do chores around the house.

“It’s good for kids to be bored, frustrated, and unhappy. It’s really good for kids to have a crabby, unenlightened, uninspired 4th grade teacher. It’s good for kids to have a shallow, bossy, slutty best friend. It’s good for kids to be cold, wet, and hungry for more than one and a half minutes.”

This got a lot of laughs, but her point is well-taken. We shouldn’t bubble-wrap our children. They need to experience real life. Nothing harsh or awful. Just real. Real consequences, real people, real disappointments, and conversely real accomplishments instead of receiving lavish praise for every little thing they do.

“We treat these very capable children, who have never been deprived of anything, as if they are handicapped royalty. It teaches them that we think they aren’t capable.”

We should let them be ordinary, she says. And we should let ourselves be ordinary too. This reminds of a funny conversation I had with Kristin one day about parental fatigue. “I’m tired of orchestrating your fabulous experience every single day,” she said, as if talking to her kids. “Go find something to do. It’s just a day.” I think Wendy Mogel would agree.

“Children are like seeds that come in a packet without a label. Our job is to water them and feed them and to pull the really big weeds.”

What do you think? Is micro-management good for kids even though it’s tough on parents? Or do you want to loosen the reins a bit? Let them “fart around and do nothing,” as she puts it. You know where I stand.

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Aqua Dots RECALL

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by Stacey

Sorry to be late on this story. On Wednesday the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 4.2 million Aqua Dots, distrubuted by Spin Master of Toronto, Canada. According to this article in the NY Times, if ingested the beads release a chemical related to GBH, otherwise known as the banned date rape drug.

The toy is made in Australia where it is called Bindeez. The problem was discovered when a 2-year-old boy was taken to a suburban Sydney hospital on Oct. 5 in a shallow coma and suffering from seizurelike spasms, the article says. It took doctors four weeks to figure out what caused his condition. When it was learned that the boy had vomited the beads before he fell into a coma, the beads were sent to a lab for testing.

What they found was “an obscure industrial chemical used to prevent water-soluble glues from becoming sticky before they are needed. But when ingested, the chemical quickly breaks down to become GHB. The United States tightly restricts the chemical’s sale and places GHB in the same category as heroin.”

Soon after another girl who was ten years old, was found in the same condition as the boy. She too, had vomited the beads before falling into a coma.

On Wednesday, Dr. Carpenter [the doctor who found the chemical in the beads] said safety regulators should look beyond Bindeez to conduct laboratory tests on all similar craft toys. These toys, sold under brand names including Aqua Dots and Aqua Beads, contain packets of brightly colored beads that children arrange into mosaics, then sprinkle with water; the beads then stick together in as little as 10 minutes to form durable artworks.

Okay, so obviously our kids are not supposed to be eating the beads. It would be nice if the beads they did manage to eat were not toxic. Sure do miss the good old days when a kid swallowed a marble and all a parent had to do was wait for it to come out the other side.

For more information on what to do if you have this toy go the company’s Web site or call Spin Master at (800) 622-8339 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Filed under children's health, drugs, family, kids, parenting, safety, toxic toys, toy recall

It’s Official!!

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by Stacey

Our ten-month old baby “Sasha” is now our ten-month old baby “Sascha!” On Wednesday, my husband and I took him downtown to the County Court to change the spelling of his name. In the photo above Sascha waited to appear before the judge along with a bunch of other unsavory characters.

You’d think with nine months to contemplate the arrival of a baby, we would have gotten it right the first time. But we were completely stumped for a boy’s name up until the very end of my pregnancy. We stumbled on Sasha through a conversation with my Fussbucket partner Kristin and another good friend. It was a name we both immediately liked a lot.

What a relief, we thought, and didn’t give much attention to the spelling. Later we learned there’s “Sasha,” as in the Russian nickname for Alexander. There’s “Sacha,” as in the now-famous comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. And there’s “Sascha,” which my mom suggested and is a variant of the Alexander nickname. That’s the version we like best so we decided before he gets all attached to Sasha, we’d make the switch.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the other spellings too. But we were running into the problem of people thinking he was a girl because of his name. This happened a few times when people saw his name written down and so it got us thinking about whether we should try to masculinize it. When I showed Kristin the new spelling she said, “It’s chunkier,” which sealed the deal for me. And by the way, we’re not the only ones who have a boy named Sasha, Sacha, Sascha, who are having this problem.

In other Sascha news, he’s big into feeding himself in the highchair and has even taught himself a little trick! It’s called, watch-me-balance-my-food-on-my-head!

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He’s also crawling! Sort of. He seems to be doing the same thing his older brother did, which is a kind of sitting scooch. Must be genetic. From my husband.

Congratulations Sascha on all of these milestones! We love you!!!

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