Review of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Eve Ensler’s extraordinary new memoir begins with the body — her body — a place from which she was exiled and, “forced to evacuate when my father invaded then violated me.” As a consequence, she has focused her life’s work on reclaiming her body and helping others do the same. Her quest began by asking women about their vaginas. The urgency to “talk incessantly and obsessively” about vaginas stemmed from Ensler’s estrangement from her own body, and the stories Ensler heard lay the groundwork for her much acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Layout 1Over the years, Ensler has bridged the distance between herself and her body by traveling to over 60 countries to seek out stories of women who have experienced trauma. “These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home.”

The way home for Ensler took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer in 2010 at the age of 57. But it was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 where Ensler witnessed “the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” and to which she returned to understand that her internal cancer and the world’s external violence were symbiotic.

“In the Body of the World” is not an easy book to read. There are horrific descriptions of the rape, torture, and mutilation of women and girls. But it is a necessary book to read for its fierce, passionate commitment to making the world a safe place for women.

In the Congo and then later in the hospital, Ensler considers the ways in which a life is ruptured by war crimes as well as disease. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis.” And during her crisis she became one with the ravaged women of the Congo. The cancer that had blindsided Ensler leads her to explore the uncomfortable politics of advantage when she returns to the Congo. “My naked head suddenly feels like insane privilege — all the attention and care I have received. I am embarrassed by how much money (insurance), equipment, healers, surgeons, nurses, and medications have gone into saving me.”

Living in cities, amid concrete for most of her adult life, Ensler found that the tree outside her hospital window integrated her into the natural world. Too weak to do anything but stare out the window she writes, “on Tuesday I meditated on the bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into a tree.” A tree also took root inside of Ensler in the form of taxol, a chemotherapy drug derived from tree bark.

Cancer initially divided Ensler from her body and the world until it united her with suffering across the globe. The scar that runs down her torso is the earthquake in Haiti. The abscess in her stomach with 16 ounces of pus is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico. In one of the many poignant scenes in the memoir, a friend of Ensler performs a healing ceremony in which she baptizes Ensler with flowers, honey, and water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the gulf where Ensler swam as a young woman. It’s the gulf where her dying parents gazed at the horizon. It’s the gulf of illness and recklessness and greed. It’s the gulf that drips down Ensler’s bald head.

Ensler’s closest women friends surround her throughout her cancer ordeal. This group is a microcosm of the City of Joy in the Congo, a concept that “grew out of the women of the Congo and was shaped by their desire and hunger. It was literally built with their hands. It is a sanctuary for healing: it is a revolutionary center.”

Ensler begins her intense, riveting memoir with the body, so it’s fitting to end with the body. Today she has “a second life,’’ and no longer needs a colostomy bag. Although cancer brought her to “dangling’’ on the edge of death, it was there, she writes, that “I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.” In celebration and camaraderie she dances with the women of the Congo in the City of Joy, finally reunited with her body.

This review was originally published in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe

Lean In and Listen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Okay girls, go ahead, “lean in,” and you’ll hear a cacophony of voices about what you should do with your lives. At the moment one of the louder voices belongs to Sheryl Sandberg, the storied Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. To lean in, says Sandberg means to push through the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, to go down a path with an uncertain outcome. Conversely, to lean back means to stay in a known, comfortable situation.

The choice is yours. Or is it?

“Girls growing up today,” writes Sandberg, “are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.” That’s right, you study alongside the boys, take pre-law, pre-med or pre-business classes and if a McKinsey Report from 2011 is indicative of your situation, you can still expect your male colleagues to be promoted on their potential and for you to be promoted on your accomplishments.

Let’s take stock for a moment. For the first time in American history there are more college-educated women than men. Sheryl Sandberg is asking those women to do three critical things to maximize their education and frankly, to remember why they entered the workforce in the first place. She wants women to sit literally at the table. Not to sit off to the side and to stay quiet, but to take a seat next to their male peers and participate in conversations, pitch deals and make decisions. It’s a daunting task considering that 57 percent of men in the workforce negotiated up front for a better salary as opposed to just 7 percent of women who said anything when they received their job offers.

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In a 2010 TED talk, the basis for Lean In, Sandberg also reminds women that sitting at the table may take some elbowing in a world where just nine out of 190 heads of state are women, only 13 percent of parliamentarians across the world are women and just 15 to 16 percent of CEOs or COOs are women, Not only has there been no improvement in those corporate numbers, but since 2002 the numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.

The second thing Sandberg advises working women is to make your partner your true partner. That means spouses have equal responsibilities when it comes to childcare and running the house. So don’t just marry well, young women, marry smart because you are smart.

There is a flip side to that advice which comes from the journalist Elsa Walsh, who recently made a deep impression with a piece she wrote for The Washington Post headlined, “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life.” Walsh contends that parenthood and family “are more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”

At first glance it looks like Sandberg and Walsh are butting heads. Sandberg can come across as a career-obsessed woman who admits that, “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.” Walsh, on the other hand, encourages her 17 year-old daughter to “carve out space for solitude. Search for work that allows you flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them older, after you’ve reached the point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while.”

But their counsel is not incompatible. Sandberg, for her part, devotes an entire chapter to the “Myth of Doing It All.” Granted, Sandberg has resources that most working women in this country can only dream of. Besides a supportive partnership with her husband, she can afford top childcare. But putting that aside for a moment, let’s concentrate on the key questions that demythologize the notion of having it all: “Can I do it all or can I do what is most important to me?” Perhaps Walsh has an answer when she observes that “a good enough life is not a failure—it is maturity and self-knowledge.”

The third thing that Sandberg advises is not to leave before you leave. This means stay committed and focused on the job. Don’t project too far into the future. In her TED talk Sandberg mentions a young woman who was anticipating a maternity leave that was so far in the offing she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Walsh read Lean In too and she “nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says.” But like me, she also noticed that Sandberg’s advocacy for more family-friendly policies in the workplace or recognition that full-time motherhood is as meaningful as a corporate career read like “afterthoughts.”

My daughter and son’s generation will have a lot of sorting out of priorities. When the time comes, I want them to lean in and identify the nuances in Sandberg’s and Walsh’s perspectives. Maybe they’ll come to a deeper appreciation of Sandberg’s metaphor of a career pathway as not climbing a ladder, but staying on the jungle gym where men and women move sideways or downwards in order to ultimately move forward in their jobs. Hopefully my children will take to heart Walsh’s assertion that personal relationships are as important to a career as a place at the table. And they’ll work as hard on those relationships as they do in the workplace because in the end, love is what will get them through.

Live and In-Person: Media and Young Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

A couple of weeks ago was school vacation week for both kids, which meant that the four of were reunited for a few days. All was well until we went out to dinner. There was a 20-minute wait to get a table, which meant that three out of the four of us immediately whipped out our iPhones. Poor Adam was left in the dust, but perhaps more dangerously, we disconnected from one another. “Someone talk to me,” he pleaded.

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I’m sure I’m in the majority when I say that I don’t know how I ever lived without the convenience of 24-7 access to, well, everything. Can’t remember the name of an actor? No problem, take out the phone and start Googling your way to the answer.

But have our fingers become too quick to text and Google out of habit? A recent article in the New York Times put that question out there in an article called Your Phone vs. Your Heart. In it Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor, talked about the downside of establishing an ingrained habit that can not only change neural pathways but also “mold the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.”

The scientific term for that molding is called plasticity and it is used to describe the flexibility of the nervous system to adapt and learn. Frederickson’s research shows that plasticity further affects the heart-brain connection. So the more you look up from your iPhone and interact with people, the more you literally strengthen your heart. And Face-to-face contact fosters empathy as well as improves overall health.

Frederickson’s research in social genomics— the study of how our personal history, social life or even loneliness affect gene expression in immune systems—also clearly shows that parents role-modeling screen-time behavior can be as life-altering as the genetics a child inherits. According to Frederickson, interrupting to text while ostensibly playing with your child or reading to her can “leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.”

But how do we translate the findings of social genomics to our own children? Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, social commentator Hannah Rosin explored the brave new American childhood of iPads and iPhones. Remember how we thought we were going down the rabbit hole when VCR’s were installed in mini-vans? Ever since viewing screens entered American homes, parents and educators have worried that children’s brains would turn to mush from too much watching. In 1999 the august American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned that television viewing for children under the age of two affected brain development, particularly when it disrupted interaction between parents or caregivers.

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Enter 21st century touch technology to complicate what seemed to be a straightforward directive against too much screen time for toddlers and young children. Touch technology was popularized by the iPad and it’s taken off among the toddler set where the swipe of a finger can move action figures, act like a paintbrush or manipulate shapes. It’s mind boggling to realize that hundreds, if not thousands of apps for games and reading and art can be easily packed into a gadget the same size as your average board book.

I remember when three year-old Adam sat on Ken’s lap as he maneuvered a mouse. I thought how revolutionary and how scary. It’s stunning to contemplate how much more ubiquitous technology has become over the last decade. As Rosin points out, “technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease.”

By 2010, there were more than 40,000 kids’ games and apps available on iTunes. In the iTunes “education” category, many of those best-selling apps targeted preschool or elementary school age-children. Apps were also available for children as young as 18 months. The AAP weighed in with a recommendation discouraging parents from using electronic media with children under 24 months.

Lisa Guernsey, author of the book Screen Time: How Electronic Media from Baby Videos to Education Software Affects Your Young Child, offers guidance by identifying the three C’s of media consumption—content, context and child. Content, says Guernsey, is the way in which information is presented. Apps labeled as educational are not necessarily good for kids if children cannot fully comprehend the task at hand. Context relates to the way a parent uses social media. Like Fredrickson, Guernsey advises that social interactions are a critical part of using media particularly with babies and toddlers. The success of the first two C’s depends on parents taking the time to know their children. Each child is different, but on the whole parents should keep a kid away from apps or television directed at adults.

There has been no research to date that suggests that using an iPad will make your preschooler smarter or, alternatively, short circuit her neural pathways. But the iPad has only been around for three years—a relatively short time for scientists to secure grants to investigate the topic. Humans, however, have been around for a very long time and nothing improves one’s psychological outlook or better cultivates empathy than looking up from an iPhone screen, even if it is Face Time, and making a real, in-person connection.

Dragon Mothers and Grieving Parents by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There is no one fiercer or scarier or more real in this world than a dragon mother. Dragon mothers are mothers who grieve for children who have died or are terminally ill. Dragon mothers breathe fire and scorch everything in their path.

Emily Rapp is a dragon mother, a term she coined two years ago in a stunning essay simply entitled “Dragon Mothers.” Rapp is the mother of Ronan, an almost three year-old boy who died last month from Tay-Sachs disease. In her new memoir The Still Point of the Turning World, Rapp writes that at nine months her son was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs during a standard eye examination. The specialist had seen Ronan’s particular symptoms only once before.

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Rapp was shocked. During her pregnancy she had been tested twice for Tay-Sachs, and both times the test came back negative. She later learned that a standard Tay-Sachs screening covers only the nine most common mutations. Rapp, who is not Jewish, and her husband, who is, were carriers of a rare mutation. To put this in perspective, fewer than 20 children in the United States are born each year with Tay-Sachs to parents who, like Rapp, tested negative and thought they could cross that worry off their lists.

While Still Point is an elegy, it is also a remarkable book about the signposts of grief. Rapp writes that, “Ronan and I were on this singular path of motherhood-sonhood: one of us knew that the other would not survive. I was supposed to be guiding Ronan through this life and then out of it and into whatever came next, but much of the time I was flailing around in the unfathomable.”

The death of a child is unfathomable and I don’t have sage words for someone who has gone through the agony of burying a child; I can only look to Emily Rapp as my guide.  She asks her own excruciating question: “How do you parent without a future?” At first I avoided reading Rapp’s book and tried to skirt the topic of grieving parents altogether. But I found her narrative both raw and compelling and uplifting—things I wanted to share. I learned that parenting without a future is both a despairing and optimistic act. “My task as [my son’s] myth writer,” says Rapp, “was still to understand my son as a person and a being who was independent of me and yet dependent on my actions, my attention, my love.” Rapp’s words also point to the ultimate lesson that Ronan taught his mother: Children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.

Having a child confirms our mortality and, as Rapp notes, the truth about life is that “it exists side by side with death.” I think the way that we Jews say the Kaddish for a child shows how acutely aware we are of this intimate pairing of life and death. While one is obligated to say the Kaddish for a parent for 11 months, a parent is only required to say the Kaddish for a child for 30 days. There are practical reasons for that short formal period of mourning that hark back to a time when infant mortality was high, making the recitation of the Kaddish necessarily truncated. There was also the practical consideration that spending almost a year saying the Kaddish is difficult for parents who also have other children to care for. Yet grief doesn’t have an end-date.

Upon hearing about someone’s death for the first time, Jews say Baruch Dayan HaEmet—Blessed are you G-d who is the true judge. But how can one utter those words when a child has died? The theologian C.S. Lewis asked “Where is G-d during one of the most disquieting symptoms [of grief]?” I turned to a wise friend for advice about G-d’s seeming absence. “If you will allow,” she wrote to me, “I will offer instead of Baruch Dayan HaEmet the words, HaMakom Yinachem.  May you find comfort in the embrace of God, who, while we may never understand the tragedies of the world God has created, is ‘with’ us in the sadness.”

My friend’s words make me think about the limits of empathy. C.S. Lewis takes that notion a step further. “You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain,” he writes. By way of illustration, Rapp adds “You can’t really test the strength of a rope until you’re asked to hang from it over a cliff. There have to be stakes.”

I think Emily Rapp is asking her readers for something deeper than empathy or sympathy. She raises the stakes by asking us to “look straight at [death] without blinking.” Perhaps openly grappling with death is the radical act of empathy we are obligated to bestow on grieving parents and dragon mothers.

 

Sticks and Stones: Emily Bazelon’s Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Emily Bazelon has written an important book in which she contends that many of the root causes of bullying in schools can be defeated. She takes schools to task through the stories of three teenagers who experience the extreme toxicity of bullying.

Monique McClain is an African-American middle school student in Connecticut whose woes began in that incubator of bad behavior—the school bus. As seen in Lee Hirsch’s affecting documentary Bully, the bus is literally the vehicle where violence and cruelty mushroom like a noxious cloud. Monique experiences the random nastiness of two eighth-grade girls, which has a domino effect off the bus. The bullying is so bad that she eventually withdraws from school. After her mother and grandmother vociferously advocate for Monique, she’s permitted to enroll in a magnet school. Was Monique bullied out of her school or was she rattled by the everyday girl drama that young teenage girls conjure? In Bazelon’s view it was a bit of both.

Jacob Lasher is a gay boy from upstate New York who endured taunts and physical aggression, but also played the part of the provocateur. Although he may not have seen it that way, Jacob’s strong identity as a gay boy educated his teachers and the clueless superintendent of his school district about gay teens and the risks they face. A 2009 survey found that 85 percent of kids who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual or Transgender) reported that they had been verbally harassed at school. Forty percent had been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation and 20 percent had been physically assaulted.

Jacob’s story also explores the psyche of his tormentor Aaron. Aaron is what is commonly referred to in psychology literature as the bully-victim. Bully-victims are as prone to depression and suicide as their counterparts. They hope their extreme behavior changes other kids’ perceptions of them, making it clear that they don’t want to be picked on. Jacob eventually prevails in a lawsuit against the school district, which forces teachers and administrators to implement safety measures for LGBT kids.

Through Jacob’s story, Bazelon makes three crucial points about mitigating the effects of bullying for gay kids. Parental support is essential in shepherding these teens through a tough time. She also notes “we have to hold two ideas about gay teens in our minds at once—they are more at risk, and yet most of them will be okay.” Her final point is something that I fervently believe in—that a Gay-Straight Student Alliance in a high school can be one of the “strongest bulwarks a school can erect against anti-gay harassment. LGBT students at these schools tend to experience less victimization, skip school less often and feel a greater sense of belonging.”

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Bazelon’s book grew out of her extensive reporting for Slate about Phoebe Prince’s suicide in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phoebe, the third teenager profiled in the book, was a pretty freshman at South Hadley High School who arrived earlier that summer from Ireland. She immediately attracted the attention of the captain of the football team and the ire of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Phoebe’s popularity with older boys miffed other girls at school too. A few of them began a campaign of harassment that ended in Phoebe hanging herself in her bedroom closet.

I wrote about Phoebe Prince’s death two years ago. At the time I called the South Hadley administrators and teachers criminal for the way they ignored Phoebe’s distress. Bazelon went to South Hadley expecting to find the “black hearted monsters” that I portrayed in my column. Instead she found shades of gray and she reports on the case through the point of view of one of the six teenagers initially indicted on criminal charges for Phoebe’s death. Like her peers, Flannery Mullins underestimated Phoebe Prince’s vulnerability. Although I stand by much of my initial impressions of the bullying that played a part in Phoebe’s suicide, I learned from Bazelon that many factors contributed to Phoebe’s tragic death. She had a history of depression and cutting and she easily fell into high-risk relationships with boys prior to arriving in South Hadley.

In Bazelon’s view “an overzealous prosecutor decided to reduce all the complexity [of the case] into one clean narrative: Phoebe Prince was bullied to death.” What I didn’t take into account in my article was Phoebe’s difficult past, the fluidity of teenage relationships as well as the reality that the correlation between bullying and suicide is complicated. It’s true that kids who are bullied are more likely to think about or attempt suicide. But in the end it comes down to a chicken-and-egg question. Are kids who are depressed more susceptible to the effects of bullying or does bullying cause kids to become suicidal?

Then there is the relentless, 24-hour world of the Internet, which presents a challenge to schools. At Monique’s former middle school, there was a concerted effort to report inappropriate pages to Facebook to little or no avail. At a private Catholic girl school, Bazelon reports, an extraordinary example of peer mentoring in which senior girls helped freshman and sophomores prune their Facebook pages.

A Pew Center Survey from 2011 estimates that 15 percent of teens that are ages 12 to 17 said they were harassed on-line. With 800 million users, Facebook is the largest social networking site in the world. Reports estimate that 20 million teens and preteens are on Facebook and one million of them took the time to report bullying and harassment on the site to little effect. Bazelon visits Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley and discovers that the site has done shockingly little to keep kids safe. “As a parent,” writes Bazelon, “I wish I could tell you that FB gets it, that it’s a company willing to forego short term profits for the sake of safe-guarding the privacy and well-being of its young users. But I can’t.”

A negative comment on Facebook or texting an inappropriate picture cannot only spread like wildfire, but has a kind of permanence to it that can follow someone forever. Despite the overwhelming problem that the Web perpetuates when it comes to bullying, parents still have a big role to play in deterring their children from doing the wrong thing. Bazelon reports that for a 2009 study, researchers asked middle school and high school students what would prevent them from bullying on and off-line; parental discipline was first on the list.

Bullying may never go away. But I firmly believe that schools can and must transform their cultures into ones in which bullying is unacceptable. Teachers and administrators would do well to begin with the adage that, “If it’s mean, then intervene.” And as the subtitle of Bazelon’s trailblazing book says, developing character and empathy in our children is the strongest antidote to bullying.

Shouting Won’t Help: A Book Review by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Katherine Bouton was 30 years old she suddenly lost the hearing in her left ear. As she notes in her new book, a mix of memoir and reference guide for the hearing impaired, Bouton was suddenly among the 48 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, who have some degree of hearing loss.

In “Shouting Won’t Help,’’ journalist Bouton puts a human face on these numbers by chronicling her own long, steady descent into deafness — a word that she claims to describe her “invisible disability.’’ Using her own personal narrative as a kind of locus, she explores the medical and environmental causes of deafness, the social stigma attached to it, technologies to help, and professional challenges faced by those with hearing loss. To broaden her tale she ends each chapter with a short piece titled “Voices,’’ which profiles the stories and hardships of various other sufferers.

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In Bouton’s case it took almost three decades to come to terms with what was happening to her. But, as she reports from the front lines, denial is pervasive among people when they begin to lose their hearing. A statistic from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid uses one.

Bouton stubbornly refused to acknowledge how difficult it had become for her to hear. Hearing loss and its consequences invariably bring on stages similar to grief. Denial gives way to anger and family often bears the brunt of that anger. Bouton almost lost her marriage while she tried to keep her hearing loss and the inevitable depression that went along with it at bay.

Next comes acceptance. But before Bouton gets to acceptance she gives her readers a bevy of statistics that illuminate but occasionally slow down her book. She’s at her best when she addresses her dilemma through her own story.

The reader struggles beside her as she goes deaf and scrambles to hear what’s being said at a work meeting or a Broadway show. “Even when I do understand what is being said,” she writes, “the effort of trying to hear eclipses my ability to think. My brain is so preoccupied with translating the sounds into words that it seems to have no processing power left over to dig into the storerooms of memory for a response.”

Bouton eventually got a cochlear implant in her left ear and spent many frustrating visits to her audiologist upgrading the hearing aid in her right. She freely admits that she’s not a cooperative patient. The implant was slow to take, and she was embarrassed to have it embedded in her skull.

Her vanity, she reports, “exasperated” everyone around her and she had a hard time wearing the implant. Her persistent denial led to her departure as culture editor at The New York Times, where one boss questioned her ability to be “a team player.” And still Bouton could not bear to think of herself as a person with a disability and consider the protections and prospect of accommodations guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s understandable why Bouton studded her book with studies and statistics. She has taken it upon herself to educate the public about hearing loss and fittingly ends with a description of a collaborative project dedicated to finding a biological cure for hearing loss over the next decade. But her fascinating memoir deserves more attention because she has an equally important life story to impart.

Published in the February 18, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe

 

The Secrets of Happy Families by Judy Bolton-Fasman

With the rise of the digital age, and parents caught between raising children and trying to help their own parents, best-selling author and New York Times columnist on contemporary families Bruce Feiler decided that it was time to write a new playbook for the 21st century family. The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More brings together Feiler’s personal experiences as the father of young twin girls with his skills as an investigative reporter to find new sources and innovative ways to strengthen family ties.

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Feiler has his work cut out for him. A few years ago New York Magazine published a story, which exposed parenting as one of the least happy experiences in life. The reaction was both outrage and empathy. Was bringing up children really making us miserable? Feiler counters that assumption with a 2010 Pew Study that found that three-quarters of adults said that family was the most important part of their lives. That same 75 percent further claimed to be very satisfied with their home life and 80 percent of the respondents said that they were closer to their family today than their family of origin. So what’s going on?

Are we really happier in the midst of parenting wars where tiger moms are duking it out with more lax French mothers? Feiler credits some of our happiness to positive psychology, the basis of the trendy happiness movement. But Feiler is anything but trendy. His research is solid, his findings sensible. And he has forever endeared himself to me by not mentioning Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

According to Feiler, like successful businesses successful families have the ability to adapt. In Silicon Valley, Feiler explored a concept called “agile development.” He describes it as “a system of group dynamics in which workers are organized into small teams, each team huddles briefly every morning to review progress, and the team convenes for a longer gathering at week’s end to critique how it’s functioning and make changes for the future.” Within a family, agile development can translate into a weekly family meeting in which each member discusses what went well that week, what could be improved, and what he would commit to work on for the week to come.

 

The family meeting is not only a natural outlet for communication; it leads to other healthy activities like eating dinner together. I firmly believe in the salutary effects of the family dinner. I’ll risk repeating well-known research about eating together because I think the facts are so critical to reiterate for families with children still at home. Children who eat with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide and develop eating disorders. Yet according to UNICEF, Americans still rank 23 out of 25 when it came to teenagers eating dinner with their parents at least a few times a week. That’s a missed opportunity because dinners create perfect conditions to talk to one another. Dinners are also the ideal setting in which to develop resilience in children of all ages by sharing stories about parents and grandparents. Can’t have dinner together? Then gather for breakfast or dessert.

One of my favorite sections of Feiler’s book, was about “cultivating a strong intergenerational self” in children. Children should know that they are a part of a larger family continuum. If they know they come from somewhere, they are more likely to know where they are heading in life, which brings me to the chapter on grandparents. As Feiler notes, countless studies have shown the extraordinary influence that grandparents, particularly grandmothers, have on their families. Even infrequent visits from grandparents can increase the chances of a child having a healthier relationship with her parents. A grandmother’s support reduces stress and exhaustion in a family.

Finally, just when I thought I had heard everything there was to say about fighting fairly in families, I learned a few new things. It’s a given that how you fight is important to resolving conflict, but I picked up a few pointers such as monitoring pronouns. For example, using “I and we” during an argument suggests togetherness versus the accusatory “you.” Feiler encourages not only listening to someone else’s side of the story, but also being genuinely curious about their version of events. A “he said, she said” argument should segue into a third story created together by the opposing parties.  That’s a precursor to compromise.

There are other takeaways in The Secrets of Happy Families. Feiler looked to Warren Buffet’s banker for advice on allowances, the Green Berets for planning the perfect family reunion and successful coaches for team building. Yet throughout this entertaining and informative book, Feiler’s message is imbedded in three crucial rules that transcend time and place: Adapt all the time, talk a lot, and yes, go out and play.

 

Painting a Child’s Spirituality by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Rabbi Sandy Sasso told the following story at Temple Emanuel in Newton:

There were two brothers in town who were always getting into mischief. One day the rabbi got a hold of the younger brother and asked him to face up to his misdeeds by asking him “where is G-d?” In an increasingly stern voice the rabbi asked the boy “where is God” three times until the young lad ran home and hid under his bed covers. When his older brother found him, he asked what his brother was hiding from. The little boy replied “G-d was missing and the rabbi thinks we did it!”

Rabbi Sasso the author of twelve books for children—many of them award winning—recently addressed the ways in which G-d is absent in children’s lives as the weekend scholar-in residence at Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Sasso, who is also a congregational rabbi in Indianapolis with her husband Dennis, tackled children’s religious imaginations and identities in sermons, talks and readings.

According to Rabbi Sasso, the vast majority of youth think there is a spiritual dimension to life, yet only 14 percent of these children feel as if someone is helping them with their spirituality. That number roughly correlates to the adult statistic in which one in five people claims that there is no assistance available when trying to cultivate a spiritual life.

Rabbi Sasso illustrated the interplay of spirituality and religion using a recent Torah portion. Moses’ revelation on Mount Nebo, in which he is profoundly changed internally as well as externally, is a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments is the religious expression of that deep and holy occurrence. Religion, explained Rabbi Sasso, serves as a “container to hold spirituality and we must learn how to connect the larger questions of life to spirituality.”

Questions lead to open conversations and according to Rabbi Sasso even very young children have the skills to engage in larger, profound inquires about the role of G-d in their lives. The difficulty in talking about G-d may lay at the feet of parents and Jewish educators. “Don’t let your own worries and misgivings stand in the way of conversations about G-d,” said Rabbi Sasso. “What you don’t believe anymore can be an effective way to allow yourself to rethink your beliefs. It’s okay to be unsure. You don’t have to have all the answers and remember that these answers are not ‘googleable’.” To that end, Rabbi Sasso advised adults to “get in touch with what awes you, or as the poet Mary Oliver says, tap into ‘appreciation swelling into astonishment.’”

Parents looking for ways to broach a conversation about G-d, particularly with younger children, would do well to read “G-d’s Paintbrush” to them. Rabbi Sasso noted that her intent in the book was “to broaden children’s creative lives when thinking about G-d.” Illustrated in rich primary colors, “God’s Paintbrush” asks the ways in which G-d is concrete and present in a child’s life.

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I wonder if G-d has a big lap to curl up in, just like my Mom’s, and strong arms, just like Dad’s to lift me up and catch me when I fall.

I wonder if G-d has strong hands to hold me tight, just like Mom’s and big shoulders, just like Dad’s to carry me when I am tired.

What makes you safe and warm and loved?

Most of us grew up with the standard names and images for G-d such as King or Lord or Father, but G-d has many different names and images. For a little boy in Rabbi Sasso’s congregation, whose mother was dying of breast cancer, G-d was “Healer.” For a woman whose mother was dying G-d was a comfortable bathrobe. Later that year when the woman’s mother passed away, she felt closer to G-d by wearing her mother’s old robe. Rabbi Sasso was not advocating for jettisoning traditional prayer. She emphasized that the language of the prayer book is an important connection to community and the Jewish people at large. After all she noted, “in our tradition there are 70 names for G-d.”

Most touching for me was Rabbi Sasso’s wisdom on connecting social justice issues to a child’s spiritual coming-of-age. “You cannot have social justice in Darfur,” she said, “when a child is being isolated in school. Bullying is very much a social justice issue. Take a stand on immigration, but also welcome the new neighbor. Inclusivity is part of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world.”

We would do well to remember that as parents we are the single most important influence in our children’s lives. We don’t need to be rabbis or academics to explain G-d to our children. Rabbi Sasso recommended to start simple. State your own ideas about G-d without cluttering those ideas in abstract or philosophical language. As she pointed out, “Noah was an amateur and the builders of the Titanic were experts.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parenting the Ritalin Generation: An Interview with Bronwen Hruska by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Bronwen Hruska gained national prominence last August as a mother and activist when she published an opinion piece in The New York Times called “Raising the Ritalin Generation.”

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The piece was a clarion call to parents to closely assess the accuracy of a child’s Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. Hruska outlined her own son’s tumultuous journey when he was misdiagnosed with ADD at the age of 8. Two years later, Hruska and her son decided that the treatment was not only unnecessary, but had also been unwarranted. Hruska, the publisher of SoHo Press, recently published her first novel, “Accelerated,” through Pegasus Publishers. Part thriller and part social commentary, “Accelerated” is a brilliant, complex story about the consequences of over-diagnosing children with ADD and ADHD.
Q: There have been a number of articles, including your own, written about ADD and ADHD. Why do you think there’s an increase in interest?

A: With diagnoses of ADHD increasing 5.5 percent every year in this country, I believe we’re finally at a tipping point. As of 2010, 5.2 million children had been diagnosed with the neurological disorder. If that’s not an epidemic, I’m not sure what is. And I don’t believe that the increase in diagnoses has anything to do with a decreased attentiveness of children overall. There was an article in The Atlantic earlier this year that cited a study by a team of Penn State psychologists in The Journal of Attention Disorders that stated, “Children are no more or less inattentive and impulsive today than in 1983.” But schools and doctors routinely recommend medication for “Inattentive-type ADHD,” which means simply that in distracting situations, such as school, these children find it more difficult to focus. And with more and more children being medicated to help them succeed academically (as opposed to help manage the symptoms of the disorder), more children are at risk of suffering from the real and often scary side effects of the psychotropic medication that has been downplayed by the medical community as “safe.”

“Accelerated” examines the consequences of over-diagnosing children with ADD and ADHD. As medicating kids becomes more and more common, so does the general sentiment that if your child isn’t on medication, he or she is at a disadvantage. It’s the same mentality that created the phenomenon of “juicing” in athletics. We’re ratcheting up the level of competition in school with performanceenhancing drugs.

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Q: “Accelerated” is told from a dad’s point of view. Would it have been a different book if the protagonist had been a single mother?

A: I wanted Sean Benning to feel very outside of the Manhattan private school community where his son Toby goes to school. Not only did Sean grow up in Troy, N.Y., but he’s also one of the only fathers in the estrogen-heavy circle of mothers that make up the vast majority of parents responsible for drop-off and pickup at The Bradley School. Without a community of parents to share information with, Sean feels even more at sea when the school strongly suggests that “a little bit of medication could turn everything around for Toby.”

Q: Third grade seems to be the time kids (especially boys like fictional Toby and your own son) are diagnosed with ADD. Why the zealousness? Is it warranted?

A: Schools tend to crank up the scrutiny in 3rd grade. As a parent, I was grateful that teachers were paying attention, making sure nothing fell through the cracks. But in their zealousness I worry that teachers are so determined to find something, anything, that they often err on the side of overkill. Don’t forget, 3rd grade is also the time when children are expected to sit still for longer periods of time, transition quietly between classes and cut the silliness. And the truth of the matter is that some children (especially boys) at 8, 9 and 10, who are perfectly within the developmental norm, still find this challenging.

It’s important to understand that Attention Deficit has become the go-to diagnosis. Sanford Newmark wrote in The Wall Street Journal this fall that many doctors making the diagnoses aren’t distinguishing between normal developmental immaturity and ADHD. These misdiagnoses could account for as many as 20 percent of the current ADHD diagnoses in the U.S., or about 900,000 children.

That said, for kids who do suffer from Attention Deficit, medication could truly turn things around for them. One adult, who was diagnosed late in life, told me that as soon as he took that first pill, the white noise in his head (a noise he’d never even noticed) turned off and he was finally able to complete projects he started, including reading books. It changed his whole life, and he wished he’d been diagnosed as a child. My worry is that kids who are simply not ready for the expectations of accelerated curricula are being diagnosed with a disorder. The flipside, of course, is that in poorly funded regions, children are being medicated so they can succeed within a broken school system with too few teachers.

Q: I read that boys are being treated like “defective girls” with regard to diagnosing ADD and ADHD. Do you think this has some validity or is it just an inflammatory statement?

A: Just look at the statistics. Boys are 2.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. If 13.2 percent of all boys have been diagnosed with the disorder (as opposed to 5.6 percent of girls), I’d say that we need to determine what the barometer for “normal” is. In “The War Against Boys,” Christina Hoff Sommers looks at how the education system was overhauled in the wake of Carol Gilligan to accommodate the specific learning styles of girls and as a result has left boys in the dirt. I think that schools now do value traits that are more traditionally female, and leave little room for the very normal (and different) developmental style of boys.

Q: Medication doesn’t carry as much of a stigma as it used to. Are we changing the way children develop with so many ADD and ADHD diagnoses?

A: I want to be careful because, again, I believe that for kids who do suffer from ADD and ADHD, medication can actually help them to develop on a level playing field with kids who don’t suffer from it. But when so many kids are taking medication to enhance their academic performance, it really does send a powerful message to an entire generation. We’re teaching our kids that challenges should be met and problems solved by swallowing a pill.

Too often, due to extreme pressure from an accelerated society that demands everything be better, faster and more impressive, kids aren’t being allowed to do the hard work of growing up, getting organized and learning what’s expected of them. Also, if a young child is put on medication and it’s deemed to be “working,” parents are loathe to take them off of it, and as a result will never know whether their child has “outgrown” the attention issues. Instead, dosages continue to be raised as the child grows, and soon kids are selling their prescription medication as study drugs in college where Ritalin and Adderall and other focus drugs are as commonly used the way No Doze was used when I was in college.

Q: How does your novel help parents grappling with the decision to give their kids Ritalin or even to seek out help?

A: The reason I started the novel was to explore the impossible position in which so many parents find themselves – deciding whether or not to medicate. When my son’s 3rd-grade teacher suggested we get him evaluated, it was a no-brainer. Of course, I wanted to catch anything that might be an issue. Of course, I’d trust the school if they thought there was a problem, and I’d trust the doctor who did the evaluation. But there’s a moment when, as a parent, you’re torn between your gut and the experts. There is both too little information out there and too much (if you’re looking on the Internet). You don’t know who or what to trust, and parents aren’t talking about it. There’s this feeling of being alone at sea – you feel like your child is the only one going through this.

As I started researching the topic for my novel, I realized that there were approximately 10.5 million parents having to make this very same decision. I thought it was crazy that no one was talking about it, sharing information, anecdotes, research. Simply knowing how many kids were getting this diagnosis made me think about my son’s diagnoses differently.

I’m hoping that parents read “Accelerated” and continue the dialogue. Whether they like what it has to say or hate it, I want people to tell each other their stories. Just talk. It’s a powerful thing.

Parenting a Child Far From the Family Tree by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“Parenting is no sport for perfectionists,” writes Andrew Solomon in his rich tome, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Solomon’s 700-plus- page book—an 11-year undertaking—is a vivid portrayal of children who are born or grow up in ways that their parents never expected. The book is also a memorable catalogue of how parenting can be one long mystery tour that often mixes utter desperation with boundless joy.

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Consider the heart-breaking example of the mother of an autistic child who, Solomon reports, has only spoken four times in her life. But each time her response was “appropriate to the situation.” Given that brief glimpse into her daughter’s psyche, the mother frets that her child’s soul is trapped in her body. How many of us have felt that way when a child has lost his way or becomes a stranger to us?  How many of us have turned to our partner after we brought home our new baby and said, “Now what?”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting always struck me as an ironic title for an advice book for pregnant women. There is no primer for what happens when the doctor sees an abnormality on the twenty week sonogram and your child may be a dwarf. Or amniocentesis shows an extra copy of chromosome twenty-one and your child has Down Syndrome. Maybe your baby is closing in on turning a year old and doesn’t look you in the eye. He hasn’t uttered a word yet. That happened with Adam. We were lucky parents. It turns out that he was severely far-sighted. At ten months he wore his first pair of glasses and a few days later he crawled on his own.

But parenting isn’t just about happy endings. It’s often about the little victories within the bigger battles. Solomon is intimately acquainted with what happens when a child doesn’t meet parents’ expectations. He was dyslexic as a child and came out of the closet as a teenager. Far From the Tree grew out of a 1994 article that he wrote about deafness for the New York Times magazine. In the course of researching and reporting, he realized that issues surrounding deafness were not unlike the challenges that he faced as a gay man. A few years later, he saw the same pattern after watching a documentary on dwarfism. He eventually expanded his theory on identity and outsider status to include Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, children conceived during rape, and children who become criminals.

While this may seem like a hodgepodge of various conditions and situations, Solomon unites them by distinguishing between vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identity is handed down through the generations such as religion or racial identity. If a child’s parents identify as black in all likelihood so will that child. Horizontal identity arises from a break between the reality of a child’s life and the parents’ experiences. For example, a deaf child navigates the world very differently than her hearing parents. I found it fascinating that Solomon included prodigies alongside conditions that have otherwise been stigmatized throughout the centuries. The mother of a child who entered college at the age of nine was as bewildered as the parents of a disabled child.

Solomon explores family dynamics, seeking common ground among families who find themselves with children they never expected. Most of the parents were grateful to have the children they had. What might have been initially frightening or insurmountable for these parents had been transformed into a deep, bedrock love for their children.  In a recent interview on Salon.com, Solomon noted:

“I found that there is so much that [these family’s] experiences have in common—that process of accommodating, accepting, loving, even celebrating a group. It didn’t matter whether we were looking at what the child did, as we were in the crime chapter; or how the child was born, in the Down Syndrome chapter. That was consistent. And it had a lot in common, in my view with the experience I had negotiated as the gay child of straight parents. And so I think that sense of difference is actually something that almost everyone has in common, rather than something that isolates people.”

In Solomon’s view reproduction is an imprecise term. On the very first page of the book he talks about having children as an act of “production.” We just don’t know who or what we’ll produce as parents. And if we have toss aside perfectionism for imagination and acceptance, the one thing we’ll get in return is realizing that love for a child is like no other love in the world.