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Modern Parenthood

Canadian musician Justin Bieber is swarmed by media and police officers as he turns himself into city police for an expected assault charge of a limo driver, in Toronto, on Wednesday, Jan. 29. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/AP)

Would President Obama deport Justin Bieber? (+video)

By Correspondent / 01.30.14

There have been some bad days parenting my four sons over the past 20 years, but at least I can say the President of the United States has never been petitioned by nearly 200,000 of my neighbors to step in and co-parent. Justin Bieber’s folks, on the other hand, are waiting to see if President Obama will deport their 19-year-old son for his rampant misbehavior.

Don’t get me wrong, I am shaking my head in awe over the fact that the leader of the free world is being petitioned to take time out of his busy schedule to parent a wayward teen.

However, isn’t that what every good parent does in between talking to our spouses about the state of our union and coping with the economic downturn, we also try and weed out the bad influences in our environment.

Mr. Obama is simply looking at the same issue every parent eventually faces, how to deal with that one kid in your child’s social circle who’s the “cool kid,” who makes bad choices, gets too wild, breaks things just for a laugh, ignores the rules, and generally makes parents a nervous wreck.

According to The White House’s "We the People" platform 188,945 Americans (and counting) say Bieber, 19, is that kid and have signed a petition asking the Obama administration to revoke Bieber's green card to kick him out.

The petition reads: “We the people of the United States feel that we are being wrongly represented in the world of pop culture. We would like to see the dangerous, reckless, destructive, and drug abusing, Justin Bieber deported and his green card revoked. He is not only threatening the safety of our people but he is also a terrible influence on our nations youth. We the people would like to remove Justin Bieber from our society.”

While the charges against Bieber are only misdemeanors he is on a collision course with national and international disaster, trashing America’s image (his foster parent nation) as he goes.

He tagged Brazil last month, defacing buildings with spray paint and making international headlines. He was arrested last week in Miami Beach, Fla., and charged with drunken driving, resisting arrest, and driving without a valid license during an illicit drag race. Also, in California he faces charges for splattering a neighbor’s house with eggs. And he is expected in court on March 10 to face charges for assaulting a limousine driver on December 30.

I think President Obama has a responsibility to respond to this particular petition, as both a father and leader.

Here’s why:

Parents know that there’s always that one kid in the social group who is the straw that stirs the shake.

As our kids get older and more social, forming groups of friends, we worry about how the behavior of those friends will influence our own kid’s decision making.

We don’t want our kids in with the wrong crowd because it tarnishes their image and can bring them down.

Of course, the best-case scenario is when your own child comes to you and says they don’t want to hang out with that kid anymore. Then you can be proud.

But they may need your help to make that happen.

I always tell my sons that they aren’t using all their strength until they have asked their parents to help them out. Once we are on board, they are using all they have at their disposal to get the problem solved.

That’s essentially what is happening right now with the deportation petition.

“We the people,” parents included, have asked the current representing “father figure” of our nation, Barack Obama, to help us use all our strength to send the message that our village can’t have this kind of child in it anymore.

Bieber and those exhibiting the same behavior from the streets to the world stage are bringing us down.

Young adults like Bieber who are not famous are a problem on a small scale, but as a national influencer of teen and young adult culture representing America overseas, he’s a bad apple in our cultural barrel.

When this happens in our own homes, the problem child is usually the kid who entertains everyone in the group with his or her antics, making your own child hesitant to cut ties.

CNN.com contributor Ruben Navarrette made a great point when he said Bieber’s wealth and status might be getting him special treatment.

"Bieber has an estimated net worth of about $130 million," Mr. Navarrette wrote. "I bet that, right about now, many of those Mexican immigrants who were deported because they came to the attention of local police officers for a burned-out taillight, or for not making a complete stop at an intersection, are wishing that they had been a rich, white kid with marginal music ability and too much money. If so, things might have gone differently for them."

A huge part of parenting is being fair and the President needs to think hard on that when looking at this situation.

At some point, the parent hosting the wild child must make a command decision to either call the other parent, or parent the child themselves.

My guess is that Obama can’t pick up the phone and call Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to say, “Uh, look, Steve, I hate to bother you, but we have a little situation here with Justin and I’d appreciate if you’d handle it.”

And I don’t see Mr. Harper recalling Bieber and revoking his travel privileges. Although, that would be absolutely brilliant.

Perhaps the compromise, while we are busy soliciting the president for his help, is for Obama to make a very stern phone call to Justin’s mom and dad.

I’m sure any parent would much prefer a call from the President of the United States to invite them over to praise their child than to tell them off for bad parenting.

If I ever got that call for one of my sons, they would be in for a world of parenting.

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Madison Jamison, 6, plays chess against an older opponent at the Park Place Library in Norfolk, Va. on Saturday, January 25. (Lisa Suhay)

Could video games teach civic involvement?

By Correspondent / 01.29.14

Researchers at Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service are developing an interactive video game to try to engage students in civic responsibility, leaving parents to wonder if the only winning move is not to play video games at all, but to get out and do more.

Civic Seed is the name of the game created in collaboration with the Engagement Game Lab (EGL) at Emerson College. Its mission: “to see if it can better prepare college students to engage with the community – and if it can do so more effectively than a non-gaming alternative,” according to a press release by the school.

“Student under-preparedness for working in communities is a pressing issue," says Mindy Nierenberg, senior student programs manager at Tisch College and director of the leadership minor in Tufts School of Arts and Sciences in the press release.

As the mother of four avid gamers interested in multi-player games, I read that and wondered if this is a lot of chasing our tails.

If the issue is that students are not getting out there enough to know how communities work in real life, then maybe the answer should not be online, but instead in the real world.

Many kids aren’t getting engaged in civic activities at the high school level, perhaps partially due to spending too much time online.

“Tufts students will be randomly assigned to either the interactive video game or the self-paced non-game training,” Ms. Nierenberg says about the study. 

According to Nierenberg, “Both groups will complete a pre- and post-test questionnaire that will measure things like critical thinking, communication with diverse populations, individual motivations and values and understanding the importance of certain buildings and pieces of land in each community.”

As much as I would like the gaming version to win in order to vindicate me for allowing my sons to game, I am also rooting for the “old school” field team to win so I can feel better about where society is headed.

Frankly, this may not be a fair testing environment, because there are things students will learn in real life interactions that no game can teach them.

Many video games breed a form of detachment, the opposite of “engagement,” because players are conditioned by previous experience to know it’s not real. Players who “die” in a game, or freeze, or burn, or get injured, realize that it leaves no mark on real life. 

Utilizing just video games might not be the best tool to teach civic engagement, however finding games that transfer between online and real life scenarios might help to support the research.

Chess is a perfect example of this game theory shared by the Tufts team because it can be played online or in person.

For the better part of the past six years, I have run the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) as a free, all-volunteer program with the bulk of our volunteers coming from local colleges and universities.

One of the very first lessons a college student learns when they walk into a community center, school library, or public building to play chess is that there is a world of difference between playing solely on a computer and playing a human face-to-face.

“I’m a Master level player online,” is a common greeting I get from college volunteers. They are all confidence about their years of online experience, until a six-year-old little girl smokes them in five moves they never saw coming.

They can’t fathom what just happened to them when beaten by a young child who just started playing months ago. Guessing by their real-life opponents age, they have underestimated her potential and become overconfident. There is no skill building around reading an opponent online.

My advice is to play all the online games you want in order to get some fundamentals across to students.

However, to really teach them something about civic engagement, it might take bringing a game to real-life, such as starting a chess club at a Title One school or community center in a low-income neighborhood.

Students can then learn civic engagement, critical thinking, and real-life skills for interacting with people of all backgrounds, while earning valuable volunteer hours.

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Outdoor play is an essential part of the paleo-parenting plan. Kids play in the snow at Central Park in New York, January 22. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

A return to 'paleo parenting'

By Correspondent / 01.29.14

Surely you’ve noticed the trending of the so-called “paleo diet.” Once I’d heard the term a few times – and my daughter had experimented on me with some of her paleo cookies – I had to do some research. 

“The paleolithic diet is a nutritional plan based on the presumed diet of Paleolithic humans,” says Wikipedia, the fount of all foraged knowledge. “It is based on the premise that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, which marked the end of the Paleolithic era, around 15,000 years ago, and that modern humans are adapted to the Paleolithic diet."

Could it be time that we applied such throwbacks to former times to a few other things beside our eating habits? How about a healthier diet for the mind and child development? What would that look like? 

One of my favorite texts about learning and childhood makes a potential “paleo parenting” recipe. May Sarton was a Maine poet who attended a progressive school. She remembered her zeal for learning in a chapter from her autobiography, "I Knew a Phoenix."

“We children must have seemed a primitive insurgent tribe,” she writes. “We were not subjected to a theory of education. We were set down in the center of a primal force at work. We never knew what would happen next, but what did happen was always immensely interesting. Everything we learned was alive, hunted down, a private possession.”

During my 30-year career in elementary education, I have carried this passage around in my intellectual “hip pocket.” I return to it frequently, for inspiration. Ms. Sarton has transposed the language of hunter-gatherers onto the elementary school day. It’s what makes her description passionate, energized, and un-school-like.

Who wouldn’t want to go to school (or work!) every day if that’s what you had to look forward to? 

It makes me think there ought to be a similar manifesto for childhood itself. Is there room for a concept of paleo parenting? Is there an emerging return to a philosophy of parenting that allows children to show up for their own childhoods as if they were “a primal force at work,” with similar aliveness, and private possession?

My parents might have been paleo parents, though they didn’t know it at the time. And they were not atypical. They probably would have eschewed such a reference to a trendy diet or theory of parenting. After all, Pop Tarts were a breakfast staple and they were winging it as parents of three kids. 

My own "paleo childhood" started in third grade when we moved from a suburban neighborhood outside of Chicago, with concrete sidewalks and a tree-town street grid – tame, ordered, planned – to a more rural suburb outside of Boston. In my new home, I was initiated into the life of exploration. My new neighbor, Jeff, showed me the dirt foot trails through the woods, to the big pond, and streams. We built forts, went fishing, had conflicts and escapades, and imagined ourselves the Natty Bumpos of Aberdeen Road.

After school, we simply took off for the wilderness of childhood that was waiting for us in the big woods across the street. Mom just needed to know we’d be back by dinner. Until then, the streams, mud, abandoned cars, derelict camp cabins, cool and mysterious white pine groves, and old farm fencing. It felt like an empire for our modest insurgent afternoons. 

"Wildwood Wisdom," the tattered camping guide I discovered on the family bookshelf, was my guide. I pored over its instructive drawings of lean-tos and backpacks and campfire cooking. And I can draw a direct line between this era in my childhood and going to Outward Bound in Scotland at age 14 and many years of wilderness treks, summer, and winter. 

But the paleo childhood is not really about life in the woods. That was just my landscape of awakening and development. It is about independence, resiliency, imagination, and ownership. I feel now that every kid deserves to have the same encouragement toward independence and a sense of inhabiting a domain all his own. The key to such a paleo childhood is distinguishing between information and physical experience. Contemporary childhoods and schooling often feel dominated by mere information. 

This relates to some of the contemporary conversation about boundaries and the line between parental protection and permission – between play that is prescribed and programmed, versus improvisational and creative. Too much app, too little Huck Finn. Childhood ought to be about “lighting out for the territory,” little by little. Paleo childhoods require time and space and materials. And, in my case, a medium sharp pocket knife at age 10. Nope – nary a cut.

Much of this conversation feels tinged with the afflictions of affluence, and a misplaced sense of parental responsibility. At a certain point in the 1980s, I remember the onset of a kind of parenting formatted by professional prowess. “If I just apply all of my professional skills to raising children (and interacting with their school), then I’m going a good job as parent” – at least that was the thinking. 

What happened to instinct and feeling? Parenting isn’t an occupation. It’s more like an art, a calling, a conversation based on improvisation and guidance. I like the way a former school mentor of mine put it to parents: “You need to add a little more benign neglect.” As the father of five boys, he could claim some gravitas. 

And so I like it when I read articles advocating that childhood be restored to children, that kids be allowed to play with real tools in order to experience their own cause-effect relationships. Good paleo parents let kids play with pocket knives! 

One could argue that maturity and learning have become alienated from the moment of greatest potential, much the same way our eating habits have alienated us from the source of our very diets. A great many teachers, parents, and children feel we have delegated curricula, testing, assessment, scheduling, and the myriad school day-opportunities to “hunt” to a remote, barren, often sterile intellectual landscape.

We’ve lost the narrative thread of learning in favor of overly conceptualized and abstract reasoning, and skill sets that feel disconnected from practical living. The experiential diet given to children is forlorn from how we’d like to feel about learning, and from the learning our children will need to live in post-industrial settlements.

How many kids can come home and tell the story of actually making something at school? In other words, students shouldn’t simply be consumers of learning, but makers of their learning. One of the afflictions of affluence in learning is being relegated to consumption, not production. And how many kids get to come home and go play in the woods?

So, what would a paleo parenting diet include? It would be all of the things we look for in contemporary food sourcing trends: local, organic, free-range, seasonal ... imaginative, and, potentially, improvisational.

Sure, it might mean no GMO “grains” grown by packagers of experience – just knowledge and learning stimulated by need, ingenuity, availability, hunter-gatherer skill, and opportunity. How would the childhood diet change for the better? We would be nimble, self-reliant, questioning, adaptive, resilient. We would make our own tools, and migrate to follow “food supply.” We would feel “set down in a primal force at work.” What is the childhood learning equivalent of making flint arrowheads, or learning how close you can get to the fire? 

Yes, one could stretch the metaphor ad nauseam while speaking of processed foods versus foraging. Simply put, might the notion of paleo parenting be a model for raising the effective continuing learners that will be required in the workplace of the 21st century? Many of the things that early progressive educators, like Sarton’s teachers, were inspired by have come around again. I predict it will be trending soon. Watch your Twitter feed, info-hunter-gatherer-parents. 

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Hours before giving his State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama walks along the Colonnade at the White House in Washington, Jan. 28. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Bingo! State of the Union game created by moms' group

By Correspondent / 01.28.14

Moms of all political leanings watching the State of the Union tonight will undoubtedly have particular issues they are hoping to hear in the president address. The group MomsRising.org has released its own State of the Union Bingo game card, available for those who register on the organization’s site. 

According to a press release from the group, “Every time the President talks about one of the issues on the card, you can mark it down on the BINGO card —and maybe even raise a juice box or sippy cup in a cheer!” 

According to the MomsRising.org website, the group focuses on grassroots campaigns, started by moms, to help drive legislation and corporate action for issues that affect mothers and families. Some of the organization’s current campaigns include building better maternity and paternity leave policies, excluding toxic chemicals from children’s toys, and obtaining fair wages for women.

What can you expect to see on the Bingo card? A sampling of squares includes topics such as: maternity leave, gun legislation, affordable child care, and fair pay. The group has even left the center square of the five-by-five square board open for a “Your Choice” entry.

This undated screenshot from 2013 provided by PepsiCo shows a Super Bowl advertisement for PepsiCo's Frito-Lay's Doritos played during the 2013 Super Bowl. PepsiCo's is reprising its "Crash the Super Bowl" ad contest for the eighth consecutive year, encouraging fans to vote for a fan-created videos. (PepsiCo/AP/FILE)

Super Bowl ads blitz kids online (+video)

By Correspondent / 01.28.14

As the Super Bowl approaches, parents may have concerns over how much advertising will affect young viewers. However, a new study by Common Sense Media published today reveals that marketing to kids is already immeasurably invasive in their everyday activities.

I say “immeasurable” because, according to the Common Sense Media, researchers need to develop new methods to quantify young people's exposure to advertising.

“At this point we lack even the most rudimentary research needed for policymakers to ascertain whether certain types of practices of marketing to children are fair, such as enlisting them as 'viral' marketers, enticing them to purchase products through rewards and incentives, exposing them to product placement in popular TV shows, or encouraging them to make their own ads and enter them in a contest,” according to the report.

This study points to Nielsen data estimating kids ages 2-11 see approximately 24,000 ads per year, which seems enormous until you realize that is a drop in their mental buckets, since there is also product placement (Coke paying to have all the "American Idol" judges drinking Cokes) and embedded ads (naming products in TV or film dialogue), and online ads woven into gaming experiences.

Sounds to me as if we need further study in this area so we can craft a better system of measurement in order to create some effective boundaries for advertisers.

The study points out that kids are often engaged in "immersion games," commonly referred to as "Advergames," where the brand is woven seamlessly into the plot of the game.

The study also highlights cross-marketing between companies, such as Disney and fast food chains that offer branded toys in kids’ meals, while products from the fast food chains randomly appear in the hands of characters in kid and teen TV shows.

This topic is so much of a daily battle in my house with four sons – ages 10, 14, 18, and 20 – who love YouTube and online gaming sites. My belief is that you can raise kids to think for themselves and shake this stuff off, but it’s a constant struggle to stay vigilant against the marketing push.

I have been following the video series with Anna Lappé called Food MythBusters by watchdog group Corporate Accountability International, because the tactics and science behind them are really helpful.

The advertising that goes uncounted, and which can be the most insidious and difficult to battle, is the newer practice of engaging a child’s creativity as a participant in the ad cycle. This includes the contests challenging kids to design an ad for the product themselves, or in the case of the Super Bowl, to vote for which ad will air during the game.

The website Armor Games sucks kids right into this process, via the Doritos "Crash The Super Bowl" contest, in which five fans have a shot at having their commercial play during the game.

The top item on the Armor Games site is an ad bearing the image of a little boy in a cowboy hat next to the words, “Help us win the Doritos contest. VOTE for Cowboy Kid!”

Of the five finalists’ videos, two have kids as the main characters 

I let my 10-year-old son Quin click on the videos, which were all pretty funny, until we got to the one in the series. Business Insider has announced the last video we clicked on, titled "Finger Cleaner," by Thomas Noakes of Sydney, Australia, as the projected winner.

I wish I’d seen the Business Insider story on this particular video before I ever allowed my son to click on it.

Business Insider declared this video “absolutely disgusting” adding “It's shockingly sexual. In the worst way possible.” That assessment is right on the money.

The premise is this: a man, his fingers covered in the orange Dorito powder – the result of wolfing down a bag of chips – sticks his finger into a hole in the wall to get it “cleaned.”

At the end of the video, viewers see it revealed that on the other side of the wall is a man who loves Dorito dust. Ick.

I was relieved when my son handled the gross factor by saying, “Oh that’s disgusting. Do you know how many germs that is? Plus the engine grease under the Dorito dust would make it taste bad. Next!”

You can be darn sure that you will not see a bag of Doritos in this house on Super Bowl Sunday, especially if that ad is selected. I don’t want that image rattling around the heads of my other sons, who might not dismiss it as quickly as my youngest. 

In an effort to change the discussion from Doritos to anything else I asked my son if he notices the ads online.

“It’s just too overflowing sometimes,” said Quin, who loves YouTube for its science and gaming videos, and often plays games online because it’s more affordable than buying a game system.

“On YouTube I usually choose the “skip ad” option and pass them,” he said. “Here’s the thing, sometimes they don’t have the SKIP option.”

That is “the thing” alright.

Thanks to this study parents have a lot to digest and much of it will not sit well.

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In this 2008 file image, young volunteers prepare to head out and canvass a neighborhood – encouraging voters to pick Obama. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/FILE)

How do you raise well-informed kids?

By Staff writer / 01.28.14

I wish I could say that I embarked on parenthood with a clear game plan for how to raise well-informed kids who care about the world, their neighborhood, and what the president has to say in his next State of the Union address.

But I didn’t, my Helicopter Mom status notwithstanding. And then life intervened. When my kids were 3 and 5, I became a single mom, and for the rest of their childhood was their primary parent. I was (and still am) working full time for the Monitor, and just getting dinner on the table in a reasonably timely fashion was good enough.

I don’t recall putting “Let’s discuss the front page of today’s Washington Post” on the menu. But I do recall a vague thought process. I would center conversations on what they were interested in – their school day, their activities, their friends – and let them bring up something in the news they might be wondering about, if they wanted. 

I’m also a big believer in leading by example. You want your kids to read the paper? Then read the paper yourself. Listen to NPR in the car on the way to school. Watch presidential debates together. (They might get bored, but they’ll remember that you thought it was interesting.) Let them see you reading the New Yorker or the Economist or that terrific new book about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

When something jaw-dropping happens – like 9/11 – that’s an obvious time to drill down on making sure they know what happened, how it affects them, and that they’re safe. On Sept. 11, 2001, my kids were in fourth and sixth grades at a DC public elementary school about three miles from the White House. They had friends with parents who worked at the Pentagon, and fortunately no one they knew lost a loved one.

But 9/11 is an extreme example. Most Washington news isn’t all that interesting to kids – except for elections. Politics is kind of like sports: There are winners and losers, “good guys” and “bad guys,” and if there’s a family “team,” kids will almost surely pick up on that, even if you’re not putting out a yard sign. I remember chanting on the playground in 1968, “Nixon’s the one, Humphrey is a bum!” I couldn’t have told you anything about Richard Nixon’s policy ideas, but somehow I was certain he should be our next president.

In our house, as a rule, we don’t put out yard signs, because I cover politics. I have only one requirement: You have to vote.

On Election Day 2012, I put a short post on Facebook saying that I had told all my kids – including now a stepson – that I don’t care how you vote, but you must vote. And that includes all the initiatives on the ballot in California, where two of my three kids were living. Study up in advance, I advised. Those ballot measures can be long and complicated.

Soon, a “friend” replied that I was irresponsible not to make sure that my kids were going to vote “correctly.” Wow, I thought. Is that really the role of a parent, to tell their kids how to vote?

I recalled dinner with friends and their 20-year-old son, who announced that he didn’t like either President Obama or Mitt Romney, and was going to vote third party (in Wisconsin, where he was attending college). His parents were apoplectic. That’s a big mistake! they told him. You’re throwing out your vote! In a battleground state!

Again, I was a bit taken aback. Maybe, I thought, this kid needs to vote third party and see how that feels. After all, Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes certainly wouldn’t hinge on his vote alone. But I wasn’t going to tell my friends how to parent their son. So I kept quiet. 

The farthest I’ve gone in instructing my kids on election matters is advising them to vote at college (out of state) and not in the District of Columbia, since DC doesn’t have voting representation in Congress.

In my family, whom you vote for is a deeply personal matter, and it’s nobody’s business. By the time kids are old enough to vote, they’re old enough to figure out whom to vote for on their own. You want to talk about issues? Ask away.

The main thing, for parents, is to give kids the tools to reach their own conclusions. When my kids went off to college, I gave them student subscriptions to a few publications. So it may come as no surprise that my kids – boys out of college, daughter still in – are big consumers of news. Print newspapers are largely dinosaurs in their world, except for the Sunday New York Times.

On a night in, my 23-year-old son loves nothing more than to snuggle up with his iPad and read the Economist or the New Yorker. Mom still likes the print versions, so it’s perfect. For the price of one subscription per magazine, everybody gets what they want.

Mark Risinger, 16, checks his Facebook page on his computer as his mother, Amy Risinger, looks on at their home in Glenview, Ill. on October 24, 2013. (Nam Y. Huh/AP/FILE)

Should slang-deciphering software be used in US schools?

By Correspondent / 01.27.14

Parents are always looking for more insight into their children’s conversations with friends and a software company in the UK seems to have come up with a way of bringing teachers into the language loop by harkening back to William Saffire-style modern slang updates.

It came to light last week that an educational software package available by Impero, a UK-based software developer, has the capability to flag the use of words and slang terms related to bullying and self-harm for teachers, allowing them to step in for the safety of students.

According to The Guardian newspaper, “The software is used by 1,400 schools in the UK and has also been used in the US to combat gangs. It generates reports for teachers identifying problematic online behaviour.”

Jonathan Valentine, founder of Impero, mentioned on Twitter that the software sends an alert to teachers when a student is typing one of the words that falls into the screening parameters.

According to the Guardian report, “The software uses a constantly updated dictionary which includes words that most adults would not understand.”

This sounds like something I would like to see used more extensively in American schools for more than gang-violence prevention.

As a mom, I try to keep up with the new “slanguage" my teens are using, but that’s just to avoid being the clueless parent the kids roll their eyes at.

This software has a practical application that American schools have only just scratched the surface.

Impero has worked with the Anti-Bullying Alliance, students, and teachers to create the dictionary within the software, which includes words that deal with such topics as: sexting, suicide, grooming, self-harm, adult content, eating disorders, bullying and trolling, racism, and homophobia.

As a parent, I am very committed to ending bullying and abuse in our schools, but I worry that at any time my one of my children could be “flagged” by a computer program and singled out for a harmless comment online.

For instance, a teen mentioning their disapproval of “getting naked on camera” – or using the acronym “gnoc” to explain the same thing – could send an alert to the system.

However, it is because of the suicide prevention aspect, more than anything, that I am in support of this software being used in the US.

Today is the funeral for my son's friend, who committed suicide. It was the parents’ in-home discovery of their child harming herself that led to them seeking help for her, but one might wonder what could have been detected online even earlier.

While nobody will ever know if being alerted to this young woman’s self-hurting sooner could have made any difference in the outcome, I am left viewing this software differently because of my son’s friend.

It is worth considering the potential for use of Impero’s software on school and personal home computers.

Your kids may hate you for invading their privacy. Whenever my concerns over their welfare make them angry with me I tell them, “It’s my job to do everything in my power to keep you in this world a good long time to hate on my parenting.”

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In this updated photo taken by Foster Care India, a young man takes a break to supervise the hand processing of tamarind in a poor area near the railway station in Udaipur, India. (Ian Anand Forber-Pratt/Foster Care India)

Foster care takes root in India. How does it differ from adoption?

By Guest Blogger / 01.27.14

Family is an important component in anyone’s life. But those deprived of connections to their biological family, especially children, need access to programs that supplement a caring, safe environment for personal growth.

Currently, across the globe, there is a push for non-institutional alternative care solutions for children. International authorities are beginning to demand every child's right to grow up in a family-based setting.

Many of us, however, find that the options for the care of children are tough to differentiate. It is necessary to understand the difference between adoption and foster care so that the picture becomes clearer when it comes to global action.  

Adoption is a legally permanent living situation where the biological parents’ rights are surrendered and the child becomes a legal member of the adoptive family. Foster care is a temporary living situation in which the foster family has guardianship only. The child’s biological parents still remain his or her legal parents, unless their parental rights were terminated by law. So, we can say adoption is legally permanent and foster care is temporary.

In the case of adoption, the biological parents do not have a right to care for or control the assets of their child after adoption. 

Adoption benefits include a sense of permanence for the adopted child, as children know they are going to be a part of an adoptive family their whole lives. This permanence fosters a feeling of inclusivity from the family and sense of belonging for the adopted child.

In cases of foster care, the foster parents are responsible for providing the child with all the facilities of family life – to nurture children in order to benefit their personal growth and identity – without maintaining control of a child's assets or rights. 

The concept of foster care internationally is relatively new. For instance, in India, the foster care system is in its infancy. The Central Adoption Resource Authority in India has recently made conscious effort to put priority on domestic, safe adoptions and the entire country is moving toward a focus on non-institutional care options. Indian states are given the authority to expand their child protection laws, and the implementation of non-institutional care varies by state.

In India, it has been found that one of the reasons why families may prefer foster care instead of adoption is that they are not under an obligation to make the foster child a legal heir to the parents’ property.

This is related to one negative point which subsists in both adoption and foster care worldwide. Children under adoptive or foster care may not receive equal treatment given to the biological children of the family. To overcome this, there are provisions under foster care under India’s Juvenile Justice Act (2000, 2006) and Integrated Child Protection Scheme (2009) that keep regular checks on the parents so that no child’s rights are affected in any way.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child also demands children be supervised in any care environment. However, in case of adoption, there is often little follow-up.

If we look at the line of difference between adoption and foster care, both are means through which every child can find care in a family setting, but the international scope of foster care is still taking shape, providing a new option for childcare in India and worldwide.

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. Kripa Devpura is a member of the Foster Care India organization, which can be found at fostercareindia.org.

A picture of crepe myrtle trees in Norfolk, Va., with red ribbons tied around the trees in honor of Sarah Peterson, a local teen who died January 20 after an attempting suicide on January 16. (Liz Etheridge Philpott)

What do you say to your child after the death of their friend?

By Correspondent / 01.27.14

Editor’s Note: Sarah Peterson, 15, of Norfolk, Va., died Jan. 20, after attempting suicide Jan. 16. Monitor blogger Lisa Suhay is a neighbor of Sarah's family and her 14-year-old son, Avery, was a friend of Sarah's. Local media, guided by ethical concerns, does not report on the specifics of suicide by minors, but the Virginian-Pilot published Sarah's obituary. Ms. Suhay, concerned about her son's reaction to the suicide, wrote the letter below to Avery. She spoke directly with the Peterson family, neighbor-to-neighbor, about it and they agreed that publishing it could be a service to community awareness and healing. The Peterson family is planning to start The Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation to help address and heal teen depression through education and research.

Dear Avery,

I know you don’t want to talk about Sarah’s suicide. You say it’s not affecting you at all, you’re “fine” and “she’s just a girl who lived down the street.”

Because you’re a 14-year-old boy and I realize boys may approach grief differently than girls, I’m tempted to roll with that.

However, I’m your mom and you’re not looking me in the eye when you tell me you’re fine which has my parental radar on high alert.

Also, it’s not “some girl down the street,” it’s Sarah, who was at our front door nearly every day all summer long asking for you.

It was Sarah, of the long, wavy, white-blond hair and cheery disposition. She disguised her depression and emotional suffering so perfectly that an entire community sits in dazed mourning today.

She and her friend would come to the door numerous times a day, giggling as you exaggerated an eye roll and waved them away saying, “Shoo! Scat! I have other stuff to do right now. Sheesh!” You had already spent hours of teen time wandering the neighborhood with those two and your circle of summer pals.

Also, it took you four days to tell me about Sarah.

When you finally did, your head was down, you tried to get the sentence out so fast it was like seeing someone rip off a bandaid to show mom a glimpse of the hurt.

Then you got that wound wrapped up tight as fast as possible.

You said, “I didn’t mention it because it didn’t affect me.”

A moment later you added, “Also, I just wasn’t accepting it. I’m still not accepting it.”

Kid, you are not fine. I know this because you failed to tell me the whole story.

The truth is that when you told me about her suicide, Sarah was still alive.

She was lying in a hospital bed, her brain activity had ended after her suicide, but it would be another four days before she was removed from life support.

I found out through Facebook, where her parents posted notes to the community.

Her parents are great parents. They didn’t fail her in any way. Her dad wrote that Sarah hid her depression so well her parents only found out last month and while they got her help immediately she was unable to cope.

While you may feel I was prying into your life, I was really trying to figure out why our entire neighborhood was tying red ribbons (Sarah’s favorite color) on everything and posting the message “Pray for Sarah” everywhere.

They were praying for a miracle.

Those ribbons remind me of you because, like you, they’re all tied up tight, being savaged by the howling cold that’s set in here this past week.

I let you have space and time because I knew you were trying to cope all on your own.

Maybe you do that because you have never seen your father shed a tear under any circumstances.

So, let me tell you that your father’s eyes welled up when I told him about Sarah, and he had only met her once.

After I told him, he mortified you with that big, awkward hug in the hallway.

Because your head was buried in his embrace as he rocked you, you didn’t see his eyes, teary and filled with worry for you.

That’s what happens to parents when they hear that one of their child’s friends has taken his or her own life in a time of deepest despair.

We become terribly selfish.

While we immediately feel pain for your friend’s parents and family we are stricken with immeasurable terror at the thought of losing you.

I know you wish I’d shut up. I heard you loud and clear each and every time you said, “Why is everyone making such a big deal? I’m fine. This is embarrassing. I just want it all to go away. STOP!”

It will stop, but I don’t want the part of you that cares and shows emotion, sadness, grief, and love to go away.

That’s why I am sending you out on your bike in the cold today, to follow the trail of red ribbons from our house to Sarah’s house and beyond, to the hundreds that flutter in the wind down her block.

Then you can blame any tears you might shed on the bitter cold gusts animating the ribbons as they and you wave goodbye to both Sarah and the idea that we can avoid the pain of loss by pretending we don’t feel it.

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The Arizona State University fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon hosted a distasteful party in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, replete with racist stereotypes and offensive costumes. The Rev. Jarrett Maupin, center, an Arizona civil rights activist, speaks during a news conference in Phoenix in response to the party on Jan. 21. (Jarrett Maupin/Brian Skoloff/AP)

Ja'han Jones' graceful, necessary response to Tau Kappa Epsilon

By Correspondent / 01.23.14

Ja’han Jones, the student president of the African American Men of Arizona State University, has issued a calm, caring, and measured response to the brothers of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, following the group’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Black Party.” 

Mr. Jones’ mature and well-crafted message underlines the need for parents to reinforce with their children that MLK Day is never a holiday from good grace, but rather an invitation for grace throughout the year.

The Brothers of Tau Kappa Epsilon apparently decided to demonstrate their mission statement “to aid men in their mental, moral, and social development for life” by throwing an MLK Day “Black Party” and dressing up as demeaning racial stereotypes.

I live in the south, where race is an issue gliding just below the surface, much like a shark waiting to break a flat, calm sea. Being born in New York City and being raised in New Jersey, it still shocks me when I hear someone here that is white grumbling, “Why do we still need MLK Day when there’s a black president?”

This incident, and many more like it, is why we need to talk with our kids about racial equality more days than just one, and emphasize that mocking people, especially an entire race, is never, ever, acceptable.

I admire that, while many people would have reached for their poison pen in response, Mr. Jones took the high road.

In his online letter, "To the Brothers of Tau Kappa Epsilon," Jones wrote the kind of response one might expect of a seasoned parent. He wrote:

“I am concerned, however, that your legacy is enduring an almost-irreparable damage, and further, that you’ve demonstrated a willingness to endure this damage for meager laughs and degradation at the expense of the African American community,” Jones wrote. “I am concerned that your organization’s self-professed mission to “aid men in their mental, moral, and social development for life” eludes you with such heinous acts as your most recent ‘MLK Black Party’.

As the mother of four sons, I would be so proud if one of my boys were to write such a clear-minded rebuke. Personally, it took me a good hour before I could lower my temper and raise my writing game to Jones’ level.

As a mother, I ask, how many times do we need to talk about this before we get the message? The actions of frats and sororities need some improved mentoring from their own parent organizations, because while moms and dads at home may have drummed values into the heads of their children before they left for school, Greek life seems to bring on amnesia for what is appropriate behavior.

In this particular case, the TKE “parent” organization issued a statement distancing itself from the base acts of its offspring. Chief Information Officer Alex Baker wrote about the incident:

“Tau Kappa Epsilon does not condone or support any actions by its members that would be defined as racist, discriminatory, and/or offensive. Social events with "party themes" that are defined as such have no place in our fraternity's mission or purpose. It is with embarrassment and regret when a few individuals within our organization make decisions that do not align with the values and principles of Tau Kappa Epsilon.”

I want the TKE national organization to read Jones’ words:

“I am concerned that your fraternal structure is transforming into an echo chamber for racism. And further, I am concerned that not a man stood among you brothers with the foresight to predict the shame such an event would heap upon your organization.”

Yet, Jones stopped short of condemning the Greek system. Instead, he offered true fraternity in the form of brotherhood, suggesting they meet and discuss ways to improve the situation.

In that respect, Jones reminded me of something Mahatma Gandhi once counseled, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

It was Jones’ reserve that made me consider how, as parents, we may be allowing our children to be conditioned to think that races being civil to each other is something that comes on a single date on the calendar, marked by a day off from school.

While we may have taught our children something about the civil rights movement, what have we shared about our personal responsibility to be civil and loving to others? 

Our responsibility in 2014 and beyond is to teach our children, no matter how old they may be, to behave toward others with the integrity and brotherhood demonstrated by Jones in the face of such ignorant behavior as TKE members demonstrated.

At the end of the day, it’s about breaking the cycle of racism and ugliness, and teaching our kids about kindness and caring that is celebrated everyday.

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