As With Running in the Hall, So With Sex

One of the “tips” parenting resources like to share is that small children are likelier to obey positive commands than negative commands. Instead of saying “Please stop running,” say “Walk, please.” Instead of telling a toddler to stop making such a mess, ask the toddler to help clean the mess up.

I believe this principle holds good when introducing controversial topics, including sex. Sex is one of those matters that is a Big Deal to everyone concerned; devout Christians don’t want l’il Suzy fornicating in high school, and devout feminists don’t want l’il Bobby pressuring l’il Suzy to have sex with him. So what is the most effective way to indoctrinate our children on this sticky subject (no pun intended)?

The tricky part is that children are unlikely to receive a perfectly consistent set of messages. Adults have an extremely wide variation of beliefs regarding both sex and the way to discuss it with children–everything from “Here, kindergartner, let’s show you a porn flick. In a few years, we’ll send you to a brothel” to “On the night before your wedding, I’ll tell you about this unpleasant duty you’ll need to fulfill in the dark, with your clothes on.” Not to belabor the obvious, but when and where and how to mash various body parts together depends heavily on the worldview of parents and other people, as does the way in which parents and other people communicate their beliefs to their offspring.

This diversity of opinion means that there is no question whether your baby will encounter views opposed to your own–the only question is when. Parents can and should control the “when” to some extent; if you don’t think that your preteen should be viewing hardcore porn, as many 11-year-olds do, you will have to make sure that you restrict his or her internet use. This strikes me as reasonable.

It is unreasonable, though, to attempt to monitor your 21-year-old’s browsing or other communications. If your child is still living at home, you are free to restrict the usage of equipment and bandwidth that you are paying for; at some point, however, little birdie’s gotta fly and be independent. What you should be doing while they’re growing up is to prepare them to make good decisions when they are old enough to make bad decisions. Part of doing so brings me back to the opening of this post: Instead of discussing sex in a negative manner (for example, “No sex before marriage. No sex without the enthusiastic consent of your partner. No unprotected sex”), promote positive values: “The place to have sex is within a marriage. Only have sex with adults able to consent who clearly demonstrate that they want to have sex with you. Use a condom, get on the pill to avoid STDs and unwanted pregnancies.”

A corollary to discussing positive values is simple: Don’t lie to children. When a 3-year-old asks how babies are made, many answers are acceptable depending on the parent and the child; some parents might prefer to keep things very simple indeed, or to give a short sketch of the biology of conception and birth. What is not acceptable is saying that the stork brings babies after they’ve grown on lilypads. Likewise, when a little boy wants to know what to call that dangly bit of him that he uses to pee, don’t make up a cutesy name for it. It is not a “peepee,” it is a penis. And by the way, Son, we keep our penises private. When kids get older, don’t tell them they’ll go blind if they masturbate.

Now, I have delivered the foregoing with all of the confidence of a parent whose oldest child is 5, and whose offspring have not been exposed (no pun intended) to views of sexuality that are in opposition to my own. We shall see how well I’ve been able to indoctrinate them when they’re adults. Nevertheless, I stand by my assertion that when it comes to inculcating the “correct” morals in my children, attempting to do so in a positive rather than a negative manner is likelier to be more successful. What do you think?


Fruits and Vegetables are All Organic

Most parents want to feed their kids a healthy diet. Of course, “a healthy diet” can have many and various meanings, but for now we’ll take it to mean that the children get plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t stuff themselves on rich foods frequently, and don’t get too much added sugar. (Most parents also compromise on their dietary ideals because of limits to their time, money, and childish preferences; observation of young children leads parents to the conclusion that a diet of mostly chicken nuggets, noodles, and maybe one tolerable vegetable doesn’t seem to hurt them. However, that’s a slightly different issue.)

Many parents I know buy organic produce, free-range eggs and meat, and the occasional organic processed crap for snacks. This is their decision, but take note: Fruits and vegetables are all organic. So are meat and milk. (All of these items are carbon-based substances derived from living organisms.) If you live in the United States at least, the amount of pesticides on conventionally-grown produce is sometimes lesser than that on “organic” produce. You may have other reasons for paying more money for a given product. Maybe you want to support your local farmers and ranchers, which isn’t a bad thing; maybe you dislike the effect of factory-style farming and meat raising on the environment, or think that mass-produced meat is cruel.

However, from a nutritional standpoint, the evidence that organic provides meaningful health benefits is mixed, at best, and probably derives from the fact that people who eat organic tend to be of higher socioeconomic class, which itself is protective. Even modern pesticides are probably harmful to the agricultural workers exposed to them over a long period, especially in countries without strong regulation of pesticide use, but the risks to the average consumer seem to be pretty small. Oh, and GMOs aren’t the devil in plant form, either.

So if you’re getting your fruits, veggies, milk, and meat from the local Aldi’s, congratulations; you’re feeding your kid good stuff. If you’re feeding your kids farmer’s market or home-grown organic produce and local, pasture-raised and free-range meat and eggs, congratulations; you’re also feeding your kid good stuff. Just don’t brag about it to us, or send us diatribes on “the Dirty Dozen.” We’re too busy figuring out ways to prepare our frozen conventional veggies in a tasty manner. Maybe some small-batch organic butter and Himalayan sea salt?

Economics: A Halloween Primer

Since I enjoy being unfashionably late, here are some definitions that should have been posted a week ago:

Capitalism: Sorry, little sib, this candy’s mine. I can’t help it if you got tired and quit halfway through. I’ll trade you these two crappy Laffy Taffy candies for one of your Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, though.

Russian capitalism: Give me some of your candy, or I’ll “accidentally” knock you down when Mom isn’t looking.

Failed-state capitalism: Mom takes a “candy fee” every time she does something for the kid. Want dinner? Hand over that Snickers. Oh, you need to be driven to soccer? That will be a Crunch bar, please.

Socialism: Mom makes all the siblings pool their candy, so even the kid who hardly knocked on any doors gets as much as the kids who went the extra mile (literally).

Communism: Mom pools the candy and puts it away for safekeeping, doling out a piece at a time. Some of the candy is taken out to–er–cover administrative costs. Inquiries about the missing candy lead to time outs for the overcurious.

Law of diminishing returns: Too bad you didn’t find out that the 15th Hershey bar isn’t as good as the first one before you threw up on the rug.

Cost-benefit analysis: When does your exhaustion outweigh the additional candy you could collect by continuing to trick-or-treat?

Opportunity cost: If you trick-or-treat in the thickly populated townhouse neighborhood, you don’t get to visit the rich neighborhood with fewer houses that hands out full-sized candy bars.

Safety net: The extra bag of candy Mom’s purchased for trick-or-treaters that can be used to supplement thin takings or replace them altogether if the prospective trick-or-treater gets sick.

Happy Halloween, folks! It’s only 358 days until the next one! 

Thoughtful Appreciation of Other Cultures’ Parenting

When people talk about the good old days of nonmedicalized childbirth, no formula, and other ancient aspects of childbirth, I think to myself that I prefer surviving with a living baby who’s quite likely to live to old age. An appeal to antiquity is never a valid argument, just as appeal to novelty never is, either.

However, it is almost always worth looking at ancient customs and asking why they existed. Talking loudly about how one’s baby is a sickly, ugly girl instead of a fine, healthy boy lest the spirits become jealous as Wang Lung in The Good Earth does might strike us as silly, but it points to the reality that many children died young until quite recently. It is not a good idea to give honey to a baby younger than one year because of the risk of botulism, nor to give teas (which may be made with contaminated water) or other substances to neonates, but the custom of supplementing a woman’s colostrum (or even replacing it entirely) with something else is very common in “traditional” cultures. Why? Well, delayed lactation is pretty common–up to 15% of mothers don’t get their milk in quickly–and even when they do, some newborns take awhile to learn how to suckle and need to be supplemented. Also, recovering from childbirth can be no picnic, and early supplementation means that other people can help feed the baby.

Luckily, today we have infant formula made with sterile water available to meet these needs. When my three-year-old was born, he screamed and screamed until broke down and gave him some formula; we were afraid of sabotaging breastfeeding, because we’d been told by the lactation professionals that formula feeding interferes with breastfeeding. In fact, the reverse is true: Early supplementation with formula increases the chances of successful breastfeeding. Although I disagree with the specific practice of feeding newborns honey and teas, the reasons for doing so were and are sound, and dismissing these ancient practices led to a certain amount of unnecessary pain and suffering.

When talking about approaches to childrearing, then, it is not sensible either to worship “the ways of the ancestors” or to dismiss them as silly practices from a more primitive time. This is equally true of contemporaneous philosophies and practices that have the cachet of being somehow foreign or exotic. I have spoken of my contempt for my American compatriots’ enthusiastic adoption of other countries’ practices, but in doing so I am certainly not expressing contempt for the Danish, French, Chinese, or other parents themselves. Indeed, I am sure that we can learn from the best other cultures have to offer, if we approach them intelligently–asking “What are they trying to accomplish with this practice? How would it look translated to my own circumstances? What would I be trying to accomplish?”

This is very different from saying, “Look at the way the French don’t let their children dominate their lives and make sure they grow up enjoying good food in a healthy manner. Look at the way they behave at the table. We should be like the French!” It is not wrong to think how you can avoid spoiling your children and teach them good manners and proper appreciation for food, but it is foolish to somehow imagine that it is desirable (or even possible) to import a specific vision–and often a limited, stereotyped vision that doesn’t reflect the reality of intracultural diversity–into your family practices.

Probably the best high-level questions you can ask yourself about parenting are, “What are we trying to accomplish?” and “What are our values?” Mind, the answer to the first question will be a hodgepodge of unattainable contradictions, most probably, but we all have dreams. And then we do the best we can, and generally the kids go along with it and do okay.

Why So Negative?

Now, why be mean to an expecting couple by filling their heads with the problems that can occur with pregnancy, labor, and the newborn period, as related in yesterday’s blog post?

One reason: Expectations. A pessimist is a happier person than an optimist, for all pleasure is a surprise to a pessimist whereas an optimist is continually disappointed. Women traumatized by birth are typically not the women who were afraid of it to begin with, but those who were told that natural birth is a lovely, pleasant experience if it isn’t messed up by The Evil Doctors.

The second reason is that many of the sorrows of childbirth and childrearing are common to most parents, but every child brings unique happiness, to mutilate a Tolstoy phrase.

I cannot tell when a parent will feel an overwhelming rush of love for his child. For me, when they finished clearing her airway and cleaning off the meconium, what they placed on my chest wasn’t the small, skinny, wrinkly, red-and-yellow conehead I see in photographs. She was indescribably beautiful. I couldn’t believe that she was real, she was here, she was mine. I cried with happiness and fell hopelessly in love with my daughter, and my gosh, that sounds like the worst kind of cliche but I can’t do any better. The sleep deprivation, crying, etc were pretty awful, but they were all worth it–a sentiment that sounds pretty hollow when written on a page, but is true.

Likewise, a child’s first smile, first successful attempt to roll over, and reaching out and grabbing of a toy brings emotions that are indelible–a real landmark in one’s soul–but very hard to communicate. Parents don’t need to be prepared to be thrilled when their  baby puts rings on a spindle, or puzzle pieces back on their board. You can’t and you needn’t prepare someone to listen for the first time to a piece of touching music–the way the music reaches down to their heart and seems to show them the grandeur and the beauty of the universe is an intensely personal experience. You can explain to a student the history, structure, and techniques employed in the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, but you can’t make him feel the joy and the sorrow of that movement’s exquisite beauty.

I do not know how hard a time of it my friends will have with their baby. It may be happy and manageable, or very difficult indeed. It will certainly require adjustment. But I can quite confidently say that no one will need to prepare them for the joy that caring for a new life–their child–will bring them.

A Pep Talk for an Expecting Couple

On Reformation Sunday, we go to a service in the evening that brings together congregants from a few different churches, including the one we used to attend. The dinner beforehand provides a lovely time to catch up with people we haven’t seen in a year. Two of our friends had married, and the wife become pregnant.

“Congratulations,” we say to the beaming couple. Turning to the wife: “How are you feeling?”

“Tired a lot of the time.”

“Oh, yeah, remind me…you’re how far along?”

“About seven months.”

“Unfortunately, it only gets worse from here. But the good news is that by the time your due date  comes around, you’ll be so miserable and desperate to stop being pregnant that you won’t even worry about labor!”

Nervous laughter. My husband says, “Tell them how long you were in labor with our first.”

“Ah, yes, about 52 hours! Fun times! Boy, I loooved my epidural…of course you should do whatever pain relief method you want, but may I highly recommend an epidural?”

My husband says cheerily, “It doesn’t always work, though. Remember our friend who had to have a c-section and the epidural didn’t work?”

“Ooh, yeah, that sounds like it really sucks. I think they gave her some gas or something.” Noticing the rather disturbed look on our pregnant friend’s face, I hastily add, “But that’s really unusual. Most of the time epidurals work great.”

“Some women don’t have any medication, you know,” my husband adds.

“And bless ’em,  I salute them but it’s not for me.”

Later, we ask our friend how he’s feeling about becoming a parent. He says, “Half excited, half oh-no-what-did-we-get-ourselves-into.”

We nod. “Very normal. Of course, you can’t really prepare. Just don’t worry too much–the baby will be fine.”

“I hope he’s a good sleeper,” says my husband. “Our first was a terrible sleeper.”

“Yup. She’d go ninety minutes, tops, more often an hour at a time before she woke up,” I add. “Every time she cried (and she cried a lot), I felt as if my heart was being ripped into pieces. So, if your baby cries a lot and you’re up all hours of the night and she just won’t be quiet, don’t tell yourself you’re a bad parent or a failure. Just hang in there, because it gets better.”

While spooning more food onto my kids’ plates, I think of something else: “Oh, also, don’t stare into his eyes when he’s, like, four weeks old and wonder if he’s autistic. You also don’t need to look up all of the appropriate, week-by-week activities to do to ensure your kid is developing properly.” I get up to get some more water for the kids. “I didn’t have time for that with my second and third, and guess what? They developed just fine.” I stop to arbitrate a disagreement between the kids. “And, you know, kids aren’t just enormous time, money, and energy suckers. There are really good things about them, too.”

My husband and I pause for a few minutes to think of good things while the boys fight over a piece of bread. “They’re very cute,” I say.

“And they’re little comedians,” he says. “The things they say and do can be so funny!”

“Even funnier than cats!” I chime in.

At this point, my husband’s dragooned into pushing our kids on the swing set, and our friends are looking a bit shell-shocked. Maybe we should have given them a longer pep talk on the joys of parenthood?


Counseling, Feelings, and the Roles of Husband and Wife

If you consider yourself a feminist, you won’t like this post. Be warned! Heck, maybe I’ll offend you if you don’t consider yourself a feminist….

My husband and I are Christians and consider marriage to be between one man and one woman; divorce is not okay except in case of adultery, and the husband is the head of the wife and loves the wife, while the wife submits to, respects, and helps the husband. Marriage is a model of Christ and His church. A friend of ours is a chaplain who is in our denomination and holds to the same basic description of marriage. He is also a kind, intelligent, passionate evangelist for Christ, and he is married to a loving, diligent, intelligent wife and mother who supports him and also loves the Lord.

However, even our friends are susceptible to the error of elevating women’s emotions to an objective, infallible guide. My husband and I were bothered by a recent Facebook exchange in which our friend appeared to us to pedestalize women. I have reproduced the post and some of the comments on it, and added my own commentary in parentheses and italics:

Original Post by the Chaplain

Translations for Married Men (Important): (The problems with this post begin here. Married men should be able to figure out what their wives are saying–or rather, an individual husband should be able to figure out what the wife to whom he is married is saying.)

Wife: I’m not doing okay.

Translation: I’m not feeling okay. (Err…more of a restatement than a translation.)

Husbands, you may see her from the outside and the work she’s doing and think she’s doing a great job. She is, but that’s not what she’s saying. She’s referring to the condition of her heart. (She is most probably referring to physical, mental, or emotional problems. Her perspective may or may not be correct on these problems.) If she says this, stop what you’re doing and clear space for a deep conversation. (Or something else, heh heh….) She might need counseling. Don’t ignore or dismiss this! (I agree that she shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed, but unfortunately the rest of the post implies that what the husband should do is to elevate his wife’s emotions to a commandment of the Lord.)

Wife: We/you need to see a counselor.

Translation: There is an issue here that we can’t change. We need help asap or our marriage will be in trouble. (My translation: I’m unhaaappy. Do what I say or the marriage gets it. Mind you, I do NOT think that my friend’s wife is about to divorce him, but it seems to me that whether or not he intends this it is what he is communicating.) 

Husbands, these are not polite recommendations from overly-sensitive wives. (No, they’re commands.) Our wives are generally more emotionally intelligent than we are and can read the temperature of the marriage better than we can. (I.e., we’re more discontented. Research shows that more women than men tend to be unhappy in their marriages; to me, this does not indicate greater emotional intelligence.) If they say it’s time to see a counselor, do it without questioning. (I don’t know about this. In theory, marital counseling sounds great; in practice, I never hear about couples who go to a counselor and then come out with a stronger marriage. I’m sure it happens, but overall counseling doesn’t seem to be that effective.) Prompt action will reflect the humility and commitment necessary to sustain a marriage. (But the wife may not be correct in her ascertaining of the problem or proposed solution, in which case you might be pouring oil on a fire.) 

Over the years, I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. [My wife] knows that I’ll go see a counselor if she suggests it (and we do see our counselor-pastor about once a month). Our marriage is stronger than ever, by God’s grace. (I’m glad to hear it, because I am very fond of this couple.) At the same time, I watch countless marriages fail because husbands didn’t heed their wives until it was too late (or wives simply didn’t say anything until it was too late). (Women initiate most divorces, and mostly not for Biblical reasons. It seems to me that our chaplain friend is putting the blame for this on the man–he just made his wife so unhappy that she was forced to divorce him!) 


My Husband, From My Facebook Account [T]his honestly sounds more like feminism than Christianity. I can’t imagine Jesus or Paul stating “If they say it’s time to see a counselor, do it without questioning.” Nor would I expect them to exalt women over men at every point in the marriage (“she’s doing a great job, more emotionally intelligent, read the temperature of the marriage better than we can”). My expectation would be that couples who believe in the inferiority of men are not going to have good marriages, with or without counseling, because it sets up a scenario where wives will perpetually and rightfully feel aggrieved.

Chaplain Hey brother, I appreciate your input and can see what you’re saying from a certain angle. I am addressing a pervasive problem within the culture at large in that men are far too passive in their care for their wives and their marriages. They must listen to their wives, not in order to obey them but to care for them. This is a call to proactive masculinity. (Proactive masculinity is a great idea, but I’m not sure that saying “how high” when she says “jump” is a good example of that.)

Female Friend of Chaplain Federal Husband by Doug Wilson is a great read on this. Yes, God has placed the husband over the wife. But the husband is also held 100% accountable for the state of his marriage and household. Part of a wife’s help to her husband is counsel. That doesn’t mean he’s obliged to take it at every turn. But it does mean that if God has given you a wife and you don’t heed her counsel, you are playing a fool. (Strawman–my husband did not make this argument.)

Female Friend of Chaplain My pastor put it this way one time: The husband is the ship’s captain, and he steers the ship. He’s responsible for its condition and where it goes. The wife keeps an eye out for leaks and lets him know when there is one.

Wife of Chaplain Female Friend of Chaplain I love this!

My Husband I agree that men should do a better job caring for their wives and marriages, and that sometimes this will involve showing humility by doing what their wives advise; however, sometimes it will involve showing courage by lovingly correcting or admonishing their wives. The latter is often harder to do because it is countercultural. God’s commandment in Deuteronomy 5:32 “You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” could apply here—in exhorting husbands to listen to their wives, it is all too easy to push them to commit the opposite error of pedestalizing their wives.

Chaplain Brother, most men in the broader culture are not at risk of pedestalizing their wives, (Really?) but of letting their marriages fail by passive neglect. (Neglect is a bad thing, but marriages aren’t like machines that can break with neglect. They’re like pottery–they last forever unless one spouse breaks them.) How can these men ever begin to lead if they don’t even know how to love? First things first. (Since when did Christ go to counseling at the behest of the church?)

Us Chaplain, that isn’t our experience, but your social circle in the military may face different challenges.

My Husband Female Friend of Chaplain, I agree that a man who never heeds his wife’s counsel is mistaken, but my disagreement is with [Chaplain’s] exhortation to unquestioningly follow the wife’s advice—which is unbiblical because it denies that the fallen nature of women extends to their wisdom in relationship matters. Although 100% accountability for the man is a popular belief among Christians, I strongly disagree. My wife and I have a great marriage, and it would be unfair for me to take all of the credit.

I think your pastor is holding the man to way too low of a standard. Men can notice and proactively fix problems in the household, and it would be exasperating for the woman to believe otherwise and have to point out every single problem. I have showed love for my wife by telling her the right thing to do rather than deferring to her emotions. For example, she was once very short-tempered with the children at a meal after not getting enough sleep. Rather than deferring to my wife’s “steering” or “leak detection,” I recognized the problem lay primarily with [her] sleep deprivation rather than the children’s behavior and told her to go to bed immediately. I could not have done that following your pastor’s division of roles. After her nap, everything was fine—both she and the children were happier.

Chaplain —I agree with some of what you’re saying. I just don’t think it’s intelligible to our present culture. To talk of headship in a culture that implicitly holds to a radical egalitarianism and where most men grew up with absent fathers is like speaking a foreign language. Baby steps, brother. (I agree totally with presenting foreign concepts in simple language–like making a children’s book on astronomy. You don’t want to get too complicated. However, you also don’t put astrology into your astronomy book, just because your audience likes horoscopes.)

Chaplain Ps: you’re also reading far too much into the prior comments and post. You’re assuming a feminist bias behind comments by people who are decidedly traditional in these matters. (We’re just reading what you wrote.) 

Female Friend of Chaplain [W]hen I say that the husband is 100% accountable, I mean that he is 100% responsible. This does not mean that he is to blame for the sins of his wife or that she holds no moral agency with regard to the marriage. But because of Adam, our federal head, a husband is to his wife as Christ is to The Church. (Is Christ then responsible when his Church behaves badly, as it so often does?) I’m also not saying that a husband is to immediately go along with every prescription that his wife comes up with regarding the marriage. What I am saying is that he would be a fool, given that his wife is his helper, to at least not consider what she is concerned about. If the attitude is, “Well, I’M the man and I’LL determine if we need help or not,” he is acting as a stubborn donkey and clinging to his headship rather than owning it. (She isn’t responding to an actual argument that my husband made; indeed, my husband stated that husbands should hear what their wives are saying and sometimes take their advice.) Christ, although The King, did not cling to His royalty as such, but laid it aside for the salvation of His bride, The Church. (He also had no problem telling his apostles what to do, and he did this because He loved them and wanted the best for them.) I would encourage you to read Wilson, if you haven’t already. And if you know anything of him, he is about as far from feminism as you can get. (That might be a bit of an exaggeration. I have read some Doug Wilson, and while I enjoy his writing I don’t always agree with him.)

Female Friend of Chaplain PS. The illustration my pastor gave was not the exclusion of the man’s ability to notice problems or “leaks.” The context of that was with regard to leadership in the home and how a wife can help her husband instead of trying to steer the ship herself, which is a common temptation into sin that women have. (If we’re going to go with that analogy, the first mate doesn’t “look for leaks”– he assists the captain to carry out his duties.)


What do you think? Do you agree with our friend or with us about the roles of husband and wife in keeping the marriage healthy?

Mainly Destroyers, But….

The Hindu Trimūrti is a triad concept in which the god Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu is the Preserver, and Shiva is the Destroyer. (Apologies to any Hindus reading; I’ve greatly oversimplified the complicated systems of belief fitting under the umbrella of Hinduism.) I cannot help being reminded of this notion watching my boys this morning, although I mainly note their capacity to destroy and create.

This morning, my three-year-old and one-year-old have ripped out a pepper plant and spread dirt all over the floor; spilled water three times, not counting the time they splashed puddles onto the island; spilled milk once; smeared chocolate mousse on the table and themselves; turned all of the toys and several chip bag clips into weapons; pushed and hit each other; popped a balloon; and dumped a box of crackers on the floor. Scariest of all, the three-year-old let the one-year-old out the door, whereupon the one-year-old sprinted for the road. (I was getting the mail and spilled coffee on a bill while sprinting to catch the baby before he made it.)

On the other hand: This morning, my three-year-old and one-year-old have gotten themselves water several times WITHOUT spilling; helped me make chocolate mousse; carried dirty laundry and helped load the washer; folded washcloths and put away socks; picked up, swept up, wiped up, and vacuumed up their messes; carried plates to the table and cleared them away; played on their toy piano; and washed out the mixing bowl we used to make the mousse. They have combated entropy as well as aided it.

And perhaps my boys have been preservers, as well. This morning, my three-year-old “read” a book to my one-year-old, and both boys have given me and each other innumerable hugs and kisses. They have smiled and giggled and done other things, neither tangibly productive nor destructive, but lovable and sweet.

In the moment, I alternate between warm surges of affection for my darling little boys and great spurts of annoyance and frustration, according to how they’re behaving. But now that they’re down for a nap, it is easy to reflect that all of their behavior–good and bad–comes from them, my sons. My little men. Likewise, all of my emotions are but changeable and momentary expressions of the love that I feel for them, whether they create, preserve, or destroy.

Leech or Neglectful Mother?

A candidate for Senator from Arizona said something dumb about stay-at-home moms being leeches and 12 years ago, and it is now being spread abroad over social media and conservative web sites. She has since claimed it was all a joke and she loves mothers of all types, but I have no difficulty believing that her comment expressed sincere contempt for women who don’t earn money while raising their kids. It is not unique, either, nor one-sided–women who work outside the home are often looked down on for leaving others to raise their kids, and called neglectful.

My husband and I agreed that it would be best for me to take care of our kids and not work outside the home while they are young, and we certainly didn’t make this decision to win anyone’s approval. The candidate’s comment is rather obviously being brought up ahead of the general election in a couple of weeks, as it was brought up in the election season of 2012, but in fact you will always be opening yourself up to all sorts of judgment whether you are a SAHM, working mom, work-from-home mom, or childfree woman. (Ditto whatever choice you make as a man.) If you become a mother you should do what’s best for your family without consulting anyone but the father of your children. I think my family and I have benefited from our decision; it has allowed me to train and nurture the kids as I wish, economically it’s not that big a hit considering taxes and childcare, and it has reduced the stress of chores and appointments.

Now there is a conversation to be had about which choices should be supported by public policies. Maternity leave and childcare subsidies are supposed to keep women in the workforce; I’m not sure what tax policies exist or are proposed to encourage women to leave their jobs, but the current high cost of childcare and the increase in income tax provide a financial incentive to stay at home. Should this change? Is it good for society as a whole for mothers to work full-time, part-time, or not at all?

Yeah, I’m not going to answer that question here.

Neither should you, when it comes to deciding what you should do. You don’t have to figure out what is best for Society as a Whole–just what is best for your family, as long as it’s not criminal or immoral (and I think that criminal and immoral decisions are detrimental to the family anyway, howevermuch short-term gain they may promise). You can certainly have opinions, of course–everyone does–about the kind of benefits and detriments derived from having a stay-at-home vs. working mother, but don’t worry about what some blogger or politician has said about you. Do what’s right, and laugh–or yawn–when someone tells you you’re Doing It Wrong.

(Rich) White Person’s Disease

I received an email on the subject of food allergies:

“Yesterday my book club met, and somehow we got on the topic of nut allergies.  One lady said that she never saw peanut allergies when she lived abroad in Ecuador among her students.   She sees these allergies really only in the US, and even then, among the “upper” class, usually whites. She suggested that these allergies are manufactured, typically by rich white Americans.  Finally, some of the allergies might be caused by people simply not introducing these foods, like nuts, to their kids.  Kids are therefore not used to the foods and may become sick if they eat them.

“I have to say, I found the arguments compelling.  I remember back when I was in elementary school, the cafeteria used to leave out peanut butter sandwiches for kids who did not have lunch.  Can you imagine such a thing happening now?

“So I am wondering what your thoughts are.”


Now, I strongly doubt that the person who sent this email would refer to, say, asthma as “poor black person’s disease” (which it kind of is), but let that pass. What about all these allergies? Do they really exist, or are they something cooked up by neurotic rich white people?

Briefly: Food allergies exist among all groups in the U.S., they are increasing, and yes, they absolutely are more prevalent among white people, and especially among middle-class and affluent white people, than among other groups.
This paper from the CDC discusses trends in various demographic groups of children–non-Hispanic white, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic black. Hispanic children have fewer allergies than other groups, black children tended to have more skin allergies than other groups, and respiratory and food allergies increased in prevalence along with income.


But how many of these allergies are real, and how many are overanxious parents diagnosing sensitivities that may not exist? I know, anecdotally, a woman who has all sorts of “allergies” that don’t actually cause allergic reactions, but just make her feel tired and uncomfortable a few days. They were diagnosed by an allergist–oops, no, they were diagnosed by a chiropractor who told her she needs some special, expensive vitamins. I have been solemnly told by a parent that her child is allergic to all fresh fruits and vegetables, and should be given nothing but hot dogs and chips; I suppose such a thing is possible, but I am skeptical. The situation is complicated by the fact that allergies are mediated by different mechanisms, and by the fact that a positive or negative allergy test doesn’t always correspond to a person’s actual experience–you can test positive but not show symptoms in real-life exposure to a substance.

However, it is a fact that ER visits for anaphylaxis have increased, and it seems pretty unlikely that this is manufactured. Reactions like difficulty breathing are, ah, noticeable.

Given the negative correlation between Hispanic ethnicity and food allergies, it isn’t surprising that the book club member didn’t see peanut allergies in Ecuador. I would caution, though, that her experience hardly constitutes an epidemiologic review of the country, and I’d be extremely surprised to find NO children with peanut allergies in Ecuador. I couldn’t find any research on the subject, but there certainly are children with peanut allergies in Costa Rica, although I’m sure there are differences between the two countries.

So why the increase? There are a couple of popular, linked hypotheses: The hygiene hypothesis and early exposure to allergens. The hygiene hypothesis is that kids who stay in overclean houses most of the time don’t challenge their immune systems with exposure to foreign substances such as you’d find in dirt, and their immune systems react by treating every foreign substance as a pathogen. It seems plausible, and derives some support from the fact that children raised on dairy farms in Sweden are far less likely to develop allergies than are other Swedes.

As for early exposure to peanuts and other common food allergens–well. This is an example of official medical bodies making recommendations based on inadequate evidence. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics reversed its recommendations about allergen exposure. Previously, they had said wait a year; now they say 4-6 months is the best time to introduce potential allergens, based on data showing that allergy incidence tended to be lower in children exposed to allergens during this window.

So rich white kids are stuck inside immaculate houses most of the day, and they’re less likely to have been fed peanut butter than poorer kids from other races.

Does this totally explain the rise in allergies? Who knows? As more parents adopt the new recommendations, we might hope to see the prevalence of allergies lessen. Maybe there are additional environmental factors, and I suspect there’s some heritable element, genetic and maybe epigenetic, but we just don’t know yet. It’s always incredibly hard to tease out correlation and causation, so I would caution against saying that we know everything there is to know about preventing allergies.

Finally, my correspondent should not overlook the fact that in the Good Old Days allergies might simply not have been diagnosed as often. Maybe some kids HAD a reaction to that peanut butter sandwich the cafeteria left for them, but since it wasn’t full-blown anaphylaxis nobody followed up. Simple awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria are behind most and maybe all of the rise in autism, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it explains some of the rise in allergies as well.

Given the complexities surrounding allergies, I would add that it is really quite insulting to use the word “manufactured,” when many parents pray that they aren’t going to get a call from the school notifying them that their kid has been taken to the hospital. I also wouldn’t be telling the family of the teenager who died because she ate the wrong kind of cookie that they should have been feeding her peanuts as a baby, because reduction of risk is NOT the same as elimination of risk; you can be thin, active, eat lots of fruits and veggies, and still die of a heart attack at age 45, although maintaining a healthy weight, activity, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is undoubtedly protective against heart disease.

This whole question is fraught with judgment and angst. One of my kids had an egg allergy (which he has outgrown), and has tested positive for allergic reactions to dust, mold, cats, and dogs, though we don’t need to medicate him. My husband is allergic to everything outdoors, basically, but has no food allergies. The rest of us have not experienced allergies. All of the kiddos were introduced to potential allergens between 4 and 6 months, and no one can accuse me of being a clean freak, heh, heh. But it seems to me that allergies have become one more way we judge parents–your kids have allergies? What did you do wrong? It’s good and necessary to examine patterns of allergy development, because the more allergies we can prevent, the better; but this has to be done without condescension toward the affected group–even when that group is rich white people.