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Monday, November 11th, 2013
I’ve been engaged in an informal experiment lately that has been eye-opening (to me and perhaps some others) so I’m going to blow my cover and encourage you to try it too. After Parents published this story about child poverty in the U.S., I decided to make it a point to bring up the most noteworthy statistic from the piece as often as I could in casual conversation: One in five children in this country now live in a family where the total annual household income is below the federal poverty level of $23,550. One in five. In New York City, where I live, the number is actually closer to one in three. Which might explain why some people hardly blink when I share the fact. Others, however, are shocked.
It can be very easy to get nose-down in our own little world and lose track of the larger one. But for all of us—and for our children–the future is at stake. Children living in poverty are at risk of troubles both physical and academic, starting with impaired brain growth and weak acquisition of language as babies and progressing right through to higher dropout rates, increased risk of both hunger and obesity and, eventually, diabetes and heart disease. Dr. Perri Klass, one of my all-time favorite writing doctors, makes the cost of childhood poverty upsettingly clear here.
We can’t change a problem if we’re not aware of it, of course. So as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I challenge you to help raise awareness by also sharing the one-in-five fact. And then to look for ways to make a difference. In my case, our family lives close to the Harlem Children’s Zone, so we both see what poverty looks like and help fight it by donating to the organization. And no matter how much or how little your own family has to give, we can all teach our kids how to appreciate what they do have–it’s the first step to learning how to share our blessings with others.
Use our worksheet to figure out how to make room in your family budget for charitable contributions.
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Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
I’ll admit to having sympathy for fast-food chains and other purveyors of what is, let’s face it, food that is generally unhealthy. On the one hand, there is a host of voices—parents, doctors, public-health advocates, politicians, and others—clamoring for healthier choices for ourselves and our kids. After all, obesity and its related health problems are an increasingly worrisome problem in the U.S.
On the other hand, corporations like McDonald’s are moneymaking ventures, responsible primarily to shareholders looking to maximize their profits, and the inescapable truth is: junk food sells, and healthy options often bomb.
And so, I applaud those companies taking steps to improve the quality and healthiness of the food they offer, especially to children, even when those steps are small, tentative, or even symbolic. The latest such move is McDonald’s announcement that it will no longer list soda as a drink option for its Happy Meals, a decision Elisa Zied explored in depth in her blog The Scoop on Food. To be clear, soda is still available to all customers of any age. All this move does is introduce some separation between kids’ Happy Meals and these sugary drinks, requiring parents give the choice even a moment’s extra thought.
The response by some readers to Elisa’s post and the McDonald’s soda news fascinates and worries me, though. Here are just a few comments people posted to her blog and our Facebook page:
“The govt and McDonald’s need to stay out of my children’s diet. We don’t get them often, but for gosh sake let the kids have a little fun with a toy and a friggin soda.”
“For the love of all that is holy… STOP telling people what to eat, drink, how to raise their kids, what their weight should be. Just worry about you and stop being the freaking police of everything. We are to the point where life isn’t ours anymore.”
“Unbelievable! 99.9% of the time, my children drink milk or water. The also eat healthy meals that same percentage of the time. If I want to get my child a happy meal AND, let them have a soda once in a blue moon, that should be MY prerogative as their parent and, not the decision of McDonalds or some group of strangers. Why should I have to suffer because other parents make poor choices for their children and, don’t know how to say, “NO” to their kids asking for pop all the time.”
“hey i’ve got an idea! government and everyone in the USA…..how about you raise your kids the way you want, and not worry about what everyone else is doing!? I like to call it the…”mind your own damn business.”
Plenty of other people voiced support for the McDonald’s decision, but opinions in this vein dominated the comments. Posts like these remind me of some conservative commentators’ reactions to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity efforts. Public figures such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, among many others, have denounced the First Lady for trying to raise public awareness and work with major corporations to provide healthier options for more people. To them, like to so many people commenting on the McDonald’s announcement, this is all the result of government intrusion into our daily lives, the government eliminating choice and dictating our behavior.
It’s sad to me that our society is polarized and politicized to the point where efforts to improve the health of our children are denounced. Our history is filled with successful campaigns to improve public health, change personal habits for the better, and affect corporations’ behavior. First Ladies have long had pet causes, just as activist groups have long worked to put pressure on companies to achieve social or economic goals. None of this is inappropriate in our society. Quite the contrary. The bully pulpit, whether from the White House or the media airwaves, is an important and powerful tool.
In this case, McDonald’s is reacting to market, not governmental, pressures. To the extent any governmental agency is involved, it is to help parents make healthy decisions for their children, not to regulate those decisions. (As many have pointed out, nothing is stopping parents from ordering a large Coke with their kids’ Happy Meals. McDonald’s is just un-linking the two, making it just that much less routinized to bundle soda with kids’ meals.)
We should be celebrating McDonald’s for aiding in this effort. This is our democratic, capitalist system at work; accusations that this is some form of nanny-state socialism are far off base.
For guidance in feeding the youngest members of your family, download our free Homemade Baby Food guide. Or for a treat, check out our Year of Cupcakes download.
Image of soda cup courtesy of Shutterstock.
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Thursday, October 3rd, 2013
A guaranteed daily laugh is one of the many highlights of my job at Parents. As the editor of our Baby Bloopers column and blog, I get to enjoy the submissions our readers share with us about the goofy things their child does or says—some of which are so funny that they have me crying tears of laughter at my desk.
Turns out, this daily pick-me-up offers more than just a mood boost. Research shows that laughter has health benefits, too. According to the Mayo Clinic, in the short-term, laughter increases your intake of air, which stimulates your heart and other muscles and increases the release of endorphins. A good laugh also has the power to stimulate circulation, aid in muscle relaxation, and lower your blood pressure.
In the long term, regular bouts of laughter can lessen anxiety and depression, in addition to inducing the body to produce it’s own natural painkillers. And better still, your giggles can boost the production of neuropeptides that support the immune system by fighting stress and illness.
Interestingly, a study by Mora Ripoll Ramón at the Laughter Research Network suggests that the human body cannot distinguish between spontaneous and simulated laughter. So the next time your kiddo shares a certifiably awful knock-knock joke with you, reward her with a laugh. You’ll make her day and increase your health in the process. And if that doesn’t do it for you, visit our Baby Bloopers blog, to partake in healthy dose of laughter daily.
Image: Mom laughing and holding baby via Shutterstock.
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Wednesday, August 28th, 2013
I get my German nose from my father’s side, while my natural hair color matches my mom’s. And when I go to the doctor, I can share the intimate details of my family’s health history, with my concerns about macular degeneration and diabetes that appears on both sides of my gene pool.
But my daughters had no idea where they got their good looks, or what secrets their families’ medical histories held. They were both adopted from China—and children adopted from China, where it is illegal to relinquish your child for adoption, have no information about their past before the day they appeared at the orphanage gate.
Until now. We decided to try 23andme, one of the country’s largest DNA testers, who can provide glimpses into both the ancestry side of DNA (including finding potential relatives), and more importantly, the health side, where we can see what concerns may lie in our daughters’ futures—everything from the breast cancer gene to their potential reactions to common medications. Even my husband and I decided to get tested, too, to see how many of our families’ health issues are likely to affect us in the future.
It takes more than a month to go from spit test (your DNA shows up in your saliva) to results, and what we’ve found is fascinating for all of us. My husband discovered some Italian heritage he didn’t know he had—and a connection to Norway, his dream location. My daughters know now that they’ll be able to toast with champagne when they reach legal age—they don’t have “Asian flush,” an inability to digest alcohol properly that is a common trait in some Asian groups. Surprisingly, I lucked out in the gene pool, and pulled genes from both sides that put me at reduced risk for macular degeneration and diabetes.
The ancestry info for my girls, at this point, is both fascinating and frustrating. 23andme is working on improving results for Asian backgrounds, to show any minority groups where they may hail from, but right now, they can’t differentiate beyond the fact that the girls are both “East Asian.” (Not exactly a revelation for us.) But based on their haplogroups—whole groups of people who share an ancestor and snippets of DNA from thousands of years ago—we can tell a little bit more about my girls. My oldest belongs to the A4 haplogroup, which is strongest among Native Americans—but there’s a tiny stronghold of A4s right around the area where my daughter was found in China. My youngest is an M7c2, a population that extends through Japan, Taiwan, and into the region in southern China where my youngest hailed. (These are especially important revelations for us, as my youngest lived in an area where factory jobs drew people from all over the country—but it seems likely she may be a “local” girl.)
So far my girls haven’t found any close relatives, but it may be only a matter of time before we can make matches that way. 23andme compares our DNA with everyone in their database who is open to matches. We’ve been comparing DNA results with others in the adoption community, looking for potential cousins. Several projects are underway to help sample DNA from birthmothers and fathers in China—and maybe someday, we’ll be able to connect with their past in that important way.
But until then, my daughters are just thrilled to know that they’re less likely to freckle.
Image: DNA by Maximus256/Shutterstock.com
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Friday, August 2nd, 2013
The Children’s Health Fund’s mobile medical clinic.
Keeping track of my kids’ medical and dental appointments–making them, taking the kids to them, filing away the records–sometimes stresses me out. But I’ll never complain again after my visit to the big blue bus run by the Children’s Health Fund, which is devoted to providing health care for kids who don’t have access to it. This mobile medical center was parked on the sidewalk in the South Bronx on a blistering hot day last month, and Parents editors Diane Debrovner, Kara Corridan, and I stopped by.
I’d first learned about the clinic on wheels as we were preparing this story for Parents about how important good medical care is to a child’s school success. Inside the cheerful yellow-accented RV is a state-of-the-art two-room medical clinic, complete with a triage area and a nurse’s station. In 25 areas across the U.S., including New Orleans, Detroit and Washington, DC, facilities like these provide check ups, vaccinations, and treatment for a range of conditions to kids who have no other access to medical care.
“Our screening starts with ‘do you have enough food? Do you have a place to sleep tonight?’” says Delaney Gracy, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical officer for CHF. If families need either, CHF connects them with social services. Many of the sites where the buses stop are linked with schools, so that care providers can work with school nurses or administrators to help make sure kids get asthma medication, for example. The clinics use a state-of-the-art electronic health records system to store information about their patients, not because it’s the latest high-end healthcare fad, but because it makes it possible to track the care of children who are homeless.
The nurse’s station inside the bus.
This care helps ensure that kids arrive at school healthy and ready to learn, which is a key focus of the Children’s Health Fund. The connection between health and learning goes deep: Vision or hearing problems, poor nutrition, chronic conditions and even lack of sleep can make it difficult for kids to succeed in school and contribute to a cascade of future problems.
If you want to help the CHF make sure more kids get the care they need, visit childrenshealthfund.org to add your voice to the “Every Child a Chance” campaign on the site. And if all this is making you realize your own kids are probably overdue for a back-to-school exam, brush up on the vaccine recommendations for every age and read our advice on how to make the most of your child’s checkup here.
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Kids who visit the bus get a book to take home, a special touch for children who have few possessions.