March 2010

Pernicious Playground Politics

See if this scenario is familiar.

You’re at the park or playground with your young child; there are many other children present. Some parents are following their children closely, making sure they are safe; others are making sure their child doesn’t terrorize the rest of the bunch.

Your child is playing on and around one of the playground apparatuses, having a good old time. Another child is eager to play in the same spot and does not seem eager to share. The other child begins pushing, shoving, kicking, or hitting your child out of anger and frustration.

You look around. That child’s parent is not in the immediate vicinity (in my little scenario, we’ll be gracious to that parent and presume she’s with another of her children and not texting her “bff” about the sale on handbags at Bloomingdales).

You say to the child in a friendly, calming voice, “Hey, we don’t hit, OK?” That doesn’t do the job; the aggression becomes more pronounced.

You’re left with a few choices:

1. Get your child out of the way, allowing the aggressive child to temporarily have his/her way.

2. Not wanting to cross any boundaries with another parent’s child, you fervently search for the child’s parent so you can enlist his/her help.

3. Protect your child in the least restrictive manner, but using whatever verbal and/or physical means necessary.

If you chose option 1, you’re emphasis is maintaining peace über alles. I understand the impulse, but this is not the healthiest choice for you, your child, or the other child and parent. Your child needs to see that you will protect him and seek justice whenever possible. In this situation, it is possible.

If you chose option 2, good for you. At least you want someone to stop the aggressor. The problem with this option is that while you look for Rocky’s Mom or Dad, your child is getting pummeled. That’s no good.

The best option is option 3. It is your job to protect your child. While it is not your job to discipline other children unless you are expressly invited to do so by another parent, it should be understood that in a playground area, parents will protect their children and will intervene by stopping another child from doing harm. If a parent cannot monitor their child, that parent implicitly leaves their child with other parents.

If you need to physically stop a child from hurting your child—or another child, of course—or you need to be verbally firm with a child, do not apologize to the child’s parent if they are offended or angry. Simply say, “When I witness a child being aggressive with my child, it is my duty to protect him. If kind, soft words work, I will use them. If not, I will yell or physically intervene. I do not apologize for protecting my child.”

Sometimes, this will result in a big huff or mean words. Most likely, the absent parent will be projecting guilt onto you; many parents are embarrassed at their children’s behavior but can’t tolerate this, so they project the blame onto you. Don’t take it personally. Just be proud that you protect your child. You will find plenty of allies who agree with your position; most parents will be grateful for your willingness to intervene and be a Parent in Charge.

The Necessity of Touch…

I’ve been a bit hesitant to discuss this, because I am aware of the general über-allergic response of the public to anything related to touch and children. Those are two words that, when put together, inspire images of NAMBLA freaks or otherwise creepy old men. I think it’s a mistake to avoid the topic of touch just as much as it is a mistake to ignore a child’s need for proper nutrition.

I have met many parents—mostly men—who are deathly afraid of touching their children in anything but a formal manner. It’s incredibly sad. One parent admitted to me that he simply doesn’t want to give anyone the idea that he likes touching his kids—that he might be seen as a pedophile! Ask any healthy father what his greatest fear is and he’ll tell you that it’s his child being molested or worse. So the fear of being perceived as this kind of demon is palpable.
But like any solution to a problem of one extreme, it is important not to swing to the other extreme.

Children need touch. They need lots of it. In fact, their need for quality and quantity of non-sexual touch can hardly be overstated. Children need to be hugged, kissed, caressed, cuddled, swung, carried, high-fived, tackled, tickled, wrestled, and even massaged.

In our family, we have the “daily beatings.” My kids love the daily beating; when I get home, they often ask for it. They know that it means I will scoop them up, carry all three of them at once if I can, throw them on the bed, tackle them, tickle them, yank their toes, smush their faces with pillows, pretend to beat them up, and then give them their vengeance by letting them jump all over me. I can hardly think of anything more enjoyable than these moments.

Sure, every once in a while, someone gets hurt; I’ve gotten scratched, kicked in places I’d rather not discuss, and pulled a couple muscles. But it’s magical how fun and love provides an anesthetic for these minor wounds.

Although it shouldn’t need to be said, children have an absolute right to sexual integrity. They must never be violated sexually. So any kind of touch that breaks or confuses those boundaries should be avoided. But if you start with healthy, appropriate touch, that shouldn’t be a problem. If your child hasn’t ever had those boundaries broken, then even some massage is healthy. There is nothing wrong with a family sitting in bed watching a movie with everyone’s body close together, Dad stroking his daughter’s hair or Mom squeezing her son’s hands or feet.

If this sounds icky or inappropriate to you, think about why.

Some might object to what it might look like to others. Who cares?

Some might think that the child could misinterpret touch as sexual. Not likely—unless the child has previously had his or her sexual integrity disrespected.

Some might think that it could lead to pushing sexual boundaries later on. Nope.

Mom and Dad should lead this pattern by displaying lots of friendly, non-sexual touch. This signals to children that it is normal and healthy. Of course, sexual touch should be kept in private.

So go ahead and cuddle, kiss, hug, and even tickle your kid. They need it. You need it too.

Profiles in Bad Parenting: Profile 1

Parents know me as a “tough parent”: I don’t tolerate anything but respectful behavior from my children. I believe in maintaining high standards and holding children accountable for their behavior. I believe that more parents need to get tough about respect. But how tough? One mother in the news went a bit far with her tough stance and is our first Profile in Bad Parenting.

A woman accused of strangling her daughter on a college campus apartment in Purchase, N.Y., told them she did it because the daughter was “disrespectful all the time,” according to court papers made public Thursday.

Police accounts filed with a murder indictment quote Stacey Pagli, 37, as saying that Marissa Pagli, 18, had “pushed my last button.” Ms. Pagli is accused of strangling her daughter Feb. 22 in the family’s staff apartment. Marissa was a freshman at the school. Her father, John Pagli, was a maintenance supervisor. He found his wife unconscious and his daughter dead.

According to the police account, when police asked what prompted Marissa to be disrespectful, her mother said, “I asked her where she was going.” She said she told her daughter, “Don’t ever speak to me like that. This will be the last time you speak to me like that.”

She said she choked Marissa with her hands and knew she had killed her. Pagli expressed regret, saying, “I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. I can’t make it better, she’s not here anymore.”

There is passive/wimpy parenting, assertive parenting, and authoritarian parenting. And then, apparently, there is asinine parenting.

So be tough parents…but not that tough.

*As tempting as it might be to make your child read this news item, please withstand this temptation and stick to practicing being a Parent in Charge.

The True Story of Leprechauns

Leprechauns. You don’t hear too much about them except now, in the middle of March, when the Chicago River turns green, parades fill the TVs, Shamrock Shakes make their yearly appearance, and moms boil up a dose of corned beef and cabbage. It seems everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

But what do we really know about Leprechauns? Are they real or just a figment of some Irish storyteller’s drunken imagination? Where did they come from? What do they do? What are they like? Where (if anywhere) is their famed pot of gold? Do they all have beards? Are there any girl Leprechauns?

Here is the untold story.

Leprechauns are not simply little humans. They are not even human, although they have several human characteristics. As everyone knows, they live in Ireland. But they weren’t originally from there. Many generations ago, they lived close to the lands where elves, dwarfs, and hobbits all resided peacefully. All three peoples intermingled. A few generations’ worth of intermarriage sprouted the race that we now call leprechauns. They lived on their own, mostly, not craving the company of others. But they did have a clearly defined moral sense. They were committed to helping the poor; sort of a pre-dated Robin Hood clan. They were also highly skilled at deception and craftworks.

Because of their skill and friendliness, a large group of young lippies (as they were known to other folk) were invited by none other than Santa Claus to work at his massive workshop. And so a good portion of the leprechaun tribe emigrated to the North Pole. For generations, the leppies and elves coexisted peacefully in Santa’s working crew, with the more technically savvy leppies forging and building what the creative and inspired elves dreamed of. Every year, they piggy-backed on each other’s Christmas spirit with buoyant joy and playfulness.

But alas, there were a few leppies whose actions were a bit too playful. Whether it was their natural tendency toward troublemaking or the harsh cold of the arctic winters, some could not help themselves. No one knows their true names–these were lost in their sacred chronicles that have since been lost–but we do know what they did.

One Christmas season, about three days before Christmas Eve, when the weather was wretchedly frigid, a small detachment of leppies played a practical joke on the Chief elf, Bon-tilith. After all the elves were soundly asleep, the leppies despoiled their co-workers of all of the years’ toys that had been stored away. They hid them in their own cave-storage, then laughed late into the night. When they awoke, they crept in to the shop, where the elves were dumbstruck. They couldn’t contain their laughter. But when the dumbstruck looks were accompanied by tears, they admitted to Bon-tilith what had happened. He was none too happy.

Just then, a report over the loudspeaker blasted “Here this: a terrible storm has resulted in an avalanche at Doringray Residence Cave. The cave has collapsed.” The leppies were without words—a phenomenon quite unusual for them. They had transported the entire load of toys to Doringray! When the wreckage was discovered, every single toy had been destroyed. Santa was devastated; he and his workers simply could not get enough toys made and delivered by Christmas. It was a sad, albeit rare Christmas for the children of Earth that year.

Thankfully, the leppies fessed up. They hid nothing from Santa. However, he was less than his merciful self. In one of the rarest displays of wrath witnessed by his most ancient workers, Santa banished the leprechauns from the North Pole forever. The leppies traveled from North Pole to Greenland, then from Greenland to Iceland. No one wanted to harbor these strange folk; not only had word travelled quickly, but they were a strange-looking breed. Eventually, they made their way to the shores of Ireland.

They took up residence in the Northern parts and wooded sections in the south of the island. For many years, they did very little but show their remorse with tears and drowning in the local stout. But after a while they banded together again and dedicated their lives and their children’s lives to righting the wrong they had committed. From that time forward, they decided, they would steal things only for a purpose–to give them to the poor.

And so they devised a scheme. They made up a very clever (albeit ridiculous) story about a rainbow that had a pot of gold at the end of it. They told this story to whoever would listen. Well, to anyone who was rich and would listen. And they promised to escort them to the rainbow, where they could partake of the pot of gold.

But, like any ruse, they needed some gold up front as payment for their services. So they took gold, toys, and other goodies from all unsuspecting fools.

Because of the inherent greed and wild-eyed dreams of the people, they were soon richer than all the world’s kings and princes put together.

Of course, they never quite led anyone to the rainbow or the pot of gold.

So if today you meet a leppie, do not be deceived by his friendly nature or promises. He (or she; yes, there are she-leppies) is only trying to get your goodies. Even though they would go to someone who needs them more than you!

The End

Motivation and Attention

Why can children who are diagnosed with the baloney disorder ADHD pay attention when playing Legos or video games? It’s one of the many conundrums surrounding the diagnosis that eventually convinced me that the diagnosis is invalid; it also led me to believe that the vast majority of children diagnosed with ADHD* are in fact quite normal children.

So let’s start with some indisputable truths. First, children who are diagnosed ADHD can in fact pay excellent attention with some tasks. Parents tell me that their children can focus for long periods of time on constructive activities like building and drawing, but fail to pay attention to reading, writing, or rote tasks like math. Many of these children can be so engrossed in video games that they cannot hear their parents call them, yet they seem completely distracted while doing their homework.
So at least we have the knowledge that these children can sometimes pay attention. Whatever attention mechanisms they possess are not completely disabled.

One of the more ridiculous facets of the ADHD diagnosis is an admission that ADHD “symptoms” go away under certain environmental conditions. A primary example is that ADHD disappears when a child has individual attention. Another condition that cures this “debilitating disease” is engaging stimuli. And yet a third miracle cure is adequate structure and discipline. Amazing how these all correspond with what children actually need…

So the second indisputable truth is that children’s behaviors are changed—often radically—by the environmental conditions they are in. Nurture trumps nature yet again! An additional observation that must be noted is that adults can provide these environmental conditions.

The third indisputable fact is that the variable present or absent is motivation. Motivation is key for all behaviors. Without motivation, all behaviors—except reflexes—would extinguish (go away).

So what does this have to do with ADHD-like symptoms? Some children tend to be naturally (intrinsically) motivated by some tasks, but not others. Some children, of course, are motivated by the visual stimuli in video games and building things, but are not motivated by reading or writing. There is nothing unusual or abnormal about this. It is the parents’ challenge to motivate their child extrinsically (from without) until the child internalizes that motivation.

So Junior does not like to complete his math homework? Fine; there is no rule that Junior has to be naturally motivated to do math. But let’s say he earns a visit from Kobe Bryant if he finishes his homework on time and correctly, and at the same time, he knows that he will have a finger chopped off if he doesn’t do it on time or correctly. All of that motivation coming from two directions—positive and negative—will absolutely result in increased attention and concentration.

Now, I’m not a big believer in chopping off fingers and I’m sure you can’t afford to hire Kobe Bryant to come to your house to motivate Junior. But I’m sure you can think of some things in Junior’s life that are or would be motivating to him if you connected performance to those things.
Think about it. I’ve used this principle with countless school-age children. It works EVERY TIME.

*I refuse to refer to children as “having ADHD”, since I don’t think children can have ADHD any more than they can have cooties.


OK, I’m a huge fan of film—always have been. Whether it be the escapism or my appreciation for spinning a quality story or acting out a drama, I believe that movies can bring a great deal of joy to a child’s life. A good film can also teach lessons that are not as easily taught by parental lecture.

In talking to children, I have found that many of them have not been introduced to the wonderful world of film. Yeah, they’ve seen “Up” and “Little Mermaid” (which are both fine films), but they haven’t witnessed some of the gems of the big screen—movies that children simply must see, in my not-so-humble opinion.

So I’m compiling a list of some of the best movies that are appropriate for children. Generally, my list will include movies that are appropriate for school-age children. That is, they have no egregious violence, salty language, or sexual content. Of course, we all have our own definition of “egregious”, but you will be able to see from the following list.

I welcome all of you to add to the list; I’m sure there will be many movies I have forgotten and some that I have never seen. For the sake of space and obviousness, I won’t include all of the Disney and Pixar movies from the past ten years or so. I think almost all of them are wonderful and appropriate for children. I also haven’t included any of the Japanese anime films, many of which are quite good.

Never Cry Wolf (A little-known Disney flick from the early 80’s; I think it’s one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created. If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you…)
Fairy Tale (I only cry during movies and this one gets me every time)
Secret of Roan Inish
The Waterhorse
The Champ
Black Beauty (1994 version)
Fantasia (even if you don’t like the idea of macroevolution, it’s amazing artwork and the classical music will pique your child’s interest)
Princess Bride (altogether now: “I am Inigo Montoya, you killed my father…”)
Gulliver’s Travels (the one with Richard Harris)
The Bear (best acting job ever)
E.T. (Duh…there are a couple inappropriate lines of dialogue early, but the rest of the movie more than redeems it)
Sound of Music
Lucas (one of the sweetest coming-of-age movies; for middle school and older)
Mary Poppins
Oliver (the musical)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder, NOT, Johnny Depp, IS Willy Wonka)
Incredible Journey (I usually can’t stand animal movies, but both the 1963 and 90’s versions are great)
Lassie (ditto)
Wizard of Oz (duh…)
Star Wars (duh…)
Ladyhawke (my 5-year-old LOVES this movie; I want a sequel)
The Secret of Nimh
Annie (whatever happened to that 7-Up guy?)
The Land Before Time (if your kid is a dinosaur expert, don’t bother)
Labyrinth (when I build my own city, it will have a ‘bog of eternal stench’)
The Dark Crystal
The Neverending Story (my kids make fun of the music, but it’s still good enough to enjoy)
Charlotte’s Web: the 70’s cartoon version
The Secret Garden (my son pooh-poohed this movie, but my girls adored it)
The Bad News Bears (not for younger kiddies or teetotaling parents)
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005 Version)
Herbie the Lovebug (stupid, silly fun)
Escape to Witch Mountain (60’s version)
Man from Snowy River (more for early teens and teens, but any horse-loving kids will like it)
Lord of the Rings (Yes, I know there is violence, but the story is so important and the films are so good that it is the one movie for which I make a “violence exception”)
Robin Hood (Disney animal cartoon version)
Apollo 13 (you’d think it wouldn’t be for children, but it really is THAT good)
A Little Princess
Mrs. Doubtfire (some stuff is inappropriate for children—get your hands ready to cover ears)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (best adventure movie ever)
To Kill A Mockingbird (younger children will be bored to tears, but once your child is old enough, this can be one of those eye-opening moments in his/her life)
Apocalypse Now (OK, I’m kidding…)

OK, have at it!

Reason #215 Not to Use Antidepressants

A study in the March 2 edition of Pediatrics revealed that mothers who use antidepressants called SSRI’s—such as Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, and Lexapro—put their fetuses at significant risk for all kinds of physical and emotional problems. This study mirrored one found in the October 2009 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Problems occurring from maternal SSRI use include preterm birth, low Apgar scores, and a higher incidence of admission to an NICU (these are generally bad signs). These are simply the observable signs of damage from SSRI’s. This study did not—and could not—examine the damage that early SSRI exposure did to the child’s serotonin regulation and production. We know that flooding the serotonin system upsets the delicate balance; the brain responds by shutting down production of serotonin, which can permanently damage mood regulation. This often has disastrous implications, like those found in Ecstacy overdose.

The only reasonable conclusion is that women who are pregnant or could possibly get pregnant should not take SSRI’s—or any psychiatric drugs for that matter. All of them cross the placental wall and directly affect the growing fetus’s brain, which is incredibly sensitive to all chemical interference. The fetus’s liver simply cannot process toxic chemicals like an adult.

With all of the excellent—superior in terms of efficacy and safety—alternative treatments for depression and anxiety, I highly recommend that women explore other options before turning to psychiatric drugs.

*Although this study did not wrestle with it, there is also a question whether potential fathers who take SSRI’s might unwittingly damage their sperm. We often ignore the reality of the male contribution to the genetic pool and how powerfully their behaviors can positively and negatively affect the growing fetus. It is no stretch to presume that these powerful drugs alter the male contribution to their progeny.

What Not to Wear, Love Mom

One of the most contentious issues confronting parents and their children involves acceptable clothing. How many fights have occurred between the mother who says, “You’re not wearing that out of this house” and the daughter who replies, “Everyone is wearing this!” Children inevitably claim the right to wear whatever they like as a self-expression; parents are often at a loss as to their responsibility and right to put limits and boundaries on clothes.

A few words of sanity…

First, to review: it is the solemn duty of parents to train their children. As I stress in Desperately Seeking Parents, parents must focus their training on four areas:

1. Safety
2. Respect
3. Obedience
4. Work

In the book, I stress that all of the values parents instill in children are subsumed under these four areas.

So how does a mini-skirt or death metal concert t-shirt have to do with any of these four areas? Easy. Your 12-year-old daughter’s safety is compromised if she goes uptown in an outfit that screams, “Look at me! I am a sexual object! I’m as easy as a game of Candy Land!” Parents must assert (and reassert, whenever needed) the reality that her body is not only hers to protect; it is YOURS to protect.

If your family believes in God, you have an even more powerful argument: your daughter’s body is not hers or yours; it is God’s. God has entrusted you to protect and train your daughter. The case for your intervention in that arena is closed.

What about dirty, slovenly attire? It’s not a safety issue. What about respect? Is it respectful to wear dirty clothes out of the house? Yes; you can disallow that. What about shirts that convey rebellious or obnoxious messages, such as “I’m with stupid” or “I hate school”? Don’t allow these, at all. They champion disrespect. They shouldn’t be in your child’s closet; get them out. Don’t buy them. And finally, concert t-shirts that convey violent messages? Fuggetaboutit. It should be a family rule that no clothes may reflect violent messages. Period.

Then what about an outfit that is not sexually provocative, dirty, or messy and does not communicate any inappropriate messages, but is simply silly or uncoordinated? What about the ensemble of plaid golf pants and hideous polka dot shirt? Here is where parents need to back off with older children (middle school). If it isn’t unsafe, disrespectful, breaking any important rules, or preventing the child from performing his or her duties, then let the child wear it. If he wants to dress like a fool, fine. Remember, this is not for your 6-year-old, but for your early adolescent, who needs to begin making individual choices. It is critical that you communicate that there will be some freedoms allowed.