Tag Archives: children

How we’re explaining Jesus and Santa Claus

These both seem like hard ones to tackle, so I’m writing down what we’re doing in case it’s helpful to other families.

I’ve told Lily that at Christmas people tell a story about a baby being born. My plan is to continue presenting religious traditions as stories, which she can then choose to get into or not, sort of like some children get really interested in Cinderella and some older people get really interested in the Lord of the Rings.

With two babies in the household, Lily’s naturally interested in stories about babies, particularly when animals are also involved. She’s particularly interested in umbilical cords, so we’ve discussed Jesus’s umbilical cord quite a bit. I made her a pregnant Mary doll, with the baby being presented on Christmas Eve. Lily currently likes to carry him around in her pocket.

dolls

In some ways, explaining Santa was even trickier because other adults really don’t want you to mess up their kids’ belief (whereas people accept that not everybody’s on board with Jesus). I wasn’t interested in deceiving my kids for several reasons:

  • It messes with their sense of reality, particularly when they get old enough to notice some discrepancies and adults are gaslighting them by pretending the evidence they’re noticing is wrong
  • A lot of kids are disappointed when they find out
  • It takes away the credit from those who deserve it. These gifts didn’t come from a far-away stranger, they were made or bought by your own family.
  • It means the child can’t fully participate in gift-giving until they’re let in on the secret. In our large family gatherings, stockings are how we give any presents to anyone outside each nuclear family (so we don’t all need to come up with 27 presents).

So after the older cousins who believe in Santa Claus had gone home, we strung up the stockings (pillowcases pinned to a clothesline across the house, which is the only practical way to do it for all 27 people visiting). I showed Lily the presents I had for other people, and she helped me put them into their stockings.

Yesterday when she asked for a story, I told her the story of St. Nicholas. Well, a simplified version without mentioning dowries or prostitution as in the original.

A long time ago in Turkey there was a kind man named Nicholas. There was a family nearby who had three daughters, and they were very poor and didn’t have enough money for the things they needed. Nicholas wanted to help them, but he wanted to keep it a secret. So one night Nicholas threw a bag of gold down the chimney for the oldest daughter, and it landed in her stocking that was hung up by the fire to dry. The next night he threw a second bag of gold down the chimney for the second daughter. By now the family was very curious about who had been helping them, so the father hid outside the house to see who kept dropping money into the chimney. Sure enough, Nicholas came with a bag of gold for the third daughter, and the family said, “It’s you! Thank you, kind Nicholas, for helping us!” People thought he was so good that they called him a saint, and they called him by the nickname Santa Claus, which means Holy Nicholas. And that’s why we give each other presents in stockings at Christmastime.

Of course, Lily’s primary interest in all this was still in finding and opening her own stocking. found-it

Recognizing problems as temporary

Sometimes a situation becomes worse because you interpret your inclination to do a bad thing as a prediction that you will actually do it. Realizing that it’s possible to successfully get past this feeling has been helpful to me. Three examples I’ve noticed:

  • Several older women in my family speak openly about the times they felt like hurting their babies. It’s been really helpful to hear them—successful matriarchs who have loving relationships with their adult children—say this, and know that wanting to throw your baby at 3 am after six months of sleep deprivation is normal and doesn’t mean you are actually going to do it. It’s reassuring to have the interpretation “I am going to get through this somehow, and in thirty years we’ll all laugh about it” rather than “I am a terrible mother who is actually going to throw this baby.”

    Of course, you also have to take steps to not hurt the baby! Lily’s great-grandmother, when raising kids on an isolated farm, would put the baby in the baby carriage and wheel it out into the field until she couldn’t hear the crying anymore from the house. When she could see the carriage stop shaking, she knew the baby was asleep and would wheel it back within earshot. This is the kind of thing the health pamphlets tell you to do (“step away right away”), but it’s more reassuring to know that your husband’s beloved grandmother did it and not something that only bad parents in pamphlets need to do.

  • Many of the older dancers in my folk dance group have been part of the team since the 1970s or early 80s. Some of them brought their little kids to every event, but others took time off and one central member took about a decade off when she had a child. These days I’d often rather fall into bed as soon as possible than go to practice, and I don’t go to most of the gigs because traveling with baby in tow feels like more trouble than it’s worth. If this were a group with less institutional memory, I’d assume this meant I was drifting away from the team and that it soon wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore. But because I have the model of people rejoining the team after early parenthood, I see this as a temporary and not a permanent separation.
  • A friend noted that sometimes when he feels he wants to sleep forever, he worries a lot about the fact that he’s feeling suicidal. He found that if he takes a nap he usually feels much better, and that the problem is temporary exhaustion more than ongoing suicidality. So now he doesn’t assign much importance to the feeling when it happens.

Cost comparison of childcare

Now that we have two children, the cheapest form of childcare has changed. Double daycare didn’t sound appealing, so we did the math and decided that an au pair was cheapest (see tables below). Jeff’s family used au pairs and were happy with the arrangement. So we’re planning to go ahead with that this coming year.

Au pairs have a connotation of being something only posh people have, perhaps because having live-in help seems like having servants. But the state department is very clear about them not working extra hours or taking on housework beyond what’s child-related, and they’re supposed to be like a family member (“au pair” literally meaning “on par” or “on equal terms” with the family). Jeff’s sister was an au pair and it was something I considered after college, so it’s not as if it’s a one-way stream either.

Pros:

Cultural exchange. The whole reason au pairs don’t make minimum wage is that they are technically having a cultural experience rather than being employees. If you’d like to expose your children to another language and hang out with someone from another country, this might be a nice way to do it. Caveats: the kids I see with Spanish-speaking au pairs or nannies seem to understand Spanish but don’t speak it themselves (they respond in English). Jeff’s father said they preferred au pairs who spoke English as a first language because it made communication easier. I also think childrearing methods vary quite a bit by culture, and there are some cultures that seem pretty low-interaction, which is not what I would want.

Flexibility: An au pair works up to 45 hours a week, and you can schedule the hours anytime during the week (with a max of 10 hours/day and with at least one weekend a month fully off). Because we both travel for work, the ability to have someone watch our children at odd hours as we’re coming and going from the airport sounds good.

You can also have your au pair travel with you (so if I were at a conference for a week, I could potentially bring the kids and the au pair, which would certainly be nicer than being away from my baby for that long. But the cost of extra airfare and lodging means we’ll probably use this very sparingly).

You also don’t have to cram your child into a daycare’s timeframes: no need to drag them out of bed in time for you to leave for work, or to keep them awake or make them lie down because that’s the group schedule. There’s no panic if they’re not potty trained and won’t be allowed into the three-year-old classroom.

Sick days: An au pair doesn’t work when they’re sick, but they can work when the kids are sick. (With a daycare, the kid can’t be there when they’re sick or for 24 hours afterward.) Since little kids get sick more often than adults, we expect this will mean we miss less work caring for a sick child. Also, snow days, which we have a reasonable number of in Boston.

No commute: having care in our own home is huge for us. When we took Lily to daycare every day, it added about 90 minutes to our days (because you have to manage a child’s commute in addition to your own).

Less stress for children: At home, young children’s level of cortisol (a stress hormone) peaks in the morning and falls throughout the day. At daycare, many children’s levels rise again during the middle of the day. (Caveat: I couldn’t find out whether in-home care with a non-family caregiver matches the home pattern or the daycare pattern, but I’m assuming it’s closer to being home with your family on a weekend.) It’s not clear that this has any long-term effects, but it seems plausible to me that it does.

Cons:

Socialization: It takes extra effort to get socialization for the children because they’re not already in a group setting. For a baby or young toddler, I don’t think this is a problem, but for older kids you could potentially be looking at the cost of preschool on top of an au pair. But I think it’s possible to supplement with visits to library story hours, play groups, etc. Certainly most children throughout humanity have been reared primarily in their own (extended) families rather than in a classroom-type setting.

Privacy: An extra person in your household brings more possibility of conflict and awkwardness.

Inexperience: I know 19-year-olds can be clueless, because I cringe at some of the mistakes I made at that age working in daycares or as a babysitter.

Year-long schedule: If you end up with someone who’s a bad fit for your family, you’re kind of stuck unless you want to pay the fee to re-match. Also if you no longer need childcare (say one parent is unemployed for a few months) you’re still paying for it. But this is true in the better daycares, too.

Unpredictability: The au pair can decide to buy a flight home any time (edit January 2017: ours did this with less than a week’s notice). Young adults who have never lived away from home before are not known for their consistency. There are also factors beyond their control: their visa application could be delayed. They could have a family emergency and need to return home. Trump has mentioned getting rid of the J-1 visa that au pairs use, so who knows whether he’ll follow through on that.
A daycare could also close or lose its license, particularly if it’s a home daycare that relies on a single person, but I’m guessing it’s less likely.

Housing: You need an extra bedroom. If you have the flexibility to rent a larger space this may be fine, but for people who own condos or houses it may not work. In our case, it was possible to build an extra bedroom, which we’re happy to do because we’d like to have a spare room after we’re done having au pairs.

Transportation: If the au pair will need to drive, adding them to your car insurance (and getting another car, as some families do) would add extra cost. In our case, we’re near the subway and don’t own a car, so the transportation cost is just a public transit pass.

Monthly costs in Boston area using public transit:

Au pair

Au pair stipend and agency fees: $1620
Rent: $770 (based on renting a four-bedroom vs. a three-bedroom apartment in my neighborhood)
Utilities (including cell phone): $65
Food: $200
Worker’s comp: $30
Misc spending (museum admissions, public transit pass, etc.): $100
Total $2785

Daycare (this varies a lot but is based on the daycare Lily went to)

Infant in daycare with sibling discount $1794
Toddler in daycare $1885
Total $3679

Nanny 

$20/hour (more if withholding tax and social security), 45 hours/week $3900
Worker’s comp: $30
Food, museum passes, etc. $100
Total $4030

Babywearing around the world

My new daughter, Anna, is one month old. I may have acquired a few too many baby carriers last time (six), but I’m enjoying them now. After babywearing went out of fashion in the western world, I’m glad to be living in a time when it’s back. I can’t imagine getting stuff done without it, particularly when your child is sick and wants to be held all the time.

I love seeing different ways people wear children:

ethiopia

Ethiopia

1940s, Greenland. Inuit women have used an amauti, a parka with a pouch in back for the baby.

Cameroon

Cameroon

hmong vietnam

Children can wear babies, too. Hmong siblings, Vietnam.

hockey

Jack Wembly of the Wembley Monarchs ice hockey team, in 1937 with a very uncomfortable-looking sling he and his wife invented to carry their baby onto the ice.

java

Java

United States

mali

Mali

sacagawea

The US is the only nation to depict babywearing on its currency.

double

Two at once

mexico

Mexico – she can feed her baby on the go!

Wales, c. 1905.

Wales, c. 1905.

rabbit

Lily using a ring sling for rabbitwearing.

Gift ideas for young children

If you’re the kind of person who already has toys and outfits picked out that you want to give your friends who have babies, you don’t need this post. This is for people who have no idea what a one-year-old likes and need to give their nephew something.

There are some kinds of presents I think you should avoid unless parents request them:

  1. Presents that imply a particular parenting strategy—the baby carrier you loved may not work for parents who want to use a stroller, or vice versa, and then they’ll feel weird for not using it.
  2. Presents that make electronic noises, because the child will find them fascinating long after the parents have lost their minds. (Jeff has been known to cut the wires in such cases.)
  3. Toys that take up a lot of space.

So here are some ideas:

0-1:

  • Really, presents at this age are mostly for the parents, so pretty much get them anything they requested.
  • Default for baby shower: A gift certificate to Target, Amazon, or whatever the big-box store is near you. My sister said she was apprehensive about giving a gift card to a friend, until the friend breathed, “Oh my God, thank you, we’re so broke.”
  • Clothes for 9-month-olds. Everyone gives you 0-6 month clothes when your baby is born and after that you’re on your own. Think ahead to what the weather will be like in 9 months.
  • Balls of various kinds
  • Rattle
  • Grabby things

1-2 years:

  • Stacking rings
  • Pull toy (alligator, caterpillarsnake)  for when they’re walking.
  • Bath toys: I really like these whale scoops and duck scoops.
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Large rubber balls like they sell at the dollar store
  • Blocks
  • Books: Kids this age aren’t so good at following a storyline, particularly if the pictures are of the same characters talking to each other over and over. Lily has loved books with pictures of different objects, pictures of babies, and pictures of animals. Goodnight Gorilla has enough animals to be interesting to kids with no understanding of plot, and a plot illustrated rather than told so Lily can follow it at 19 months – “Night night. Key! Open!” (Of course, she also considers the banana integral to the plot, which it is not.) At 20 months she got into Richard Scarry and Sandra Boynton.
  • Some kind of soft animal or doll – lots of kids seem to latch onto a toy they got for their first birthday (Jeff still has his much-repaired polar bear).

After about age 2, I can’t help you yet, but I like the ideas here and here. Also liked these STEM presents for ages 4-12.

Note that we don’t need any of these things because we already have them.

Preventing child sexual abuse

Content: nothing graphic. Discussion of adults not believing children.
I think this is a good thing for non-parents to read too, since neighbors, teachers, and family friends may be in a position to notice something is happening.

A while ago a relative expressed worry about the possibility that her child might be sexually abused in the future. Other adults in the family assured her that children are very safe nowadays and that there was almost no risk.

As someone who works with sex offenders, and as the parent of a little girl, this question interests me a lot.

I think it’s important to know the actual risks, because in the past programs have been aimed at preventing risks that weren’t particularly likely: stranger rapes by “predators.” You don’t want to frighten people about events that are very unlikely, but you also don’t want to ignore more likely risks.

How common is it?

  • It’s notoriously hard to collect good data on this, but a metastudy concluded that the sexual abuse prevalence rate for girls in the US is 10.7% to 17.4% and the rate for boys is 3.8% to 4.6%. This is for contact abuse only (abuse that involved touching, not something like an adult showing their genitals to a child).
  • Sexual abuse rates seem to be declining, probably because of greater public awareness and less tolerance of abuse.

Characteristics of children at risk:

  • Risk factors, in order of magnitude: being a girl, having low socioeconomic status, and not living with both biological parents (foster children are most at risk). There are racial differences but they all disappear when you control for class and family structure (source). Other risk factors include being socially isolated, not having someone to confide in, having a mother who is dead or mentally ill, and having parents with alcoholism (source).
  • Boys are most at risk as very young children (peaking around age 4), and less at risk as they get older. Girls’ risk peaks once around 4 but rises to a higher peak around 14. Screenshot 2015-07-26 at 11.23.25 AM(source)

Characteristics of perpetrators:

  • Perpetrators are usually a family friend, neighbor, or babysitter. Family members are next most likely, with strangers being fairly unlikely (14%).
  • Different sources estimate that 87% to 95% of perpetrators are male. (source, other source)
  • About a quarter of the time, the perpetrator is under age 18. 14 again seems to be a particularly risky age. I’m not sure how much of this pattern is 14-year-olds assaulting other 14-year-olds (or how much the 14-year-olds would consider consensual, or how much a 14-year-old can consent).

Screenshot 2015-07-26 at 11.28.51 AM(source)

How do you find out?

  • Sexually abused children usually don’t tell anyone during childhood (source).
  •  If children disclose abuse, they are most likely to tell their mothers and adolescents are most likely to tell a friend. Teachers are third most likely. (source) To me, this points to the importance of having a relationship where your children trust you. I’ve heard horror stories from clients about not being believed, or even being beaten, when they told their parents they were being molested. This made no sense to me until I reflected that the abuser was usually a respected person like the mother’s brother or the parish priest. I also think parents are sometimes so overwhelmed by horror at the thought of this happening to their child that they refuse to believe it.
  • Rather than giving one complete disclosure, children often drop a hint, see what the reaction is, and then decide whether to drop more hints. To me, this again underscores the importance of paying attention to what children say and responding sensitively.
  • It’s fairly common for children to recant or change stories after disclosing abuse, presumably because the memories are difficult to deal with or because it’s causing a stressful situation. (Imagine a child who discloses first to a sibling, then to her mother, then to the child protective worker, then to the police investigator, then a taped deposition for the court—she may recant just to make it all stop. Some families choose not to press charges for this reason.) Memory lapses are also a post-traumatic symptom, and it’s possible some children genuinely don’t remember. I have no idea how you tell the difference between the retraction of a false story and a true one, but it’s considered very unlikely that a child would make this up.
  • Sexual drawings and age-inappropriate sexual behavior may be an indication that something has happened.

Protecting children:

These are my personal guesses, not proven strategies. Some other ideas here.

  • Listen to children. Pay attention to their fears and concerns.
  • Drop in unexpectedly when children are alone with an adult or an older child. Offenders are rarely caught in the act but are often caught pushing boundaries.
  • Notice your child’s mood after they have been alone with an adult or older child.
  • If your child seems uncomfortable around someone, err on the side of keeping them apart even if you haven’t gotten to the bottom of the situation.
  • Make clear to children that they will not be blamed for disclosing and that sexual abuse is never children’s fault.
  • Respond with support and love if they disclose something. Let the child know you appreciate their bravery in telling, and that it is now your job to handle the situation. More good tips here and here.
  • If you hear a disclosure, you will probably experience shock, rage, and sadness. Try to stay calm around the child—let them see that you can handle hearing this. Find an adult you can vent to, so the child does not have to take care of your emotions.
  • Respect children’s boundaries. Don’t make them hug or kiss people they don’t want to, even if grandma is expecting it. In a discussion on boundaries at a Quaker community where I lived, one woman recounted that when she asked a six-year-old girl in the community for a hug, the girl answered, “I only hug people in my family.” The woman held this up as healthy development to be celebrated. Teaching children phrases like this, or a simple “No, thanks,” teaches children that it’s fine to refuse unwanted attention.
  • Unfortunately it’s unclear how well any of this works.

Thoughts on parenting, as we begin again

Jeff and I are expecting another baby in February. We expect two children in two years to be a lot of work, but something that we will enjoy in the long run.

A German study on parenting came out recently, which was headlined as “Parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner” despite the study not addressing any of those comparisons. The study actually said that parents who were most unhappy after the birth of their first child were less likely to have a second child, which isn’t exactly surprising. Overall, the research on parenting and happiness is mixed, and I think it makes more sense to focus on factors that make parenting better or worse than to average all parenting experiences into a lump.

My favorite response, by a Swiss woman writing about why Germany is particularly likely to have unhappy parents:

“The German style of parenting is very much still infected with old prussian virtues. The children are supposed to be silent, obedient, perfect mannered and docile which is completely against the nature of babies/toddlers/preschoolers. And if they misbehave it’s always the mothers fault. . . . I am a mother of a lively three year old boy and not one day passes without us facing public hostility. . . . The German mother loses all her social prestige as a mother. Even if she is a double PHD finding a cure for cancer she’s now supposed to stay at home, be content with it and produce high Quality Germans measured on their “Abiturnote”(uni entry exam score). Very similar to Japanese mothers.”

We don’t seem to have come up with a solution to sleep deprivation, which many agree is the worst part of having a baby. There’s a reason it’s used as a torture technique. But social expectations around parenting can certainly make it better or worse. This isn’t the first time I had heard that mothering standards tend to be insanely high in countries with low birthrates (witness the bento box).

Where I live standards aren’t too unreasonable, but I do think we could use less emphasis on cleanliness. Little kids get dirty all the time. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t like to be washed. It doesn’t cause any kind of problem except for their parents. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if we just accepted grubbiness as children’s natural state.

Thinking back on whether Lily has made me more or less happy, I’m not really sure. The extremes are more extreme. I’m dissatisfied with parts of my life and miss things about not being a parent, but before Lily I was dissatisfied with different parts of my life and wanted to have a baby. I think my happiness setpoint just includes some dissatisfaction, and I’ll always find something to be dissatisfied about.

I do think parenting strongly affected my sense of meaning. I remember, in the midst of Boston’s interminable 9-feet-of-snow winter, reading a blog with pictures of the snow combined with Samuel Beckett quotes.

beckett

beckett3

I remember feeling both that the combinations were perfectly apt, and that they had no meaning to me. Those feelings of futility, of pointlessness — they had once been familiar, and now were completely alien. My life, even when unpleasant, always and unquestionably has purpose. Lily’s well-being isn’t my only goal, but it’s the most obvious and ever-present one.