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Modern Parenthood

The 2013-2014 winter season has seemed harsher than most in recent history for many across the US. In this photo, two-month-old Jack Hsi takes a nap sheltered in his baby carrier while snow falls in Boston, Thursday, Jan. 2. (Elise Amendola/AP/FILE)

Winter blahs? Nah.

By Correspondent / 02.20.14

I became a stay-at-home mom at Christmas time, and since I was so excited to finally be home full time with my 10-month-old daughter, it was a pretty easy transition for the first month or so. 

But recently, I started going stir crazy. What I normally considered a pleasantly small one-bedroom apartment started feeling like a broom closet, especially when I realized that the baby could crawl across the entire length of our home in about five seconds. 

I started preparing dinner at 3 p.m., even though my husband doesn't get home from work until 6 p.m., so it would feel like the long afternoon stretch was shorter.

And as snowstorm after snowstorm continued to bombard Boston, I started feeling sluggish, since it wasn't very wise to take my little one out during storms and single-digit temperatures. 

The Monitor reported in January that the US is seeing its coldest temperatures in almost two decades, not very baby friendly. Getting her dressed to go outside is a real wrestling match as she wriggles out of her snow pants, heavy jacket, mittens, booties, and hat. Poor thing, she can barely move, much less hold a toy to play with as I shop for groceries or stand in line at the post office. 

Even with all the winter gear, her cheeks get really cold as soon as we step outside. So we stay in, for the most part. And the apartment keeps shrinking the more time we spend within its walls.

On the phone with a mom friend one afternoon, I confided that it has been tough being inside much more than when I worked outside the home. 

She told me, "if you're not having fun, neither is your kid. Make it fun for you and she will love it!" 

So in that spirit, I set out to make sure we have the most fun possible while cooped up at home. The activities I found we both enjoy and make the indoor days go by faster.

Music is a must. What is it about music that brings us together and lifts our spirits? Songs such as Pharrell Williams' "Happy" and Smash Mouth's "Believer" never fail to get my head bopping, feet tapping, and face smiling. The baby loves clapping along when she sees me busting a move. 

At bath time, I make it extra fun by singing Raffi's "Baby Beluga" and "Down by the Bay" as the baby splashes around with fingers and toes pruning from the long time in the tub. 

For an especially raucous afternoon, we form a Tupperware band. I pull out wooden spoons and measuring cups for my daughter to bang on Tupperware, and if I can stand the noise, give her the pots and pans, too. 

Sometimes, I even flex my little-or-no-TV rule, make a mosh pit of blankets and pillows, and watch a kid-friendly movie such as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." With its fantastic music and good moral messages, I don't feel guilty about giving her more screen time than usual.

Special treats make snowed-in days much more enjoyable. We love snuggling up with some special books, particularly board books, since my teething baby enjoys chewing on all things put in her hands. Reading is great for her development because she hears a bunch of new words and sounds, strengthening her budding vocabulary. Plus, her attention span increases as she practices sitting still and listening. 

Another perfect winter treat is making homemade bread in our bread machine. It's easy, makes our home smell amazing, and tastes so much better than the store-bought kind. 

My daughter also absolutely loves when I fashion a makeshift wagon out of a cardboard box for her to take a ride in. I cut a hole toward the top in the front and run a blanket through to pull the box around and she giggles gleefully.

Just because we're snowed in doesn't mean we have to be completely disconnected from our community of friends and family. Skype is an essential tool for keeping us connected – it’s like we're right in each other's living rooms. Or better yet, I invite folks to come on over if the weather's not completely impassable. 

When the snow emergency lifts and the plows have done their work, we bundle up and attend our weekly story time at the local library, take daily walks around the neighborhood (waving at everyone we pass), and attend all kinds of fun events run by our local Meetup group for moms. 

Remembering that we're in this together with other parents around the country really helps keep the winter doldrums at bay. Talking with older friends puts this winter in perspective. 

Anytime I complain about the cold, a grandmother-type friend tells me about the winter of 1978, when a blizzard with more than two feet of snow (27.5") was dumped on Boston from Feb. 6-7. Even worst was the blizzard of Feb. 24-27, 1969, when it snowed for a record 101 consecutive hours. Suddenly, this winter doesn't seem so unbearable.

One thing's for sure, I can't wait to just slip on my flip flops, hoist the baby up on my hip, and go outside to enjoy some sunshine. It will be so well-deserved this year, after such a brutal winter. We'll really appreciate it when the thaw comes. 

The good news is that it's already almost March. Buck up, parents, the worst is likely over already, and the beach will be calling your name soon.

Facebook Inc. will buy fast-growing mobile-messaging start-up WhatsApp for $19 billion in cash and stock in a landmark deal that places the world's largest social network closer to the heart of mobile communications and may bring younger users into the fold. A Whatsapp App logo is seen behind a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone that is logged on to Facebook in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, Feb. 20. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

WhatsApp purchase: Teens fleeing Facebook can run, but can't hide (+video)

By Correspondent / 02.20.14

Parents can thank Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion for dropping breadcrumbs for them to follow to find out where their kids might be, potentially leading to the undoing of the messaging application itself. 

Like many savvy parents, I tend to track tech and gaming news alerts on my smart phone in order to get a feel for what my kids might be into next.

Last year when Facebook admitted that younger users were fleeing to smart phone messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and KakaoTalk, I began to check them out. Now I know which one to keep on my phone thanks to the media hoopla of Facebook’s whopping big buy.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees kids fleeing his platform because parents are embarrassing them – spamming their walls with inspirational quotes, tagging them in photos they don’t want their friends to see – I’m thinking about the fickle nature of teens as a reason to not spend $19 billion on an application.

After all, this is a demographic group known for its short attention span.

Mr. Zuckerberg may have just bought himself a white elephant, because having been a teen doesn’t mean you understand them the way parents do.

According to ABC News, Zuckerberg famously wrote in an open letter to users in Feb. 2012, “By giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent.”

Teens don’t like things to be transparent – they prefer to be sans-parent, as far away from their parents as possible, especially online.

Parents, on the other hand, adore transparency, therefore, I just preemptively installed WhatsApp on my smart phone as soon as I heard about kids leaving Facebook.

I found that many of the parents I know were already on it because they’d followed their kids there or were doing the same thing I was.

Having messaged fellow parents this morning via the new app, I can say we love the feature that tells you when the person you are messaging was last on the app and how they feel. It helps us keep track of the kids.

Something else to consider is that despite the promise made by WhatsApp co-founder and chief executive Jan Koum that nothing would change when WhatsApp becomes part of the Facebook empire, users are already dumping the app at the news of the buyout, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Apparently, many users balk at the long shadow cast by Facebook’s privacy issues, ads, and the “my way or the highway” changes it randomly makes to their privacy and user settings, according to the LA Times.

Parents know that teens don’t like being told they have no options when it comes to major changes.

In 2011, Facebook introduced its Timeline feature with the premise of: if you don’t like it that’s just tough because we will switch your profile to it anyway.

After that, it was a series of design modifications on everything from chat to news feeds that have driven my teens mad with frustration.

Every teen I know, from my sons to their friends, began looking for the exit because they didn’t like having their space invaded by Facebook barging into their rooms and redecorating their walls.

“It’s like if you just came in and painted my room some disgusting color while I was at school,” my son Avery, 15, told me when big changes began on Facebook. “Oh and please stop tagging me in photos! Geez.”

Kids get told what to do by everyone from parents to teachers, coaches, and lunch ladies in hair nets. So when they get online they want to have control of their environments.

With kids, once burned is twice shy.

On the upside, it does give parents yet another teachable moment in fun math.

If one Instagram costs $1 billion, how many Instagrams could Facebook have bought for $19 billion?

Parents tend to think a lot about value for money and so does the online community which has poked a lot of fun at Facebook’s spending spree by suggesting better buys.

Facebook could have bought one-third of the Sochi Olympics for what it intends to pay for WhatsApp, according to Gizmodo.

According to the Boston Globe, an average training cost for an Olympic athlete runs around $50,000 a year. So Facebook could fund roughly 380,000 American athletes for a year. 

I would like to see Zuckerberg’s parents post on his wall or, better yet, send him a quick note via WhatsApp to suggest he get more for his money by investing in something that pays the kind of dividends money can’t buy.

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Screenshot from the YouTube channel of user Oakelfish, who is displaying the alcohol he intends to consume in a game of 'Neknominate' after being 'neknominated' to out-drink those who nominated him. 'Neknominate' is a drinking game encouraging players, mostly young adults, to out-drink their peers on video, and 'neknominations' are spreading to social media networks like Facebook. (YouTube)

Stopping the 'neknominate' drinking game

By Guest blogger / 02.19.14

Just as about every other human (and other animal) behavior has turned up in social media, so has “neknomination” (or “neck nomination,” “neck and nominate,” etc.). It keeps evolving, but it’s now a blend of a dare game (e.g., “Truth or Dare” or “Top This”) and drinking game that’s thought to have started in Australia.

It began getting mainstream media coverage across the Atlantic this month after neknomination was connected to some deaths of young adults – including one in Northern Ireland, the BBC reported.

Jonny Byrne, the 19-year-old who died in Northern Ireland, jumped off a bridge after “necking” (speed-drinking). Gawker has other examples of how bad the “game” has gotten – to the point where a self-destructive need for “fame” seems to be an element.

Daring and shaming can be bullying

That’s where the latest version uses social media – taking video of oneself doing the drinking, then “nominating” three peers to top that by “tagging” or naming them on a neknomination page. But this is not new. Researchers showed the Berkman Center task force of 2008 how people of all ages (usually younger ones) would dare each other to view the most disgusting possible videos and do crazy stunts in video-sharing sites to grow their followings. Neknomination is another form of both daring and attention seeking, but the “top this” element has made it dangerous. 

Then there’s the bullying element. Certainly, speed drinking has long been a part of hazing, and there is always an element of peer pressure, but Mr. Byrne’s brother, who had tried to rescue him, told the BBC that neknomination is sometimes a form of bullying. He said that a friend of Byrne’s who’d been neknominated the previous week and ignored the nomination had been harassed and bullied for being a “chicken.”

RAKnomination: Spreading random acts of kindness

Neknomination has got to stop. The thing is, users themselves are taking action. For every type of negative (or destructive) use of social media, there seems to be a positive one.

Shortly after Byrne’s death, #RAKnomination started trending on Twitter and Facebook, encouraging people to nominate others to commit random acts of kindness, or RAKs, TheJournal.ie reported. Another positive countermeasure is “nekdonations.” A man in South Africa posted a video that inspired a man in Northern Ireland to nekdonate – donate 5 euros, “the price of a pint of beer” – to Temple Street Children’s Hospital and nominate others to do something similar.

As for Brent Lindeque, the South African man, he was neknominated by someone, so he videotaped himself giving a sandwich, drink, and chocolate bar to a homeless man and nominated three more people to commit kind acts themselves. “Underneath his video, which has amassed nearly 100,000 views [now 300,000+],” reported Metro.co.uk, “he writes: ‘I’ve decided to create something positive out of the random global phenomenon of NekNominations... Imagine if we all harnessed the power of social media to make a real difference in peoples lives. #OnlyGoodThings’.”

How to un-nominate yourself

If somebody you or your kids know gets “nominated” on Facebook, it means they’ve been tagged by the nominator, and they can untag – in effect, un-nominate – themselves (in addition to not taking the bait, not encouraging the stupidity and not doing something stupid).

Most Facebook users already know how to untag themselves, but just in case they don't, here‘s how. They can also block the nominator if they are getting really annoying, so the person can’t tag or message them or appear on their timeline, or they can click on “Activity Log” on their timeline page and delete the post from their timeline.

One other really good idea (for preventing annoying posts) is to turn on “Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline.” To do that, click on the teeny little gear icon in the upper-right corner of your Facebook home page or timeline, then on “Settings.”

Then, in the left-hand column of your Settings page, click on “Timeline and Tagging,” which will take you to where you can pre-approve posts and tags. You’ll also be able to control “who can add things to [your] timeline,” “who can see things on [your] timeline” and more – really good things to be able to control.

Screen shot from Twitch.tv, which is live-streaming the hacked game 'TwitchPlaysPokemon' which has amassed more than 120,000 players since Feb. 14, and more than 14 million views of the live stream. (Twitch.tv)

120K gamers play 'TwitchPlaysPokemon' together

By Correspondent / 02.19.14

If your Wi-Fi suddenly crashes as you hear your kids shouting “Anarchy!” don’t panic, it’s a good thing. A massive social experiment is taking place online via the game “TwitchPlaysPokemon,” that may result in kids and parents finding common ground to discuss how the world works.

Over the past six days, 24/7, the website Twitch.tv has run a multiplayer game wherein as many as 120,000 players try to control a single character at the same time.

So far, 14 million users have spectated the live role-playing game, to see if a massive number of gamers could work together toward a common goal. 

“It took them four days just to get in the elevator,” my son Ian, 18, reported last night. “For the first four days, the guy in the game just stood there and twitched as 80,000 players all input Left, Right, Back, etc. at the same time.”

According to the Independent, “The stream was set up by an anonymous Australian programmer who told gaming website Polygon that he just 'put it up to see how people would respond.' "

Twitch, which serves as a video platform and community for gamers, explains that “TwitchPlaysPokemon” is “a social experiment, it is a stream of the Gameboy version of Pokemon Red.”

Its anonymous creator has turned the website's comment system into a controller for the 1996 Game Boy title. To date, more than 400,000 participants have "played" the game through the chat feature.

"This is one more example of how video games have become a platform for entertainment and creativity that extends WAY beyond the original intent of the game creator," Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's vice president of marketing, told the Monitor via e-mail. "By merging a video game, live video, and a participatory experience, the broadcaster has created an entertainment hybrid custom made for the Twitch community."

Commenters type in one of the game's eight commands to control the main character – up, down, left, right, A, B, start, or select – which would be simple if it weren’t for the fact that about 100,000 players are all typing in their choice of commands and only one move can be made as a result.

The game was based on total anarchy for the first four days. However, in the interest of getting the game to progress its designer added an option to vote for "anarchy" or "democracy" as a means of functions, according to the Twitch website and my sons.

According to the site, “Anarchy is the ‘classic' mode, where everyone's inputs are applied immediately. Democracy mode is vote-based and has a more sophisticated input system.”

In order to switch from one mode to the other, the mode that isn't active needs 75 percent of votes cast in the chat.

I would never have known this was happening if Ian and his brother, Avery, 14, hadn’t begun to shout at their laptops, “Democracy! People we need democracy!” and “LEFT! LEFT! No not anarchy!”

Curious at the constant references to political systems, I asked what they were doing. “Pokemon” was their answer in unison.

Pokemon is a roleplaying game created for Game Boy as part of the Japanese franchise many parents will recognize from cartoons, decks of cards, and plush creatures.

I am a great fan of this game in all its incarnations because it doesn’t involve guns, blood, or other mature themes, while engaging kids right through their teenage years and into young adulthood in a critical-thinking bonanza.

Kids are forced to make rapid mathematical calculations in their heads and come up with strategies in order to progress in the game.

In the interest of being able to understand the gamer shorthand spoken like a second language among my four sons, my youngest son Quin, 10, took pity on me and taught me to play the card game version of Pokemon.

Still, I have never heard my sons screaming for democracy as part of a video game battle until last night.

Last night, the Olympics (which has had the boys glued to the screen) took a backseat to this online event.

I found myself so fascinated by their sudden immersion in politics that I made a bowl of popcorn and sat down to watch my sons, who were watching the Twitch play and occasionally inputting a command.

It was a fascinating evening of rapidly evolving socio-political interplay.

It was fun to see my kids so frustrated over trying to get a group of people to do the rational thing and being thwarted at every turn.

I asked Ian and Avery what they were learning from this experience about democracy, anarchy, and working together.

“It’s hard to tell because democracy has only been an option for the last 24 hours,” Ian said. “Anarchy gets faster results, but they’re not always good.”

Avery added, “Yeah, democracy takes forever and people still don’t always agree, so it’s, like, impossible even to decide to save the game.”

However, by 9 p.m., democracy was getting undeniable results and 75-percent of the gamers online agreed it was the ticket to get things on track.

As dawn broke this morning, I fully expected democracy to have brought progress in great leaps and bounds.

I asked Ian how things were going in the game.

“It doesn’t make sense but they’re back to anarchy and making huge progress now,” he said. “Democracy was taking too long. Then, somehow everyone just stopped being stupid and started making the right choices to advance the game.”

My heart sank as I pictured 90,000 players plus 12 million onlookers worldwide growing up to throw the world into total anarchy because it worked in “TwitchPlaysPokemon” for six days.

Seeing the look of horror on my face, Ian said, “If it helps, Avery and I now have to try and research it online and try and figure out why anarchy is working so well. It’s like the game spawned a bigger puzzle to solve for us of ‘Why is anarchy working?’ ”

OK, parents, here’s the game plan, we will use this moment in time to launch a platform for discussions on social studies.

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Why a Kansas lawmaker seeks 'red welt' spanking guidelines (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.18.14

A Kansas lawmaker wants to give teachers and parents the ability to spank children a bit harder.

Kansas is one of 19 US states that still allows corporal punishment. But Kansas state legislator Gail Finney (D) of Wichita would like to sharpen the definition of spanking, by allowing up to 10 strikes of the hand. And the bill would make it OK of those smacks leave redness or bruising.

As McPherson Deputy County Attorney Britt Colle explained to KCTV Channel 5 in Kansas City:

"This bill basically defines a spanking along with necessary reasonable physical restraint that goes with discipline, all of which has always been legal," Colle said. "This bill clarifies what parents can and cannot do. By defining what is legal, it also defines what is not."

Colle said the bill makes it clear that hitting a child with fists, hitting a child in the head or body or hitting a child with a belt or switch is not legal discipline and may be considered battery or abuse.

Current Kansas law allows spanking if the local school board approves it by policy. But most local boards don't approve it. Corporal punishment is more common in the South, and in rural areas. In Texas, there were 49,197 corporal punishments in 2005-2006, according to federal education records. But since most major cities in Texas have banned spanking, such physical punishments occurred primarily in rural school districts. And the total number of such punishments in Texas is half of what it was 10 years earlier.

Thirty-one states have banned corporal punishment in public schools, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, an anti-corporal punishment group. The Center argues that spanking perpetuates a cycle of child abuse, and teaches children to respond with physical force when angry. It also notes that "schools are the only institutions in America in which striking another person is legally sanctioned. It is not allowed in prisons, in the military or in mental hospitals.

Only Iowa and New Jersey have banned spanking in private schools.

What does the US Supreme Court have to say on the subject? In 1997, America's highest court ruled that physical punishment administered by school officials was not prohibited by the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The court said that spanking is lawful where it has not been explicitly outlawed by local authorities.

In Britain, and some US states, there have been failed efforts to restore corporal punishment to the classrooms, citing the rising crime rate and poor behavior in schools.

What's the punishment policy in your home, your state, or even your school district?

If you want to look up the number of paddling incidents (or bullying), the US Department of Education keeps tabs by school district, even down to individual schools. This link by the Center for Effective Discipline will walk you through the steps to check your local school, although the data may be a few years old.

2014 Sochi Winter Olympics: New Zealand's Josiah Wells gets air during men's ski half pipe training ahead of qualifying at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 18. (Andy Wong/AP)

Why bronze is beautiful at Sochi Olympics (+video)

By Correspondent / 02.18.14

As America leads the world in bronze medals, parents and kids are seeing more of what America's top athletes and the games are made of, finding that all that glitters at the Sochi Olympics is not gold.

“We won third place! Yay!” my son Quin, 10, hollered when skier Julia Mancuso went into wild celebration over her bronze medal.

One of the my older sons rolled his eyes, telling him not to celebrate when somebody wins third place.

“Well, she’s super happy about it,” Quin said pointing to Ms. Mancuso’s reaction, which was on instant replay on NBC. “If she’s happy, I’m happy.”

The lesson here is count your blessings.

The US is arguably in its worst winter Olympics since 1988. “U.S. athletes have won the second-most medals in Sochi (16), but the team ranks seventh in the overall medal count (which is determined by golds),” according to USA Today.

Winning a gold medal is amazing, and this time around we are seeing just how hard a task that is.

Perhaps for the sake of our kids, we need to transcend the blame game being played out in the media, which has focused on places to lay blame, rather than celebrating the athletes' tenacity and spirit.

I am guilty of poking a lot of fun at the games because President Vladimir Putin’s politics make me want to send him down the skeleton in a pink tutu.

As a parent, I needed to pay more attention to the value of these games that can be found beneath the politics.

Lesson No. 1 was right there in front of us when Olympian Heidi Kloser arrived at the opening ceremonies in a wheelchair, knowing that would be her only Olympic event after a training injury.

According to Yahoo, Ms. Kloser's dad, Mike, wrote on his Facebook page, "When she was in the ambulance, she asked Emily and me if she was still an Olympian...We said of course she is!"

Kloser won the hearts of viewers when she struggled up out of the wheelchair to take the long Olympic walk on crutches and won the games without ever entering an event.

It was all uphill for our Olympians from there.

This time around, for America at least, it’s become about the back stories of the athletes and seeing them revel in a comeback from injury, personal loss, or failure.

Reebok’s commercial featuring the theme song from the cartoon "Underdog" running throughout these games has inadvertently become the new Olympic theme at our house. When we hear the "Underdog" theme, we know it’s time for the Olympics. We have gravitated to the underdogs.

Our family rooted for Andrew Weibrecht in the Super-G, knowing nothing more about him than the fact that an announcer basically said he’s not supposed to be here.

“They call Weibrecht the workhorse,” the NBC announcer said while making the race call, as Mr. Weibrecht was not the expected winner. He took home the silver in the Super-G.

Bode Miller, who is a fan favorite, and whose brother died last year after a snowboard incident, took home an emotional win with a bronze medal, also in the Super-G.

Our living room erupted as if they’d won gold, because we related to their struggle.

Perhaps the most important lesson in our house came as the result of what has been named the "Golden Olympic Spoilers Rule." That rule includes the following stipulation – never tell Mom who won.

The kids heeded that rule, but hubby blew it.

After a day spent with my phone alerts, TV, and radio off so I could watch ice dancing last night and experience it in the moment, my husband walked in and said, “We win. Now can you come help me in the shed?”

Quin looked at the old man in wonder, perhaps to see if he would burst into Olympic flames.

Instead, I experienced a very rare girlie moment, so frustrated that I burst into tears.

Quin gave me the one vital lesson to be found in any games.

“It’s OK,” he said. “Everybody cries at the Olympics.”

The kid’s right, of course. If you look at the athletes on and off the medal stand they are crying due to frustration, pain, relief, disappointment, or joy. The NBC athlete profiles and commercials about moms are also tear-jerkers. In this Olympics, we are learning that it's OK to cry tears of joy over a bronze medal. Not because the alternative is coming home empty-handed, but because just the effort to make it to the Games in the first place make the athletes and their families all deserve medals.

This image shows the contents of the backpack of Quin Suhay, 10, before he went to school to deliver valentines to classmates. Valentine's Day often stresses out students, who are navigating relationships and innocent crushes, and parents, who are navigating how to support their kids through the most tumultuous Hallmark holiday. (Lisa Suhay)

Is there a solution to Valentine's Day?

By Correspondent / 02.14.14

Valentine’s Day means drama for many kids who will come home from school to report they had either the “best” or “worst day ever,” as the result of either being recognized or ignored by the object of their affection.

Today, parents get to explain to their kids a few things about human nature, such as the commercialization of love, how some parents may have forgotten to put valentines in their kid’s backpack, spiritual resilience, and that true love isn’t on Hallmark's schedule.

Because the giving and receiving of candy pellets stuck to commercialized, politically correct cards has become such a social imperative for younger kids these days, I try to make sure my four sons aren’t accidental heartbreakers.

Boys need a support crew for Valentine’s Day when they are younger, more so than girls who seem to be more socially mature, even in pre-school.

To that end, I inspected my troops last night and this morning to make sure they were on point for V-Day today.

My youngest, Quin, 10, had scrawled his name on 24 packs of Skittles valentines. We had been giving only cards until last year, when we learned that the rest of the moms in the posse had upped the ante to include candy with the cards.

For Quin, now in fifth grade, Valentine’s Day is a test, a critical puzzle to be solved.

“Valentine’s Day is my Kobayashi Maru,” Quin explained.

The Kobayashi Maru is known to "Star Trek" geeks worldwide as the no-win scenario taught to command-track cadets at the Starfleet Academy in the 23rd century.

According to a Star Trek Wiki, “It was primarily used to assess a cadet's discipline, character and command capabilities when facing an impossible situation, as there is no one answer to the problem.”

I think Quin's description fits Valentine's Day to a T.

For the last three years, poor Quin has either been ignored or openly rejected by the object of his affection, to be left open for teasing by bullies in his class.

No matter what approach he has taken to the problem, he has gone down in flames.

As a parent, I long ago failed the Valentine's Day Kobayashi Maru when I chose not to supply my oldest son Zoltan, now 20, with little valentines for his Pre-K class. In my efforts to not jump the gun, I apparently broke the hearts of 17 little girls that day.

A pack of Tiger Moms circled and confronted me the next day.

Each one told me off, with the general theme being, “Didn’t you ever have a boy ignore you on Valentine’s Day?”

In fact, I had been the chubby girl who never ever got valentines except from my mother and grandmother, resulting in me vowing that my son would be a great valentine giver.

My stumbling block had been the timing.

My husband informed me that boys have zero awareness or needs in the cupid department until middle or high school. Girls apparently develop full-blown cupid radar as early as "Mommy and Me" classes.

I hadn’t realized that Valentine’s Day cards had the potential to create chaos so early, for the giver and the potential receiver.

In my effort to avoid setting my son up for disappointment by asserting adult expectations on kids, I disappointed a bunch of kids and made my son a social outcast for the rest of the year. No win.

As a result of years of trying every scenario possible, I was happy to see that at least my older sons were taking on the Valentine's Day test solo this year.

Avery, 15, has his first girlfriend. When he heard me talking to Quin, he came in and made a preemptive strike.

“I got this covered,” Avery said, with his hand in the “Talk to the hand” position. “I found this awesome necklace. Got a really cool box and, yes, before you even ask, I made a card.”

Well done.

Zoltan texted me last night to tell me he’s finally found a girl and he’s taking her out to dinner tonight. “Yes, before you ask, I made her a really cool card.”

Ian, 18, who has a long-term girlfriend, eyed me with deep suspicion this morning.

“We’re good to go for Valentine’s Day,” he said before I could get a word in edgewise.

Still, there’s Quin, armed with his 24 little packets, a special one for the girl he likes.

This morning, I told him that no matter what he sees on TV and what other kids say, this is not the only day someone can love you.

“Today isn’t a test," I said. "If it was, it would be the 'Star Trek' kind with no right answer. It’s more like an experiment to see how different elements react. You can’t fail by giving someone candy; they can only fail to appreciate how awesome you are.”

These words of wisdom were the result of parental polling data that I had gathered days ago from Ian and Zoltan.

I asked if there was ever anything I’d told them on Valentine’s Days past when they had been rejected by a girl that helped them to get over it.

“Nothing’s going to make it 100 percent better, but it helps to have you tell us things like ‘If she didn’t see what’s good about you, she just wasn’t the right one,’” said Zoltan today.

Ian said, “What helped me get over a bad Valentine’s Day? The day after Valentine’s Day when you realize you made it out the other side.”

It’s Valentine’s Day and we’re going in. See you all on the other side.

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This file photo shows a pedestrian walking past valentines posted on a storefront in Montpelier, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP/FILE)

Sharing a meal is the best Valentine's Day gift

By Correspondent / 02.14.14

There are many ways to say “I love you,” sang the late, great Mr. Rogers. One of the best is having a meal with a friend. On a typical Valentine’s Day, the National Restaurant Association estimates, a quarter of all Americans dine out.

But sometimes, especially when the family is young, you want to stay home and wrap the parental love around the children, including them in on the meal, too, romance notwithstanding. Who else is going to eat your two dozen cupcakes topped with pink icing and red jimmies?

In our house, the sweetest Valentine’s memories are of annual candlelight dinners for two, served in the living room by the fire, on the white linens and the good china, with Mozart in the background. All this was staged and delivered up by the children – no lie – the oldest by around age 7 ceremoniously presenting a main dish, flanked by his conscientious little sisters processing in with items that wouldn’t spill.

As with the Mother’s Day breakfasts in bed, sometimes this meal took a long, long time to appear on the table, and it often was preceded by some startling sound or commotion coming from the kitchen, where I was not permitted. I have no recollection of what food was served. Nor where the whole ritual came from. Surely my husband was involved.

In the grown up world, it’s hard to make a meal for a friend, what with the calorie counting, the gluten, the fact that few of us have the Barefoot Contessa’s culinary aplomb, let alone her herb garden. And it’s not easy having someone cook for you, either. After all, dining has become a litany of what’s banned: no butter, eggs, or cheese; no red meat, whole milk, or breadstuffs; no shell fish, sugar, or desserts. “I’ll just have four stalks of asparagus, a little vinegar on the side, please.” Surely, nature must have graced us with some as-yet-unidentified substance that is unleashed by the bonhomie of the table, something that temporarily negates the alleged devastation to the body linked to food. 

It feels so good to feed another, doesn’t it? Though it takes a lot of time not always allotted to things domestic, the payback is big. In both directions. It really does bond you. Baking bread for someone, in the most basic sense, nourishes them and gives them life. Breaking it together completes the circle. Culture recognizes this – in holiday customs, in literature, art, and film. Religion has the manna in the desert and the apostles in the upper room. Rituals as diverse as the Hindu puja, the Christian communion, and the Jewish Passover make the meal central.  

Our Valentine’s dinner squad has moved to their own kitchens. But memorable meals continue here. Sometimes – well, often – someone will even ask to come to dinner, and invariably that someone turns into eight or nine someones. One of them asked me recently “How do you get stuck with all that cooking?” But it’s not like that. What better sound is there, really, than ten people sitting around the table, happy, hungry, grateful, having bursts of laughing, then joking, telling stories, and laughing some more? So that, by the end of the evening, the candles have burned all the way down and still no one is leaving the table? I love that.

Every now and then – and not necessarily on Valentine’s Day – I’ll get a call from one of my children, now young adults: “My friend had a bad day, Mom. How do I make her some chicken?” Or “How much sweet sausage do I need to buy for two?” And then: “What should I do with it?” There are variations on the theme: the impromptu get-acquainted dinner organized by one of the kids for the dorm, the cajoling of an estranged friend into coming along for dinner with the group, and thus rejoining the fold. As a mother, these are among my favorite kinds of calls. They get it. They know what a gift it is.   

Perhaps a sparkly something in a Tiffany box is in the works for you this Valentine’s Day. Or maybe you’ll be surprised with a getaway to a place in the sun. But, if your life is really good, you’ll have the chance to make a little meal for a friend – or nine. Or maybe someone will make one for you. Everyone will be full. Guaranteed.

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This file photo shows a McDonald's Mocha Frappe is shown at a McDonald's restaurant in Boston. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics reports that caffeine consumption in kids has shifted from mainly soda as a source, to also including coffee drinks like the Frappe and energy drinks. (Charles Krupa/AP/FILE)

Kids drop soda for coffee? (+video)

By Correspondent / 02.13.14

Caffeine consumption in kids is shifting: What once may have consisted of a can of soda at a birthday party now includes sucking frosty coffee beverages from a straw. And while energy drinks are relatively new on the caffeinated scene, they have already earned favor in the eyes of college kids.

A new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics delivered the latest research numbers on caffeine intake for US kids. While the consumption of caffeine hasn't necessarily increased in recent years, the sources have shifted – from mostly soda to also including coffee and energy drinks.

The study, tracking research from 2000 to 2010, reports that 73 percent of young adults consume caffeine every day. Even in pre-school age children, caffeine consumption is equal to roughly 10 milligrams (half a can of soda per day) due to drinking soda, tea, or chocolate-flavored milk. This amount is slightly less than a decade ago. 

The increased sources for kid caffeine consumption, including the milk-shake tastiness of frozen coffee drinks, should encourage parents to consider their own drink choices as they aim to help their kids set healthy habits. 

According to an Associated Press report, Stephen Daniels, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics nutrition committee, says that caffeine has no nutritional value and that there is no good data on what amount, if any, is safe for kids.

While parents often monitor the beverage choices for young kids, most teens are attracted more and more to flavorful coffee drinks - like the Starbucks Frappuccino, McDonald's Frappe, or the Dunkin' Donuts Coolatta.

Mark Pendergrast, author of “Uncommon Grounds,” a book about the shift in coffee perceptions through the years, told The Wall Street Journal's Market Watch blog, "Teenagers, who may not have acquired a taste for a straight black cup of joe, can instead get a fix by stopping by Dunkin’ Donuts to get a frozen Coolatta or passing by Starbucks to pick up a Frappuccino."

For college-age young adults, the attraction to energy drinks accounts for roughly 10 percent of their caffeine consumption. According to the study results, energy drinks did not exist in the data from 1999-2000, but increased to nearly 6 percent of caffeine intake in 2009-2010.

While the overall numbers for caffeine consumption have remained relatively stable over the last decade, the prices for caffeinated beverages have not. A can of soda will set you back roughly one dollar at a convenience story, while a Frappuccino will cost upward of four to five dollars, depending on where you live.

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Part of the cover image from the book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" written by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and founder of Lean In, a nonprofit focused on empowering women. (Alfred A. Knopf/AP/FILE)

Getty Images dumps cliched stock photos for new 'Lean In Collection'

By Correspondent / 02.13.14

Getty Images and Lean In have worked together to curate this antidote for the objectification of the female image in media via a new stock collection of photos devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls, and the people who support them. 

Lean In is a women’s empowerment nonprofit founded by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." The Getty Images collection boasts "over 2,500 images of female leadership in contemporary work and life," according to the Getty Images website. The female leadership includes women and girls of all ages, at home, in school, at work, and outside.

The collection aims to remove the cliched images of girls and women used in stock photography for marketing campaigns. The images are powerful, arresting, and beautiful, without the normal objectification found in many fashion spreads and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues.

Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images, commissioned a study to track the changes in the representation of girls and women in the media, leading to the new collection.

The hope is that by offering these stock images, photographers will be inspired to create even more that convey positive images of women.

“This is such a big passion project for all of us, and cheesy as it sounds, by showing people powerful images of women, we thought maybe we could actually change the world,” Ms. Grossman told BuzzFeed.

As the wife of a visual journalist (my husband is the assistant director of presentation at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper) and the mother of four boys, this collection resonates with me.

My sons have been raised to pay extra attention to the photos that newspapers and other media outlets select.

As a mom who works from home, I am always trying to impress on my sons that my role is just as impactful as the role of those parents who work outside the home.

Still, my youngest son, Quin, 10, regularly floors me with his patently sexist visualization of the female role in society.

Yesterday, he said to me that he viewed a girl as cool for not being like a boy. When I asked him to expand on that comment, he said, “You know, girlie – pink tutus, braids with colorful ribbon stuff in them, hates math, loves books about unicorns."

As I sputtered at him, he giggled, “What? Come on, you know it’s true.”

What I know is that despite all the careful child raising my husband and I have done – aiming to nurture him as a warrior for inequality – he has still been seduced by the dark side of media imagery.

He delivered the coup de grâce this morning when he asked, “When’s take your son to work day? I want to see what it’s like to be at Pop’s office and have a real job.”

A “real job.”

What is it going to take for kids to understand that being a parent is as much of a "real job" as any other office position?

Working from a computer in the home often requires even more skill sets than doing the same “real job” in an office environment, because at the office nobody’s asking you for juice, clean socks, or to play Pokemon when you’re on deadline.

Although, I suppose if you’re working at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley or as a kindergarten teacher, those things might happen at your office.

Realistically, I don’t think that one collection of photos is going to completely reverse the impression of billions of images impacting our kids. However, it is a brilliant place to start.

It reminds me of Shoot for Good, an organization in Norfolk, Va., that holds events each year that encourage photographers of all levels to photograph and share acts of good in their community. All the photos from the Shoot for Good events are curated and posted online so we can all see the good in the community. The idea was created by local Norfolk photographer Stephen M. Katz and his colleagues Steve Remich and Jennifer Ditona.

Getty Images and organizations such as Shoot for Good are cutting the path for others to follow when it comes to shifting the perceptions of what we view everyday and consider normal. As Getty Images and Lean In celebrate photos capturing the innovation, beauty, strength, and character of women, we can launch a discussion with our kids that explains that "one size does not fit all" and that what makes us beautiful is our unique qualities, no matter how that looks.

With this lesson, hopefully my home workspace will finally be seen as an office, my writing as a "real job," and my beauty as more than the mom who makes sure you make it to school everyday.

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