Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

Texting Teens and Felony Charges February 26, 2009

Say you’re a middle school principal who has just confiscated a cell phone from a 14-year-old boy, only to discover it contains a nude photo of his 13-year-old girlfriend. Do you: a) call the boy’s parents in despair, b) call the girl’s parents in despair, or c) call the police? More and more, the answer is d) all of the above. Which could result in criminal charges for both of your students and their eventual designation as sex offenders.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dahlia Lithwick’s provocative story on, “Textual Misconduct: What to do about teens and their dumb naked photos of themselves.” 

“Sexting” is the clever new name for the act of sending, receiving, or forwarding naked photos via your cell phone. As the aunt of a beautiful and daring 17-year-old, I’m privy to her exploits, thanks to online social sites where she and her high-school friends post photos and videos of many of their activities. She is a good girl and we have (I think) an honest and open dialogue together, but, like most teens, she and her friends love to push the envelope. Hey, didn’t we all when we were young and considered ourselves invincible? The issue now is this: one racy, brazen Valentine photo for a boyfriend can land both the wannabe model and the recipient of the image with felony charges for manufacture, dissemination and possession of child pornography—and an appearance on a list of registered sex offenders. How will these consequences affect entrance into college, attempts to secure employment?

Lithwick reports that one teen in five reports he or she has sent or posted naked photos of himself or herself, according to a new survey by the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Additionally,

  • In January 2009, three girls (ages 14 or 15) in Greensburg, Pa., were charged with disseminating child pornography for sexting their boyfriends. The boys who received the images were charged with possession.
  • A teenager in Indiana faces felony obscenity charges for sending a picture of his genitals to female classmates.
  • A 15-year-old girl in Ohio and a 14-year-old girl in Michigan were charged with felonies for sending nude images of themselves to classmates. 
  • Nationally, more than 75 billion text messages are sent a month, and the most avid texters are 13 to 17, say researchers. Teens with cellphones average 2,272 text messages a month, compared with 203 calls, according to the Nielsen Co.

If convicted, these young people may have to register as sex offenders, in some cases for a decade or two. Similar charges have been filed in cases in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Must we prosecute kids with a felony—as the producers and purveyors of kiddie porn—because they are too immature to understand that their seemingly innocent acts can hurt them? Child pornography laws intended to protect children should not be used to prosecute and then label children as sex offenders.

According to Lithwick, school districts have reacted to the uptick in sexting by simply prohibiting students from bringing cell phones to school. This doesn’t stop students from sexting, it just stops them from being caught, enacting what amounts to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.

At some level, teens understand that once their image reaches someone else’s cell phone, what happened in Vegas is unlikely to stay there, she comments.

The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey suggests 25% of teen girls and 33%  of teen boys report seeing naked images originally sent to someone else.

The same survey showed that teens can be staggeringly naive in another way: 20% have posted a naked photo of themselves despite the fact that 71% of those asked understand that doing so can have serious negative consequences. Understanding the consequences of risky behavior but engaging in it anyhow? Smells like teen spirit to me, muses Lithwick.

The real problem with criminalizing teen sexting as a form of child pornography is that the great majority of these kids are not predators.

Many experts insist the sexting trend hurts teen girls more than boys, fretting that they feel “pressured” to take and send naked photos. Yet, as Lithwick points out, the girls in the Pennsylvania case were charged with “manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography” while the boys were merely charged with possession. If we are worried about the poor girls pressured into exposing themselves, why are we treating them more harshly than the boys?

Parents need to remind their teens that a dumb moment can last a lifetime in cyberspace. Judges and prosecutors need to understand that a lifetime of cyber-humiliation shouldn’t be grounds for a very real and possibly lifelong criminal record.

Further research on this topic was presented at the 2009 WiredKid’s Summit by Teenangels and Tweenangels  (non-profit groups of 13- to 18-year old and 9- to 12-year-old volunteers who have been specially trained in all aspects of online safety, privacy and security. The Teenangels run unique programs in schools to educate other teens and younger kids, parents, and teachers about responsible and safe surfing). Here are their findings:

• Cyberbullying occurs as early as 2nd grade and peaks in 4th grade.
• When kids are targeted by a cyberbully, most kids hide it from their parents (unless they surf together or play online games together).
• Boys tend to be riskier online than girls, by sharing more personal information and offline meetings with people they only know online.
• When kids engage their parents with their online activities, the kids themselves are safer and more careful across the board. Five times as many of them know about parental controls and privacy settings than the kids who always surf alone.
• Moms play online games with their kids almost as often as dads do.
• Boys post more videos to YouTube than girls do, but both watch them as often.
• 85% of elementary school kids share their password with at least one other person.


Joseph’s 4th Birthday Party! February 17, 2009

My baby Joseph is now four years old! It is so hard to believe. I have already put away clothes he just received at Christmas because he’s grown too tall and lanky for them. His babyhood is fading behind him, but what a beautiful year this will be! Joseph is now so expressive and passionate, and wants very much to be heard and taken so very seriously: “Mommy, wait a minute! I have something to tell you!” It is fascinating and rewarding to watch the frustration of toddler tantrums melt away in place of discussions about our feelings, and what actions we can take for more desirable results (but more on that later).

My son is a birthday party fanatic, and in my own excitement on his behalf, I invited Joseph’s entire preschool class, his little neighbors, his peer-group cousins, his best church buddy, and his friends from San Diego and Palm Springs for an Ocean Conservation Birthday Party. The choice of theme came from many sources: 1.) we had the amazing opportunity to see Birdsong and the Eco-Wonders perform their unique and magical music about ocean ecology, recycling and maintaing our beaches and oceans; 2.) Birthday parties can easily become a paper-waste nightmare, with decorations, streamers, hats, paper plates and the rest of it; #.) Joseph has the rest of his life to dream up a theme or location for his birthday–at 4, I still have some input, right? 4.) I really wanted to present our friends with something truly enchanted and meaningful. Little eyes and ears need enchantment! (As a bonus, this Spring, Joseph’s preschool class is learning about ocean creatures!)

With help from all the mommies and daddies, we played with bubbles, ate a big lunch, danced and used our playhouse and slide, and it was as fun and silly and high-energy as I’d hoped. The most wonderful part was having the incredible Birdsong come to Joseph’s party and sing her fun, educational songs for the children. Her lyrics and gorgeous imagery flashed on the TV while she sang, and the children were so taken with her, they jumped right up and danced and played and shook maracas, and pretended they were octopuses, dolphins and sharks. Moms and Dads commented to me that they were learning just as much as the kids. Birdsong kindly gave Joseph his very own shark puppet as a birthday gift, and we have been listening to her CD, nonstop, since the party. At 21 months, even little Noah is now singing lyrics about how dolphins echo-locate. The music is simply wonderful, and since nearly everyone at the party lives within a few miles of the California coastline, Birdsong‘s message of caring for the beach and our ocean friends is especially powerful. The next day, Joseph asked if she could come and do the party all over again.

While my intentions were entirely green, I’ll admit it was tough to locate recyclable plates—and when I did, there was a stiff pricetag. I compromised by getting a little over half of what I needed, and offered guests a choice: reusable plastic or paper plates and a recycling bin; the same went for cutlery. (Partial environmental friendliness is better than none.) Our decorations were fish and boats and turtles and walruses, all created by my sons! We love to make all kinds of wonderful arts and crafts, so we just did what we always do, but focused on our ocean theme. Lastly, with so many kids, it was important to create a game we could all take part in. I sponge-painted a giant octopus and many (maaaannnny) tentacles, and we all played pin-the-tentacle-on-the-octopus (especially fun, since Birdsong has a very special song about Oxford the Octopus!) After placing a tentacle, each party guest got to choose a little figurine of a water creature as a prize.

Mid-way through the party, my son came up and slid his arm around my waist and whispered, “this is a great party, mom.” We smiled at each other. So this is what four years old looks like? Absolutely brilliant.


MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield Fixed Data on Autism February 13, 2009

As many of you know, I am very cautious about how many and what types of vaccines my children receive. I’ve talked about it several times, most recently here.

In the spirit of fairness and balanced journalism, I must share this article I just read this morning. Written by Brian Deer for the UK’s Sunday Times, it reports on how Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children, misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with Autism.

Keep in mind, this is a “Sunday Times investigation,” although it opens the discussion once again about the causes of Autism. The Autism Society of America explains, “Research indicates that other factors besides the genetic component are contributing to the rise in increasing occurrences of Autism, such as environmental toxins (e.g., heavy metals such as mercury), which are more prevalent in our current environment than in the past.” What I would like to know is if it’s not in the vaccines, then what is the source of our children’s exposure to mercury? What is it about our “current environment” that is so mercury-laden?

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s fact sheet, “Elemental mercury is a shiny, silver-gray metal that is a liquid at room temperature. It can be found in thermometers, barometers, sphygmomanometers, dental amalgams, batteries, fluorescent lights and electrical switches. It also was commonly found in household latex paint prior to the early 1990s.” Are we to blame fluorescent lights and light switches for the threat of neurological disorders? Oh yes, it’s virtually impossible now to find fish to eat which is not contaminated with mercury. (This former sushi fan was astonished by this warning list from the Natural Resources Defense Coucil. If you are pregnant or plan to serve fish to small children, it is essential to read this.)

I guess I’m especially sensitive to pharmaceuticals. My son Noah must face a surgical procedure this Spring which requires he be anesthetized with ketamine. My husband and I lay awake at night shuddering at the thought. We already witnessed the horror of anesthetizing a child when little Joseph cut his lip and chin at age two and required emergency surgery. For my births, I chose to stay home and deliver my boys in a birthing tub, attended by my husband and midwives–accepting no drugs of any kind, and I was overjoyed with both experiences and what easy, and fast labors they were. Yes, my sons have been vaccinated for a number of potential threats, but we have carefully selected those vaccines while refraining from others, and we have staggered the schedule so that they would not receive injections too frequently, or before their bodies had a chance to accept the foreign vaccine and readjust. I also prefer they have a chance to grow between each vaccine. It seems counter-intuitive to pump so many pharmaceuticals into such little beings. 

Until the verdict on the safety of vaccines is absolutely clear, I’ll remain cautious.


The Serious Need for Play February 12, 2009

Concerned that our 3-year-old’s acclaimed (and expensive) preschool was little more than glorified daycare, we withdrew him last year in favor of a highly-academic International Montessori school run by a teacher my husband had at the Montessori he attended when he was a preschooler.

I’ll admit, little Joseph loves his new teachers and has connected emotionally with his new classmates. In my heart, however, I’ve wondered whether an entirely instructional environment including time-outs for “silliness” and rough-housing will help my son become a calm and diligent student, or thwart his natural instincts for the imaginative play customary to little boys and girls his age? (This is a significant issue for me, as my son loves to engage in gentle rough-housing—which the school frowns upon.)

In a fabulous piece by Melinda Wenner in the January 2009 issue of Scientific American, (The Serious Need for Play), Wenner offers several studies which kindled conversations between my husband and I, and will redirect our philosophy of our son’s education. If you are the parent of a preschooler, I urge you to read on; I’ve sent this enlightening piece to a number of friends and family members employed in early childhood education, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive in favor of fostering the joy of imaginative free play in our little ones.

According to Wenner, free play “makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.” She notes that, “By age 23, more than one third of kids who had attended instruction-oriented preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared with fewer than one tenth of the kids who had been in play-oriented preschools. And as adults, fewer than 7 percent of the play-oriented preschool attendees had ever been suspended from work, but more than a quarter of the directly instructed kids had.”

In an exhaustive comparison of preschools in Orange County, California (where we live), it is nearly impossible to located a “play-oriented” preschool. Nearly every school, (aside from the excellent one I’d already pulled my child from) caters to parents like myself, who encourage their children to read, write and do math at earlier and earlier ages. In our anxiety to ensure our children one day enter the best post-secondary schools, we begin right away with music lessons, sports teams and extra-curricular, structured learning environments, rather than simply plopping them down in front of a stack of blocks and letting them create a game or scene of their own imagining. Or better yet, allowing art lessons to be opportunities for personal expression, rather than advise, “use green to color the sea turtle.” According to Scientific American, it is “rambunctious cavorting that fosters creativity and cooperation.”

“Free play,” as behavioral scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997.

The following are important clips copied directly from Wenner’s article. I’ve added emphasis to key points:

Freedom Counts
But kids playsoccer, Scrabble and the sousaphone—so why are experts concerned that these games and more structured activities are eating into free play? Certainly games with rules are fun and sources of learning experiences—they may foster better social skills and group cohesion, for instance, says Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota. But, Pellegrini explains, “games have a priori rules—set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.”

This creative aspect is key because it challenges the developing brain more than following predetermined rules does. In free play, kids use their imagination and try out new activities and roles.

The child initiates and creates free play. It might involve fantasies—such as pretending to be doctors or princesses or playing house—or it might include mock fighting, as when kids (primarily boys) wrestle and tumble with one another for fun, switching roles periodically so that neither of them always wins.And free play is most similar to play seen in the animal kingdom, suggesting that it has important evolutionary roots. Gordon M. Burghardt, author of The Genesis of Animal Play, spent 18 years observing animals to learn how to define play: it must be repetitive—an animal that nudges a new object just once is not playing with it—and it must be voluntary and initiated in a relaxed setting. Animals and children do not play when they are undernourished or in stressful situations. Most essential, the activity should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.

Face Time
How do these seemingly pointless activities benefit kids? Perhaps most crucially, play appears to help us develop strong social skills. “You don’t become socially competent via teachers telling you how to behave,”Pellegrini says. “You learn those skills by interacting with your peers, learning what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable.” Children learn to be fair and take turns—they cannot always demand to be the fairy queen, or soon they have no playmates. “They want this thing to keep going, so they’re willing to go the extra mile” to accommodate others’ desires, he explains. Because kids enjoy the activity, they do not give up as easily in the face of frustration as they might on, say, a math problem—which helps them develop persistence and negotiating abilities.

Keeping things friendly requires a fair bit of communication—arguably the most valuable social skill of all. Play that transpires with peers is the most important in this regard. Studies show that children use more sophisticated language when playing with other children than when playing with adults.In pretend play, for instance, “they have to communicate about something that’s not physically present, so they have to use complicated language in such a way that they can communicate to their peer what it is that they’re trying to say,” Pellegrini explains. For example, kids can’t get away with just asking, “Vanilla or chocolate?” as they hand a friend an imaginary cone. They have to provide contextual clues: “Vanilla or chocolate ice cream: Which one would you like?” Adults, on the other hand, fill in the blanks themselves, making things easier for kids.

Stress Relief
Research suggests that play is also critical for emotional health, possibly because it helps kids work through anxiety and stress. In a 1984 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers assessed the anxiety levels of 74 three- and four-year-old children on their first day of preschool as indicated by their behavior—whether they pleaded, whined and begged their parents to stay—and how much their palms were sweating. Based on the researchers’ observations, they labeled each child as either anxious or not anxious. They then randomly split the 74 kids into four groups. Half of the kids were escorted to rooms full of toys, where they played either alone or with peers for 15 minutes; the other half were told to sit at a small table either alone or with peers and listen to a teacher tell a story for 15 minutes.

Afterward, the kids’ levels of distress were assessed again. The anxiety levels of the anxious kids who had played had dropped by more than twice as much as compared with the anxious kids who had listened to the story. (The kids who were not anxious to begin with stayed about the same.) Interestingly, those who played alone calmed down more than the ones who played with peers. The researchers speculate that through imaginative play, which is most easily initiated alone, children build fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations.

Play fighting also improves problem solving. According to a paper published by Pellegrini in 1989, the more elementary school boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving.

Indeed, evidence indicates that play is evolutionarily quite ancient. Rats that have had their neocortex removed—a large brain region that is involved in higher-order thinking such as conscious thought and decision making—still engage in normal play, which suggests that play motivation comes from the brain stem, a structure that precedes the evolution of mammals. “This means that the core, genetically-provided circuitry for play is situated in very ancient regions of the brain,”explains Panksepp, who led the experiment in 1994.

Take-away notes:

  • Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive ­development.
  • Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.
  • Kids and animals that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults.

    Kid-Proof Cinnamon Zucchini Muffins February 7, 2009

    My preschooler Joseph loves music and singing. He is always game for interactive songs, such as B-I-N-G-O and Old MacDonald. In fact, if any song happens to pose a question of any kind, my son is quick to “holla back,” as it were.

    At the beginning of a track on a disc we have about farm life, the vocalist asks, “What is your favorite vegetable?” Joseph didn’t miss a beat: “Fruit!” he exclaimed. Then she asked, “how about string beans?”, to which he replied, “I like jelly beans!”

    Hmmm. It wasn’t so long ago that I introduced my little newborn to his first veggies, laying the foundation for a lifetime of healthy nutrition. Have I strayed so far from my mission? Where and when did my son learn to like jelly beans more than string beans? Not to be defeated, there has been plenty of exploration of veggies at our house, which, as it turns out, can be lot of fun with an almost-four-year-old.

    The word “zucchini” is, in itself, a mouthful of fun to say. Put “cinnamon” in front of it, and you’ve built quite a tongue-twister! My son very proudly baked these muffins, executing every step from hand-grating the fresh zucchini, to measuring the flour, vanilla and spices, to dotting each muffin top with a pecan. “I’m a chef!” he declared. Sure, why not?

    3 cups fresh zucchini, grated
    2/3 cups unsalted butter, melted
    1 1/3 cup organic brown sugar
    2 eggs, beaten
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    2 teaspoons baking soda
    Pinch sea salt
    3 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
    12 whole pecans, or 1/3 cup pecan pieces

    Preheat oven to 350 degree F. In a large bowl, mix together sugar, eggs and vanilla. Add the grated zucchini and the melted butter. Sprinkle baking soda and salt over the mixture and blend. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add all dry ingredients to the zucchini mixture. Bonus antioxidants! If your kid will eat them, fold in 1 cup dried cranberries. (Note: Our goal was to foster a positive experience with a green vegetable. Forgoing convention, we dumped all ingredients into one giant bowl and mixed. The muffins were in no way negatively affected.)

    Lightly coat your muffin pan with a little butter or canola oil spray. Using two spoons, equally distribute the muffin batter, filling the cups completely. Bake on the middle rack until muffins are golden, and the tops bounce back when gently pressed (about 25 minutes). Set on rack to cool for 5 minutes, then remove muffins from the muffin pan and let cool another 10-12 minutes. Makes 12.

    Food Fact! Pecans offer a variety of forms of vitamin E, a natural antioxidant. Just a handful of pecans each day may decrease the risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. According to Nutrition Research (August 2006), the vitamin E in pecans “protect blood lipids from oxidation. Oxidation of lipids in the body—a process akin to rusting—is detrimental to health. When the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol becomes oxidized, it is more likely to build up and result in clogged arteries.” More than just a vitamin E dynamo, pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B vitamins and zinc. A good source of fiber, pecans are also a high-quality source of protein that contain very few carbohydrates and no cholesterol.


    Rethinking The Rotavirus Vaccine February 3, 2009

    Like many moms, I’m rather wary and suspicious of the seemingly endless vaccines offered to my children. While I would never want to put my children in jeopardy of an avoidable and potentially damaging illness, I’m just plain gunshy (needleshy) thanks to the alarming number reports of the CDC accepting rewards for reporting their pharmaceutical test findings in a certain light—one that benefits the drug companies. To put it simply, it’s an internal battle: Would I rather risk an incidence of measles from NOT getting the vaccine, or Autism if I DO get the vaccine?

    All conspiracies aside, the Autism Society of America explains, “Research indicates that other factors besides the genetic component are contributing to the rise in increasing occurrences of Autism, such as environmental toxins (e.g., heavy metals such as mercury), which are more prevalent in our current environment than in the past.” Personally, the onslaught of multiple vaccines from birth onward (is my baby really at risk of Hep B at 2 weeks of age?!) seem like a heavy cocktail of “environmental toxins.” To date, we have taken the tried-and-true path with our kids, allowing only the old-school vaccines that have been in use for decades: DTaP, poliovirus, pneumoccocal and varicella. 

    RotaTeq is a relatively new kid on the vaccine block (manufactured by Merck and FDA licensed February 2006). We opted not to receive it because I was nursing and my infant spent little time sharing toys outside of the house with other infants, making him low-risk. Today, Noah is now almost 21 months, and enjoys many social outings with his older brother in settings where multiple preschoolers play with the same toys. Off and on, since before Christmas, both boys have struggled with the stomach flu (aka: rotavirus, the leading cause of severe acute gastroenteritis among children worldwide.) While we have all been healthy for about 3 weeks now, our social circle has diminshed greatly because everyone from infants to middle schoolers to parents are at home wrestling the same symptoms.

    Here’s the big problem with rotavirus—once you get it, you don’t build an immunity to it like, say, a common cold. If you pass it to a family member, they can pass it right back to you. The next issue? We can’t turn back time. The first dose of RotaTeq vaccine (a liquid given by mouth, rather than by a shot) should be given between 6-12 weeks old and two additional doses are given at 4-10 week intervals. Children should get all three doses before 32 weeks old. There is no “catch-up” for older children. Our window of opportunity is closed.

    Still, even though I shudder at the thought of another bout with endless watery stools, vomit, crying, and the inevitable mountain of laundry from soiled jammies, bedlinens and towels, if I were able to turn back the clock, would I agree to RotaTeq?

    The vaccine does not contain thimerosal or any other preservative, so that rules out one aspect of the Autism threat. RotaTeq claims to be “different” than the vaccine RotaShield, which was removed from the market in 1999 after it was found to be associated with a rare type of bowel obstruction called intussusception. However, in the first year of RotaTeq’s debut, there were 28 reports of infants getting intussusception after being vaccinated with RotaTeq with about half of the cases occurring within 21 days of vaccination and 16 of the infants requiring surgery. (The other children were treated without surgery, using enemas.) So, how is RotaTeq different?

    Knowing what I know today, I’d probably turn it down. The most important thing to remember with any diarrhea is to keep your child hydrated (using electrolyte beverages and water–NOT juice.) The illness does pass, and in the meantime, put aside everything in favor of  hugs, books, cuddles in blankies and quiet time. Clean all toys and clothes shared between family members, and wash everyone’s hands obsessively.

    The time period from initial infection to symptoms for rotavirus disease is around two days. Symptoms of the disease include:

    • Fever
    • Vomiting
    • Watery diarrhea. Abdominal pain may also occur, and infected children may have profuse watery diarrhea up to several times per day.
    • Symptoms generally persist for three to nine days.
    • Potential for severe dehydration in infants and children. Maintain regular hydration. (courtesy