Friday, February 25, 2011

What’s a Mother To Do?

A mom in Florida, tired of her teenage son’s bad grades, decided the only way to motivate him to improve was to humiliate him. She drove him to a busy street corner, made him get out of the car and walk around with a body-size sign which read, “GPA 122…honk if I need an education.” I get her reason for doing it. She felt desperate, unable to find any other way to motivate her son to do well in school. She’d tried helping him with homework, grounding him, lecturing, taking away his phone and other privileges, but nothing worked. When she and the boy’s father, both of whom failed to finish high school, took their son into the principal’s office to discuss the problem and the boy ignored them all, the mom had enough. That’s when she got the idea for the sign. But honestly, when has humiliation ever worked on anyone to get them to do anything you wanted them to do? Getting a teen (or in my case a tween) to do anything you want them to do, when you want them to do it, can be next to impossible without Herculean effort. Getting a teenage boy with school issues to do better in class by parading his failure on the street corner and having cars honk at him – not a great plan. It certainly won’t be the “ah ha” moment in this kid’s life which will cause him to mend his school ditching, homework avoiding ways. It will be a horrible memory burned into his soul that will cause him pain and resentment and may make him to act worse instead of acting better. But for his mom, it was, perhaps in her mind, an easy fix to a desperate situation.

In the article in the Tampa Bay Times,, the mother, Ronda Holder, 33, explains that she has five other children, all of whom are doing well in school. She didn’t want to see her son, James, 15, end up on the streets because he didn’t get an education. She said that up until last year, his grades were good, but then when he entered 8th grade, his grades suddenly tanked. There are so many things unsaid in this case which make me wonder what is really going on. When a good student’s grades suddenly go bad, there is usually a specific reason: conflict with teacher or another student, bullying, an undiagnosed learning issue, joining a troublesome social clique. The response to the change isn’t humiliation, but investigation. Asking to see his homework and offering to help is a start, but before going to the principal, the intervention should start with the teacher. If the parents and teacher together aren’t effective, then the next step (which eventually happened after the sign incident) is to try to arrange for tutoring. The mom should have also looked into learning and psychological assessments to see if those were affecting her son’s grades. But really, the first place she should have started was with her son, sitting down with him, talking, taking the focus off of the grades and trying to get to the underlying issue of the sudden downturn in performance. All of that is a lot of work, it’s frustrating and difficult and confusing. Some parents don’t know the steps to take to deal with difficulties in school and don’t have the support either at school or from those around them to guide them on a path that helps the situation rather than aggravates it. Yes, James is now getting the help he needs – he’s enrolled in an after school tutoring program, and his grades are improving, but not only was he widely (thanks to tv and the Internet), publicly humiliated (hell, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get his own reality show), his family has been red flagged by the Florida Department of Children and Families because someone who drove by, saw the sign felt that the mother’s actions constituted child abuse. And in some ways, it did.

This is a tough and sad story to me. I don’t side with the mother’s action, but I understand it. But I also feel as if her action, her parenting misstep could have been avoided. Kids without an education, young black men, in particular, are at extreme risk of being lost to poverty, drugs and crime if there is no early intervention. And certainly, this was a case were a good kid was about to be lost. It is clear that this thirty-three year old woman, a hair dresser without a high school diploma, who was only 17 when her son was born and had five kids soon after him, was trying to do the best she could. She values what she didn’t get – an education – and wants better for her children, which is admirable. Except humiliating your child isn’t that way to do it. And sadly, before she got to that point, there wasn’t a teacher, counselor, principal or other parent she could turn to who could help her navigate the problem without resorting to the sign. Not only had her son fallen through the cracks at school and not received the help he needed, but the mom did, too. Before DCF puts her family on lock down, I hope the school and community uses the incident as an opportunity to look at what services they have for parents to help them deal with situations before they become desperate. In this case, it was humiliation by sign. In another case, it could be worse. Remember the mom, also in Florida, who shot both her teens for mouthing off? Yes, that is extreme compared to the sign incident, but the similarities - a desperate parent with no support or help in a troubled situation - are clear. Both cases, in their own way, are tragic and avoidable.

BTW – a recent blog post I wrote is being featured in a Black History Month blog-a-thon on Check out the articles at:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tigers Belong In a Zoo

I haven’t read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Press) yet and I may not unless I have time to kill at the airport. It is the book everyone has been up in arms about since excerpts of it were released in the Wall Street Journal. It’s the kind of story parents like to take up arms against – over achieving mother who emotionally torments and severely restricts her children from the simple pleasures in life like playdates and leisure time in order to turn them into the type of uber achiever she requires them to be. The book has a provocative title that makes for a great headline – Tiger Mother – and an attractive, accomplished mother whose own credentials – Yale law professor – make it tough to argue with the notion that just maybe her way, the Chinese way – makes for better parenting. But it doesn’t. No one way is the way. There is no one child or one parent. Each are different, each require different approaches and styles to help and guide the children on the road to the person they are destined to be – not the person that I as the parent require them to be. If there was one way that was right, raising children would be much easier than it is.

I hate these types books because it gets people in an uproar - there were actually almost ten times more comments posted on the Wall Street Journal website in response to the story on this book than there were on coverage of the Arizona shootings. Really? How one parent raises her kids (brags about it in print and uses cultural comparisons as a weapon in her argument) is more compelling than a political assassination attempt where lives were lost and serious questions were raised about gun possession and the identification and support of the mentally ill in our country? To me, that’s a sign that our priorities our out of whack.

The controversy around the Tiger Mother book reminds me of the brouhaha that sprung up a few years back when Lenore Skenazy wrote about letting her 9 year old son take the subway home by himself in New York City. Her stunt reinvented her writing career and made her the guru of the free range parenting movement, which promotes a hands-off parenting style.

Free range parenting, tiger mothering, I guess if you want to sell a book, you have a gimmick, but gimmicks are not the best way to raise children. I think that somewhere in the middle is where the path lies and the path twists and turns differently for every family. You will be influenced by your own upbringing, by your cultural traditions, your own family/work life juggle - in some cases even by what meds you are or should be on. But you will find your parenting path without clinging to or rallying against books like Tiger Mother. Honestly, as a parent, I really have way too much to do than to worry about a mom who won’t let her kids go to sleepovers or playdates – it just means my tv watching, computer game playing, junk food indulging kids won’t be socializing with her robotots. And I have the feeling that regardless of how I raise mine or she raises hers, they will all turn out just fine.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Plastic Bubbles

I was sick this week. So was one of my daughters. No one likes being sick, at least not as an adult. I have vague memories of enjoying it as a kid, probably because missing a day of school felt like a treat, not a burden. As a kid, I could curl up in bed, sip soup, watch reruns of Hawaii Five-0 (the one with Jack Lord) and doze off while recovering from whatever ailed me. I didn’t have to worry about all the work and email catch up I’d have to do, all the appointments I’d miss or how I’d pick up my kids from school if I was laid out.

I’d been fighting this thing for a week, thought I was better and then relapsed. It came on suddenly, first the feeling of exhaustion, then the sore throat, and stuffiness, then the constant feeling of being chilled to the bone. No matter how high I turned up the heat in my office I couldn’t warm up. I think at one point I had the thermostat on 80, causing anyone who came to my office to stand at the door and comment on the sauna-like quality of the room rather than enter.

My daughter’s teacher was sick and the classroom aide said half the class was out. Another parent emailed to tell me her doctor had warned a nasty virus was going around. As careful as I am about germs (okay, mildly neurotic is really a better way to describe it), I was surprised I picked something up. I hate to admit it, but I’m the type who wipes down phones and light switches, stopped using bed spreads in hotels after seeing a 60 Minutes report, and hand sanitize with religious fever after a trip to the ATM because of an article which said the buttons were dirtier than public restroom toilet seats! But despite all my efforts to stay germ free and healthy, a bug found its way into our house.

I don’t get sick often and my kids are pretty good when it comes to dodging colds and the flu as well. But here we are, buried under the covers, shivering, coughing, sore throats, feeling generally miserable and wondering if we’ll feel better before going through another box of Kleenex. My oldest kid, the only one in the house who is healthy, suggested we wrap ourselves in plastic like John Travolta in that movie, the Boy in the Plastic Bubble. But then my younger kid reminded her that he died at the end of the movie. Honestly, it was so long ago that I don’t how the movie ended – I just have memories of him spending his life in a bubble to ward off germs which would mean nothing to the rest of us but which would be deadly to him. There is so much concern, so many reports and studies about how many ways we can come in contact with nasty germs and get sick – that I am starting to feel like John in the bubble. But sometimes, despite how careful you are with the 409 and the hand sanitizer, there is a germ with your name on it. So I’ll sit back in bed, sip soup, doze off and see if there are episodes of the new Hawaii Five-0 on t.v.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Working Mothers Make Kids Fat

A new report (
has linked childhood obesity to working mothers. Researchers from the American University at Washington, the University of Chicago and Cornell University, found that in a study of 900 elementary- and middle-school-aged children in 10 cities whose mothers worked, those kids were more likely to be overweight than kids with stay-at-home moms. The report claimed that the reason for the disparity in weight between kids from working vs. non-working moms was the tendency of working mothers to feed their children more fast food, processed/prepackaged food and junk food than stay-at-home mothers.

I’m irritated by this report on several levels. Do working mothers really need yet more things to feel guilty about? Don’t we have enough trying to juggle marriage, family and work without being accused of inadequately feeding our children just because we want to (and in more cases than not) need to work outside of the home. There are already so many things working mothers feel guilty about – missing soccer games, class field trips, not being able to attend school meetings scheduled at 9 am. Many would go to therapy to address our guilt if we had the time or money, but we’re too busy working and feeding our kids Jack-in-the Box to relax on a shrink’s couch. This type of research really isn’t beneficial to supporting working mothers or for that matter, working parents. Because let’s face it, dads have to claim some responsibility too. Mom’s are the only ones coming home exhausted and stuffing their kids with fast food rather than dragging themselves into the kitchen and cooking up something with at least two colors of vegetables in it.

Another reason this report bothers me is that in the last ten years I think much has been done to bring together the parenting community and to mend the rift (real or imagined) between working and stay-at-home mothers. There has been an effort to unite around mutual concerns for our children through support groups, online forums, parenting classes, all designed to discuss, share and learn best practices for how to raise our children regardless of whether you punch a time card or not. In my opinion, this type of research only goes to widen the divide.

Instead of research like this which concludes that working mothers feed their children worse than stay-at-home moms – and yes, I have often ranted in this blog about having nothing in the house to eat and sending my kids to school with carbo loaded lunches not because they were training for a marathon, but because there was nothing in the fridge to send except leftover mac and cheese and pound cake - but that is the exception, not the rule. There are so many ways that working moms can and do keep up high nutritional standards despite pursuing a career:

•Shopping and cooking for the week on Saturday and Sunday so that healthy meals can be refrigerated to eat the rest of the work week
•Serving frozen fruit smoothies with yogurt when there’s no fresh fruit in the crisper
•Tossing canned veggies with just about any pasta in a pinch

Those are just a few tricks in the working mom’s arsenal to fire off before hitting the drive-thru. My favorite go-to is online shopping at 4am to order groceries (with free delivery) when a trip to the store conflicts with too many late nights working. Those are all viable alternatives to the fast food and junk food that this report says is the diet of kids of working moms.

I bet those researchers thought this was a helpful addition to the conversation about childhood obesity and its causes, but honestly, it’s not. It feels like a gross generalization about the state of how working mothers feed their children based (probably) on a limited group of research subjects. How and what working mothers feed their children, any mother for that matter, will vary by region, education, socioeconomic status, ethnic background and a variety of other factors that make me very skeptical of the conclusions in this report. I think rather than lay the blame for fat kids at the door of working mothers, perhaps the emphasis should be more about encouraging all parents to support healthy eating and lifestyle choices for all our children.

In my initial anger at hearing this report, I had a fleeting thought of driving by the University of Chicago and in protest, pelting the building with Twinkies. I still might do it, but I have a conference call and a meeting at work later and probably won’t be able to get to the grocery story to stock up on junk food.