Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Babysitting Co-op

When my oldest child was a boy of four, I asked some friends if they’d like to form a play group. We could get the kids together, I said, and the moms could visit. We lived in the mountains west of Denver; not an actual town, but a valley dotted by homes tucked among stands of pine and aspen and an occasional rock outcropping. 

The two-lane off the interstate meandered past yawning elk meadows; and some miles later, swooped down, enveloped by pine-covered mountains, before beginning a series of switchbacks. Our south-facing house, visible from a distance, jutted out from the mountain, and my kitchen windows brushed the treetops.

I was, without question, the youngest stay-at-home mother in the valley. On any given day, gauzy, birdseye diapers hung from my clothesline and whipped back and forth in the head-clearing breeze. In winter they froze solid, and stood on end like wavy, white ghosts when I brought them into the house.  

The other stay-at-home moms had children of three and older—none as young as our newest addition; and while they busied themselves with hobbies like raising goats, weaving, and crafts, I wiped spit-up and spills and read children’s books aloud, snuggled on the couch with my boys.  

The first mom I called said she had no interest in a playgroup. Her youngest was the same age as my oldest, and about to start preschool. I didn’t mind that she had declined, but her words took me aback. She said she was beyond that stage, and by the time I had my third child, I wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing either. 

In my heart of hearts, I doubted that I would ever feel that way. How could I ever tire of being with my kids, fascinated by their interactions, or sharing an occasional morning with other moms? 

The next mother I called, a well-dressed woman in her mid-thirties, was new to mountain living and less of a home-spun Hannah.  She thought we should have a babysitting co-op, trade off, and use one another’s services to get out of the house. 

I thought about her offer long and hard. I actually enjoyed staying home. I’d long since taken up natural foods cooking, and sewed whenever I had a chance. When the weather was nice the kids and I spent the day outside and never lacked for things to do. 

But maybe I was missing something here. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. Convinced that the others were not interested in a playgroup, I said I would do it; I would join a babysitting co-op.

So the new mom in the valley — I’ll call her Nancy — put it all together. There would be four or five of us, and we were to keep track of our hours. Nancy was the first to call. I watched her kids all afternoon, and I watched them again and again. Once I think I even went to her house to babysit. And once her kids were sick. 

I really had no reason to leave my kids, and wondered why I’d ever gotten involved. Then one day it came out. Nancy had been leaving her kids with me so she could go out with the mom whose youngest was in preschool. They were having a great time, lunching and visiting with one another.  What would have been the problem with meeting at one of our homes and enjoying lunch while the kids played?   

I did use the co-op, twice, to go out with my husband when our younger son was about two; but I left them with another co-op member, whose preschoolers I had kept once or twice. 

I also babysat for a mom down the hill who used me, she later admitted, to have an affair with her mechanic. Horrified, I declined all future requests. I’m sure she thought I would “out” her.

I felt taken advantage of, disappointed in my friend, and humiliated for her husband.

What was the disconnect here? Why couldn’t we moms just enjoy one another’s company occasionally? I am convinced that everyone was looking out for herself,  more interested in what she might take FROM the others than offer TO them.  

Young moms everywhere need mentorship, time with caring older women who have “been there and done that.” I know I did. So many young families live far from relatives. Even so, relatives are not always the most supportive. It’s hard to tell a mother-in-law or aunt that you don’t believe in letting your baby cry it out while they’re lecturing you on the dangers of spoiling. Better to find kindred spirits, “sisters” with whom to share parenting tips or diffuse frustration over a cup of tea and an oatmeal cookie.

With empathetic mentors and friends, moms are less stressed and can do a better job with their children. That’s what I was looking for as a young mother, but did not find in that particular community.

Every mom can both be mentored and be a mentor. The secret, I  found, is that when we do for someone else, we are really doing for ourselves. FFG

Teachers Give Minority Kids More Flack, But What’s the Real Reason?

In the movie “Hairspray,” Tracy Turnblad’s high school detention room is 100% Black – before the big-haired TV dance show wanna-be walks in. New data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that Tracy’s world on screen is more fact than fiction.

Not only are minority students disciplined more harshly, the March 6, 2012 report said they’re given lower-paid, less experienced teachers and less rigorous high school curricula, such as calculus.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan urges “best practices” to combat the disparity, and yes, that will help. But I’d like to offer another solution.

I think that maybe the reason kids receive fair treatment is because they have been treated fairly from birth, and in their heart of hearts, know they are entitled to it. The message they send into the universe is one so positive that it attracts primarily that which is beneficial.

After living in many parts of the country, and having experience in education, I know that a child of any race can receive a teacher’s wrath.  Have I seen more Black and Hispanic kids punished? Probably. I’ve also seen a miserable teacher that an administrator was attempting to force out assigned the lowest level classes containing more minority children. And I’ve heard teachers say they didn’t trust minority kids with textbooks because they were “transients.”

While these biases can affect any child, I feel strongly that they mostly exist where it is evident to teachers and administrators that children’s care and treatment, beginning even before birth, has not been a priority in the home or community.

Once I visited a neighborhood elementary school in Albuquerque, New Mexico; a school on the edge of what is locally known as “The War Zone.” The neighborhood is populated with recent immigrants from Asia and Central America, and poor families of all colors. The kindergarten classroom had a crisis. Not just on that morning, I was told, but on an ongoing basis. A mom strung out on drugs or dad in prison were not uncommon in this school. There was something unsettling about the kids that I couldn’t put my finger on; maybe because the children seemed emotionally stretched, some vociferously seeking attention, others tentatively seeking reprieve. I mentally compared them with my own children, so sturdy, curious and unafraid.

By contrast, these children seemed as if they possessed few reserves; and that makes sense. Anyone who constantly deals with stress is affected in a profound way. What teacher wouldn’t look into their eyes and see fear and anger, or just pitiable expressions? What teacher looking into the eyes of a kid whose mother had just served him whole wheat toast, eggs and oranges, combed his hair and quizzed him on his spelling words, wouldn’t see something entirely different?

Whether children are experiencing the stress of poverty, hunger, neglect, violence, emotional or physical abuse – all of it ravages the brain, and eventually the body, according to evidence revealed by new science and supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The result of growing up stressed is far reaching, and I venture to assert that it has a lot to do with not only how children see the world, but how the world sees them. Could this be at least part of the reason why minority children, who are more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, are disciplined more harshly? 

Many times while driving down Albuquerque’s San Mateo Blvd., I’d pass some kid in a low-rider, one of those souped-up cars with hydraulics that let it drop close to the ground. Stopping at a red light could mean evil “daggers” piercing my driver’s side window; or worse, an obscene comment or threat. What the hell is he so pissed about? I’d ask myself. It’s not hard to imagine.

I learned in my Infant Massage USA training that babies who are smiled at learn to smile back. Mirror neurons capture images and store them in the brain. The more frequently the pattern is repeated, the more permanent it becomes.

The brain remembers the smile, and it becomes a response to others, including teachers, as well as to the doting parents.  If I felt threatened by a teenager to whom I did absolutely nothing but cast a glance, imagine how a teacher feels when questioning such a student about an infraction — of which he may or may not be guilty. Who’s more likely to get sent to the principal’s office – the smiling freckle-faced boy sporting an Old Navy sweater, or the pinch-faced pachuco with pants hanging down around his butt who only looks like he could mug his own grandmother?

Perhaps this quote from Dr. Bruce Perry will lend some insight into the subject. It’s from his Sept. 23, 2004 talk at the Margaret McCain Lecture Series, entitled, Maltreatment and the Developing Child: How Early Childhood Experience Shapes Child and Culture. An internationally recognized authority on child trauma and the effects of child maltreatment, Perry’s work is instrumental in understanding the impact of traumatic experiences and neglect on the neurobiology of the developing brain. “Human beings become a reflection of the world in which they develop. If that world is safe, predictable, and characterized by relationally and cognitively enriched opportunities, the child can grow to be self-regulating, thoughtful, and a productive member of society. In contrast, it the child’s world is chaotic, threatening, and devoid of kind words and supportive relationships, a child may become impulsive, aggressive, inattentive, and have difficulties with relationships.”

This information should not come as a surprise to anyone, but only in the last decade has brain research supported what many have suspected all along.

According to the Nov. 2009 Monitor on Psychology, children in the United States are more likely to live in poverty than those in any other developed nation, according to UNICEF; a shocking statistic for a nation that prides itself on being a world leader. And poverty rates for Blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed our national average. Data from the National Poverty Center reveals that in 2010, 27.4 percent of Blacks, and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.

What does poverty have to do with minority kids being disciplined more harshly, having access to less challenging curricula and poorer teachers? Poverty is a cause of toxic stress, a physiological response in the body that can impact learning and a wide range of behavioral, relational, and health issues throughout the lifespan.

The American Academy of Pediatrics addresses this pressing matter in a recent policy statement, an appeal to doctors to help recognize and help alleviate the problem. “Advances in a wide range of biological, behavioral, and social sciences are expanding our understanding of how early environmental influences (the ecology) and genetic predispositions (the biologic program) affect learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.”

The policy statement abstract goes on to say, “Pediatricians are now armed with new information about the adverse effects of toxic stress on brain development, as well as a deeper understanding of the early life origins of many adult diseases.”

And here’s the call for action, “[P]ediatric providers must now complement the early identification of developmental concerns with a greater focus on those interventions and community investments that reduce external threats to healthy brain growth.”

A panel discussion featuring distinguished experts in the field, including AAP President Robert Block and Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, serves as a primer on toxic stress for the uninitiated:

It’s not the kind of stress caused by a bad day, or even a bad week, said Shonkoff; but rather caused by chronic exposure to circumstances like poverty and hunger.

And, I might add, exposure to chronic emotional neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and witnessing domestic violence. It’s the the kind of stress author Maggie Scarf refers to as “trauma with a little-t” in her 2004 book, Secrets, Lies, Betrayals, about how the body holds onto painful episodes from the past –“those less cataclysmic but nevertheless damaging experiences that are widespread and are at present widely underdiagnosed.”  

It’s the kind of stress caused when a baby is left to cry, with no compassionate adult to soothe her;  or a preschooler is schlepped off to a stranger’s house week after week, where no one gives him  attention, just so his mom can go out drinking. And it’s the kind caused when a teenager never has anyone to talk to about the stuff that matters.

The problem usually begins well before a kid’s life can be changed at the drop of a disciplinarian’s hat. In fact, it can start during pregnancy and even earlier, some scientists believe; influenced by the emotional environment of the mother prior to the release of the egg— whether the mother’s world is calm and nurturing or poses a threat to the potential life within her (Cellular Echoes: The Journey from the Womb to the World – DVD, 2004).

“In utero and during the first four years of life, a child’s rapidly developing brain organizes to reflect the child’s environment,” said Perry. “This is because neurons, neural systems, and the brain change in a ‘use-dependent’ way. Physical connections between neurons — synaptic connections — increase and strengthen through repetition, or wither through disuse.”

Remember the dagger-throwing low-rider? When we moved to Columbus, Ohio, I was still terrified of seeing him on the street. For months my heart raced in my chest, adrenaline pulsing through my body every time I pulled up to a red light. Only the person next to me was smiling! My response, basically fight or flight, had been unnecessary and maladaptive for my new situation. I was not even close to being threatened.
Doesn’t the same thing happen when a kid comes to school after witnessing domestic violence, scavenging for something to eat, or watching his dad get hauled off to jail? Teachers smile at him and he doesn’t know how to smile back. They must think, This kid’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s just looking for trouble.  And according to the U.S. Department of Education report, he finds it. That’s not to say that all minority children are affected by poverty, but the national average is greater than for whites.

The Matthew Effect in Reading is a term I came across while studying multi-sensory language learning, a remedial approach for kids with reading disabilities.  Psychologist and reading researcher Keith Stanovich coined the term, based on Matthew 25:9 in the New Testament, “To everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: from he that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Applied to reading, it means that kids who lack reading skills read less than classmates who are stronger readers, and over the years, they learn less and fall behind because they haven’t been accruing knowledge and word-meaning at the same rate as their better-read peers. It’s a rationale for early intervention, and a very good one.

But there are even earlier interventions; steps that can be taken to insure that children’s brains are not scarred by negative life experiences, steps that can level the playing field for children of all ethnicities, so that their faces reflect contentment and curiosity in the classroom, instead of seemingly responding to a threat.

Parents need to be aware that regardless of their own problems, children have needs of their own for nurturing and support. We cannot know what every child experiences as traumatic, but we can be aware (mindful) of our responses to our children’s problems as we take time to listen, calmly and with empathy — even if we cannot immediately fix the problem. Having an empathetic, compassionate care-provider is tantamount to everything else in a child’s life.

In addition to providing emotional comfort, we can use healthy touch to sooth and alleviate children’s stress, beginning with infant massage and continuing through the teen years, when kids love a little shoulder rub while they’re  studying or watching television.


And we can make sure our children are fed, starting with the health-providing benefits of breastfeeding. Whether the food is paid for by earnings, foods stamps, or grown in a garden, eating together as a family has been proven to prevent at-risk behaviors in children.

And we can be our children’s best allies and advocates, seeking out resources to help enrich their lives. Every child needs to know the adults in their lives are on their side. Regardless of how much money the family has, there are community resources available to make any child’s life better. Knowing a mother, father, aunt, uncle or grandparent is willing to access something more for them, to help them succeed, a child will think someone has reached into Heaven and brought down the stars.

The feelings of self-worth these basic interventions can bring will travel in the child’s heart, from home to school and into the community. And when a teacher looks at that child, he or she will reflect self-worth, the look of being loved and cared for; of being someone deserving and expectant of fair treatment, knowledge, and exceptional mentors.  And maybe that, after all, is the answer. FFG