Protected: In the Drop Zone: Taking the Ultimate Plunge

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Princess Nation: Getting real about little girls’ fantasies

When little girls attack, it looks an awful lot like an army of pink-clad princesses marching forth from preschool to pubescence. What are the lasting effects of this obsession?

Augusta, Ga. – Wearing an outfit seemingly cast off from the set of the old “Solid Gold” television show, my daughter spins around with her arms held gracefully at her side.

“It’s a wunnerful dweam come twue,” she gasps, quoting a line >from “Cinderella.”

Is this where little princesses are headed?

Emmie is 3 years old, so I hold back my gag reflex and reflect upon my own childhood. I’m sure I behaved in a similar manner… didn’t I? I wrack my brain for something upon which to hang my last shred of hope that we didn’t get the wrong baby at the hospital. Nope, I got nothing. I spent my days poking things with sticks and getting as dirty as I darn well pleased.
Emmie washes her hands five times a day. Whose child is this?

Dr. Keri Weed from the psychology faculty at the University of South Carolina-Aiken explained that each infant is born with unique traits, and that some things are constitutional — inborn, but not necessarily genetic.

“Then those constitutional traits get shaped and modified as they interact with family and people in their environments,” she said. “But they do form a fairly strong initial bias. You being an active child, your parents may very well have allowed that… If the same child was born to a different set of parents, they could very easily discourage those behaviors in a girl.”

Weed explained that Emmie’s obsession with princesses and other such girly things is within the range of normal. When gender identity begins to form around the age of 2, children begin to be able to identify themselves as either a boy or a girl. They seek out toys, objects and experiences that reinforce that identity. It’s similar to how a teenager who was not me might have listened to a lot of The Cure because she identified with their ennui… (Read More)

How to get your child to eat vegetables

Nevermind what grandma says: Feeding your child is not like it used to be. Sure, grandma had to worry about the usual stuff, like vitamins, minerals and protein. But these days, we worry about DHEA, Omega-3 fatty acids, carb counts, sugar content, fair trade, pesticides, preservatives, organics and childhood obesity.

It’s enough to make mom lose whatever marbles they had left after that one time you found  your 3-year-old on the kitchen counter shoving handsful of raw sugar into her mouth.

So getting children to eat their vegetables is not just about patience and persistence. It’s about politics and psychology, too.

Don’t worry, mom. We know just how to get those greens in their gullets.

  1. Think of all of the foods that your child already eats. Mac and cheese? Chicken nuggets? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Hot dogs? Make a list of everything you have in rotation for their meals.
  2. Call the pediatrician in a panic. Sit on hold for 15 minutes. Beg the nurse to put the doctor on the phone. Wonder what happened to doctors who didn’t treat their patients like they’re somehow ruining their golfing schedule.
  3. Once the doctor finally reaches the phone, rationally explain your position by shrieking, “My child has rickets!”
  4. Apologize for ruining his tee time.
  5. Hang up. Google what experts say on child nutrition.
  6. Somewhere in your search, you begin to understand that these experts are not, in fact, studying childhood nutrition. Their actual thesis measures the effects of terrifying health stories in the media on instances of group psychosis in mothers.
  7. Go back to step 1. Try not to lose control of yourself this time.
  8. Once you have that list, work backwards from the dishes your child will eat, deconstructing them along the way, looking for ingredients and flavors.
  9. Begin by substituting healthier options for the foods he or she already eats. Got a hot dog fanatic? Try a veggie dog. Is your little poo-packer a mac-and-cheese-head? Sub soy cheese and high-protein or whole-wheat pasta for their regular binge of starch and fat.
  10. Now look for a way to slip veggies into meals without them noticing. For example, if your child will eat spaghetti, use a puree of carrots, peppers, onions and tomatoes as the base of your sauce. If your child eats pizza, puree blanched green, red and yellow veggies, and spread it on the crust before the sauce and cheese.
  11. When subterfuge isn’t possible, think about items that have similar colors and structure to foods your child already enjoys. If, for example, your child likes pumpkin pie, why not pour mashed sweet potatoes into a pie pan? If it’s corn they crave, try Asian baby corn — or even hominy. Sub mashed turnips or cauliflower for whipped potatoes.
  12. Be patient with your toddler or preschooler. Experts say that you should follow “the rule of 15.” A child must be exposed to a new food up to 15 times before he or she will accept it.
  13. Realize these experts have no children. They have never met the steely will of a child who does not want to eat the food over which you have so agonizingly slaved.
  14. Declare war. Batten the hatches and whip out your big guns: the time-outs, the removal of a favorite toy, the ban on television.
  15. Weeks later, admit defeat. Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — with low-fat, low-sugar peanut butter, low-sugar fruit spread and whole grain bread… with the crusts cut off.
  16. Buy a big jar of Flintstones vitamins — and hide an exploding golf ball in your pediatrician’s golf bag.

Intensive Care: What to do with your children when a parent gets sick

When my husband and I promised, “Til death do us part,” I thought we’d have a little longer to drive each other nuts. But as I finished up my work day one Friday in September, my husband called.

“I think I have jaundice,” he moaned.

“Stop smoking crack, honey, you don’t have jaundice,” I sighed.

But he did, and a visit that same day to the emergency room turned into a month-long stay in intensive care.

One of the reasons we’d missed the slow onset of Scott’s illness is that much of our focus each day is given to other people: our employers, to be certain, but primarily our 3-year-old daughter Emerson. And while she provided moments of humor and levity at the hospital, it was clear that she was in the way of medical personnel, and that her presence was not welcome in many quarters of the hospital.

That left a divide between what was happening in our lives and what was happening in her life.

Toddlers and preschoolers, adventurous as they are, still crave order and structure, and tend to be creatures of habit. So when Daddy wasn’t there in the morning to grump around, and Mommy wasn’t there to give her “hugs and mooches,” it could have thrown her off considerably.

But Scott’s brother and his wife took her in while I stayed with Scott for what we thought would be an overnight or weekend visit. But he was in the midst of acute liver, kidney and lung failure brought on by a spontaneous bout with a dangerous autoimmune disorder called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP).

He walked into the ER on a Friday night. By Saturday, he was unconscious and breathing only with the help of a ventilator in the Cardio-Pulmonary Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital.

Our shocked family watched him balance on the precipice between life and death. Together, we learned to read his monitors, watched over his vital signs, read to him and massaged his muscles.

There was just one hitch: The one person who has the greatest effect on him is Emerson. But children are not allowed in the ICU patient rooms.

And while her stay with her greatly adored aunt and uncle softened the transition, Emerson was the one person who could have taken my focus from my then-dying husband. And I needed to be with him.

So after a few days, we shipped her off to my parents’ home in Atlanta. And while I’ve never regretted the decision, I’ve often wondered if I could have done better for her.

Dr. Reginald Pilcher, a member of the pediatrics staff at Doctors Hospital, says that parents need to choose what is best for the individual situation — but that the philosophy to cling to is one of honesty, patience and inclusion.

“Our instincts say, ‘Protect the child from all of this.’ The worst thing you can do is to isolate the child from the situation,” Pilcher said.

And, of course, that’s exactly what I did for the first two weeks, when everything was touch-and-go and I spent almost 24 hours a day at the hospital, in an area where Emerson was not allowed. She knew her father was sick and that doctors were taking care of him.

And she knew that Mommy was with Daddy.

Luckily, my family reported that Emmie was mostly the happy-go-lucky child she usually is, except for occasions when she would stop and moan, “I miss Mommy and Daddy.” But she was easily distracted from her distress by other forms of play, and they repeated that doctors were doing their best for Scott.

It would have been easier for them to tell her that Daddy was going to be fine, but Pilcher says that’s a dangerous trap to set.

“Don’t make promises that can’t be kept, like, ‘I promise you that Daddy will be here for Christmas.’ You just don’t know,” Pilcher said. “It’s important because after [illness or death], they’ve got to have that strong faith and trust to fall back on.”

And making statements that later turn out to be false undermines that trust.

Once Scott was stable, and I felt we’d asked enough of my extended family, we brought her home, got her back on her regular schedule and back into her wonderful preschool. But it might have been better if we’d never gotten her off the schedule at all.

“It is good to try to keep activities going for the child,” Pilcher said. “If the child’s in soccer, and the mother’s sick, the dad needs to try to keep the soccer going, and to make the games. To try to keep things as normal as they can. And to try to plan new activities, like, ‘Today we’re going on a picnic.’ Those can create good memories that the child can rely on later.”

Oh well. She had lots of fun with her cousins. And when she returned, we had a better handle on Scott’s illness. I could explain to her that Daddy was very sick, that Mommy and the doctors were doing their very best to help him and that she wouldn’t be able to see him for a while.

When she asked, “Will he come home soon?” I answered honestly, “I don’t know, honey, but I really hope so.”

Those explanations were adequate, according to Pilcher.

“By keeping the child informed with accurate information at their level — the trust can always be there,” he said. “Children need things in increments, just like we do, but it doesn’t hurt for a child to know almost everything that you know.”

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) breaks down children’s reactions to illness and death by age, with the caveat that each child is different: Preschool children like Emerson usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters who die and come to life again. So they aren’t usually overly anxious about a serious illness.

Children between 5 and 9 begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. So they are more easily shocked when serious illnesses or death invade their childhood paradise, and may experience acute anxiety about safety.

Children older than this tend to understand the permanence of death. They react more like grieving adults, and respond in ways adults recognize and to which they can respond.

But there is also something called “anticipatory grief,” Pilcher said, which should also be taken seriously.

“Children whose parents are in the armed forces or in jobs like policemen or firemen, where they’re seeing on TV all the time that these people are getting killed — they can go through the same grief process as someone who has a relative at home who is terminally ill,” Pilcher said.

An 8-year-old boy can put together that his father may not make it home from Iraq, for example, and begin to act out. A child who has a parent with a non-terminal but long-term illness can react similarly.

To combat this, parents and caretakers should be prepared to listen without judgment about how a child feels, and without a goal of fixing the child’s distress. There are no words to fix their feelings, and children should simply be made to feel as though they have a trusted adult to whom they can express themselves.

Adults should also be honest to the child with explanations that are age-appropriate. For example, very young children should be told that when something dies, it stops moving, doesn’t see or hear anymore and won’t wake up again. Or, that Mom or Dad will be very tired and spend a lot of time in bed, and that it is important to help them by playing quietly and by being gentle when touching. Questions should be answered simply but honestly, in a soothing voice with comforting gestures.

And finally, adults should find ways to include children in long-term care. Pilcher recommends that even children as young as 4 or 5 can be given simple jobs to do.

“Now we’re all going to do this together to help Mom. You job is going to be to help mom with her oxygen tank, or to fold all of mom’s gauze, to keep them involved. They’re part of the caregiving then,” he said.

And even in cases where an adult is not terminal, it’s possible to see changes in children’s behavior.

“In those situations, you can go through the same feelings [as with a death], you just don’t have to explain that [the parent] might not be here. That’s a biggie, especially to an older child,” Pilcher said. In other words, there may still be a grieving process, due to fear, anxiety and instability or changes in the family, but the end result may not be as grim.

Again, finding a way to include the child is the optimal way to help them through the illness or grieving process. At Appletree Academy, the children in Emmie’s class made a giant “Get Well” banner that everyone signed, including most of the teachers in the school. Emmie was so proud of it, and she was able to take it to Scott once he was moved out of ICU. It was her gift to him after having been separated for so long.

Well, not too long. Once he woke up, I snuck her in to the CPCU at University Hospital for a brief few seconds of waving and blowing kisses from the doorway, until the nursing staff good-naturedly shooed us away. Shout out to the nursing staff, by the way, with some of whom Scott still keeps in contact. They were nothing short of incredible.

One of the reasons I chanced sneaking her in is because the best way to make the situation as bad as it can be is to keep children in the dark, or to allow the lines of communication to break down between caretaker and child. Pilcher recommends that information about a parent’s illness — or eventual death — come from the primary caretaker, whether that is the second biological parent, the sick parent’s new spouse or another relative closest to the child — and as quickly as information is available. In short, I felt strongly that Emmie needed to see Scott to understand the situation.

That’s because children, little sponges that they are, pick up on more than adults give them credit for. They may not be able to articulate what’s going on around them, but they understand that something is wrong. Not having a name, face or explanation as to what that thing is can give rise to greater, more powerful and encompassing fear than the situation warrants.

They may find something about the situation and make an association that adults cannot connect, and see as strangely superstitious or illogical. For example, if the family attended a Little League game the day before Mom’s diagnosis, a child may associate baseball with illness — or even something as specific as the hot dogs eaten at the game.

Almost every child is going to display some sort of coping or reactionary behavior, according to the AACAP. Many children will regress and act younger than they are. They may blame themselves for what happened. They may lash out in anger, cry more than usual or cling to an adult. Those are normal, and should abate over time, according to Pilcher.

But there are times when children may experience serious coping problems with grief. In those cases, they may need professional assistance to get through the process. According to the AACAP, children who are having serious problems with grief and loss may lose interest in activities for a long time, be unable to sleep or eat, fear being left alone, excessively imitate the person who has passed, repeat statements that they want to join the deceased, withdraw from friends, refuse to attend school or demonstrate a prolonged drop in school performance. Those are all causes for concern, but can be improved by an experienced professional.

Fortunately, Scott’s illness never progressed to the point where that became an issue. He is now home, back at work and while not completely recovered, has greatly improved.

Luckily for us, Emerson was so well supported by our friends, family and her teachers that she experienced few ill effects from the experience. She also benefits from a father who is ridiculously loving and playful with her.

The strength of their relationship has been only slightly affected by the experience.

“When I was growing up in in junior high, this friend of mine’s father was killed in a traffic accident. This kid who was usually pretty withdrawn became the class clown. It was a coping mechanism. Kids will create coping mechanisms,” Pilcher said.

Right now, three months after Daddy’s release from the hospital, Emerson tends to demand that I do everything for her — and while it hurts Scott’s feelings, I think she still fears a little that “Daddy be tired.”

But Pilcher recommends giving about a six-month window to get things back to normal again. And hopefully, by then, we’ll all be back to driving each other happily nuts.
How Children Express Grief or Anticipatory Grief

Preschoolers:

  • Bedwetting
  • Thumb sucking
  • Clinging to adults
  • Exaggerated fears
  • Excessive crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Regression

Elementary school-age children:

  • School and learning problems
  • Preoccupation with the loss and related worries, daydreaming, trouble paying attention
  • Bedwetting, regression, developmental delays
  • Eating and sleeping problems (overeating, refusing to eat, nightmares, sleepiness)
  • Fighting, anger
  • Pre-teens and early adolescents
  • Physical symptoms (headaches, stomachaches, sleeping and eating disorders, hypochondria)
  • Wide mood swings
  • Able to verbally expresses emotions
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Increase in risk-taking and self-destructive behaviors
  • Anger, aggression, fighting, oppositional behavior
  • Withdrawal from adults
  • Depression, sadness
  • Lack of concentration and attention
  • Identity confusion, testing limits

Courtesy of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

How to explain politics to your children

With the inauguration of American’s first African-American president — or just another white president, depending on who you ask — children are more interested than ever before in politics. But it can be a difficult task to explain government and its structure to the wee ones. Here’s a simple step-by-step:

1. Wipe that scowl off your face. No need to destroy their wide-eyed innocence right away.

2. Sit them down by the hearth with cups of hot chocolate and wax eloquently about the revolutionary system of governance that our founding fathers built from philosophy and free will.

3. Wake up from that daydream, wipe the drool off your chin and drag the kids away from the video games.

4. Sit them down on the couch with cups of soda and try to remember what your ninth-grade civics textbook said. You remember: The one that permanently resided at the bottom of your locker… the one you flipped through briefly at the beginning of the year?

5. Explain that, based on the thoughts of philosopher John Locke, man has a social contract with government that does not allow him to leave the island.

6. And also, based on that contract, no man is an island.

7. Call your mother for help.

8. Apologize to your mother for your freshman civics grade — and your sophomore algebra grade, the guy you dated your freshman year of college, the shoes you chose for your wedding, the names of your children and each and every one of her grey hairs.

9. Wake your kids up and put them to bed. Vow to start over tomorrow.

10. Over breakfast, utilize visual aides to demonstrate the structure of American government.

11. Each pancake in the stack has a different function: state, local and federal. The sticky stuff, the syrup, is the politicians. Tasty at first, but too much and it will make you sick.

12. No, the sausages aren’t part of the demonstration. OK, fine, they can represent the politically disenfranchised minority populace. And the milk is the whitewash used by the politicians to cover up their misdeeds in office.

13. OK, look, the sausage is what the members of government promise to give you if you vote for them. After the election, the president is impeached for speculating in pork futures. The media calls the affair “WilburGate.”

14. Engage them in a food fight over control of the last scrap of sausage. That, they’ll understand.

Confessions of a Cheapskate

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the wood floor of our living room.
“It’s a penny,” my husband answered, unconcerned.
I sighed, picked it up off the floor, and put it in a can with its long-lost relatives. I confess: I’m a cheapskate. If there’s a penny, I pinch it. If there’s a dollar, I demand it from my husband’s wallet.
“What do you need it for?”
“I don’t know… Maybe I’ll get a newspaper later?”
Hmph. He can read it online for free.

There wasn’t a lot of money for extras when I was growing up. We wore off-brand clothes when Gloria Vanderbilt and Pumas were two of only seven or eight brands allowed. Other kids weren’t fooled.

“Kangaroos?” said another fifth-grader, incredulously. “Who wears Kangaroos?”

I did – Purple tennis shoes to match my purple faux Member’s Only jacket.
Although some people refuse to wear anything without one of a certain class of logo on their clothes, we feed, clothe, and furnish our family without credit cards on an income of you-can’t-imagine-how-little-freelance-writing-pays.

Here’s how:

Calculate the real cost – Compare prices by number, weight, and volume. Cut coupons selectively because they are usually for brands that cost more to purchase with a coupon than store brands do without. Upon occasion, I stumble across a deal like name-brand two-liters of soda on sale for 79 cents with a coupon for $1 off a purchase of three two-liters – on double coupon day. Each bottle was 13 cents.

Refuse retail –
Membership wholesalers have everything: clothes, pet food, jewelry, software, electronics, and furniture. Don’t buy a membership. Find someone else who already has one and add on to his or hers for half the price.

Everything is negotiable –
When looking for a larger apartment, we got $50 off the monthly rent because we promised to sign a two-year lease. Make some concessions that benefit the business. Promise a certain number of referrals within your contract period. Look into a longer partnership than is customary. Make capital improvements. Never take the first interest rate, insurance premium, or installation fee quoted.

Know your needs and network –
Work the yard sale and flea market circuits, go to Goodwill early Saturday afternoons, keep up with “Iwanta” (free online at http://www.iwanta.net), and join http://www.freecycle.org. Gather up your unused stuff and offer it to other cheapskates. You never know what people desire. I found other freecyclers frenzied over a Star Trek book I had never read, a half-pack of diapers my daughter had outgrown, and a set of sheets that didn’t fit our bed.

Unmask marketing –
Most brands are very similar and what they’re actually selling you is style or security. Tylenol and store-brand acetaminophen are identical and one costs $3 less than the other. Because the Food and Drug Administration controls the composition of infant formula, I buy a store brand formula that is not only 1/3 cheaper than brand name but is also easier on my daughter’s sensitive digestive system. When in doubt, read the ingredients and their ratios to determine any real differences.

Prevent pernicious purse-snatchers –
convenience stores, vending machines, restaurants, and peak-time entertainment. Plan meals ahead so that you don’t have to stop at convenience stores, cook at home, bring snacks with you, and attend matinee shows.

Examples of My Thrifty Rewards:

  • Kitchen Hutch
    Retail: $200
    Cost: paint
    Source: Freecycle.org
  • Desk and Hutch
    Retail: $300
    Cost: $50
    Source: Goodwill
  • Couch and Wingback Chair
    Retail: $1,500
    Cost: $200
    Source: Iwanta.net
  • Digital Camera
    Retail: $250
    Cost: $50
    Source: Pawn Shop
  • Dresser
    Retail: $300
    Cost: $30 + paint
    Source: Goodwill
  • Computer Printer
    Retail: $75
    Cost: $20
    Source: Flyer on university bulletin board
  • Timberland Shoes
    Retail: $75
    Cost: $1
    Source: Yard Sale
  • Swing/High Chair
    Retail: $150
    Cost: $20 (with a side table thrown in)
    Source: Yard Sale
  • Baby Clothes (for her first two years)
    Retail: several hundred dollars
    Cost: About $40
    Source: Hand-me-downs, yard sales, freecycle.org, and Sam’s Club (outfit: freecycle.org)

  • (c) originally published in Sass Magazine, 2005