Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Changing American Family


An acquaintance of mine told me the other day that she had been watching old reruns of the Donna Reed Show, for heaven's sake.  She said wistfully, "Where did those days go?"  She wants the good old nuclear family back.  Well, I've got bad news for her, those days are gone forever.  Here is a rather long article from the New York Times about the changing American family.


Natalie Angier

CHELSEA, MICH. — Kristi and Michael Burns have a lot in common. They love crossword puzzles, football, going to museums and reading five or six books at a time. They describe themselves as mild-mannered introverts who suffer from an array of chronic medical problems. The two share similar marital résumés, too. On their wedding day in 2011, the groom was 43 years old and the bride 39, yet it was marriage No. 3 for both.

Today, their blended family is a sprawling, sometimes uneasy ensemble of two sharp-eyed sons from her two previous husbands, a daughter and son from his second marriage, ex-spouses of varying degrees of involvement, the partners of ex-spouses, the bemused in-laws and a kitten named Agnes that likes to sleep on computer keyboards.

If the Burnses seem atypical as an American nuclear family, how about the Schulte-Waysers, a merry band of two married dads, six kids and two dogs? Or the Indrakrishnans, a successful immigrant couple in Atlanta whose teenage daughter divides her time between prosaic homework and the precision footwork of ancient Hindu dance; the Glusacs of Los Angeles, with their two nearly grown children and their litany of middle-class challenges that seem like minor sagas; Ana Perez and Julian Hill of Harlem, unmarried and just getting by, but with Warren Buffett-size dreams for their three young children; and the alarming number of families with incarcerated parents, a sorry byproduct of America’s status as the world’s leading jailer.

The typical American family, if it ever lived anywhere but on Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving canvas, has become as multilayered and full of surprises as a holiday turducken — the all-American seasonal portmanteau of deboned turkey, duck and chicken.

Researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years, the transformations often exceeding or capsizing those same experts’ predictions of just a few journal articles ago.

Kristi and Michael Burns, whose marriage was the third for each, with three of their four children at home in Chelsea, Mich. All are from previous relationships.Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times
“This churning, this turnover in our intimate partnerships is creating complex families on a scale we’ve not seen before,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s a mistake to think this is the endpoint of enormous change. We are still very much in the midst of it.”

Families are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.

In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally.

Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.”

“There are really good studies showing that single people are more likely than married couples to be in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings and parents,” said Bella DePaulo, author of “Singled Out” and a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll be single forever. “There are not just more types of families and living arrangements than there used to be,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of the coming book “Intimate Revolutions,” and a social historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “Most people will move through several different types over the course of their lives.”

At the same time, the old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America — but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite.

“We’re seeing a class divide not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between the I do’s and the I do nots,” Dr. Coontz said. Those who are enjoying the perks of a good marriage “wouldn’t stand for any other kind,” she said, while those who would benefit most from marital stability “are the ones least likely to have the resources to sustain it.”

Yet across the divide runs a white picket fence, our unshakable star-spangled belief in the value of marriage and family. We marry, divorce and remarry at rates not seen anywhere else in the developed world. We lavish $70 billion a year on weddings, more than we spend on pets, coffee, toothpaste and toilet paper combined.

We’re sappy family romantics. When an informal sample of 52 Americans of different ages, professions and hometowns were asked the first thought that came to mind on hearing the word “family,” the answers varied hardly at all. Love! Kids! Mom! Dinner!

“It’s the backbone of how we live,” said David Anderson, 52, an insurance claims adjuster from Chicago. “It means everything,” said Linda McAdam, 28, who is in human resources on Long Island.

Yes, everything, and sometimes too many things. “It’s almost like a weight,” said Rob Fee, 26, a financial analyst in San Francisco, “a heavy weight.” Or as the comedian George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

In charting the differences between today’s families and those of the past, demographers start with the kids — or rather the lack of them.

The nation’s birthrate today is half what it was in 1960, and last year hit its lowest point ever. At the end of the baby boom, in 1964, 36 percent of all Americans were under 18 years old; last year, children accounted for just 23.5 percent of the population, and the proportion is dropping, to a projected 21 percent by 2050. Fewer women are becoming mothers — about 80 percent of those of childbearing age today versus 90 percent in the 1970s — and those who reproduce do so more sparingly, averaging two children apiece now, compared with three in the 1970s.

One big reason is the soaring cost of ushering offspring to functional independence. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average middle-class couple will spend $241,080 to raise a child to age 18. Factor in four years of college and maybe graduate school, or a parentally subsidized internship with the local theater company, and say hello to your million-dollar bundle of oh joy.

As steep as the fertility decline has been, the marriage rate has fallen more sharply, particularly among young women, who do most of the nation’s childbearing. As a result, 41 percent of babies are now born out of wedlock, a fourfold increase since 1970.

The trend is not demographically uniform, instead tracking the nation’s widening gap in income and opportunity. Among women with a bachelor’s degrees or higher, 90 percent adhere to the old playground song and put marriage before a baby carriage. For everybody else, maternity is often decoupled from matrimony: 40 percent of women with some college but no degree, and 57 percent of women with high school diplomas or less, are unmarried when they give birth to their first child.

More than one-quarter of these unwed mothers are living with a partner who may or may not be their child’s biological father. The rise of the cohabiting couple is another striking feature of the evolving American family: From 1996 to 2012, the number jumped almost 170 percent, to 7.8 million from 2.9 million.

Nor are unmarried mothers typically in their teens; contrary to all the talk of an epidemic of teenage motherhood, the birthrate among adolescent girls has dropped by nearly half since 1991 and last year hit an all-time low, a public health triumph that experts attribute to better sex education and birth-control methods. Most unmarried mothers today, demographers say, are in their 20s and early 30s.

Also démodé is the old debate over whether mothers of dependent children should work outside the home. The facts have voted, the issue is settled, and Paycheck Mommy is now a central organizing principle of the modern American family.

The share of mothers employed full or part time has quadrupled since the 1950s and today accounts for nearly three-quarters of women with children at home. The number of women who are their families’ sole or primary breadwinner also has soared, to 40 percent today from 11 percent in 1960.

“Yes, I wear the pants in the family,” said Ana Perez, 35, a mother of three and a vice president at a financial services company in New York, who was, indeed, wearing pants. “I can say it brings me joy to know I can take care of my family.”

Cultural attitudes are adapting accordingly. Sixty-two percent of the public, and 72 percent of adults under 30, view the ideal marriage as one in which husband and wife both work and share child care and household duties; back when Jimmy Carter was president, less than half of the population approved of the dual-income family, and less than half of 1 percent of husbands knew how to operate a sponge mop.

Mothers are bringing home more of the bacon, and of the mortarboards, too. While most couples are an even match scholastically, 28 percent of married women are better educated than their mates; that is true of just 19 percent of married men. Forty years ago, the asymmetry went the other way.

Some experts argue that the growing legion of mothers with advanced degrees has helped sharpen the already brutal competition for admission to the nation’s elite universities, which stress the importance of extracurricular activities. Nothing predicts the breadth and busyness of a child’s after-school schedule better, it turns out, than the mother’s level of education.

One change that caught many family researchers by surprise was the recent dip in the divorce rate. After many decades of upward march, followed by a long, stubborn stay at the familiar 50 percent mark that made every nuptial feel like a coin flip, the rate began falling in 1996 and is now just above 40 percent for first-time marriages.

The decline has been even more striking among middle- and upper-middle-income couples with college degrees. For them, fewer than one in three marriages is expected to end in divorce, a degree of stability that allows elite couples to merge their resources with confidence, maximally invest in their children and otherwise widen the gap between themselves and the struggling masses.

There are exceptions, of course. Among baby boomers, the rate of marriage failure has surged 50 percent in the past 20 years — perhaps out of an irritable nostalgia, researchers said, for the days of free love, better love, anything but this love. Nor do divorce rates appear to have fallen among those who take the old Samuel Johnson quip as a prescription, allowing hope to triumph over experience, and marrying again and again.

For both Mike and Kristi Burns, now in their 40s, the first marriage came young and left early, and the second stuck around for more than a dozen years.

Kristi was 19, living in South Carolina, and her Marine boyfriend was about to be shipped to Japan. “I wasn’t attached to him, really,” she said, “but for some reason I felt this might be my only chance at marriage.”

In Japan, Kristi gave birth to her son Brandon, realized she was lonely and miserable, and left the marriage seven weeks after their first anniversary. Back in the States, Kristi studied to be a travel agent, moved to Michigan and married her second husband at age 23.

He was an electrician. He adopted Brandon, and the couple had a son, Griffin. The marriage lasted 13 years.

“We were really great friends, but we weren’t a great husband and wife,” Kristi said. “Our parenting styles were too different.”

Besides, she went on, “he didn’t verbalize a lot, but he was mad a lot, and I was tired of walking around on eggshells.”

After the divorce, friends persuaded her to try the online dating service match.com, and just as her free trial week was about to expire, she noticed a new profile in the mix.

“Kristi was one of the first people to ping me,” said Mike Burns, an engineer for an e-commerce company. “This was at 3 in the morning.”

They started chatting. Mike told Kristi how he’d married his first wife while he was still in college — “definitely too young,” he said — and divorced her two years later. He met his second wife through mutual friends, they had a big church wedding, started a software publishing company together, sold it and had two children, Brianna and Alec.

When the marriage started going downhill, Mike ignored signs of trouble, like the comments from neighbors who noticed his wife was never around on weekends.

“I was delusional, I was depressed,” he said. “I still had the attitude that divorce wasn’t something you did.”

After 15 years of marriage, his wife did it for him, and kicked him out of the house. His divorce papers hadn’t yet been finalized, he told Kristi that first chat night. I’ll help you get through it, she replied.

Mike and Kristi admit their own three-year-old marriage isn’t perfect. The kids are still adjusting to one another. Sometimes Kristi, a homemaker, feels jealous of how much attention her husband showers on his daughter Brianna, 13. Sometimes Mike retreats into his computer. Yet they are determined to stay together.

“I know everyone thinks this marriage is a joke and people expect it to fail,” said Kristi . “But that just makes me work harder at it.”

“I’d say our chances of success are better than average,” her husband added.

In America, family is at once about home and the next great frontier.

THE BABY BOOM FOR GAY PARENTS
A growing number of same-sex couples are pursuing parenthood any way they can.

LOS ANGELES — The Schulte-Wayser family is like the Jetsons: a blend of midcentury traditional and postmodern cool.

One parent is the breadwinner, a corporate lawyer who is Type A when it comes to schoolwork, bedtime and the importance of rules. The other parent is the self-described “baby whisperer,” staying home to care for the couple’s two daughters and four sons, who dash through their days as if wearing jetpacks.

Both parents know when rules and roles are made for subverting. “We are each of us very maternal in our own way,” said Joshua Wayser, 50, the lawyer. “I take my girls shopping, and I’m in charge of beauty and hair care.” Mr. Wayser glanced at Richard Schulte, 61, his homemaker-artist husband, who was sitting nearby.

“Of course,” Mr. Wayser added dryly, “he doesn’t think I do a good job.”

Mr. Wayser, Mr. Schulte and their six adopted children are part of one of the more emphatic reinventions of the standard family flow chart. A growing number of gay men and lesbians are pursuing parenthood any way they can: adoption, surrogacy, donor sperm.

“There’s a gayby boom, that’s for sure,” Mr. Wayser said. “So many of our friends are having kids.”

Some critics have expressed concern that the children of gay parents may suffer from social stigma and the lack of conventional adult role models, or that same-sex couples are not suited to the monotonous rigors of family life. Earlier studies, often invoked in the culture wars over same-sex marriage, suggested that children who lived with gay parents were prone to lower grades, conduct disorders and a heightened risk of drug and alcohol problems.

But new research suggests that such fears are misplaced. Through a preliminary analysis of census data and other sources, Michael J. Rosenfeld of Stanford University has found that whatever problems their children may display are more likely to stem from other factors, like the rupture of the heterosexual marriage that produced the children in the first place.

Once these factors are taken into account, said Dr. Rosenfeld, author of “The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-sex Unions, and the Changing American Family,” the children of same-sex parents are academically and emotionally indistinguishable from those of heterosexual parents.

And two-father couples, in defiance of stereotype, turn out to be exemplars of domesticity. In her long-term studies of unconventional families, Judith Stacey, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, found that the most stable of all were those headed by gay men who’d had their children together.

Over 14 years, she said, “I was shocked to find that none of the male couples with children had broken up, not one.” Dr. Stacey, author of “Unhitched: Love, Marriage and Family Values From West Hollywood to Western China,” attributed that success to self-selection. “For men to become parents without women is very difficult,” she said. “Only a small percentage are willing and able to make the commitment.”

There’s no maybe about the gayby boom. According to the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, the number of gay couples with children has doubled in the past decade, and today well over 100,000 same-sex couples are raising children. Other estimates put the number of children living with gay parents — couples and singletons combined — at close to two million, or one out of 37 children under age 18.

Driving the rise in same-sex parenthood is the resonant success of the marriage equality movement, which has led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 16 states and has helped ease adoption policies elsewhere. In 2009, 19 percent of same-sex couples raising children reported having an adopted child, up from just 10 percent in 2000. Gay parents are four times as likely as straight ones to be raising adoptees, and six times as likely to be caring for foster children, whom they often end up adopting.

Some crave the fetters of DNA, and here women have an advantage. Many of the children of lesbian couples are the biological offspring of one of the women and a semen donor — who may be anonymous, a friend, the brother of the nongestating woman, or Mark Ruffalo.

The Schulte-Wayser family started out unhyphenated, as the Waysers. The two men had broken up; Mr. Wayser was living alone in Los Angeles, his law career was in flux, and he was tired of obsessing about work. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something else,’ ” he said. “I had to come out to myself as a father.”

His mother was thrilled, and she offered to pay the costs for a surrogate mother to carry a baby conceived with his sperm. Mr. Wayser said no.

“I wanted the clarity of having someone who didn’t share my genetics, who was completely different from me,” he said.

He met with an adoption lawyer in March 2000, and by June he had a newborn daughter, Julie. Several months later, Mr. Schulte called to chat, heard Julie in the background and stopped by to meet her.

The baby reminded him of Don King, the boxing promoter. “It was love at first sight,” Mr. Schulte said, and Mr. Wayser acknowledged, “I used Julie as bait.”

His old boyfriend took it. “We were a couple again,” Mr. Schulte said. Or rather, he amended, “we were a family.” He and Mr. Wayser later married in Malibu.

From 2002 to 2009, four brothers and a sister followed — Derek, A J, Isaac (all from one mother), Shayna and Joey. “That’s my line in the sand,” Mr. Wayser said. “We’ve run out of room.”

Yet he believes it’s easier to manage a large family than a small one. “They entertain each other. They organize themselves,” he said. “We send the kids out. We say, ‘Go ride your bike, go out and play.’ We want them to have a very traditional childhood in a nontraditional setting.”

He admits to being a worrier. Some of the children have learning disabilities and require extensive tutoring, and he doesn’t know what risks the birth mothers might have taken during pregnancy.

But he resents people who note the color of his children’s skin as well as his obvious financial resources, and cluck about how noble he is and how lucky the children are.

“No, I’m the one who’s lucky here,” he said. “I’m not trying to save the world.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Dog Who Knows 1,000 Words

Now that you have eaten so much your brain isn't capable of complex thought, here's a great story that will just make you feel warm all over.






SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The experiment began with a racquetball that has now been replaced many times.

"Chaser! This is Blue," said John Pilley, a retired Wofford College psychology professor.

"Blue," Pilley repeated, and rolled the ball to his 2-month-old border collie.

He said the name again as Chaser took the ball in her mouth and held it just out of reach in a coy game of keep-away. Tail wagging, paws clattering, she chased Blue across the room in what became the first steps in her training to learn human language.

Blue led to Bamboozle, a stuffed orange horse, Choo Choo, a squeaky rubber train, Cinderella, Dora, Drumstick, Ears and Elmo. The house filled up with toys — 800 animals, 116 balls and 26 Frisbees — kept in huge plastic bins on the back porch. Each had a different name written in marker; Pilley could no longer remember them all.

Chaser is now world famous as the dog who knows more than 1,000 words, the largest known vocabulary of any animal except humans. Besides proper nouns, she knows verbs, adverbs and prepositions. She's learned that common nouns can identify different things. Ball could mean any round or bouncy object, Frisbee any spinning disk or ring. And she can make inferences. If asked to fetch a new toy with a word she's never heard, she'll pick the toy out from a pile of familiar ones.

As her language learning grew, so did the experiment. Pilley has recently started to teach Chaser commands with three elements of grammar, going from the basic "take ball" to "take ball to Frisbee." This is what excites Pilley most as a scientist — that Chaser understands the concept that words play off of one another and that each word in a sentence can have a different meaning.

"We want to stretch it out so we have four, five elements of grammar. They've done that with dolphins and chimps, but no one's done it with dogs," he said.

Imitation, Pilley believes, requires imagination — something inside Chaser's head is building a picture of what she has to do.

There seems to be no end to Chaser's abilities and her fame. Since Pilley's findings were first published in 2010, scientists have begun to follow his work as he explores the extent of what dogs are capable of. His approach has led to a new understanding of canine intelligence, one that makes us wonder just how sophisticated a dog's mind can be.

Bred for intelligence
Long before Pilley got Chaser, he was intrigued by border collies.

As a breed, they seemed to have the instinctive ability to follow complex commands while herding livestock but also move them across great distances without supervision.

"You're not breeding them for their looks. You're breeding them for what's between their ears," said Wayne West, who's bred border collies since the 1960s.

Border collies are herders, bred hundreds of years ago to work with sheep, Pilley said. If a farmer's dog didn't listen to the farmer, the farmer didn't breed the dog. Through selective breeding, border collies gradually began to pay more attention to the words themselves.

Though they were quick to learn new behaviors, Pilley's attempts to teach dogs to understand words never got far. All of his research seemed to indicate that dogs didn't even know their own names.
"I wanted to do something other than teach, so finally, at age 67, I retired, but I couldn't find anything that I enjoyed more," he said.

Pilley's wife, Sally, was the one who decided for him. It had been almost a decade since they lost Yasha, a border collie-German shepherd mix, to old age. The time seemed right to get another dog.
Chaser arrived one June day on West's farm as the Pilleys sat beneath an old oak tree.

Although Chaser went home with them primarily as a member of the family, Pilley says he had it in his head from the beginning to teach her words. There was no science or study to go on; he'd simply have to follow Chaser's lead to figure out what worked.

The power of play
One of Chaser's favorite games is playing fetch on the stairs that lead to the Pilleys' loft. She'll nose Blue over the top step, watching it bounce this way and that until someone catches it and throws the ball back up to her.

Play was a powerful tool in teaching Chaser to learn words.

"Before she will listen to the words, they have to have value," Pilley said. "When we're playing with her — catch, find — she's having fun, and so that object takes on value ... and she's also having a relationship with the human."

Chaser had been with Pilley only a few weeks when the journal Science published an article about a border collie in Germany that knew more than 200 words. The Rico study, as it's called now, suggested that a language skill previously thought to be associated only with human children could also be present in another species.

Pilley was eight years into his retirement, but the article's timing with the arrival of Chaser turned him into a scientist again. He decided to set a goal; he would teach Chaser a thousand words and maybe write a paper himself.

In his new book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, Pilley recalls those first years of training. He worked with Chaser for at least five hours a day over three years, slowly building her vocabulary. Pilley tapped into Chaser's border collie instinct to herd.

Each individually named toy was introduced as if it was part of a flock. "Come by Frisbee," Pilley might say, using the commands farmers would give collies on a farm. Fetching and finding objects all over the house made learning memorable for Chaser, but it took repetition. Each toy's name was said as many as 40 times during an exercise; each exercise was rehearsed 20 times over a day.

Chaser was then re-tested once a month to see what she could remember.

Her success rate never changed; she was right more than 90% of the time.

Pilley took Chaser down to West's farm for a demonstration. West had known that border collies could do extraordinary things. On their own, his dogs could figure out how to move sheep to the farm from half a mile away after learning a dozen basic commands, but Chaser went "far beyond what I realized a dog could have learned," West said.

The world seemed to agree. Pilley's research was published Dec. 8, 2010, and within a week, the news had spread to 46 countries.

Britain's Daily Mail headlined Chaser as the world's brainiest dog. On The Today Show, she was the canine Einstein.

Animal intelligence experts paid attention, too. Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and author of The Genius of Dogs, called Chaser the most scientifically important dog in more than a century.

"There are lots of animals that have been trained to understand hundreds of words ... but what's interesting is how she learned them and the fact that she learned them through inferential reasoning," Hare said.

Pilley's work, along with that of others, has resulted in an explosion in the field of dog cognition. Hare founded Dognition earlier this year as a Web app for people to test their dog's intelligence and record the results. With enough samples, researchers will be able to better understand canine abilities.
"Nobody expected that of all the species out there, it would be dogs that have shown the ability to learn labels for objects like we do," Hare said.

For now, Chaser's training has been put on hold with Pilley's book release, but he doesn't plan to stop their journey of canine discovery.

Pilley often says that Chaser has the intelligence of a human toddler and the intense focus of a border collie. That's a powerful combination, but he believes all dogs have the ability to learn like Chaser with the right mix of praise, play and, of course, patience.

"One reason some of our findings are so important is that we demonstrated — and we're not alone; there are other researchers demonstrating the same thing — that these dogs think. They reason. They make inferences," he said.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Life Is Not a Fairy Tale


A dear friend told me the other day that she needed to give her 4-year-old daughter a new message.  In any book or picture of a group of girls together, the little girl alway, ALWAYS, looked for "the prettiest one."  Pretty was the only criteria that interested her.  And, of course, all she wanted to play with were princesses.  I am going to give her this article and tell her she might want to consider sending her daughter to Kentucky for high school!




KY. GIRLS SCHOOL ADS KNOCK FAIRY TALE LIFE
— Nov. 26, 2013 2:48 PM EST

A billboard at a bus stop in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, shows an ad campaign by Mercy Academy High School. The girls-only private school is generating buzz around the country with the campaign that tells young girls they don't need a Prince Charming to live happily ever after. (AP Photo/Dylan Lovan)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A local ad campaign by a Catholic high school for girls in Kentucky is generating nationwide buzz with the message that young women don't need to find Prince Charming to live happily ever after.

Mercy Academy's principal, Amy Elstone, says the billboard campaign used pointed wording like "You're Not a Princess," and "Life's Not a Fairy Tale," to highlight the private school's emphasis on critical thinking.

The posters popped up recently at a few bus stops and billboards around the city, but the message has drawn wider attention with the suggestion that what girls need to live a fairy tale life is their own minds. The girl-power theme attracted the attention of NBC's "Today" and other national outlets, and the school says it has been a smashing success.

"We just want to teach our girls that they write their story, not society, not popular culture, and we try to empower them to do that," Elstone said. The print ads were introduced during a season when eighth-grade students are making decisions about high school, and Mercy, which is an all-girls school, wanted an unconventional message as part of its marketing, she said.

"We feel like we have a unique approach to education and real-life learning, and we were struggling with a way to articulate that," she said. The school, which is affiliated with the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, has about 550 students and a $10,000 annual tuition. The school is run by a lay board of directors.

The ads are simple in composition, with a gray background decorated by well-known fairy tale symbols, like magic wands and slippers. One of the ads has a faceless prince, with the message, "Don't Wait for a Prince ... Be Able to Rescue Yourself."

"It's exactly what girls need to hear," said David Vawter, chief creative officer at Doe Anderson, the firm that designed the campaign. Vawter said Mercy was initially concerned that the message would be seen as negative, but school officials decided to embrace its edginess.

"It's a metaphor for saying you need to prepare for real life," he said.

The ad campaign echoes a message that has become increasingly common, encouraging girls and women to live independently and question traditional gender roles. For instance, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book, "Lean In," urges women to more aggressively pursue their career goals. A recent video by toy company GoldieBlox also went viral, showing three young girls singing a parody of the Beastie Boys song "Girls" with lyrics about girls building spaceships and coding software.

"Boys are valued for being tough and rough and playing sports and not crying, and girls are taught to be soft and helpless, and that's not a good message for either boys or girls," said Marsha Weinstein, director of Louisville Girls Leadership, an organization that selects girls from each of the city's high schools to work on team projects.

Weinstein said the Mercy ads cut "right to the chase."

"Just think about Martin Luther King and 'I Have A Dream,'" Weinstein said. "Those were just words, you could say, but that was a powerful message."

Olivia Fung, a 17-year-old Mercy student, said she had the same princess dreams many girls had when she was younger.

"Growing up, I thought being a girl was all about being pampered, having that right of being a princess," said Fung, who is planning to study advertising at a college in New York.
"But ... it's not about being pampered, it's about getting a job and success, and being a good person on the inside and out," she said.

The brief ad campaign ended this week, but Elstone said the school is considering bringing the campaign back next year.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Think About What You Are Thankful For

On this Thanksgiving Eve, I made myself sit down and think about what I am thankful for.  I venture to say that not many of us do that often enough.

Number one, and I would never have believed that I would ever think about such taken-for-granted things, I am so, so thankful that I still have my vision and my hearing is still excellent.  Life would be very, very different if I were not able to read.  And I don't know how people know when to take their car to the mechanic if they can't hear that high-pitched squeal when they turn left.

 I am grateful that, thanks to my wonderful husband, terrific friends, and children I am happy to say are mine, I have been able to travel the world and learn that there are many paths to the same destination.  There are lots of ways to live and to manage a society; lots of ways of worshipping whichever god or gods you choose; lots of ways of organizing families.  Without travel, one must assume that everybody does things the way you do, which leads you to think that your way is the only way.

I am grateful for the game of basketball.  When my son was in 5th grade in a little two-room schoolhouse in Montana, he was given an amazing gift by two young ranchers in our community.  They organized a basketball team of little boys and taught them well.  That was the beginning of a life-long love of the game for both of us.  We have always been close, but in March, we talk a dozen times a day.  He could have done worse than have Dean Smith as a role model.

I am grateful for the great state of Montana.

I am grateful to the guy who opened the gym a couple of miles from my house so that I can exercise at an affordable price.

I am grateful that I was born in December, because when all my friends in the neighborhood started school without me, my mother sent me to dance school so that I didn't feel left out.  Ballet became my passion, and something I excelled at.  It gave me self-knowledge, it challenged me to work harder than I ever imagined I could, it made me feel beautiful and strong, it taught me an appreciation of great music, and I can still show my granddaughters a thing or two.

I am thankful that, when my husband was in college, we were pretty short on money.  Had we not been, I probably would not have taught myself to sew.  Now that sewing has become a "craft" rather than a necessary skill of a wife and mother, I am so happy when I can totally remake my kitchen by making new curtains, or spruce up the living room by recovering a few pillows.  Now, my darling youngest granddaughter has become interested in sewing, so maybe she will carry on the tradition.

Of course, that's not a complete list, but thinking about gratefulness brought some new thoughts.  Maybe I should try it on a regular basis!

Monday, November 25, 2013

How Will They Remember Me?


I saw this essay in the New York Times, and it made me so sad.  I understand how the writer came to be the grumpy old Grandma that's she's become, but I truly hope and pray that this is not an ordained future for all of us.  At this point, my husband and I are independent, and, in fact, our children still rely on us for a great many things.  But in another 10 years this will surely change and I hope that I can re-read this and remind myself to be grateful and cheerful.  I hope that I can suffer old age with dignity and wisdom.  

This is my analogy that I hope will guide me through the next phase of life.  We took a trip once that involved three major areas of one country.  The first two legs were amazing, we had such fun, good food, learned a lot and made great memories.  Unfortunately, the final leg was a big city where everything was expensive, every place was crowded, my husband had his pocket picked, and we couldn't wait to get out of there.  We left with a bad taste in our mouths about the country, just because of our bad experience in one city.  I don't want the final phase of my life to leave a bad taste in the mouths of my children and grandchildren.  



November 8, 2013, 5:00 am

‘A Very Ungrateful Old Lady’

I am a legally blind octogenarian. I have wonderful adult children who often help me, but I can never accept their help gracefully.

It is a terrible thing to be a burden. They say I am not, but I know better. Perhaps many of you have parents like me.

My own parents, working class Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, were ordinary people trying hard, but beset by the Depression and bad luck. And I was their burden: a second daughter when they needed a son. My parents were survivors and their fears were real, and I do not mean to belittle them. But they left me with a lifelong fear and loathing of dependence.

One day while playing kick-the-can on the street, a boy knocked the sharp edge of the open lid right into my knee. My weeping mother carried me to the doctor, who sewed it up for fifty cents, and for years afterwards my mother upbraided me for playing rough boys’ games and costing so much money.
I was determined never again to be a burden.

Now I am 86 and almost blind. I cannot read the bills that come in the mail nor sign my own checks. I must be escorted to medical appointments. My busy children are kind beyond measure, but I am uncomfortable in these situations. And being uncomfortable makes me sharp and unpleasant.
When my children run my errands, sort my medications, buy me delicacies, accompany me on medical trips — even do my laundry! — I am somehow reduced to that Brooklyn girl whose struggling parents just couldn’t cope — and it was her fault.

My children point out that this thinking makes no sense. But that there’s no logic to this is irrelevant. We are the sum of our years and experiences, and I never could add properly.

My daughter the doctor is constantly on call for me, and I am unable to accept it with any grace. She takes me every two months for a shot in my eye that controls my macular degeneration. The shot always scares me.

My daughter comes to pick me up and suggests we take a taxi. I nix that idea and say I prefer the subway. The A train. If it was good enough for Duke Ellington, I say, it’s good enough for me. So we take the subway. I get the shot. I always feel terrible afterward, blinder than usual and drained by the whole effort. My daughter suggests we call a car service to go home, but again I invoke the Duke. We go downtown on the A.

Once home, she looks in my refrigerator and offers to go downstairs to the great food shop and buy me a really fine lunch to make me feel better. I decline and tell her I know there’s enough food in the house. She makes disparaging comments about the wilted lettuce in my refrigerator, but I refuse any delicacies.

She’s eager to set up a book on tape or a musical recording to make my long blinder-than-usual afternoon pleasant. I decline.

Finally, on an irritated note, she goes away, and I am left in my silent apartment, with my wilted lettuce.
My children try so hard, and after all, they know what I like. My son and his family feed me gourmet dinners and I overeat, because I’m a glutton. My younger daughter sends me free passes to interesting movie previews and discussions, and I go and enjoy them (especially because they’re free) even with my limited vision.

So why can’t I just be grateful? Why am I so resistant, so irrational, so difficult and unpleasant? Because burdens aren’t grateful, any more than they’re graceful.

It is not that I am unaware of all that is being done for me. Quite the contrary, I am painfully aware of it. I hear the echoes from my childhood, accusing me, repeating a single word. Burden.

I don’t want to be taken care of, and I resent that I have lost independence — that really, I have no free choice. My life is now directed by other people the way it was when I was a child. That they are people who love me is irrelevant.

Sorry, kids, but I was never gracious, and it just gets harder and harder. I want the right, at 86, to play kick-the-can, to do whatever I choose, and that right has been forfeited to age and decrepitude, and I mind it terribly. Which makes me a very ungrateful old lady.

Do most people resent being old and losing freedom? Surely, they must! Perhaps they have better manners and have learned to be complaisant. But this is my life. Still.

Sheila Solomon Klass is professor emerita of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She blogs at blogginggrandma.com.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Oh, Poor Baby


I can remember our school talent shows, because I was often in them, and the excitement and disappointment that came when the winners were announced.  Nowadays, the talent shows are simply displays - not contests.  If things keep going the way they are now, eventually the NFL will simply be guys showing off how far they can throw the ball, how fast a receiver can run with the ball, and who is the biggest physical obstacle to a touchdown.  Neither team will actually "win" because that would make the players on the other team feel bad.  Is that what we really want?   

I remember when my son was in 5th grade and had to compete in a track and field meet against the rival school's 6th graders.  (This was back in 1973.) He and another boy were the best at high jump and my son had been practicing for weeks on a home made pit and pole.  The night before the competition he was throwing up from nervousness.  I hugged him and told him that it didn't matter who won, that we would love him regardless.

He looked at me with a look I will never forget and said, "I'm not doing this for YOU!"  The next day, they finally had to call it a draw because both kids jumped the same level and then neither one could clear the bar on the next higher level.  That was the best possible outcome because they both gave it their very best effort.   Compare that to what this author describes. 

OP-ED COLUMNIST
Are Kids Too Coddled?
Andy Rementer
Published: November 23, 2013 in the New York Times

AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.

So administrators moved to ban the clothing.

They explained, in a letter to parents, that “while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,” the students without it “tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.” What an ordeal.
Many parents favored the ban, a prophylactic against disappointment.

Some did not, noting that life would soon enough deal the kids much worse blows along these lines. And one observer, in a Facebook thread, said this, according to a local TV station’s report: “Perhaps they should dress the children in Bubble Wrap and tie mattresses to their backs so they don’t get hurt.”

I assume that’s facetious.  But these days, you never know.

I occasionally flash on that anecdote as I behold the pushback against more rigorous education standards in general and the new Common Core curriculum in particular. And it came to mind when Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently got himself into a big mess.

Duncan, defending the Common Core at an education conference, identified some of its most impassioned opponents as “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”

It was an impolitic bit of profiling. Gratuitous, too. But if you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.

The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.

What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.

Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?

Apparently not, to judge from some reactions to the Common Core in New York, which has been holding hearings on the guidelines.

One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”

A SOCIAL WORKER testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.

A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”

“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause. Then she endorsed the idea of parents’ exempting kids from Common Core-related tests. “The mommies in New York,” she concluded, “don’t abuse their children.”

If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.

It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.

Some high schools have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes. Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment.

And praise itself is promiscuous, though there are experts with profound reservations about that approach. They say it can lessen motivation and set children up to be demoralized when they invariably fail at something.

“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.”

David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, told me that he’s all for self-esteem, but that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work.”
“Students will not enjoy every step of it,” he added. But if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat.

And they’ll be ready to compete globally, an ability that too much worry over their egos could hinder. As Tucker observed, “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”
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