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Big box stores like Costco and Sam's Club add to clutter at home, researchers found. Here David Lee shops at a Costco Wholesale store in Portland, Ore. in May of this year. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Culture of clutter taking over American families, says new book

By Correspondent / 07.13.12

Raise your hand if any of this sounds disturbingly familiar:

A garage that doesn’t have room for the family car because it’s filled with bikes, baseball bats, rusting tools, old furniture and possibly even a large snow blower. (Arm a-waving over here. The snow blower is a long story.)

Or, how about a hall closet that can’t hold any more coats? Or a child’s room filled with more than 100 Beanie Babies?  Or a fridge covered in hundreds of pictures, magnets (even the free ones that come in the mail, because, you know, you never can have enough magnets), calendars, dry erase boards and shopping lists?

Clutter, it turns out, is a hallmark of mainstream America. (Depressing, no?)  And now a new book coming out by researchers from University of California, Los Angeles, and Connecticut College – “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” – details just how much clutter, and promises to take a sharp look at the impact of all this stuff on daily family life.

The researchers immersed themselves into the daily lives of 32 families in the Los Angeles area, taking tens of thousands of photographs, hundreds of hours of video, and copious notes from first-hand observations about how people move through their homes, and what they have.

“People’s homes are a canvas for self-expression, so it is crucial to see what middle-class America buys, cherishes and displays at home, along with, in their own words, what their possessions mean to them,” said Jeanne E. Arnold, professor of anthropology at UCLA and the lead author of the book, according to the Connecticut College news service. “We measured. We photographed. We filmed. We interviewed. We gave parents and older kids cameras and they gave us narrated home tours. We now know what goes on moment-by-moment and, as our book documents, we know exactly what people keep in their homes and where and how they use things.”

Some of the findings:

  • The volume and sheer number of things in our homes is unprecedented. From toys to music collections to books to knick knacks to large quantities of paper towels bought (it was a deal!) from Costco. And managing the volume of possessions turns out to be so stressful that it elevated the level of stress hormones for moms.
  • Most families spent little time in their yards – even if they had spent a lot of money on outdoor furnishings.
  • Seventy-five percent of garages had too much stuff in them to fit cars.
  • And I love this one: The number of objects clinging to your refrigerator may indicate how much clutter can be found throughout your home.

“Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” is coming out in August, but I am already tempted to get a trash bag and start tossing stuff.  Anything.  Because one of the other findings of the authors is that Americans are really bad at getting rid of things – we think that we’ll use them some day, or that it’s wasteful to just toss objects.

And in the meantime, the stuff takes over. 

A good time, I say, to ponder consumption, materialism and how to adjust our way of life.

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"Fifty Shades of Grey" author E.L. James signs a copy of her book during the first day of Comic-Con convention held at the San Diego Convention Center on July 12, 2012. One mother doesn't see what all the fuss is about. (Denis Poroy/Invision/AP)

'Fifty Shades of Grey:' Another series that is not for this mom

By Contributing blogger / 07.13.12

Alright, here we go again. Yet another book series that is wildly popular and I just don’t get it. Out of sheer curiosity, I downloaded a sample of "Fifty Shades of Grey" to my Nook. (Side note: I love that I can download samples. At the end of the sample, if I am wondering what’s going to happen next, I buy the full version. If I’m kind of like, meh … I won’t bother. 'Tis brilliant, in my opinion.)

So, I read the sample and honestly, the writing seemed very amateur-ish at best. The storyline did not hold my attention at all; in fact, I was skipping many of the pages to see what all of the hype was really about. I never got to it and therefore, won’t be buying the book.

I don’t understand what the media frenzy is really all about. The New York times called it “mommy porn” but it still doesn’t explain what is so special about this particular series. There are plenty of erotica novels out there – there have been for years. This is not a new concept, so if it isn’t the writing, what sets this one apart from the rest?

And I have just come to find out that Universal Pictures bought the rights to the entire trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Really? Are they going to release it in the theater? I don’t know that I’d want to see that play out on the big screen with crowds of women, who have gone insane for this series.

Dear Universal: Since you already spent seven figures on the rights to this series, I highly recommend that you release this trilogy immediately to DVD. Since millions of women enjoyed reading them from the privacy of their own homes, it may be best if they also watched the movies from the privacy of their own homes. I’d imagine the theater employees would thank you. Just saying.

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. Lauren Parker-Gill blogs at Spill the Beans.

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This film image released by Disney/Pixar shows the character Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, in a scene from "Brave." With her wild red mane and her killer skills with sword and bow, Merida has become the latest in Hollywood's growing line of successful female action heroes. (Disney/Pixar/AP)

'Brave' princess breaks Disney stereotypes. Or does she?

By Guest blogger / 07.13.12

I saw Disney-Pixar’s "Brave" the day it debuted in theaters, and I’m glad that Merida is a different kind of princess – one who can be read as a critique of both the trope that princesses are passive and the trend to tell their stories as romances.

But I also have some mixed feelings. For example:

  • The film’s marketing, which essentially ignores that "Brave" is a tale of a mother-daughter relationship (presumably for fear that such a story wouldn’t be a box office draw), is insulting.
  • The storyline itself features such unappealing would-be suitors that Merida’s disinterest in romance is undercut: What if the three young men who must vie for her hand were more like Prince Charmings than doofuses?
  • Finally, having studied girl power media for several years, it bothers me that Merida is presented as isolated, an anomalous female, without a community of female peers her own age. Can’t a girl who is supposed to be strong not be a loner?

With all that in mind, since the release of "Brave," I’ve been reading reviews and commentaries of the film with interest. There are two strands of criticism that I would like to address: 1) that the film is unoriginal, and 2) that Merida is a brat.

Is "Brave" an unoriginal film?

When Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe and I talked about "Brave," she mentioned that a lot of early reviews complained the film was unoriginal – ”just another princess movie,” she said. Reviewers were complaining that unlike other Pixar films, "Brave" didn’t feature a fully fabricated, fantastically unexpected world; it seemed to be treading old ground.

For example, Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that "Brave" is “familiar” and treads “startlingly well-worn territory.” He also complains that it is “laden with standard-issue fairy tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes.” But is it, really? It’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship. How is this “familiar” and “well-worn?” He and other reviewers complain that Brave is too Disney and not enough Pixar. In reading reviews like these, I sensed the reviewers just couldn’t get past the fact that "Brave" is about a princess, rather than something as unexpected as talking cars or talking toys or talking fish.

Ask any girl who’s been raised on princess films, and she’ll tell you that Merida is different, and very unlike her Disney Princess peers. As far as the narrative goes, what does Merida have in common with Disney Princesses, exactly? The fact that she’s a princess who has utterly fantastic hair. That’s about it.

(Even the witch in "Brave" seems perfectly nice. Unlike Disney’s approach, there’s no vilification of old ladies in Pixar’s film, which is refreshing.)

Other than that, while watching "Brave," I was amused to notice how closely the film follows Pixar’s formula for its protagonists:

  • The protagonist (e.g., Woody, Lightning McQueen, Marlin) makes some bad decisions, portrayed in ways that make them seem not entirely likable. (Because of his ego and jealousy, Woody is a jerk to Buzz; Lightning is self-centered, smugly superior, and judgmental of others; Marlin is a smothering, over-protective parent.)
  • The protagonist does something that causes harm or potential harm to someone else. (Woody pushes Buzz out a window; Lightning coerces Mack into driving overnight; Marlin embarrasses Nemo in front of peers so badly that Nemo takes a risk and is captured by a diver.)
  • Said protagonist has unexpected experiences, a journey beyond his comfort zone. (Woody has to leave Andy’s house to save Buzz, and gets to know him better; Lightning, separated from Mack, has an unexpected several-day detour through Radiator Springs, and actually gets to know its citizens; Marlin travels across the ocean to find his son, confronting his worst fears.)
  • As a result of these experiences, the protagonist changes. (Woody becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with Buzz; Lightning becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with the citizens of Radiator Springs; Marlin calms down and becomes a better parent.)

Merida goes through a similar journey. She begins as a self-absorbed teenager who wants to avoid the responsibilities of being a princess. After a fight with her mother, she finds herself someplace new and strange. Merida makes a bad decision that turns her mother into a bear. While trying to save her mother from this predicament, Merida then spends an awful lot of time insisting that it’s not her fault.

Finally, however, Merida changes, developing a better understanding of her mother and growing as a person. She realizes it is her fault, and by the movie’s conclusion, she has incorporated some of her mother’s statements into her own worldview, such as “Legends are lessons. They ring with truth,” and “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?” (At this, a young child seated behind me and my son in the theater marveled, “She’s acting like her mother!”)

So if the film seems familiar to reviewers, I don’t think it’s because it’s a Disney princess story. Merida is so different from the other Disney Princesses. Do Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Ariel have journeys in which they learn something about themselves and change? No. Their problems are solved by others. What about Belle? No. She longs for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but ultimately she is reduced to a catalyst of change for someone else – the Beast.

I really think that "Brave" feels familiar to many viewers because it’s telling the same type of story Pixar has been trading in for years. And so, as I told Joanna, it seems a little sexist for reviewers to place the blame for the film’s familiar feeling on the fact that Merida is a princess.

Is Merida a brat?

Another strand of conversation that has caught my eye is the debate over whether Merida is more bratty than brave. After all, she’s sassy and outspoken and argues openly with her mother. A reviewer at SFGate.com expresses concern that “the movie may tilt the balance too far in Mom’s direction, so that the film’s ostensible heroine ceases to seem adorably spunky and becomes more like an awful brat.”

Indeed, in some audience members’ opinions, this seems to be the case. One blogger writes that the movie “seems to accept and perhaps even glorify the defiance of the diva, the ‘coolness’ of being a brat, and the idea that insolence is synonymous with independence. When did respect for one’s parents, a gentle spirit, and a longing for a loving partnership involving mutual sacrifice become sexist and outdated?” Another argues, “I worry that our culture perpetuates a sort of entitled-brat attitude in girls these days: that our daughters deserve to get what they want, when they want it simply because they are girls. And nobody can tell girls these days what to do or what to want. They’re in charge.”

In all of this, I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the reality of teenagers’ relationships with their parents. As the book Nurture Shock explains, studies indicate that 96 percent of teenagers lie to their parents, often about really big issues. Which teens lie the least? Those whose parents consistently enforce rules while being the most warm and having the most conversations with their children. They explain why rules exist but are supportive of their children’s autonomy and freedom.

This, perhaps, can be understood as Elinor’s big parenting mistake: She dictates things to Merida without really explaining them to her, and so it seems to Merida that her mother does not support her freedom.

Yet ironically, Merida’s protestations and efforts to change her mother’s mind are not signs of a bad mother-daughter relationship. Studies also show that the teens who argue more openly with their parents are the teens who are the most honest. According to Nurture Shock, one study showed that families with less deception had “a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good–arguing was honesty.” However, “The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.”

Meanwhile, another study of mother-daughter arguments summarized in Nurture Shock found that while nearly half of mothers felt arguments with their daughters were bad for their relationships, less than a quarter of daughters felt the same way. For daughters, what was most important was how these arguments ended. The daughters needed to feel heard by their mothers, and over time, they needed to win some arguments and get small concessions from others. But they did not need to win every battle; they mainly needed to feel heard. (As Merida says to her mother, “Just listen to me!”)

In other words, the fact that Merida makes her disagreements clear to her mother does not make her a brat. As unpleasant as this may be for parents to consider, Merida’s argumentative nature may actually be a sign of respect and a mother-daughter relationship that is fundamentally sound. That’s important to keep in mind. When Merida and her mother begin to really consider one another’s perspectives, both parties grow as individuals, and their relationship becomes stronger. For parents worried that Merida is a “brat” who is setting a poor example for their children, these facts could provide useful talking points for the entire family.

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. Rebecca Hains blogs at rebeccahains.wordpress.com.

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Albie, the 3-year-old Yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mix rescued by the Zheutlin family is as gentle and sweet as the family could have hoped. (Courtesy of Peter Zheutlin)

Rescue dog Albie arrives at his new home after a long journey

By Correspondent / 07.13.12

As readers of this blog know, we adopted a 3-year-old Yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mix named Albie, and last Monday, after the longest, slowest weekend ever recorded in our house, Albie arrived after a tiring journey from Louisiana.

Now, there are two things you need to know straight away. First, I am not, repeat not, going to be one of those obnoxious pet owners convinced that everyone with an Internet connection is interested in seeing pictures of my dog or reading about every cute thing he does or listening to me brag about what a great dog he is. Second, this is by far the greatest, cutest, smartest dog in the world and I have the pictures to prove it. (I had one of Albie doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, but accidentally deleted it.)

To be honest, the term “rescue dog” was completely unfamiliar to me just two weeks ago. When my wife Judy began talking about adopting a “rescue” I thought she meant one of those dogs that locates wayward Swiss skiers in the Alps, or finds earthquake victims in the rubble. I had no idea that we were the ones doing the rescuing.

You never really know what you’re in for when a new dog arrives and we had fallen for Albie based on a twenty-second video posted on the Labs4Rescue website. For all we knew those were the happiest, most adorable, heart warming twenty seconds of his life. Off camera he could have been the reincarnation of Cujo.

Well, I’m happy to report the video did not lie. He was cuddly and affectionate from the ‘git go (when you pet him he always rests his paw, or both of them, on your arms), and is as gentle and sweet as you can possibly imagine.

Albie was a stray so we find ourselves speculating about the life he led before March when he was found in central Louisiana. Was he let go? Hard to imagine anyone parting with a dog this affectionate. But many dogs in the south are abandoned when they don’t prove to be good hunting dogs, and Albie surely seems to lack the temperament or the instinct for the hunt. We even had a little trouble getting him to chase a tennis ball. Getting in the car and going up and down stairs seem unfamiliar to him. Did he live in a one-story house? Or any house at all? Had he never been in a car? We’ll likely never know anything about the first three years of his life, but our goal is to make the next ten or twelve happy ones.

Being a dog owner for all of 24 hours I have a sense already about what it is that binds people to their dogs and why people get such nachus (that’s Yiddish for satisfaction, pleasure, and contentment) from them. In our first long walk together, around the lake at Wellesley College, Albie got plenty of compliments and admiration from passers-by. We thanked them as if his adorability and sunny disposition somehow reflected on us, which, of course, it doesn’t. And when you get all that uncomplicated affection from your pup its easy to feel virtuous and flatter yourself, as if the dog has reserved all that love just for you because you are so darned wonderful. But the truth is Albie could have been plunked down in any one of a million homes and he’d have been just as trusting and just as sweet. So, we feel very lucky indeed that he fell in with us.

Still, at the risk of sounding self-serving, he’s really lucky to be with us, too. He could just as easily have landed with the Kardashians.

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Laurent Belsie took daughters Grace and Madeleine Bao Yi to a nearby park to ride paddle boats while Gretchen stayed behind to check the final adoption paperwork. (Courtesy of the Belsie family)

China adoption diary: A document goes missing; stanch the panic!

By Gretchen BelsieGuest blogger / 07.13.12

Part 10 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.

I woke up early this morning and saw that Grace was hanging off the edge of the double bed next to me. Madeleine Bao Yi had carved out a cushy 75 percent for herself and had slowly pushed her sister out of the way. Laurent was already up and about in the next room so I whispered an invitation to Grace to come on over. She did and we both fell back to sleep.

Around 6 a.m. I woke up and felt unusually cramped and unable to move, but thought it was just my imagination. Moments later, Grace woke up and whispered “Bao Yi’s in here too, and she’s crushing my legs.”

It was a tight squeeze, but it was the best dog pile I’ve been a part of in quite some time.

As prospective adoptive parents, you read a lot about bonding. For this second adoption – at the start of our near five-year wait period – we were required to view video seminars on attachment and bonding issues. We even had to take an online exam to prove that we had complied with the requirement and learned something. Still, nothing can prepare you for the variables that you are presented in the adoption mix.

Laurent is the most closely bonded to Bao Yi, and Grace, as big sister, has also come a long way. As for me, I still have a tentative relationship with our new daughter. I’ve tried not to crowd her but rather, give her a chance to know me in increments. It can be hard to watch from the sidelines while the other three Belsies yuk it up with balloon games, smart phone videos or giving Daddy a “Betty Lou” (making tiny ponytails all over Laurent’s head) but I know my time will come.

Our plan was to take a group tour of the city this morning with a visit to a famous statue in Guangzhou and a stop at a park where citizens meet to enjoy tai chi exercises on a grand scale. The weather did not cooperate, so we scuttled that cultural mission and moved on to the shopping portion of the schedule.

Simon took us by van to the commercial district of the city, specifically to a six-story, 400-store mall devoted almost exclusively to the sale of pearls and jade.

We visited a recommended pearl store and sat as spectators while the other families power shopped. It was amazing to see so many strings of pearls lying around in bags. The young clerks were very happy to show us various grades of pearls for comparison’s sake and when a selection was finally made, they sprung into action, re-stringing and knot-tying with extreme speed and dexterity.

The next stop was a jade store where Laurent sprang for matching disk necklaces for his three girls. We were all thrilled with the shopping experience, Bao Yi even more so as the shopkeeper gave her a package of complimentary cookies when the yuan were forked over.      

This afternoon, Laurent took Grace and Bao Yi to a nearby garden park for a ride on a pedal boat while I stayed behind with one member of each of the other families to sign off on the final adoption paperwork prior to our appointment at the US Consulate. When Simon called for the second document on the final checklist, I looked and looked in our accordion file and could find no trace of it.

My heart was in my throat for the next 45 minutes while he helped the others complete their files and I predicted uncertain doom for the Belsie family.

Here it was, the 11th hour and approximately 45 minutes and we didn’t have a particular notarized affidavit with us – and after the compulsive double-checking of paperwork in the days leading up to our departure. What was supposed to be a simple tying up of loose ends suddenly felt like an emotional audit. My mind raced with scenarios of our departure being delayed for days, or one of us having to stay in the country with Bao Yi for weeks while it all got sorted out. Or worse, having to pay exorbitant fees to “make it right.”

As it turns out, the consulate has an in-house branch of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, so we do have a solution.      

I’ll be able to sleep tonight after all.

We are making progress as a family: Grace has introduced “appropriate coughing manners,” Laurent soldiers on with the knife and fork tutorials, and I quietly supply a variety of luncheon meats.

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Teens are less likely to get their drivers' licenses when they turn 16, according to a recent study. In this 2002 file photo, 16-year-olds Leo Livshetz, left, and Sterling Proffer drive in California. (Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Teens waiting to get drivers' licenses, prefer public transport

By Guest blogger / 07.12.12

There was a time when turning 16 automatically meant a trip to the DMV to become a newly minted driver, at least if car culture movies like "American Graffiti," and even many of our own teen memories, are to be believed.

But a new study from Oregon State Public Interest Research Group reveals that today’s teens are not so quick to gun their engines and join the ranks of drivers, and that cruising the main drag in a steel-skinned living-room-on-wheels isn’t the rite of passage to adulthood and freedom it once was.

In 2010, a mere 28 percent of 16 year olds had driver’s licenses, compared with 44 percent in 1980, according to another study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. While this doesn’t take into account new laws regarding ages of drivers, older teens are driving at lower rates, too. From 1980 to 2010, 17-year-old licensed drivers dropped from 66 percent to 45 percent; 18-year-olds from 75 percent to 61 percent; and 19-year-olds from 80 percent to 70 percent.

Why is this? According to University of Michigan’s Michael Sivak, the economic downturn has made it more difficult for young people to own a vehicle and cover its costs, from gas to insurance to the actual car. In addition, he notes, an increasing number of young people are moving to cities that have regular public transportation. And then there are those who are driving less or not at all out of concern for the environment. He also points to internet access and the popularity of social networks and texting, which means that kids can interact with each other from their own homes and from places that they don’t need a car to access.

With all the appropriate messages out there warning teens against texting and driving, think of it this way: Given the choice, many teens would rather text than drive.

In addition, there’s a desire among younger people, for the first time in decades, to live in walkable cities with good public transportation and biking. (There is a desire among older people for this, too.) In these cities, they often rely on car-sharing programs like Zipcar in a sincere effort to drive less while also not having to worry about storage and maintenance.

My daughter and her peer group seem to mirror this national trend. Anna, who is 16, is in no hurry to get a driver’s license. Some of her friends got them at or around 16 (the minimum age for licensing in California). Many others waited. A couple admit to having been nervous. Still others are just taking their time. For various reasons, they don’t perceive a strong need to drive.

“Fewer parents are working 9-5 than they used to,” Anna said, “so they’re more available when needed. Kids get accustomed to getting rides from their parents and other drivers.”

That was Harry Miller’s story. The Sebastopol, Calif., teen got his driver’s license the day after his 18th birthday. “I started online driver’s ed the day after my 16th birthday,” he said. “I took a long time to finish. I was a little afraid of being behind the wheel and driving around.”

Once he got his permit, he started driving with his parents. Although driving became easier, he didn’t particularly enjoy it. The original permit expired before he passed the driving test, and a new permit was issued. The day after his 18th birthday, Harry passed the behind-the-wheel driver’s test and got his license.

“I had been getting rides (to school) with my dad, and there were always enough people driving places, that I didn’t really need a license,” Harry said. “The only reason I got one was to help my mom and dad drive my younger brothers places.” Harry added: “The day I got my license, I drove home by myself. The minute I was by myself, I realized how stupid I had been for not getting my license sooner. I loved it. Driving alone is the coolest thing.”

Diane Worley’s daughter, Ivy, of Mill Valley, Calif., got her license the day before her 17th birthday.

“It was a combination of not being ready and being too busy to schedule the driving test,” Diane said. “I got my license the day I turned 16, couldn’t wait for the independence of driving. My only serious car accident ever was in my first three months of driving. Ivy has not had an accident yet. I think that speaks for itself.”

In Los Angeles (where I learned to drive), many parents cite the “congested streets” and “crazy drivers” as the reasons that their kids and teen acquaintances are delaying getting their licenses, often past college.

And then there is Trevor Perelson, 18, of Mill Valley, Calif. who simply relishes the journey more by bike than he would if traveling by car. And it’s not as if he doesn’t travel long distances. He just completed a 14-day, 450-mile round-trip bike ride, in addition to using bike transportation daily.

“Driving a car is not even half as much fun as riding a bike,” he said.

“Half of my friends got their licenses at 16,” Trevor said, although most of his college-age friends don’t drive. “If they do, they regret it. To have a car means you’re forced to work or have your parents pay for the car and gas. Not everyone has that luxury.”

Trevor, who has a job building chicken coops, said, “I don’t think it’s worth it to have to work to drive a destructive machine that’s less fun than biking. It doesn’t make sense. I can be anywhere I need to be on my bike in an hour or by bus in 40 minutes.”

“The time spent working just to obtain and drive a car would be wasted. I’d rather live, learn and travel.” Trevor added, “There’s a communal aspect to bike riding. If I see someone I know, and I’m on a bike, I can stop and say hi. You can’t do that in a car. I like to feel the land versus just going over it — feel the steep hills and the humid climate, see the people and hear the noises.”

Anna also recently get her permit. She decided she wants to know how to drive, even if she doesn’t do it often. And, she’s right — it’s a good life skill to have in one’s arsenal. We’re also in the school of many parents who think that, while it’s great that our kid gets around on bike, foot or by carpooling, learning to drive now, with her parents and in her home town, before she goes off to college in a year, will actually make her a safer and more confident driver, when she does inevitably drive (although, frankly, waiting a little was fine, too).

Whatever the laws in your state and the new driver’s age, driving practice and safe habits are paramount.

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Queen Latifah has hinted that she will adopt a child. Here she performs with The Roots during an Independence Day celebration on July 4 in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Queen Latifah a mom? Star says she may adopt a child.

By Correspondent / 07.12.12

Could Queen Latifah soon be a mom? That’s what the actress and rapper said to Barbara Walters on ABC’s “The View” yesterday, saying she was “totally serious” about adopting a child.

“I think I saw one of those specials... you know those movies of the week. And it was like – and I just always wanted to bring a child home,” she said.

When Walters pressed, asking Queen Latifah if she was really serious about adoption, the actress said yes, and that she was “actually kind of working on that.”

“I’m totally serious,” she said. And then, because it’s Queen Latifah: “so if you got a kid that you don’t...  just give me a year – let me set up camp and then send me the kid.”

(She’s got a lot on her plate – she’s set to star in a television movie version of Steel Magnolias next year.)

But she said again that she was really serious about adopting.

She would be in good company.

The celebrity world is filled with star-studded adoptions. There’s the Jolie-Pitt clan, of course, with kids hailing from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Katherine Heigl and husband Josh Kelley adopted a daughter from South Korea. And Madonna, who fought to adopt daughter Mercy James from Malawi.

Latifah wouldn’t even raise eyebrows as a single celebrity mom adopting. Think Charlize Theron and Sandra Bullock.

But as the Monitor has reported, adoption is far more than a celebrity trend – it’s an American phenomenon. In 2010, there were 52,891 domestic adoptions reported through public agencies in the US, and 11,058 international adoptions, according to the State Department. In 2002, the National Survey of Family Growth estimated that 18.5 million American women ages 18-44 had considered adoption.

As Modern Parenthood editor Clara Germani wrote recently, in her introduction to the heartwarming – and, we’ve discovered, controversial – series about a Monitor editor and his family’s journey to China to adopt their second daughter, most of these adoptions go right.

Adoption, then, is a beautiful American story – one of parental love, of families morphing into new and enduring shapes, of bonding that goes beyond DNA and bureaucratic regulations.

“I’m here to tell you it’s the antidote to the adoption angst that media and popular psychology seem to focus on, such as infertility grief, bureaucratic tangles, and the uncertainties of timing,” Germani wrote.

We hope you’ll check out Gretchen Belsie’s dispatches. She and husband Laurent, the Monitor’s business editor, are back in China with their first adopted daughter, Grace. They have been waiting five years to adopt their second daughter, Madeleine, who is now 7.  Already the series has led to smiles, tears and an intense debate among our readers.  

Meanwhile, we’ll just have to wait for Queen Latifah’s next move.

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A dragon boat moves along the Pearl River in New Town, a neighborhood of Guangzhou. As the boats passed by spectators, the helmsman tossed firecrackers into the air. (Courtesy of the Belsie family)

China adoption diary: Matters of trust involve a headlock on Dad

By Gretchen BelsieGuest blogger / 07.12.12

Part 9 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.

Today was a banner day of highs and lows, taking us from a tuberculosis shot in the morning to more gastronomic escapism this evening at Paddy Field’s Irish Pub.

At 9:30 a.m. Simon took us to the city medical clinic. By the time we arrived at the second floor waiting area, the place was filled up with other American families who have been staying at the Garden Hotel. New friendships formed as we waited for our turns.

In the first exam room, Madeleine Bao Yi chatted with the nurse attendant and was unperturbed by the ear and throat exam. For those babies who did not like that first round, assistants offered small squeak toys (shaped like bok choy) as a diversionary tactic.

During the second check, the children were given a mandatory tuberculosis shot. Once Bao Yi figured out what lay ahead, she stiffened out and grabbed hold of the doorjamb with a true death grip. It took Laurent and Simon pulling like Trojans to unclasp that hold. All the while, she was howling and crying what I like to refer to as “squirt gun tears.” Then, she locked Laurent in a rear headlock like there was no tomorrow. Simon was there the whole time, trying to talk to her in Chinese and explain that the shot would be over in two seconds. She finally agreed to go through with it, but it was quite an ordeal. We have to return to the clinic in 48 hours to have the injection area checked. For the next two days, no swimming pool.

After the high times at the clinic, we took a short bus ride over to a part of the city called New Town. The skyscrapers were modern and architecturally varied, and the place felt like a section of Manhattan. We saw buildings that had been erected for the 2010 Asian Olympics and are now used for general commercial and athletic purposes. Simon also pointed out something called the Children’s Palace. Though it sounds like an amusement park, in reality it is a very special and expensive weekend school for the children of the well to do. Classes are offered in piano, art, dance, and Chinese brush calligraphy.

The amazing thing to consider is this: only 15 years ago, this entire section of the city was active farmland on the outskirts of the metro area. These urban corridors existed only in the minds of zealous planners.

As we wandered around the vast plaza near New Town, we kept hearing explosive sounds like gunshots. I was concerned, as were the other mothers, until Simon explained that it was the sound of fireworks over the Pearl River in celebration of the three-day Dragon Boat Festival. We hurried over to the railings overlooking the river and saw a number of these dragon boats go by. Imagine something like a Hawaiian outrigger canoe (with an elaborately carved dragon head in front) holding up to 40 men frantically paddling. Aboard the boat is a drummer who pounds rhythmically on a large drum to keep the pace for the oarsmen. Several team flags fluttered in the breeze. As they passed by, the helmsman tossed firecrackers into the air, and they snapped and sizzled.

It has been interesting watching Grace settle in to big sisterhood and try to understand why, in these early days of limited communication, Bao Yi may seem to get her way more than is fair. We keep telling her that Bao Yi doesn’t understand about “yours” and “mine,” so if she touches your pencil case, it is not a power play. She is probably just interested in seeing new things.

She is also a stickler for explanations for everything from manners to why we can’t go in the swimming pool for the next 48 hours. With Grace, it’s play scrupulously by the rules or get out of the game. We think she’d make a fine warden in a women’s prison.

Tomorrow will be another day for family bonding and finalizing paperwork.

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In order to protect youth more fully, parents and researchers need to also consider the social pressures and gender issues involved. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Sexting: Parents need to understand social pressures and behavior

By Guest blogger / 07.11.12

The news coverage of youth sexting here in the United States generally places it in a legal context – the life-changing harm that can result from a child’s exposure to enforcement of child pornography law. That is certainly of deep concern, especially until these laws that were designed to protect minors from sexual exploitation are revised to catch up with user-generated and distributed media.

But – to reduce harm more fully – it’s high time to consider sexting from young people's perspectives and actual experiences, and also in a psychosocial context that factors in social pressures, gender issues, and sexual health.

“Sexting reveals and relates to a wider [global] sexist, sexualised [consumer] culture” that young people are navigating in their own social contexts now,” writes the lead author of a new qualitative study of sexting among youth. This is so important for parents and educators to hear:

“We need gender sensitive support that does not treat sexting as the fault of girls, and also we cannot simply demonize boys. Many existing resources are based on sexual stereotypes and worst case scenarios, are moralising and implicitly place the burden of blame on girls for sending a photo, thereby reproducing the problematic message that girls are to protect their innocent virginal body from the predatory over-sexed male. This in itself is a form of victimization [of both boys and girls], which can be harmful.”

Adults need to understand that “sexting” is a term young people created or generally relate to and isn’t any single behavior. “We uncovered a great diversity of experiences, which contradicts any easy assumptions about sexting as a singular phenomenon,” the study’s authors write in the report. They talked with 35 young people in single-sex focus groups of two to five (some in British schools’ Year 8, representing 12-to-13-year-olds, and some in Year 10, representing 14-to-15-year-olds) in two inner-city schools with socioeconomically and culturally diverse student bodies. After the focus groups, the authors interviewed 22 of the young people individually.

Though the researchers caution against making generalizations from their findings, they do offer eight key findings, and I’d add two more important insights from the executive summary. The insights are:

  • High-pressure social context: Few teens choose not to participate in “the sexual banter, gossip, discussion,” flirting and dating of teen sociality, “but to take part is to be under pressure – to look right, perform, compete, judge and be judged."
  • Individual and collective: Sexting’s effects aren’t limited to the people involved but “permeate and influence the entire teen network in multiple ways.”

Here’s a condensed version of the eight insights the authors gleaned:

  1. The biggest “threat” from sexting to teens is “sexual pressure from peers,” not strangers or “predators,” and what can happen with peers as a result.
  2. There is no clear line between sexting and bullying. “Sexting” refers to “a range of activities which may be motivated by sexual pleasure but are often coercive, linked to harassment, bullying and even violence.”
  3. Girls are the most "adversely affected" and sexting is “shaped by the gender dynamics of the group.” The authors found “evidence of an age-old double standard by which sexually active boys are to be admired and … sexually active girls are denigrated and despised as ’sluts.'”
  4. “Technology amplifies the problem:" We’re all pretty familiar with the nearly instant mass distribution that’s possible with digital technology. Hard not to agree that this, if it happens, can amplify emotional harm, but it is certainly not in itself the problem.
  5. It’s the tip of an iceberg: Sexting is just part of a range of (in some cases long-standing) sexual pressures teens feel “oppressed” by, the authors report.
  6. Resilience and coping skills: The researchers said they were struck that the 14- and 15-year-olds appeared as “mature in their resilience and ability to cope” as they were “sexually aware and experienced.” But the 11- and 12-year-olds “were more worried, confused and, in some cases, upset by the sexual and sexting pressures they face, and their very youth meant that parents, teachers and others did not support them sufficiently.
  7. “Sexting practices are culturally specific” both in terms of young people’s personal and local environment and in terms of the broader media culture.
  8. Exposure is good and bad: The authors report that it’s very clear that young people need more support and education, and we all need more research. They say that, while digital media may be contributing to increased “gendered sexual pressures on youth,” they also expose those pressures, make them “available for discussion and so potentially open to resolution.”

I’ve long suggested the No. 1 digital safety tip is to talk with one’s kids. This is the research version of that, and it’s just as greatly needed for calibrating our parenting and risk-prevention education. So we can follow the author’s advice and not impose even these findings on our own children, but they add nuance to the public discussion and can inform good parent-child communication too.

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

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Living with dogs and cats may make babies healthier, says a new study. Here, Yekaterina Khodakova holding her 18-month-old son Gleb watches two Siberian tiger cubs and Shar Pei puppy playing in her house in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Khodakova's Shar Pei dog Cleopatra breastfeeds the tiger cubs because their mother refused to feed them after they were born in late May in a small zoo. (Igor Yakunin/AP)

Dogs, cats make for healthy babies, says study. Bring on the fur.

By Correspondent / 07.11.12

This is the most gratifying study I’ve seen in a while: Researchers have determined that babies who grow up with dogs and cats (but especially dogs) tend to be healthier than their non-pet owning compatriots.

The study, which was published earlier this week in the journal “Pediatrics,” followed 397 children in eastern or middle Finland through the first year of life, and asked parents to fill out weekly diaries both about the babies’ contacts with furry friends and their health. The parents also filled out a questionnaire when the kids were one year old.

The verdict: dogs are awesome.  Cats are pretty cool, too. (OK, that’s not really the scientific conclusion, but you get the point.)

More specifically, the researchers found that children with dogs inside the house were the least likely group to report various sorts of illness or use of antibiotic drugs, and the group that spent the greatest percentage of time in the “healthy” category.
 
Contact with indoor cats were also helpful, but the dog-owning babies were the ones who seemed to reap the most health benefits.

The scientists don’t know exactly why the animals seem to be so beneficial. But – and I love this – they theorize that the general funk related to dogs (again, not the scientific wording, but dog owners out there know what I mean) is actually pretty helpful.

That’s right – the fur, the drool, the gunk, even the dirt on muddy paws, is a veritable Apple-A-Day, the experts say.

This makes me feel so much better.

Because, well, as soon as one enters our house one finds that it is home to not only a whirlwind of a toddler, but to some four-legged friends. One of whom is a Labrador retriever – aka the king of the canine shedders.  A Black Lab, I will add, who cannot understand why, with the addition of Husband and Baby M to his life, the rules against couch surfing have become a bit stricter.

(The dog has simply learned that he should wait until we leave the room to get comfy on the white couch. Husband, who is not a dog person, although has many other wonderful qualities, does not appreciate this.)

I’ll admit, the general fur-coated status of my home has, in the past, had me feeling a bit inadequate. Even, at times, embarrassed. 

But now I can have pride and the general animal kingdom environment. I can even feel a bit superior.

After all, good mommies encourage dog funk. The experts say so.

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