Sometimes when I read a book I will find myself attracted to other books on the same topic. This time my latest readings have been on chemistry and the periodic table. The one that started it was The Disappearing Spoon, which is a history of chemistry, the hunt for elements and the creation of the periodic table (check out the extras, especially the videos). This romp into chemistry and the personalities involved is accessible to everyone, including students in upper elementary school. Read the rest of this entry »
A couple of weeks ago I went in for my annual medical appointment. We went through the whole routine, and I showed my family doctor my very scratched up arm from pruning the porch-eating rose. I asked if I could get the Tdap since I am a gardener. He looked at my chart, saw I got the vaccine in 2005 and said I was good for another four years.
Then I went on a little trip: Read the rest of this entry »
That was the glib farewell I gave to the kids as I dropped them off for a swim. Of course it was a swimming pool with lifeguards, and not the lake that was a short walk away. Read the rest of this entry »
At She Thought, Anthropologist Underground kind of nailed it with this piece about how not immunizing becomes a mark of social status in some parenting communities:
Many women who can afford to stay home gave up careers to do so. Larger society undervalues stay-home moms (as well as teachers and other child care workers). So bright, educated women find themselves in clusters, isolated from prestige, and they bring the work ethic and focus that advanced them in careers to parenting. They must seek status and validation from other members of the stay-home community, and this requires separating themselves from the unwashed masses. (My friend calls this “competitive parenting.”)
My read is that challenging the authority of conventional medicine and MDs is one way of artificially ascribing status to oneself.
Thought provoking, and yet completely unsurprising, really. Living in LA, I’m surrounded by status moms like this. They were all over my mom support group listserv, to the extent that I finally had to unsubscribe. I often posted on here and Rational Moms about these moms. Reading their posts on the listserv was a great way to take the temperature of the anti-vax community in response to news about the Wakefield scandal or the whooping cough epidemic. (Ultimately, it proved too frustrating for me to encounter their responses daily, so I left the board.) I think Anthropologist Underground has pegged the way these people think, to a large extent. And I wouldn’t confine it to moms. There are plenty of stay-at-home dads who join the status parenting club as well.
I would add (and I did in my comment) that unfortunately, recent events in our country do lend credence to the idea that a web of financial interests can override public interest. Just watch The Inside Job to have that sneaky suspicion confirmed. So I don’t think it’s only a group status/power mentality at work here. I believe anti-vax parents are egged on by a prevailing cultural suspicion of authority that has been intensified by the events of our time.
Responses to this idea?
Thanks to those who commented on my last Montessori post. We are still struggling with Zack’s daycare situation, and it’s absolutely the most emotional and difficult thing I’ve dealt with as a parent to date. So here’s an update.
Zack cried for three days straight, calling for me pretty much the entire time. We kept thinking that surely he couldn’t persist for another day, and he would acclimate somewhat, but it was going very, very slowly. Finally, on Wednesday night, he was a bit hoarse from crying, and it seemed like he was depressed. He wanted to do nothing but lie around, and when asked, he said he was sad.
So we came up with a plan. My husband took Thursday off from work and went to Montessori with Zack. I took off Friday. My husband’s a freelancer, so he made up his hours on Saturday. I’m a probationary employee at my new job, so I have no sick days or family leave yet. So I just ate a day. Whatever. Totally worth it.
When I did my day, I got to see first hand how the school operates, and I found several troubling issues. First, I’m embarrassed to say that I did not notice how dirty the school is until I was there for many hours. The backs of the little chairs are covered with a layer of grime, left behind from years of grubby little hands. There is no place for our son’s diapers or extra clothes, since his cubby is too small, so those things stayed in a bag on the floor. The playground in the back has many trip areas due to old carpeting or mat edges not being tacked down. The Montessori materials have the same grimy layer as the chairs. When my son was playing with some little bears that he sorted into cups, he said, “There’s a tiny bug in the cup!” And there was. Okay, it was just a little gnat, which could happen even in a pristinely clean school, but bug in the cup didn’t add to my overall impression that the environment is a little gross.
The food isn’t the best, and I knew that when we signed up, but when I saw that Friday pizza day was Papa John’s, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. My son doesn’t like pizza, so he ate some lunch I brought from home. If he starts to like pizza and has it once a week, I can’t see the harm in that. But again, seeing delivery pizza on paper plates for lunch just kind of leant to the overall honky tonk vibe.
The teacher, Ms. S., is from Sri Lanka, and while she’s clearly very kind at heart, she has a sharp way of speaking to the children that bothered me. Her assistant is from the Philippines and has a similar manner. Both of them are somewhat older–over 60–which is certainly not a drawback in teaching or caretaking, but they did strike me as somewhat tired. On the playground, they sat to the side. I played chase with the kids.
I thought I smelled a poopy diaper outside, and no one took care of that for quite a while. And that’s probably because no one smelled it, since the teachers were taking the outside time as rest time for themselves. I also noticed no one changed Zack for quite a while. I did it, but when I asked, I was told it would happen after lunch. At our old daycare, diaper changing was every 2-3 hours, on a schedule. Here, most likely because many of the kids are already potty trained, it’s pretty lax. There’s no diaper changing table. Changes happen standing up. And that’s fine; we do that at home. But the fact that there’s no area and no assigned time for changes tells me my kid will stay in the same diaper for four hours, and if he has a BM, no one will really notice.
One kid had a dirty face and a runny nose all morning, and I was always the one who pointed it out to the teachers, who simply instructed him to wipe his nose. At our old daycare, the rule was the teachers would wipe the mucus and then wash their hands and the kid’s hands. I’m sure they took shortcuts with the hand washing, but I never saw a kid walk around with green snot for longer than a minute.
After playing outside for a bit, which got Zack warmed up to the place a little, we went inside. Anytime there’s a transition between areas, the kids have to line up with their hands behind their backs, and only when they get into this formation are they allowed to proceed. While I found this strictness startling, I have to believe that ultimately, this kind of crowd control is positive and probably prevents many of the issues we had with Zack at the old school. Still, it struck me funny, being the laid back sort of parent that I am.
Once they got inside, the kids had to sit in a line on a rug. Again, they had to sit nicely before things got going. Then Ms. S. brought out a little American flag, and they had to stand, put their hands on their hearts and sing the pledge of allegiance. Then they sang My Country Tis of Thee. I found this to be annoyingly retro and unnecessary. On the other hand, I couldn’t see why it’s bad to learn these things, and I remember saying the pledge every morning in school. Except for the obvious “under God” thing, this kind of indoctrination doesn’t bother me too much.
Well, I’m lying. It bothers me overly much. I hate it, actually. But hey, is that the worst thing that could happen? Not really. Prayer would be worse. I know friends who have their kids in religious preschool, and they overlook the prayer and the bible songs. That I could not do. The pledge? Meh. I hate it. I think kids that young don’t need to say it for sure. But this is the least of my worries at this school, and whatever. Eventually they will learn the pledge, so why not now? Who cares?
Okay, I care. It bothers me, I will admit. But enough about that.
After the brief patriotic brainwashing session was over, the kids sang some songs, said the months of the year, and then they separated into two groups. The older group did some writing lessons, and occasionally, I could hear Ms. S. speaking to them in sharp tones: “That is not a three. How will you go to the next class if you write like that?” Definitely not my style of speaking, and I didn’t like it.
But here’s the big question: is it okay for teachers to be strict and a little negative, as long as my kid is getting unconditional love at home? Ms. S. told kids to “Sit properly!” all day long. When one girl fell off a bench at lunch, Ms. S. told her that it was because she didn’t sit properly. Of course, she also made sure the girl was all right, but she definitely drove home the cause and effect of the situation first, whereas I would have covered all the emotional ground before the lesson, and it would not have been a scold. “Were you scared? Are you okay now? So look, next time you know that when you lean back, you might fall.” That’s the Julie style. With Ms. S., it was straight to the point: that’s what you get when you don’t sit right! But hey, isn’t it true? And isn’t school where you learn that you have to wake up and follow instructions?
The teachers were also all about: “You have to listen to teacher.” Boy, do I hate that. But you know what? You do kind of have to listen to the teacher. I’m not sure about this, but maybe being strict in a school setting is appropriate, and these teachers are laying the groundwork for kids who know how to behave in a school setting. It’s not my style, it rubs me wrong, and yet, I sense some kind of truth in it. At a basic level, there is a way to behave in a group that must be respected.
While the older kids were writing, the younger kids sat in front of the assistant teacher, who used some flashcards to review numbers, letters, and shapes.
We were sitting with the younger group, and Zack was young even in this group. Everyone else was over three. But Zack shouted out the shapes and colors before all the other kids. He zoned out a little during the numbers. He can count, but he’s not completely clear on the relationship between numbers and objects, yet, which I always find interesting. If you ask him, “Zack, how many eyes do you have?” he says, “One, two, three, four!” He simply likes counting to four. So that was probably the bit that challenged him the most.
At this point, I realized to some extent that my son probably doesn’t need preschool for things like numbers, shapes, letters, or months. It seems to me that he’s a kid who will pick stuff up when he’s ready, and he’s got a mind like a steel trap. It’s not a problem to memorize stuff like that for him. This realization made me wonder just what preschool really should be doing for a kid like mine? Should he be more involved in planting tulip bulbs, helping bake bread, or other more real life experiences? Should he just be left alone to play all day? What’s going to help him be happy and learn–or more importantly, just be happy? I don’t see learning as an issue. It looks to me–and a lot of this is my gut level feeling, or perhaps just my own projection and I’m putting a lot of my own baggage into this–like he’s going to learn no matter what. It’s not a problem. So what do we want to teach? And is what we want to teach more about who he is and how to think than just this stuffing of various items into his head? And also, wait, he’s not even three, so when do we care about learning more than just making him comfortable and ensuring that he’s okay emotionally, that he feels connected to those who are caring for him, and that he’s not going to cry all day and be hurting in ways he can’t describe yet?
My feeling is, we care about the emotions more now. I’m not sold on this particular school as the answer for us. I don’t think they are nurturing enough. On my last post, a commenter said that Monstessori teachers from Sri Lanka tended to be a bit authoritarian. I can’t quite make myself like it, although I see that there is some good to it. But it’s not what I want for my son.
However, the Montessori technique itself turned out to be incredibly interesting.
When the groups broke up, and it was time to use the Montessori materials, I was suddenly very engaged, and so was Zack. That stuff is amazing. I didn’t understand how it all worked before I saw it in action, although I’d heard that kids pick their own activities and work on one thing at a time. This was a mystery to me.
So here’s how it works, and I might end up posting some video later so you can really it. Zack picked at first some little cups and little plastic bears. (I’ve read that in some Montessori schools, the toys are never made of plastic, and in ours, the toys are mostly wood, but this activity was made out of the dreaded plastic.)
The cups were two different colors, and the little bears were the exact same two colors. And Zack sorted the little bears into the two cups, and he did it over and over again. And he was perfectly content to sit there and do that, and it absorbed him completely.
I was fascinated by this whole encounter. As I said, he knows colors, so he wasn’t learning colors. So what was he learning, if anything? What he was emanating was calm, organization, and contentment. Every time he sorted the bears, he looked up at me and said, “Good job, Zack!” And he liked the way the bears felt in his hands (or so it seemed to me), and he liked to empty them from the cup back into the little tray. And sometimes he put the “wrong” color bears into a cup, and then he would dump them all into the other cup, and it seemed to me that he enjoyed the sound they made. Or maybe only I did. Not sure.
This task required no intervention or instruction from anyone. Zack selected the materials and intuitively understood how to use them.
He later chose some concentric plastic shapes–triangles, circles, and squares. He sat and put them together and took them apart, triangles within triangles, squares within squares, again and again. It seemed to provide him with a quiet satisfaction.
I was seriously entranced by all of this. There were puzzles with magnets and little fishing poles, designed apparently to help with eye hand coordination. There were puzzles with pegs and shapes, and you could put the pieces on different pegs and see the relationship between the shapes . It was amazing. So when I got home, I did some research and looked up another Montessori school’s website, which offered a more detailed explanation about what is happening when kids use these materials. The idea is that they gain a sense of mastery, confidence, and concentration by doing these tasks that are specfically designed to be interesting to them at their particular developmental level. They are able to work on their own and associate learning with a positive experience.
My skeptical bells go a-ringing when claims like this are made. So…really? These toys are better than any other old toy that kids find interesting and absorbing? They’re better that say, a hose? Or some dirt? Really?
But I had to admit that watching my son work with these things, I certainly did feel like exactly what was described was actually happening.
Then it was lunch and nap time, and then the oddest thing of all happened.
When the kids were all asleep, Ms. S., a tiny woman to be sure, crawled onto the stack of toddler mats, which are encased in a little crib like structure. She pulled a curtain around herself, and she zonked out in there. She took a nap. On a stack of toddler mats.
No, it’s not bad. Hell, I’d probably do the same thing. But I just found it weird is all. And kind of funny.
During nap, I played Scrabble on my iphone and hung out. The assistant talked to me about teaching. She said she had taught in the Phillippines for many years. Her husband is a surgeon. She has two adult children, one of whom just graduated from medical school. I found myself thinking, well, this lady knows how to bring up smart kids. But watching her all day, I felt like she was not very involved or interested in these kids.
By the way, all the kids fell in love with me. They wanted to sit next to me. They called me “Teacher.” Or “Mommy.” I think I just paid more attention to them than their teachers. And I was a novelty, of course. But I was the popularity contest winner. It made me want to go back to teaching little kids. I taught four-year-0lds when I lived in Japan.
In fact, most of my feelings about how to deal with very young children were quite influenced by my year in Japan, where preschool lasts three years, and it’s mostly quite strict. But home life is very permissive. Mothers sleep with their kids (which we’ve adopted in our home) and indulge them, even while they send them to cram school in second grade. I didn’t like the pushing of kids, but I definitely saw that they have more potential for learning than we take advantage of here, for the most part, in the US. So I see the benefit of having Asian teachers who might be part of that tradition of school strictness alternated with home sweetness, if that makes sense.
I realize I’m making huge generalizations here, and that’s because I only spent enough time in Japan to get a whiff of what happens there in families with young children. I taught at an English immersion kindergarten and grew quite close to families there. I was invited on trips with them. I spent holidays with them. I saw family dynamics at work in a way most Westerners would not, but still, I was an outsider the entire time. So if anyone wants to correct me on my assumptions, yes, I admit these are anecdotal observations layered with my own guesswork about how things work in Japan.
At one point during the day, Ms. S. invited me to observe some presentations the first graders were giving. And that’s when my mind got truly blown. These kids were doing science presentations. Way to hook the skeptical mom, guys. Well done. A girl presented her diorama about whether salt or fresh water boiled faster. She had a hypothosis, a method to test it, photos, and she explained in detail the molecular structure of water and the way salt lowered its boiling point. Then she took questions from her peers. She spoke like an adult. Sure, one kid couldn’t get past the balloon on her diorama, which really had no purpose other than to be blue ( you know, like water). But still, the whole scene was so sophisticated. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Tell me, anyone with a first grader, is this normal? Or is it really advanced?
So if this is where the strictness and the Montessori and everything else is headed, there’s definitely a value to it all. If these folks would just clean their room better, I might be sold. But in the end, I don’t think this is the school for us.
We had a near anxiety attack about the situation last night, and we finally called Zack’s infant careworker, who used to work at his old center, to check her availability, in case school is a no go this week. But then we sent him in again today. How can we tell if the work we put in, staying with him for two days, did any good, unless we send him back? The school has instructions to call me if he cries too much, and I will go and get him.
So stay tuned. I”ll let you know how it works out. We are looking for another place, most likely another Montessori school with a more laid back teaching style and a cleaner environment. In the meantime, if Zack can get used to this school, I think he will learn and not be in harm’s way there. It’s just not an ideal place. But since it’s obviously so hard to transition, if he can deal with it, it might be the place for now.
Announcing a new podcast, and it involves mold and other environmental hazards: The Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment (podcast download link) (entire podcast archive). It seems everyone is busy with jobs and kids, including Elyse saving the world and Jason Bilotta’s inspection business that deals with mold and other damage. Which is a perfect tie in to the interview with Jerome Paulson, MD of the The Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment.
It is a very informative hour. Give it a listen! Read the rest of this entry »
Alternative Treatments for Colic Don’t Work – Your baby is crying constantly, the pediatrician doesn’t have any answers, and you’re at the end of your rope. So, you reach for the phone and make an appointment for the chiropractor, get in your car and zoom off to find some “gripe water”, and seriously consider switching to soy formula. HOLD IT! A recent meta-analysis in the journal Pediatrics compiles multiple studies that all seem to show that colic can’t be cured by any popular folk remedy or alternative treatment. The best cure for colic is infinite patience.
Food Dyes and ADHD – Probably Not – I wrote an article on here several years back about ADHD. Someone from an organization representing the Feingold Diet tore me to shreds with a list of research that seemed to indicate a food dye origin to hyperactivity. It turns out that I’m not the only one who was skeptical of the supposed evidence, the FDA reviewed the research and most in the panel found the studies on the link between food dyes and ADHD to be lacking. There doesn’t seem to be a clear definitive link between food dyes and ADHD, but the panel did say that they haven’t completely closed the book on the possibility of a link.
Paracetamol and Asthma Linked? – Take some caution in the news that a recent meta-analysis of several studies seems to show that paracetamol taken during pregnancy may be linked to the child having symptoms of wheezing as a baby. Further research needs to be done before we make any definitive correlation.
Believe it or not, spring is just around the corner (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). I visited a flower and garden show a couple of weeks ago, where there were beautiful blooms inside while it snowed outside. I am itching to get out and play in the dirt.
I have been leafing through a nursery catalog (ooh, I think I’ll try a potted peach tree on the deck!), I have some seeds and at the garden show I bought lilies, and seed potatoes (where I’ll be trying the trashcan potatoes again).
Read the rest of this entry »
Being involved parents of an autistic child, my wife and I go to many different groups and meet lots of other parents of children with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Delay) or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I am used to the barrage of pseudoscience and misinformation from well-meaning parents (e.g, anti-vaccination, chelation, gluten-free diets, etc), but I have always expected that professional Occupational Therapists (OTs) would steer us towards evidence-based treatments. They have certainly been critical of many of the common autism myths, like the vaccines and autism non-connection. Unfortunately, my expectations were overly ambitious, and I let my skeptical guard down.
Our older son is very sensitive to loud noises and gets upset quite easily. He seems to have a lot of sensory issues both tactile and auditory, and addressing sensory issues is a large part of what OT therapies work to alleviate. Our OTs recommended that we try some Therapeutic Listening® therapy, which plays somewhat dissonant synthesized music that sounds like back-masked music rapidly oscillating in volume. I was a bit skeptical, but we tried it anyway because (1) they lent us the special headphones and CDs, (2) I didn’t think it would hurt, (3) I didn’t have the time or expertise to look into the research, and (4) multiple OTs told us to try it. Besides, it seemed a bit plausible that people sensitive to noise could be desensitized by listening to something dissonant and random on a regular basis, and we are REALLY struggling with these noise sensitivity issues at home.
It wasn’t until my 5-year-old broke these rather unremarkable Therapeutic Listening® headphones and we needed to replace them that I took some time to look into this. These headphones, with the construction and sound quality of a $30-50 pair, are sold for a whopping $145! They are one of only two approved headphones for this program, and they seem to only be sold through one place, Vital Sounds.
Being a bit of an audiophile before kids, I looked into the specifications and features to see what made them special. Of course they advertise meaningless features like “BioNetic design”, and other things that are wholly unimpressive like “9.8-foot single-sided OFC (oxygen-free copper) cable” and “Supra-aural, semi-open aire design”. The only thing that is somewhat unique is that they have a frequency range of (18-30,000 Hz), whereas most headphones stop at 20,000-22,000 Hz on the upper-end. Since humans can’t hear above 20,000 Hz normally (nor can CDs play sounds above that frequency), this isn’t such a remarkable feature to go up to 30,000 Hz. In fact, Sennheiser made almost the exact same headphones for about $50 with a 14-21,000 Hz range, (quite suitable for humans), which does not have the 150 Ohm impedance that makes them useless on portable devices.
Being annoyed at having to pay $145 for headphones that are worse in many ways (except that dogs may be able to appreciate them more) than my $50 Sony headphones, I dug a little deeper, where the non-sense only grew. You find some web sites saying you can’t even copy the CDs and have to play off the originals. It is said that this is about sound quality, but the writer obviously lacks an understanding of what it means to copy digital information. However, I could see an incentive from the company that sells these CDs for $60 a pop to propagate such a myth. Needless to say, giving little children original CDs is a bad idea. Of course, you can buy their lossless encoded versions on SD cards that can be used by certain music players at a premium, but they warn against ripping CDs to your own players because any compression could make them ineffective (regardless of whatever other magic is used to get 30,000 Hz sounds recorded onto a CD). Considering the open air design of the headphones and the fact that you are supposed to do listening therapy while performing other tasks, I would challenge anyone to tell the difference between even highly compressed mp3s and lossless encodings. This says nothing of higher quality, lower compression formats like 256kbs ACC.
The more and more I read, it just sounded like a couple of companies want to sell overpriced CDs and headphones, by controlling the distribution of “approved” devices for their therapy. A further red light was the range of things this therapy was claimed to help, such as, “improved bowel and bladder function“. More troubling, many of the sites promoting this therapy promote other quack therapies and misinformation to parents of autistic children with a strong emphasis on anecdotes and personal experience. All of this made me wonder about effectiveness of this “scientific” therapy in the first place, setting aside the over-priced hardware and non-sense about audio electronics.
The best, and one of the only sources of skeptical information, I found was at a blog called Autism Street. It is there that I learned that there have been Cochrane reviews and other meta-analyses of this whole field of therapy for autistic children, reviews which find no support for the claims of the companies selling these or the OTs promoting them. Sadly, the best support I found for the therapy was a student paper that basically acknowledged all these issues, but argued that we can’t rule out that there isn’t some effect on a special subgroup and lamely argued that more research is needed.
Needless to say, I am frustrated that tax dollars pay for this pseudoscience and disappointed in what I have discovered about some Occupational Therapy modalities. But I learned several things, and I can make some lemonade from these lemons.
First, pseudoscience can cost you money, even when you never expect it to. Sometimes “just trying” something will hurt. For example, your child could break the over-priced pseudoscientific contraption at the chiropractor’s office. This is irrespective of the fact that most times you cannot “just try” something to reliably infer that it “works” in any sort of controlled and unbiased way.
Our OTs are great people, but it seems like their field is infiltrated by a fair amount of non-sense. So I don’t really know what to believe from them anymore, and I certainly dismiss the less plausible things they say even more readily now. This should have been no surprise, as we see this in many other health care fields. Nurses have therapeutic touch, and OTs have Therapeutic Listening®. I was talking to a good friend who is a physical therapist, and he was telling me how he is endlessly fighting against crazier non-sense infiltrating his field on an almost daily basis. So this whole thing reminded me, in a personal way, that a therapist does not a scientist (or even critical thinker) make.
More importantly, it made me realize how much it helps to share these things, and that there is something that even I can do. This whole event has caused me to gather my thoughts, think about the problem and engage in skeptical activism as a new blogger here at Science-based Parenting. My hope is that others can learn from my mistakes, and maybe, just maybe, someone will find this blog entry when they are investigating this dodgy therapy.
Finally, I learned that Sennheiser has a really nice guy working in the parts department who is sending me a free part to fix the headphones.
If you are near Washington, DC check out the exhibits and activities at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. If you can’t (like most of us) see what activities there are for kids at the Neuroscience for Kids website.