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Everything Our Politicians Need to Know They Should Have Learned in Kindergarten (OPINION)

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Amy Julia Becker

“Use your words.

“You can’t always get what you want.”

“Take a minute to think about it, and then tell me the truth.”

“Remember to share.”

 “Instead of grabbing, please ask nicely.”

I repeat these phrases throughout the day, pretty much every day. I want my children to learn how to be kind to one another, how to think about other people’s needs in addition to their own, and how to work out problems. I want them to know how to compromise.

As I watched the second Presidential debate on Tuesday night, I wondered whether President Obama and Governor Romney remembered the lessons their parents had taught them in their early years. The debate heated up at times, with each man accusing the other of misleading or untrue assertions. They interrupted each other. They raised their voices. They gave us reasons to be disappointed. NPR called it a “town brawl” instead of a “town hall” meeting. According to the New York Times, both men exaggerated or misrepresented the other’s position (or flat out lied). And yet I also suspect that these m­­en–both pragmatic leaders with track records of centrist positions and a willingness to work with the opposition (Romney in Massachusetts, Obama as President)—would both be willing to compromise, to work it out civilly. If we still had a system in which the loser of the Presidential contest became Vice President, I could imagine it working out between these two.

            When it comes to civil government and common courtesy, it’s not Obama or Romney who need reminders. The people who need a reminder of putting the common good ahead of self-preservation, a reminder of compromise, a reminder of telling the truth and sharing, are our representatives serving in Congress.

President Obama, as he stated in the debate, inherited a mess. The economy was headed towards depression. The unemployment rate was on the rise. The deficit had soared as a result of fighting two unfunded wars. And Obama was prepared to tackle the problems through centrist solutions. He reached out to the Republican opposition. He advanced a health care plan based upon the conservative Heritage Foundation’s proposal (which, incidentally, served as Governor Romney’s blueprint for health care in Massachusetts as well). He initiated conversations about tax cuts for the middle class, a return to Clinton-era tax rates on the wealthiest individuals, and reductions in spending. He tried to pave a middle way.

And then the Republican opposition forgot what they had learned as little children. Instead of deciding that their job as elected officials was to serve the people of this nation, they decided to serve themselves. They decided that their primary goal was to defeat Obama. They worried that compromise would make him look good. They assumed that economic change that benefited us all would ensure his reelection. And so they nearly shut down our government on multiple occasions.

As an independent voter with moderate views on both social and economic policy, I believe the best situation for our country is one in which the President and the majority in Congress come from opposing sides of the aisle. At least in theory, this scenario forces compromise, forces each party to give and take, to listen, to allow the ideas that serve all people to rise to the top. Instead, the Republicans have decided to take their toys and go home, and our nation has continued to wallow in a place of high unemployment, low growth, and increasing poverty.

Whoever wins this election is probably going to be lauded as a great leader, simply because the economy is poised to turn around no matter who holds the highest office in the land. But the mark of true and meaningful leadership in the service of our nation will come only if our president—whomever he may be—can figure out how to bring our nation back to a place where Republicans and Democrats alike can sacrifice their party’s ideology for the common good of the American people. If only our leaders could remember those basic lessons we try to teach our children every day.

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Investigating the Single Mom-Gun Violence Connection (OPINION)

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

Oh, it was good to hear the candidates mention gun violence last night! I feared the subject might get lost amidst the binders full of women.

But, finally, after all those folks — including a six-year-old — were shot in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater; after so many students — including those at Chardon High School in Ohio, at Walpole Elementary School in New Hampshire, at Millard South High School in Omaha, not to mention the kids at Virginia Tech — died, the moment arrived when we can have a serious discussion about how to rein in guns.

Or at least we could have.

Gun control did come up at the town hall style debate last night, thanks to Nina Gonzalez (one of the regular people who guided the debate with questions as good and pointed as those of any professional moderator). Gonzalez asked the president what he would do to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals — a fair question, given that Obama had said he wanted to do just that during his last presidential campaign.

Happily, the President went on to give families reason to hope that he might actually put some muscle behind an assault weapons ban in his next term. He said he supported the ban passed under Clinton in 1994, which expired after eight years and made it illegal to sell the military-style weapons now widely available in guns stores and gun shows. Though he didn’t work to reinstate it in his first term, he could in his next.

Banning the guns like the AR-15, the type of rifle that was used to shoot off as many as 50 shots a minute in the Aurora massacre, would be a good first step. (Why exactly does the general public need access to a gun that can carry 100 rounds of ammunition and can shoot bullets that can go through two people?)

But Romney was clear he has no intention of banning assault weapons. Despite the fact that he supported similar legislation as governor of Massachusetts, he now stands — or perhaps, lies — with the National Rifle Association.

The flip-flopping should come as no surprise. But what came out of his mouth next on the topic of gun violence was a shock. In search of a culprit for the numerous shootings that have plagued our country, Romney came up with — not weapons makers, social alienation, or even shoot-em-up video games — but single moms.

Romney said he’s not in favor of “new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away and making guns illegal,” agreed with the President about the importance of good schools; and then went on to say this:

“Let me mention another thing — parents. We need moms and dads to raise kids. Wherever possible, the benefit of having two parents in the home. That’s not always possible. Lot of great single moms and single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids, before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone. That’s a great idea.”

Americans should be alarmed about gun violence — parents especially. At least 5,740 children and teens were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009, according to a Children’s Defense Fund report that was put out this year and dedicated to the memory of Trayvon Martin. That number includes 173 preschoolers, double the number of police officers killed in the line of duty.

But single parenthood is not the cause of our problem. And, whether getting married to someone is a “great idea,” it probably won’t affect the number of children gunned down in our country.

In an effort to be charitable, I can imagine that Romney was trying to say that gun violence is linked to urban poverty — and it is. Gun violence hits minority kids hardest, and most of the kids who die from gunshots live in cities.

But his leap to seeing single mothers as the cause of that poverty — and thus, if I understand his bizarre segue correctly — as the cause of gun violence is illogical and downright offensive.

Sure, single mothers’ kids are more likely to live in poverty. But there is plenty of evidence that being poor is what leads to the single parenthood — rather than the other way around. Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard, provides perhaps the best exploration of this relationship in “Promises I Can Keep,” her book on why poor women put motherhood before marriage.

If Romney really wanted to stop gun violence, he could support an assault weapons ban, as he did in Massachusetts. If Romney were really concerned about poverty, there are plenty of good ideas about how to address it directly. But he doesn’t support raising the minimum wage (at least not clearly); his tax plan would help the rich and hurt the poor; he’d weaken social security; and he wants to shrink — rather than expand — the safety net.

So instead of taking on the gun industry or the roots of inequality, he blamed single moms. It was a strange tack — and one that not only did nothing to help solve our nation’s gun violence crisis, it managed to offend a huge chunk of the voting public.

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Moms Know Romney is Right: It’s Time for Big Bird to Fly By Himself (OPINION)

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Nancy French

In the first debate between Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, the GOP nominee ruffled some feathers by saying that he’d cut the budget by eliminating non-essential costs, like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Because the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, is employed by PBS, Romney added:

“I’m sorry Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things,” he said. “I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too.”

I’m sure moms everywhere have seen the clip a dozen times.  As soon as Romney said those words, the social media universe exploded. Immediately, a fake Twitter account for Big Bird was set up.  The first tweet was, “WTF, Mitt Romney?” and another was, “Yo Mitt Romney, Sesame Street is brought to you today by the letters F & U!”  Celebrities also chimed in. In one of the 17,000 tweets per minute, Whoopi Goldberg lamented that Romney wanted to “kill Big Bird.”  Calls were made for a “Million Muppet March” on Washington.  A photoshopped picture of a forlorn Big Bird sitting on the Sesame stoop holding a “Will Work for Food” sign flew into inboxes across America. The next day, the President, still reeling from the previous night’s debate debacle, made fun of Romney for “getting tough on Big Bird.”  Even PBS sent out their own press release, which read, “Elimination of funding would have virtually no impact on the nation’s debt. Yet the loss to the American public would be devastating.”

More than anyone else, moms have affection in our heart for lovable Elmo, the mysterious Snuffleupagus, and even the garbage-dwelling Oscar the Grouch.  But would a change in funding be “devastating?”  PBS’s self-importance is a little much for Americans who are struggling to pay the bills and find work.

So why does the government subsidize this show anyway?

The Public Broadcasting Act was passed in 1967 to address the paucity of quality children’s programming.  Now, however, moms know television is brimming with vibrant, entertaining, and educational offerings.  Is Gordon more educational, for example, than Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer?  Does Maria provide more diversity than the Disney Channel’s Doc McStuffins? Are the Sesame Street writers more clever than the ones who create the hilarious Phineas and Ferb?  Children’s television has come a long way since everyone had platform shoes, bell bottoms, and pet rocks. Sesame Street is no longer the only game in town, so is it really so vital to the republic?  If so, couldn’t this important cultural institution thrive by itself?  Michelle Malkin addressed this issue in National Review:

According to the 990 tax form all nonprofits are required to file, Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell received $956,513 — nearly a million dollars — in compensation in 2008. And, from 2003 to 2006, Sesame Street made more than $211 million from toy and consumer product sales.”

Moms might not know these specific figures, nor do we precisely know how many Sesame Street books, stuffed animals, and lunchboxes we have in our homes at this moment.  But we do know this show created the “Tickle Me Elmo” mall riots and that the show can survive without us reaching into our own pockets.  (After the debate, the new unfortunate name for the formerly in-demand doll is “Subsidize Me Elmo.”)

Even the President realizes that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is bloated beyond reason.  His Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission said “the current CPB funding level is the highest it has ever been.”  Malkin writes, “Doing away with the appropriation would save nearly $500 million in 2015 alone. Over ten years, those savings would total $5 billion (or roughly ten Solyndras). In these tough times, that’s more than chump change and child’s play.”

To make matter worse, President Obama released an official campaign ad mocking Romney’s promise to eliminate funding to PBS.  He also sent out a campaign fundraiser telling voters that Romney “wanted to kill Big Bird.” 

But the public didn’t respond like he anticipated. On Twitter, people said they wished Obama was as serious about protecting our embassies as he is about protecting Big Bird.  Then, Romney said, “You have to scratch your head when the President spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,” he said. ”I actually think we need to have a President who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs.”  Worst of all, Sesame Street asked the President to take down his ad.  This prompted a Drudge headline with a photo of Big Bird saying, “Leave Me Alone, Obama!” and a NY Post cover of Big Bird in the Oval Office over the headline “Cheep Shot!” To top it all off, the Washington Post said his fundraising letter was incredibly misleading by writing, “How did ‘I love Big Bird’ turn into ‘kill Big Bird’? Only through a spin machine going on hyper drive.”

Recently my four-year-old asked me if we could get her face painted with silver glittery paint at a high school football game. 

“I don’t have a dollar,” I said, realizing I’d spent all I had at the concession stand.  She looked at me with huge tears in her eyes, unable to understand why she couldn’t have her face painted like her friends.

It’s a hard lesson. But since Sesame Street prides itself to teaching lessons to children,  PBS and the President should use this momentous occasion in history — when America has a national debt of over $16 trillion — to teach children a lesson about money.  When it runs out, you stop spending. 

As much as we love you, Big Bird, it’s time to fly by yourself.

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What You Didn’t Hear in the Debate: How Our Next President Could Affect American Fertility (OPINION)

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

Even if you stayed awake through the policy blizzard that was last night’s debate, you didn’t hear a word about the dramatically different future the candidates can bring about for women and families. So I’m going to take this opportunity to bypass the rehash of statistics, awkward facial expressions, and possible implications for Big Bird– and go right to the big picture for families.

It’s not just that Mitt Romney thinks the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade, while Obama is clearly pro-choice. Or that the Republican candidate would reverse the coverage of contraception under health reform – a step forward brought to us by the President himself.

These clear differences on reproductive issues have already convinced plenty of American women to cast their ballots for Obama in November. But there are other differences between the candidates that will have a huge impact on reproduction and the daily lives of American families. And, at first, at least, these are policies that seem to have little in common with the hot-button war-on-women issues.

To understand the other way our next president could affect the growth – or decline – of the number of American families, it helps to look abroad. Much of the world has been experiencing a rapid drop in their fertility rates. Nearly half the global population now lives in nations that have fertility rates below replacement level, or 2.1 children on average per woman. But the problem is worst in rich countries, more than 100 of which are now under replacement level, and thus facing concerns about the size of their militaries, work forces, and tax bases.

Several factors fuel this worldwide decline, including greater access to birth control and later marriage. But perhaps the most widely embraced explanation is that the particular burdens women face in the work force make it harder to both have children and a job. Thus, as more and more women work outside the home throughout much of the world, the number of children they have has dropped. It makes sense: If becoming a mother requires a woman to take a huge financial and professional hit, she will be far less likely do it.

Up until recently, the US has been the notable exception to the global fertility pattern. For much of the past 30 years, the average number of children American women had held remarkably steady. Although more and more women began working during this time, the high fertility levels of certain groups –particularly Latino immigrants–seemed to make up for any decline in the rest of us.

But this year, the US fertility rate hit a low not seen for 25 years. While the average number of births per woman was 2.12 in 2007, it’s just fallen to 1.87. The downturn is, no doubt, in part a response to unemployment and the flagging economy. Yet, as the Population Reference Bureau points out, it could also “signal a longer-term drop in life-time fertility.” In other words, this could be the moment we joint the rest of the developed world in the struggle to maintain our population size.

While the media have been exploring why this dip in our fertility is happening now, a better question might be: why hasn’t it happened before this point? After all, we’re one of just three countries worldwide that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. We have few flexible work options, no national paid sick leave law, and no system of decent, affordable childcare. So compared to women in other nations, Americans are not just having lots of kids, we’re doing it while working a lot in fairly inflexible jobs, with very little help.

This double duty has taken a huge toll: Working mothers in the U.S. sleep a mere six hours a night on average. Our depression rates are high, our free time almost nonexistent. If our collective commitment to both motherhood and work has helped us soldier through this kind of adversity to this point, no one can sustain this kind of overdrive forever. It was inevitable that American mothers would run out of gas at some point – and, judging from the new fertility numbers, our moment has arrived.

How can we reverse the trend? In addition to pushing toward a sunnier economic future, we might take a lesson from some of the many countries that have experienced the fertility plunge before we did, at least 45 of which have already instituted policies that ease a woman’s ability to hold a job and raise children simultaneously. In the European Union, for instance, all countries require employers to grant parity in pay and benefits to part-time workers — allowing women more flexibility in their work lives. And in Scandinavia, extensive public child-care systems offer a slot to virtually every child under 5 whose parents work.

The hope is that the extra support will nudge women toward having bigger families – and, at least in some places, it’s already working. Experts have linked changes in Sweden’s birthrate to paid-maternity-leave policies. And according to sociologist Ronald Rindfuss, Norwegian women who live in towns with more day-care slots available have more children and become mothers earlier.

Here, the next American president has his work cut out for him. If he wants to give true support to families, he’ll have to pass paid family leave and paid sick day laws; spend way more on providing and improving childcare; and ensure that parents have more flexible work options. It’s worth noting that Obama passed health care reform, which was a huge boon to children and families. And that his ability to pass anything has been constrained by oppositional Republicans in Congress. For his part, Romney said practically nothing about such supports. Thus far, his advice to working mothers seems to be: stay home.

If American families do get the help we need, we might see an uptick in our fertility rate, too. And, perhaps more important, we’ll have a happier, less stressed, and better rested nation of parents.

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Are Romney and Obama Talking About the Things That Matter to Parents?

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Amy Julia Becker

My day as a mom doesn’t involve much thought about our government. I think about packing lunches for school, wiping counters, getting our kids dressed in clothes that are somewhat appropriate for the weather outside. I think about how many minutes of television William (age 4) has already watched today. I think about whether I’m being consistent in my discipline and expectations for Marilee (20 months), our third child, who is rather inclined to get away with, well, everything. I think about how Penny (age 6 ½), who has Down syndrome, is doing in school–will she control her hands, will she eat her carrot sticks at lunch, will she make friends? I think about the dozens of emails in my inbox, our cat with hyperthyroidism, the rusty spot on the door of the minivan that really needs attention.

I don’t think much about tax policy, job creation, teachers unions, national defense, or public health. And I suspect that neither Romney nor Obama spends much time thinking about chores and report cards and rusty minivans. I certainly hope they don’t.

Although I don’t spend my days thinking about the government, I do have concerns about how the outcome of our next election will affect my family. At a luncheon hosted by CNN and Parents last June, I was part of a group of moms that discussed various election issues. It was clear that many of us care about having a president who can fix the educational system, address environmental hazards, and implement economic policies that enable job creation. Similarly, in a survey conducted by the Center for the Next Generation and Parents, “74 percent of parents say the government is not doing enough for children.” The authors of the report detailing the same survey called upon Obama and Romney to address the “concerns of parents” in tomorrow’s debate about domestic policy.

Neither Romney nor Obama has made educational reform or other issues related to kids the center of their campaigns. Both have instead made the economy the focal point of this election. They have different proposals for addressing economic woes–Romney follows his party line in calling for keeping both taxes and government spending low, although he is vague about the specifics of how to do so. Obama promotes the agenda of the past four years–raising taxes on the top income brackets and continuing to spend as an act of financial stimulus while “trimming fat” from the national budget. And although parents might complain that neither politician has focused enough on issues related to children, economic issues are what matter most to parents right now.

The recent survey showed that “91 percent of parents believe that the lack of jobs that pay enough to support a family is a serious problem facing America’s children,” and, in a departure from historical norms, “When asked to choose between an extra $10,000 per year or an extra hour every day of quality time with their children, two-thirds choose the money.” In other words, the biggest concern parents face is the economy, exactly the topic both candidates highlight every day on the campaign trail.

When it comes to our presidential candidates, the problem doesn’t lie with an unwillingness to address the concerns of parents and children. The problem lies with an unwillingness, on the part of the candidates and the American public, to address the real problems within our national budget. As Michael Grunwald recently wrote in a cover article for TIME (“One Nation on Welfare”), “The 2012 election is shaping up as a debate over Big Government, but it is only loosely tethered to the reality of Big Government. The vast majority of federal spending goes to defense, health care, and Social Security plus interest payments on the debt we’ve run up paying for defense, health care, and Social Security. Nondefense discretionary spending–Washingtonese for “everything else,” from the FBI to the TSA to the center for grape genetics–amounts to only 12 percent of the budget.”

The candidates don’t need to be talking first and foremost about education reform or child welfare. They don’t need to be thinking about the things parents are thinking about on a day to day basis. But in order to address the needs of the nation, which very much includes the needs of parents and of the next generation, the candidates need to do more than pontificate about reducing the deficit and providing sound economic policy.

They need instead to articulate reductions in defense spending and policy changes to our longstanding and beneficial entitlement programs–Medicare and Social Security. The boldness to ensure security and health for the next generation of children rests upon conversations that have very little immediate connection to my car that needs to go to the shop or Penny’s behavioral chart at school or another box of macaroni and cheese. I’ll be tuning in on Wednesday night to see if either Obama or Romney has any concrete solutions to the economic problems that concern us all.

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