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Only 28.3 percent of speaking characters in family films are female, found a new report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The princess stereotype – sometimes seen in Disney Princess movies – is popular among little girls like these dressed as Princess Tiana from 'The Princess and the Frog' at the Disney Princess Royal Court Crowning Event in New York, in March 2010. (AP)

Parenting media savvy kids: Counter pop culture gender stereotypes

By Correspondent / 12.04.12

Next time you take the fam to the movies, give an extra close look at who on screen is doing the talking. Chances are, it’s not going to be the girl character.

In a new report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California found that only 28.3 percent of the speaking characters in family films (and 30.8 percent in children’s television shows) are female. Few stories are “gender-balanced,” or show females in 45.1 to 55 percent of all speaking rolls (11 percent of family films fit this category), while quite a few are very “male-centric.” (Fifty percent of family films and 39 percent of children's shows cast boys or men in 75 percent or more of the speaking roles.)

And it gets better.

Of those characters who do have speaking rolls, the ones shown working are typically male. (Females make up 20.3 percent of the total on-screen occupations in family films and represent 25.3 percent of those employed in children’s shows.) Prestigious jobs and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers also go to the guys.

Meanwhile – surprise, surprise – the characters more likely to be shown as thin, dressed in tight or otherwise provocative clothing or with exposed skin are female. (Yup, even in family films.)

The message, researchers conclude, is that girls should learn to be cute, quiet, and unemployed.  Nice, right?

“Female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped and sexualized in popular entertainment content,” they write.


Disappointing, I guess, but not a particularly surprising report. 

The realization that male characters drive the plot while female characters act as decoration is neither new nor under-analyzed  We have written a lot ourselves about the sexualization of young girls and the gender stereotypes in popular media.

But reports like this do point out that these sorts of stereotypes are a continuing problem, despite an awful lot of attention by advocates and media-watchers. And they give a heads up to parents to be aware.

Which is all well and good, you might say, but...  what’s a mom or dad to do about this?  

It’s a question I’ve asked a number of child development experts over the past couple of years. Although there are a variety of answers and suggestions for ways to give kids some ammunition against gender stereotypes in children’s programming, the consensus is that it’s important to turn your little ones into pint-sized media critics.

This means being a critic yourself, and noticing that it’s the female character (animated or not) who does the dishes, or the teenage boy who is going on the adventure. Then talk with your children about it. With, notice, and not at.   Ask them why they think that the female character is always wearing skirts. Ask why there might not be any female scientists. Don’t judge the answers, the child experts will often say, because the goal is to promote conversation and not to suggest that your daughter’s favorite television show character is, well, lame.

Many experts say the point is to get your kids to recognize that there are assumptions being made by those who create programming – often assumptions tied to commercial goals. And just because it's on screen, children don't need to copy. 

Maybe moms and dads can learn that lesson, too.

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A screen shot of the 'Arducopter' on a test flight. (YouTube screenshot)

Helicopter parent: Techy dad builds drone to hover over kid (+video)

By / 12.03.12

Parents going along on their kids’ job interviews is so 2012.  The new helicopter parent is way cooler.

Think drones

RELATED: Are you a Helicopter Parent? Take our quiz!

The new trend (OK, it’s not a trend yet, but maybe it should be) started in Vermont, where a tech-savvy dad, fatigued by the frigid walk to the bus stop with his grade-school-age son, built a helicopter-like drone to do the job instead.

Dad Paul Wallich wrote about his efforts this month in the technology magazine “IEEE Spectrum,” where he is a contributing editor.

“Last winter, I fantasized about sitting at my computer while a camera-equipped drone followed him overhead,” he wrote. “So this year, I set out to build one.”

He collected a quadcopter design airframe, some motors and propellers, built legs to cushion the machine’s landing and gathered a whole bunch of equipment for the main control board that I believe he put together himself.  (I say I “believe” this because although I have read his explanatory paragraph about this about 10 times now, I don’t get it.  I might be shut out of this fad.) 

He installed software that helps fly helicopters (in the making for several years, he wrote, by open-source enthusiasts) and worked to create a GPS beacon that “could fit unobtrusively into my child’s backpack.”

Eventually, he got the machine operational and sent it, and his son, on their way.

It worked, sort of. 

Mr. Wallich told NBS that as it turns out, Vermont is a tough place for the new helicopter parenting, at least in its original design.

“You have hills and you have trees,” he said. “Hills mean the altitude control gets a lot more complicated and trees mean you have to do obstacle avoidance.
“If my kid is walking along the road and there is a branch overhanging the road, the quadcopter will gleefully run smack into it.”

He says he might be able to add sonar for collision control. He doesn’t want to fly the thing any lower to the ground because it could be dangerous. (The new helicopter parent does have standards, you know.)

Wallich says he will also have to work on the machine’s battery life.

Already, the dad has received some criticism. Some people have wondered whether this new machine is a further step in the over-protection of our children; a menacing invasion of their privacy; a tool to bring helicopter parenting to a dark, new level.

Wallich’s son, however, is thrilled by the machine, his dad says. After all, no other student has a dad who builds robot drones to go to the bus stop. 

And it’s not like the drone is going on the bus, or arguing with teachers over grades.

“The actual idea that this thing would be following him around for real, rather than for fun?  I don’t think that would actually go over terribly well,” Wallich said to NBC.

Personally, I think it’s fantastic.

RELATED: Are you a Helicopter Parent? Take our quiz!

Now I am just hoping that Wallich might be inspired to created a drone that can both follow a child and take the dog for a walk at the same time. That’s the type of helicopter parenting I could get into this winter.

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Fred Savage Tweeted his baby announcement on Nov. 26. Here, Mr. Savage in Los Angeles, Nov. 29, 2012. (Todd Williamson/Invision for Details Magazine/AP)

Fred Savage baby, holiday shopping and more: Our parenting news roundup

By Correspondent / 11.30.12

Fred Savage, of “Wonder Years” fame, made a cryptic birth announcement via Twitter. Vice President Joe Biden and Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker decided this week to go shopping with the people. And new reports show both birth rates and child sexual assaults are down.

Yes, it’s time for our Friday parenting news wrap up – a helpful guide for those of you who might have missed the news, or just spent this week in a post-Turkey (or family gathering) haze. 

The price is right...
If you were a Washington, D.C. parent and had decided Thursday morning to head to Costco to grab a jumbo pack of, I don’t know, Honey Nut Cheerios, you may have well run into fellow shopper Joe Biden. As in, Veep.

Yes, the second in line to the presidency made an appearance at the store’s opening, pushing a shiny, new, extra large cart in order to grab some cookies, kids’ clothing, fire logs and – he’s one of the people, after all – a new flat screen television.  (He did decline a set of new tires, saying he didn’t drive anymore, but what can you do.)

As The Monitor’s Peter Grier wrote in the Decoder Wire, there are plenty of reasons Mr. Biden might have wanted to do a Costco run, ranging from political reward-giving to promoting urban business development. But we at Modern Parenthood wonder if there’s something more: With the mom vote proving so important this past election, and pundits focusing on the so-called “Walmart Mom” in particular, maybe Biden wanted to show that he knows how to bargain shop with the best of them.

If that’s the case, though, he’s still no match for Newark Mayor Cory Booker. That same day, Mr. Booker told the Associated Press that he will live on food stamps for a week, starting Nov. 27.  He has challenged Twitter followers and even some celebrities to join him in the effort – part of a campaign by a number of public figures to show the difficulties of living on government assistance. (In New Jersey the monthly food stamp benefit is around $134 a month.  Booker says he will be limited to $1.40 per meal.)

Next week, the pols reveal their favorite couponing strategies.

Sexual assault down
Here’s a positive, if sober, news item that came out this week: Researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center said that data coming from a number of sources seem to indicate that sexual crimes against children have declined significantly since the 1990s.  Violent crime overall has also dropped during this period, but there are conflicting reports as to whether physical (not sexual) child-abuse has declined.

Some of the stats: 

  • FBI statistics based on local law enforcement crime reports show a 35 percent drop in sex crimes overall between 1992 and 2010; with 50 percent of rape victims younger than 18, these numbers suggest a drop in child assaults.
  • The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, showed a 62 percent decline in substantiated sexual abuse between 1992 and 2010.
  • And the National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence, conducted in 2009, found that 2 percent of children ages two to 17 had been sexually assaulted, down from 3.3 percent in a survey five years earlier.

Sexual assault statistics (and local crime statistics overall, for that matter) are notoriously problematic as far as accuracy and reporting go.

Still, we’ll take it.

No baby boom here
Feel like all of your friends are giving birth these days? Are the post-work get-togethers dwindling? Is holiday party chatter veering dangerously away from hip new restaurants and adventure travel  toward strollers and preschools?

Well, we’re here to say that, yup, it’s just you.

A new report from the Pew Research Center, putting together numbers from US Census data and National Vital Statistics Reports from the US Centers for Disease Control, says that the birth rate last year was the lowest in recorded history. Immigrant women having fewer babies was the main reason for the drop, Pew says. (The birth rate for US-born women has been declining for a while.) You can check out our piece on this here for more details.

Get out the vote: Pink LEGOs versus the 7-11 Slurpee Maker
Each year before the holidays, in a mocking companion to the Toy Industry Association’s Toy of the Year Award (aka TOTY), the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood presents its TOADY Award.  (That’s Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young Children, if you couldn’t figure out the acronym on your own.)  The group tries to pick the worst toy of the year out of a disturbingly large choice of items that either promote the sexualization of children or push branded and screen-time based entertainment at the expense of other sorts of play.

Now, you can vote among the finalists. These include the LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop, in which girls can play with shapely LEGO figures at a LEGO hair salon, helping them “get primped and pretty” or “shop for makeup and hair accessories.” (“How do you turn one of the all-time great toys into a TOADY contender?” the advocacy group writes. “Give it a makeover!”)  There’s the Put Me In the Story App by Jabberwocky Kids, which allows children to insert themselves as the main e-book character in a choice of otherwise classic children’s stories.

And, perhaps my personal favorite in the age of obesity, the 7-11 Slurpee Maker by Spin Master, with which kids can make their very own Slurpees. Awesome. Health concerns aside, though, it’s the branding that got the Slurpee Making nominated for a TOADY. The toy comes with the 7-11 logo, and a coupon for a free real Slurpee. 

Voting is open through Dec. 5 on The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood website.

Baby tweet

And because we admit to indulging in celebrity baby news now and then...  Fred Savage – who, I admit, in my mind will always be Kevin Arnold of the “Wonder Years” – has a new baby son. Or so we assume, from a Tweet the actor sent out Nov. 26. The character-limited announcement included a snapshot of a baby’s hand and the words “he’s here.”  No public info yet on when the baby was born or the name. Mr. Savage and wife Jennifer already have a 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. 

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Birth rates in the US hit an all-time low in 2011. (AP)

Birth rate in US hits record low, led by decrease in births to immigrant women (+video)

By Correspondent / 11.30.12

This just in from the Pew Research Center:  The  US birth rate – the number of births per 1,000 women – fell last year to a record low, led by a significant decrease in the number of children born to immigrant women.

Based on preliminary data, Pew says, the country’s birth rate in 2011 was 63.2 per 1,000  women – about half the rate of the Baby Boom years, when, in 1957, say, there were 122.7 babies per 1,000 women. (Only a decent percentage of whom were named Donna, Susan or Linda.) That’s the lowest since at least 1920, when the government began keeping reliable birth rate statistics.

In real numbers, these figures mean that 3.95 million little bundles of joy born last year. (Which really, when you stop to think about it, is sort of overwhelming. One has managed to deconstruct our household.)

Anyhow, while immigrant women still accounted for a disproportionate share of births (17 percent of women ages 14 to 44 in the US are foreign-born, while 23 percent of all births are to foreign-born moms), the birth rate for that population has dipped in recent  years.  Pew found that after a decade and a half of increase, the birth rate for immigrant women dropped 14 percent between 2007 and 2011; the birth rate for Mexican women fell by 23 percent.

Researchers say this drop in immigrant birth rate is the result of behavior change rather than a shift in population composition. And while they didn’t investigate in this study the particular reasons for this apparent behavioral disinclination to procreate, previous Pew reports have tied fertility decline to economic stress.  (Ah, 2007 to 2011. You can connect the dots.) 

All of this comes, it’s important to mention, in the context of a lot of speculation – political, social, you name it – about the future demographic makeup of the US. 

Pew has projected that immigrants who have arrived here since 2005, and their descendants, will account for 82 percent of US population growth by 2050. Earlier this year there was a lot of press about US Census Bureau numbers showing that in 2011, for the first time, white babies were no longer the majority. (Minority babies made up 50.4 percent of the country’s births, although there were still more white babies born than any other individual group.)

The US still does not face the same population imbalance problem as, say, Japan, where low fertility rates are a national concern. (The Japanese government recently estimated that its country’s population would shrink by 30 percent by 2060.) But policies such as social security, where younger workers pay for the elderly, are dependent on population growth – or at least stability. 

Even during the recent presidential campaign, pundits speculating about the future of the Republican party turned to demographic patterns, and the unequal birth rate between whites and Hispanics, as proof that the GOP needs to adjust its policies to stay relevant.

Some other tidbits from the Pew report:

Teen moms were more likely to be US-born women than immigrant women. (Eleven percent of US moms were in their teens in 2010, compared with 5 percent of foreign-born mothers.)

The majority of births to US-born women in 2010 (66 percent) were to white mothers. The majority of births to foreign-born women were to Hispanic moms.

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A new study showing the ubiquity of toxic flame retardant chemicals can make even the sofa suspect as parents try to reason through child safety. (Staff)

Parenting strategy for facing toxic flame retardant chemicals

By Correspondent / 11.29.12

I have already bid a sad farewell to the Bumbo chair and have steeled myself to resist all of those adorable crib bumpers for sale in every kids catalog.

I have resolved that Buckeyballs, no matter how super cool, will not make an appearance in my home for the next two decades.

RELATED: The Top 5 tips for fostering gratitude in kids

And despite a few days of frantic, somewhat obsessive Internet research on the relative dangers of bassinets and cradles (do you know that there are no federal safety standards for those items???), I thought that I was pretty much through my pre-baby anxiety stage.

After all, I did my time during those months before Baby M arrived. (Do not ask me about the evils of pressed particle board. At least not around my poor husband, who I’m sure has already heard enough.) The Web is wonderful in many ways, but can be dangerous in the third trimester.

But then came more news this week about flame retardants.

It is not just sharp objects, stroller recalls and the dangers of plastic sippy-cups that should plague my mind and torture my Google, it turns out. Now, it appears, I must also fear my couch. 

And Baby M’s crib blankets.

Although concerns about flame retardant chemicals have been around for decades, a study released today in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology” outlines how widespread the chemicals have become in furniture (researchers found flame retardant in 85 percent of couches studied) and how manufacturers have basically swapped banned flame retardants for another, similar compound. 

Other reports have pointed out that chemicals thought to be off the market are still showing up in everything from baby blankets to breast milk, and at least one chemical manufacturer has said that it will stop making one flame retardant – a substance known as “chlorniated tris” – for use in furniture and children’s products as of Jan. 1.  (This, mind you, after many companies agreed to voluntarily remove this very same product from children’s pajamas.... in the 1970s.)

Meanwhile, there is a growing collection of studies, including one published a couple of weeks ago in the journal “Environmental Health Perspectives,” connecting high levels of the chemicals in children's blood to a range of health problems.

The background of all of this is fascinating. The Chicago Tribune published an investigative series in May that looked at the prevalence of the toxins in American homes (U.S. babies have the highest recorded levels of flame retardants in their systems among infants anywhere in the world) as well as some of the intrigue that led to their proliferation.

Reporters found that Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers waged what they called “deceptive campaigns” to spread use of the chemicals, including a phony consumer watchdog group that spread the fear of fire and tried to shift the blame for furniture blazes off of cigarettes and onto foam and fabric. The journalists determined that flame retardants don’t work as portrayed, and found that regulators have done little to assess their health risks.


Take that, trampolines.

For their part, I should also mention, chemical companies say there is no proven health danger from flame retardants, and say that the chemicals are better than immediately combustible crib mattresses. Or other furniture items.

Still, according to news reports, there appears to be a growing backlash against the widespread use of flame retardants. (One of the particularly creepy aspects of this, advocates say, is that because of flammability standards, particularly those passed in California, there’s hardly any way to get upholstered furniture, or kids’ pajamas, that do not have the chemicals.) Politicians and consumer groups are starting to demand some answers – and changes.

RELATED: Top 5 parenting tips for media literacy in preschoolers

So at least there's something that can ease my worries. This growing debate, wherever one might stand on the topic, seems to be a hopeful sign that a lot of people do care about kids’ wellbeing.

I’ll be following what happens.  And in the meantime, I will try to limit the Google.

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Rescue dog Albie – the half yellow-Lab – and his pal Reilly were inseparable during Reilly's five-day sleepover. (Courtesy of the Zheutlin family)

Rescue dog: Two head of dog on a five-day sleepover – rodeo!

By Correspondent / 11.23.12

Readers who have been following the story of Albie, our half yellow-Lab, half golden retriever, know that a tipping point in our decision to adopt him came last May when we took care of Reilly for a few days, a black Lab who belongs to our friends Anne Marie and Dave. Reilly was remarkably mellow and easy to have around, and for the first time in many years, I imagined myself with a dog.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

Last week, Reilly came for a return engagement when Anne Marie and Dave went to visit their daughter in Spain. Imagine a five-day sleepover with two 10-year-olds and you have some idea of life with Reilly and Albie.

Like jealous siblings, a pat on the head for one inevitably brought the other nosing in for equal treatment. 

Reilly, 11, almost somnolent during his first visit, rediscovered his youthful energy while hanging around with his newfound, much younger friend. He especially enjoyed taking whichever of Albie’s toys Albie was interested in at the moment and Albie, used to being the only one, and therefore top dog in our house, seemed unsure how to respond. Mostly he just deferred to Reilly and looked up at us, plaintively, as if to ask, “Will he be staying long?”

Since Albie has gradually wormed his way into our bed at night, this posed a dilemma for Reilly. Albie clearly had the most coveted sleeping spot in the house and Reilly was reduced to sleeping on the floor next to our bed.

Score one for Albie.

But invariably, at some point in the wee hours of the morning, Reilly would be up pacing around and Albie would join him, two dogs looking for something to do as Judy and I looked at each other plaintively, wondering, “Will they be staying up long?”

Walking both of them together proved challenging because they move at very different paces. Albie, driven by his keen sense of smell and puppy-like energy, takes the Obama campaign motto, "Forward," as his own – preferably at a brisk pace. He’s the canine equivalent of a wide receiver.

Reilly, whose stocky body and broad head are reminiscent of an offensive lineman’s, lumbers down the street in six-inch increments, stopping to smell every leaf, twig, and branch along the way.

The obvious solution was to take them separately, but that proved heartrending. When I had Albie out, Reilly sat by the door whimpering and crying, and when I had Reilly out, Albie did the same.

Reilly was with us the week after our first dog-training class, the one I described in last week’s column. We have been practicing by having Albie sit and lie down on voice commands and rewarding him with treats.

Since Reilly had to be wherever Albie was, he also got in on the action, but he already knew the commands. As both of them looked up eagerly at us, we’d say, “Down.” While Albie, head slightly cocked to one side, was trying to remember what he was supposed to do, Reilly was dropping to the floor and reaping the rewards. Albie looked confused. And Reilly doesn’t lie down gradually and gently as most dogs do – he just drops suddenly onto his belly with his legs splayed out in all directions like he’s been shot.

Nor does he take treats gently from your hand as Albie does: If you offer Reilly a treat, watch your fingers.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

They really were very cute together, an odd couple of sorts. Except for a little mutual jealousy, they got along just fine. But next time Reilly is coming for a visit, we’re going to suggest Albie put away his favorite toys.

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.

Thanksgiving gratitude is not seasonal. Arabelle Broscious, 5, of Mount Carmel, Pa. participated in a candy collection Nov. 5 as part of Operation Gratitude, a program designed to send Halloween candy to US Armed Forces overseas as a way to say thanks. (AP)

Thanksgiving: Teaching gratitude is always in season

By Guest Blogger / 11.21.12

It's a little ironic that the season in which we give thanks and the one in which our children are making their holiday wish lists come so close together.

We try to give our children so much but sometimes forget to give them the greatest gift, the capacity to appreciate and to feel grateful. Without that, we can never give them enough. We may want to give them many things, but how do we do this and not give them a sense of entitlement?

This, like most aspects of parenting, is a fine balance.

Many of our own parents tried to make us feel grateful by pointing out the starving children in some far-off land. This strategy often resulted in us offering to send those children the horrible casserole or ugly tennis shoes. In spite of those responses, many of us grew up with far less than our children have but with a greater sense of enjoyment and appreciation.

Just a glance at the sea of media in which our children swim gives us a big hint as to how this happened. All around are material things that they (and we) are led to believe we must have – that we have a right to have. But there are little ways to swim against this tide.

The most important is simply being an example of appreciation for the things in our own lives. It can rub off. The source of gratitude can be anything – the sight of glowing cumulus clouds, our warm home, or a nice meal. They may respond with eye rolling and an, "Oh, Mom/Oh, Dad" (as if we're so sappy). But someday when we say, "Come here a minute, look at that sunset," a big cool teenager might look and say, "Oh, yeah, and I like the way the sun streams from under the edges of the clouds." When that happened to me, I was grateful that I had put up with all the eye rolling.

In my work as a school psychologist, a mother with a rather crabby 9-year-old came to see me for help. We worked out a way to instill a bit more gratitude – but not with reminders of how fortunate he was as a response to his complaints. Instead, we focused on bedtime.

She started by spending a few minutes talking about what had gone on in her day that she was grateful for: a friend who complimented her work, the polite clerk at the store, or the quiet evening with not too much laundry. Then she asked him if anything good happened in his day. He got the idea, shared a few things, and it soon became a ritual.

Like the Bing Crosby song: "When I'm worried and I can't sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep counting my blessings."

What she most appreciated is that this outlook started seeping into his day.

I recently worked with a second-grade class at the teacher's request. She was concerned that she seemed to have a lot of complainers in the group and so we started gratitude training with them.

One day, I began a lesson by reviewing and asked what they remembered from our previous discussions. One little boy said, "Well, gratitude is like a skill that you practice and get better at." I'd never really taught those words, but he had put our lessons together into that sublime understanding, one that takes some of us many years to reach.

Part of what I do in working with youngsters is to help them be aware of what is good in their lives. With the right perspective, there's so much to appreciate. Without it, there will never be enough. And only the things they don't have will seem important.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

So along with all the "stuff" on the wish lists this year, we can add our own item: appreciation. It might even help to start by letting our kids know that, regardless of their appearance, their SAT scores, or their athletic ability, they are a source of gratitude in our lives.

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. Susan DeMersseman blogs at Raising kids, gardens and awareness.

'God is the clouds,' Simon said to his faith-pondering mom. (Reuters)

‘God is the clouds,’ a son advises his pondering mom

By Guest Blogger / 11.21.12

Over dinner a few weeks ago, my husband and I quizzed our almost-5-year-old about what he had learned that day in a new pre-kindergarten Judaism program at our temple.

Top 5 parenting tips for media literacy in preschoolers

The teacher had acted out the story of Noah and the ark. Simon told us about how God created the flood, and then God made the wind and the sun that dried up the rain.

“So what is God?” I asked.

“God is the clouds,” he said.

My husband and I smiled, then Simon dropped the subject and started chattering about animals in general. He was done with the story about the creatures that go two by two on the ark.

Simon did not ask us to explain our own views of God. Phew. I was not yet ready to have the “God” conversation with my son.

I went to religious school from age 5 to 12, then got permission from my parents to drop out. I was bored and unmoved by religious school and Bible stories. My parents never really spoke to me about God. My father, for as long as I can remember, has described himself as an agnostic. My mother has a stronger connection to Judaism, but did she believe in God? I have never asked.

Now, though I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah in 2006 after two years of study about Judaism, I don’t really know how to discuss God with my son. I’m not that definitive about my own beliefs when it comes to God. My husband is clearer on his stance. He’s an agnostic and self-defined cultural Jew. He likes the rituals and helps me frequently bring Shabbat to our home on Friday nights. We light the candles and say blessings over bread and sometimes wine or juice. My husband also likes going to temple with Simon and me. But the sense of community more than religiosity draws my husband toward Judaism.

I’m a mixed bag. I believe there is something non-human that gives me a sense of awe or comfort at times. Maybe it’s God. I’m not a blind believer, but I’m not an agnostic either. I’m something in between. I’m neither God-less nor God-ful.

I believe this thing called God rests in my heart when I sing with the chorus at our temple and start to feel goose bumps. I certainly felt something at the start of Rosh Hashanah this year when I stood on the bimah and sang solo verses of Mah Tovu to the congregation. The prayer means how good it is that we are all here together in this house of worship. I was nervous, yet found my comfort zone. Something deeper than humankind was in my heart as I sang. Maybe it was an adrenaline rush. Maybe it was my interpretation of God.

I believe something helped when I finally began going to temple services to say the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of my brother. Religion could not comfort me when my 23-year-old brother Kevin died suddenly in a car accident in 1986. I was 21 and disconnected from my faith. But 20 years later, solace came from others when I recited the Jewish mourner’s prayer, a string of sentences that praises God. The act of saying the words, rather than the words themselves, provided the comfort, for in saying the prayer, I stood in solidarity with other mourners.

Sun and wind can dry a soaked earth. Weather patterns produce those. God, to me, is more of a sensation than an all-powerful entity.

We say “God” a lot in Jewish prayer, and Simon has recited the Hebrew word for God along with us on many prayers. But I have never told him that we are actually praising God. Those blessings are custom more than religious act in our home.

I will encourage Simon to learn everything he can about our Jewish faith but also raise him in a most decidedly Jewish way. It’s okay to question what he’s told. It’s okay to believe what he chooses to believe. I want him to grow up comfortable with his Jewish identity. In our home, having mixed feelings about God comes with the territory.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

But what will I say when my son asks me, “Mom, do you believe in God?” I suspect I will say what I know to be true. “I believe that there is something bigger than all of us, something that can give us comfort and hope. And when I was a child, about your age, I used to sit on my blue toy box and stare out the window at the sky and deliver my own form of prayers to God. I too thought God was up there in the clouds.” I just never thought God was the clouds.

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. Linda Wetheimer blogs at Jewish Muse.

Thanksgiving with family doesn't have to be a parenting nightmare. Here, Cooper Bourret races a turkey to the finish line at the Huffing for Stuffing Thanksgiving Day Run in Bozeman, Mont. last year. (AP)

Thanksgiving with relatives: Tame parenting performance anxiety

By Guest Blogger / 11.21.12

Holidays bring stress when families get together. How will my children do; what will my family think about my parenting?

Top 5 parenting tips for media literacy in preschoolers

If you are a connective parent, you know the pressure from the outside to conform to traditional parenting styles. If your children are not behaving perfectly, it's because you're letting them get away with it, you're not strict enough. "What he needs is some discipline. He needs to know who's boss. Are you going to let him get away with that?"  

When that pressure is on, you get tongue-tied, feel inadequate, and don't have a leg to stand on. You buy into the criticism because, let's face it, you're not 100 percent confident of yourself, especially when faced with the disapproval of one of your parents or in-laws. You question yourself, get stressed out, your child reacts to your tension, you snap and the cycle spins. Things that work at home suddenly do not. Children get confused and anxious – all hell breaks loose. 

Hence, performance anxiety. How will your child measure up to family standards? How will you look? Pay attention to your stress level. If you anticipate a tough situation, have a talk with your child ahead of time and share your feelings. Know that if you are uncomfortable, your children will be, too. It's hard to look into disapproving eyes and explain what you are doing and why. If your parenting philosophy is different from how you were raised, your arguments can feel threatening to your parents. Not wanting to feel that old criticism and judgment, you back down and parent in ways both you and your children hate.

Anticipate difficulty ahead of time. Ask your kids what's been hard for them when families get together. Discuss past situations and how your child might handle it if it were to happen this year. Ask what your child needs from you and let her know what you need from her. Share your concerns and work out a plan to check in with each other at any time.

Here are some suggestions of things to say when faced with criticism from family or friends, no matter what time of year it is:

  1. This is a work in progress. I'm learning new ways of handling things and I'm not there yet. What I need most is your support.
  2. Sean has such different needs than any of us had. He has a passionate temperament and responds strongly when he feels restricted. I'm learning what works best for both of us.
  3. I know that you want a nice calm dinner, and I don't blame you. I'm thinking it might help to feed the kids earlier so they can come and go from the table and be less of a bother.
  4. Teens today are a whole new ballgame. I've had to learn what to let go of and what not. The most important thing I've learned is that maintaining our relationship is key.
  5. I know it's hard when the kids are running around during cocktail hour. Would you rather have us here with the chaos or have me take them outside to play during that time?
  6. She gets very stressed and wound up with lots of people and excitement. It helps when I can catch those cues of her revving up and can intervene. I missed it this time, so I need to take her out to help her get calm.
  7. He's a handful, that's for sure. His persistence will be a great asset when he's older – if I live through it!
  8. I know this is hard for you. Me, too. I really appreciate it when you understand how much I need your support.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

Write some of your own. Practice saying them. Be prepared. Even if your relatives don't agree, if you say it with confidence, chances are they will back down. And remember, don't sweat the small stuff. Let them wear what they want and eat what they want (for the most part). It's just one day.

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 is the director of Connective Parenting and blogs here.

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Obesity discussions and healthy eating habits should be a top priority for parents and teens, a new study suggests. Here, Chef Roy Choi, center, known for sparking the food truck culinary craze, posed in November 2011 with high school students involved in learning how to prepare, grow, and distribute healthy food. (Vince Bucci/AP for LG)

Talk turkey about obesity with your teens and model healthy eating, says new study

By Guest Blogger / 11.20.12

Between battles over cell phone privileges, curfews, and household chores, talking with teenagers can be treacherous. However, when it comes to emotionally charged issues like weight and body image, the stakes are higher.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

With 18 percent of American adolescents qualifying as obese, triple the rate of 30 years ago, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, many parents are grasping for ways to express their concerns without fracturing their teens’ self esteem.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota suggest in the new Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior that parents model a healthy lifestyle through their own behavior and focus discussions around “healthful eating”and “being fit” rather than pushing for weight loss.

That’s a tall order for a nation that the CDC estimates has a 35 percent adult obesity rate.

So how can parents struggling with their own weight and lifestyle choices model a healthy lifestyle for their kids?

For families with young children, the answer is somewhat straightforward; get moving and get cooking as a family. That’s the message behind First Lady Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move" campaign.

What about families with teenagers that would rather go to school naked than be seen in public with their parents? Exploring autonomy is a big part of adolescence.

That means spending much of the time away from the house and parental supervision. Even at home, many teens isolate themselves from the rest of the family behind slammed bedroom doors, headphones, and electronic devices.

Despite all that insulation, teens are still watching their parents, especially if they perceive some level of hypocritical discrepancy between what parents practice and preach.

Teens see not only what parents eat, but how they eat. If parents keep a secret stash of chocolates, treat stress with food, or scarf down fast food on the go, chances are their kids know.

Likewise, teens notice if parents obsess about their own weight, exercise, or calorie intake. They may adopt similar behaviors openly or in private.

Parents struggling with their own food issues may find that acknowledging them to their teen could be helpful for both parent and child. Admitting fallibility can go along way in connecting with teenagers, and lets them know that the subject is open for conversation.

Parents can find other strategic ways to set the stage for teens to make healthy choices. Prominently displaying whole food snacks such as fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds makes healthy snacking easy. Getting rid of the 9-inch dinner plates encourages sensible portions.

Families might consider adding a nutritional reference book to the kitchen library. Many include nutritional information for many fast food and chain restaurants as well. Awareness can be a powerful tool for both adults and teenagers.

Parents should remember that their teens are keenly aware of their activity and exercise habits as well. They absorb an unintentional message when they watch their parents drive around the block several times to find the closest parking spot, or opt to spend a sunny day inside on the couch.

RELATED: Are you a 'Helicopter Parent?' take our QUIZ!

Even though it may seem like teens barely notice their parents, chances are they are watching more than parents may be aware. Even while rolling their eyes.

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.

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