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A screenshot from the homepage of Empathylibrary.com, an online catalogue of books, music, movies, and other media aimed at helping individuals and families find resources to learn about empathy for others. (empathylibrary.com)

Teaching kids to care, one book at a time

By Roman KrznaricStartempathy.org / 02.13.14

We’ve all read books and watched films that have transported us and changed us, that have catapulted our imaginations into lives vastly different from our own. Think of a movie like "City of God," which reveals the violent world of two boys growing up in the shantytowns of Rio. Or the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," with its classic line “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

These are the kinds of books and films that take us on unforgettable empathic journeys, enabling us to step into the shoes of strangers and look through other people’s eyes. It’s what I refer to in my new book "Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution" as “armchair empathy” – a kind of travel you can do from the comfort of your own home.

But where can we find the very best examples from amongst the overflow of online information, book reviews, and movie guides? That’s why I’ve just founded the world’s first online Empathy Library, a digital treasure house where you can discover inspiring and powerful novels, non-fiction books, feature films, and video shorts all about empathy.

I wanted to create a place where anybody, anywhere in the world, could find the best resources for helping us escape from the narrow confines of our own experiences and enter the realities of different cultures, generations, and lives.

So how does the Empathy Library actually work? Although it doesn’t contain items to borrow or view, there are reviews and ratings of over 100 books such as Toni Morrison’s "The Bluest Eye" and George Orwell’s "Down and Out in Paris and London," alongside movies like "Gandhi" and "Avatar." The library collection also includes dozens of fantastic books and films for children and teens. Visitors can search the collection and view Top Ten Charts, and join up to add their own favourite items and comment on others.

It’s a growing and vibrant global community. Thousands of people have already come through the virtual doors of the library since its launch – around half from the United States, and some 10 percent from both Britain and Brazil – and have been adding to the collection every day. It has caught the attention of librarians in Australia, school teachers in Canada and India, and social entrepreneurs in the Netherlands.

Why all this interest in the Empathy Library? One major reason is that empathy is a more popular concept today than at any time in human history. Everybody’s talking about it, from the Dalai Lama to agony aunts, from business gurus to happiness experts. And it’s not surprising, since in the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that 98 percent of us have empathy wired into our brains. The old story that we are basically selfish, self-interested creatures has been debunked. Our selfish inner drives exist side by side with our empathic other half. We are homo empathicus.

Crucially, there has also been an avalanche of recent neuroscience and psychology research showing that we can learn to empathise, and that entering other people’s lives through books and films is one of the best ways of doing it. As the novelist Ian McEwan put it, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

Part of my inspiration for starting the Empathy Library is personal. I have five-year-old twins and have always been on the lookout for great ways to teach them the core elements of emotional literacy such as empathy, cultural tolerance, and mutual understanding. My internet searches for quality resources sometimes yielded results but proved frustratingly random. So I dreamed up the Empathy Library to help solve the problem and bring the most moving, memorable, and fascinating empathy books and films under a single digital roof.

My hope is that teachers and other educators will discover a wealth of materials to use with young people in their endeavours to teach them empathy, a vital life skill that is now being taught through education programmes worldwide such as Roots of Empathy and Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative (both official supporters of the Empathy Library).

Beyond this, the Empathy Library is designed to provide a host of ideas for reading groups, film clubs, and empathy projects in community organisations and workplaces. And it is also somewhere you can go to find an engaging book to read your kids or a classic movie to watch on a Friday night.

Ultimately, the aim of the library is to create an online community resource for the planet’s empathic thinkers and activists. Think of it as Goodreads for the empathy revolution.

So come and visit the Empathy Library and allow your mind to enter another world. Give yourself a glimpse into what it might be like to be a child growing up in Tehran, or to be born without sight, or to be a soldier fighting someone else’s war. These are the imaginative journeys than can both change ourselves and the societies we live.

This article originally appeared on the Startempathy.org blog, published by the Start Empathy project from Ashoka.

Shoppers exit a Lululemon store in New York on December 18, 2013. (Ann Hermes/Staff/FILE)

What's wrong with yoga pants?

By Correspondent / 02.12.14

Administrators at a high school in Rockport, Mass., who have enforced a ban on yoga pants and leggings are yet another reason why Americans need to get over the tendency to objectify the wearer rather than celebrate the body, mind, and spiritual benefits of comfortable attire.

It's possible the administrators and faculty at Rockport High School may have needed to meditate on this decision around girls wearing yoga pants a little longer, especially as teen girls at the school report feeling objectified in the decision as they were blamed for distracting their male classmates.

This harkens back to recent coverage of Lululemon creating shoddy ultra-sheer yoga pants and then blaming it on women by saying some were just too chubby to wear them. 

How does something as soothing as comfortable pants designed for the practice of meditation and fitness become such a regular hot button issue?

In the case of Rockport High, it seems the principal reacted under pressure from faculty, who “expressed concern that students were not following the dress code,” according to Yahoo

The principal decided to re-enforce an already existing dress code banning yoga pants and leggings on girls, according to the report.

Instead of shifting the focus from yoga pants to academics, the action taken by the school zeroed in on the girls and their fashion choices. It seems that rather than addressing disciplinary problems, more girls felt blamed for wearing “distracting” clothing in class than being reminded of the standing dress code.

The onus of making boys pay attention in class and be good students has apparently shifted to the female population, who should perhaps dress in potato sacks in order to solve the issue of teenage hormones.

"It's called attention to something that no one even thought about," said Rockport senior Aidan Wright, according to Yahoo. "I don't appreciate having to be responsible for a boy paying attention or even being told that it's my responsibility to not distract someone with my body. I don't like being objectified in that way."

On Friday, 20 female students who protested the decision by wearing the pants were punished with written warnings and sent home to change their clothes.

Concern over boys being unable to concentrate in class ultimately resulted in girls being yanked from the learning environment, missing school work and learning time. Well, they did learn something when they were sent home. They learned that even adults get easily tied up in knots about superficial issues such as clothes, and that they can succumb to peer pressure (in this case faculty pressuring the principal).

In yoga, there is a practice of bowing to others and saying, “Namaste.” Nama means "bow," as means "I", and te means "you." Therefore, "namaste" roughly translates to, "I bow to you."

It is a way to take a moment to acknowledge that no matter how we appear on the outside, we should focus the deeper qualities beyond our outfits.

Dress codes are hopefully built with the interest of all students in mind, supporting their abilities to make mature decisions, such as appearance. When enforced, that same thoughtfulness should apply, helping students understand why the rules are what they are, versus blaming a population of students. 

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Water begins to collect in Lake Oroville at Lime Saddle Marina in Paradise, Calif. as rain returned to help with drought conditions Saturday, Feb. 8. (Jason Halley/Chico Enterprise-Record/AP)

Do kids take water for granted?

By Correspondent / 02.12.14

Here’s a timely suggestion for parents of young children: As the kids grow up, do whatever you can to help them develop an appreciation for water.

The chemical spill in West Virginia and severe drought conditions in California have focused a lot of national attention on the subject recently. By the time today’s toddlers are in college it’s likely that water will be a hot-button issue for every person on Earth.

A lot of Americans have grown up during the past half-century assuming that water is always available, in any amount. That belief starts early. As infants gain awareness of their surroundings, they often become intrigued and then fascinated by plumbing fixtures. Mom or dad turns a knob and liquid flows out of a metal tube and just keeps going and going, almost like magic. 

I’m not suggesting the immediate implementation of strict rules for every faucet in the house. A nice full bathtub and toys that float create wonderful childhood memories. I have plenty of them myself.

But at some point, you need to control the flow and it’s a habit that can be hard to change. I know several people who still have that semi-magical attitude; they believe water will always stream out of the tap in unlimited amounts because, for them, it always has. Every household in the US needs to send this notion down the drain.

By the time kids have finished elementary school, I think they should have practical knowledge about the everyday world around them, and parents should be providing a lot of that information. So if your children suddenly asked you where the household water comes from, do you have the answer?

Knowing the source is important because it opens the door to lots of other water questions kids should be thinking about. One good starting point is to take a close look at one day of water use in your household. You don’t have to take measurements. Just grab a pencil and paper and make a mark every time someone washes their hands, gets a drink, rinses out a glass, fills the dog dish, or uses the bathroom. 

Look at the result and then consider all the other people in your area who are also tapping the same source. Think about how much water is used all over your city every day, in all of the restaurants, supermarkets, car washes, drinking fountains, and fire hydrants. The number of water users in every community is enormous.

Thinking about water use may be the most important realization every family needs to make about water: In each city, a whole lot of users are sharing a limited supply and all of them have a stake in making sure it gets used wisely.

Notice I haven’t said anything about looking for ways to change household behavior and cut down water use. That discussion is one that families should have among themselves and set their own priorities. 

I like to point my water-saving advice toward taking basic steps. Try to get everyone focused on turning off faucets promptly. Don’t run the dishwasher if it’s only got a few items on the top rack. Think about the source every time water is flowing into your house. 

It’s also compelling to ask your kids this question: What if we turned on the tap one day and just a small trickle came out? What’s the absolute minimum amount of water you would need to get through the day?

Two excellent books are available for anyone who wants to learn more about water and how we use it. The first, “Water: A Natural History” by Alice Outwater, looks at how the settlement of North America and the growth of cities has changed natural water systems and created serious pollution problems. 

The second book, “Drinking Water” by James Salzman, shows how water has played a crucial role for cities throughout history and how public perceptions of drinking water have changed during the past 50 years.

You can say the same thing about water that realtors like to say about beachfront property: nobody’s making any more of it. It plays a crucial role in our lives every day, but having water available when we want it isn’t a guarantee. The subject is as vast as the oceans, and your kids will be wading into it someday. Help them get their feet wet.

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This screenshot from Amazon.com shows the cover for 'Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic' by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. (Amazon.com)

Three house rules to live by

By Guest Blogger / 02.12.14

Whenever you are setting rules with your children you can use this rule of thumb. Every rule you make should fall into one of these three general rules:

  1. Respect Yourself
  2. Respect Others
  3. Respect Property

If your rules do not fall into one of these categories, they are likely to be arbitrary and may seem unfair or illogical to your children, hence will not be followed without a power struggle. 

For example: "No hitting" falls under both rules of "Respect Self" and "Respect Others." Doing chores or jobs around the house comes under "Respect Others" and "Respect Property," as does "No throwing in the house," or "No kicking the dog."

However, a rule like "Homework must be done before any gaming time" is tricky. It isn’t about respect as much as it is about obedience, which children don’t always understand. Homework time is often more of a scheduling issue. Be sure not to send the message that "You have to do homework when I say so because I don’t trust you." It always backfires when children feel they have to prove themselves to their parents.

To make a homework rule effective, you want to ensure that it follows the “Respect Yourself” rule, which means that homework time should be considered as managed mostly by your child with your help and involvement. Your child must have the right to decide what his needs are after school hours. In other words, if you insist on homework being done first thing after school (so it’s out of your hair and you don’t have to worry about it), that is being disrespectful of your child’s needs.

Your child may need to chill out for a while after a long day at school and have an hour of video gaming, or playing outside, or whatever before homework, which they might rather do after dinner. In the same vein, the rule "Respect Yourself" means that you as the parent can say, “I am available for help and questions at these times only,” allowing your child to consider that offer when choosing when to do homework.

Similarly, rules around bedtime and physical hygiene might be easier managed if you are clear about them falling under the "Respect Yourself" rule. Then be sure that you don’t expect your child to understand the importance of self-care until they are much older. Some rules in this area are still best to be set by parents when the child is too young to know what is needed to care for and respect their body.

This is when I suggest calling on the "Parent Card." This is a good example of you being respectful of your child. “I don’t expect that you will know and understand how much sleep you need to be healthy and strong/the importance of brushing your teeth/maintaining a clean body. That’s what I’m here for. It’s a parent’s job to make sure that things you don’t care about yet get done.”

Then respect for your child is shown by giving some choices about how these things get done. “What song shall we sing for marching up the stairs tonight?” “Do you want to brush your teeth or get in pajamas first?” “Shall we read two long books, or three short ones tonight?” “Which three days of the week do you want to take your shower? Morning or evening?”

We must never forget the importance of modeling respect for our children, for their desires, and for their ways of looking at things. In order to respect our children, it is imperative that parents have an understanding of the developmental needs and wants of their children at different ages as well as their specific temperamental needs. Getting angry at a 2-year-old for grabbing a toy away from another child and expecting him to apologize is being disrespectful to him.

Expecting a 13-year-old to understand and care more about you and your needs than their own will lead you right into disrespect. We can quickly label a child as disrespectful of us if we don't take time to see an issue from their angle. Rather than disrespect, it is far more likely that the child is focused so intently on what they think they look like, or what someone at school said to them yesterday than what you asked them to do for you.

That doesn’t mean let it go, because of the general rule of "Respect Others." But it does mean that as a parent, you can show your child respect by understanding that they are NOT showing disrespect. They just need reminders of what is being asked – without tones of disapproval and disappointment.

Respecting our children goes miles toward gaining their consideration and appreciation, not to mention their respect of others' needs and rights as they grow. We just need to know how to set our expectations in a way that is respectful of their stage of development and individual temperament.

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We can set limits, problem solve in order to hold our children accountable for their unacceptable behavior, and express our anger all with full respect and consideration of our children. Take the rest of today and watch yourself communicating with your child. Ask, "Am I being respectful?" with everything you say. Ask yourself, "How would I like hearing what I’m saying right now?"

For information on development, anything from the Gesell Institute is a good resource. Also, authors Frances L. Ilg and Louise Bates Ames write books for each age, "Your One Year Old," "Your Two Year Old," on up through the teen years. For temperament, a great resource is Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s "Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic," whether your child is spirited or not. 

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at www.bonnieharris.com.

This undated frame grab provided by General Mills shows the company's 2014 Super Bowl ad for Cheerios entitled “Gracie.” Cheerios brings back its famous interracial family in a spot that shows a father using Cheerios to tell his daughter she’s going to have a baby brother. (General Mills/AP)

Interracial marriages: diversity not defined (+video)

By Correspondent / 02.11.14

Last week, I got out of my comfort zone by making a traditional Mexican dish called “pollo en adobo.” I did my research on YouTube, inherited some spices from my mother-in-law’s capable hands, and assembled all the necessary ingredients.

Finally, I had prepared a traditional Mexican meal for my husband after meeting him nearly five years ago.

I must’ve watched the YouTube recipe video at least ten times, making sure I was doing every little step exactly right. As my timer ticked down for the last couple minutes that the chicken and sauce needed to simmer, I realized I was so nervous I was sweating. 

When the dish made it to the table, my husband lifted the spoon to his lips, took a sip, and smiled.

I had never attempted to make authentic Mexican food before now because – as weird as it may sound – I’m white. As in, basic meat and potatoes culinary skills, turns lobster-red after a day at the beach (no matter how much sunscreen I put on), kind of white.  

I just figured that I couldn’t possibly make real Mexican food without somehow screwing it up. I know, it’s irrational, but that’s how I felt. 

What inspired me to take a shot at it? Thinking about our daughter. I realized that if I was going to limit myself to only cooking typical American dishes I was most familiar with, I would be setting a bad example for her. I want her to feel infinitely capable of making any kind of food she wants from both sides of her family. 

Having the opportunity to deeply explore another culture’s gastronomy is one of the best perks of my interracial marriage. It’s surprising to think that just two or three generations ago, interracial marriage was illegal in some states, until the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia nullified all laws prohibiting it. 

Now, interracial marriage is becoming more and more common in the United States. A study published in 2012 found that 8.4 percent of all marriages in the US are interracial, making that about 1 in every 12 couples, up from only 3.2 precent in 1980.

But still, interracial marriage remains a controversial issue. Just last May, there was intense backlash on YouTube and other websites when Cheerios aired its commercial featuring a family that had a white mom and black dad. The follow-up ad depicting the same family ran during the Super Bowl, and also prompted many racist comments on Twitter and other social media platforms.

A recent Huffington Post article titled “Why I Can’t Be My Son’s Mother” shared actress mom Shannon Shelton Miller’s struggles with never being cast in commercials as the mom of her son, since he has whiter skin that she does. 

According to Ms. Shelton Miller, “Corporations will happily cast a rainbow of Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, and African-American actors for their commercials in the name of diversity, but they're rarely cast together. I seethed last year when I read one casting call for a major retailer requesting "real" Caucasian and African-American families, and then, in capital letters in the next sentence: ‘NO MIXED FAMILIES.’ ” 

While America has come a long way in embracing a diverse range of skin tones, there’s still a pronounced stigma against mixed families. 

I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. My mixed family has been stared at many times, waiters have asked if we wanted separate checks, and airline ticket counter attendants have told me to go wait my turn when I approach the counter with my husband, not realizing that we’re together. 

We’ve also been treated with a level of normalcy that is refreshing, especially among our peers. A friend over for dinner recently remarked, “Babies from mixed parents are so beautiful and well-behaved. I think having to balance two cultures makes them more flexible, too.” 

Balancing two cultures helps kids realize that they can’t be smushed into a limited box, and neither can anyone else – we all have a diverse background and range of experiences that shape who we are. 

We are all better off when there's more diversity in society, which includes interracial marriages. As it gets more difficult to answer the question “What’s your background?" we become more alike because we realize we are all from mixed backgrounds. 

If my daughter is asked to answer that question, she will have a long list of countries to remember, including: Mexico, Ireland, Poland, Spain, France, and England as part of her ancestral roots. Most importantly, she will be able to state that she is from the United States of America. 

Like Coca-Cola's Super Bowl ad titled “It’s Beautiful” pointed out, America is beautiful largely because of its diversity. And not diversity that can be organized into neat little boxes, but diversity that includes diversity within it, constantly challenging what assumptions we come to adopt. When those assumptions are left behind, compassion begins.

In this file photo, Patrons use computers in the Teen'Scape area at the Los Angeles Public Library in Los Angeles, where people go to the library to read, rent movies, play computer games, and surf the Internet. (Damian Dovarganes/AP/FILE)

Safer Internet Day stands up against bullies

By Guest blogger / 02.10.14

What do a high school student who’s a bullying prevention activist, two criminology professors, and Safer Internet Day have in common? They’re all sending the same message that safety and wellbeing online takes all of us.

The high school student

Aidan McDaniel, the student activist, says school safety happens from the ground up, starting with students. Social cruelty both online and offline isn’t a student problem that administrators and teachers can fix from the top down, he told Public News Service. It’s “everybody’s problem” and the solution doesn’t happen “without working with each other.” In a presentation he gave last November at the International Bullying Prevention Association conference, Aidan spoke inspiringly about how he and other students train peers to mentor younger students in bullying prevention.

His father, a social worker for the Morgan County School District, told PNS that it’s “the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of our students more than anything [that] create the climate and culture of any school.” [See also this four-year-old article in Slate: "Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village."]

The professors

Professors Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, who run the Cyberbullying Research Center, say that “everyone is looking for an answer to the bullying and cyberbullying problem. We know where it can be found: in teens themselves. We’ve met so many who are coming up with creative ideas, and running with them. They are spearheading movements and making a real, measurable difference.” Mr. Patchin and Mr. Hinduja’s latest book, Words Woundhas dozens of stories of students like Aidan who have worked in their schools to stop online and offline social cruelty in meaningful ways.

The day

Where does Safer Internet Day come in? Because it’s now celebrated in more than 100 countries and with its theme for this year (“Let’s create a safer Internet together”) SID is modeling what both activists and researchers have long been saying: that safety and wellbeing on this planet’s increasingly social, user-driven Internet require – by definition – a social, collaborative solution.

This year, the US is more in sync with the global celebration than ever, with two recent developments: a 2012 joint declaration signed by former US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes to help make the Internet better for youth, and the appointment by the EC-funded Insafe Network of US nonprofit organization ConnectSafely.org to spearhead the US portion of Safer Internet Day activities.

As ConnectSafely’s co-director, I can tell you from my own experience how powerful collaboration is. Our first task in joining the global network of SID Committees was to reach out to a broad spectrum of peers in the Internet safety space, youth-serving organizations, and Internet and technology companies to help.

We are particularly grateful to our friends and partners at YouMedia in Chicago, Southfield public schools in Detroit, D.C. public schools and Georgetown Day School in Washington, National PTA, and National 4-H Council for their support in bringing nearly two dozen student leaders to our half-day event in Washington on Tuesday.

Teens’ perspectives on and practices in and with social media are the focus of our highly interactive event, which will include remarks from featured speaker Sen. Charles Schumer and EC Vice-President Neelie Kroes (via pre-recorded video). There will be two panel discussions, one with a student panel moderated by Yahoo Modern Family columnist Dan Tynan and the other a panel of executives representing some of teens’ favorite social media services: Facebook’s Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Microsoft’s Xbox Live, and Google’s YouTube. The industry panel will be moderated by Aidan McDaniel.

Watch Safer Internet Day panel discussions live on Connectsafely.org  or Facebook, starting at 9 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

In this file photo, Smith-Cotton High School students in Sedalia, Mo. line dance to the song, "Cupid Shuffle", amidst the glitz of a Hollywood-theme inspired backdrop at the school's annual Junior/Senior Prom. (Sydney Brink/Sedalia Democrat/AP/FILE)

Miley Cyrus promposal: Teens taking it too far?

By Correspondent / 02.10.14

When Marcia Brady of TVs “The Brady Bunch” asked the dreamiest member of the 1960s Brit boy band The Monkees to sing at her school dance,  she could never have known it would all lead to Miley Cyrus and the trend of our kids shooting for the wrong stars.

While I applaud celebrities who keep it real and respond to their fans, celebrity prom pursuit, like the teen who has asked Miley Cyrus to prom in a cringe-worthy video, has eclipsed the original intent of school dances, where memories are made and the end of the year celebrated among peers.

The following celebrities have said yes to fan requests for prom dates: Rhianna, Brooke Shields, Brandi (fun fact: the fan was Kobe Bryant, now star of the Los Angeles Lakers, who at that time was in high school), Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber, according to Yahoo.

It is a long, freaky road from Davy Jones and his impeccable British manners to Justin Bieber, and now Miley Cyrus.

I remember watching the episode of “The Brady Bunch” when Marcia writes to Mr. Jones to ask him to sing at the dance. She wasn’t asking him for a date, she was asking on behalf of her school as part of the dance committee.

She gets a response letter promising her he will sing, but it’s a mix-up and she’s publicly humiliated.

In the end, Jones is a prince of a guy who ends up honoring the commitment to sing and asking the teen to the dance as a bonus with a chaste kiss on the cheek.

It’s a big, wholesome aaaaaaaawwww.

Flash forward to this week when the news is all about Matt Peterson, 17, donning a "Team Miley" T-shirt and tuxedo. He later appears with a foam finger (strategically placed to cover his young manhood) to plead with the notorious pop star on video to be his prom date.

Like a letter to Davy Jones? Not exactly.

This is a sad reminder of how school dances celebrating the end of the year have become media-driven spectacles where kids think they have to dress, spend, and behave like celebrities rather than teens.

Prom should not be about someone’s 17-year-old son, naked on camera in front of the world, licking a bunch of roses in order to gain five minutes of fame and a date with a pop tart.

I have been here before.

My oldest, now 20, began getting asked to formal dances by girls when he was in middle school.

He’s always been handsome, polite, and a good dancer, so I am on a first-name basis with the formalwear rental place at the local mall.

However, things turned ugly at his junior prom when some girls decided it was a great idea to emulate some celebrity partying they’d seen on TV.

My son, then 17, came to me with the problem: the after party was going to be an alcohol- and drug-laced event at a beach house owned by the parents of one of the girls in his prom group. My son was asked to chip-in for the cost of a stretch limousine with a jacuzzi, with a driver to get them home safe after partying.

“I plan on going into law enforcement, mom,” he told me at the time. “I don’t need this. It’s not fun. How should I handle this?”

I asked how he thought he should handle it. He said he wanted to go to the prom and share the table with the same group, but drive himself to the prom with his date.

He was worried his date would be disappointed.

I told him that if she was then maybe he could apologize and ask her if she’d rather not go. He could go stag.

Apparently, when his date was faced with the option of a drunken, unchaperoned celebrity-like prom versus no date at all, she chose the more age-appropriate alternative.

Apparently my son wasn’t the only one to turn down the invitation. A few days before the prom, another kid’s mom called the parents of the girls hosting the party to report her concerns.

The girl’s very responsible and angry parents stopped the party before if even started.

My son went to prom with his date and came home at a reasonable hour after having a good time. Neither was scarred for life after turning down the party crew. He went to two more proms thereafter (senior prom and the junior prom of a friend’s sister who needed a cute and gentlemanly date).

Each time a new prom story mentioning celebrities hits the news, I am reminded of the bad choices many teens make in order to create a big impression at prom.

From nude video "promposals" to Miley Cyrus, to drunken escapades too wild for the high school gym, the “go big or go home” attitude turns prom from a rite of passage for teens into a launch pad for adult behavior well past their years.

I think that if celebrities want to help their young fans, they need to make a public pact to “Just say no” to prom invites from kids.

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In this 2013 file photo, Swagger, an Old English Sheep Dog, is posed for photographs after winning the herding group during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden in New York. Swagger is a contender for the best in show during the 138th Westminster Kennel Club dog show, February 10-11, 2014. (Frank Franklin II/AP/FILE)

Love for old dogs and their owners

By Correspondent / 02.10.14

“I don’t know if I can count how many dogs I’ve had,” says Mary Jane Roethlin, retired high school teacher, mother of four, grandmother of five. There have been terriers, poodles, retrievers, and mutts, rescues, breeder dogs, and even – once – one from a puppy mill. Some have been sprightly, some sedentary, some stand-offish, and others sweet. Most have been short-term fosters – Roethlin’s way of paying forward the joy the family dogs have brought.

But with apologies to her current dog Patrick (a slightly wild Golden Retriever suspected to be part kangaroo), there’s never been any dog quite like Dylan. He joined the family in 2001, when Roethlin convinced her non-dog-loving husband to make a little vacation out of drive from North Jersey to a shelter near an Army post in Georgia.

She’d located Dylan there through the Pet Finder adoption site. He was the male, relatively young, used-to-other-dogs Golden she’d been after.

Life being what it is, her husband soon found himself routinely warming up a little gravy for Dylan’s food. And the Golden never stopped repaying the Roethlins’ generosity. Suffice it to say that Dylan never left Roethlin’s side when her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple months later, nor during his treatments, nor after his later death.

And suffice it to say that when Roethlin herself was confined to bed, the aging Dylan insisted on struggling up the stairs each morning to join her. The trip sometimes took him as long as ten minutes, and when by last year he couldn’t make the stairs at all, he was anguished about it. They knew it would soon be his time.

“It’s heartbreaking to have an old dog,” she says. 

Dog rescue has become a cause célèbre in recent years, and brings with it the usual politics. But Roethlin, despite her long involvement with Golden Retriever rescue, sees no moral imperative to choose rescues over breeder dogs, believing there to be plenty of room for both in the world of dog lovers. Still, she says of rescued dogs, “It is my firm belief that they are grateful for the rest of their lives.” 

As the Westminster Kennel Club’s 138th Annual Dog Show gets underway Monday at Madison Square Garden, all manner of canine will take center stage. Shiny and obedient, they will stay put when told, heel on cue, and not eat anyone’s shoes.

Around the country, the older and less fine of the species will be best dogs in their own right, in their own living rooms, where they astound their own handlers: “Did you see how Gracie looked up when the dog barked on the TV?“  

They’ll bring détente to parents and teenagers who normally can’t so much as agree on whether it’s Tuesday or not: “Mom is Gracie OK? She seems to be limping a little bit.” Mom: “Hmm. You’re right. She does.”  

Mercifully, they will not speak. But they will serve as conversation starters: “Do you hear how Gracie got stuck trying to open the back gate?” Old Gracie may have bad breath and tufts of brownish hair sticking out of her once-lustrous black coat, a growth over her eye, and a way of grunting when she lies down, but you can kind of sympathize. In dog years, the two of you are probably the same age.  

The Westminster dogs – the best of the best – aren’t there yet, of course. But perhaps someday they too will embody the singular gifts of their hobbling, smelly elders: the ability to demonstrate by their late-life fragility the vulnerability that awaits us all; the understanding that loyalty itself can lift the burden of suffering; the proof, by their mere presence, that being there means everything.

Thanks Dylan, Gracie, and friends. 

A screenshot from a YouTube video produced by dadlabs.com, explaining ways to make your home safe to children, including how to anchor large furniture to the walls. (DadLabs/YouTube)

Tipping TVs remain a child safety problem

By Correspondent / 02.07.14

Police reported that an 8-year-old boy attending an after-school program in Gardner, Mass., was killed when a TV cart fell on top of him.

The story is tragic and, unfortunately, not unique. A simple online search for similar stories finds four different instances in the last month alone of kids being injured, or killed, when a television fell on top of them.

The Modern Parenthood blog originally highlighted the problem in 2012, citing a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported that in 2011 alone, 13,800 kids were injured and 12 killed in the US by toppling TVs.

With the report of the 8-year-old boy coming from Massachusetts and more online, we have to ask: Why is this still a problem?

Anchoring heavy furniture and electronics seems to be the No. 1 preventative measure in helping kids stay safe around large household hazards.

The group Safe and Sound with Amaya in Syracuse, N.Y., was started by two grandparents whose 2-year-old granddaughter was killed in 2012 when she pulled a TV over on herself. 

Deborah Deming, who founded the group with her husband Scott told The Post-Standard newspaper, "A lot of parents will say it can't happen to me; it won't happen. But families like us can tell you it does happen, and it happens every day."

According to a public-education campaign from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, "On average, one child dies every 2 weeks when a TV, piece of furniture, or an appliance falls on him, according to reports received by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) between 2000 to 2010."

The CPSC recommends tips for keeping children safe, including:

  • Anchor furniture to the floor or wall.
  • Placing TVs on sturdy, low bases. Or, anchoring the furniture and the TV on top of it, pushing the TV as far back on top of the furniture as possible.
  • Keeping remote controls, toys, and other items attractive to kids off of TV stands or furniture.
  • Keeping cords for TV and/or cable out of a child's reach.
  • Making sure freestanding kitchen ranges and stoves are installed with anti-tip brackets.
  • Supervising children in rooms where these safety tips have not been followed. 

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An attendee plays “Call of Duty: Ghosts” at the GameStop Expo in Las Vegas. (AI Powers/Invision/AP/FILE)

Video game violence: Putting study results in perspective

By Correspondent / 02.07.14

Before parents hit the panic button in fear generated by a new Canadian study that asserts violent video games lead to teens being “morally immature,” we need to consider where natural teen developmental issues and real world experiences fit into the equation.

Revisiting the topic of “respond vs. react” as a parent, the media began trumpeting results of a Brock University study that warns parents about teen development. The headlines, from such reputable sources as the BBC, were enough to make any responsible parent want to scream, “Shut that thing off and go outside!”

However, after reviewing the actual study, I learned Mirjana Bajovic of Brock University surveyed the relatively tiny sampling of 109 Canadian teens ages 13 and 14 and concluded that for teens in general, overexposure to violent games weakened empathy for others.

Mr. Bajovic found that 88 percent of these 109 teens said they played games and more than half of players admitted to playing games every day.

The media then picked up the published study of this small population and trumpeted the conclusion that researchers warned of adolescents losing a sense of "right and wrong."

That’s a single-bound leap worthy of Superman on his best day.

As a parent, I am a peaceful video game warrior. Over the past 20 years, I have tried banning all video games with any hint of violence.

That failed, because other parents didn’t adhere to my house rules, so my sons would simply play at the other kids’ homes without me knowing.

While I was able to enforce the rules when the boys were in elementary school, it became a losing battle on my part when they became teens because the issue shifted from snuffing out violent games entirely to nurturing my sons' abilities to discern right from wrong.

One son pointed out years ago, when he was 13, that his gaming had no effect on real life, and he saw it entirely as an activity meant to blow off steam. He was more worried about kids who were out doing drugs at parties and vandalizing property because they didn't have an outlet like gaming.

Now 20, this son is a total peacenik who’s joining his local Amnesty International chapter at college, volunteering to help those in need in his community, and studying international justice to become a force for good in the world.

Yet, he still loves the hack and slash of role-playing games online. And because I did my homework on teen development, I’m OK with that for him and my other boys. What is more important to me as a parent is to make sure I limit their time in front of the screen so they get out and see daylight.

I frequently turn to the video game ratings done by Common Sense Media, which includes still banning violent video games for my youngest son who is 10 years old. 

When this new study came to my attention via the sensational headlines I decided that before I gave into a knee-jerk reaction, I would respond with research, and made a call to Dr. Arthur Bowman, chair of the Biology Department at Norfolk State University, to see if something deeper than violent games could be a culprit in the moral immaturity claim.

“Parents who have teens know that moral immaturity is a fact of life,” Dr. Bowman said in a phone interview Friday morning.

He also pointed out how hard it is to determine the validity of a study with so small a sampling.

“You’d have to look at a way larger number, across cultures,” Bowman explained. “Canada’s got something like 35 million people; we’re in a country with 340 million people. So, to study 100 kids and draw any valid conclusion isn’t even laughable.”

He also asked, “Who determines what is ‘moral?’ Is killing a zombie 'immoral'? Is a game in which you are a soldier defending innocents from terrorists 'immoral' because it’s doing violence to another human being?”

According to Bowman, just trying to determine the level of empathy requires more in-depth scientific methods to discover how a teen responds when real life situations are at hand and not those the teen knows to be manufactured and without real consequence.

I think the only benefit of the study is to serve as a reminder that we always need to balance virtual violence with what we define as highly moral, non-violent real life experiences.

And sometimes the need for blowing off steam through video games can help squelch what could turn into a violent outburst in real life. I learned this first hand as my son came home from school after coping with a group of bullies in his class.

I offered my son a hug, a bike ride, and kicking a soccer ball, and none of those options quite provided the release from social injustice he’d just experienced on the playground.

“Just this once, please let me hack away at a zombie villager in Minecraft and watch stuff blow up online,” Quin, 10, pleaded. “I know the difference between right and wrong. It’s just that after a day of dealing with bullies in school who I can’t fight back against this is where I need to go.”

We reached a compromise. I guided his choice to the video game "Final Fantasy 4" – where you defeat non-human foes – and I sat with him as he played. We took turns.

As a parent who is frustrated for my child who is constantly bullied, I can tell you it not only felt great to chuck fireballs at monsters, but also resulted in me being a calmer and gentler mom.

It’s not whether you win or lose the battle over video games. It’s about how you play the game in the real world that counts.

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