Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Mommy, a Man Videotaped Me!"

Yesterday was one of those mellow early-fall afternoons that demand to be embraced and savored. A perfect day to let the kids run around the park playground across the street from school and, for once, not worry about rushing them back into the drab world of homework, laundry-folding and chicken in the oven. My two wasted no time in finding friends and launching into adventures while I found a bench to bask on.

"Mommy! Mommy!" Breaking into my reverie, my daughter came running, almost tripping over the grass in her excitement. "A man just took a videotape of Sam and me!" She grinned and clasped her hands together. "He says we're going to be on TV!"

 A stranger videotaped my daughter? So much for a placid afternoon.

I wouldn't call myself an obsessively cautious parent. I side with the Free-Range Kids philosophy that children need a measure of independence to help them become confident, self-reliant people. I don't see the world as a cesspool of evil where villains lurk around every corner, just waiting for a mother to drop her guard for a nanosecond. Statistics show that crime is lower now than it was decades ago, when it was much more common for kids to wander their neighborhoods unsupervised. And though I live in big bad New York City, the little segment of it where we hang our hats is about as peaceful and suburbanesque as they come.

Yes, of course the bad guys are out there, and tragically, unspeakable things can and do happen to children. But what we tend to forget is that the terrifying news stories are just that - news, brought to our attention because these things don't happen every day. We also forget that children are more likely to be kidnapped or hurt by someone they know than by a random stranger. The world grieved when little Leiby Kletzky was abducted and murdered by a mentally ill man just blocks from where his parents were waiting for him to return from his Brooklyn camp. No one batted an eye when two more New York children were killed mere weeks later - one a young teen beaten to death on her own front porch by her stepfather, the other a baby shaken while under her parents' care.

So I try to maintain that tricky balance between realism and paranoia. I give my kids freedom to explore familiar territory like our block or the playground, and I don't dial 911 if they leave my sight for a minute or two. We've gone over the basic safety rules: never go anywhere, accept food or get into a car with someone they don't know. My son even scolds me if I strike up a conversation with a shopper: "Mom, you're talking to a stranger!"

And yet, when my daughter told me about the man with the camera, reason gave way to panic. A stranger videotaped my child!! And he did it while I sat just a stone's throw away, with my back turned. What was this person doing getting footage of 5-year-old girls? Had he touched them? Made them pose? Was he sending his footage to YouTube or to some beyond-sickening pedophile site?

Instantly, I turned into Lioness Mom. This creep wasn't going to get away with this on my watch.

My daughter's excited face fell as she saw that I wasn't as thrilled about this video incident as I was. "What did he look like? Where did he go?" I demanded.

She pointed to the bike path a few yards away. Grabbing her hand, I ran in that direction - leaving my son under the watchful eye of parent-friends - and soon spotted a figure walking slowly round a bend. "There he is!" she yelled.

In full frenzy mode, I sped to his side. The guy was 70 years old if he was a day, white-haired and calm, but yes, holding a video camera. Crime knows no age, I guess. "Excuse me!" I said. No response. "EXCUSE ME, SIR!"

Finally, he turned in my direction and smiled. What?! How dare he be pleasant at a time like this?

"Did you just take a video of my daughter?" I demanded.

He smiled again. His accent sounded Slavic. "No English. Sorry."

I pointed to his camera and then to my girl, who by now was clinging to my leg and probably wondering why Mom was so upset with this nice old man. "DID...YOU...TAPE...HER?" I asked in the time-honored Let's Talk Loudly and Slowly to Foreigners fashion.

"!" He pointed to a younger and an older woman a short distance away. "Here...daughter."

Women confronted. Situation explained. The older one - his wife, no doubt - didn't speak English either, but the daughter understood enough to assuage my fears. She let me look at the saved videos her father had taken, as well as the photos on the camera she was carrying. Nothing remotely suspicious, and no images of my child or anyone else's. Just a happy family posing in front of flowers and walls and otherwise enjoying a visit to the park - until a strange crazed woman started accusing them of exploiting her kid, that is. My guess is that Dad must have passed by the girls, they pointed to his camera and he said "TV" because, well, that's the one word everyone knows.

I'm sure many parents hearing about this will nod their heads and say I did exactly the right thing. "Better safe than sorry," they'll say. "You just never know." True. But while I would have blamed myself if I'd done nothing and something unsavory had happened, I do feel a bit embarrassed for freaking out quite as much as I did. A cooler head and a calmer talk with my daughter might have brought out the whole story and avoided the drama that put a damper on a glorious fall day.

But what's done is done, and now I'll do what I should have done in the first place. I won't tighten the parental reins at the playground, but I will add a new rule to the safety list: don't let a grownup photograph or video you without getting clearance from Mom or Dad first. Like bath time, personal images are a private thing and not for general sharing without parental knowledge and supervision. Our neighborhood is a safe place; the internet is another matter.

Besides, if the videographer is looking for subjects for a new reality show, I want to know about it. Now that Kate Plus 8 has been cancelled, there's an empty spot on the TV schedule...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No-Nag Homework Plan: Day 1

All homework materials were brought home.

Homework began shortly after dinner - after that full afternoon of playtime.

Homework was completed.

So far, so good.

But will an all-play-and-no-work-afternoon policy continue to work?

I'm about to find out. School's letting out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

This Week's Momsperiment: The No-Nag Homework Plan

If my son had a personal theme song, it would be "My Way." In his view, the world would be a much nicer, fairer place if only he were allowed to choose all his meals, watch TV and play video games at will, leave his room a veritable obstacle course of books and LEGOs and bathe only when the cloud of flies around his head became too thick to see. If his friends want to play tag on the playground when he wants to have a pretend lightsaber battle, he storms off and sulks. At birthday parties, he'll eat several cookies and a piece of cake, then protest when I tell him to save the candy in his goody bag for another day.

Naturally, homework falls into this category as well. He's a good student, enjoys school probably more than he cares to admit. But having to write five sentences in a social studies journal and work a couple of pages in his math text is a chore he puts off as long as possible. There are far more important things to occupy his post-school time: running around the playground, hanging out with the kids down the street, playing with his toys, reading Harry Potter, putting on an old Halloween cape and becoming a magician or bullfighter.

Barely a month into school, the Homework Wars have already begun, a tiring and tiresome routine of reminding, nagging, sighing, procrastinating, checking in, complaining and - eventually - completing. And both Son and Parents are at the fraying point.

So yesterday I proposed a new plan. Son is now solely in charge of his work schedule, responsible for bringing home all materials (no more embarrassing trips back to the classroom to retrieve a forgotten notebook) and doing all his work before bedtime. I promise to offer help when needed and make suggestions to help keep him better organized, but otherwise, it's Hands Off, Mom. No nagging, lectures or quietly slipping a neglected folder into his backpack in the morning.

The deal: If this system works, super. Nagging will be a thing of the past, and some important lessons in responsibility, self-reliance and accountability will have been learned. But if too much work is left till the last minute, done slapdash or neglected altogether, we'll have to adjust the plan.

It's 5:30. We came home from the park half an hour ago. As soon as he hopped out of the car, Son went over to play with a neighbor. I'll be starting dinner soon. The backpack has not yet been opened. Naturally, Daughter has followed suit, because it's totally not fair that her big brother gets extra playtime while she doesn't.

So is this a Brilliant Anti-Nag-Pro-Independence strategy on my part? Or an Epic Mom Fail? Any predictions? Any suggestions? Anyone got a bottle of something to share while we see how Operation: No-Nag Homework plays out?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Deserve a Sanitized Play Space Today?

And you were worried that today was going to go by without a new addition to the ever-growing list of Stuff to Get Moms Paranoid About. On today's Early Show, psychologist Erin Carr-Jordan announced that her investigation of fast food play spaces in 11 states revealed everything from dirt and rotting food to a host of germs that could potentially make young visitors sick.

So parents, don't let your kids anywhere near those slides and crawl-through tubes at the mall or burger joint. Just say no to playdates and birthday parties involving indoor play spaces or giant animatronic mice serving pizza.  It's not worth the risk.

If they want to burn off some energy, take them to your local park playground instead for some good clean fun. Oh, wait. Guess we forgot about this morning-news report a few years ago where swings, slides and climbing walls across the country were tested and found to have salmonella, shigella, hepatitis and other bacteria, not to mention fecal flora - fecal as in poop.

On second thought, better keep your family safe at home. Just make sure you don't prepare their meals in the kitchen or serve it on plates you washed in the sink with a sponge. According to the public health organization NSF, 32 percent of household countertops, 45 percent of sinks and 77 percent of sponges are crawling with coliform bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. Sponges and fridge door handles are also breeding grounds for the superbug MRSA.

Instead of getting some exercise in a filthy play area, let your little ones play a game on your cell phone or iPad. Oh, wait. Turns out phones have more germs than the average toilet handle. But of course your kids never touch a dirty surface and then rub their eyes or reach for a snack, right? Same goes for computers, remote controls, doorknobs and pretty much everything touchable.

And once you've handcuffed the little ones to make sure they don't come in contact with anything in your petri dish of a home, you'll want to keep them away from school, too. Why bother having them protected at home if they're going to spend 35 hours a week sitting next to snotty-nosed classmates and doing their multiplication problems on bacteria-laden desks?

Okay, you get the idea. The point is that dirt and germs are everywhere, and touching an icky surface doesn't necessarily guarantee a trip to the hospital. In fact, our immune systems benefit from having something to fight off; children who catch lots of colds in daycare tend to get sick less often once they reach elementary school. Going all clean-freak isn't the answer, either; epidemiologists warn that overuse of antibacterial soaps and cleansers is killing off the less harmful bacteria in our environment and leaving behind the more dangerous antibiotic-resistant bugs.

My kids have been going to indoor and outdoor playgrounds since they were big enough to stagger up the stairs. I wouldn't want them climbing on an apparatus that was obviously broken, filthy, food-strewn or had, um, evidence of fecal flora. But if the equipment doesn't look any dirtier than their bedroom floor, I let them go to it - and make sure they wash their hands with good old soap and water afterward.

By all means, follow your own instincts and avoid those play areas if reports like these make you skeeved. Me, I'm more concerned about what these restaurants put into our children's tummies than the germs they might put on their hands.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Toddlers, Tramps and Tiaras

You're going to want to sit down for this one. Have the smelling salts ready. All set? Here goes:

This week's People cover story breaks the staggering news that the kiddie beauty pageants featured in TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras might be (gasp!) sending the wrong message to their sweet young contestants and the girls who might want to be just like them.

Bad enough, say child development experts and critics of the show, that these girls have to be subjected to spangled dresses, spray-tans and waxing, heavy makeup, hair additions and "flipper" false teeth in order to stay competitive. Now they blast the moms of recent episodes for pushing the limits of taste when it comes to costumes. For a celebrity look-alike pageant portion, one mother dressed her daughter as Dolly Parton, complete with mini-boobs and a padded rear.

Another "outfit of choice" featured 3-year-old Paisley strutting her stuff in a "Pretty Woman" getup:

"I would never, ever do that to my little girl - ever," sniffed the mom of a more modestly-dressed competitor. "It's outfits like that that give us a bad rap."

But when the crowns were handed out, guess who walked away with the Grand Supreme title?

Enough, cry the experts. Stop sexualizing our innocent girls. Stop telling them their value as people is directly tied to their looks. Stop pitting them against each other in contests where appearance and cuteness is all and prizes are won or lost on the brightness of their smiles and the style of their shoes.

Fine and dandy. Right behind you.

But don't waggle a disapproving finger with one hand and then dig into your wallet with the other to pay for the trappings of a very mixed message.

Why is it terrible to decorate a girl's room with trophies and crowns, but not with Disney princesses? Why is it wrong to spend tons of money on beaded pageant gowns, but not on T-shirts that say "Her Highness" and Halloween costumes of Rapunzel and French maids?

Why, yes. There's a huge difference here.

Why do we tsk-tsk over 5-year-olds in full competition makeup, but post pictures of our own girls getting their nails done at birthday parties? (Nearly half of all 6-year-olds wear lipstick or lip gloss, by the way.) Why do we scream at the moms on the TV screen when "Toddlers" is on, but say nothing to our children when they watch commercials for dolls with pouty red lips, elaborate wardrobes and hair-styling paraphernalia? Why is frill-loving Fancy Nancy a better role model than Fancy Paisley?

For that matter, why put on the I'm-shocked-shocked! act over a girl dressed as the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold, when we were part of the audience who made Julia Roberts a star because of that very role? Why are we suddenly squeamish when a child wears a belly shirt, short skirt and boots? Don't we see similar separates in the juniors section of the mall every day?

How about this "lingerie for girls" line from the French company Jours Apres Lunes?

Speaking of the mall, let's not even get started again on the Forever21 T-shirts that proclaim, "I'm just a girl - I don't need to bother myself with silly things like math and school."

"Oh, but that's different," you argue. "What we really object to is the whole idea of competition and parading these girls around in public."

Mm-hmm. And you'd never enter your daughter in a soccer match or a dance recital, either. You've never made a fuss over a girl dressed in her holiday best or exclaimed to a trick-or-treater, "What a beautiful princess you are!" Your local high school has to beg its female population to try out for the cheerleading squad - no Cheerios here! Nope, it's the kiddie beauty pageants that are wrecking our girls' self-esteem and tarnishing our otherwise spotless ideals of femininity.

As Peggy Orenstein points out in her excellent Cinderella Ate My Daughter, girls are bombarded by the pretty-pink-princess culture virtually from day one. But while parents can't avoid the exposure entirely, they can monitor what their children watch and wear, talk to them about what it means to be a girl and be aware of their own language when they talk about women, beauty, sexuality and self-worth. We can encourage our daughters to follow their own paths and discourage them from the negative messages.

What we can't do is get outraged about a show while still watching it often enough to make it the topic of magazine covers. And if we're truly serious about changing our society's fixation on beauty, let's examine our own behavior before we cast the first rhinestone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sexist Messij T-Shurtz Suck

My first-grade daughter can count simple groupings in her head. Last year, she zipped through her kindergarten math workbook problems with a confident cry of "This is so easy!" On road trips, she begs me to give her addition and subtraction questions to solve.

But in a few years, she'll be hitting the mall with her friends and finding shirts like this at Forever21:

Last year, she got glowing remarks on her report card. Her science teacher smiled as she told me, "Sarah is the kind of student who will do well in any subject."

Maybe not for long, once she starts seeing shirts like these around the halls:

Swell. It's cool to hate both school and spelling.

Forever21 isn't the only store selling this crap. JC Penney had to eat a lot of product and bad publicity when the blogoverse started campaigning against this beauty of a message shirt:

Seriously? I mean, seriously? Didn't anyone in their R&D, design or marketing departments feel a qualm for even a nanosecond that this sentence might just possibly be offensively sexist? Heck, the guys on staff would know what a nanosecond is or how to spell "qualm," right?

Why are we still so in love with the girls-are-dumb stereotype? Why do we insist on perpetuating the idea that math, science and technology should be men's domains? The statistics on women in these fields - we hold just 31 percent of medical careers, 25 percent of all mathematical and computer science jobs and a mere 11 percent of engineering jobs - are nothing to laugh about, on clothing or otherwise.

We're anything but "allergic" to these subjects. One study from Cornell found that girls scored as well as or better than boys in math all the way up through college. And we're not necessarily trapped by a glass mathematical ceiling: the Cornell psychologists found that women were actually slightly more likely to be offered tenure-track science, technology and math positions. But somewhere along the line, women stop thinking of math and tech as a calling. Some switch over to more organic professions like biology and veterinary medicine (where we do outrank men); others, notably math professors, find it hard to maintain their demanding careers once they have children.

And maybe, just maybe, some internalize the message that women aren't meant to excel in traditionally male professions. Why bother trying when, as Barbie notoriously said not long ago, "math is hard"? Being a smart woman is only acceptable if you're also cute and pick a glamorous profession. We admire Natalie Portman's Ivy League degree, but we wouldn't gush over her as much if she were merely winning a Nobel in astrophysics instead of an Oscar. We give Hillary Clinton props for her political accomplishments, but unsheathe our claws if she wears the wrong pantsuit or looks a trifle jowly.

Ironically, Forever21 also sells shirts with far more empowering messages - "Believe in Me" and the like. Several are Christian-themed, cross and all. Would Jesus tell girls that they didn't have to worry their pretty little heads over algebra and spelling?

This isn't meant to criticize girls who do find math difficult, or who choose more artistic professions. Guilty as charged on both counts. But my mother-hackles bristle when I see retailers selling negative messages about education to girls with developing minds and ideas, all in the name of humor and profit.

I see my daughter skip down the street to school every morning and run out smiling six hours later, talking about the "awesome" day she had. Her joy in learning is every parent's dream.

Maybe the geniuses at Forever21 should visit her skool school and see what real girls think of math.