Everything We Know About Parenting Will Eventually Be Wrong

What are “mesofacts” and how will they contribute to our kids’ arguments when leaving us four pages of instructions for watching our grandkids?

Off the top of your head, what is the world’s population?
Did you answer four-and-a-half billion? Five billion? Six billion? More?
The correct answer, according to the UN’s latest calculation, is just over seven-and-a-half billion. If you guessed wrong, you’re probably in good company, because the wrong answers can predict when you went to high school.
Think there are six billion people in the world? You probably went to high school in the late 90s. Four-and-a-half billion? You probably graduated in the 80s. Seven billion? You likely graduated within the last couple of years.
Why do our guesses about the world’s population take us back to our more regrettable hairstyle choices? To answer that, we have to think about facts. There are fixed facts (birthdays, state capitals, building heights) and rapidly changing facts (like the temperature). Samuel Arbesman, writing seven years and 700 million fewer people ago, describes a third kind of fact that changes slowly enough that we often don’t realize it, but fast enough for us to be wrong about it within our lifetimes. Arbesman calls these types of facts “mesofacts.”

Just the mesofacts

Arbesman’s best examples are about things we tend to learn when we are very young. Dinosaurs aren’t the cold-blooded creatures many of us learned them to be, but warm-blooded, wildly-colored even feathered animals. We all know there are nine – oops, eight – planets (sorry, Pluto), but many of us grossly underestimate how many others there are outside of it: 400 when Arbesman introduced mesofacts. NASA’s Kepler telescope, which became operational at about the same time Arbesman wrote that there were 400 known planets, ended up locating over 1,000 more. Given that the Milky Way contains about 100 billion stars, of which our sun is just one, this mesofact is likely to change a great deal more during our lifetimes.
When you start looking for mesofacts, you’ll notice them everywhere. For example, if I ask you to name as many dinosaurs as you can, you’d probably list off the ones you know from Jurassic Park: T-Rex, Velociraptor, that tiny one that gets Newman in the face. Maybe you’d even remember Pterodactyl. If you’re parent to a young child, chances are you know the names of a lot more. You’re also likely to learn that Brontosaurus never existed! Turns out that what paleontologists thought was a new dinosaur was just another Apatosaurus. Given its chameleonic tendencies, it’s fitting that Apatosaurus means “deceptive lizard.”
Mesofacts don’t end with interesting trivia. Parents acknowledge mesofacts all the time without using the term. They’re just labeled “things grandma gets wrong,” parenting practices that were thought to be safe but now are considered unsafe or even deadly. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of articles about what to teach grandma before you let your kids sleep at her house, despite the fact that you, now an adult, are evidence that grandma seemed to manage just fine.
Of course we should tell older family members about “back to sleep” and other evolving safety practices. But given what we know about mesofacts, we should also probably be humble about our own parenting knowledge. It’s likely that, a few decades from now, our adult children won’t want to leave their children at our house because of all the things we don’t know about parenting safely.

What am I doing to help be more attentive to mesofacts?

First, when I encounter a new study about parenting, I try to withhold skepticism. It’s so easy to read a headline and immediately conclude that the contents are true or false, depending on my own previous experiences and the political/philosophical leanings of the news organization. Instead of jumping to conclusions that depend on what I want the outcome to be, I try to ask “why” and “how” questions of what I’m reading. This helps keep me more open to changing news instead of ignoring it.
Second, even when I feel I’ve “mastered” some aspect of parenting (like getting my three-year-old to nap for five days in a row), my sample size is just one child. There’s no evidence that what I’m doing is actually what put my child to sleep, and even if I was keeping careful track of what’s different about this week than last week, I could not extrapolate my results to include all other children. All parents are working with tiny sample sizes, so we should all recognize that our knowledge of parenting is tentative and incomplete.
Even as I establish this tentative mastery over day-to-day family life, I’m trying to keep myself open to new and contradictory ideas. So the third move I’m making to keep myself open to mesofacts is finding ways to say “I don’t know.” I find that, even if I’m doing the same science experiments with my child as we did the day before, or having the same fight about putting away laundry, there are always new things to explore. The more I say “I don’t know,” the more open and interesting my days are. So I’m trying to stake less claim over things that I know to be true and instead treating everything as something I don’t know enough about yet.
This article was originally published on snackdinner.com.

7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Put a Mobile Spy on Your Kid’s Cell Phone

Before you fall for a company’s “You MUST monitor your child’s cell phone” scare tactic, consider these things.

You can find an app for pretty much anything these days, and there’s definitely no shortage of options when it comes to cell phone surveillance. Whether you want to call it mobile spy, spyware, surveillance, or mobile monitoring, there are plenty of companies out there that will sell you their software, claiming to “keep your child safe” or assuring you that it’s “for their own good.”
Now the question “Should kids have cell phones?” is a whole other article. The truth of the matter is they have them. The Center on Media and Child Health shows that 22 percent of kids ages six to nine have cell phones. As they get older, the numbers rise – 60 percent of kids ages 10 to 14 and 84 percent of kids ages 15 to 18.
If you’ve read your child’s text messages, you’re not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, about 50 percent of parents have admitted to doing so. Far fewer have used an actual spy tool, but more than 60 percent say they monitor websites their teen’s visit and check their social media profiles. (Let’s be honest – this is probably the biggest reasons parents have Snapchat.)
I have friends that fall on both sides of the question “Should you monitor your child’s cell phone?” For some, it’s a given – they see having a cell phone as a privilege that they pay for, so they make their child hand it over every night for review. For others, they wouldn’t dream of opening up their kid’s phone unannounced because they remember what it was like to have their privacy disturbed as a teen.
While this is a very personal choice – whether or not to use a mobile spy – I’d challenge you to ask yourself a few questions before you say yes:

1 | Do you suspect they’re up to no good?

Is your child suddenly being dodgy or secretive? Did they go from being on their phone sometimes to constantly checking it, and going out of their way to keep you from seeing the screen?
Before you get too concerned, think about it logically. Perhaps they have new crush or friend. Maybe they are at a really high level in the latest app game craze, and they can’t get enough. Before you assume the worst, think about other scenarios.
And finally, just ask them. You have this right as a parent, even if they do try to roll their eyes and shut down.

2 | Are you worried they are in danger?

This is one you don’t want to overlook. If you truly suspect that your child is in danger, then it’s time to have a real heart-to-heart conversation with them.
Better yet, make sure to have these tough conversations with your child before you suspect anything. Sure, it’s awkward to talk to your kid about child predators that pose as teenage girls and people in other countries trying to dig up security details. However, it’s a lot better that they know about these things. This way when that little alarm goes off in the back of their head, they’re comfortable enough to come and talk to you first.

3 | Do they already have a poor track record?

This is where the privilege part truly comes into play. If your child has been caught sending inappropriate messages, photos, or going on websites they shouldn’t, then it’s your job to stop the behavior. This is a case where having random cell phone checks could be in your best interest until they earn back trust.
Remember, they’re not going to like it. They’re probably even going to despise you for it, but stay strong!

4 | Is it actually for your own curiosity?

Be honest – do you just want to know if Sabrina is dating Jake or if Tristan broke up with Megan (yet again)?
If you find yourself getting sucked into tween and teen gossip, then you need to have a little chat with yourself and find a way out. This also goes for constantly monitoring what they do. Sure, you can watch on the sidelines as a silent observer and occasional commentator, but don’t be the first person that always “likes” what they post or comments on their status.

5 | Are you just bored?

If you said yes to the above, then this one might be true as well. Maybe you just have a habit of checking your phone – most of us check our phones 85 times a day! If this is the case, try to break this habit. Everyone talks about kids have a problem and addiction with technology, but adults are just as bad – or worse.
Let your mind get lost in something else. It’s good for the brain.

6 | Do you want to lose their trust?

Before you use a mobile spy, this is a really good question to ask yourself because you will lose your child’s trust. Some parents might say that you should be your child’s parent and not their friend, and I agree. But trust is a two-way street. If you absolutely need to monitor your child’s activity, just know that this could affect that.

7 | Are you just doing this because other parents are?

Have other parents convinced you that this is the thing to do? Before you buy into someone else’s parenting method, step back and think of your own. If you have a trustworthy kid that has never given you any reason to question them, then maybe it’s good to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Technology is a wonderful, crazy, and sometimes scary thing. And it’s undoubtedly going to change and evolve faster than we can imagine. Before you fall for a company’s “You MUST monitor your child’s cell phone” scare tactic, try having a conversation with your child first. There are so many things you can do before taking it to that level. After all, even though “there’s an app for that,” it doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Your Parenting Style Needs a Makeover

The problem of parenting styles isn’t that any style is right or wrong, it’s that in our adherence to them we forget style is massively subjective.

If you read enough about modern parenting, you’re bound to find someone complaining that “parenting” is a verb.

Many writers have offered reasons for this shift. “Parenting” implies a product carried to its completion, so the verb reflects modern attitudes toward raising children. As a verb, “parenting” gives its subject sufficient cultural freight to warrant shelves of self-help books.

Anthony Gardner of the Atlantic offers a much different answer. “To parent” is just one of countless denominalizations happening in our language, when a word formerly used as a noun starts being used as a verb. These “verbings,” like text, bookmark, and friend are useful linguistic shortcuts. It’s now “I texted her the address,” not “I sent her an electronic message with the address.”

The verb “parenting” offers a huge shortcut. “To parent” implies a lifetime of activity. It’s a shortened way of saying “provide a nurturing, safe environment in which a child is appropriately challenged and supported, so that the child will grow into a thoughtful, productive, socially-conscious adult who will leave a lasting impact on the world.”

Even that meandering definition doesn’t quite capture the verb “to parent.” One consequence of viewing parenting as a verb is the concept of parenting style. Many parenting styles leave parents feeling like they’re not parenting well enough. Read on for four ways your parenting style might be failing you, as well as advice on how to re-style your parenting.

1 | Metaphorical parenting styles negatively define other parents

A person’s “parenting style” is often a metaphor assigned by other people. Helicopter parents are involved in every small detail of their children’s lives. Snowplow parents remove every physical and metaphorical obstacle from their children’s paths. Jellyfish parents just go with the flow, giving into their children’s every desire.

One problem with describing parenting in these oppositional terms is that any person who doesn’t parent like us is defined as a bad parent. They are helicopters or tigers or snowplows or jellyfish, but we are dolphins.

Defining ourselves in terms of what other parents are doing poorly is not a particularly robust or fulfilling parenting strategy, which may help explain the recent rise of branded parenting styles.

2 | Branded parenting styles don’t deliver on their promises

One of the delights about modern parenting is that there is a manual for everything. Want to get your kid to stay in her bed? There’s a book for that. Want to stop tantrums? There’s a book for that. Want to potty-train your child in three days? There are dozens of books for that (but we’re skeptical about their effectiveness).

This wave of parenting books has also brought with it branded parenting styles, like Attachment Parenting, Free-Range Parenting, and Positive Discipline. These brands were formed by individuals or groups who often sell books, courses, and other materials to help parents master a style.

Many of these branded styles appeal to scientific authority, but they often fail to deliver on their promises. Wendy Zuckerman of Science Vs. devotes an episode to studying the science behind Attachment Parenting. She interviews Alan Sroufe of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, who separates the branded parenting style of “Attachment Parenting” from the science of attachment.

Scientists who study child development use the term “secure attachment” to describe a relationship between a child and a caregiver. In that relationship, Sroufe says, “the child is confident about the availability and responsiveness of this particular adult.”

Sroufe describes a procedure for measuring secure attachment called the “strange situation procedure.” A parent and baby are observed in a room. A stranger enters. The parent leaves. The stranger stays. After a while, the parent comes back and the stranger leaves. The researchers then watch the child’s reaction to the parent’s return. A “securely attached” child will be happy about her parent’s return. An “insecurely attached” child will be upset or indifferent.

Sroufe says secure attachment yields kids who are more confident problem-solvers, while insecure attachment leads to lower self-esteem and poor relationships. However, it’s not clear that the rules of Attachment Parenting (breastfeed on demand, don’t leave babies to cry, sleep in the same bed, keep the baby close at all times) are any more likely to create that “secure attachment” than any other style of parenting. There may be many benefits to Attachment Parenting, but “secure attachment” isn’t exclusive to this parenting style.

3 | Branded styles obscure similarities

A slew of review articles published in 2017 show that parenting “styles” are not as important to child development as their component parts. One meta-analysis of 1,435 studies draws a connection between “parenting dimensions” (like parental warmth or harsh control) and “externalizing problems” (like aggression) in children and adolescents.

The meta-analysis found that some parenting dimensions, like psychological control and neglect, led to externalizing problems in children. Other behaviors, like parental warmth, behavioral control, and autonomy-granting, led to few or no externalizing problems.

Many of the branded parenting styles highlight one parenting dimension more than the others, but nearly all of the styles include the parenting dimensions associated with few externalizing problems. Attachment Parenting exudes warmth, but so do many other styles. Positive Discipline centers on behavioral control, but it does not own this dimension of parenting. Free-Range Parenting thrives on autonomy-granting, but it is not the only philosophy that does so.

The current scientific consensus appears to be that authoritative parenting, a sort of middle ground between “permissive” and “authoritarian,” has the best outcomes, including higher academic achievement, more prosocial behaviors, and even possibly lower obesity rates. The good news, it seems, is that most branded parenting styles emphasize the parenting dimensions that lead to these outcomes.

4 | Branded parenting styles obscure alternatives

The bad news is that the branded approaches often make alternative strategies invisible. Many branded parenting styles are named to resist challenge and obscure alternatives. You wouldn’t want to be an unattached parent, or a mindless parent, or use negative discipline.

There are plenty of alternatives to positive discipline that are not “negative,” including, for example, choosing the metaphor of teaching over discipline. But these alternatives are not so easy to see when the name of a parenting style presents parenting as a binary between one “good” and one “bad” choice.

This seeming lack of alternatives can set up parents for failure. If you aren’t able to nurse your baby, you may feel that you are failing at Attachment Parenting. If you can’t find time to sit and “be” each day, you may feel that you are failing at Mindful Parenting. If you lash out angrily at your child, you may feel that you are failing at Positive Discipline. In reality, you’re not failing at all: you’re just wearing an ill-fitting parenting style.

Making alterations

The problem of parenting styles isn’t that any particular style is good or bad, right or wrong, it’s that in our adherence to them we forget that style is massively subjective. We alter fashion styles all the time, whether it be emptying our closet in the latest fad-clearing or taking thrift store finds to new heights. We need to approach parenting styles in the same way, with an arsenal of verbs that allows us to lengthen here, shorten there, take in, let out, darn, darn, and vent.

Here are five questions to help you make alterations of the next parenting style you encounter.

  • How does this parenting style describe other parents? A hostile and superior tone doesn’t look good on anyone.
  • How do you think the creator of this style would define the “good life”? Does that “good life” match your vision? If not, put this style back on the rack.
  • Do a quick Google Scholar search on the core principle underlying the parenting style. Is there strong evidence that the style will deliver on its promises? Even if so, is there strong evidence that this style is the only one that will yield your desired result?
  • How does this parenting style address alternatives? If the book claims there’s only one right way to parent, its author should be more famous than Oprah.
  • Does this parenting style leave room for you to grow, or does it place unreasonable or unattainable demands on you?

The world we live in is filled with information and opinions. It can be confusing, even hectic. While perusing the many, many parenting styles and looking for a fit, remember that if you have your child’s best interests in mind, you’re doing just fine.

“Boy” Underwear Is the Best Underwear

There’s no physical need for the variance in young kids’ underwear sizes. Might there be a benefit to styling all kids’ underwear the same way?

As a mom to a three-year old, underwear shopping is a task easily accomplished: the kiddo and I pick the character du jour and order it with one click.
I’ve recently learned that these purchases are doubly privileged. First, on those rare days when I skip Amazon and shop in person, I arouse no suspicion when spotted in the “wrong” gender’s underwear section. But dads who do underwear duty often find themselves unfairly scrutinized. At least some of these dads are also hilarious writers, so there’s a whole sub-genre of stay-at-home dads terrified of underwear shopping.
All of these men in girls’ underwear sections have identified another source of privilege: boys get better underwear. Girls get pastels and princesses. There are no superheroes. There’s no Star Wars (even though it prominently features a princess!). There’s no Toy Story, which is truly baffling considering how universally beloved that film is. The disparity in inspirational underwear choices led one dad to shopping for his daughter in the boys’ section. But some dads aren’t comfortable making that purchase, arguing that girls’ underwear has to be qualitatively different from boys’ underwear because girls are physically different from boys.
Given the recent push for clothing with fewer gendered limitations, are these dad’s complaints leading to expanded underwear options for kids?
Old Navy is by many measures more sartorially progressive than its competitors, and that’s reflected in its underwear offerings. Although the fabrics used in children’s clothing traditionally tend to vary in quality by gender, all of Old Navy’s toddler underwear offerings are made from thick 100 percent cotton fabric. There are no princesses on offer for girls. Instead, there’s a seven-pack of aspirational occupations, which tell the wearer she can be an astronaut, doctor, ballerina, artist, superhero, scientist, or president. The boys’ offerings include a similar set that shares astronaut, doctor, superhero, and president, but adds fireman, musician, and teacher.
But Old Navy also has some surprising differences in its toddler underwear lines. Both boys and girls have a practical days of the week offering, with gendered font and design differences. But far more important than the cosmetic differences are the shape. The girls’ version features a narrow waist, lower rise, and skimpier elastic than the boys’ version.
Old Navy’s not the only offender in kid underwear sizing, nor is it the worst, as documented by incredulous parent Emily Gonzalez in “Toddler Underwear is Bullshit.” Gonzalez’ side-by-side comparisons of one brand’s underwear suggests that this is an ongoing industry trend.

Sizing it up

Our boys and girls are not yet physically different enough to explain differences in undergarment sizes. At 36 months, boys in the 50th percentile for weight are just under 32 pounds. Girls in the 50th percentile are just under 31. The same similarities exist for height: 50th percentile boys are just under 38 inches, while girls are a fraction of an inch shorter. These size differences don’t justify such drastic differences in underwear sizing.
Those height and weight differences, by the way, aren’t even relevant to underwear sizing at 10 years, when girls in the 50th percentile are a pound or two heavier than boys and just about the same height.
Arguments that a young girl’s waist might be slightly narrower than a young boy’s waist, or that boys need roomier fronts in their underwear than girls do, could be relevant if kids’ underwear was sold in highly specific sizes, but the typical categories of underwear sizing (2T/3T, 4T/5T) suggest that these garments are intended to stretch enough to fit kids over a multi-year period.
Arguments that toddler and preschool boys “need” a front flap surely stem from parents who have not had to constantly clean streams of misdirected urine off their bathtubs and counters.
There’s no physical need for the variance in young kids’ underwear sizes. Might there be a benefit to styling all kids’ underwear the same way?

The mighty boxer brief

Girls typically have more clothing options than boys: dresses, skirts, leggings, etc. But in the underwear department, they actually get less choice than boys, because boys generally have choices in style, including traditional briefs and boxer briefs. Although the additional fabric doesn’t seem to justify their extra cost (at Old Navy, boxer briefs cost $3.25 per pair, while briefs cost $2.57 each), toddler boxer briefs are vastly superior kid underwear.
The style features narrower leg openings, meaning that they’re more likely to stay put when peeling off CPSC-approved skin-tight pajamas. For parents concerned about modesty, the boxer brief offers more coverage under dresses. Kids determined to run around the house in just their underwear will suffer a little less chafing. There’s more room for whimsical characters and patterns, which is the primary motivation for kids’ underwear anyway.
But the main reason why all parents should welcome the boxer brief is that the primary function of underwear for the preschool set is to keep clothes clean from inexperienced toileting. When a kid demands to wipe herself, a thick cotton pair of underwear is vastly preferable to a flimsy lace-edged pair. When a few seconds make all the difference between an accident and a successful trip to the bathroom, a pair of underwear that’s easy to separate from pants is a parent’s dream come true. And when accidents do happen, the extra coverage and tighter leg opening contains holds messes long enough to avert disaster.
Some parents might be reluctant to purchase an item called “boxer briefs” for their daughters. That problem is easily solved by calling the girls’ version “boy shorts.” The name copies an already-popular women’s underwear style while also acknowledging the preferable coverage and performance of the boys’ styles.
Or we could just call it underwear.

5 Media Resolutions Every Family Should Make in 2018

If there’s one thing nearly every parent wants to get better at, it’s staying ahead of their kids when it comes to media and technology.

If there’s one thing nearly every parent wants to get better at, it’s staying ahead of their kids when it comes to media and technology. From crazy YouTube videos to marathon Minecraft sessions to sexy selfies, kids are constantly testing the limits (and our patience) with new stuff they want to download, watch, and play. Even as we encourage our kids to use their devices for good (homework, making things, learning stuff), we still butt heads over safetyscreen time, age-appropriate content, and the importance of making eye contact instead of staring at your screen when a human being is talking to you.
Well, 2018 can be the year you do things differently. Learning to live in harmony with media and tech — in a way that works for your family — is one of the most forward-thinking actions you can take as a parent raising kids in the digital age. Who knows? One of these may be the start of a new family tradition.
Commit to learning about one media item your kid is passionate about. If your mind tends to wander when your kid explains every detail of her latest Minecraft mod, catch yourself and tune back in. Whether it’s the latest YouTubera new appa game, or a dank meme, it matters in their world. It’s a good sign if they’re sharing it with you because it means that they care about what you think. If you know a little something about the stuff your kid is into, it can spark conversations, lead to new media choices, and make it easier to manage (but you don’t need to tell your kid that).
Choose one night of the week to share YouTube videos with each other. More and more, kids are getting their entertainment, news, and pop culture infusion from YouTube. And half the posts that pop in our social media feeds have videos. Take a half hour to enjoy something silly, educational, or thought-provoking that caught your attention. (See our YouTube reviews for ideas.) YouTube has tons of great clips … and tons of iffy stuff. Watching your choices nudges your kids toward the types of videos you’d rather have them watch. And watching theirs clues you into their YouTube life.
Deal with the one thing that’s most frustrating about your kid’s media/tech. What didn’t work in 2017? Do you need better rules or limits? Do you need to make a space for charging phones outside the bedroom at night? Do you need to stop watching TV before school? Do you need your kid to be better about responding to your texts? Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Use Plan worksheets to identify problem areas and solve them. Make a New Year’s resolution to fix a nagging issue that’s causing friction between you and your kid.
Lead by example by putting down your phone at a certain time every evening. Make an announcement when you shut down your devices. Your kids may roll their eyes, but it sends a strong message that you can set boundaries — and stick to them.
Put a new spin on the device-free dinner. If you’re already designating a night or nights as device-free, give yourself a pat on the back. How about taking it a step further and doing something that inspires closeness and conversation with kids? Some ideas: Pick a word of the day, play “two truths and a lie,” or talk about what you’d do if you won the lottery. Leave school, work, and chores to discuss after dinner.
Start a book club (with your kids). It’s so important to keep your kids reading. Strong readers do well in all school subjects. They also learn to focus for extended periods, a necessary skill in the world of bite-sized information. And reading together gives you a chance to discuss plot, characters, and themes that can apply to all aspects of life. There’s no shortage of book recommendations. You can get into a book series, whether you have little kidstweens, or teens. Or you can introduce your kids to the great classics of English literature. Focus on one topic — for example, “What did you like best about the book?” Then use the conversation starters from our book reviews or look for discussion guides in the back of the book or online.

They're Their Milestones, Not Ours

Time and again we’re presented with a measuring stick, and sometimes our child simply doesn’t measure up.

“So how’s potty-training going?”

It was a casual question, a simple mother-to-mother question that she asked when she learned our daughters were less than a month apart.

I hesitated, not sure how honest I should be. In this world of carefully-crafted Facebook posts and Instagram pictures, how do you respond appropriately when confronted with a question from an actual person?

So I went with complete honesty, loosely accompanied by humor. “Uh, it’s not,” I laughed.

To my own personal relief, the mother looked just as glad to hear it. “Same! She’ll sit, but won’t do anything.”

I could practically finish the thought for her. My daughter had reached the point of sitting contentedly on the toilet for five seconds (which, in fairness, was an improvement over screaming in fear and wriggling like a deranged octopus) before announcing proudly, “I done,” while an empty toilet lurked beneath her little bum.

Another mom, a seasoned pro with two kids as opposed to us rookies of one, overheard our conversation and smiled encouragingly. “A month after my son turned three he just figured it out one day. We tried for months, and then he suddenly got it.”

It was what I’d heard before. After no interest or months of struggle, the youngster finally realized the magic of the toilet and never went back to diapers (except sometimes at night). It is one of those key milestones – like rolling over or walking – that rely so heavily upon the child’s readiness that the parent can’t help but freak out sometimes.

Why do we freak out when we know it’s only a matter of time and that it will almost certainly happen eventually? After all, my grandmother, who had nine kids, supposedly used to abide by the philosophy that none of her kids were potty-trained by kindergarten but they all were by college. That’s a pretty lax timeline that could alleviate some stress (and with nine kids, it was probably much needed).

There are a few possible reasons for our stress. First of all, the small, tightly-knit, supportive tribes of yore have evolved into a vast, chaotic, and immediate internet community that has a tendency to judge first and think later. People proudly share posts of their children’s accomplishments because they’re too caught in the moment to consider parents struggling to have their children achieve these same goals. Rapidly sent text messages may omit key information or valuable intonations, coming across as insensitive.

As we watch the screens, our own confidence, in ourselves and in our children, diminishes. Time and again we’re presented with a measuring stick, and sometimes our child simply doesn’t measure up.

Sometimes the criticism is not confined to the virtual world. Sometimes well-meaning relatives try to “help” by giving advice or unhelpfully sharing that So-and-So’s child actually walked out of the womb. Sometimes caregivers take the reins right out of the parents’ hands, which can help but sometimes leads to more unfortunate misunderstandings.

Sometimes pediatricians prompt unnecessary concerns, either due to an insensitive slip, an overly strong emphasis on the “norm,” or an extreme underestimation of the parents’ levels of anxiety. Suddenly we’re confronted with condemnations of our parenting styles and reminded of the existence of those who are far superior to us.

Of course, almost at all times, the fault is “not in the stars but in ourselves,” although not in the way we think. We’re constantly made to feel that what we’re wrong in some way. We’ve chosen to co-sleep or not to co-sleep, to breastfeed or give formula, to stay at home or find a daycare.

No matter what choice we’ve made, we’ve somehow been made to feel that it’s sometimes the wrong one, even if it’s what worked best for ourselves and our children. That dangerous combination of guilt and doubt drives us to stress about our children, and in doing so, cause them to stress, too.

I don’t want that to happen.

So, yes, I will continue to gaze longingly at the space lost to diaper-changing and curse the diaper disposal. I will consider my child’s willingness to wear pull-ups and sit on the potty progress. I will encourage and cheer her on to the point that I’ll wish I received so much credit for using the toilet, but I will not force her. If she screams and cries to get down, I’ll let her, and try another day. Because ultimately, it’s not about when I’m ready. It’s when she is.

Making the Case for the Middle Name

A carefully selected middle name can discharge an obligation, preserve history, and appease in-laws all at the same time.

The question everybody asks soon-to-be parents after “Is it a boy or girl?” is “Do you have a name?” If they have picked a name and are willing to share it, the exchange goes something like this:
You ask the name. They hesitate, glancing lovingly at each other. Then one of them (usually the mother-to-be, because: labor) trots the two-piece title out like a brand new flavor of ice cream.
You pause, repeat the name aloud, and say how much you love it, after which they are compelled to explain how they chose it. It’s rarely a simple explanation either, so if you’re in a hurry, don’t even broach the subject.
The first name is usually an indulgent pick, maybe from a favorite movie or book, or after a childhood friend or an obscure British poet, or maybe it’s just a name the couple likes. But the middle name…the middle name is an entirely different story.
The middle name serves a purpose beyond semiotics (the study of sign and symbols), being that it’s not the primary signifier we identify with. It connects the prénom and surname, adding a layer of syllabic texture and intrigue.
A carefully selected middle name can discharge an obligation, preserve history, and appease in-laws all at the same time. It can carry the weight of tradition and fulfill the dying wishes of Great Grandma who always wanted a namesake, without sentencing your kid to a lifetime of answering to “Grizelda.”
The triad template we use today for names actually dates back to the Middle Ages, when Europeans were torn between giving children a family name or a saint’s name. The formula – given name first, baptismal name second, and surname third – emerged as a solution to this dilemma.
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Babybay with mother and baby cosleeping
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After the American Revolution, immigrants arriving in this country continued the practice of three names. Since it was originally associated with royalty and aristocrats, giving a child a middle name was emblematic of aspiring to the upper class. The trend took off, and within 100 years, middle names were commonplace.
The first U.S. government document that had a space for a middle name was the World War I enlistment form. Other official forms followed suit, requiring at least a middle initial, which remains the standard format to this day.
The use of categorical religious middle names expanded to include family names – often maiden surnames – and soon, any name was acceptable. From a records-keeping standpoint in a country with a booming population, this additional differentiation was a welcome one.
The function of modern middle names continues to evolve, telling a story far more complex than, “I come from a long line of old ladies.” For parents, middle names can be the repository of a shared past, like NSYNC alum Chris Kilpatrick and his wife, Karly, who named their son Nash Dylan after the folk singer Bob Dylan, whom they listened to on their first date.
A middle name can be a reminder of unique circumstances surrounding the birth, as it was for the baseball fan who went into labor during a recent postseason game and named her son Logan Bauer, after Cleveland Indians pitcher, Trevor Bauer. Or it can be a grateful tribute, as it was when Jessica Braddock chose Dallas as her daughter’s middle name to honor the city’s incredible hospitality after Hurricane Harvey.
Middle names are often a means of compromise for parents who can’t seem to agree, as was the case with musicians Ashlee Simpson and Peter Wentz who named their son Bronx Mowgli after neither would concede to the other’s first choice. Though the middle name seems like a consolation prize if your goal was to be first, some parents prefer its understudy role and embrace the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. It’s like a braver, livelier, more whimsical version of your child’s permanent identity.
Another option is to use the middle name as a generational connection, passing down one specific name as an intangible keepsake. This works well for indecisive parents who have difficulties coming up with one name, let alone two.
My own family has done this with my middle name, Louise. While I wasn’t crazy about the name as a kid, as an adult, I cherish sharing something with my grandmothers, aunts, a niece, and now my daughter.
Parents-to-be are inundated with major decisions on every front – from feeding, to sleeping arrangements, to childcare, to finances. They need to find a good doctor, read up on the latest safety concerns, figure out how to install a car seat, and stock up on baby clothes, the right gear, and supplies.
On top of all this, they need to come up with a name that blends with the last, has meaning, carries tradition, and won’t lend itself to embarrassing nicknames in grade school.
No pressure, parents! Your kids can always go by their initials.
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Dear Holiday Shoppers: Thanks for Nothing

Now, when something occurs like what happened as I left the bookstore, you assume that people will say something.

Seriously? How could you? Honestly, I’ve never been so disappointed in a collective group of people in my life. My faith in humanity may never be the same.

My day started out to be an epic one. I received a random $62.50 refund in the mail from my dentist for an overpayment due to an insurance mix-up. Getting money from my dentist felt like winning the lottery. Another win? I didn’t receive an invitation to anything – no gift exchanges, no volunteer sign-ups, no multi-level marketing parties. As if that weren’t enough, my husband was home with our children and I had four (FOUR!) blissful hours of kid-free Christmas shopping ahead of me.

I headed to the mall and started out at my favorite place, the bookstore. The bookstore is always my first stop for two reasons. One, I love books, and two, I have somehow been biologically programmed with the need to, shall we say, “use the facilities” within minutes of stepping foot in any given bookstore. Which, let me tell you, really puts a bit of a spring in my step for the rest of the afternoon.

Now, when something occurs like what happened as I left the bookstore, you assume that people will say something. You believe that people will say something. You can’t imagine that people will just ignore it. But ignore it you all did. So I exited the store, unaware of the trail of destruction in my wake.

From the bookstore, I headed to the young, hip, clothing shop for my daughter. And okay, maybe I get why you guys didn’t say anything. I mean, you’re all basically in high school and you probably didn’t look up from your phones long enough to notice me. Even if you had, the awkwardness of the situation would have been too much for your teenage brains to process. So if I was going to forgive anyone, I guess it would be you people.

Next, I headed to the kiosk selling personalized items. Mr. Personalization, I spoke with you directly. We had a five-minute friendly conversation. You seemed like a nice man. The kind of person who would help out a stranger. I told you my children’s names, for God’s sake. I mean, it was for the personalizing and all, but still. You should have told me. You should not have let me walk away like that.

I moved on to the bath and body store. A store full of women, of fellow moms. I am perhaps most disappointed in you. The lines were so long. I waited and waited and how many of you were behind me? 20? 30? But none of you approached me, not one. It would only have taken a small gesture on your part to save me any further shame.

So I continued my way happily through the packed mall, on my glorious four-hour kid-free Christmas shopping spree. When I was done, I loaded my shiny bags into my car and drove home, never the wiser.

I walked in the door to my house and my husband came to greet me. Suddenly, he stopped and stared.

“Oh my God,” he whispered, his eyes wide. “No! You didn’t! All through the mall? Oh my God.”

And now, dear mall shoppers, let me give you a little piece of friendly advice. When someone has spinach in their teeth, it’s good manners to discreetly tell them. When someone’s pants zipper is down, they would appreciate you letting them know.

And when someone is walking around a crowded mall in December with a two-foot train of used toilet paper hanging out of their ass, you should definitely absolutely tell them, okay?!?

Second only to my amazement of not a single person alerting me to this horror is the fact that there is a brand of toilet paper out there so incredibly strong that it can handle holiday mall crowds as well as getting into, driving, and getting out of a vehicle without so much as a tear. Damn bookstore and their fancy triple-ply paper.

That is why, dear people, you will not find me Christmas shopping at the mall again any time soon. No, I will be shopping online, in the comfort of my home, with no risk of public humiliation in sight.

With that, I bid Happy Holidays to all and to all a good night.

The Radical Act of Paring Down Holiday Consumption

Research suggests that financial stress is one of the worst carryovers into the new year, largely because financial stress is one that snowballs.

As many of us take full advantage of holiday shopping deals and steals, we may be wise to listen to our January selves.
January Self deals with the inevitable excess leftover from the holiday season. January Self is the one who joins the gym after all the holiday cookie consumption and the one who exterminates all the tinsel and pine needles from the carpet. Of particular importance are the credit card bill(s) that January Self may have the pleasure of opening after a holiday spending spree.
“What harm can a little holiday generosity cause?” our December selves may say.
The research suggests that financial stress is one of the worst carryovers into the new year. This is largely because financial stress is usually a snowballing stress. Unlike extra pounds and a messy house that may ebb and flow, credit card debt tends to multiply on a monthly basis if not paid off in its entirety. What’s more, the financial stress we parents carry can directly affect our children in both the short-term and for a lifetime.

Stressed mom, scared kid?

In a recent report in the Journal of Pediatrics, a 22-year-long study of families showed “unsecured debt,” namely, credit card debt, “is negatively associated with socio-emotional development” of children. According to the study, children whose parents had unsecured debt exhibit, on average, more behavior problems than those whose parents do not have unsecured debt.
Anxiety over debt may play out in a way that is especially shaming for our January Self. In spite of all our New Year’s Resolutions to be better parents, anxiety over credit card debt can inspire anger at all the necessary expenses (e.g., veterinary bill, kids’ braces) over which our family members have no control.

The invisible piggy bank

The conclusion that chronically stressed parents can create a stressful environment at the home isn’t earth-shattering. What may be surprising, though, is how many parents in the U.S. contend with financial stress of their own making.
In a 2015 study conducted by the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED), nearly half of respondents who lived with children in their home said they would borrow or sell something to cover a $400 emergency expense. Yet, among this same population, nearly a quarter planned to borrow to finance holiday spending. For some American parents, a lack of savings for emergencies does not eclipse a willingness to overspend for the holidays.
The SHED study also found that of the respondents who planned to use credit cards or put their gifts on the Kmart layaway, half indicated that they expected to pay off that debt within three months. A significant minority, 13 percent, expected to be carrying the debt for a year or longer.
Like debt repayment, our best laid plans as parents often get derailed. We strive for practicality with a sprinkle of spontaneity. Sometimes the rush of holiday excitement takes over, however, and we don’t always make our best decisions. We know that behavior we model can be our children’s best or worst textbooks.
This is where many of us as parents live in the tension of our desire to provide stability and security to our children while not becoming a total (as Buddy the Elf might call us) “Cotton-headed Ninny-muggins.” Once again, January Self can help us to mediate this tension. When all the glitter of the holidays has turned to winter blahs, January Self reminds us that oftentimes the best overspending we can do is with our time.

A Letter to All Parenting Experts Who Don’t Actually Have Any Kids

I used to be somewhat of a parenting expert. Then my first child arrived and forced me into an early retirement.
Many will presume to know what it takes to be a parent before actually becoming one. I know this because long before my children made their grand entrance I, too, unwisely thought the same.
I would walk past parents embroiled in some battle with their child and smugly envisage how someday my perfect offspring would never dare to throw a tantrum in public. How these dream children would be raised to adore celery, be totally shielded from the evils of television, and follow every single instruction with unquestioning obedience.
Fortunately for me, I never thought to share any of this supposed child-rearing wisdom with actual parents, for upon their earthly arrival a few years later, these dream children of mine wasted little time in systematically and dutifully abolishing my charming delusions.
In between painting a literally breath-taking mural on the car window with the contents of a diaper, bringing all of Shanghai to a standstill via a meltdown about raisins, and taking a generous swig of mosquito repellent and chasing it down with a glob of Vicks, they have each given me an intensive crash course in raising children. The lessons were a reality check in parenting expectations vs parenting experiences, which confirmed that despite thinking I knew everything there was to know about parenthood, the truth was in fact a rather sobering contradiction.

“Expert” advice

Like me BC (before children), for some bizarre reason many people assume to know the delicate intricacies of parenting without ever once having done it. With the advent of technology – social media in particular – the indiscriminate dishing out of parenting expertise and judgments has further increased and become sort of a free-for-all slam.
Apparently, parents nowadays just get everything wrong. We’re just not built the way parents once were, it would seem. We’re either far too permissive, allowing our children to trample freely all over us, or we’re brutal drill sergeants, barking out orders to our repressed little charges. We’re either mollycoddling our children with too much love or scarring them for life with not enough. We’re either robbing our kids of a fun childhood, ably aided by quinoa and kefir, or we’re fattening them up for an early upsized death. We’re either failing to prepare them to someday live in a technologically driven world or we’re frying their brains with digital babysitters. We’re either saying yes to our kids way too often or not enough at all.
In essence, we’re either screwing up or screwing up.
The only thing, it would appear, that we parents can be counted upon to do consistently and reliably is meeting society’s rather truncated expectation of us. The all-knowing, self-appointed parenting experts, along with the barrage of research and studies that appear to be exclusively dedicated to examining parental shortcomings, all generally conclude with the ominous doomsday warning that children are being totally ruined thanks to our glaring incompetence and ineptitude.
Parents are judged by just about everyone – heck we even judge each other. How we find the time and energy – in the midst of a sleep-deprived, repeat-everything-a-million-times stupor –  to critique our peers, is very much a mystery. But in between trying to take a bathroom break in solitude and drink a cup of coffee just before it fossilizes we apparently somehow still find a way to.
It is however one thing for parents to take a few pot shots at each other’s parenting deficiencies and something else altogether for someone with zero parenting experience, no children of their own, and no first-hand knowledge whatsoever of what it’s like to bring another entirely dependent being into your life to be arrogantly dishing out pompous advice on how parents could be doing it better.
Yes, some may have vast experiences working with children, some may have spent considerable time studying parenting techniques, and some may have even dedicated their entire lives to researching child-rearing, but it is virtually impossible for one to know the true trials and tribulations that come attached with being a parent unless you’ve actually been one.
Observation, however extensive, is a shoddy substitute for experience, so when I come across a non-parent standing ostentatiously on their perfectly mess-free platforms, sneering down at us parents as we battle in the trenches, who chooses to use that precise moment to lecture us yet again about how we are totally hopeless at this whole business of raising kids, I get just the tiniest bit bothered.

Parenting truths

Parenting is hard work. Good parenting, even more so. Blood, sweat, and tears, literally! It may look totally doable and straight-forward but it is anything but. It is not an exact science, no matter how many parenting books one reads or how many parenting courses one attends. While parenting can often be instinctive, it can also equally be wildly unpredictable. Raising children is an organic venture, subject to an endless list of random elements. It is not battery farming. It is nature as much as nurture. It is day-after-day of learning on the job, a constant process of questioning and re-evaluating, and a seemingly perpetual assessment of all the things that could have been done better and all the things that should have been said instead.
Having children is a euphoric but costly venture and one that takes a substantial toll on pretty much every aspect of an individual’s life. The implications of becoming a parent are significant and long-term, and it is a 24/7 job. There is no annual leave or sick day allocations. There is no sign-off sheet or check-out at the end of the day. Your co-workers – while adorable and totally lovable – can also arbitrarily morph into volatile lunatics from time to time. Such is the nature of parenthood: It is all things wonderful and all things challenging, all rolled into one exhilarating yet erratic ride.
It might be simple to roll out of bed every day, refreshed and not the slightest bit sleep-deprived, and make value judgments about others. It’s easy to eat your dinner in peace and look over at the table next to you with the bawling kid and decide that those parents are absolute idiots who have no idea how to raise children, without the slightest clue about the sort of day that family might be having. It’s easy to dish out belittling terms like “helicopter parents” and “tiger mums” without ever once being in a position of complete accountability for another human.
Spectator parenting is virtually effortless. Try doing it yourself and see whether it’s still all as straightforward as it appears to be. There is much to be said for it taking an “entire village to raise a child,” but there is also virtue in accepting that in most instances, the person who probably knows best about bringing a child up is likely to be the one who has everything invested in that little person.
By all means, call out parents who behave in heinous, atrocious ways towards their children. They should be held responsible for and answerable to all and sundry. But regular parents who are just trying to navigate the day-to-day business of raising children? Well, just let them be. They barely have time to rest – they’re probably not going to have time to any attention to unsolicited advice.

A humble request

Therefore, my point to those who haven’t the faintest clue about raising children, but who for some inexplicable reason continue to spend their time sermonizing to parents about how we could be better doing something they’ve never once done, is this:
Don’t offer commentary about parenting, especially condescending, groundless points of views that serve no purpose other than to allude to a supposed superiority and intellect.
The last time I was child-free was eight years ago, so I shan’t presume to know entirely how people without children spend their time, but I imagine there are far more exciting and worthy pursuits to engage in if one is not a parent.
For example, enjoy showers that don’t include the company of a curious and occasionally candid audience. Enjoy naps that don’t involve being intermittently prodded and asked random questions. Enjoy holidays that don’t require packing enough supplies for a small army. Enjoy trips that don’t feature sick bags and uncoordinated spewing mouths (and not necessarily always in that order.) Enjoy opening a book and putting it down because you want to and not because someone decided to see if a Lego Friend would like to live inside her ears. Enjoy weekends that don’t start with someone barging into your room at 6:30 a.m. while waving craft books and glitter pens a little too enthusiastically.
Enjoy, for better or worse, a life where you are only responsible for you and you alone, and leave parenting to the actual experts for a change.