Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kid Considerations: Female Lego Scientists

Kid Considerations:

I Really Want to Like the Female LegoScientists, But....

Before I go any further, let me just make one thing clear—I LOVE Legos! Even though they were available in this country by the time I was born (and no, you don’t need to know exactly when that was...), they hadn’t really “caught on” with wide distribution, so, in other words, I never had any as a kid. When I started teaching (WAY back in the dark ages...1978, that is...), Lego was one of the toys that fueled my second childhood. At that time, this was typical of the ads that were in circulation: 

What a concept! A toy that was marketed EQUALLY to both boys and girls! A toy that was ASSUMED to appeal to both boys and girls!!! A toy that was, for all intents and purposes, the holy grail of toys sought after by enlightened parents and educators—the gender-neutral-everybody-can-love-it-creative-and-educational-toy!

My, my how times have changed.... 
As I have watched Legos change over the last 36 years, it has been simultaneously fascinating, disturbing, fun, and aggravating to see how the brand has changed their marketing, meaning both advertising and packaging. Tracking this progression provides an interesting insight into American (and western European) cultural attitudes. The overt representation in Lego of both race and gender, along with the more subtle cues regarding class and ability, has evolved, and not always for the better. And, with every iteration, I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the product, and about what it says about the messages we convey to children about imagination and identity.

Certainly, the color coding has a lot to do with this. About twenty years ago, Lego saw their market share dropping, and realized that fewer girls were playing with them. So their response was to make pink and purple Legos. That didn’t work so well. Girls still were staying away from them. By focusing on the colors, the company seemed to overlook the fact that, perhaps, girls weren’t playing with them because almost all of their advertising only showed boys playing with them. In addition, their target demographic had shifted away from young children, and their marketing and product development was increasingly directed at adolescent boys, coinciding with a product strategy that leaned heavily on tie-ins with movies that were also directed at adolescent boys (and young men), such as Star Wars (few women), Pirates of the Caribbean (one woman), Indiana Jones (one woman), Lord of the Rings (two women), Harry Potter (few women), and comic books (a couple of women). If girls don’t see themselves in these character-specific sets, why would they be inclined to play with them?

And that’s the biggest change of all—the characters and personalities (aka “minifigs”). Until the late 1980s, most Lego minifigs had the basic, non-descript face:

With this minimalist face, any child could, potentially, project any character, of any gender, onto the figure (a little more about possible limitations on this in a bit). But once the movie tie-ins began to appear, they were accompanied by the “themed” sets (e.g., space, castle, pirates, city, ocean, polar, etc.), and together, the minifigs took on more specific “character” attributes:

Of course, as these specific characters appeared, they also made ones that were clearly intended to be “female”:

The gender coding of these figures is pretty obvious. Male figures have facial hair and often snarling expressions, while females have eyelashes, eye shadow, and lipstick. And long hair. Because, apparently, this is how we teach our children to identify gender—solely based on stereotypical, limited representations. And there has always been far more “male” figures than “female” in these sets. And it is certainly possible to change the hair that attaches to the top of the heads, but children are pretty good at recognizing whether two attributes “match” (so putting Wyldstyle’s streaked high pony tail on a figure with a mustache doesn’t pass muster for many kids). This identification of gender based on these two single attributes (hair and facial elements) is so embedded in our culture that young children learn to default to it even when it doesn’t reflect the reality in their immediate environment—for example, if you ask a group of four year olds how you can tell if someone is a boy or girl, they will almost always respond that, “boys have short hair and girls have long hair,” even if they are looking right at a female teacher with short hair (I’ve even heard this response spoken by a boy who, himself, had long hair, looking right at me, with my very short hair). And if you give them a Lego head, unattached to a body and without hair, they will also tell you, without hesitation, that a face with eyelashes and red lips is a girl, while both faces with facial hair as well as faces with the non-descript features are almost always identified as boy.

And this is a critical point in this discussion: when figures are not visually coded as specifically female, children will almost unanimously assume them to be male. In other words, in our culture, there is, in a practical sense, no longer such a thing as a “generic” Lego figure, because maleness is the default. This was true of the culture years ago with the early Lego figures as well, but there was much more room for children to explore and ascribe other identities to the figures because girls were included in the equation to a much greater degree. By showing girls in the ads and the packaging on an equal footing with boys, their participation was assumed, and so their representation in the “generic” figures was an easier line to cross.

So, in response to concerns raised by girls (and parents and teachers) about lack of representation, and hoping to boost their market share and increase sales, Lego decided to include girls by making the figures more “girly.” They still didn’t include them much in advertising of the mainline Lego themed sets and movie tie-ins, though. When this strategy didn’t really work to increase sales to girls, they decided to create a line specifically aimed at girls, not just with pastel colored blocks, but with storylines and completely new figure styles. I’m referring, of course, to the “Friends” line:
 Now, no one would ever suggest that traditional Lego figures are in any way proportional or anatomically representational, but that’s part of what gave them imaginative potential. But the design of these new figures is troubling in that they are attempting a more accurate physical form (shaped legs and feet; longer legs and neck; arms more proportional to the body; suggestion of a bust; and a shaped head with dimensional and detailed features), but are defining that form with proportional choices that reflect problematic body image types: long legs, thin torso and arms, and weirdly large head and eyes above a tiny button nose and thin-lipped mouth.

And the age range printed on the box (along with the breast bumps on the figures) speaks volumes about who the target audience is here: girls between 6 and 12 years old, who are at a particularly impressionable point in terms of body awareness and social expectations. And who, not coincidentally, have more disposable income in their own control than younger children.

The Friends figures are also accompanied by artistic renderings on the packaging that is very different from all the other Lego lines: 

These images are not recreations of movie characters, but are extended interpretations of the minifigs. The minifigs are still limited in body position and “attitude,” but the packaging imbues these characters with plenty more. The jutting hip, the tilted head, the arm position—all reflect the current cultural emphasis on a specific type of heightened femininity that permeates a child’s world.

Please understand that I am not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with being a “girly girl,” as long as that’s the person that you are. But I am suggesting that this is one more way that we are limiting the expectations and possibilities for girls to develop a sense of self that is dependent on their own agency and personality, not on the overwhelming pressure of cultural images.

And this, my friends, is why I really want to love the “female scientists” that Lego recently released, but find myself, once again, ambivalent about the execution.

 Look at that! She doesn’t have long hair! Well, it’s not exactly short, either, but okay. But she still has those lipstick lips and those mascara eyes. And, just to make sure we know she’s smart, being a scientist and all, she gets glasses, too. Or, if chemistry isn’t your thing, you might want to be an astronomer/astrophysicist:

 Whew! I was worried there for a minute that female scientists couldn’t have long hair! At least she has it safely bunned up on top of her head. And, just in case you don’t catch the clues from the eyes and mouth, this one has a jaunty, fashionable, pink scarf.

I know, I know, many of you are shaking your head and suggesting that I am over thinking it (that happens to me a lot), and pointing out that these new science figures are selling like hotcakes (which they are, apparently, so much so that they’re getting hard to find), so just stop being critical and accept that girls like them because now they can imagine themselves as more than Friends or accessories. (And I haven’t even brought up the whole “race, class, and ability” thing, which would require another complete post. Maybe another time.)

I’d love to not have to think about it so much. But I can’t. Not completely. Of course there are benefits to this (did I mention my ambivalence?), but I still just can’t get past those faces, and I still am uneasy about the cultural imagery that is being perpetuated here. I just can’t help but think that girls are smart enough, and imaginative enough, to be able to see themselves in a toy by adding them to the marketing, and that every child’s gender development process could be enhanced by more open-ended choices. In other words, offer the amazing array of “outfits” and “hair” possibilities, but keep the faces neutral. No mascara, no lip stick, no beards or mustaches, no snarling expressions—just dots for eyes, the suggestion of eyebrows, and a simple smile. Kids will fill in the rest.

 (copyright note: some of the images above are taken from internet sources; others are photographs taken by me of products on store shelves)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kid Policy: Scapegoating the Common Core

Kid Policy:

Scapegoating the Common Core

A Facebook friend of mine, who regularly (and, in my opinion, justifiably) expresses her frustration with the amount of homework her first grader has to confront, recently expressed another frustration: the math worksheet her daughter had for homework was not well-designed, and its intent was difficult to decipher. Specifically, there was a word problem that didn’t seem to be clear regarding whether the purpose was to construct a subtraction problem, an addition problem, or identify a place value relationship. Her Facebook post was asking for help figuring out what was expected.

It didn’t take many comments before someone growled about the “Common Core” and how it’s ruining education. Several others chimed in on this train of thought. I have witnessed this response many times in the last few years, as parents and educators cope with their dissatisfaction with mountains of homework, struggling teachers, disconnected administrators, and rigid standardized testing expectations. Inevitably, these concerns generally wind up focused on the Common Core as the enemy. The problem, however, is that the Common Core isn’t the problem.

These indictments of the Common Core (technically, they are officially called the “Common Core State Standards,” since they were developed by representatives from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)) are often misguided and misinformed, and are grounded in the belief that the federal government is, once again, interfering in our lives, telling us what to do, and supporting private (often “charter”) schools at the expense of public schools. This viewpoint is encouraged by journalists and pundits from both sides of the aisle who perpetuate the notion that the Common Core creates unrealistic and burdensome expectations on students, especially young students.

Here’s the thing, though—if you actually take the time to read any of the Common Core standards, you will notice four specific things that seem to get lost in this conversation:

  •       The Common Core is not a curriculum. There are some model curricula that have been developed to provide examples of ways to implement some of the standards, but these are models only. There is no requirement that any state, district, school, or individual teacher use the model.
  •      The Common Core does not specify HOW to teach any specific standard. See the first point above. The Core does not, can not, and will never dictate what type of philosophy or pedagogical approach districts or teachers have to use.
  •      The Common Core has nothing to do with how much homework your child is assigned. See the previous two points above. The development and implementation of curriculum, homework, testing, and even recess, is determined by the state, the district, the school administrators, and (increasingly rarely), individual teachers.
  •      The Common Core is not required to be adopted by individual states unless the state is seeking to supersede (or circumvent) the requirements of No Child Left Behind. The Core Standards were originally conceived of, and developed by, individual states wishing to either raise the standards above what was set by NCLB, or to be granted a waiver from NCLB.

Again, the Common Core isn’t the bogey man—it is a set of research-based standards that simply attempts to organize basic skills and content into a practical sequence that is intended to align and clarify the patchwork of quality standards that has historically varied widely from state to state (follow this link for a brief, reasoned explanation of the process, or this link to go to read about “myths versus facts”). There is certainly a compelling discussion to be had regarding the politics, adoption, and implementation of the Common Core by individual states, and the affect that this process has had on teachers, students, and families, but unless we make ourselves familiar with the actual content of the Common Core documents, it is difficult to elevate such a discussion beyond rancorous politics and inflammatory rhetoric.

So, who should we direct our anger at when a seven-year old child routinely comes home with 2 hours’ worth of poorly designed worksheets? First of all, yelling at the teacher won’t help. Many teachers are as frustrated as parents with current trends in classroom practice and curriculum development, which often dictates rigidly scheduled instruction and intense pressure to standardize teaching along with content/skill standards for children. It is also pointless to rail at the federal government—the Common Core is not mandated or administered by the federal government, though its implementation is, in some cases, tied to federal guidelines.

I think our anger needs to be directed at what lies at the heart of the disempowerment of teachers, the pressure on districts and administrators to prove their efficacy based on test results, the disregard for family interactions, and the objectification of children as raw material—and that is the corporatization (and monopolization) of education. To point to the most compelling and far-reaching example of this trend: It is no coincidence that the dominant corporation that is working toward a near monopoly throughout the pre-K through college schooling experience, Pearson Education, has convinced states to adopt their assessment tools; has lobbied districts and private schools to purchase their scripted curriculum packages to teach to those tests; has acquired several publishing divisions to develop and sell those packages (such as Scott Foresman, Penguin, Puffin Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley, and Silver Burdett); has reached into all facets of teacher education and preparation to produce teachers who will be proficient at using only their materials; and has sponsored and conducted much of the (little bit of) research that has been done on the effectiveness of those materials.

It is also important to understand that Pearson was not historically even interested in education until the 1980s, suggesting that their current iteration did not grow from a rich history of education experience and passion, but simply from a desire to maximize profit by exploiting a segment of a market that was limited until education became a viable business proposition in the late 1990s. Even their own description of their beginnings from their website notes their late entry into education:

“Pearson’s roots are grounded in global innovation that transforms the landscape and stands the test of time. Our London-based company started in 1844 as a construction company building such noteworthy projects as the Sennar Dam in Egypt and the Manhattan tunnels in NY. We turned to media in the UK in 1921 and diversified into global book publishing in 1971 and education in the 1980s, dabbling in numerous industries along the way.

Then, in 1997, everything changed. In a bold and somewhat controversial move, Marjorie Scardino was hired as one of the first female CEOs of a major FTSE company. The decision ushered in an even bolder aspiration: to transform education globally in order to improve people’s lives through learning.” (

A company that “dabbles” until it finds a profitable direction is not a company that is passionate about education. They are passionate about profit, and “transform[ing] education globally” is not “in order to improve people’s lives through learning,” but to improve the bottom line for Pearson’s board and stockholders.

The only real indictment of the Common Core in this picture is that it has enabled Pearson to streamline their products by giving them a single set of standards to use as their alignment tools, rather than producing multiple products that respond to different standards in different states, which has facilitated this corporate approach to education.

So, what to do the next time your kid brings home that mountain of homework that doesn’t make sense to you? After you take a deep breath, ask the teacher what curriculum package her/his school is using, and whether he/she has much input into its implementation. There’s a good chance that your child’s teacher is as frustrated and disempowered as you, and an equally good chance that Pearson is somewhere in the picture. Then ask the school administration why they chose that curriculum, and ask for the research that supports their approach. If the school doesn’t use a scripted curriculum, then ask the teacher the reasoning behind the assigning of a heavy homework load, and be prepared to challenge that reasoning by familiarizing yourself with the work of Alfie Kohn here, or the position taken on Great here, which notes that, “In fact, for elementary school-age children, there is no measureable academic advantage to homework.” (You can also point out that a Canadian couple successfully sued to have their children exempted from all homework, arguing that there is no compelling evidence that homework helps learning, as explained in this article.)

But bashing the Common Core? That’s not going to help. And it only serves to divert attention away from the profit-monster that is driving corporate U.S. education policy. And no, I’m not a raging-socialist-anti-capitalist-commie who is suggesting that companies shouldn’t make a profit. I’m just an experienced, informed, concerned educator (and parent) who believes that they shouldn’t do it by turning children into manufactured products of an educational machine. Call me crazy....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kid Considerations: Starting Over

Kid Considerations:

Starting Over—Taking My Own Advice

Two of my earlier blog posts focus on helping children with separation anxiety and with the transition from preschool to kindergarten (“Lift and Separate: Separation Anxiety in Young Children”; and “Movin’ On Up: Transitioning to Kindergarten, with Tips for Easing Anxiety,” both from May 19). It has been a while since I have managed any new blog posts, and the reason for that is also the reason that I realized I needed to revisit those earlier posts and heed my own words.

After a career spanning 36 years as a preschool teacher and administrator, I recently closed the preschool program that I founded 28 years ago. This was a difficult decision to make, but it was the right one. As I sent off my final group of kids to the adventure of kindergarten, I immersed myself in the process of sorting, organizing, storing, liquidating, and disposing of the wealth of materials, supplies, and furnishings that we had accumulated over those years. This was a huge, daunting task, and one that pretty much consumed most of my time for over a month, culminating in a public auction that was both gratifying and difficult. After deciding what to take home (items both sentimental and practical), what to keep in storage (business records and picture books), or what I would need to have to continue providing professional development (teaching materials and, again, picture books), I watched as a sizable group spent 3 ½ hours on a steamy summer evening scrutinizing, considering, and bidding on the rest.

When the dust had settled, 90% of what we had put up was in the hands of others. Many of the bidders that evening were teachers or program owners/administrators, several were parents or grandparents, and the rest were mostly people who make a living selling good quality used toys and materials at flea markets. I was especially pleased to see so many of our educational materials find their way into the other preschool and care programs, including the hundreds of picture books that were still on the shelves.

As I sit here now, I can imagine the fun and learning that children are experiencing with the same items that our kids used for so long, and the separation is a little easier. There have been many times in the last several weeks when I have stopped to remember the advice I have given to countless parents when their child is facing a major transition, whether it’s going to kindergarten, moving to a new house, welcoming a new sibling, or saying good bye to someone who has passed on. The primary point of that advice has always been that change in difficult, but it is important to convey to your child that you believe he/she is strong enough manage that change, and to help them through it by providing love, support, and, most importantly, as much consistency as possible.

I am certainly no stranger to change, but this particular change was one of the more challenging I have confronted. Just as a child entering kindergarten experiences excitement and uncertainty, sadness and joy, and fear and hope, I, too, was experiencing many of the same feelings. I am fortunate to have many wonderful family members and friends to provide the love and support, but I realized that it would be up to me to provide the consistency. Since I am not stepping immediately into a full time job at another location, for me, consistency referred to a few key points: developing a routine and sticking with it; creating a space at home dedicated to the work I will be doing (i.e., writing, research, and the creation of professional development workshops); and being sure to remain mindful of and attentive to my emotional space.

Now that the school has been closed, the remaining stuff has been disposed of, given away, or stored, and the keys have been turned in, I am ready to begin kindergarten again with my eyes and heart open.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kid Considerations: Children are NOT Collateral Damage

Kid Considerations:

Children are NOT “Collateral Damage”

This post will be a relatively short one, and a decidedly opinionated one. The events in Gaza trigger passionate responses on all sides. I’ve tried very hard to understand and have compassion for the arguments from both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments and citizens, in both a contemporary as well as an historical sense. I do not support suicide bombers whose targets are indiscriminate, even if they are fighting for their homeland, any more than I support firing rockets at targets that are “supposed” military locations without 100% confirmation. I support everyone’s right to defend themselves from military and sectarian violence.

But here’s the bottom line: There is no excusing the actions of any government or their military that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including dozens of children. I do not support any military action that considers children to be acceptable “collateral damage.” When you decide that children are expendable, then I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what your religious beliefs are, I don’t care what has been done to you in the past, I don’t care about any claims about media bias...I care about the children. And until you stop killing them, you will have no compassion from me.

Parents, if your child is old enough to understand these news reports and is asking questions about it, be careful how you explain this to them. Their questions are likely rooted in fear of losing you, or of a growing understanding of their own potential mortality. Find the delicate line between recognizing the realities of the situation and reassuring children that they (and you) are safe: explaining war to children who have never lived amidst such violence is challenging, and it is even more challenging to try to explain it to them without burdening them with the fear and hatred that leads to such violence. Unfortunately, this is not limited to far away wars in far away countries—sadly, the children of Chicago are asking these same questions. Wherever you are, name the violence, understand the violence, and condemn the violence. And hold your children a little closer.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kid Considerations: I'm Leaving Without You

Kid Considerations:

“I’m Leaving Without You”: The Four Worst Words an Otherwise Loving Parent Can Use

During a recent vacation, I was at a bucolic tourist destination that experiences heavy family attendance during the summer. Throughout the day, I heard numerous examples of the usual parental commands and pleas that are a natural part of family travel, such as “We’re leaving NOW!”; “Put that down and come here!”; “No, we’re not staying a few more minutes”; “I know I said you could play on that before we leave, but someone else is there and we’re not waiting....”; etc. I also heard more than a couple of times the four most devastating and potentially damaging words a parent (or grandparent) can use: “If you don’t come right now, I’m leaving without you!

As a parent, I have traveled with a young child, and I know how challenging it can be when the day is long, the environment is stimulating, and the temperature is punishing. And I know the feeling of impatience and frustration even in a non-vacation daily routine when I recognized that we had to be somewhere, and needed to leave now to get there on time, but my daughter didn’t share my imperative to get a move on. And I’ve experienced the aggravation of wanting to pick up my child at the end of a long, tiring day (for both of us) and get home, while she was not quite ready to separate from her friends.

No matter how irritated, stressed, or annoyed I became, I never ever ever once threatened to leave her behind. And our program staff know, if they hear a parent make such a statement at pickup time, that they are to immediately intervene, assuring the child that her/his parent is NOT going to leave them behind. Even if doing so makes a parent angry, it is important that the children in our care feel safe, loved, respected, and wanted—four things that parents should be doing in their interactions as well.

There are two main reasons that making this threat is not just poor parenting, but has potentially serious long term consequences as well:

1.  By the time a child is 4 or 5 years old, he/she will have figured out that you are lying. Once that happens, you have, perhaps irrevocably, shattered their trust in you. You have given them every reason to question everything you tell them. And if they can’t trust you to be honest, they will have trouble trusting you to look out for them. They will also have learned that lying is a perfectly acceptable tactic to get what you want.

2. And most importantly of all: Even more than betraying their trust, threatening to leave manipulates one of the most primal fears a child can have—the fear of abandonment. And that’s why parents do it—because it works. If children didn’t harbor a fundamental fear of losing their parents and family, they wouldn’t care. The reason it works is exactly the reason you should never do it. Ever.

So what do you do when you need/want to leave and your child doesn’t? First of all, establish a pattern early on of never making a promise OR propose a consequence unless you can and WILL follow through. If you create a firm foundation of reasonable expectations and mutual trust, then you won’t need to manipulate fears with lies and threats to get a child to behave. Once you have established this pattern, understand that young children simply don’t experience time with the same sense of purpose that adults do, but there are things you can do to help with the process:
  • Make sure you have explained clearly to your child why it is important to leave at a particular time; 
  • Whenever possible, tell your child at least 5 or 10 minutes before it is time to leave that they will need to stop what they are doing, and how long they have left; 
  • Remind your child what the expected behavior will be when it is time to go (e.g., “when it’s time to go, you need to stop what you’re doing and come along without an argument”); 
  • Validate your child’s feelings about leaving while reinforcing the actions that you will take (“I know you are having fun and are disappointed/angry/sad that we have to leave, but that doesn’t change the fact that we will be leaving in five minutes”); 
  • And when it is time to leave, leave, even if it means struggling to stay calm while you pick up your screaming child and carrying her/him out the door. Even if you are in a public place, if you allow your child’s tantrums to delay your departure (in other words, if you give in and stay longer because you are afraid of being embarrassed by her/his behavior), then he/she will learn that tantrums work.

Be firm. Be fair. Be calm. Be loving. Be honest.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Kid Smiles: Melon Did It

Kid Smiles:

Melon Did It: Imaginary Friends, Stories and Lies, and Accepting Responsibility

I knew a three-year old girl who, any time she did something she wasn’t supposed to (which was fairly often), would announce, “Melon did it!” Melon, of course, was her imaginary friend. Sometimes Melon was a good companion, engaging in thoughtful conversation, but, most often, Melon was the scapegoat. Melon didn’t seem to mind much.

I also remember a four-year old boy who once broke something on the playground. Even though he was the only one in the area, and despite the fact that a teacher had actually seen him break the toy, when I asked him why he did that, he said, “because....wait, I didn’t do it...” When I asked him who did do it, he looked around, then innocently said, “how about Colby?” Now, ordinarily, Colby would have been a viable suspect, but on this day, he wasn’t even at school, giving him a solid alibi.

Both of these memories make me smile. They are also both really good examples of the way preschoolers will naturally try to negotiate the truth. It’s not pathological lying (yet), it’s simply coming to a developmentally appropriate understanding of the relationship between reality and fantasy. It’s also part of the process of learning to accept responsibility for our actions and behaviors.

It’s sometimes difficult for adults to figure out how to respond to these narrative explorations. We want to encourage imagination, and we often are amused by the clumsy trek through the truth that preschoolers pursue. But while they are on this journey, it’s important to help them recognize the difference between the fun and positive use of imagination, and the problematic manipulation of truth to deflect responsibility or to get what you want. There’s nothing wrong with naming that difference, and naming it makes it easier for children as young as three to understand: using imagination to tell stories (or to have imaginary friends) is fine, as long as the people you’re telling them to know that they’re stories, but making things up that you know are false and trying to get others to believe you is lying. It really is that simple (but I’m sure we all know some grown ups who still struggle with this concept).

Young children lie for a variety of reasons. Probably chief among them is to deny wrongdoing and get out of trouble (the function of Melon and Colby), but children will sometimes lie just to see what happens, or to try to reconstruct their world in ways that make them feel better. An example of the “just to see what happens” tactic is the little girl who, with somber earnestness, told us that her mother couldn’t come to pick her up that day because she had been in a bad car accident and was in the hospital. We were all appropriately concerned and confused, because we hadn’t heard anything about it, but things were cleared up when Mom walked in the door that afternoon, safe and sound. When we asked the girl why she told us that, she said, “I don’t know.” And she didn’t know. She was trying it out. An example of a child reconstructing the world to make himself feel better was the little boy who, after having experienced some meaningful trauma, insisted on calling his adoptive parents “Nala” and “Mufasa,” and wanted everyone to call him “Simba.” For this young boy, the simple reality was that, for him at that moment in his life, reality was challenging, and his healing involved a harmless construction of a world of strength, perseverance, connection, and heroism to get him through. This lasted for a couple of months, until we all recognized that reality was once again, for him, a safe place to be.

If you value honesty and integrity, then you will help the children in your life understand why those concepts are important. Adults will often excuse lying as “harmless fantasy,” or with the belief that children “are just too young to know any better.” If children are old enough to have the vocabulary to create stories, they are old enough to begin to understand morality and ethics, and the difference between lying and storytelling. But the only way they can learn the social significance of these concepts is if adults take the time to name the problem, set clear and consistent expectations and consequences, and explain what the choices are. One of the best books to help children (ages four and up) with this concept is Evaline Ness’s Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine. This book tells the story of a little girl, Sam, whose elaborate stories ultimately cause serious injury to her best friend, Thomas, and to her cat, Bangs. Sam’s stories begin as a way to help her cope with the loss of her mother, but evolve into an escape from reality that is no longer healthy for her or for those around her. Her father explains to her the difference between “real” and “moonshine,” and helps her to accept responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

And that really is the point: Sam’s father doesn’t discourage her from telling stories, but insists that she be clear with others (and with herself) that she is making it up. Similarly, we welcomed Melon at school, but insisted that she not be blamed for her friend’s behavior. It was only fair.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Kid Tips: Itching to Know

Kid Tips:

Itching to Know—Being Poison Ivy Literate

I know, I far, all of my posts have been about behavioral issues, or developmental considerations, or thoughtful reflections on cultural issues and what’s with the poison ivy?

Well, it’s almost summer here in the Midwest, and summer means poison ivy, and poison ivy means misinformation, myth, and misery for 70-75% of the population, including kids. This is one of those topics that I have learned a LOT about through painful necessity. I first had a serious poison ivy reaction when I was five years old, which landed me in the hospital for nearly a week with a solid mass of blistering pustules covering my entire thigh. As a teenager, I was bedridden for several days after I had been at a friend’s house where they were burning brush that included poison ivy, and the aerosolized oil basically coated my head, neck, arms, and hands—my eyes were swollen shut, my upper lip was about three times its normal size, my ears stuck out from the layers of rash behind them, and I couldn’t use my hands normally because of the huge blisters in between my fingers.

My apologies for the graphic description, but the point is...I know what I’m talking about. When parents come to me with concerns that their child got poison ivy from our back yard, I reassure them that we are VERY careful about making sure we clear any poison ivy from the fence line, and then I fill them in on what they will need to know for the rest of their child’s life, since poison ivy allergies persist (and sometimes get worse) over time. I am not a physician or a botanist, but here is what I have learned through my experiences over the last 50 years (if anyone has any further information, or if you believe anything I have said below is incorrect, please let me know—I do not claim to have all the answers):

ASSUMPTION #1: YOU CAN SPREAD POISON IVY BY SCRATCHING. Partly true, but misleading. The rash is caused by your body’s histamine reaction to the oil that is part of the plant. This oil is known as urushiol, and is contained not only in poison ivy, but also in poison oak, poison sumac, and in smaller amounts in other plants such as mango trees, pistachio trees, cashew shells, and gingko biloba. Once the oil contacts the outer skin layer, your body begins to react. For people with serious sensitivities (like, for example, me), that reaction can be almost immediate when the urushiol density is significant. If your immune system triggers itching before you have removed the oil, the action of scratching MAY spread the oil over a larger area. Once you have washed off the oil, however, you cannot spread it anymore simply by scratching. Most importantly, you CAN NOT spread poison ivy by scratching open the blisters, and no one else can “catch” poison ivy from coming into contact with the fluid in the blisters. The fluid that forms inside the blisters is NOT urushiol—it is the fluid that is naturally produced by your body as part of the histamine reaction. The main danger of scratching is not spreading the allergic reaction, but causing a bacterial infection. As the blisters open and release their fluid, make sure you keep the area clean and covered to prevent infection.

ASSUMPTION #2: YOU CAN’T WASH AWAY THE OIL. False. If you know you have contacted poison ivy, you must thoroughly wash away the urushiol as soon as possible, before it bonds with the skin layer (within 10 minutes or so). This can be accomplished with commercial products (such as Ivy Dry or Zanfel, which can also be used after the urushiol has bonded), or with COOL/COLD water and soap or common household detergents that are good at breaking up oil (such as many dish detergents or, my favorite soap for this purpose, Fels-Naptha, a bar soap that can also be used as a laundry detergent to remove the oil from clothing—be aware, however, that, since it is very, very good at breaking up oil, it should probably not be used for routine bathing, as it will strip your skin of beneficial, natural oils as well). DO NOT shower or wash with hot or very warm water, as this will open the pores and make it easier for the oil to penetrate, and can actually spread the rash by making the oil flow easier.

ASSUMPTION #3: IF I DON’T TOUCH IT, I WON’T GET IT. False. Big false. In fact, in many cases, initial or subsequent reactions are not from the plant itself, but from pets or clothing that have the oil on them. We had a student several years ago whose parents were convinced that he was repeatedly getting poison ivy at school, because they had not been in ivy-infested areas for several weeks, but their son kept getting new rashes. After some questioning, we realized that, several weeks prior (when he got the first exposure), it had been in an area with lots of poison ivy, and that, since the initial contact, they had not washed his shoes. He had walked through the field with the poison ivy, and since they hadn’t washed his shoes, he kept re-contacting the oil every time he put on his shoes. If you have been exposed, make sure you not only wash yourself, but also be careful to launder all of your outer clothing, including your shoes and jackets, with a detergent that will break up oil. If you can’t launder an item (like hiking boots, for example), clean them as thoroughly as you can, then wash your hands immediately after you put them on, or just don’t wear them for several weeks (though urushiol can remain viable for several months, so exercise caution and continue to wash your hands).

Similarly, if you take your dog for walks in the woods or fields, or if your dogs or cats have access to areas where there may be poison ivy, be aware that they can carry the oil on their fur. If you or someone in your family is allergic, be sure to give your dog a bath when you return from your walk, and keep your yard clear of poison ivy.

ASSUMPTION #4: THE BEST TREATMENT FOR POISON IVY IS CALAMINE LOTION. Hmmm....maybe. Calamine lotion, or other topical lotions and creams, can help relive the itching for minor reactions, but if the reaction is moderate or severe, topicals will not be very effective. In extreme cases, you may need to see a doctor for a prednisone injection to combat the inflammation and help prevent scarring. For moderate cases, the thing to keep in mind is that you want to dry the rash, which will help to alleviate symptoms. There are a variety of astringent products that can help with this process. My favorite is a powder called Domeboro solution, which you use by mixing with cool water, then soaking a washcloth or gauze compress with the solution and applying the compress to the rash for 10-20 minutes, several times a day. Not only does this help to dry out the histamine fluids (which is what causes the itching), the cool compress also soothes the skin and helps make it less miserable. Taking antihistamines may help a little, but will be limited in their effectiveness. Whatever approach you take, it generally takes a week or two for the reaction to fully run its course and for the rash to disappear (it may take longer with severe cases).

ASSUMPTION #5: YOU CAN ONLY GET POISON IVY IN THE SUMMER. Definitely false. In fact, poison ivy can be most potent in the spring, when the plant is coming out of winter dormancy and the oil is dense and active (think of the way the “sap rises” in maple trees in the early spring—same idea). Summer drought and heat can “dry up” the vines to a certain extent, though the oil will still be present. However, even when the plant is “dormant” (during the winter in cold climates), the oil can still be present in sufficient quantity to cause a reaction. If you’re one of the 70% that reacts to urushiol, don’t think you can yank the vines out in the winter without getting a rash. It may be less potent, but it can still be enough to cause a rash.

ASSUMPTION #6: IF I’M NOT ALLERGIC TO IT NOW, I WILL NEVER BE. Dangerously false. As with any other allergy, repeated exposure, or natural changes to body chemistry over time can lead to new allergies.

ASSUMPTION #7: ANY PLANT WITH THREE LEAVES IS POISON IVY. Frustratingly false. There are many plants that resemble poison ivy, such as maple tree saplings, catalpa tree saplings, Virginia creeper, box elder, pepper vine, etc. This link provides a lot of photos of poison ivy and various “impostors”: Identifying poison ivy can be confusing, but here are some things to remember:

·       Poison ivy is a vine, not a tree. It rarely grows straight and tall by itself. It prefers to be anchored to another tree, a rock face, or a wall for support, but can also grow without support, looking more like a bush or ground cover.
·       The vine is woody (and sometimes “fuzzy”) on mature plants anchored to trees, but can be smooth and red or green on new growth.
·       The leaves can be toothed or smooth, but are not usually lobed.
·       The leaves are reddish in the spring, green in the summer, and can be various shades of orange, yellow, red, or brown in the fall and winter.
·       The center leaf usually is larger than the two side leaves, and the center leaf almost always grows from a small stem that grows from the end of the vine, whereas the side leaves grow directly from the vine itself, without a separate stem.

Bottom line: if it has three leaves and you’re not sure what it is, don’t touch it.

So, keep your eyes open, stock up on soap, and good luck!